On “Sex and the Sangha” and the displacement of pain

I’ve just had a read of the excellent blog post on “Sex and the Sangha:Forgiveness, Retribution or Justice” by NellaLou. If you haven’t seen it yet, go and have a read; I’ll have a cuppa and see you in a minute.

Welcome back!

It’s fascinating how she is dealing with very different issues than we have faced directly in the forest tradition. If there’s one thing the Ajahn Chah tradition is renowned for its sexual propriety, and there is no hint of a scandal around these issues. And yet when i read the description of the very many avoidance methods that are used in discussion, I was struck by how many of them are identical. I won’t go over these, as many of them have been mentioned earlier in this blog, but would simply reiterate that such means of dialogue are painfully transparent attempts to avoid the issue.

Which, right now, is discrimination. The Five Points, authored by Ven Pannasaro at the request of Ajahn Sumedho and adopted by the male Ajahns of the Wat Pa Pong tradition in order to suppress its few remaining nuns, remain in force. The Five Points make explicit the power-based discrimination that has characterized that community for many years, and are a public expression of contempt for notions of equality and democracy, which are fundamental to the Buddha’s ethics and his principles for constructing community.

A part of the American Zen community has been struggling with its own problem, the sexual involvement of students with teachers. I don’t want to go too much into that in detail here, but simply to notice that this issue is closely connected with patriarchy. Most of the teachers are male, and the sex is invariably a part of the very unequal power relations of the (usually male) teacher and the (usually female) student.

Astonishingly, some of the women quoted in “Sex and the Sangha” appear to be saying that it’s okay to sleep your way to the top of the spiritual hierarchy – a hierarchy whose “top” and “bottom” have been defined by men, for men. Not something that happens in Wat Pa Pong circles; but it is not hard to find women who through gifts of money, food, and other requisites, seek a special relationship with monks; and to preserve that special status they will side with the monks against equality for women. As Carol Gilligan said, patriarchy divides men against women, and women against each other.

When I was thinking about the similarities and differences between the situations in discussed in “Sex and the Sangha” and WPP, i wondered what the implications might be. It is simplistic to argue that ‘going celibate’ will remove the sex problem, as we all know from the rampant sex scandals among priests. Nor is it enough to say that abolishing celibacy will solve the problems of sexism.

At the end of the day, the issue is not celibacy, but patriarchy: the assumption of power by men, solely by virtue of their gender. As long as patriarchy persists in Buddhism, women will be disempowered and de-voiced, and will survive and flourish solely at the whim of the men. Power corrupts; and it is perhaps not so important that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but that even tiny power corrupts tinyly, as shown so terribly in the Stanford Cookie Experiment. (More properly: ‘Power, approach, and inhibition.‘ Keltner, Dacher; Gruenfeld, Deborah H.; Anderson, Cameron. Psychological Review, Vol 110(2), Apr 2003, 265-284.) Here’s a summary of the experiment from the Harvard Business Review:

To appreciate the first half of the dynamic—that bosses tend to be oblivious to their followers’ perspectives—consider the “cookie experiment” reported by the psychologists Dacher Keltner, Deborah H. Gruenfeld, and Cameron Anderson in 2003. In this study, teams of three students each were instructed to produce a short policy paper. Two members of each team were randomly assigned to write the paper. The third member evaluated it and determined how much the other two would be paid, in effect making them subordinates. About 30 minutes into the meeting, the experimenter brought in a plate of five cookies—a welcome break that was in fact the focus of the experiment. No one was expected to reach for the last cookie on the plate, and no one did. Basic manners dictate such restraint. But what of the fourth cookie—the extra one that could be taken without negotiation or an awkward moment? It turns out that a little taste of power has a substantial effect. The “bosses” not only tended to take the fourth cookie but also displayed signs of “disinhibited” eating, chewing with their mouths open and scattering crumbs widely.

It’s a cute little experiment, but it beautifully illustrates a finding consistent across many studies. When people—independent of personality—wield power, their ability to lord it over others causes them to (1) become more focused on their own needs and wants; (2) become less focused on others’ needs, wants, and actions; and (3) act as if written and unwritten rules that others are expected to follow don’t apply to them. To make matters worse, many bosses suffer a related form of power poisoning: They believe that they are aware of every important development in the organization (even when they are remarkably ignorant of key facts). This affliction is called “the fallacy of centrality”—the assumption that because one holds a central position, one automatically knows everything necessary to exercise effective leadership.

In the examples given in “Sex and the Sangha” from the American Zen sphere, the dark side of this power corruption is expressed as sexual predation. I wonder how this same energy is displaced in the WPP tradition, where sex is ruled out? Obviously, there are many details here in terms of the day-to-day relations between monks and nuns. We have heard the voices of some of the women concerned, so I will not repeat that here.

What does strike me is how the pain that this discrimination causes is displaced outside the narrowly defined community so that it may be safely ignored.

A small example: many years ago, i was hitch-hiking my way north from Sydney to Townsville. A truckie kindly stopped to pick me up and take me the next stage of my journey. While i was sitting there, I had a carton of juice. I asked the truckie, ‘Where’s your rubbish bin?’; he took the carton, wound down the window and threw it out, saying, ‘That’s my rubbish bin.’

Stop right there: see what’s happening. There’s a boundary, between the inside of the cab (‘mine’) and the outside (‘not-mine’). The driver’s sphere of moral concern stops right there, at the boundary. Rubbish inside the cab is a problem; rubbish outside the cab is no problem at all.

So why then did he stop to pick me up? If he is purely selfishly motivated, then why take the trouble to help another person? Who knows? It could have been boredom; perhaps he thought I might share some pot or something with him. But more to the point, no-one is completely selfish. We make constructs in our minds, and those constructs (‘views’) guide where our sphere of concern lies. Perhaps, in those many hours of driving the endless Australian roads, he had ruminated over and over on the chaos of the streets, the selfishness of other drivers, and had become disconnected from that space. Offering someone a lift might, in fact, be a subconscious attempt to reconnect, to find some humanity worth caring for.

But speculation on motives is not really my point here; it’s about how we displace suffering, shifting the cost of our actions outside our cognizance so we can ignore consequences.

It seems to me that the same phenomenon is even more evident on a larger scale, where it is easier to disconnect from lived humanity. Developed countries like Australia maintain their extravagant lifestyles by using the resources and labor of the poor in other countries, a legacy of colonialism. We can afford good consumer goods, huge houses, and crucially, education by virtue of our high incomes, while those in less developed countries struggle to get even the basics. While we think of ourselves as generous benefactors who donate freely to charities, the reality is that the world economy acts as a giant the net ‘hoover‘, sucking wealth out of poorer countries into the rich.

The disastrous side-effects of our untrammeled economic growth are exported as ‘externalities‘: pollution, resource depletion, labor exploitation and the like are (largely) created in the developed world and (largely) experienced in the undeveloped world. The western world only becomes concerned in cases such as the Global Financial Crisis or the oil spill when the developed world experiences, for a short time and a lesser degree, the suffering that much of the rest of the world takes for granted every day.

Why do they put up with it? Because, obviously, they are disempowered and de-voiced. The rich control the instruments of ideology and education. We create the problem, but do not have to deal with it. We define ourselves as ‘free’, ‘democratic’, ‘advanced’, and throw the problem away somewhere ‘other’.

It seems to me a similar thing is happening in the discriminatory policies of the Sangha. The male Sangha do not have to deal with the problems of women. The Sangha defines itself as ‘virtuous’, authentic’, ‘tradition’. Women are shut outside; they are other. They can be generically dismissed by waving that magic wand wielded by the Masters of Doctrine: “It’s their kamma”.

But the suffering of women does not arise in a vacuum. It is no coincidence that Thailand has perhaps the worlds biggest and most voracious sex trade, including the slavery of young girls, and that the Sangha is so adamantly male only. The massive, extremely destructive effects of Thailand’s sex trade – the lives destroyed, the AIDS, the flourishing of organized crime, and so on – are outside the sphere of moral concern of monks. In six years living in Thailand, I never once heard a monk referring to it in a teaching.

The Sangha patriarchy has been an instrument for depriving women of power, control, voice. The inevitable result of that powerlessness is the sexual exploitation of women by men. Due to its vows of celibacy, that exploitation is not carried out by the Sangha itself (at least for those sections of the Sangha that still respect the vows), but by other men, emboldened by the moral authority of masculinity. And yet, even though it is externalized, it is no less real; in fact, I would say it is worse.

In the sexual problems described in some Zen communities, at the least the people meet face to face. The problem can be denied and shunted away, but it is still there. Similarly for poverty and pollution that happens in our own backyard: it’s still wrong and maybe we can’t change it, but at least we know it’s there.

But when we create structures of dominance and submission, insisting that gender be the moral arbiter of relationships, and then export that outside our communities, using our control of ideology (the dismissal of human rights and equality) to deny its existence; then we can live our lives in truly blissful ignorance of the suffering we have contributed to.

Shoppers in a Mosman mall, bedazzled by the surfaces, rarely pause to think of where all this stuff comes from, and how it impacts the lives of others. Monks in a patriarchal Sangha, idolized and idealized, worshiped by women for their power of renunciation, rarely pause to think of how their insistence on women’s submission might affect the very real suffering of women in developing countries.

When senior monastic teachers such as Ajahn Sumedho in the West say things like, ‘Human rights are outside of the Dhamma’, do not think such sayings disappear in a vacuum. Ajahn Sumedho is a powerful, respected public figure in Thailand, and any sayings like this will be taken very seriously and literally: ‘Ajahn Sumedho says that human rights are outside the Dhamma…’. This is how the thinking flows, among the influential circles who regard Ajahn Sumedho and the WPP tradition as the prime exemplars for introducing a successful Sangha into the west. ‘Even the monks in the west don’t believe in bhikkhuni ordination. They know it’s necessary to keep nuns subservient. And not just the monks: the lay people still look up to them as teachers. See, they’re still inviting the Ajahns who support the five Points to teach at their centers; they still support them. It must be the right thing to do…’

And so it goes. The words, the teachings issued from the pulpit, and even more important, the principles embodied in daily monastic life, have always been the moral standard for Buddhist countries. The reality is that most people don’t think very clearly or independently on moral issues. They follow the leader. A strong and clear anti-equality message from on high contributes to a moral climate where meaningful change in areas of major concern for women such as sex slavery and domestic violence remains impossible.

We drink the juice, and then toss the rubbish outside the cab.

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