Monks and the Feminine

C.G. Jung, Aspects of the Feminine.

p.21 (#401)
… spiritualization always means the retention of a certain amount of libido, which would otherwise be immediately squandered in sexuality. Experience shows that when the libido is retained, one part of it flows into the spiritualized expression, while the remainder sinks into the unconscious and activates images that correspond to it…

p. 22 (#402)
The detachment of libido from the object transfers it to the subject, where it activates the images lying dormant in the unconscious.

I’m still reading Jung, and finding here and there glimpses of understanding. I feel a bit of a klutz, groping around in the dark for some understanding of the things that are in me and around me. I’m not at all sure I understand what Jung is getting at, yet there are things that illuminate some of the basic problems that i have been struggling with. People still ask me, ‘How come some monks have such negative attitudes towards women?’ and after all this time, I still really don’t know. But in these couple of fragments, perhaps, I’ve grokked another little piece of the puzzle.

First up, the usual disclaimers (skip to the next paragraph if you’re not interested.) I’m writing from a normative male hetero position, so if you’ve got perspectives to share from other viewpoints, please do. These thoughts are rough, still in the process of formation, and no doubt somewhat crude. That’s what blogs are for! I’m still, as in my recent post on Letting Go the Hero, trying to understand something of the group psychology of the Sangha, especially the Western Sangha. That obviously includes me, so this is partly autobiographical. However, despite my long time in the Sangha, these are not really issues that the monks discuss among themselves, so I am really unsure how generally they can be applied. This is a set of thoughts, which are of course informed by my experience, but not based on detailed empirical study.

Before we start, a little point on terminology. We are used to using the word libido in the Freudian sense of ‘sexual energy’. However Jung, in a manner characteristic of his critique of Freud, used it much more broadly, to mean ‘psychic energy’ in general, including sexual energy – as in the first quote above – but typically much broader.

The discussion in which the above quotes occur is called ‘The Worship of Woman and the Worship of the Soul’. In Jung’s thought, the soul in men is the anima, the internalized image of woman. Jung is concerned with the relationship between external forms of devotion to the feminine, such as the worship of Mary in medieval Europe, and men’s relationship with actual women, on whom the idealized anima is projected. His discussion here is complex, and I don’t understand all of it. Nevertheless, the basic dynamic he is expressing here seems clear enough.

When a person desires an object, there is a movement of psychic energy (libido) towards it. they become invested in that thing, consumed with a need to possess it, and fixated upon it. This happens with any object of desire – chocolate, beer, gambling, cars, whatever. If a person is not able to restrain that desire, they are doomed. This is what we call addiction. The object becomes, not just one among many things that might provide some passing pleasure to leaven life’s struggles, but the purpose of living itself. So it is essential, regarding any object of desire whatsoever, that restraint and moderation be found. We learn this from the cradle. It is not an exclusively ascetic or monastic principle, but something that everyone must develop.

If there is sufficient restraint regarding the object of desire, one’s psychic energy is not so completely bound up with that, and there is excess energy for higher things – whatever that may be. It may be simply having a responsible attitude to work, or the energy to invest time into one’s family, or any relatively refined and selfless activity. Or, of course, it may be activities of a distinctly spiritual kind, such as meditation.

Jung’s point here is that whenever such development happens, it is never completely simple. While on the one hand there is a genuine development, such development never really uses 100% of the available libido. Some of that is cut off where it sinks down and remains in potential form in the unconscious. It’s like squeezing a balloon in the middle – it bulges out at both ends.

Actually, any energetic transformation is similar, if you think about it. When we burn a log, the potential energy that has previously be fixed in the wood is liberated and can be used for a variety of good purposes. But there’s always ashes left behind and these have to be dealt with.

This process happens in monks in more-or-less the same way it happens for anyone else. The difference is not of kind but of degree. We undertake our vows of celibacy and so on, which require a huge redirection of our psychic energies, in a way that is far more drastic than most ordinary life experiences. The restraint of monastic life does indeed liberate a tremendous energy, which I felt very strongly as a young monk. There is a burning enthusiasm, sense of certainty, dedication to the task, willingness to undertake ever more ascetic practices to free up even more energy. It is this energy that the Indic tradition calls tapas, the burning fervor of asceticism, which is rightly believed to have such potency that it can unseat the very gods themselves.

Let us consider the process more carefully. A young man feels attraction, desire for women, who is perceived as an object external to him. Normally that desire leads him to an intimate relationship, with sexual, emotional, intellectual, and other dimensions. Prior to entering into such a relationship, however, he already has an image of woman in his mind, the anima. He projects this image onto the women he meets; while it is true that our encounters with all people are colored by our subjective projections, this is even more strong in the case of members of the opposite sex, who are perceived as ‘other’. In the relationship itself, he encounters the gap between his idealized woman and the actual woman he experiences, and his ability to negotiate this, together of course with the woman’s corresponding process, determines the outcome of the relationship. In other words, not only is there an external relationship between two people, there is an internal relationship in each person, between the feminine (or masculine) as imagined (the anima/animus) and as experienced in the other person.

This relationship moderates the man’s experience of the feminine; his fantasies, whether sexual or spiritual, become more mature and moderate as his love grows and he understands more of what she is in herself, rather than his projections.

Now, there is the decision to go forth. This comes, it may be, when the development that a sexual relationship formerly supported becomes stuck. Instead of leading him upwards to greater love and empathy, it becomes restrictive and binding. He withdraws from intimate sexual and emotional connection with women. The energy that formerly was directed to this external relationship is strongly restrained, and directed upwards. No longer loving just one woman, he loves ‘all sentient beings’. A variety of spiritual teachings and practices are employed to enable this transformation. The Sangha offers a supportive community where his choice is valorized and his development applauded.

During this process, notice how the specific objects and activities of the mind change, but the common factor is energy. In relationship, one brings tremendous energy to another person in thought, speech, emotion, behavior. When one ordains, or undertakes a similar spiritual transformation, this energy is redirected to ones’ spiritual practices. And the result is an energy of consciousness, a realization of purified, bright states of mind. This is a general feature of spiritual transformation, not just the specific case of monasticism that I am considering here.

And then there are the ashes. What is left behind? In general, all one’s negative thoughts, experience, or emotions regarding the feminine. As I have said before, any development leaves something behind – the sesa – and this is not necessarily a problem, as long as we deal with it. Empty out the trash every so often, no worries. Nevertheless, there often are problems, depending on the situation. And the monastic situation is no different.

It seems to me that there are a number of potentially problematic areas here. The most general is simply the size of the transformation. It’s a big shift, and the energies involved can simply overwhelm our coping mechanisms – which one can see in many of the monastics who choose to disrobe.

More specific to this context, however, is that as monks we see ourselves as Heroes of Consciousness. We’re out there on the cutting edge, battling defilements, getting those cool states of altered consciousness, not like those defiled laypeople still blindly trapped in their attachments. We’ve let go a lot, and to compensate we identify strongly with our new situation, our communities, our Awakened teachers. It is hard for us to think that the painful and difficult practices we do may, in fact, have a cost. So we excessively focus on the higher development which we are so heavily invested in, and strongly disidentify with the rubbish that has been left behind. We really don’t want to know. This disidentification strengthens the tendency, already mentioned, to see ones’ own feminine side, or at least the shadow of this, as ‘other’ and hence to project it out from the unconscious onto actual women.

This is even further exaggerated due to another factor, that is, the lack of meaningful relationship with real women. When entering the monks’ life, one does not merely stop having sex with women, one hardly even sees or talks to them at all. This is especially true in the first few years of monastic life, when restraint of sexuality is a dominant force in shaping the lifestyle. This means that ones’ ability to empathize with and understand real women remains largely frozen at the point when one ordains. After that, ones’ anima is essentially split off from relationship with real women, and takes its own course. It is free to idealize or demonize women without the complicated business of dealing with actual women.

If ones’ anima was essentially healthy and balanced before this, there should be no problem. Obviously, however, this is often not the case. In any group of men there will be some whose relationship with the feminine is troubled and unhealthy; this is also true of monks. It is possible that among monks this may be even higher than the general population, as men come to monastic life seeking a refuge from women, but I don’t know whether this is actually the case.

So, as an result of the spiritual transformation of ordination, monks will have a residue of negative attitudes around women. This will presumably last until Awakening. In many cases this will be expressed through simple, normal means: dreams, negative emotions, crude locker-room chat, and the like. When it is recognized for what it is, the monk understands it is unwholesome and lets go. No big deal. In some cases, however, either because of the strength of the problem or the inadequacy of the means of dealing with it, it is not recognized and will form unhealthy patterns of thought, emotion, and ideology.

A word of caution here: don’t reify this tendency. I’m not saying this is a dominant force, or that there are not many other issues to consider, including a monk’s relation to his masculinity. I’m trying to understand why there has been such an outcry of opposition to bhikkhuni ordination among some circles of monks. The conventional explanations in terms of legal proceedings are manifestly inadequate to account for the tremendous energy that was unleashed; and, what’s more, the even more tremendous energy of the support for bhikkhuni ordination clearly touches on something far deeper than simply the existence of a few woman practicing meditation in a forest somewhere.

So, what’s next for our woman-challenged monk? Projection. When he detaches his libido from his relationships with real women – as described in the second quote above – the energy becomes internalized as a magnification of his own feminine. The shadow side of this sinks into the unconscious, where it becomes ‘not mine’. As long as it is undisturbed, he can rest assured, since the development of the higher feminine – through, say, metta meditation and the like – is in fact taking place quite well at the same time. However, with the proper stimulus, his unwholesome attitudes are expelled from his unconscious and their energy, which may be very great, is experienced in the external object, that is, a real woman or women.

This projection is not formless – for example, it is not sheer emotion – but is shaped by various symbols or images that characterize the feminine. These images lie very deep in the psyche, and appear in countless forms. Context gives them specific meaning. Perhaps the most pervasive feminine image is the vessel. In medieval thought this appears as the Holy Grail – which may be identified with Mary’s virginal womb – but at the same time it is the witch’s cauldron. In this article, in fact, Jung argues that the late medieval scourge of the witch hunt was an outcome of the excessive idealizing of Mary.

p. 20 (#399)
‘Since the psychic relation to women was expressed in the collective worship of Mary, the image of woman lost a value… In the unconscious the image of woman received an energy charge that activated the archaic and infantile dominants. And since all unconscious contents, when activated by dissociated libido, are projected upon external objects, the devaluation of the real woman was compensated by daemonic traits. She no longer appeared as an object of love, but as a persecutor or witch. The consequence of increasing Mariolatry was the witch hunt, that indelible blot on the later Middle Ages.’

This is an interesting point. One would expect that a man’s confusion regarding women was primarily sexual, and that the bad woman would therefore be imagined as the whore – which of course does happen a lot; think of the voluptuous man-eating yakkhinis of Indian legend. Here, on the other hand, it is not the enticing, beautiful whore on whom the daemonic feminine is projected, but the repulsive witch. She is not sexy, despite that fact that she is usually suspected of unnatural congress with the devil. It is the witch who is specially subject to the hatred of spiritual man, since she operates within the same sphere. She has a source of spiritual authority that competes with his, and claims to have powers of miraculous healing and salvation that he would claim for himself alone.

Now who, I wonder, is the modern-day witch? Let me nominate one candidate: the feminist! If you hang around with western monks at all, you’ll hear this term, used in a reflexively negative sense. It’s enough to say that a person or ideology is feminist for it to be dismissed.

Like the witch, the feminist is decidedly unsexy, all hairy armpits and saggy boobs, like a classic hag of old. Her strength is not in her appearance, which implicitly valorizes men’s desires, but in her voice and her intellect. She speaks, boldly and intelligently, and does not recognize the patriarchy’s right to monopolize discourse. She intrudes on men’s domain, and does not apologize.

Just as the witch so feverishly imagined in medieval minds had little or no relation to what the women were actually doing, the stereotypical feminist has little in common with what empowered women actually do. I’m an unusual monk: I’ve actually met feminists! Yes I have, and I lived to tell the tale. I’ve even listened to them teach, read their books, and discussed things with them. They didn’t eat me up – they didn’t even shout me down with their shrill ideology, blame men for all the world’s ills, or stomp on me with their jackboots.

As a matter of fact, I have found that most feminists have a very reasonable take on things. They have lived through experiences we men have not, and have learned something from that. They have struggled to make sense of inequalities and injustices, and often have some pretty insightful things to say about them. The quality of discourse around gender issues that I have experienced in feminist circles is way, way more sophisticated and powerful than anything I’ve ever heard on the topic from monks. I’ve been so impressed that I have no hesitation in saying that I’m a feminist; and, dare I say it, if the essence of feminism is the recognition that women experience special forms of suffering and injustice, and that we have a moral obligation to work to overcome this, then the Buddha was a feminist as well.

It is hard, however, to find a monk with anything good to say about feminism. This makes its way into the Buddhism mainstream, dominated as it is by the voices of the monks, and so feminism is deprecated in Buddhism generally – I am speaking here, of course, of traditional Buddhist countries. Even those who support bhikkhunis and want to improve women’s lot rarely identify themselves as feminists, even though this is precisely what they are.

As a result, there is a disconnect with feminist discourse, and a pretty universal tendency to project negative attributes on to feminism. Feminism is, of course, originally a Western idea, although it has produced many great improvements for Asian women as well. Nevertheless, the modern bhikkhuni ordination movement, although it started in Asia and is an attempt to practice in accordance with ancient Asian customs, is often decried as ‘Western’ due to this association with feminism.

I’ve probably said too much about this connection with feminism – I don’t mean to imply this is the sole way that the daemonic feminine is projected out by monks. I have focused on this for one reason. Feminism has one great advantage: it offers a simple solution. It is easy enough for monks to get hold of some feminist books, listen to some talks, and, better yet, have some discussions about feminism with women. Not from a defensive position, just wanting to learn. The same would apply to teachings by nuns or by women generally. If the problem is disconnect from real women, and projection of negativity onto them, then learn to engage with positive, enlightening expressions of femininity.

I remember when we acquired an edition of the Therīgāthā – verses of the ancient Awakened bhikkhunis. One of the monks rejected it, energetically pushing it away and mocking any suggestion that it might have anything worth reading. (He’s since disrobed, by the way.) When you’ve seen this sort of thing often enough, you cannot avoid concluding that there is a deeply held energetic imbalance at work. Listening to women’s voices won’t solve the whole problem – but it’d be a pretty good start.


Verses in Celebration

When I returned from the bhikkhuni ordination on Friday 23 Oct, a little group gathered in Sydney at our regular Woolwich hall to celebrate. One of our regulars, Barbara, brought along a copy of ‘The First Buddhist Women; Translations & Commentary on the Therigatha’ by Susan Murcott. We invited the women present to choose some spontaneous readings to offer as a gift of Dhamma. Here are the verses (and a couple of extra things) that were read out that evening. Thanks to Gerry Moore for typing these up for us.

Patacara & Her Disciples (page 35)
Thirty Nuns Under Patacara

With pestles,
Brahmans grind corn.
Feeding wives and children,
Brahmans find riches.

“Practice the Buddha’s teaching,
you won’t regret it.
Quickly, when you have washed your feet,
sit down beside me.
Intent on peace of mind,
Practice the Buddha’s teaching.”

When they heard Patacara’s teaching
they washed their feet
and sat down beside her.

Intent on peace of mind,
they practiced the Buddha’s teaching.
In the first watch of the night,
they remembered they had been born before.

In the middle watch of the night,
the eye of heaven became clear.
In the last watch of the night,
the great dark was torn apart.

(They stood up, then bowed to her feet.)

[Thirty Nuns:]
We have taken your advice
and will live honouring you
like the thirty gods honoring Indra
who never lost a battle.

We have the three knowledges.
There are no obsessions in our minds.

Chapter 3: Wanderers & Disciples

Nanduttara (page 47)

I used to worship fire,
the moon, the sun,
and the gods.

I bathed at fjords,
took many vows,
I shaved my head,
slept on the ground,
and did not eat after dark.

Other times
I loved make-up and jewelry,
baths and perfumes,
just serving my body
obsessed with sensuality.

Then faith came.
I took up the homeless life.
Seeing the body as it really is,
desires have been rooted out.

Coming to birth is ended
and my cravings as well.
Untied from all that binds
my heart is at peace.

Chapter 5: Mothers
(Page 79)

When she was brought to Krishna, the woman was insane. She had been treated in a number of asylums, and she was so broken by these experiences that she could not even walk, and had to be carried in by her husband and brother-in-law. Under ordinary circumstances, those with mental health problems were not accepted as disciples, but Krishna was moved by this poor woman’s condition and she agreed to accept her.

Krishna served her tea and taught her a simple meditation. Then she showed the woman a place to practice the instruction. After ten minutes, Krishna noticed a smile come over the woman’s face. Next, Krishna taught her the technique of walking meditation, and almost immediately the woman regained her ability to walk. Leter, when Krisna left India to teach in the United States, she parted from a sane and devoted disciple and friend.

Chapter 6: Wives
(Page 104)

Free, I am free.
I am free
by means of the three crooked things,
mortar, pestle and
my crooked husband.

I am free
from birth and death
and all that dragged me back.

Chapter 9: Friends & Sisters
(Page 139)

With good friends,
even a fool can be wise.
Keep good company
and wisdom grows.

Those who keep good company
can be freed from suffering.

Bhikkhuni Vijayā (p145)

Four or five times
I left my cell
I had no peace of mind
no control over mind.

I went to a nun
and respectfully
asked her questions.

She taught me the Dharma,
earth, water, fire and air,
the nature of perception,
the Four Noble Truths,
The faculties, the powers,
the seven qualities of enlightenment,
and the eightfold way
to the highest goal.

When I heard her words
I followed her advice.
In the first watch of the night,
I remembered I had been born before.

In the middle watch of the night,
the eye of heaven became clear.
In the last watch of the night
I tore apart
the great dark.

Then I lived
with joy and happiness
filling my whole body
and after seven days
I stretched out my feet
having torn apart
the great dark.

Chapter 11 Dialogue Poems
Punnika (page 175)

I am a water carrier.
Even in the cold
I have always gone down to the water,
frightened of punishment
or the angry words
of high-class women.

So what are you afraid of, Brahman,
that makes you go down to the water?
Your limbs shake with the bitter cold.

But you know why, Punnika.
I am doing good to prevent evil.
Anyone young or old who has done
something bad
is freed by washing in water.

Whoever told you
you are freed from evil by washing?
The blind leading the blind!
In that case all frogs and turtles
would go to heaven,
and water snakes and crocodiles
and the rest of the water creatures,

Butchers of sheep, butchers of pigs,
fishers and trappers,
thieves, executioners,
and other wrongdoers
would be freed from their bad karma
by washing in water.

If these streams carried away all your old evil
they would carry away your virtue too.
You would be separated from both.
Don’t do that thing
the fear of which
leads you down to the water.

Stop now, Brahman,
save your skin from the cold.

I was on the wrong road
and you brought me back
to the great road.
I will give you the robe
I bathed in.

Keep the robe;
I don’t want it.
If you are afraid of pain,
if you don’t like it,
do nothing evil,
either openly or in secret.

For if you do,
even if you get up and run away
you won’t escape its pain.
If you are afraid of pain,
if you don’t like it,
take refuge in the Buddha,
the Dharma and the Sangha.
Train in the precepts.
This is good.

I take refuge in the Buddha,
the Dharma and the Sangha.
I train in the precepts.
This is good.

Once I was only Brahma’s kin.
I had the three knowledges
and great learning.
Now I am a true brahman.
I am washed clean.