AN 5.55, quite an odd sutta

Is there comparative study mentioned this particular sutta? Or other background details to this sutta?

There are two passages that I found puzzling:

For if anyone should be rightly called ‘an all-round snare of Māra’, it’s females.

It’s not good to sit with such a person,
even if she’s injured or dead.

Could these sound a bit … misogynistic?

There are quite a few suttas that sound misogynistic. To which extent exactly they truthfully convey what the Buddha said is open for debate.

And while we’re here, we should actually ask ourselves this question for all suttas, imho

1 Like

One thing to be kept in mind also is the audience. This text is supposed to be a discourse delivered to monks after someone committed a parajika by incest, which is probably the worst kind thereof.

It is factually true that the vast majority of males are attracted to females. If you replace the word Mara by ‘desire’, you get if anyone should be rightly called ‘an all-round snare of desire’, it’s females which means that womanhood attracts the attention of men through all 5 senses. The goal here is to tell monks that they need to be very careful when they are around women, not because women are bad but because they have the potential of triggering a monk’s lust without even trying, simply because that’s how human existence is: we are under manipulation by Nature (unless we manage to rise above that through jhana practice), which tricks us for the survival of the species.

Since we don’t have many suttas addressed to bhikkhunis we will probably never know, but there logically were symmetrical suttas for them, warning them of the dangers of men, who btw are generally much more dangerous to women than women are to men. In AN 1,we find similar statements as those made in AN 5.55, but with reciprocity in terms of genders.

So perhaps we have to take in consideration the fact that the loss of most bhikkhuni specific suttas (like for example in that occasion, we could easily imagine that the nuns got a symmetrical talk about the dangers of men, which hasn’t made it down history lane) means that we see more warnings about the dangers of women than the dangers of men.

We need to keep the context in mind, as what may have been said to monks after an incident 2,500 years ago can hardly be put on equal footing, say with what someone may say nowadays on a TV set or a reality TV show.

21 Likes

Lay people living outside the monastery are immersed in media attitudes which promulgate conventional ‘truths’ whose function is the maintenance of that reality with its goal of supporting the body during its life journey. The outlook towards ultimate reality is different, and the task is to prove the veracity of the four noble truths, whereby that reality and its beliefs & requirements become apparent, an alternative structure to life. For example some laypeople practice limited food intake and speaking as if in a monastery. There is a mental outlook of renunciation. The Buddha-to-be proved this path in the pre-awakening phase by investigation, which apart from mindfulness which applies comprehensively, is really the first factor of the active process of awakening:

"The Blessed One said, "Monks, before my self-awakening, when I was still just an unawakened Bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: ‘Why don’t I keep dividing my thinking into two sorts?’ So I made thinking imbued with sensuality, thinking imbued with ill will, & thinking imbued with harmfulness one sort, and thinking imbued with renunciation, thinking imbued with non-ill will, & thinking imbued with harmlessness another sort.

“And as I remained thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, thinking imbued with sensuality arose in me. I discerned that 'Thinking imbued with sensuality has arisen in me; and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, & does not lead to Unbinding.”—Majhima Nikaya 19

1 Like

This must be the sutta Ajahn Chah was talking about in one of his talks. In this talk Ajahn talks further about the Māra’s snares. That’s all the background details I can think of, hope this helps:

1 Like

The sutta that Ajahn Chah alludes to is concerned with the five kāmaguṇas, not women. I should think it’s the Mānasasutta, SN4.15, or its parallel in the Vinaya’s Mahāvagga, the Mārakathā. More likely the latter, as there’s scant evidence the ajahn had ever read the Samyutta Nikāya, but he certainly knew the Vinaya Pitaka.

8 Likes

Hi. For me, AN 5.55 follows the principles found in AN 1.1–10, which apply to both men & women. In the case of AN 5.55, it is addressed to the monks. I imagine the Buddha could make a similar address to the nuns. AN 5.55 is not lenient on the man. It says:

Bhikkhus, did that foolish man think: ‘A mother does not fall in love with her son, or a son with his mother’?

For the sake of non-becoming, I think AN 5.55 is useful because the opposite sex is very sticky to the mind & easily leads to the arising of self-views (becoming). I think wise consideration of AN 5.55 by a man in higher training could lead to the principle spoken by the Lady Somā, who said:

What difference does womanhood make
when the mind is serene,
and knowledge is present
as you rightly discern the Dhamma.

Surely someone who might think:
‘I am woman’, or ‘I am man’,
or ‘I am’ anything at all,
is fit for Māra to address.”

SN 5.2

The purpose of AN 5.55 seems to be for the sake of higher training rather than for the sake of worldly discriminatory misogyny. This said, it certainly seems to be quite an odd sutta (about a mother & son engaging in sexual intercourse) and seems consistent with the extreme story examples found in the Vinaya (such as sleeping Arahants being sexually mounted by multiple women). I find AN 5.55 difficult to believe &, for me, has the impression of a later sutta similar to later Vinaya. :slightly_smiling_face:

1 Like

Just a point on translation here. Pali uses two words for “woman”: itthi and mātugāma. But there is peculiarity of usage.

Often we find itthi is used in apposition to purisa, in the regular sense of “woman” and “man”. Note, though, that unlike English, the word for “woman” is quite independent and is not a derived form from “man”.

Mātugāma is typically not contrasted with purisa, but with bhikkhu. And typically in such contexts she is seen as a temptress or threat to a bhikkhu’s chastity. The form mātugāma is peculiar; it is literally “home of a mother”. The suffix -gāma in such cases has a similar sense to the English suffix “-kind”. And sometimes mātugāma does mean “womankind”, but often it just refers to an individual woman. Like the English “-kind”, it seems that -gāma as a suffix has a connotation of fertility: its use is, so far as I know, restricted to living and growing things, such as the term bhūtagāma for plants.

You can see such a distinction in AN 5.5 itself. When discussing the power of attraction that a woman holds for a man in a general sense, it uses itthi. But when it mentions that one should not chat alone—which is a specific reference to a rule for monks (eko ekāya)—it uses mātugāma.

I am not sure what this distinction is really about, but it’s too precise to be random. One possibility is that, just as the bhikkhu is a constructed and chosen path of masculinity, perhaps mātugāma suggests a lifestyle or pattern of behavior. And since such contexts regularly depict the mātugāma in a negative light in contrast with the virtuous bhikkhu, it would seem there is some derogatory element. But English words like “slut” are too strong.

This is why I ultimately chose to render mātugāma as “female”, because it has a mildly derogatory and objectifying sense, and is often found in contexts that purport to explain the problems with females.

Again, I am sure there is a pattern here, but unsure exactly what it means. It could be that mātugāma was chosen for such contexts to subtly silo away these critiques from women in general. That is to say, it’s not all women who are snares of Māra, but rather “Those women, you know the ones I mean, the ones that act in a certain way.”

They certainly could! These passages have been discussed at length before, and I won’t go into any detail. But I think it’s really important to acknowledge that the plain and obvious meaning of something is significant. You might find a way around it, by looking at historical context for example, but the reality is, many people will look at something like that and say, “Yep, I knew it.” If we don’t own this, we won’t see it until it’s too late.

15 Likes

Interestingly, it is also used when the Buddha’s step mother is asking for the going forth. It’s Mahāpajāpatī herself who uses it when making her request to the Buddha. Surely it can’t be meant in a derogatory way here. It’s rather unlikely that Mahāpajāpatī would ask: “Please let those women go forth, you know the ones I mean, the ones that act in a certain way”? No wonder the Buddha would say “no” in that case …

Or in other cases, both negative and positive qualities of a mātugāmā are discussed, such as for example in AN 4.197, where queen Mallikā asks why some mātugāmā are beautiful etc., and others not. Here too she includes herself in the group, so probably can’t have meant it to be derogatory.

In AN 10.213 a mātugāmā with ten qualities is cast down to hell, while another mātugāmā with ten other qualities is raised up to heaven.

While you are right that there seems to be a distinction between the two terms, it’s really unclear to me what it can be. And I haven’t found a way to distinguish them in German yet.

12 Likes

Sorry, could you say that in a different way? I’m not sure I’m understanding what you mean. That if we don’t admit that it is part of the suttas…?

3 Likes

Although here, it’s still used implicitly in contrast with bhikkhu, as it’s talking about women entering the Sangha. “Derogatory” is too strong a word, but I have no problem with the idea that either Mahāpajāpatī herself—internalized misogyny is very real—or, more likely, a later editor, would use a derogatory term here. In fact, it’s basically the locus classicus of misogyny in the EBTs.

Indeed, it does seem to be an exception. I wondered whether she might have been quoting something in her question, but there doesn’t seem to be any source.

It’s not to say that mātugāmā can’t be used in a positive way, just a tendency.


Yes. In all probability, the cultural nuances are lost to us.

Yes, to start with. But more, that this and similar passages have a major and meaningful influence on creating and empowering sexism and misogyny in Buddhism ancient and modern. If we merely explain it away, we’re not listening, we’re preaching. And then, when we see the very real existence of painful and destructive discrimination in Buddhist cultures, and how some men, including famous teachers, become more misogynist as they go deeper into Buddhist culture, we will lack a foundation to accept the reality of the problem and deal with it.

8 Likes

Yes, that’s indeed a thing, and I sometimes see it in myself.

Interesting also that a womanizer (itthidhutta) deals with an itthi, not a mātugāma, like in AN 8.54 and AN 8.55.

Similarly in DN 31:

DN31:14.13: Akkhitthiyo vāruṇī naccagītaṁ,
Dice, women, drink, song and dance;

2 Likes

In all those case, itthi is contrasted with purisa, not bhikkhu.

2 Likes

:thinking: If it’s contrasted with “Bhikkhu” what do you think of “a worldly woman” for mātugāma? :pray:

1 Like

In SN 16.10 it is used for a nun. :thinking:

2 Likes

The soon-to-be-ex-nun?

2 Likes

Umm, not a lot? Seems like a neologism. Anyway, what’s wrong with “female”?

1 Like

While not a frequently encountered bigram, both worldly and woman are common English words.

I’m afraid it means both too much and too little.

Being connected with animals in English, it adds a misogynistic tone which I am not convinced is present in the Pāli.

It also doesn’t capture the contrast with spiritual men implied by the usages above.

1 Like

AN 5.55 must be read correctly. AN 5.55 is not talking about women separately and then giving a negative character. This is not the case in the Sutta if you read the context correctly.

AN 5.55 talks about the strong attraction of women who can seduce men. Please pay attention to the “strong attraction” and then re-read AN 5.55.

When reading text, maybe people can pay attention to different things. When reading AN 5.55 I see the main thing is “strong attraction”, while you see the main thing is “woman”. So when it is stated that there is danger, then what is the danger? I read the dangers of strong attraction, whereas you read that women are dangerous.

1 Like

Could sound so, but it’s not meant that way, because as venerable Sekha said:

Indeed. The snare of Mara exists not in the woman but in the minds of the majority of monks.

For monks women are especially a snare, meaning a trap, because desire for sensuality or relationships can draw them out of the ordained life.

When I (as a monk) once struggled with sensual desire and read this passage I immediately resonated with it, not because of misogony, but because I could relate to the state of mind the Buddha was referring to. It really feels like a snare in a sense.

Many others can probably relate: just replace ‘females’ with whatever genders you are attracted to, and then imagine being celibate. :smile:

5 Likes