AN 5.55, quite an odd sutta

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.