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Contemporary women's concerns about apparent sexism in the EBTs

Discussion evolved around just one line of text in another thread,

“Kiṁ pana vo, kumārā, itthiyā”ti?
“But, young men, what use is a woman to you?”

This comes from The Long Chapter of the Vinaya, section 11.

SuttaCentral
The account of a fine group of people
When the Buddha had stayed at Benares
for as long as he liked, he set out wandering toward Uruvelā. At a certain point he left the road, entered a forest grove, and sat down at the foot of a tree.

Just then a fine group of thirty friends and their wives were enjoying themselves in that forest grove. Because one of them did not have a wife, they had given him a prostitute. While they were all carelessly enjoying themselves, that prostitute took that man’s possessions and ran away. To help their friend, they all went searching for that woman. And as they walked about that forest grove, they saw the Buddha seated at the foot of a tree. They approached him and said, “Sir, have you by any chance seen a woman by herself?”

“But, young men, what use is a woman to you?”

They told him what had happened.

“What do you think is better for you: that you search for a woman, or that you search for yourselves?”

“It’s better for us to search for ourselves.”

“Well then, sit down, and I’ll give you a teaching.”

Saying, “Yes, Sir,” those friends bowed to the Buddha and sat down.

The Buddha then gave them a progressive teaching: talk on generosity, talk on morality, talk on heaven; and he revealed the danger, degradation, and defilement in worldly pleasures, and the benefit of renunciation. When the Buddha knew that their minds were ready, supple, without hindrances, joyful, and confident, he revealed the teaching unique to the Buddhas: suffering, its origin, its end, and the path. And just as a clean and stainless cloth absorbs dye properly, so too, while they were sitting right there, they experienced the stainless vision of the Truth: “Anything that has a beginning has an end.”

They had seen the Truth, had reached, understood, and penetrated it; they had gone beyond doubt and uncertainty, had attained to confidence, and had become independent of others in the Teacher’s instruction. And they said to the Buddha, “Venerable Sir, we wish to receive the going forth in your presence; we wish to receive the full ordination.” The Buddha said, “Come, monks. The Teaching is well-proclaimed. Practice the spiritual life to make a complete end of suffering.” And that was the full ordination of those venerables.

Bhante @Akaliko has already provided helpful comment, which reminded us to consider the whole context of the text: thank you Bhante!

The Buddha taught about abandoning all identification for everyone, females and males alike; yet he lived in a specific time and place and taught people who knew no other society. That society had socio-cultural norms different from our own societies. (See post #41below for a very clear exposition of this. – EDITED after two days.) As a result we have to concede that it can be uncomfortable for Buddhist women to read things in the texts which, from the modern point of view, seem very confronting, so I’m going to call on the help of two more venerables to share their wisdom: Ajahn @Brahmali, who translated the whole Vinaya for SuttaCentral and Ayya @Suvira, who is a Buddhist woman and a scholar, are you available and able to offer help?

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My goodness, if a woman would write about men that way, the Buddhist world would be on fire. :slightly_smiling_face:

I can’t believe the Buddha instrumentalized women by defining them to be useful - or not. If we’d read “But, young women, what use is a man to you?”, that would sound pretty disrespectful to men. We don’t use eachother, right? At least, that’s not how I see relationships with men and women. I’m quite surprised about this intrinsic mysogenistic way of writing. I believe the Buddha did have a more respectful way of relating to women.

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Isn’t the Buddha doing the opposite: challenging the young men’s search for a woman to use? As Bhante @Akaliko says above we need to take the context into account.

After all, they’re looking for a prostitute, any prostitute, for their friend. Isn’t that use?

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By no means do I want to offend anyone here, but to me, being a Buddhist, this text is problematic and offensive to women. Thank you for posting him anyway, Ratana. I wasn’t there in that forest grove - luckily enough - but I imagine - as the text suggests - 30 men and 30 women having fun and most certainly having sex in a forest valley. Good friends had given their friend a prostitute. She was given, which clearly indicates instrumentalization. The Buddha was sitting nearby, under a tree, in meditation. That is remarkable, given the fact that 60 people were presumably not silently sitting there a little further away. Now suddenly the entertainment was interrupted because the prostitute made off with her client’s belongings. I don’t know if she was paid for her services, I hope she was but in any case, prostitution is a form of inhumane work that no one should be doing. And as we all know but easily try to forget, prostitution of men by women has always been an extremely rare thing. Most men simply can’t restrain themselves - even if they are subject to rules - which is very different for women, no need to prove that. But so these men, according to the text, are on the prostitute’s heels because she stole belongings. No one of them is even suggesting that a woman’s honour just got stolen. Which is by far more serious than what she had just stolen. Now they meet the Buddha, sitting there peacefully, and in no time these men turn from men instrumentalizing women and having an orgy in a nearby forest grove into so-called venerables. What was the timespan? And how comes the writer is not mentioning what happens to their 29 women? Are they still sitting there in the forest, cleaning up after their men? And how do they feel about the fact a woman has just been used for sex in their presence? How are they supposed to survive, now that all their hard working men in a blink of an eye became reverent monks? Are they probably supposed to become prostitutes themselves to survive, if they choose not to become nuns? Now someone might want to explain this text to me but please do not mansplain it. :grinning: It is clearly written by a man/men who had not the slightest understanding of a woman’s honour, let alone how to treat women with respect. I know, we’re supposed to see the context of a text, which is exactly what I’m trying to do here. I can’t believe it to have truly happened that way. If the Buddha calls men of such deplorable honour venerables in a blink of an eye and accept them to be monks, he is not the Buddha I praise. One may call me modern, call me western and call me a feminist but truth is, I am just a woman who is aware that sexual misconduct and sexism is a widespread issue in religious circles. When men who don’t respect women read such a text, they are being strengthened in their ideas that it is okay to treat women disrespectfully, how subtile the framing might be. The least that I can do about it, is saying I don’t agree with how women are being represented in this text. And true, it might be a waste of time because almost all religious texts put women in that light, but hey someone needs to say that it is not okay now and then, right? I don’t want women to think they are less than men. I don’t want my daughters to think that, I don’t want my nieces to think that. And I certainly don’t want women to run away from Buddhism because of how they are being misrepresented.

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I think there are 3 possibilities here, it’s either that Buddha is a sexist or the oral tradition is wrong here or bhante @sujato translation is not correct

And I don’t know but some man like femdom and some women like mandom too, of course we should not generalize and if we know the teaching we know that Buddha never see woman as woman he just see them as five grasping aggregates like man

Don’t forget that some slaves are man at that time and the owner could be a woman or a widowed woman

But man is generally considered a better birth, in a sutta a woman borns as a male god for example and only man can be a Buddha

Is not one of the precepts is celibacy ?

I may be wrong but I don’t think that prostitutes either male or female could fulfill the precepts

So since the Sutta narrates the reality of a sex orgy of 30 pairs of people, which also involve women selling sex services, then this inappropriate incident is the fault of the Buddhist world or even the fault of the Buddha? So that you become so upset?

When translated into English as if Buddha said: “what use is a woman to you?”, are you not interested in looking for the Pali language? Checking if it’s the best translation? Or maybe from the Pali language it turns out to be translated “what do you need to look for that woman”? At least before you explain at length what is appropriate and inappropriate in representing the equality and honor of women and men?

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Actually they are looking for the same person who stole the man’s belongings, who happens to be a sex worker. Perhaps she stole the clothes because of some problem over payment and was looking for some compensation? We aren’t told but she certainly comes off as the baddie here, but not due to her status as a sex worker. A feature that stands out to me in this story is the normalcy of hiring a sex worker for a picnic event, which shows a fairly easy going attitude to sex and leisure at that time.

I think people are getting caught up on the word “use” here. Some people have made the jump to equating the word ‘use’ with being ‘used’ (a very loaded term) and sex work. But this is a faulty approach. Also sex workers can have quite a lot of autonomy and agency in their work, they arent being ‘used’ but they are selling a service. Sure, this isn’t always the way and there are various conditions sex workers experience but in any case, this focus of ‘use’ is an unhelpful misreading of the text.

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Thanks, but I am a feminist and I don’t doubt the Buddha.
The Buddha himself was a feminist. That’s why I respect him.
But not sexist writers. Sorry if that’s not okay with you.

O. If that is your main focus, then I understand what you say.
Good luck with it.

Perhaps it would be wiser to just put a stop to sexism in religion.
Feminists wouldn’t be whining anymore, how nice would that be :hugs:

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That’s right, I did.
Thanks for pointing out that making that jump wasn’t okay.
If I translate it to my mother tongue, it is pretty disrespectful
to assume someone is not of use to someone.
I did not know that use has an other meaning here in English.

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Many of the texts of the Sutta Pitaka are aimed at motivating monks to quickly let go of attachment to life forms. These life forms are numerous. In fact, it can be said that whatever concepts we hold about life, whether it is a good concept or a bad concept, it is always related to the forms of life. Later, a good concept of life form, when grasped, will become the impetus for rebirth in a pleasant realm. While the bad concept of life forms, when grasped, will become the impetus for rebirth in an unpleasant world. Because of this, many Sutta texts encourage monks to see life as danger, ulcers, pus… This can be stressful for non-monk householders who are passionate about life forms.

Gender concepts such as men, women, those are all concepts of life forms. Then it’s all pushed to be seen as ulcers, pus… of course it’s natural that this can be stressful, nauseous, for people who really love, grasp, life forms. Have not seen life forms as the reality of dukkha.

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My bad. Whilst I did try to read the word used in its immediate context, I didn’t read the whole of the text. … I shall go and do so before I contribute further.

Thank you for helping us women out here Bhante. :pray:

EDIT: And even when I’ve read the text in English, my Pali is too poor to read the original, and I’m not an antropologist of Iron Age India … so actually my hope of understanding all this … is hopelessly abysmal. :frowning:

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I just want to add that it are the mechanisms behind prostitution that I question.
Out of respect for the many women and men who are prostitutes.
I’ve been involved professionally (I worked for the court) with prostitutes
who did not want to be prostitutes. They should not be without their consent.
Consent is more than just saying yes, if you know this world a little.
It’s complicated. People give their consent for reasons that you and I
can’t even think of. But true, there are prostitutes who give their consent
and I fully respect them.

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Exactly this idea is what I don’t tolerate.
This kind of approach in texts has but one reason:
to make it clear to all readers that monks did not
permit women to co-write the texts.
We could just start by acknowledging this truth
in stead of saying that someone is doubting the Buddha.
I have no reason to doubt the Buddha, he got enlightened.

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I read this story as the Buddha protecting a sex worker from a mob of men :man_shrugging:

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I am a woman and as such I write my opinion only.

I don’t think that Buddha said anything wrong. He saw that those men have potential and for that reason asked this question. He understood that they were ready to “go further”.
I also think that in today’s world we are getting too much involved in thinking “he/she” - every sentence needs to be gender right or neutral. Why?
In Germany they say it’s sexist that Santa Claus is a man…??? He WAS a man, a monk called St Nicholas. We can’t just make a female out of him.

I also ask myself why analysing the prostitute? The text has a meaning. Be celibate. Be not distracted. Listen to the teaching and take the teaching in. That’s how one develops on the path.

I am happy when people respect me for “what I am” and not because they are using “political correct” language.

There are women in this world who like to be prostitutes and there are women who are slaves. But this is not what this Sutta is about. Buddha always taught against sense desire and greed. The path of purification.

Buddha also taught that if we can change it - change it. If not, carry on with your practice. That’s what I try to follow when sorrow about injustice overcomes me. May you all be well and safe. :tulip:

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Thanks @Gillian for alerting me.

The problem here really starts with interpreting the Pali. The phrase

which I have rendered

“But, young men, what use is a woman to you?”

is actually an idiomatic expression that needs drawing out to make sense in English. Quite literally it might be translated as follows:

“But what for you, young men, with a woman?”

A number of other translation are possible, depending on the case of vo and itthiyā. Then you have to decide what it means. The commentaries say nothing, which makes the matter even more difficult.

Still, I think the context makes it fairly clear what is meant. The Buddha seems to have spotted their spiritual potential. He then tries to draw them away from sensuality towards the spiritual path. To my mind, the Buddha is actually saying, “What use is sensuality to you?” The Buddha clearly got it right, since they all ended up as stream-enterers.

It might be, however, that my rendering is not quite optimal. Perhaps a more elliptical rendering such as, “But, young men, why look for a women?” would be both clearer and more sensitive at the same time? If anyone has any suggestions for how the translation can be improved, I would be most happy to hear from you.

Then there is the word “prostitute”. Perhaps “sex worker” would be better?

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I think this is happening now at here. Contemporary women's concerns about apparent sexism in the EBTs - #21 by Brahmali

that is permitting the feedback of translation choices.

However, it should be noted that it’s believed that the Pali wordings are believed to be preserved verbatim all the way from the Buddha. It’s problematic if there’s a proposal to want to change those Pali texts to suit whatever happens to be politically correct at the moment in the world. Eg. veganism Even though I am vegan and very pro-vegan, I don’t think it’s right to modify the Pali suttas to change the meaning to Buddha makes veganism compulsory!

Let’s not worry about the wordings too, but get to the meanings. As I mentioned, there’s plenty of suttas elsewhere which I dare not quote to you due to your reactions which are better read entirely from the monk’s point of view. It’s death in the discipline of the noble ones to disrobe and go back to the lower life. Parajika 1 (having sex as a monk) is a lifetime ban from becoming a monk, and an auto disrobe offence, as well as a kamma worthy of hell. Sangadisesa 1 (no intentional ejaculation) is no fun either, being so troublesome to recover from it, and troubling 20 other monks to do so.

To have the monks give super-wide distance from women and lust is one of the strategies to help. It’s those who had become non-returners onwards who are safer to be able to interact with women, as they have eradicated lust. Ananda asked the Buddha on how to deal with women. Don’t look at them, if you must look, don’t talk to them, if you must talk, guard your mind. So we shouldn’t expect that some strategies shouldn’t be employed by the monks if they can.

Most importantly, as long as any views about women are not used to oppress women, hurt their feelings, promote inequality in lay society etc. Just keep this in mind, in case you come across those suttas one day. When I first came across them, it really strikes me as it’s meant for monks only, not for lay women, especially in this political climate, so when viewing in the lens of monks only, I see that there’s less of an issue for me.

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No, clearly Buddha said this to 30 lay man not monks

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Buddha said that to 30 lay man, I don’t understand what you mean by “not for lay women”

Clearly Buddha means this “what’s the use of sensuality to you ?” Now you can get sensuality not only from woman but man too

Roughly Buddha said this “you don’t need sensuality from man/woman” I think if a gay man ask this Buddha would say “what’s the use of man to you?”

I don’t find any problem here or maybe I am not too sensitive :pray::pray:

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