SuttaCentral

Female Representation in the Suttas

What are your thoughts on the representation of the female perspective in the suttas? Are there any particular suttas given to or by women that stand out to you? Frankly, I originally felt that female representation in the canon was pretty awful until I gave the Bhikkhunī Saṃyutta and Therīgāthā a more careful read. There aren’t as many discourses given to or by women as there are by men, but some of the few that were preserved are quite powerful. One of the highlights for me is SN 5.9 where Bhikkhunī Selā illustrates dependent origination with brilliant sharpness.

This puppet isn’t self-made,
nor is this misery made by another.
It comes to be because of a cause,
and ceases when the cause breaks up.

It’s like a seed that’s sown
in a field; it grows
relying on both the soil’s nutrients
as well as moisture.

In the same way the aggregates and elements
and these six sense fields
come to be because of a cause,
and cease when the cause breaks up.

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I agree, there is very little content, but what there is is very powerful. It seems as if there was a higher bar for inclusion. The many “generic” suttas just mention the monks, but the suttas with women are almost always quite exceptional. Many of these—like the cart simile of Vajira—have become classics and are often quoted in commentaries.

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This reminds me of MN.146, Nandakovada Sutta where a lot very powerful similes are found.
With Metta

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Thank you for this. I just spent some time reading some of the suttas “with…” and they’re wonderful and striking.

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That’s interesting. Unsurprisingly, even in the Buddha’s time, women had to be undeniably exceptional to get the recognition they deserved, while, arguably, some of the monks didn’t have to be to be included in the canon.

That’s a great teaching on anatta. Everyone should read it (SN 5.10) if they haven’t already. It’s really short.

Thank you, bhante.

This reminds me of the Culavedalla Sutta (MN 44) given by Bhikkhuni Dhammadinna in response to a series of challenging questions posed by lay follower Visākha. Fun note: According to the commentaries, Visākha was her former husband.

:pray:

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Much appreciation for the sutta references in this thread.

Contentment. :slight_smile:

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This forum has seen its fair share of discussions about gender, biological sex and the Buddhism. One of the things that came up frequently and that I personally found relatable was that when you become awakened you transcend the whole gender thing, your gender becomes ultimately irrelevant. It is no longer making you cling to existence and at best is just lingering somewhere on the furthest fringes of your awakened psyche.

If we agree on that, it doesn’t matter whether the arahant giving the teachings in a particular sutta is male, female, non-binary or anything else. What matters are the teachings, not the teacher’s gender. It means there are no male or female perspectives both in the Thera- and Therigata, as the awakened monks and nuns were neither male nor female.

Yes, there are far less ‘female’ suttas than ‘male’ ones and we all know why. So what?

I mean, we cannot do both. We can’t maintain that it doesn’t matter, which gender an enlightened being used to identify as, and at the same time be interested in which teachings were given specifically by biological women. It is irrelevant, just as the the colour of the Buddha’s eyes, Ven. Mahamoggallana’s skin colour or Ben. Dhamadinna’s former familial relationship with Visakhā or absence thereof.

For me, it is far more important that we maintain this indifference to the gender of our monastic teachers today. We all should finally accept there are women who want to be nuns, who want to transcend their gender and sex, and after these women have been given an equal opportunity with men to leave a householder’s life, we should stop caring about their gender at all. Imagine there finally are equal opportunities for men and women to join the Sangha, and women would be underrepresented among the monastic teachers. Or men would be underrepresented and women would dominate the Dhamma talk scene. I wouldn’t care both ways.

Sorry if I am coming across harsh or impolite, it really was not my intention to criticize you, I know you are coming from a good place and I don’t want to blame you for that :grinning: It is probably my personal obsession that I have to be consistent in my views that has made me write this post :roll_eyes:

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Mostly i agree, but knowing that full ordination in Theravada monasticism is still recently restored, and not with the equanimity which i expected 30 years ago, makes me think, how did it get here? May hate/fear, attachment/repulsion, ignorance be eradicated, by diligent practice.

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Likewise, by abstract principle I’m highly aligned to where you’re coming from, but in addition to ERose’s important point, I think it’s also worth remembering that the reasons why we are interested in the teachings of the arahants is because we ourselves are not awakened beings and we are still caught up in all sorts of delusions.

When we look to these spiritually perfected beings, one of the things we might think to ourselves is, “well, nice for you that you broke out of samsara, but how does that relate to me and my continued suffering?” The broader the pool of ‘backstories’, the greater the possibility that someone might be able to relate their own situation to that of someone who made the journey to the further shore and gain confidence that “this liberating teaching applies to me, too.”

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Gender and race should be irrelevant, but it’s not for those who have to deal with harassment, bigotry, getting paid less, etc because of it. For as long as there are personal distinctions and experiences among people of different genders and races, these distinctions should be respected, and their experiences should be heard. One of the points of representation is to give voice to everyone—particularly those who have been pushed to the margins of their society.

You’re welcome. :pray:

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9 posts were split to a new topic: Are all previous Buddhas in EBT males

This forum has also seen its fair share of @vstakan’s views on gender, biological sex etc. :joy:

I have to say I agree with the conclusion you reached yourself!

As this is user-generated content it reflects the interests of people using the site. It’s fair to say that D&D is certainly making up now for the rather one sided gendered view that we’ve had of Buddhism for the last few thousand years.

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Inside the DD ‘bubble’ we might think this way. However the world outside is rather gendered.

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:slight_smile: i don’t think that “making up” for misogyny is possible. It has caused great suffering and entanglements for so many beings (of all possible flavors).

However, patiently eradicating hate fear greed and ignorance is possible for each and everyone imo. Even those which manifest sometimes in gendered views.

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In MN 68, the Buddha clarifies why he proclaims the spiritual attainment of his disciples. He doesn’t do this for superficial reasons, but to inspire others by their example.

I think this is one of only two times that laywomen are specifically mentioned in the Majjhima Nikaya.​ Regardless, it’s made clear in the context of this sutta that although laywomen aren’t mentioned as frequently in the texts (perhaps to not offend the prejudices of the era), the teachings are indeed for everyone. There’s no distinction made here between the spiritual attainments possible for male or female lay followers.

Take a laywoman who hears this: ‘The laywoman named so-and-so has passed away. The Buddha has declared that, with the ending of the five lower fetters, she’s been reborn spontaneously and will become extinguished there, not liable to return from that world.’ And she’s either seen for herself, or heard from someone else, that that sister had such ethics, such qualities, such wisdom, such meditation, or such freedom. Recollecting that laywoman’s faith, ethics, learning, generosity, wisdom, she applies her mind to that end. That’s how a laywoman lives at ease.

Bhikkhu Bodhi footnote:

It should be noted that whereas the declarations of attainment made by monks and nuns begin with arahantship, those for men and women lay followers begin with non-returning. Though early Buddhism recognises the possibility of lay persons attaining arahantship, in all such cases attested to in the Nikayas, they do so either when on the verge of death or just before requesting admission into the Sangha.

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It matters a great deal that there are these disparities in the sutras. It is essential that we understand the historical reasons for them, and the terrible effects the negative and limiting views of and discriminatory treatment and rules for women (and other groups) have had–and continue to have throughout the world today.

For instance, by some estimates ~100 million female fetuses have been aborted in Asia since the sonogram became available in the early 80s. Negative of women and women’s potential are the primary source of this practice… and Buddhism is one of the primary sources of those views.

Practitioners need to understand that the voices we “hear/read” in the sutras (including what is presented as the Buddha’s “voice”) are those of different people in the early sanghas… who had very different agendas, and VERY different understandings of Buddhism, practice, etc. Some of those “voices” are downright evil. Some enlightened. A great majority of Buddhists in Asia believe that every word attributed to the Buddha in the sutras --even every word in the sutras–is perfect and true and factual…

The view that any gender disparities in the sutras is unimportant and irrelevant is common in Asia, and it is one of the main reasons why so little has changed…why almost no one DOES anything to bring an end to the hatefulness and oppression.

It’s common for people say “none of this matters, woman are inferior, and anyway everything is empty/perfect… if you talk about gender you are clearly unenlightened and attached to gender” etc. etc. etc.

But Buddhists’ attitudes toward women and treatment of women (and the laity and people of other religions/sects/and often nationalities, and the poor/sick/unfortunate and many other groups) in Asia are often DEEPLY hateful and discriminatory and oppressive. … the views of women almost always are.

Those who are hurt are not just the targets of the negative views and treatment. EVERYONE is harmed. The perpetrators of the discrimination have the heaviest karma in this type of karmic system, in fact.

And after all, in the case of women, we are talking about every person’s mother (and sister, wife, friend, colleague, co-worker… ) When women’s status is low and when they are oppressed it has all kinds of negative effects on their children… and the entire planet. … wars result from leaders who are cruel and hateful in part because of bad parenting.

Do to all this negativity, cruelty, indifference and oppression, what is conventionally referred to as “Buddhism” in Asia, is in fact, for the most part, its antithesis.

Please read the following articles to understand further why it is so important for all Buddhist to discuss this issue and understand it and spread the word and act to ensure that the negative views are transformed, and the discrimination brought to an end… and it’s important to know what some of the major consequences of the inequality have been:

Alan Sponberg “Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism”

Allison Goodwin - Right View, Red Rust and White Bones: A Reexamination of Buddhist Teachings on Female Inferiority

Sujato’s work (maybe write to ask Sujato about it as he probably has some important new writings on the subject)

Analayo - “Women’s Renunciation in Early BUddhism” in a book by Jampa Tsedroen and Thea Mohr called “Dignity and Discipline”

Ouyporn Khuankaew - Buddhism and Domestic Violence

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Practitioners need to understand that the voices we “hear/read” in the sutras (including what is presented as the Buddha’s “voice”) are those of different people in the early sanghas… who had very different agendas, and VERY different understandings of Buddhism, practice, etc. Some of those “voices” are downright evil. Some enlightened. A great majority of Buddhists in Asia (and quite a number in the West) believe that every word attributed to the Buddha in the sutras --even every word in the sutras–is perfect and true and factual…

There are many “voices” in the sutras that declare monastics to be
“superior”… but the essential core teachings totally contradict those teachings.

Check out Soma Sutta “Anyone who thinks I’m a woman or I’m a man or I’m ANYTHING AT ALL is fit for Mara to address”

and the MANY ESSENTIAL teachings on nondiscrimination such as:

“Anyone who thinks I’m superior or I’m inferior or I’m equal does not understand things as they are” (we are interconnected and interdependent… not separate…)

(Read Allison Goodwin Right View Red Rust and White Bones… There is a section on those teaching in that article.)

I lived in Asia for 7 years and found the monastics to generally hold far more entrenched negative views of women than the lay people. Their ego identities are also more entrenched in those beliefs.

The vast majority of the teachers in Asia are monks and nuns–and so they are also thus more responsible for perpetuating the negative views of women and MANY other groups, and the discrimination against women and other groups.

It’ VERY common for monastics in Asia and the West to have an entrenched view that they are superior to the laity, to women, to people of other religions and sects. etc… and to look down on those people and treat them as inferior, oppress them on that basis. Thus Buddhism becomes a means of building up the ego and harming and oppressing others.

It is easy to see that such practitioners are not superior, though they believe themselves to be…and convince others that they are.

People who are very disciplined fantastic meditators, and able to discipline themselves in many other ways, are often evil, petty, small minded and highly attached to various identities.

If we look at the effects of the belief that “I am a superior practitioner” or “XYZ types of people are superior” we can see that they are not conducive to the abandonment of ego attachment. (They can also cause people to blindly follow the supposedly superior sorts.)

As the Sutra of Hui Neng says: “The mind should be used in such a way that it is free of ANY attachment.”

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Thank you for your input Sila :pray:

I agree in principle with the many great points you make, but I can’t really support statements like the ones quoted above. While I think that the discrimination you talk about is a proven fact, I find that they are often not ‘heard’, by those to whom they may apply. What I mean by that is that I am certain that no-one would identify themselves as being ‘evil, petty, small minded, and highly attached to various identities’. As a result they pick up on the language and either just write off the message, or engage in endless debates about if it is true etc.

Often these (and indeed any) conditioned views are completely invisible to the individual. What is needed is to find ways of drawing back the curtain of views that are severe hindrances to both the individual and to other beings, to the reduction of suffering and liberation.

For example, I heard a really wonderful way of getting the message across that ‘women who wear clothing that displays their physical attractiveness are asking to be sexually assaulted’. A simile was presented that said if ‘a man wears and expensive watch, he is asking for, and deserves to be, robbed’. All of a sudden it becomes about universal human rights… that you have a right for your body or possessions to be safe… Until there was a way to effectively communicate the issue in a way that they could identify with, there was no effective way to get insight.

In the case of discrimination of women in following the Buddhas path… we need ways to enable the ones who propagate this behaviour and cultural customs - to actually see for themselves, to ‘realise’ - firstly that these hindrances are within them and then to alter their behaviour. It is as the Buddha says, intellectual knowledge is not enough, one needs to see and know the dhamma for oneself.

Please understand, I 110% support the need for more understanding, compassion and change in practice, in a great many (most) situations. I am just concerned that dialogue about this, results in a coming closer together of the 4 fold Sangha, and not in greater division and polarisation of views.

In many ways, I think that the more men who realise this is the situation, and speak out, then the more others may be jolted out of their blindness, and gain a clearer view and greater insight into the negative effect of millenia of conditioning. It is a very hard thing to see through such entrenched views, unless one has experienced the result of it personally. There are quite a few who have demonstrated not only the capacity to do this, but courage and commitment in acting on these realisations, Bhante being one of them. We just need more.

Indeed I see this as benefiting those individuals with harmful entrenched, and as yet masked, views, as well as buddhist women and all beings. IMO this is the fundamental work of the N8fP - to demolish the hindrances that guarantee continued suffering and continual rebirth.

With respect and Metta
:anjal::dharmawheel:

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This is kinda off-topic.

In the suttas, non-returner status is presented—rather consistently—as the ideal for lay followers. I believe Bhikkhu Bodhi’s footnote was simply highlighting this point. It wasn’t saying that monastics are superior.

Additional sutta references can be found here.

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sadhu, sadhu, sadhu. Thank you.