Gender at birth: biological lottery or conditioned by kamma? MN 135

Dear Bhantes and fellow participants, something’s been quizzing me for a while now and I would very much appreciate your views.

Myth no. 12 was BUSTED - birth as a woman is due to bad kamma - all good so far. Noted Bhante Sujato that your statement was something like “not in the suttas” at the course meeting and time had run out for the day.

So now reading MN 135 and 136 - nothwithstanding interpretational problems - there are pointers to longevity, health, position in society, intelligence…

and yet, a key factor which conditions both our internal experience of living and also how we experience living with others is the gender which we are assigned at birth, we assume at birth and that we accept or reject or modify as we grow up.

Is this not a huge influence? How is it that gender is not conditioned by one’s kamma? Inponderable? Or simply a biologically random event?

Thanks for your time, really enjoying the course and the readings.


Dear Nicola,

The myth we were “busting” was not that gender has nothing to do with karma, but that birth as a woman is the result of bad karma, or worse karma than being born as a man. If that were the case, there would have to be a significant difference in the amount of pain in women’s lives compared to the lives of men. While there may be some difference, I have no doubt that the difference within each gender is much greater than between the genders. If this is correct, then the myth is clearly wrong.

With metta.


I was really struck by the idea of “neurosexism”, that is, that there are little or no truly hard-wired differences between male and female brains, yet there are countless neurological studies trying to point out these differences.

The same tendency is common throughout psychology, and we find it in Buddhism in the treatment of kamma as well. With all the efforts that have been put into finding differences between men and women, with such paltry results, the real question is: why are we so intent at finding the differences?

So sure, kamma may play a role in gender, although chance, biology and other factors are always there. But the primary thing that has lead us here is the good kamma that has given us this fortunate human birth!

Bhantes, could you state the key evidence and arguments for busting this myth, it really is not quite clear from the workshops. It was clear that you don’t believe it in any way and you don’t think people should believe in it, but there wasn’t clear evidence and argument presented to convince people from traditional Buddhist background, I think.

And could I suggest that in future workshops, we really give each topic scheduled for that workshop its due, in terms of time allocated and not be too side-tracked away from the intended discussion. What do you think?

Thank you Bhantes.
The reasoning which topples the myth I can begin to understand. Very interesting to read about the neurological similarities of the human brain, irrespective of gender. My experience with practice has confirmed for myself that rewiring the brain is possible and powerful given time, attention and good teaching.

As to why we would look for differences: for myself, this arises in part out of a. an observation that I have absorbed some powerful conditioning based on my gender and b. (what I take to be) similar conditioning of other people I live around also influences the way I live.

So could I please ask on two matters.

  1. What kamma influences gender in the next life (started to delve into the decads upon conception but way beyond my comprehension at present!)
  2. Vasettha sutta MN 98 (looking at the Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhhi translation): what is meant by the stanza:
    “In human bodies in themselves, nothing distinctive can be found. Distinction among human beings is purely verbal designation”? I’m wondering specifically in the context of gender and race.

With thanks.

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(1) I think the most powerful kamma in regard to gender is simply habit. We are used to our own gender, and so we tend to carry on as before. I think for many it is a bit of a leap into the unknown to change gender, and so we tend to stick with what we feel habituated to. This is not true for everyone, but I suspect it is for the vast majority.

(2) This sutta was spoken in the context of India, and so race would probably not have been much of an issue. And I suspect gender is not mentioned because caste/class distinctions (which is what Vāseṭṭha is asking about) go across the gender divide. (The same could be said of race.) In other words, class is always a matter of convention (“a verbal designation”), whereas the Buddhist basis for making distinctions is the purity and the wisdom of the person.

With metta.

We’ll try! But there’s a lot of ground to cover, and not that much time. What you think of as a sidetrack might be the crucial issue for some people…

Dear Bhante,
I’ve really enjoyed reflecting on these teachings. I love the way you’ve used plain English to convey a pretty profound and awesome message!

Please could I continue my line of enquiry, with specific regard to point 1 and AN 3.61, in particular:

Imāni cattāri ariyasaccānīti, bhikkhave, mayā dhammo desito aniggahito asaṅkiliṭṭho anupavajjo appaṭikuṭṭho samaṇehi brāhmaṇehi viññūhīti. Iti kho panetaṃ vuttaṃ. Kiñcetaṃ paṭicca vuttaṃ? Channaṃ, bhikkhave, dhātūnaṃ upādāya gabbhas­sā­vakkanti hoti; okkantiyā sati nāmarūpaṃ, nāmarū­papaccayā saḷāyatanaṃ, saḷāya­tana­pac­cayā phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā.

Now to be clear - I’ve pasted this here not because I know anything about Pali which I don’t, but because I’ve been taught how subtle and precise uses of the Pali language by the people who sought to convey the Buddha’s teaching can be lost in translation. My questions are:

  1. Given gender at birth is habitual, would it be correct that sanna has the greatest influence here, ie the ‘recognition’ looking back reinforces the sankhara going forward? Does this imply that one’s gender in a future existence would be influenced by the challenging of perception of gender is this life? even if this was a skilful thing to do?

  2. My understanding is that this teaching describes the process of human rebirth (6 sense organs etc). Would it be the case that rebirth into other worlds is by means of the same process with the specifics changed a bit? Is it this process that cannot happen when one is liberated from suffering?

  3. The use of the word “sati”: is the useful translation here memory rather than mindfulness? is sati therefore the mechanism for information flow and driven by cetana?

(As an aside, the fact that Hawking lost his bet last year is maybe something the Buddha knew all along - information is not lost in a black hole and it stays in this universe:
“If you jump into a black hole, your mass energy will be returned to our universe, but in a mangled form which contains the information about what you were like, but in an unrecognisable state.”

…and we wonder where the other worlds are…we know so little…)

Thank you for your time Bhante, and please indicate if you think these questions are not useful and/or what a useful line of enquiry would be.

With metta, acinlo (whoops, black hole moment)

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Dear Acinlo (!),

(1) Yes, I think this may be a good way of looking at the process.

(2) This teaching is really just an aspect of dependent origination and as such it describes a process that applies to all beings. And yes, it is this process that does not happen when one is liberated.

(3) Sati here is something completely different. You may not find this too illuminating, but it is in fact the present participle of the verb atthi (to be) in the locative case. Essentially is means “when there is”.

With metta.

Wow, amazing Dhamma, thank you Bhante.