Thanks everyone for the discussion.
Like the English “man”, purisa is commonly used in the sense of both “male person” and just “person” generally. It’s not always clear from context. My rule is to always translate as “person” unless the context suggests that it is gendered. I believe, from looking at the Sutta Nipata, that Ven Bodhi is leaning in this direction, too.
It does seem obvious that masculinity is meant in such passages. But sometimes what is obvious is not true!
A bit of background.
There are some similar phrases that are clearly gendered. For example we have the purisakuttaṁ etc. in AN 7.51 where it is talking about sexual attraction between men and women.
Less clear, but probably still gendered, we have purisakiccāni, given in the context of a man’s responsibilities, so here it should probably be “he does his duties as a man”.
But what of the stock phrase purisathāma etc., usually translated as “manly vigor”? It’s an unfortunate turn of phrase, but let’s leave that aside for now!
Nowhere is this phrase gendered in terms of its context or application. And it’s noteworthy that the commentary does not gender the phrase. On the contrary, it glosses it by saying that it refers to “strength of understanding” (Purisathāmenātiādinā purisassa ñāṇathāmo ñāṇavīriyaṃ ñāṇaparakkamo ca kathito).
So we don’t really have a contextual reason other than cultural presumption to render it in a gendered way. But is there any reason to think such terms were not gendered?
In DN2 ( and a variety of other passages), in the description of the teachings of Makkhali Gosāla, we find an extensive passage on the condition of “sentient beings”, which emphasizes the inclusive and universal nature of his thesis. His view is that there is no cause for the purification of beings. He then goes on
Natthi attakāre, natthi parakāre, natthi purisakāre, natthi balaṁ, natthi vīriyaṁ, natthi purisathāmo, natthi purisaparakkamo.
One does not act of one’s own volition, one does not act of another’s volition, one does not act from a person’s volition. There is no power, no energy, no purisa strength or vigor.
The passage is intended to refer to everyone. In this context, it seems reasonable to speak of “human strength or human vigor”. It can’t be ruled out that the sense of “masculine” was meant; it could simply be an idiom. But it’s not required, and the context is one that suggests broadness in application.
Using “human strength” works well in the various doctrinal passages of the Buddha. And it harmonizes better with the commentarial explanation, since “understanding” (ñāṇa) is not regarded as a gendered quality.