Manly strength may not be what we think it is

I’ve been thinking about this statement made by the Buddha about manly strength being necessary.
The lord Buddha turned a lot concepts on their head, almost in a very tongue in cheek way. Like ariyan status not being determined by birth, but earned through conduct ,restraint and effort. Basically saying that birth does not make you superior, he said the same things about brahmins.

Are normative notions masculinity turned on its head in a similar by the Buddha ? Saying that real manly strength is found in kindness, gentleness, acceptance, contemplation and restraint. Rather than the normative Khattiyan views of masculinity being based on aggression, wealth, power and material possessions. So are we taking this whole statement about manly strength in the wrong context by attributing sexist overtones to it ? maybe Buddha was taking the Mickey out of mysognistic attitudes and machismo.


Oh I totally agree. The Buddha was so skilled walking that fine line: using people’s strengths to redirect their energies in the right direction without (usually!) going so directly against their delusions that they would outright reject the medicine. :heart_eyes::pray:


Readers may wish to know this refers to not being satisfied with what has been achieved:

“Monks, I have known two qualities through experience: discontent with regard to skillful qualities[1] and unrelenting exertion. Relentlessly I exerted myself, [thinking,] ‘Gladly would I let the flesh & blood in my body dry up, leaving just the skin, tendons, & bones, but if I have not attained what can be reached through human firmness, human persistence, human striving, there will be no relaxing my persistence.’ From this heedfulness of mine was attained Awakening. From this heedfulness of mine was attained the unexcelled freedom from bondage.”— AN 2.5 Thanissaro



In other words, not allowing oneself to rest content merely with the skillful qualities developed on the path. In the Buddha’s biography, this point is illustrated by his refusal to rest content with the formless absorptions he mastered under his first two teachers. See MN 36.

See also MN 70 where cases of incomplete development are discussed.


And I think people project the way their culture interprets strength, manliness, or masculinity (which is itself dependent on the time they are living in) onto the examples the Buddha gave. What is “masculine” varies wildly between cultures and changes over time.

Personally, I don’t find portraying the Buddhist path in terms of war and violence (“fighting Mara and his armies,” etc.) as edifying. I don’t like to think of myself as a “spiritual warrior.” The older I get, the more I think about being a Buddhist as being like a protective parent:
Deluded, Child-like Me: “Oh, I want that!”
Dhamma-practicing Parent-like Me: “Don’t touch that! You’ll burn yourself if you do!”


Where does he state this?

It’s for example in SN 12.22:

SN12.22:2.1: So the teaching has been well explained by me, made clear, opened, illuminated, and stripped of patchwork. Just this much is quite enough for a gentleman who has gone forth out of faith to rouse up his energy. ‘Gladly, let only skin, sinews, and tendons remain! Let the flesh and blood waste away in my body! I will not stop trying until I have achieved what is possible by manly strength, energy, and vigor.’
SN12.22:3.1: A lazy person lives in suffering, mixed up with bad, unskillful qualities, and ruins a great deal of their own good. An energetic person lives happily, secluded from bad, unskillful qualities, and fulfills a great deal of their own good. The best isn’t reached by the worst. The best is reached by the best. This spiritual life is the cream, mendicants, and the Teacher is before you. So you should rouse up energy for attaining the unattained, achieving the unachieved, and realizing the unrealized, thinking: ‘In this way our going forth will not be wasted, but will be fruitful and fertile. And our use of robes, alms-food, lodgings, and medicines and supplies for the sick shall be of great fruit and benefit for those who offered them.’ That’s how you should train. Considering your own good, mendicants, is quite enough for you to persist with diligence. Considering the good of others is quite enough for you to persist with diligence. Considering the good of both is quite enough for you to persist with diligence.”


Very likely. After all, it’s the right in right effort that matters. That’s why I like suttas like the Soṇa Sutta and the expanded narrative in the Vinaya, which give more context to the idea of “manly” exertion:

“In the same way, Soṇa, when energy is too forceful it leads to restlessness. When energy is too slack it leads to laziness. So, Soṇa, you should apply yourself to energy and serenity, find a balance of the faculties, and learn the pattern of this situation.”


Well said, but if I may take the analogy a little further:

Consider the case of a child trapped under rubble after an earthquake. In this case, where the danger is great and the need obvious, a “protective parent” would not be gentle! They would strive like a warrior to dig out their child, no?

So, sometimes, if the kilesa is especially deep and we have the confidence that this is indeed a defilement, an evil inside of me… the time may come for more energetic digging.

I hope that helps illuminate


Hmm. In all the quotes of the Buddha discussing strength I don’t see any that refer specifically to men. They all seem to be about persistence, non-laziness, and physical stamina, but I’m not reading them as gendered. Are there specifically gendered passages or is it possible that modern readers are applying the “manly” label due to cultural conditioning?


I don’t remember the exact passage but towards the end of kitagiri sutta according to Bikkhu Bodhi’s translation

The key phrases are:

manly strength, energy, and vigor
purisathāmena purisavīriyena purisaparakkamena

purisa = male/man

(See for example, SN12.22)


Actually, I find the warrior metaphor useful.

In war, vigilance preserves life. In Buddhism, vigilance preserves the noble path.
In war, we fight each other. In Buddhism, we fight the hindrances.

In particular, it’s extraordinarily difficult to let go of drowsiness and dullness by telling oneself “Don’t touch that!”. The call to battle drowsiness, the call to battle dullness, the call to sweep away the cobwebs and waken from a slide into drugged sleep is also a war to be fought.

Before I read the EBTs, I thought that sliding into sleepiness was a harmless pleasure. Now I know the harm to be fought in dullness and drowsiness. Rousing energy is a battle at these times. It’s not the call to violence. It’s the call to arms and readiness, come what may, life or death. Mara is the thief slipping in the back door…


Yeah, it’s quite common. It seems to resonate with a lot of people. It just isn’t my thing.


Can’t “purisa” also be used to mean “people” in general?


Bhikkhu Bodhi often translates it as man. But Bhante @sujato usually translates it as ‘person’ like in SN 35.238:

Then a person (puriso) would come along who wants to live and doesn’t want to die, who wants to be happy and recoils from pain.

Interestingly, when it comes to the phrases of homage (like in AN4.33), it’s often translated gender-neutrally:

Ven. Sujato:

A Realized One arises in the world—perfected, a fully awakened Buddha, accomplished in knowledge and conduct, holy, knower of the world, supreme guide for those who wish to train (purisadamma), teacher of gods and humans, awakened, blessed—he teaches the Dhamma

Ven. Bodhi:

persons to be tamed

The case could be made that it’s a word, like a lot of words in Romance languages for example, that can mean both male and person in general. (And Ven. Anālayo makes this case for the notorious bhikkhave)

But I don’t know if the passages about letting your blood dry up support that conclusion for purisa, at least in the context of those passages.

I personally think we can attribute that kind of exertion to masculinity. But the error rather is in attributing masculinity (solely) to men. A person of any or no gender can have and employ masculine and feminine qualities after all.

Maybe a better translation is masculine energy?


:thinking: I’d be inclined to go the other way myself and assume the Buddha here is just saying “what it’s possible for a human to do”


I laughed when I realized that I agree with both ways.

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It seems to me not recognizing the necessity of the warrior attitude indicates incomplete coming to terms with the practice and the use of that analogy is not isolated (AN 4.181, 5.75,76, 139 etc.).


I agree since I could not find any other way to deal with dullness and drowsiness. It’s easier to rouse energy when danger is present. That’s why I spent decades rock climbing. It’s a warrior pursuit that requires vigilance without violence.


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.