Regarding the status of women during the life of Buddha

From the book “Mind Unshaken” by John Walters:

“Buddhism has lay sisters who live as nuns but they do not play the important part in religion as the nuns do in Roman Catholicism. The Buddha’s attitude seems strange…At times he regarded them with some humor mixed with light cynicism…I see no form quite as enticing and so desirable,so intoxicating and so distracting, such a hindrance to gaining unsurpassed peace from effort- that is to say, monks as a woman form. When Ananda asked Buddha how he should behave toward women, the advice was ‘Don’t see them’.
The Buddha being no congenial ascetic,knew too well female seductiveness and female power.”

Eventually according to Walters, Buddha’s Aunt and stepmother Prajapati convinced him to allow for the creation of a nun’s order. The Order of Nuns was founded only after a show of resistance from the Buddha, who offered ‘eight strict rules’, and added that if Prajapati accepted them she could be ordained.The rule s were:

‘A nun must first salute a monk, and rise in his presence even if he is newly ordained. A nun shall not spend Retreat in a place where there is no monk.Every fortnight a monk will ‘give admonition’ to a meeting of nuns.A nun must not under any pretext rebuke or abuse a monk. Utterances or pronouncements may not be made by nuns to monks but may be made by monks to nuns.’

Granting that the Buddha’s wisdom was supreme, and that he claimed knowledge of many, many incarnations as a mother, father son, and daughter…as a every possible incarnation available, my question is how could the Buddha contradict his own teaching about the equal value of all humans regardless of social status?
And what is a new Buddhist to make of this egregious sexist discrimination? How could the Buddha not acknowledge the equal value of women in society?

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All I can is that John Walters hasn’t done enough research. Here are a few important points he has missed.

He is presumably speaking of the modern situation, not the historical one. This is why some of us have been arguing for the importance of reintroducing the ordination of bhikkhunīs across all schools of Buddhism. In those countries where the bhikkhunī Sangha never ceased to exist, such as Taiwan, the bhikkhunīs have a very strong social position, sometimes stronger than the monks. The full ordination of women is an important step towards gender equity in Buddhism.

Here he is just reading the Buddha’s attitude into the texts. I really don’t think it is possible to read the Buddha’s state of mind in this way. In fact, this goes against everything impression I have of the Buddha.

This is distorting the Buddha’s message through omission. The Buddha says exactly the same is true in reverse, that is, that masculine traits are intoxicating for women (scroll down to suttas 6-10). There is full gender equity in this case.

This passage only seems to exist in the Pali version of the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, and as such it is quite likely a later addition. In fact, the passage seems awkwardly inserted and does not really fit with the context: it sort of appears out of the blue. In any case, the Buddha is here speaking to Ven. Ānanda. If the passage were authentic, which seems doubtful, we would have to assume the Buddha would be saying the same to the nuns in regard to men.

The founding of the nuns’ order and “the eight strict rules” have been studied in detail by the likes of Bhante Sujato and Ven. Analayo. It seems clear enough that these parts of the Vinaya cannot be taken at face value, in part because the they vary significantly across the different traditions. So far as the garudhammas (“the eight strict rules”) are concerned, it is not at all clear that these are universal principles that nuns must follow in all circumstances; see for instance the discussion here.

In sum, I think the problem here is not so much with the Buddha as with John Walters’ presentation. We owe it to the Buddha to investigate these things with great care, otherwise we just end up misrepresenting him.

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Hi Rosie,

There’s a wonderful book on this subject, written by Bhante Sujato.
It’s called “White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes - A Buddhist Mythology of the Feminine” and is available here:

http://santifm.org/santipada/2010/white-bones-red-rot-black-snakes/

:lotus:

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[quote=“Rosie, post:1, topic:5641, full:true”]…how could the Buddha contradict his own teaching about the equal value of all humans regardless of social status?
And what is a new Buddhist to make of this egregious sexist discrimination? How could the Buddha not acknowledge the equal value of women in society?
[/quote]
How do you document the Buddha’s teaching “about the equal value of all humans regardless of social status”? There may well be solid documentation, but a lot of what’s argued is biased by the insertion of modern social activist values.

I think it’s clear he taught that an individual’s own achievement is all that matters in terms of gaining ariya, liberation of mind, and not birth-right or any other kind of ranking. That’s a kind of potential equality, equality of access if you will. Like the difference between taking the notion of innate goodness, even Buddha-nature, vs the necessity of purification of mind of inevitably inherited and otherwise conditioned defilement.

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Thank you so much for this clarification. This book was highly recommended by an ordained monk so I perceived that it was faithful to the doctrine as the authentic proclamation of Buddha. Knowing this is not or may not be the case helps me to understand that the suttas and this site of the faithful may be the only place to receive proper information and instruction. I am so glad that I have the clarity to come to this place to get a more accurate depiction of the Buddha’s teaching. Thanks so much. Namaste with Metta

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Hi @Rosie,

I think the best thing is to rely on the suttas themselves and not on anybody else, no matter how learned they are! Or at least chose someone who for their teachings are referring to the suttas. And in order to judge how much this is the case, the more knowledge you have the better! :wink:

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Hi, and thanks for that. I think you are obviously right. But I was a bit confused because this book by Walters was highly recommended by an ordained monk whom I trusted to point me in the right direction. I love this site as a sanctuary from BS, which means the same in Tibet as it does here. So…Here I Am. Namaste

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[quote=“brahmali, post:2, topic:5641, full:true”]
All I can is that John Walters hasn’t done enough research. Here are a few important points he has missed.

He is presumably speaking of the modern situation, not the historical one. This is why some of us have been arguing for the importance of reintroducing the ordination of bhikkhunīs across all schools of Buddhism. In those countries where the bhikkhunī Sangha never ceased to exist, such as Taiwan, the bhikkhunīs have a very strong social position, sometimes stronger than the monks. The full ordination of women is an important step towards gender equity in Buddhism.

Here he is just reading the Buddha’s attitude into the texts. I really don’t think it is possible to read the Buddha’s state of mind in this way. In fact, this goes against everything impression I have of the Buddha.[/quote]To be fair, though, Walters is talking about a Buddha, just not the Buddha that is presented by those engaged in studying Buddhist texts to try to find the oldest and the most authentic layer of Buddhavacana and testimony to a coherent historical ascetic Gotama who presented a single distinct teaching.

Walters does seem to give a pretty standard account/survey of some dominant tropes (misconceptions :sweat_smile:?) that (unfortunately) do permeate a lot of Buddhist scholarship of the past (and the present), as well as that inform the behaviours and views (and para-historical justifications for those behaviours and views) of many in traditionally Buddhist societies, such as those in the Thai state-saṅgha who opposite women’s ordination.

Whether these narratives are true or not, historically, the text might be useful as an account of this line of argumentation as it exists presently and historically, which is informative in-and-of-itself if contextualized with research that challenges the dominance and hegemony of those narratives.

All in all it might be a worthwhile read, if only to see what is being challenged by EBT scholarship.

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Indeed. It is important to understand why we are in the situation we are. This helps us to move forward, while simultaneously being able to forgive and even appreciate those we disagree with.

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I am happy to give an alternative view.

The bhikkhus life is pictured as one of living in forests & wandering, often alone. The suttas report bhikkhus were murdered, particularly in their missionary wanderings.

Also, the Vinaya shows the Buddha appeared very concerned about the public perception of his Sangha. If bhikkhunis (women) wandered alone & were raped or murdered, this would look bad.

Men & women are rarely equals in society (apart from as employees for corporations). Women who are beautiful or bear children, for example, are often extended many courtesies or chivalry. Where as men who go to war are deemed as expendable assets.

Thus, when a bhikkhu (man) was murdered in his missionary efforts, this is perceived a heroic selfless martyrdom, similar to a soldier dying heroically in war.

Where as a bhikkhuni (woman) raped or murdered is generally regarded as unacceptable. Her family & society would probably censure, blame & condemn the Sangha.

Therefore, I would assume or guess when women joined the order, they had to be protected, which was an inconvenience to the monks.

While the Buddha & the monks had compassion (karuna) & sacrifice (caga) in allowing women to join their male order established by males who lived the homeless life, obviously this diminished the purity & essence of the homeless life, given I assume monasteries had to be established to safely house & protect the women.

Why didn’t the women simply start their own order following their own female Buddha?

I think a warranted sense of gratitude would resolve the common vexations around this issue.

:seedling:

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So are you arguing that men and women do not have equal value? Or are you just arguing that because of the chronically daunting problem of male violence, the Buddha faced difficult practical challenges in setting up a female sangha?

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I believe that gender studies have developed a wide variety of tools that can go beyond just the question “Was the Buddha/Buddhism for or against women” and I would like to see more of those subtle approaches.

I know Bhikkhuni Dhammadinna wrote about some topics, and she’s a very good scholar (https://dila.academia.edu/Dhammadinna)

Further there is a recent volume by Alice Collett "Women in Early Indian Buddhism: Comparative Textual Studies"
Also her article from 2009 “Historio-Critical Hermeneutics in the Study of Women in Early Indian Buddhism”

and also to mention Brian Black’s Chapter “Brahmins and women: Subjectivity and gender construction” in his exceptional book “The Character of the Self in Ancient India Priest, Kings, and Women in the Early Upanisads”

Has anyone read these and can give an impression or can recommend further modern gender studies about early Buddhism?

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They might end up having equal value after weighing up their different values in different areas.

For example, a male model won’t have equal value to a female model in respect to modelling & selling bikinis. In other words, I trust some things or qualities men do better & others women do better.

The Buddha did not intend to set up a female sangha therefore this is not so relevant. Instead, the Buddha foresaw women would want to join his Sangha because the women would tantrically be bedazzled by his supreme virtue.

That said, I think instead of the departure into the reality of male violence (which is an unwholesome dhamma nature creates in men also for the protection of women & children), as previously inferred, the primary question is why do women want to join the male Sanhga?

Why not have women educate girls in spiritual self-reliance? Why join the monks?

:rabbit2:

Wait, wait, let me get some popcorn!

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Well, there are 73 verses in the Therigatha, and from those verses it would appear that the main reason women went forth is that they could no longer bear the sufferings of worldly life, and sought refuge and freedom in the path.

They shouldn’t have to join the monks. They should be able to join their own communities of sisters, if that’s their preference. But the Buddha repeatedly emphasized the importance of spiritual friendship, at one point calling it “the whole of the holy life.” If women are denied the opportunity for refuge in a community of spiritual friends, they are denied the basic prerequisites for spiritual liberation.

Hopefully everyone receives some spiritual education. But education in the world mainly has more practical aims, including cultivating the ability to earn a living and to understand the society in which one lives, so one can act with practical wisdom. When whole classes of people - whether they are an ethnic group, a subaltern class of laborers, or a gender - are offered only inferior forms of education by their society, the purpose is to keep them subjugated under others who wield more social power. That subjugation becomes even more oppressive when even opportunities for spiritual liberation are reserved for the masters and denied to the subjugated.

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Downloaded. Gracias!

Awesomely insightful. and illuminating. Thanks!

Wow…I have not heard of these writings but I am very grateful for the links. Thank you.

[quote=“Deeele, post:10, topic:5641”]
Why didn’t the women simply start their own order following their own female Buddha?
[/quote]Because those are so easy to find?

I don’t know about you, but my house is lousy with Anuttarāsamyaksaṃbuddhas, male, female, and genderqueer.

Just yesterday I was taking out my garbage and one hissed at me.

Why indeed didn’t these women just find a Buddha of their own gender? I wonder.

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