Religious Conservatism

The discussion at Democracy or immobilism in the Sangha based on EBT? had veered a long way from its original purpose. Now that the thread is closed, I thought it might be advisable to continue the discussion somewhere else, in other words, here.


Chasing an ideal of consensus should not hinder us from changing our behaviour when it is demonstrably causing harm right now.

This is a nice sentiment, but it is not always clear how you would do this in practice.


I did say in my post that “The Church should be free to conduct its affairs as it sees fit, so long as they do not violate the rights of other citizens.”

OK, fair enough.

From a conservative/traditionalist perspective, which I share, this is a sensible position to take as it includes women as much as possible whilst strictly adhering to a conservative view of the Vinaya.

We need to be clear about what we mean by “a conservative/traditionalist perspective”. For some monasteries it means following the tradition as it has been handed down by their teachers. For others it is about trying to get as close to the intentions of the Buddha as possible. The Ajahn Chah monasteries in the UK - where, incidentally, I have lived - are closer to the former, whereas monasteries such as Bodhinyana are closer to the latter.

We have just had a discussion about how the suttas state that it is impossible for a woman to become a Buddha

Arguably, the suttas do not state this.


My definition of a conservative/traditonalist Theravadin would be someone who accepts the following sources of authority, in this order:

  1. Sutta: “the well-said” = the three baskets of the Tipiṭaka.
  2. Suttānuloma: “the according with the well-said” = a direct inference from the Tipiṭaka.
  3. Atthakathā: “treatise on the meaning” = an ancient commentary.
  4. Attanomati: “personal opinion” = the expositions and views of later generations of teachers.

Someone who rejects the Abdhidhamma and/or the commentaries would not be a conservative/traditionalist Theravadin. I actually think it would make them some kind of quasi neo-sautrāntika of sorts, possibly. To someone like me the Abdhidhamma and the commentaries are the best way to get to the intentions of the Buddha.

Arguably, the suttas do not state this.

According to MN 115 Bhante it is an impossible thing.

1 Like

Right. The problem is that item 4 too often trumps item 1. To be able to follow this hierarchy, you need to know your textual sources. Such knowledge is in rare supply.

Yes, but the Early Buddhist Texts are more than the Pali tradition.


Right. The problem is that item 4 too often trumps item 1.

I agree Bhante.

To be able to follow this hierarchy, you need to know your textual sources. Such knowledge is in rare supply.

You do indeed and to someone who follows the orthodox line there is somewhat of a hindrance if they don’t know pali since most of the commentaries have not been translated yet. Still, until they are we have some commentarial texts translated (although very few) and the Visuddhimagga as a guide, as well as being able to ask monks online regarding the commentarial position on any given matter.

Yes, but the Early Buddhist Texts are more than the Pali tradition.

I’m aware that the parallel Sarvastivadin Agama does not include a female Buddha among the impossible things. We do not know if that is textual loss on their side or textual addition on the Theravadin side. In his notes Ven. Analayo states this:

  1. The impossibility for a woman to be a Buddha is also mentioned in T 60 at T I 858a2 and T 397 at T
    XIII 14c14.

I would suggest reading this.


Thank you Bhante. Some thoughts of my own:

When evaluating the implications of these impossibilities, it needs to be kept in mind that in a patriarchal society like ancient India the idea of a female wheel-turning king would have been unthinkable. Similarly, it would have been out of the question for ancient Indians to conceive that a female Sakka, a female heavenly king, or a female Brahmā could be reigning in their respective heavenly worlds.47 The same reasoning would also apply to Māra, who according to the Pāli commentarial tradition occupied a position similar to a king or a prince in the highest heaven of the sense-sphere realm. The point behind the above mentioned impossibilities is that a woman cannot fulfill these functions in the present. Though she could become any of these in the future, as long as she is a female she cannot perform the function of any of these rulers since to assume these leadership positions would, from the perspective of ancient Indian patriarchal society, require being a male.

If we are take the sutta in question as being buddhavacana then the gender norms of ancient india are irrelevant. If we take the sutta to not be the word of the Buddha but of later monks, then the gender norms of ancient india are important if you think those monks had not achieved any level of awakening. Ven. Analaylo’s argument here invites us to take a secular academic look at the sutta instead of a faithful Buddhist one. The Buddha stated that it was impossible for a woman to become a Buddha, not that it was impossible within that time and culture. If we accept that he had knowledge of past lives then his statement of impossibility applies to any time and culture. However, even if we accept that the culture is the problem all it could mean is that Buddhas only come to be in societies which are also incidentally patriarchal thus still making a female Buddha impossible. That is another possibility.

In view of this evident tendency to devalue the abilities of women, it is quite significant that the Madhyama-āgama version does not mention any of the inabilities of women. An accidental loss of such a passage seems less probable in view of the recurrent tendency towards gradual expansion that appears to be at work in regard to other topics in all versions. A deliberate deletion of such a treatment is similarly improbable, since the five inabilities of a woman are listed in another Madhyamaāgama discourse

It is possible it is an expansion, yes. Even if we accept that additions have occurred in the sutta that does not mean that this passage is an expansion, and even if it were the result of an expansion that still does not mean that it is not buddhavacana. In his notes Ven. Analaylo states:

57 MĀ 116 at T I 607b10: “a woman cannot attain five objectives. That a woman should become a Tathāgata, free from attachment, rightly awakened; a wheel-turning king; Sakka, ruler of gods; King Māra; or Great Brahmā, that is impossible,” 女人不得行五事, 若女人作如來, 無所著, 等正覺, 及轉輪王, 天帝釋, 魔王, 大梵天者, 終無是處. A statement of the same type can also be found in the in many respects closely parallel account in T 61 at T I 858a1: “it is impossible and cannot come to be, a woman cannot at all attain five objectives: she cannot become a Tathāgata, free from attachment, rightly awakened; or a wheel-turning king; she cannot become Sakka; she cannot become Māra; and she cannot become Brahmā, [all] that is impossible,” 無有是處不可容女人, 終不得五事, 不得成如來無所著等正覺, 及轉輪王, 不得為釋, 不得為 魔, 不得為梵, 無有是處.

So the idea/statement that women cannot become Buddhas was accepted as being the word of the Buddha by the Sangha at the time, but the passage was edited into different suttas by different schools. That editing does not mean it did not come from the Buddha. It does not mean it came from patriarchal misogynistic monks. Personally I don’t think the Sangha at the time was devoid of so many Arahants to allow such tainted biases to be brought in. It is still entirely possible that it came from the Blessed One. Of course, if someone thinks the sangha was devoid of Arahants and was simply run by misogynistic and biased men then it becomes easier to dismiss the passage in question, not that I think that is Ven. Analaylo’s position. In short I see no reason to reject this passage/teaching as not being buddhavacana, even if we accept the idea of expansive editing.

It would be interesting to read the commentary on this particular passage.

Sure. My point being, merely invoking procedure is not an adequate reponse.


Thank you Ajahn @brahmali for steering this discussion so skillfully.

It is great to approach these things from the perspective of teaching/learning about EBTs.

Arguing about views diminishes us all (me included) :pray:t2:


This passage occurs at the end of T60 not T61. It’s a later translation of MA 116, so T60 just proves that the passage wasn’t removed in the century that passed between them. It’s interesting that this statement about women is tacked onto the very end of the sutra about Gautami, and it doesn’t occur in the Pali.

T397 is the Mahāsaṃnipata-sūtra, a large collection of Mahayana texts, so I’m not sure what relevance it has on a discussion of EBTs. The interesting thing, though, is that this passage parallels MN 115 fairly closely. Hmm. Mahayana influences on the Theravada canon? It’s as likely as the reverse as far as anyone knows.


T60, the Gotamīsūtra, is some advice that the Buddha gives his mother, and he supposedly says that a woman cannot be a tathāgata, a samyaksaṁbuddha, a wheel-turning monarch, a Śakra, a Māra, or a Brahmā, but it was also translated during the Song dynasty (960–1279). It’s hardly a contender for the earlier redaction of this material, especially considering the brevity of the Pāli Saṅkhittasutta AN8.53 it is parallel with. IMO T60 has had an expansion. T397 is actually a Mahāyāna sūtra in the general Ratnakūṭa tradition, albeit an older one that has a lot of peculiar features. It’s interesting that Ven Anālayo cited this. He must think it has some early material saved in it.

Shoot. I didn’t see that you had already responded. Well, now two people have said it.


Apparently there are more parallels, namely in the Dharmaguptaka vinaya T1428 (this is the one to look at IMO to see if the Theravādins were adding anything, as they are related schools) and T1421, the Mahīśāsaka vinaya. Has Ven Anālayo looked at these? I don’t have his paper in front of me.

I don’t know how to cite Pāli vinaya, but here is the passage in the Theravāda vinaya:

Atha kho mahāpajāpati gotamī yena bhagavā tenupasaṅkami, upasaṅkamitvā bhagavantaṃ abhivādetvā ekamantaṃ aṭṭhāsi. Ekamantaṃ ṭhitā kho mahāpajāpati gotamī bhagavantaṃ etadavoca—“sādhu me, bhante, bhagavā saṃkhittena dhammaṃ desetu, yamahaṃ bhagavato dhammaṃ sutvā ekā vūpakaṭṭhā appamattā ātāpinī pahitattā vihareyyan”ti. “Ye kho tvaṃ, gotami, dhamme jāneyyāsi—ime dhammā sarāgāya saṃvattanti no virāgāya, saññogāya saṃvattanti no visaññogāya, ācayāya saṃvattanti no apacayāya, mahicchatāya saṃvattanti no appicchatāya, asantuṭṭhiyā saṃvattanti no santuṭṭhiyā, saṅgaṇikāya saṃvattanti no pavivekāya, kosajjāya saṃvattanti no vīriyārambhāya, dubbharatāya saṃvattanti no subharatāya; ekaṃsena, gotami, dhāreyyāsi—neso dhammo, neso vinayo, netaṃ satthusāsananti. Ye ca kho tvaṃ, gotami, dhamme jāneyyāsi—ime dhammā virāgāya saṃvattanti no sarāgāya, visaññogāya saṃvattanti no saññogāya, apacayāya saṃvattanti no ācayāya, appicchatāya saṃvattanti no mahicchatāya, santuṭṭhiyā saṃvattanti no asantuṭṭhiyā, pavivekāya saṃvattanti no saṅgaṇikāya, vīriyārambhāya saṃvattanti no kosajjāya, subharatāya saṃvattanti no dubbharatāya; ekaṃsena, gotami, dhāreyyāsi—eso dhammo, eso vinayo, etaṃ satthusāsanan”ti.

It seems like the five women’s limitations aren’t there, but my Pāli is terrible. If the Dharmaguptaka vinaya recension had it there, I would be very surprised, but navigating the vinayas that are in Chinese is insane, and I may well never find the passages.


Yeah, even if you’re familiar with how Vinayas are put together, it’s a major effort to gather all the parallels.

I was curious last night after I posted and searched for “women” in the Chinese Abhidharma division. The same type of passage that’s in MN 115 can be found in the Abhidharma as well, so that was probably the intermediary between Agama/Nikayas and Mahayana texts. I also found one passage that actually attempted to explain why women can’t become Buddhas, etc. Well, it’s pretty simple to the author: They are weaker in virtue and less intelligent than men. Therefore, they aren’t able to create the virtues required to be reborn as wheel-turning kings, etc. So much for misogyny not playing a role in this particular idea.

Here’s the passage. It’s in T1538 the Prajñapti-śāstra, which is considered by scholars to be one of the six basic Sarvâstivāda Abhidharma texts, though the extant translations are quite late (Tibetan 9th c. CE, Chinese 11th c. CE).

[0521a11] 又問:何因女人不作轉輪聖王、不成帝釋、不成梵王、不成魔王、不證緣覺菩提、不證無上正等菩提?**答:謂諸女人善力劣弱,男子勝善樂欲根力之所建立,以其極生善欲心故。女無勢力,皆是男子善業因作。又復女人無其利根,唯彼男子善力成故。**又彼男子善力增極,乃能獲得利根勝業。以如是因故,女人不作轉輪聖王、不成帝釋、不成梵王、不成魔王、不證緣覺菩提、不證無上正等菩提。


Interesting how both Madhyamaka and early Mahayana give themselves the job of righting errors of the Ābhidharmikas while also generating their own errors as schools/broad traditions.

The prajñāpāramitā tradition will destroy scholasticism, but then becomes its own scholasticism. It’s like it’s inescapable.


Here is Bhante Sujato’s translation of this passage (found at AN 8.53):

At one time the Buddha was staying near Vesālī, at the Great Wood, in the hall with the peaked roof. Then Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī went up to the Buddha, bowed, stood to one side, and said to him:

“Sir, may the Buddha please teach me Dhamma in brief. When I’ve heard it, I’ll live alone, withdrawn, diligent, keen, and resolute.”

“Gotamī, you might know that certain things lead to passion, not dispassion; to being fettered, not to being unfettered; to accumulation, not dispersal; to more desires, not fewer; to lack of contentment, not contentment; to crowding, not seclusion; to laziness, not energy; to being hard to look after, not being easy to look after. You should definitely bear in mind that these things are not the teaching, not the training, and not the Teacher’s instructions.

You might know that certain things lead to dispassion, not passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to dispersal, not accumulation; to fewer desires, not more; to contentment, not lack of contentment; to seclusion, not crowding; to energy, not laziness; to being easy to look after, not being hard to look after. You should definitely bear in mind that these things are the teaching, the training, and the Teacher’s instructions.”


Women are of lesser virtue and of lesser intelligence.

Lets make this real – the Buddha dealt with reality… actually seeing things as they are. He wasn’t interested in theoretical constructs and hypothetical conjecturing, but in the reality of how the world works, what causes suffering, what leads to the end of suffering.

In this case, lets make it real, and follow the Buddhas own instructions of how to investigate skillfully. I have a womans body. You have all seen me in action on the forum for a long time now – so you have some little familiarity with my behaviour. So am I of lesser virtue than all men? Am I of lesser intelligence than all men? Obviously not. I have more virtue than some men, and less than some others. I have more intelligence than some men, and less than others. By the same token I have less virtue and intelligence than some women and more than others… One sees everyday and all around, that intelligence and virtue are not determined by sex. I think it might have been Plato who said that there is less difference between the ‘average’ man and the ‘average’ woman, than there is between the spectrum of all men and the spectrum of all women. One does not need to have the special knowledges of the Buddha to be able to see this. It is the way things are. What stops people seeing it as it truly is, are the defilements…

And this is the practice, for all people (male and female) regarding all conditioned views, including gendered self view, to dissolve the defilements that impair clear seeing…

Fact: Gendered self view leads to suffering… It is a huge, deeply conditioned obstacle that still remains in place in our world… May all beings penetrate the teachings of the Tatagatha and move beyond this.

To this end, and as a pointer of how to approach this, MN2 - 7 ways to get rid of the Taints/Defilements/Contaminants.

This is how I understand things at this time. If any of it is out of line with the teachings of the Buddha I would be grateful to be shown the error of my comprehension.


From this Sutta it is very clear who’s position it is to say that women are less intelligent than men—Māra’s position!

SN5.2:0.1: Linked Discourses 5
SN5.2:0.2: 1. Nuns
SN5.2:0.3: 2. With Somā
SN5.2:1.1: At Sāvatthī.
SN5.2:1.2: Then the nun Somā robed up in the morning and, taking her bowl and robe, entered Sāvatthī for alms.
SN5.2:1.3: She wandered for alms in Sāvatthī. After the meal, on her return from alms-round, she went to the Dark Forest,
SN5.2:1.4: plunged deep into it, and sat at the root of a tree for the day’s meditation.
SN5.2:1.5: Then Māra the Wicked, wanting to make the nun Somā feel fear, terror, and goosebumps, wanting to make her fall away from immersion, went up to her and addressed her in verse:
SN5.2:2.1: “That state’s very challenging;
SN5.2:2.2: it’s for the sages to attain.
SN5.2:2.3: It’s not possible for a woman,
SN5.2:2.4: with her two-fingered wisdom.”
SN5.2:3.1: Then the nun Somā thought,
SN5.2:3.2: “Who’s speaking this verse, a human or a non-human?”
SN5.2:3.3: Then she thought,
SN5.2:3.4: “This is Māra the Wicked, wanting to make me feel fear, terror, and goosebumps, wanting to make me fall away from immersion!”
SN5.2:3.5: Then Somā, knowing that this was Māra the Wicked, replied to him in verse:
SN5.2:4.1: “What difference does womanhood make
SN5.2:4.2: when the mind is serene,
SN5.2:4.3: and knowledge is present
SN5.2:4.4: as you rightly discern the Dhamma.
SN5.2:5.1: Surely someone who might think:
SN5.2:5.2: ‘I am woman’, or ‘I am man’,
SN5.2:5.3: or ‘I am’ anything at all,
SN5.2:5.4: is fit for Māra to address.”
SN5.2:6.1: Then Māra the Wicked, thinking, “The nun Somā knows me!” miserable and sad, vanished right there.


Religious conservatism can be a skillful approach to the teachings. To protect the text from change goes against the grain of annihilating whatever we deem inaccurate or inconvenient. Not conflating it religious conservatism with “literalism” can help us not to cling and approach the teachings with an open mind.


With greatest respect Bhante, I don’t think it is fair enough. The problem that I see is that children are involved in religions. There is an immense amount of harm that can be done to children who are brought up in a religious settings that encourages either misogyny (stand at the back of the queue; you can’t be ordained) or homophobia (you are a sinner; you can’t get married here). Does that violate the rights of the child? That has yet to be seen. In the UK, child rights were only introduced in 1992 I believe. But the more important question is - is it harmful to children? As @Ulriquinho showed - Yes it is.

What seems to be being suggested is that it is ok to harm a child as long as you are doing it for religious reasons and it doesn’t violate their rights. That somehow the right to religious freedom trumps the harm caused to children by exerting that religious freedom. This can’t be fair enough, can it? Shouldn’t harmlessness be our guiding light here, rather than religious freedom?


Parents have the human right to raise their child as they see fit as long as they don’t abuse or neglect the child. If we ran our society according to what is harmful (who gets to decide?) we would end up in a near totalitarian state. We may not like it but the Church does teach that homosexuality is a sin. It’s not for the state to decide what is and isn’t correct religion, unless the religion directly violates the rights of another.

There are plenty of people who would readily claim that Buddhism causes harm, or that any form of religion causes harm. Usually they are communists. What about alcohol? Should we ban that? Or drugs because of animal testing? Electricity because of pollution? If your political aim is solely harm reduction then we would end up living in a dictatorial anarcho-primitive society. That doesn’t sound appealing.

It also mentioned in Netti.

But my opinion is this.

If we all where a woman in the past once according let’s say there must be another reason maybe that tradition. It could be for the benefit and compassion that imagine how man is. Imagine a beautiful woman Buddha. As a trainee a man might not concentrate on the teaching. While woman as nuns learning from Buddha man that might happen also but I think it’s the nature of woman to see other qualities in a teacher like Buddha, while man would had have a difficult time learning from a Buddha beautiful goddess.

As seen woman in EBT’S example of attraction to monks beauty we have only of the girl attracted to Ven. Ananda.