Right speech and gender

I am interested to know if right speech is gendered in Theravada/Early Buddhism.

By way of example, I recall a not so distant post by a senior monk (whom I respect) stating that to avoid a schism in the Sangha the nuns Bhikkhuni ordination could be ‘modified’. Whilst I can understand this monks concerns I wonder if the nuns potentially affected by this were consulted. I wonder why those nuns did not post on Sutta central to argue their own perspective. I wonder if right speech for women in Theravada really means maintaining silence in the face of patriarchal norms.

Another example was Gombrich’s (whom I respect) characterisation of Christian women. Whilst he commended their ‘cheerfulness’ his discussion is hardly respectful.
'These women who are working all day long in very boring routine tasks, helping people go to the toilet and cooking them boring meals and so on, yet always manage to be cheerful and kind and so on. There is definitely a type in Christian society. These are working class or lower middle class women. And they are people who don’t ever think,How did I ever get into this mess.” That doesn’t cross their minds. They just think, “This is what I’ve got to do; I’ve got to make granny comfortable now, I’ve got to look after the baby, I’ve got to do this,” and they derive satisfaction from doing their job properly.

I find this summary stunning in its ignorance as well as disrespectful of women’s work and women’s intelligence. I would not call it right speech but it does support my assertion that right speech is gendered in Theravadan and Early Buddhism.


Hi Fiona,

I don’t remember what post you are refering to here, so my comment is not aimed at any specific situation or any particular poster.

There are vinaya rules that restrict what nuns can say to monks. However, they are usually considered somewhat late, so not everyone follows them, and they would not normally restrict public exchanges on internet forums.

We have had plenty of debates about nuns’ vinaya on SC, and usually the discussion turned ugly quite fast. There’s no reason why bhikkhunīs should have to engage in these debates over and over again, whenever somebody posts a comment that questions their right to exist somewhere again. The internet is not a good place to resolve conflicts, and it is not a safe space for women to share their perspective. Even though SC is moderated, we still get personally attacked, and any meaningful discussion is derailed.

It is not important for bhikkhunī ordination that every single person on the planet agrees with us. If someone wants to ordain, all she needs are five sympathetic bhikkhunīs and five sympathetic bhikkhus to carry out a valid ordination. After that, she is a bhikkhunī, no matter what someone posts on an internet forum. There are thousands of bhikkhunīs now…

So the issue is not that “women have to maintain silence” because of some dhamma principle. We choose to walk away from unfruitful debates and spend our time in more useful ways.


Hi Vimalanyani,

Yes, and that is wonderful!


Wonderful indeed. :smiley: :pray:


The criticism of patriarchal attitudes that you voice seem clear to me, but I’m unclear quite what you are asking?

Early Buddhism finished many hundreds of years ago but you use the present tense ‘is’. Are you asking about the Buddha’s teachings, the development of traditions in different countries, or different situations at the current time?

You’ve cited Gombrich’s characterisation of Christian women, with either you or him giving this a classist bias, but not displayed anybody’s characterisation of Buddhist women.

I suspect that there are as many ways of responding to difficult patriarchal situations as there are individual Buddhist women in contact with patriarchal norms.

Our forum guidelines on right speech include these lovely words from the Buddha

I will speak at a right time, not at a wrong time; I will speak about what is true, not about what is not true; I will speak with gentleness, not with harshness; I will speak about what is meaningful, not about what is not meaningful; I will speak with a mind of loving-kindness, not with inner hatred.
(MN 21 & Kd 19.5.2)

Personally, I have walked away from difficult confrontations with the Patriarchy in a modern, western Theravadan context, rather than risk provoking harsh speech or disagreements. My western upbringing made me subsequently question my apparent passivity in these situations. This nifty little diagram that someone posted elsewhere in the forum, suggests that I may have acted the best way I could in the circumstances, as it wouldn’t have been the right time for me to be heard with understanding.


(I apologise that I forget who shared this originally.)


This is what the Buddha said about right speech:

MN117:18.1: And what is right speech? Right speech is twofold, I say. There is right speech that is accompanied by defilements, has the attributes of good deeds, and ripens in attachment. And there is right speech that is noble, undefiled, transcendent, a factor of the path.

And what is right speech that is accompanied by defilements, has the attributes of good deeds, and ripens in attachment? The refraining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and talking nonsense. This is right speech that is accompanied by defilements.

And what is right speech that is noble, undefiled, transcendent, a factor of the path? It’s the desisting, abstaining, abstinence, and refraining from the four kinds of bad verbal conduct in one of noble mind and undefiled mind, who possesses the noble path and develops the noble path. This is right speech that is noble.

I see no gender there. But I do see a warning about divisive speech.


Mundane right speech:

“And what is the right speech with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions? Abstaining from lying, from divisive tale-bearing, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter. This is the right speech with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions.”—MN 117

To point out for illustration of the difference between the two right views, that the OP case would be one of mundane right view as it applies to worldly situations where acquisition (ordination) is at stake. For monastics as for everyone else, their lives are composed of both mundane and transcendent goals which need to be separated for clarity.

"Again, Ānanda, [a monk] sees two elements and knows them according to reality, [namely]:
• the conditioned element;
• the unconditioned element. "—MN 115

The unconditioned element can be classed as the practice in general, where there is aspiration or achievement of turning the mind toward the unconditioned element.

The four kinds of bad verbal conduct mentioned in the definition of transcendent right speech are the same four explicitly listed under the definition of mundane right speech.


Thanks Ayya

I am very sorry to hear that your right to exist continues to be questioned. Perhaps you illustrated the problem more eloquently than I. I understand now.


Sadhu Gillian

’ I may have acted the best way I could in the circumstances, as it wouldn’t have been the right time for me to be heard with understanding.’

I suspect it never will be and so silence is best.

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‘I see no gender there. But I do see a warning about divisive speech.’

The commentary of Ayya Vimalanyani and Gillian suggest the lived experience of women is otherwise. So silence is the best option for women.

I tend to feel more optimistic.
All situations are different from each other and subject to change in different ways.
So I have hope that understanding and compassion will increase.
And that it will become possible to speak in some situations.


Thanks, I will be optimistic with you :slightly_smiling_face:


I don’t think that we should be “retiring.” I think we should be actively on the lookout for situations where we might speak and skilfully considering exactly when and how speaking can helpfully suggest, support, propose change that moves communities towards equality. :slight_smile:

It’s a tough situation and demands lots of carefully considered judgements so that we can contribute to fruitful debates, and at the right times we can do as Ayya says,

At the risk of putting you on the spot (not intended) can you give an example of this? Could we turn this into a theme to celebrate women’s right speech in trying circumstances? My approach is a bit shouty :grimacing:. With metta.

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That interpretation would make me quite sad. My interpretation is that speaking harshly and divisively against bhikkhuni ordination is divisive. I personally am horrified by such speech. Asking to be ordained is not divisive, it is a simple request, such as, “May I have some water, please?” Ordaining is inclusive. Of course you may have some water to share.


With much metta, if an old white guy who is a newbie to the Theravada tradition and to EBT may offer this, I have learned a great deal reading this thread. On another thread, I learned from your comments on how your raising these issues was met, @anon38492442. There are people like me, listening and learning, but who might not always be apparent. I hope you will continue to skillfully speak out. :heart:


How does someone who disagrees with Bhikkhunī ordination then express themselves without being divisive? By its nature it’s a divisive issue isn’t it? Aren’t those who take an alternative view allowed to voice their opinion? For example, if I say I disagree with Bhikkhunī ordination from a Vinaya legalistic point of view should I be allowed to voice that opinion despite it being potentially “divisive”?


There is inclusive discourse, as in “we may have a difference of understanding here…please let us share and discuss”.
There is divisive discourse, as in “you are wrong because X,Y,Z…”

In all of this there is the gentle insistent backdrop of the Buddha’s own words:

MN8:12.45: ‘Others will be attached to their own views, holding them tight, and refusing to let go, but here we will not be attached to our own views, not holding them tight, but will let them go easily.’

A view of the Vinaya is still a view.



It’s an extremely sensitive issue that can easily become heated. I read your initial post as suggesting that those who oppose Bikkhuni ordination are being divisive simply by having that view. It seems I misread you. I agree that there are wholesome and unwholesome ways of discussing this issue and others.


I apologize for my terseness. It is a constant problem for me.

As a lay person not ordained, I would simply naturally choose to ordain in a tradition that was inclusive. Having personally experienced exclusion by so many groups, I simply have no use for exclusion. Exclusion does not allow my heart to grow as the four immeasurables require.