“Separate but Equal”, the ideal doctrine for Monastics?

Our spiritual practice cannot not be seen as separate from the world we live in and the world we live in today in the West is vastly different from that of India at the time of the Buddha. The Vinaya, the monastic rules, or more precisely, the guidelines for our practice, is however flexible enough to accommodate for changes and we see in countless examples that the Buddha relaxed rules in certain circumstances or laid down new rules in reaction to new developments.

However, since the Vinaya has become canonized at some point after the Buddha’s lifetime, it has been frozen and no changes have been made to it since. Then how are we to practice in this world that is so different? How do we fit into a 2500 year old system that has seen many socio-cultural changes over time? How many changes have actually been made to the texts after the Buddha’s passing away and why? How do we relate to other people and to our teachings in a meaningful way to support each other in our practice? And how do we deal with aspects of this system that clash with social values? These are question that many monastics struggle with and although I cannot be complete here, I just want to lift out one aspect that I think is of vital importance for the growth of Buddhism in the West.

“Separate but Equal”, it sounds like the most ideal situation for monastics nowadays and no doubt what many monastics strive for. Monks and nuns living in separate monasteries, each having their place but completely equal.

But is it realistic or is this concept too idealistic? Maybe we should have a look at history, what this concept of “separate but equal” really is and what lessons can we draw from how it has affected the lives of people in the past.

United States

In the United States, “separate but equal” was a legal doctrine in US constitutional law according to which racial segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1868, which guaranteed “equal protection” under the law to all citizens. Under the doctrine, as long as the facilities provided to each race were equal, state and local governments could require that services, facilities, public accommodations, housing, medical care, education, employment, and transportation be segregated by race.

The “separate-but-equal” doctrine was first espoused in Plessy v. Ferguson, the famous 1896 case upholding a Louisiana statute forcing white and non-white passengers to ride in separate railway cars.

The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education expressly overruled Plessy’s holding in the education context. This celebrated case held that separate schools for children of different races were functionally unequal because such separation created a “feeling of inferiority.1

South Africa

The doctrine of “separate but equal” has also been developed in South Africa in the 1950s. Since he came to power in 1954, Prime Minister Strijdom has attempted to impose a policy of “separate but equal”, also termed “apartheid” (which literally means “segregation”). An article by Robert Neuman from 1957 is an attack on Strijdom’s policies to show that there is a lot of “separate” and not much “equal” in this doctrine. 2

Both cases have shown that in the context of race, the doctrine of “separate but equal” in itself actually creates inequality, and most notably, has shown to create feelings of inferiority in the group that is seen as less desirable.

But what is actually the problem with this concept? The problem is that such a concept is always imposed on one group by another, who feel themselves to be superior but who also have a great need to protect themselves from influences that they fear. This goes back to a very deep-rooted fear of the “evil other”, a fear and distrust of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange and a threat to our survival or that of our clan.

Various famous experiments, like “A Class Divided” by Jane Elliott and the “Stanford Prison Experiment” have shown that there is too much risk of abuse; there is too much danger that “badges” of inferiority will develop, regardless of which group bears the brunt of the blow.

As soon as two groups are divided, one will be seen as superior to the other. Comparing ourselves to others is a basic function of our mind and it creates conceit. As soon as we think that we are superior or inferior in relation to another or even the same, we are conceited. How the mind actually evaluates which is superior and which is inferior has it’s roots in our conditioning, which has created these false perceptions.

As we have seen from these two countries, “separate but equal” is not at all equal and even after it’s official abolishment, the conditioning is so deep that the groups and the associations with them keep persisting.

The question is, then, whether this separate-but-equal doctrine, abolished in the context of race, is permissible in the context of gender.

While in the United States racial segregation is now explicitly forbidden, this is not so in the case of gender. Gender-separated schools can still exist and this has sparked much debate in recent years. Much of the current debate surrounding single-gender education has rested upon the differences between the genders themselves. This seems to place this question within the larger framework … the question of how men and women are equal, and how they could be so unequal as to justify a difference in political intrusions and civil rights.1

United Kingdom

An interesting case happened a few months ago in the United Kingdom that might set a precedent for cases to come. 3

In HM Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills v Al-Hijrah School, the UK Court of Appeal has concluded that sex segregation in education is discriminatory. Al-Hijrah school is a voluntary aided co-educational Islamic faith school in Birmingham which teaches children aged 4 to 16. From the age of 9, boys and girls are separated on arrival and are taught and go about their school lives entirely separately; eating, undertaking sporting and other school activities and even walking along the corridors separately, with no opportunities to mix or socialise with each other. Sex segregation in mixed schools is highly unusual but not unprecedented: approximately 25 such schools exist in the UK (all faith schools, but Jewish and Christian as well as Islamic). Last year, Ofsted concluded that the gender segregation at Al-Hijrah School was discriminatory even though both sexes had almost identical access to the full curriculum. The High Court supported the school’s right (in accordance with parental wishes) to segregate its pupils. However, … the Court of Appeal decided that the school was in breach of the Equality Act 2010 by reason of direct sex discrimination.

The Court’s conclusion was based on a deceptively simple argument: a girl pupil who wishes to mix or socialise with a boy pupil is precluded from doing so because of her sex, a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010; if she did not have that characteristic, and was a boy, she would be able to mix or socialise with all the other boys. Equally, if a boy pupil wishes to mix or socialise with a girl pupil, he is also precluded from doing so because of his sex. Because both groups (that is, boys and girls) suffer the same detriment in their education, the High Court concluded that there is no unequal treatment as between the sexes and, thus, no sex discrimination. However, all three judges in the Court of Appeal concluded that this restriction on the freedom of girl and boy pupils to mix or socialise with pupils of the opposite sex is detrimental to their education and such a detriment is – in the case of each individual boy and girl – “because of sex”, constituting unlawful direct sex discrimination in the provision of education (contrary to sections 13 and 85 (2)(a), (b), (d) and (f) of the Equality Act). The Court, therefore, builds on the Supreme Court’s judgment in Coll v Secretary of State for Justice (in May 2017), in which it was acknowledged that separate but equal treatment can nevertheless be discriminatory.

Now there are various very interesting parallels to be drawn from this:

  1. Firstly, it is surprising that the article mentions that all schools where this type of segregation happens are faith schools, either Jewish, Christian or Islamic and therefore implies that the segregation has it’s roots in religious beliefs. In our Monastic order, the segregation obviously also has its roots in the religious doctrine and I will come back to this point later.
  2. Secondly, it is explicitly stated that if a girl wishes to mix or socialise with a boy or vica versa and is precluded from doing so because of her/his sex, this is discrimination, regardless of the equal treatment of either group. This is exactly the same in the Buddhist monastic order. Basically this article is saying that at least in the United Kingdom, certain Buddhist monastic institutions are in breach of the law.

But there is a catch because single-sex segregated schools still exist in the UK and are deemed legal. This verdict was only on the basis that both sexes are present within the same institution.

Whereas in the case of race we could rightfully argue that “separate but equal” was only in name but in practice there were no equal facilities and opportities, this argument no longer seems to hold in this case.

Only the dissenting judge, however, concluded that gender segregation in mixed schools is disproportionately discriminatory against girls in that it creates more harmful practical and symbolic consequences for girls in a society in which women have been and remain the group with minority power. Lady Justice Gloster agreed with Ofsted that an educational system which preserves segregation between the sexes within co-educational schools, so that both groups – from an impressionable age – find it more natural to form exclusive and different social and professional networks with those of their own sex, has the result that women lose out in later life more than men, because women are still disproportionately excluded from networks of power and influence. In other words, sex segregation endorses gender stereotypes about the inferiority of women or their perceived place in a society where predominantly men exercise power.

However, does the latter conclusion also not hold true when there is segregation between the sexes in separate establishments?

In religious institutions, there seems to be a fear of improper sexual relations and these fears are at the base of this type of segregration. But in how far does such a thing still hold in a world where gender-identitity is increasingly redefined? It is a myth that people are only attracted to the opposite sex and people like myself and other LGBTQIN do not readily fit in either monk’s nor nun’s monasteries.

But more importantly, where does such fear come from? In the Early Buddhist Texts, we see that body contemplation is practiced by focussing on the repulsiveness of the own body and by seeing the decaying corpses and reflecting that “I too will one day be like that”. This practice however has later evolved for monks to reflect on the repulsiveness of a woman’s body in order to overcome sensual desire. Thereby projecting their own defilements onto the women, seeing them as repulsive and the cause of that same sensual desire. It is not surprising then that there is a fear of women as the “evil other”, who lures away monks from the holy life and this seems to be a notion that is still very much alive today in traditional Buddhist countries. Women are seen as a threat to the monastic life and should therefore be kept separate.

From the Early Buddhist Texts, we can see that the Buddha radically departed from the norm and did away with all perceived differences in race and caste that were prevalent in society at that time. As soon as a monastic entered the Sangha, there was no more difference. The situation nowadays is however rather different in many traditional Buddhist countries where there is a hierarchy based on caste.4 It is obvious that these social constructs have started seeping back into the Sangha after the time of the Buddha. It is then not so far-fetched to assume that this could also have happened in the case of gender.

Of course in our context of the monastic Sangha we run into a problem here. It is clear that by simply defining that there is a Bhikkhu and Bhikkhunī Pātimokkha in the Vinaya, segregation is already a fact. But what we do not know is how these texts came to us exactly and how they were formed. We know that the Bhikkhunī Pātimokkha has been lost and was only later re-constructed from a commentary. But what we do not know is how this has changed in the time in between the Parinibbāna of the Buddha and the date that this commentary was written or even how the compiliers of this commentary obtained the information.

Some great research has been done in the last decade, most notably by Ven. Anālayo a.o. but more work is needed to establish in how far changes were made after the Buddha’s passing.

Bhante Sujato shows in Bhikkhunī Vinaya Studies5 that the Vinaya, unlike the bulk of the Suttas, has seen many more changes after the Buddha’s time and most of the Vinaya can probably be seen as having emerged later as a means for teaching and training. Only the Bhikkhu Pātimokkha as we have it today can be seen as authentic and the same in all schools. Only the Pātimokkha is named in the Suttas as the way in which monastics should train themselves.

The “Bhikkhunī Pātimokkha” itself is not mentioned at all in the Suttas. There is only a mention of “both Pātimokkhas” in several Aṅguttara Nikāya texts, but all of these have no parallels with any of the other schools. I do not want to go as far as to claim that therefore they are a later addition, but it is an indication.

The early roots of the Vibhanga can probably already be traced back to the time of the Buddha itself because no doubt interpretations of Pātimokkha rules would have been discussed within the Sangha, and continued after this time. Notably is also the role of the Second Council in the redactional process.5

In the textual evolution of the Vinayas, the Second Council is of preeminent importance. It is the only major event in Buddhist history that revolves exclusively around a Vinaya dispute. The victory of the Pāveyyakas, the ‘rigorist’ Vinaya group at the Second Council, is consistent with a scenario that attributes the systematic formation of the Vinaya texts to this period. Although the canonical accounts do not divulge what textual work may have occurred on that occasion, it seems likely that the form of the Vinayas we have today was a product of the Second Council; probably essential structures and themes were agreed there, while details were worked out in different monastic communities over subsequent generations, resulting in the different Vinayas we possess today.

If we are to take this scenario seriously, it suggests that the bulk of the Vinaya texts as we have them today were added well after the Buddha’s death. This again contrasts with the Suttas, which appear to stem more directly from the Buddha, with more moderate editorial involvement.

A lot more research needs to be done in the field of the authenticity of the Vinaya texts and especially in regards to the role of women and nuns in this. We will never be able to go back in time to ask the Buddha about his intentions, but it seems fairly clear from the Early Buddhist Suttas that there was a fair amount of equality between monks and nuns and that there was a fair amount of contact between them, but that this has evolved over time, even during the time of the Buddha, to accommodate for the growth of the Sangha in a society where equal treatment was far from the norm.

If we go back to the base of the Buddha’s own teachings: all of these perceived differences between people are just that: they are perceptions, they are mere mirages that people have come to believe. It is then our task to look inside ourselves and see where these perceptions come from and to see their true nature. But it also our task to help others to see how these perceptions influence their behavior and how this behavior can be harmful to other individuals or groups.

I believe that the Buddha saw people as people. “Separate but equal” to me is an illusion and can never truly happen. “Seperation” in itself implies unequalness. Only when we are inclusive of all people, regardless of race, caste, sex or gender can we make real progress. Only when we focus on the things we have in common instead of defining ourselves and others by our differences can we really start to see each other as fellow human beings.


  1. Lily A. Saffer, 2013.
    Sex Segregation in Public Schools: Separate But Equal?
    William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law.

  2. Robert H. Neumann, 1957.
    Apartheid: South Africa
    The Harvard Crimson
    Apartheid: South Africa | News | The Harvard Crimson

  3. Claire McCann, 2017.
    Separate but Equal? Gender Segregation in UK Schools
    Oxford Human Rights Hub

  4. Lasni Buddhibhashika Jayasooriya, 2018.
    Caste in Popular Buddhism in Sri Lanka

  5. Bhikkhu Sujato, 2007
    Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies


A wonderful article, Venerable, well researched and thought provoking. As you point out in your introduction our spiritual life cannot be separated from the world we live in. This essay goes a long way to help people understand why some people (especially those who experience discrimination) challenge the status quo and do not just accept that trite platitude of ‘thats just the way things are’.

Congratulations on all the work you do for Sutta Central and for posting such poignant articles. Its incredibly brave to put these ideas out there when people are so quick to critique and condemn. Your tireless energy and pursuit of contemporary ethical solutions to the sangha’s ancient foibles is a worthwhile and admirable task and I thank you for your galvanic voice in this forum.


@Vimala how non-separate would non-separate be in an ideal yet realistic situation in your opinion? Thank you for the essay and your time bhante.

(Edit: Total non-separation for example would be like a modern university, where living spaces are co-ed, bathrooms are co-ed, classes are co- ed, basically everything. In a monastery this would mean there wouldn’t be bhikkhuni or bhikkhu sections of the monastery but just a randomly distributed monastic area of kutis or dorms, no differentiation in bathrooms, all sangha-kammas and vinaya recitations would be co-ed, and so on and so forth. Basically, there’d be no distinction whatsoever.)



Dear Venerable,
I really appreciate your essay and I can totally see where you’re coming from. I would love to see monasteries where this works in practice. However, I don’t know whether every monastic would/should want to be in this arrangement.

I’ve stayed in mixed and single gender monasteries and found that in mixed monasteries my gender is a label attached to me and a limitation on what roles I play in the monastery. This is due to our wider cultural conditioning. Something we cannot escape. In a single gender monastery I can be stinky, dirty, drive the ute and do the plumbing :grin: It’d be great if everyone was at a stage on the path where they weren’t so attached to such things but it’s not the case.

I honestly hope that everyone with a monastic aspiration can feel relaxed and at ease in their environment and can find one which suits them.


Dear @Vimala, I enjoyed your thought provoking essay, thank you :smiley:

It is a great attempt to try and contextualise this issue, within the spheres of individual, group, cultural and organisational/systemic issues.

Reflecting about it when I first read it, I came to a simmilar conclusion as Anagarika Passana, below.

This is very much along the lines of my own thoughts. But then I realised that in order for ‘people who have ordained’ (as opposed to using the words ‘monks and nuns’) to have moved beyond gender identification, they would have to be at least stream enterers… and that an entire monastic community being made up of people at least this far along the path would have a very different look - and perhaps even limit the purpose of helping people attain these levels of insight.

Awareness of gender is aparent when mixing with others and our differences and idiosyncracies are highlighted through the application of comparisons/judgements.

As always, institutions that are created for a specific purpose, for a specific group of people, have to set up structures that provide for ‘average’ rather than ‘all’ needs of the members. When dealing with averages, there are always some that miss out.

However, I think that @Vimala 's essay carries a vital point that shouldn’t be overlooked. IMO this is about recognising that gender is a coarse attribute of physical form, and that overcoming gender consciousness is an important part of the path. Indeed, I would hypothesize that the closer to enlightenment one is - then this type of categorisation of people would disappear. And wouldn’t it be wonderful to live like this :relieved:


Dear Ayya,

Thanks so much for this beautiful and thought-provoking essay.


This will always be the case because it’s just the nature of things. A characteristic of any skillful development in the world, the path of Dharma practice included, is that of a progression from coarseness to refinement, from novice to apprentice to adept to master. One doesn’t expect the novice to perform the task of the adept. A good teacher doesn’t teach the novice in the same way as the adept and doesn’t put that novice in a situation that only an adept could handle.

I don’t think mixing the living situations of young novice male monastics with young novice female monastics, like in Polarbear’s description, is a good idea. We can’t ignore human nature: when young (or older!) people of opposite sex spend lots of time together, sparks inevitably fly; we would not have been born as human beings if this were not the case! It would create sexual drama and its concomitant rumor and gossip. How many would give up the robes when they wouldn’t have otherwise had the environment been different, been more conducive to the development of novices and apprentices?

I’m all for some kind of reform of female monasticism in Theravada Buddhism, but IMHO this is going too far. If we all started as adepts, I’d be all for it. But we don’t, that’s just the way things are.



I remembered Ajahn Brahm once said “our delusion is that life can be fixed” :anjal:


I totally agree with you here as I’ve witnessed such an incident.

Reality is never perfect. A perfect world is one where everyone is at least a non-returner (no sexual desire and very little anger).

The dhamma path is a gradual training as Ajahn Brahmali always says.

A better future for the world is also a gradual path.

On both paths, what we all – both monastics and laypeople – can do is doing our best to lessen our own delusion and defilement, by practicing skillful kindness and compassion while being easily satisfied.


However this is not an “All or Nothing” dichotomy! And as such, any strategies should be very careful to make that clear.

The Masters should demonstrate and illustrate the ideals to the beginners and novices, as something to aspire to. This is a most crucial point.

Otherwise the means become the ends. In this case, segregation is the means to detachment from form, and the ends is knowing and behaving in line with reality - that there is no ‘me’ and no ‘mine’, let alone feminine and masculine versions of me, myself and I. This is in contrast to seeing segregation as an end in itself. It is then properly recognised as a solution designed only as a training for those not yet able to go beyond identification with the body. That segregation is not the ideal, or good in and of itself.

If this were to be made explicit, IMHO, it would go a very long way to addressing the fundamentals of discrimination. It would properly place discrimination together with other defilements, and identify it explicitly as something to let go of - a cause of suffering in samsara, that practitioners following the N8fp can ultimately let go of and be free of.


I agree @mpac

I remember the first time I heard an inspiring and useful teaching from a senior monk about body contemplation in relation to dealing with sensuality and hindrances to meditation. This monk basically talked about seeing the body (of another in this case) as something natural and human. Something of nature. Not to be reviled or to be feared or desired or loved like an object. But rather to be seen as it is - a thing made of the 4 elements that will not last the course. A facade. So you see people as people, as human beings rather than as objects of desire. So you’re not afraid to talk to someone. You have that balance in your own mind.

Of course one wouldn’t expect all monastics to have a handle on this straightaway. I guess this is part of sense restraint.

But listening to this kind of teaching, for the first time I felt as if I wasn’t the problem. I was human. I belonged to the community. And if I wasn’t the problem, then that really helped ease the 2nd hindrance of ill will (towards myself) in my own heart.

I was very grateful to that monk that he taught his community to view such things in this far more balanced way. I think it’s why nowadays I feel so much more comfortable and relaxed in his monastery in Western Australia. It was still peaceful before his time, but I don’t think it had such a soft, relaxed vibe as it does now.


… great essay, very thoughtful and thought inspiring.

Yes, more research along the lines of the OP is needed, not for the Buddha, but for the small s sangha. For the researchers. For the readers. To renew confidence in the capital S Sangha, and in those who endeavor to or have joined it. Especially for the boys and men and other persons utterly hungup on gender as if it was real.

OP: “While in the United States racial segregation is now explicitly forbidden, this is not so in the case of gender. Gender-separated schools can still exist and this has sparked much debate in recent years. Much of the current debate surrounding single-gender education has rested upon the differences between the genders themselves. This seems to place this question within the larger framework … the question of how men and women are equal, and how they could be so unequal as to justify a difference in political intrusions and civil rights.”

I have some experience which gives me a (not the, a) way to understand some gender segregation for specific purposes. I went to 8 years school non gender segregated with a student ratio 1 person sorta like me:2 boys, and possibly entirely female mostly celebate teaching staff with some peripheral male theoretically celebate male authority figures. I then went to 4 more years of gender segregated student body, with mixed faculty. And then 4 more years mixed gender dorms, classes, faculty.

It was for me great to be in a gender segregated high school. I was not one of the more than a few who compensated for segregation and whatever weird home lives with promiscuity. I also pretty much just laughed at being sometimes called “one of the lezzies on the hill”. I chose to go to a mixed college environment, because I thought I should broaden my mind. Also, social pressure and hormones make one (me at least) stupid.

Yeah, for me that was a mistake. The women at the other nearby women only university benefited from getting interrupted less; getting pressured about appearance less; got called on more often; didn’t have to deal with as many horny professors or those whose self esteem was so low it could be hurt by a smart student, especially a woman student. Grad school years later, yeah, same thing, just even less well educated faculty and students, sexism in all its stupid colors rampant in faculty and students averaging 36 years of age. Hormonal or not, people run with their conditioning, and women and girls get a bad deal. And so do the stupid men and boys.

I say all this with metta, with karuna.

Sometimes to look inside one needs to have privacy to be vulnerable. And mixed genders stink at making vulnerability safe for anyone.

Almost invariably, in my experience, the women walk away first. sometimes just to stop seeing what is happening. Men can do that, standing right in the same spot, not seeing, “better”, in my experience. The ability to not see is… remarkable and adaptive, like a skillful virus.

I suspect there will be appropriate gender segregation for as long as human have gender. And separate is perhaps inherently unequal. And mixed gender association can occur without celibacy being threatened, for as long as gender exists. And anecdotes makes bad policy, for as long as human make policy.

Calmly, caringly, one hopes the human species in all its beautiful and health promoting diversity, walks forward, enjoys peace and improved health, until liberation.


Nice essay, Venerable.

The Vinaya changed and adapted as needed during the time of the Buddha, but since no one could agree on what were the minor rules, it has remained hard-fast in stone since the First Council. But obviously since that time, individual monasteries and monastics have adapted, so I think some adaptations are good for the benefit of the Dispensation to allow it to last longer.

I agree that separate, but equal does not work as noted in the Brown vs. Board of education landmark Supreme Court ruling. It is inherently unequal to segregate.

And the fears of mixing the genders becomes moot when you take into consideration that not everyone is attracted to the opposite sex. And then there are lay people visiting the monasteries of both genders even when you have separate gender monasteries. I know a nun who said she has received “offers” from both male and female lay people.

At Chaiya meditation monastery here in Las Vegas there are monks and nuns. They are in separate housing, but all at the same monastery grounds. Are there other places that have mixed genders at the same monastery grounds? Isn’t that the case in the UK too?

It could solve a lot of the current problems in finding support for bhikkhunis and save resources for lay people too, by providing support for one big monastery that houses both genders.

In the U.S. there is no forced segregation of races any more of course, but there still exists voluntary segregation among some universities. For example, some historically black colleges still are predominantly represented with only black students and the funding for them is low compared to more diverse or mostly white universities. And then when people graduate from historically black colleges, their degrees are not considered as “prestigious” as other degrees. Separate is inherently unequal.


And it starts pretty young …

From the BBC programme: “No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?”


Interesting thoughts, Ayya. I’ve never lived in a monastery so I cannot comment on gender segregation in that environment per se. However, in regards to this…

I went to an all-women’s college and I really liked it. No regrets at all. I think women tend to act differently around men…they hold back, feel pressured into being more “graceful” and “feminine,” and avoid certain tasks. So I don’t think gender segragated education is a bad thing at all, though I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily superior to co-ed education, either. I honestly wish more students exposed themselves to both sorts of environments (co-ed and single sex) to get a better sense of who they are in relation to others.

FWIW Fo Guang Shan monastery in Taiwan is co-ed. Something like 80% of the monastics are female…but the Abbot is invariably male. This is typical in Taiwan. I think this kinda speaks to what @Pasanna is saying, that we cannot just assume cultural conditioning will disappear just by dropping explicit rules related to gender.

In other words, even if separate doesn’t mean equal, integrated doesn’t mean equal, either, I’m afraid.


Thank you for all your contributions. I have been unable to read through all of it, partly due to time contraints and partly due to having been ill.

I just want to add a few points here.

Due to their conditioning, people often find it easier to be in one or the other group. Staying in the USA I have become aware that coloured people here often find it more comfortable to be in the company of other coloured people and feel uncomfortable around whites, where they feel inferior; this is their own projection onto the situation due to the very deep conditioning that goes back many generations and is not easily eradicated, nor should the power of this be underestimated; these things are very real but the Buddha reminds us that they are just perceptions, just conditioning. Both groups keep the status quo due to the fear of the other. Such things take a very long time, many generations, to change. The conditioning in case of gender is possibly even deeper. We all do this to some extend but we must look inside of ourselves and overcome this fear and learn to see others as the wonderful human beings that they truly are. This is our practice.

Another point I wanted to touch upon is the concept of monasteries. The monasteries we know today are very different from the monastic life in the time of the Buddha and I suspect this has to do with the colonial influence of the Christian church in Asia. For instance, in the Vinaya there is no concept for “abbot”; monasteries were groups of monastics making decisions as a group. However, such groups are very difficult to control because they are too fluid and shifting. So the Christan concept of a monastery with an abbot and a hierarchical system is much easier to control by the state and this is what we see in traditional Theravadin countries. In the time of the Buddha, most monastics just lived in the forest by themselves and travellled around and would meet with other monastics at regular intervals to discuss the Dhamma. Later some monasteries were established where monastics could stay during the Vassa, when it became difficult to travel due to the rains. After the Vassa, monastics could then go their own way again. So this was a very different situation; monasteries were places where people stayed for just a period of time.


Thank you for your thought-provoking essay!

I have been considering a lot about gender equality in Buddhism, it seems to me that the suttas and vinayas are heavily male-predominant, I also doubt the authenticity of the garuda-dharma imposed on the Bhikkhuni order according to legend. It is either the Buddha is still bound by the social construct during his era, or it could be false and only conceptualized by the male-predominant Sangha after Buddha’s death.

I see the monastic order as an opportunity for us to work harder on the dhamma, and therefore a bit different from the school example given in the article, because those kids do not have a choice.

I believe that the Vinaya should evolve over time to meet the needs of different eras, and reviewed once in a while to nip out unnecessary or unreasonable ones, but we face a dilemma: who is to say which to be kept and which to be deleted?

Thank you again!


Thank you, Venerable. For lay Buddhists like myself the Vinaya may at first seem largely irrelevant to our lay practice but I have been of the view in recent years that we need to be aware of its principles in order, firstly, to avoid inadvertent offense but also, secondly and importantly, to include knowledge of the Vinaya as part of our overall study of the Tipitaka. Since you have highlighted the development and place of the Patimokkha within the system, it would seem appropriate for lay Buddhists to undertake a study of it as a suitable and comprehensive insight into the Vinaya.


Reflecting a little further on the wider substance of your article, Venerable, the issue of gender equality in the monastic system (or more precisely, its lack), I am especially interested in the way in which the technique of contemplating the repulsiveness of one’s own body has evolved (I would be inclined to say ‘debased’) to reflect on the repulsiveness of a woman’s body as a means of overcoming sexual desire. You are right to say monks are thus ‘projecting their own defilements onto the women’. This is, in my opinion, a vitally important insight. In some situations, it reaches absurd dimensions where women are asked not to clean shrines or sit next to monks at committee meetings where a monk might be present around a committee table. In Australia, while Buddhism is in its still early stages of development, we surely have a duty to gently, and with metta, work to see that such rigid inequalities do not take root here.