SuttaCentral

The day I became an inferior human being

In Buddhism, we have a problem with gender discrimination, especially in circles that place a lot of emphasis on the early texts. Some of our texts in the sutta pitaka are sexist and misogynistic, but the real problem is the vinaya and the power dynamics it creates within the sangha. This is used to justify discriminatory attitudes towards women in general, in dhamma groups and in society at large. The vinaya is not just some ancient text, it has real impact on real people, and causes massive suffering and obstacles for practice.

The Buddha set up full ordination for men and women, but that doesn’t mean that a bhikkhu and a bhikkhuni have equal status. Bhikkhus have control over bhikkhunis in many ways. They have a say in who gets ordained, thus controlling access to the female sangha. They have a say in who gets reinstated after being on probation for breaking major rules, thus controlling the status and punishments in the female sangha. Bhikkhunis have to ask them for feedback on their behavior, thus putting them in a position of supervision of bhikkhunis. Bhikkhunis have to regularly ask them for teachings, even though the early sangha had highly qualified female teachers, thus disempowering women and erasing their voices. And most of all, bhikkhunis, no matter their seniority, have to pay respect to the most junior monks.
This unequal status has strongly impacted laypeople’s attitudes towards bhikkhunis. And it’s used as a justification to see women in general as inferior. As the bhikkhuni sangha is thus much less respected, they struggle to survive and get barely enough support to get by. It’s very common that even the four requisites, the basic necessities of monastic life, are not provided.

When a man takes bhikkhu ordination, it is a day of great joy. Finally he is able to live the life of freedom for the eradication of all suffering, as the Buddha laid it down. His mind is greatly uplifted and it is a huge inspiration for his further dhamma practice.
When a woman takes bhikkhuni ordination, a part of her also feels that way. But there are so many doubts: How could the Buddha, an awakened being, treat women as second class, when he clearly stated that both men and women are equally capable of attaining awakening? Are these practices really the Buddha’s instruction, or are we doing something contrary to dhamma? And if this is contrary to dhamma, how can a serious practitioner participate in this in good conscience? How can a modern women, who enjoys equality in lay life, join a misogynistic order? How can she voluntarily subject herself to such treatment? Why create this much suffering for herself? Is she really doing the right thing?
Her mind is filled with questions and her joy is greatly dampened. There’s no inspiration to carry her dhamma practice forward. On the contrary, she is constantly torn between wanting to practice as the Buddha taught, and not wanting to be part of and enabling a discriminatory system. Rather than this being a path of freedom, it is a path of bondage for her. The day she ordains, she becomes an inferior human being.

After ordination, bhikkhunis live with these doubts every day. Are we doing the right thing? As sangha, it is our sacred duty to uphold the dhamma-vinaya, but the vinaya treats us so badly. We actively participate in the subordination and discrimination of women, and by our example, we encourage others to do the same. We constantly harm ourselves. Surely, it isn’t dhamma to deliberately create more suffering?

And this is only for women who are inspired enough—or masochistic enough—to go through with ordination. A huge number of women who are sincere practitioners and could be great and inspiring nuns, turn away from ordination, or even turn away from dhamma altogether, after they have looked into the matter and understood what kind of life would await them as bhikkhunis. They can’t bring themselves to live under such a system.
It is hearbreaking to think about the implications. These are people who have found the dhamma, and want to give their entire life solely in pursuit of the Buddha’s message. They have the potential to fulfill his teaching and truly end suffering once and for all. This is an opportunity that is so rare it may not come again for millions of future lives. It is the most important thing they could possibly do with their life. Something that truly makes a difference. Imagine what kind of kamma someone creates who puts up an obstacle for such practitioners.

So then why do our texts put up so many obstacles for women?


The stream of tears that women have shed because of gender discrimination in the sangha is more than the water in the four great oceans.

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Venerable @vimalanyani :bowing_man:t5: :bowing_man:t5: :bowing_man:t5:

:boom:

This. This.

Everything you wrote has pained me since the day I became interested in the holy life, as a doe-eyed layman so many years ago. Seeing my venerable friends disrobe; seeing potential venerable friends not even consider subjecting themselves to the sort of abuse you see in the Sangha :broken_heart:

But all the women—lay or ordained—don’t need my pain. My male tears won’t help women achieve equity in the Sangha.

So I’m trying to listen and learn and actively do what I can to support. I’m just a sāmanera who basically ordained the day before yesterday, but I want to do what I can to not perpetuate this cycle. I can’t see it any other way.

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Because women have not been allowed to write any of these religious texts.
Please correct me if I am wrong.

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Thank you dear Venerable @vimalanyani for these brave and powerful words. It’s not easy to speak our about such things, but it’s essential that we do!

We need to stop gaslighting women practitioners when they talk about discrimination, and stop trivialising and diminishing their experiences. Reading your words I feel so sad, it’s plain to see this is all so true and tragically so. :crying_cat_face:

Yes. Women can’t undo this alone. Men have the bigger role to play in dismantling this oppression. Men have to make changes. This is one of the hardest parts for me as a monk, to see myself being drawn into the whirlpool of patriarchy and privilege against my will and though I am a feminist and I try to be a good ally, there are occasions that are completely beyond my control. When I feel that powerlessness I become distressed thinking how it must feel for women! It needs to be consciously resisted every step of the way. Men don’t feel the keenness or urgency for change that women feel, but we need to. Unless there is this pressure, change is slow and uncertain, easily forgotten about.

Men and monks can inform themselves about what patriarchy looks like in society and in our spiritual communities. They can learn about oppressive systems and behaviours. They need to listen to the experiences of women and female monastics and take them seriously. And then they can ask: “how can I help?”

We need to take these conversations back to our leaders and help them understand why change is important. And we need make practical changes that actually have an impact and alleviate the unnecessary suffering women experience just because of their sex.

Change is possible! And it is happening. I don’t want to go all Pollyanna here, because there is such a bad state of affairs for women right now and there is a long way to go, but things changing (a little)! I have hope.

But what is needed more than hope right now, is a reality check! We need to understand the extent of discrimination and act to remove it wherever and whenever we can.

Thank you again for your insights and drawing our attention to these sad truths. Please know that there are many supporters and allies in the bhikkhu Sangha.

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:pray: Linking everyone the Gotami Apadana, because…not all texts.

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Shhh :shushing_face: Nobody tell Matty Weingast :rofl:

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Thanks so much for your courage and honesty Ayya.

When I saw the title of your post, I immediately knew what it would be about, because it echoed the sentiments I have heard so often from women when they encountered Buddhism.

Since tomorrow is Jan 26, officially “Australia Day” but to most of us, “Invasion Day”, let me share something that I learned many years ago from an aboriginal elder. It has stuck with me all these years and has become a defining understanding for me.

It was around 1986. I was a member of Animal Liberation, and got involved in organizing a conference in Perth that we called “Getting Together”. It was a weekend where people from all sorts of alternative movements could learn and share from each other. Among those present were fred cole, the famous BUGAUP activist. It was also where I met a trans woman for the first time and learned about the discrimination she suffered while working at the Social Security office.

Anyhow, I wanted to do a panel on animal rights and had a whole philosophical bit planned out: Peter Singer and everything! Someone mentioned that Ken Colbung was vegetarian, and I thought I’d try to invite him on the panel.

So I go out to see him at his community north of Perth. He was lovely, and we had a really nice chat. I remember two things about what he presented.

Number one, he began his talk by singing very sweetly the Stevie Wonder song, I just Called to Say I Love You. It was so lovely! He just got right to the heart of it. I immediately felt like all my complicated philosophy was a waste of time!

Then he told us that he was vegetarian, not because of any modern philosophy, but because it was his traditional belief. He said that his people, the Noongar, saw all creatures as their brothers and sisters. They lived together with them in their home, and would never harm a single one of them without reason. Yet they had to live, and sometimes they had no choice but to kill. But they would always do so with sorrow, asking forgiveness from the creature, and explaining to them, “I have to feed my family.”

He said that these days, some young aborigines said that you couldn’t be a real aborigine if you didn’t eat snake or kangaroo. He said they didn’t know what they were talking about.

Nowadays, he said, I can just drive down to the supermarket and buy some tofu. Why would I need any creature to die for me?

Not only did I learn an important truth about vegetarianism and Noongar culture, I learned something about the nature of tradition.

I learned that those of a shallow understanding will stick to the external form of a tradition. They will do what their forebears did, because that is the tradition.

Others reject tradition for the same reason. “What the tradition does is bad, I don’t want to do that!”

But the path of understanding starts with compassion. Why did people do the things they do? What were the underlying values? What mistakes did they make? What can we learn? Is it possible to express what is truly valuable from a tradition without repeating those mistakes?

A tradition is, at the end of the day, nothing more than our idea of what people in the past once did. They were responding to their times. We are responding to ours. They values of the Dhamma don’t change, but the way we express it can and must change.

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Personally, I think these are the kinds of problems that arise when people in the 21st century literally interpret monastic law written 2,500 years ago. I started out practicing in Mahayana traditions, and although I now consider myself more in the Theravada camp (and a fan of the Early Buddhist Teachings), I see this as an example of the downside of “strict vinaya.” Honestly, in this day and age when women are independent, empowered, and educated, these kinds of rules make no sense (which isn’t to say they ever really made sense, but that’s a whole other topic). Bhikshunis in China, Taiwan, and Korea (and probably Vietnam, as well) have maintained a largely independent existence from monks for hundreds of years. But part of that freedom came from not literally interpreting the vinaya. Now, I’m not saying nuns have an equal status to monks in those countries, because they don’t. But after visiting monasteries and some nunneries in all of those countries, my impression is that the monks and nuns largely keep to themselves. Nuns aren’t required to grovel at the feet of the most junior monks because, among other reasons, they aren’t keeping vinaya strictly. There are also examples of monks and nun residing within the same complex, but having separate living quarters. I believe this is true at Dharma Drum, for example. Everyone is housed, fed, and educated there, monks and nuns a like.

So I guess my point is that in Theravada schools where a lot of emphasis is placed on literally interpreting the vinaya we are kind of creating these problems for ourselves. Now, to be clear, I’m not saying female practitioners (lay or ordained) are to blame. I’m not blaming the victim here. And for a lot of sexist Buddhists, these rules are simply used to reinforce their existing prejudices. I don’t believe those people really care about those rules at all. But for the rest of us (lay or ordained) who place a lot of value on the early teachings and the centrality of strict vinaya, I think we share some of the blame and responsibility for this situation. I think ultimately it will be up to us to speak out, sometimes in opposition to our ajahns, bhantes, and sayadawas, and say “No, even though that’s what it says in the vinaya, we don’t support that.”

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I know a senior monk who had recently completed 20 Vassa when I first met him in person. On that occasion he told me that with 20 Vassa he was officially appointed to teach the nuns. And the first thing he told them was: “Sisters, don’t keep the garudhammas!”

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I feel that it’s a common misconception that not keeping garudhammas would solve the gender discrimination issue. Well… it’s not that straightforward. Most of the garudhammas are also patimokkha rules and changing the patimokkha creates all sorts of additional problems. And even if you did that, we don’t really have alternatives for some things at the moment, such as for dual ordination.
And it’s not just the garudhammas, there’s other discriminatory stuff in the vinaya. This is a very complex issue and there’s no easy fix, such as “don’t keep the garudhammas”.
I’m not saying that it’s unfixable, but at the moment, we don’t have a good solution.

Also, gender discrimination is not something that nuns can solve on their own simply by not keeping some rules. It needs awareness and a concerted effort from all members of the fourfold community.

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Totally true! :pray:

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Thank you for saying this. Even as a bikkhu this discrimination is a source of doubt for me. All I can do is think about the privilege I have as a man to enter the holy life, and listen to sisters about the difficulties they face. Difficulties that I can’t even comprehend because I never had to face these issues. But I think as Buddhists empathy should be our greatest strength, maybe if enough monks could come to understand the pain that women feel when excluded from the joys of renunciation there can be change.

I have a question for those well versed in the suttas, are gender and gender norms considered to be a social constructs in early Buddhism?

After all what separates a man from a woman is just Rupa, meat arranged differently, if so why cling to one form and be conceited enough to think it’s superior?

I guess the only thing that makes a woman think she’s a woman is conditioned by biology, but mostly being taught that they are women. Basically when the world decides to give a name to the impermanent form. If gender is then a concept conditioned by ignorance why is it even an issue for us? Seems pointless and only meant to appease crusty old men.

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As a new Buddhist, this gender inequality issue has long confused me:

  1. Do we KNOW Buddha really said these things? (ex: most senior nun inferior to most junior monk)
  2. If we don’t know he said it, why is it even a thing? (rhetorical question. Power, power, power.)
  3. If he DID say it, since he was free from craving and aversion, what does it mean if it cannot be interpreted as misogyny?

I find it difficult to square these types of sentiments with the utterances of an enlightened being. However, perhaps there is some historical context to them of which I am no doubt unaware??

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No. In fact, I am quite confident he did not.

Indeed. And don’t forget: there is a darkness in the hearts of men.

This is definitely an issue in considering all the modern monks who say such things. What does it say about them? Nothing good, I’m afraid.

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Bhante Sujato, may I indulge in a moment of fan girl-ing here to say THANK YOU to you (and Ajahn Brahmali) for your rigorous translations. What would we do without them?

If YOU do not believe The Buddha expressed these views, then clearly there is significant scholarly evidence that he did not.

Thank you for clarifying this key point . I could never make sense of it, unless it was added later or some sort of “enhanced interpretation” of The Buddha’s actual words.

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Dear Venerable Vimalanyaani,

thank you for your clear articulation of the issues and the emotional conflicts and contradictions that arise for us monastic women. They feel irresolvable often - and what to do with the continual pain that arises? And gets retriggered continually? And it’s not just psychological, but actual - often being blocked from opportunities for practice and support. As a result, often not having the physical and psychological basis whereby we can deeply relax into the practice - instead often being in survival mode with the anxiety that arises from that.

And then when we find ourselves with the precious opportunity to practice, there is many years of difficulty to heal and the pain of being within a system that explicitly (I live in Myanmar) treats females as inferior and restricts their lives and movements and uses them as servants - is hard to manage. How do we with full faith and inspiration give ourselves to a system that denigrates is so systematically?

Yet, also, there is so much beauty in the practice and in the Dhamma. And where I am the monastic women are phenomenal in their meditation and accomplishments and it’s so inspiring.

And there is something so precious about monastic life. For some of us, for an unexplained reason it is our vocation - so we continue and hope to somehow bring healing and create a container for the next generation that will be truly liberating. We hope somehow that the pain and conflict can end with us. That we can together show leadership around these issues, take a firm stand, ally with supportive bhikkhus. Provide a context for those who come after us that is supportive and nourishing in every way. By giving others what we didn’t have we can also heal ourselves.

Articulating the problem clearly and acknowledging that there is a problem is the necessary first step. We must ‘name it to tame it’ I really appreciate the bhikkhus here who join in understanding and offering their compassion.

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I find it useful to keep in mind what it is that we call “the words of the Buddha.” Ultimately, that boils down to texts. It was assumed for years, both by academics and Theravada Buddhists, that the Pali canon represented the true, unadulterated words of the Buddha. However, quite a lot of research by very smart people have proven that to be false. The whole concept of “Early Buddhism” is the result of all that research (which is ongoing), and is a very recent concept. Also, after the comparison of the Chinese, Pali, and Tibetan canons with each other, as well as with the recently discovered Sanskrit and Gandhari Buddhists texts, the picture that emerges of what actually represents the true words of the Buddha is murky at best. Scholars have tried to reconstruct what might have been the true teachings based on all of those texts, but have utterly failed. I believe the general consensus among academics is that it’s impossible to do, at least with the texts that we currently possess. The best we can do is say that the suttas contained in the Pali canon seem to be “stable” across the different Buddhist traditions and their collections of texts. “Stable” is the word that Richard Salomon, a Sanskrit and Gandhari scholar, uses, and I think it’s the best description. The vinaya pitaka as a whole varies wildly between canons, the abidhamma even more so. However, “stable” doesn’t mean that the correspondence between suttas are one-to-one. The relationships are very complex. For example, sometimes a Pali sutta that does have a parallel in another canon, like the Chinese, belongs to a different sub-collection in the Chinese canon. Sometimes the content of a sutta might be mostly the same in the Pali and Chinese, but occurs in a different order. There are also many examples of a Pali and Chinese sutta being categorized in the same sub-collection, and having a similar order, but a paragraph in the Pali, for example, is in an entirely different sutta in Chinese.

Despite all of this impressive scholarship, we are still dealing with written Buddhists texts. It is now believed that Buddhists began committing the Buddhist teachings to writing around the 1st century BCE. That’s 300-400 years after the Buddha died. The oldest Pali canon we have is from the 18th century CE. That’s roughly 2,200 years after the Buddha. How did the Pali canon change over time? We have no idea.
All we can do is analyze the Pali from the 18th century CE and look for variations in grammar and meter, for example, to figure out what was probably a later addition. We actually have many much older Sanskrit Buddhist texts than we do Pali, most of which are Mahayana and Vajrayana. The Ghandari texts are the earliest extant Buddhist texts ever found. They are from the 1st century BCE to the 3rd century CE. It’s amazing they survived at all, but they are mostly fragments. There are fragments of suttas (including Mahayana sutras), commentaries, and abhidhamma. There’s even some stuff that has no parallels in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, or Tibetan.

We also have to consider that the sexist material we find in the texts we now posses may have been introduced while Buddhists were still relying on memorization to preserve the Buddha’s teachings. If that’s true, we may never find a text that doesn’t contain that sexist material.

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The day i became an inferior being appears to be when i landed on this planet earth !
That is indeed a tragedy !

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Hearing these nuns’ voices, I’m getting an even better idea of why what Ajahn Brahm did was so important. And why so many people felt threatened by it.

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I’m going to play devil’s advocate a bit. [Edit: actually, I’m not. What I mean is that I know I’m going to state a controversial opinion, which I usually would refrain from doing, but I do think I can do so appropriately here]. I’m a woman, believe in equal rights and like being treated equally so you know.

Don’t the suttas say that being born as a woman is worse karma than being born a man? Clearly that’s true. Biologically we have it a bit harder with all the childbearing stuff. And not only throughout human history, but in nature also females are subordinate to males in most species. As I understand it, the Buddha made the vinaya as a way to live harmoniously in the way the world is. So it makes sense to me that he made it that way back then. The vinaya is pragmatic, not idealistic.

The Buddha said all comparisons - inferior, superior, or same as - are unwise. However women are treated by the sangha, I don’t accept or think I’m inferior. Instead I practice by seeing that female subordination is considered normal. I observe my own emotions when I feel I’m being treated unfairly. I speak up about it when I feel I can speak rightly, for the rest I practice acceptance, humility, non-identification with my gender. But the truth is, the only reason I get worked up about it at all is because I identify as a woman and I’m attached to equal rights. I’m creating my own suffering. That’s a very powerful realisation for me.

Please note I’m not saying that the situation is good or as it should be. I’d love for all women who want to, to be able to ordain and dedicate their lives to practice without hindrance. I’m not a monastic so I don’t have lived experience of being a Bikkhuni. The label ‘inferior human being’ brought forth this reaction. I’m missing the middle way between misogynistic sexist superior beings and women as inferior human beings.

Another thought. The suttas also say that if a layperson becomes an arahant they need to ordain within 7 days or die. Now I wonder what would happen if a Theravadin woman lay practitioner became an arahant and knocked on a traditional monastery’s door as it was her only option? Do you think they’d find a solution within 7 days? :smiley:

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