Shortly before he passes away, Ānanda rather abruptly asks the Buddha what to do about women. This passage is absent from the Sanskrit version, and it is fairly obvious that it’s an interpolation. Nevertheless, due to its prominent position, it should be considered closely.
Here’s Maurice Walshe’s translation:
‘Lord, how should we act towards women?’ ‘Do not see them, Ananda.’ ‘But if we see them, how should we behave, Lord?’ ‘Do not speak to them, Ānanda.’ ‘But if they speak to us, Lord, how should we behave?’ ‘Practise mindfulness, Ānanda.’
Okay, so there are few things that are misleading in the translation.
- Text doesn’t say “act towards women”, it says “practice regarding women” (mātugāme paṭipajjāma), which is a different thing.
- It doesn’t say “speak to women”, it says “converse” (anālāpo) which again is significantly different.
- It doesn’t say “if they speak to us”, it uses the instrumental, which indicates to “converse with”.
Further, the discussion in the commentary locates the conversation in the more moderate teachings found elsewhere in the suttas.
Note that the Pali text is unusually terse, to the point of abruptness, and indeed, borderline incoherence. Whether this is intended to represent the Buddha’s tone during the exchange, or if it is simply clumsy editing, is hard to say. Here is an (overly literal) translation to show this.
“Kathaṃ mayaṃ, bhante, mātugāme paṭipajjāmā”ti?
“Sir, how do we practice regarding females?”
“No seeing, Ānanda.”
“Dassane, bhagavā, sati kathaṃ paṭipajjitabban”ti?
“But in case of seeing, how to practice?”
“No conversation, Ānanda.”
“Ālapantena pana, bhante, kathaṃ paṭipajjitabban”ti?
“But when conversing, how to practice?”
“Sati, ānanda, upaṭṭhāpetabbā”ti.
“Be mindful, Ānanda.”
The commentary expands the text with well-considered examples and references to elsewhere in the canon.
Regarding not seeing, it refers to a monk sitting alone his lodging with a closed door (dvāraṃ pidahitvā senāsane nisinno hi bhikkhu) when a woman comes and stands in the door. Obviously this would be an unusually intimate encounter for a monk.
Then, regarding having a conversation, it quotes from AN 5.226. Here is the context:
Mendicants, there are these five drawbacks for a mendicant who visits families for too long, mixing closely with them. What five? You often see females. Seeing them, you become close. Being so close, you become intimate. Being intimate, lust overcomes you. When your mind is overcome by lust, you can expect that you will live the spiritual life dissatisfied, or commit one of the corrupt offences, or abandon the training and return to a lesser life.
Again, rather than referring to any speech, it specifically invokes an overly familiar relationship of intimacy.
Finally the commentary quotes AN 5.55, which speaks of having a private, one on one conversation (eko ekāya, mātugāmena sallape).
These expansions of the text are especially significant given that, in several other cases, the commentary gives a sexist reading of texts that are not sexist. The commentaries are a vast and diverse set of texts, assembled from many diverse sources. So it is no surprise to find different attitudes in different parts.
Still, it is, I think, justified to follow the commentary in seeking a rendering of the passage that is in line with the teachings on monastic behavior around members of the opposite sex found elsewhere in the Suttas, rather than have the Buddha introduce a more harsh and extreme doctrine for no apparent reason, just before his death.