Wouldn't Anattā Make Gender Issues Irrelevant?

Hello SuttaCentral, I have a question which I hope isn’t too ignorantly worded or offensive to you all. But before I ask it, let me frame why I have it in the first place.

I’ve been lurking around this discussion board for a little while now and something is bothering me… a seemingly huge disconnect between the teachings and attitudes of general Buddhist community toward people’s bodies.

On this form, I have browsed numerous threads discussing discrimination against female monks ordaining and people choosing to undergo gender reassignment surgery… now if I understand the concept of Anattā (which I probably don’t), shouldn’t Buddhists be detached from the physical forms of their bodies?

If we are taught that we aren’t the “Khandas of form nor perception”, then why does the community place so much emphasis on having the right Khandas at birth? Isn’t gender just a form and a perception of that form? …and if you guys believe in rebirth, haven’t you all been women sometime in a past life? Where is the justification for the discrimination?

Note: As an aside here, I am a straight, white male… so life is groovy for me (…as it always has been and always will be)… so I’ve got no dog in this fight… however, as an outsider, this “conflict over gender” seems like a non-issue at the best… or an intentional disregard for the teachings at the worst. Anyone want to share some thoughts (or hurl some insults my way)?


If all people entertained right view with regards to selflessness, then I think yes, there would be no “gender issues”, and neither would there be “race issues” or anything of the like. People would see these features as just what they are: features. Unfortunately many are wonton to say: “That is a woman. I feel X about these ‘women’.” or “That is black man. I feel X about ‘black men’”. And X is often unpleasant. Hence the “issues” arise.

Pernicious identity view, it seems, can be a two-way street. We can ‘identify’, and we can ‘be identified’.

When one identifies another, how often is it based on their identity’s relation to one’s own identity?


Fair enough…

I expect that sort of thinking from lay people… it just seems like a monk’s training would raise him to higher standard than that… I just expected more from a person whom has wholehearted devoted their life to a philosophy which includes ideas like anattā.


One would think so, yes.


Well then way I understand it, the defenders of the traditional restrictions would simply argue that the Buddha established certain rules for governing the sangha, and permitting admittance into it, and that Buddhists have to follow those rules, because the Buddha made them, even if they don’t understand why they were made.

I suppose if you take the Pali Canon to the literal word of the Buddha, then for sure… but from my understanding is that the Canon was just one of many ancient schools… many of which are now extinct for various reasons… perhaps the rules were different at these other ancient schools? Also, the Canon itself is a product of hundreds of oral tradition and isn’t considered (by some) to be his words verbatim. Is it possible that this biased against women is just an added feature?

I don’t mean to trash the Pali Canon or be disrespectful, it’s just that this gender issue thing seems out of place considering the implications from of the rest of the teachings… I was just trying to see if someone here could reconcile this discrepancy with historical facts or by citing another section of the Canon which gives a reason why…

I have seen some discussions on the bad kamma being cited as the reason, however; if murders (like Angulimala) can overcome their bad old karma, ordain, and then reach enlightenment, it seems a small task to overcome being born with “bad sex organs”.

Yes, you don’t need to convince me, but there are indeed many who take most of the Sutta Pitaka to be the literal word of the Buddha, and who, more importantly, take whatever is the literal word of the Buddha to be infallible and irreproachable. They also take the rules he established for the sangha not to contain provisional rules designed only for the time and place in which he was teaching, but rules intended to last for as long as the dhamma-and-discipline continued. So I don’t think they would be convinced by the considerations you bring forward.

No doubt you’re right. That’s pretty depressing though.

There are relative levels of truth and understanding in Buddhism. On a conventional level, we can say there are men and there are women. On a ultimate level, you can say that isn’t really the case.

But let’s also remember, the Buddha taught not-self, not no-self. Use the teachings to see where the self is not, and don’t get involved in further speculation. When they asked the Buddha if there was a self or not, he refused to answer.

Well, a few people pointed out recently that the Buddhist sangha changes by evolving in relationship with its lay supporters, and that lay people can have an influence by supporting the monastic communities they approve of and withdrawing support from the communities they don’t approve of.


I know of at least one instance where one Buddhist mistreated another and used anatta to justify it.

This happens when we don’t go back and feel what it feels like to connect to things like virtue, dana and metta and karuna. If we really did understand anatta deeply - we wouldn’t even have needed teachings on metta, karuna, virtue, dana - we’d just act through them.

But we talk about anatta, intellectualise it, argue about what it means…but few of us really have even a good reflective understanding of it. If we did - compassion would come easy to us and we’d see that some of these things are non-issues. But not all of us are there yet.

Also, even if we do have some reflective understanding, most of us still have a strong, ingrained, often quietly unnoticed, heavily conditioned sense of self. It’s weird how it’s often people with the biggest egos who’ll try and openly deny this - such is delusion. This heavy conditioning is, possibly, one of the main reasons we get drawn into these arguments…well, I think it is for me… :slight_smile: