221 – Enfrentando el Discurso Sexista de Buda – Parte 1
222 – Enfrentando el Discurso Sexista de Buda – Parte 2

I explore how – for some of us – explaining, dismissing, or justifying the story of the Buddha’s resistance to ordaining women (told in the Gotami Sutta) does not completely neutralize the discouraging effect of this story’s presence in the Buddhist canon. I then discuss how we can relate to this story without losing our faith in Buddhism as a path of practice.

Read or Listen to Part 1

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
A Very Brief Note on the Treatment of Women in Other Buddhist Texts
When the Gotami Sutta Still Troubles You
The Presence of Sexism Even in Otherwise Remarkable People
The Good Thing about the Gotami Sutta
Continued Faith in Buddhism Despite Its Sexism

 

This is Part 2 of Confronting the Buddha’s Sexist Discourse. In the last episode I read parts of the Gotami Sutta – a text that is part of the Pali Canon – which describes how the Buddha resisted allowing women to be ordained into the monastic Sangha, even after they begged him, shaved their heads, walked 150 miles to be near him, and then stood around dusty and weeping. According to the story, the Buddha finally agrees to allow women to enter into the homeless life that he so strongly recommended to his male disciples, but only after imposing eight “rules of respect” which forever subordinated all female monastics to male monastics no matter how many years they have been ordained, and after making a prediction that the presence of women in the ordained Sangha would bring about its premature demise like a disease.

In the last episode I then discussed the various ways we can dismiss or rationalize this story: We can conclude the story is apocryphal and doesn’t belong in the Pali Canon; we can rationalize it by concluding the Buddha’s actions weren’t considered sexist 2,500 years ago, or by arguing that if you hold the worldview of rebirth, which people generally did in the Buddha’s time, a women could just pray to reborn as a man in the next life and thereby have the opportunity to ordain.

For some of us, though, dismissing or justifying the Buddha’s sexist discourse doesn’t quite cut it. To some extent it’s reassuring to think the Gotami Sutta isn’t true, or that the Buddha’s words and actions did not in any way reflect sexism or harm women, but the story of the Buddha denying women ordination and then comparing them to a disease still disturbs us.

 

A Very Brief Note on the Treatment of Women in Other Buddhist Texts

I’ll discuss why we may still find the Gotami Sutta troubling in a moment, but first I want to make a short digression. I said in the last episode that the Gotami Sutta was the only egregiously sexist Buddhist Sutta I knew of, but since I published the episode a listener wrote to me and pointed out another one. In the Angutarra Nikaya 5.229 and 5.230, two tiny suttas called “Black Snakes” #1 and #2, compare women to black snakes, listing nine “drawbacks of a female.” According to the text, she’s “filthy, stinking, cowardly, frightening, … irritable, hostile, venomous, fork-tongued, and treacherous.” The text explains further: “This is a female’s venom: usually she’s very lustful. This is a female’s forked tongue: usually she speaks divisively. This is a female’s treachery: usually she’s an adulteress.”[0]

This little gem is so over the top I refuse to believe the Buddha said it. Or, if he did, he was using this description as a means to kill the ridiculously persistent and passionate lust in his male monastics, the same way he recommended contemplating a rotting corpse to reduce attachment to the body. Given their lower status, I’m imagining the nuns didn’t get their version of this sutta into the canon, where their own lust was addressed by describing a male as filthy, stinking, cowardly, frightening, irritable, hostile, dangerous, abusive, self-centered, treacherous, very lustful and usually an adulterer.

In any case, there are probably more sexist nuggets in the canon, and there are definitely plenty of them beyond the canon. One the thorniest of these is the teaching that, while women are fully capable of achieving arhatship (full liberation and entry into nirvana), you have to be male in order to become a full Buddha. As I’ve mentioned before, a Buddha was seen as a once-in-a-millennia remarkable being who was not only perfectly enlightened and liberated but also a absolutely masterful teacher of the Dharma. The requirement that Buddhas be male probably reflects the limitations of the attitudes and cultures of their audiences, not any inherent limitation of the female body – although our many sexist Dharma ancestors might disagree. Anyway, the subject of women in Buddhism is huge and I want to concentrate the rest of this episode specifically on the Gotami Sutta, but if you are interested in learning more, I recommend the book Buddhism After Patriarchy by Rita Gross.

 

When the Gotami Sutta Still Troubles You

Returning to the Gotami Sutta, then, why might we still be troubled by the story it tells, even if we believe there are good reasons for dismissing the sutta as completely true, or for justifying the Buddha’s behavior?

By definition the Buddha was “fully” enlightened, more so than any other being has been since. This means, presumably, he was free from delusion and able to see reality clearly, without the confusion created by conditioning or self-interest. Wouldn’t he, therefore, have seen through the fallacy of sexism? Wouldn’t he have been utterly unconcerned about the opinions of others, and therefore willing to do what was right even if it ruffled some feathers? Surely the man who was willing to starve himself close to death in order to awaken, who spent every moment of his 50 post-enlightenment years spreading the Dharma, would prioritize the path of practice for anyone who was willing, even if it disrupted the social order of his time?

Surely the Buddha was free from small-minded biases against women if he claimed they were capable of awakening. After all, from the beginning, the Buddha accepted any man into the ordained Sangha regardless of caste,[i] a radical thing for his time, and he even welcomed a repentant mass murderer into the ordained Sangha. (Angulimala[ii] had killed so many people he wore a garland of fingers around his neck, but he converted, gave up his murdering ways, became a monk, and achieved enlightenment.)

The Gotami Sutta also very incongruous when compared to the vast majority of the teachings in the Pali Canon, and our understanding of the Buddha and what he said and did in countless other scenarios. Encountering the Gotami Sutta, then is like developing a strong sense of trust and respect for someone over time, but then watching them do or say something egregiously cruel or racist. You try to reconcile their bad action with everything you’ve observed about them so far. You try to make excuses for them – maybe they didn’t mean it, maybe they were having a bad day. You think about how, on the balance, the person has been good and kind, and surely all that good isn’t cancelled out by one bad comment or deed? But despite your effort to make sense of it, the person’s awful behavior sticks in your head and calls into question your whole opinion of them. If they’re capable of such a thing, what does that say about them? Isn’t blatant cruelty or sexism or racism a sign that’s something is awry under the person’s usual appearance of decency?

Speaking in terms of Buddhists texts instead of about the Buddha as a person, we could just take the approach of excluding the Gotami Sutta from consideration when we’re evaluating the wisdom of Buddhism – either because it’s not a legitimate part of the Pali Canon, or because it’s not representative of Buddhism as a whole. To a certain extent, this is what you have to do if the sutta appears sexist or cruel to you but you still want to trust Buddhist teaching and practice in general. However, this opens up a question: What else in the teachings might be B.S.? What other texts and teachings might have been inserted into the accepted teachings by people with small-minded and sinister motives? What other texts and teachings might be useless or even harmful?

Fortunately, we’re pretty sure the Buddha was adamant about the importance of us verifying the truth and utility of every teaching and practice for ourselves. He said repeatedly that people shouldn’t simply accept something because he said it. In addition, it’s widely acknowledged – at least in Mahayana Buddhism – that teachings are like medicine, prescribed for particular ills, so any given teaching or practice may not be helpful for you. (Still, it’s hard to imagine who the Gotami Sutta is good for.) Especially in Mahayana, which vastly expanded the collection of respected Buddhist teachings beyond the Pali Canon, we don’t primarily rely on the authority of the Buddha when teaching (e.g. “the Buddha said this,” and “the Buddha said that”). So, one troubling sutta isn’t a deal breaker when it comes to the religion as a whole.

Still, though, especially at the beginning of practice, many students would like to be able to trust the teachings. As we invite Buddhist practice to reshape our perceptions, views, and behaviors, we’re exploring new territory. Many teachings and practices are difficult to understand or master, or we may feel resistance to them or skepticism about them. To keep practicing, we have to forge ahead anyway, stepping out of our comfort zones and letting go of our ideas. One of the main ways we cultivate courage and faith in practice is by keeping in mind the people who have tread this path before us – particularly the way that practice has seemed to increase their wisdom, compassion, skillfulness, equanimity, joy, generosity, kindness, and freedom. “If this path leads to that,” we think, “then it seems like a good thing, even if sometimes it’s difficult or scary.”

When, instead, we see our Dharma teachers do or say something cruel, selfish, or deluded, it can easily shake our faith in the Buddhist path. Instead of feeling faith and trust, we think, “Holey moley, if this path fails to correct or prevent this kind of thing, it’s got some major shortcomings at the very least.” At a deeper level, maybe it doesn’t even matter whether there was a person called the “Buddha” or whether he was perfectly enlightened or not. The deeper question is whether this path leads to awakened, compassionate people. If it doesn’t lead to someone seeing equality, to someone standing up for justice, to someone being moral, generous, and compassionate, then there’s something wrong here, right?

 

The Presence of Sexism Even in Otherwise Remarkable People

It’s natural – and intelligent – to question the legitimacy of a spiritual path when its supposed masters behave badly. I discuss this at length in Episode 91 – Unethical Buddhist Teachers: Were They Ever Really Enlightened? – where I talk about the damage done by Buddhist Teachers who have committed egregious and repeated ethical violations (usually repeatedly entering into sexual relationships with students). Apparently, it is possible for people to be very, very spiritual developed and even wonderful and generous teachers, but for them to still have… shall we say… some shadow sides, or negative areas of their character which remain unaddressed.

The possibility of almost-enlightened people doing cruel, selfish, or deluded things raises a bigger question, of course: What is the nature of awakening? Clearly, in the vast majority of cases, awakening is not an all-or-nothing thing. It doesn’t seem to follow a neat pattern of imperfect-followed-by-complete-enlightenment-followed-by-perfection. Apparently, partial awakening is common, and someone can be absolutely brilliant but still harbor a nasty part of themselves that’s antisemitic, racist, sexist, elitist, violent, addictive, or just plain mean.

As a woman, one of the main lessons I learned in college was that brilliant people could simultaneously be hateful. Almost every male author, artist, scientist, philosopher, or historical figure I learned about had been unabashedly sexist, and a surprising number of them were vehemently misogynistic. I had to learn to study the contributions of these men – to open my mind and heart to what they had to say, to appreciate it, to let myself be influenced by it and moved by it – even though many of them wouldn’t have given me the time of day, let alone wasted their time teaching me, a mere woman. The whole situation made me mad, but if I’d excluded every sexist or racist source from my education, I wouldn’t have learned very much.

I’m not surprised at all that there’s a sexist Buddhist sutta but not one that describes the Buddha discriminating against or disparaging anyone on the basis of class, race, religious background, appearance, or any other characteristic. Among all forms of prejudice and oppression, sexism can seem like the most pervasive and deeply rooted of them all. After all, even though the U.S. has a shameful past with respect to the genocide of indigenous peoples and the slavery of Africans, men of any race gained the right to vote 50 years before women did. Although we were blessed with an African-American president 144 years after the end of slavery in America, women presidential candidates are still widely viewed as being unelectable no matter their qualifications. I mention these things not to suggest racism isn’t a problem in my country, but to point out how sexism persists in a way that makes it seem like an inevitable and unremarkable part of life. If the Gotami Sutta is true, I’m not surprised that sexism was the Buddha’s one blind spot.

 

The Good Thing about the Gotami Sutta

And so, here we find ourselves having to tolerate the presence of the Gotami Sutta and its associated story in Buddhism. No matter how we dismiss, explain, justify, or grapple with it, it’s not going away. Fortunately, there is more than enough other stuff the Buddhist tradition to recommend it, and I can endorse many texts and teachings after having verified their truth and usefulness for myself. A member of my Zen center summarized it well after I spoke on this episode’s topic in a Dharma Talk. He said, “So, the take-home message is, ‘Ignore the bullshit, the path is still worth it.’” Indeed.

In fact, I find myself glad that the Gotami Sutta exists. It highlights what may be the deepest, more pervasive and destructive human delusion after our belief in an inherently existing, independent, enduring self-nature: The idea that certain groups of people are inherently inferior from birth due to their physical characteristics, and therefore it is justifiable to exploit them, deprive them of the freedoms and opportunities available to others, and deny them full participation in society. This is one of the ugliest and most classic manifestations of the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion in the world, and clearly serves those in power in a way that obstructs any spiritual progress they might hope to achieve.

Better that the Gotami Sutta exists like an ugly thorn in Buddhism’s side. Because, of course, the sexism in Buddhism didn’t end there by a long shot. Ever since the tradition grudgingly admitted women as monastics while subordinating them to male monastics and complaining their presence was like a disease in the Sangha, ordained Buddhist women have generally had a tough go of it. They have had much less material support than the men, and their communities have never had full autonomy. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the official lineage of fully ordained women monastics from the Buddha’s time died out around the 11th century.[iii] Pointing to the absence of existing nuns to fulfill the “rule of respect” requiring the participation of both male and female monastics in any ordination, the male monastics shrugged and said there was nothing they could do about it. So, despite the efforts of Mahapajapati Gotami and Ananda, and the Buddha’s grudging permission, today women are still denied full ordination into the homeless life in Theravadin Buddhism. (Fortunately, women’s ordination did not die out in other Buddhist sects.)

 

Continued Faith in Buddhism Despite Its Sexism

How can I still have faith in this path, despite the story told in the Gotami Sutta, and the relatively rare but outrageous instances of misogyny like Black Snake Suttas? Because of the totality of the path and its history – because of the courage and insistence of Mahapajapati Gotami, who shaved off her hair and essentially entered the homeless life even before the Buddha would ordain her. Because of the compassion of Ananda, who had the guts and conscience to follow the teachings of Buddhism to their logical conclusion and insist that the Sangha enact them even if it went counter to the social norms of their time. Because of the women who fought over the millennia for the opportunity to practice the Dharma as they felt called to, defying their fathers, husbands, and brothers in order to live a life that usually required significantly greater asceticism and discipline than that of the male monastics (but none of the power, status, or ability to ensure one’s Dharma lineage continued). I have faith in this path because of the male Buddhist teachers over the millennia who were able to break free from the fog of sexism to see the Buddha nature of the women they encountered and teach them.

We have made great progress on equality between the sexes in Buddhism, at least in certain parts of the world. There are many places where aged Buddhist nuns who have been ordained for over 50 years quietly bow and serve men who have been ordained a single day, but I lead a Zen community and make part of my living producing this podcast. I have never encountered a Zen teacher who would dare to suggest women should be subordinate to men or be deprived of the same practice opportunities. At the same time, we shouldn’t forget our history. When we chant our lineage at my Soto Zen temple – acknowledging the passage of the Dharma from teacher to student from the time of Shakyamuni Buddha until now – we chant 84 names after the Buddha, and only the last one – my Dharma grandmother Roshi Jiyu Kennett – was a woman. But when I die, if I have passed the Dharma on to someone else, in the lineage they will chant the last three names will be those of women.

I also have faith in this path because it is a path made by human beings for human beings, and we have the capacity to question, to verify the truth for ourselves, and to come to terms with being human (and nothing human-made is perfect). I’ll end with the powerful words of one of the original Buddhist nuns, Sona:

 

Sona: Mother of Ten

Ten children I bore

from this physical heap.

Then weak from that, aged,

I went to a nun.

She taught me the Dhamma:

aggregates, sense spheres, & elements.

Hearing her Dhamma,

I cut off my hair & ordained.

Having purified the divine eye

while still a probationer,

I know my previous lives,

where I lived in the past.

I develop the theme-less meditation,

well-focused oneness.

I gain the liberation of immediacy —

from lack of clinging, unbound.

The five aggregates, comprehended,

stand like a tree with its root cut through.

I spit on old age.

There is now no further becoming.[iv]

 


Endnotes

[i] Numbered Discourses 5.229. 23. Long Wandering: Black Snakes (1st and 2nd), translated by Bhikku Sujato. https://suttacentral.net/an5.229/en/sujato

[i] “Kannakatthala Sutta: At Kannakatthala” (MN 90), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.090.than.html .

[ii] “Angulimala Sutta: About Angulimala” (MN 86), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html .

[iii] https://thubtenchodron.org/2007/09/full-ordination-women-restore/

[iv] “Sona: Mother of Ten” (Thig 5.8), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/thig.05.08.than.html.

 

221 – Enfrentando el Discurso Sexista de Buda – Parte 1
222 – Enfrentando el Discurso Sexista de Buda – Parte 2
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