Sunday, March 13, 2011

Comfort Or Challenge III

I turn to sex, and the treatment of women. Women make up half the human race: how does the religion of universal compassion treat them these days?
Women’s place in the world has changed, and I believe that unless we take account of that change we are doomed to global insignificance. To use the crude but relevant language of economics, women have always, so far as we can tell, predominated among the consumers of religion – perhaps because the world has given them a harder time than men, so that they need more comforting? – and I think they will continue to be the majority of our customers; but with new attitudes and expectations. Leadership roles in the world religions have in the past largely been denied to women, as throughout public life. The economy has led the way in changing the roles of women in society as the importance of muscle power has declined and that of brain power correspondingly increased. In advanced economies, service industries have become more important than agriculture and manufacturing, and in service industries, except only in the short periods when they have babies, women are at no inherent disadvantage. On the other hand, an economy needs all the brain power it can get, so societies in which many women are employed only in the largely unskilled role of housewife are literally thereby impoverished. With each generation women are acquiring more money and more power, and though they still lag far behind men, they are closing the gap. Above all, their self-esteem is rising, and they are not merely fed up with being bossed around by men but increasingly willing to say so and to do something about it.
All the world religions have traditionally given women subordinate roles, but in order to survive they are having to mend their ways. In Christianity Protestants have led the way with women ministers, and now the Church of England even has to contemplate female bishops. The Roman Catholic church has huge numbers and a very efficient and highly centralised organisation, but it seems to be losing adherents with increasing speed. A few days ago I heard the BBC News announce that a poll of Catholic women in Britain showed that almost two thirds said they were dissatisfied with the Church’s position on women. I don’t know about the Muslims, of whom relatively few live in advanced economies, but the voice of female protest is certainly heard among them too.
Enough said. Surely it is plain that if a religion today is to increase it popularity, it will have to appeal to women as least as much as to men. So how does Theravada Buddhism stand? If one goes by the scriptures and ancient traditions it should be in a very strong position indeed to appeal to women. But it has thrown away its advantages, and this to such an extent that I think it cannot possibly advance in countries where women have achieved social equality.
Let me make three points, all of which I regard as of vast importance both practically and morally.
First: menstruation. While they are fertile, adult women bleed for a couple or a few days every month. In some pre-modern societies this has been regarded as dirty or impure; some have myths that it is the result of an ancient curse. In brahminical tradition strict orthodoxy demands that at that time of the month women be secluded and kept away from sacred objects and observances. This is of course a ritual, not a moral, prohibition. In accordance with his principle, already discussed, that attachment to ritual is a great obstacle to spiritual progress, the Buddha ignored menstruation as irrelevant to his teaching. In Sri Lanka, where the most archaic form of Buddhism is preserved, the concept of menstrual impurity is well known (the Sinhala word for it is killa), but it is equally well known that it has no application in a Buddhist context. A woman who is of an age when she might be menstruating is not debarred from any Buddhist activity, from contact with any Buddhist person or object. In a word, for Buddhism, female impurity does not exist – as it did not for the Buddha.
I don’t know how Thai and Burmese Buddhism came to import the notion of female impurity, but in following it they are going against the Buddha, befuddling themselves with superstition, and in the process insulting women. Of course, most women born into those societies have been brought up to take female impurity for granted and so do not feel insulted; but women who come from abroad, and have for example learnt their Buddhism in Sri Lanka, do feel insulted and repelled.
But secondly, things are even worse than this. In Thailand the Vinaya has been changed in a grotesque manner, so that monks may not only not touch a woman, but may not receive anything directly from a woman’s hand. This innovation applies not only to menstruating women, or to women who are of an age when they might be menstruating, but to all females from babies to centenarians. We are therefore dealing not just with a misguided ritual obsession but with true misogyny, a horror and dread of women, a fear that the slightest contact with a female is seductive and may inspire lust. When this is applied even to babies and young children, the necessary implication is so disgusting that I cannot even name it. Those who created such a rule and those who follow them need to be re-educated and to learn that women and girls are people, not objects.
My third point is much more often talked about. Can Theravada restart the Bhikkhuni Sangha, the Order of Nuns, after the break in the ordination tradition? There are six extant textual traditions of the Vinaya; the fact that no two of them wholly agree about how nuns are to be ordained, and that we thus cannot be sure that the Theravadin version goes back to the Buddha, or is even the oldest, gives historians a lot to argue about. But when it comes to preserving Theravada Buddhism, let alone allowing it to flourish, all that is entirely beside the point. If there are women who want to restart a Sangha, why should they be stopped? Should we not thank and congratulate them? What does it matter that the continuity of the ordination ritual has been interrupted? What is that but a ritual? Must we all live in a world of obsessive neurotics? Let people who only care about ritual fuss away to their hearts’ content, and let those who care for the spirit, not the letter, and for living according to the Buddha’s teaching and principles, welcome the one development which, I believe, has the power to preserve Theravada Buddhism for many future generations.
How, then, can Theravada Buddhism be disseminated? How can it even be saved? I find the answer obvious. We have to return to the Buddha’s teaching. Our leaders must fearlessly stand up and tell the world that Buddhism is meant to apply to the whole of life, public and private. We have to understand, and act accordingly, that ritual has no intrinsic value and must be jettisoned if it gets in the way of living the Dhamma. We must acknowledge that Buddhism is for all, including foreigners and women: all must be the objects of our love and compassion, just as all are equally responsible moral agents. Yes; we have to take the Buddha seriously!


Bodhisurfer said...

Thank you so much for that Bhante

ricoBaby said...

what to cannot be helped

Anonymous said...

Thank you Bhante, for in my perspective this is the issue that will define the ability of Theravāda to transplant to the West, or not.

I've written a few entries on my blog regarding this issue (one among many blogs!) and if you or anyone else is interested I'd welcome your engagement and comment with my reflections at

With metta,

Alessandro S. said...

Excellent, Bhante! Thank you for sharing Prof. Gombrich's strong, passionate but true words!
As I said I would have done, I translated the three postings into Italian. They are available over here:
Please let me know if you think Prof. Gombrich should be notified, or if you feel I need his permission in order to leave those translations publicly available.

Anonymous said...

Very well put. This obsession with ritualism and the loss of love and veneration for and to those with high spiritual aspirations must have no place in the Western expansion of the dispensation.