From Right View, Red Rust, White Bones

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A Re-examination of Buddhist Teachings on Female Inferiority

by Allison Goodwin

In the Tripitaka and later sutras, the Buddha repeatedly establishes standards for evaluating spiritual teachings and practices—including his own—before one accepts them. He makes clear that his teachings are often misremembered, misrepresented, or misunderstood: This is one of his main reasons for outlining terms for investigating spiritual doctrine. He also warns that false and inaccurate teachings are among the conditions that will lead to the decline and disappearance of the Dharma.

According to the Buddhist sutras, the methods for testing spiritual doctrine that the Buddha proposes in these passages are those he hopes Buddhists will use in assessing Buddhist and other spiritual teachings: They will help practitioners to determine whether teachings are true/should be accepted and followed, or whether they are false/should be abandoned.

The application of these standards to one of the most controversial issues in Buddhism today—teachings attributed to the Buddha that women have more negative karma, and are inferior to men, and rules that reify and reinforce them—has profound consequences for the religion. In evaluating the validity of these teachings and rules, one determines the most important practical aspects of Right View and The Middle Path—how the Dharma should be put into practice in day-to-day life, and how one should cultivate and conduct “body, speech, and mind” as one interacts with all human beings. Thus, one defines Buddhism itself.

 

At Present, The Vast Majority of Buddhist orders throughout Asia teach that women are inferior to men and have more weaknesses and “karmic obstructions.” These orders also discriminate against women in rituals and policies and so, through their words and actions, teach their cultures to do the same. This is true even in the most liberal Buddhist sects in Taiwan and Korea, where nuns generally enjoy higher standing than in other Asian countries.

In monastic orders that accept members of both genders in these countries, nuns generally cannot hold the highest-ranking positions of authority. They are also required to relinquish their authority whenever a monk is present. Nuns and laywomen are routinely made to sit, walk, and stand behind monks and laymen, respectively; to receive food after the men have been served; to speak after men have spoken; and to chant, study, and teach sutras that contain disparaging messages about women.

Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana teachings make clear that one should view sentient beings equally, without discriminating among them. Yet in Dharma classes and Buddhist literature it is taught that women have more negative qualities, lesser abilities, and heavier karmic burdens than men, and cannot become Buddhas. In some orders, the Eight Garudhammas—a set of rules in the Tripitaka that limit nuns’ authority and place them under the control of the monks’ order—are followed to the letter. Nuns are made to bow down to monks’ feet, and even the most senior nuns are required to kowtow to all monks, including those who have just been initiated.

According to a passage in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta…the Buddha vows just after becoming enlightened that he won’t pass away until he has founded and prepared the four assemblies—contradicting the well-known story of the origin of the nuns’ order, in which the Buddha refuses three times to ordain women before grudgingly consenting.

Unequal rules and negative views of women are most conservatively interpreted and practiced in Theravada Buddhist countries. In all but Sri Lanka, the full ordination of women is forbidden. Theravada nuns are not even recognized as novices, or considered to be members of the monastic community, except in Sri Lanka. As in most of Asia, nuns receive less respect, training, and material support, and have little or no chance of advancement in Buddhist institutions. It is often taught that women cannot reach enlightenment and must be reborn as men in order to succeed in their practice. Women are often barred from entering sacred areas of shrines and temples. And in some countries any monk who even supports the ordination of women is subject to punishment, which may include expulsion from his order.

Most of the Tripitaka and later sutras were first written down hundreds of years after the Buddha’s Parinibbana. Given attitudes in India during and after the Buddha’s the time, it is unsurprising that deprecatory views of women and rules restricting them should have occasionally been added to the Buddhist canon, right alongside highly positive and equitable ones—just as misogynist views and rules have appeared in the scriptures of many, if not most, ancient world religions that also revere women.

 

The Scriptural Account of the Buddha’s attitude toward women is conveyed through teachings and stories found throughout the Tripitaka and later texts, and it is implicit in many of the most basic Dharma principles.

In a conversation with the wanderer Vacchagotta, recorded in the Mahavacchagotta Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya, the Buddha implies that his female and male followers are equal in accomplishment: “far more” than five hundred of his nuns, and “far more” than five hundred of his monks have already been enlightened. “Far more” than five hundred laywomen, and “far more” than five hundred laymen “will reappear spontaneously in the Pure Abodes and there attain final Nibbana without ever returning from that world.”

Throughout the passage, the Buddha uses the same language and equal numbers to describe the spiritual attainments of his female and male disciples. Vacchagotta responds that if nuns, monks, laywomen, and laymen alike were not accomplished, the “holy life would be deficient in that respect.” Satisfied that the Dharma is not flawed, Vacchagotta—who had long been undecided as to whether to become the Buddha’s disciple—finally decides to request ordination.

In an insightful 2010 article entitled Women’s Renunciation in Early Buddhism, Analayo, one of the foremost scholars of early Buddhism today, discusses this and other passages in early Buddhist texts which convey that the Buddha and others saw laywomen and the nuns’ order—as they saw each of the “four assemblies” (nuns, monks, laywomen, and laymen)—as integral parts of the sangha, essential to the Dharma’s completeness, survival, and success. According to a passage in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, in fact, the Buddha vows just after becoming enlightened that he won’t pass away until he has founded and prepared the four assemblies—contradict- ing the well-known story of the origin of the nuns’ order, in which the Buddha refuses three times to ordain women before grudgingly con- senting.

In the Kimbala Suttas, the Buddha states that the four assemblies’ respect for one another is essential for the continuance of the Dharma after his passing. Many passages else- where in the Tripitaka and later texts portray the Buddha praising female disciples for their abilities and strengths. They also depict nuns and laywomen as learned, virtuous, exceptional, and wise—as capable as male disciples of practicing and teaching the Dharma and achieving full awakening.

In the Drdhadhyasayapariprccha Sutra, the Buddha warns that negative views of women, and the belief that women—or any beings at all—are unwholesome or responsible for the feelings they incite, are mental fabrications and forms of attachment, projected by the perceiver upon imagined others that do not inherently exist. The problem lies in the mind of the perceiver: anyone who even “contemplates the impurity of an entity that has never arisen and never existed” is not “practicing the path.” It is a powerful indictment of those who hold exactly the sorts of negative views of women attributed to the Buddha elsewhere.

The non-discriminatory and positive messages about women and their position in the sangha in these and many other passages in the Tripitaka and later texts, strongly contradict statements found in discourses that are among the most important sources of the special rules and negative attitudes towards women. The latter include views so virulent they raise the eyebrows of many readers. Among them are statements like the follow- ing from the Tripitaka, all attributed to the Buddha:

“It is impossible that a woman should be a perfect fully enlightened Buddha” (MN 115, AN 1.279).

“It is impossible…that the Buddha should allow greeting, rising up for, salutation, and proper duties towards women…Whoever should do so incurs an offence of wrongdoing” (Cullavagga X).

“Women are…easily angered…envious… greedy…weak in wisdom” (Kamboja Sutta).

“Women are the stain of the holy life” (Devatasamyutta).

Woman is “filthy, stinking, cowardly, terrifying, and betrays friends…a black snake…she is aggressive, bears grudges, has terrible poison, is fork-tongued” (Panhamakaõhasappa Sutta and Dutiyakaõhasappasutta Sutta).

Women are “wholly a snare of [the Tempter/Devil] Mara” (Mataputta Sutta).

Photo by Alexander Synaptic

Photo by Alexander Synaptic

One of the most influential of these passages is the above-mentioned account of the found- ing of the nuns’ order in the Gotam Sutta and the Cullavagga in the Vinaya. According to that narrative, the Buddha refuses to ordain his aunt and adoptive mother, and reluctantly concedes only after ananda’s repeated intervention. The Buddha then establishes the Eight Garudhammas—preconditions for women’s ordination. Among other things, the rules forbid nuns to criticize or admonish monks, and oblige them to receive monks’ permission, not only for their reinstatement after a major offense—but also for their ordination. The Garudhammas also require nuns to receive regular instruction from monks, confess transgressions to, and kowtow to the ground before them. The Buddha goes on to liken women to “red rust” and “white bones,” diseases that infest rice and sugar cane fields—they will quickly destroy any religion they enter. He further predicts that because he has ordained a woman, Buddhism will die out in five hundred years instead of a thousand.

Given the well-documented, constructive role that women have played in the practice and transmission of the Dharma, including during the Buddha’s lifetime, the Buddha’s alleged prediction has been far from accurate. Stories in the Tripitaka of serious conflicts in the early Sangha over the existence, rights, and status of the nuns’ order, both during the Buddha’s lifetime and following his Parinibbana, have provided further evidence that the teachings that are critical of women, and rules restricting them, were most likely the work of monks who added them to the sutras to control and limit the nuns’ order.

 

Today, The Findings Of A Large body of psychological and social research provide an important new tool for assessing the effects of these teachings and rules: The studies show that discrimination and beliefs about self and others have a profound impact on human development and social reality—not only because they influence how we perceive ourselves and others, and how we think and behave, but because they also affect well-being, welfare, happiness, health and achievement.

From a Buddhist perspective, because we are interconnected, interdependent and constantly changing, and because the perceiver is inseparable from the perceived, our thoughts, words, and actions affect everything we are connected to. When children—and many adults—are taught that a particular group is inferior to another, many will come to see them as such. In so doing, they will harm that group, and themselves.

It is no accident that women’s overall social, economic, and political standing remains low in Buddhist majority and former Buddhist majority countries when compared with that of women in countries with religious or unaffiliated majorities that hold more positive and egalitarian views of women. Even the most prosperous Buddhist/former Buddhist majority countries today, Japan and Korea, have been found to have large gender disparities.

Particularly chilling are statistics that show a record number of male births in a number of Buddhist and former Buddhist majority countries since the early 1980s, when abortion and low-cost sonogram technologies became widely available. It has been estimated that as a result of religious and cultural value systems and traditions that place a greater premium on male children and foster unfavorable attitudes toward females, between 1980 and the early 1990s, sex-selective abortions resulted in well over 100 million “missing females” in Asia and North Africa. 44 million were “missing” in China alone.

The harm done to those who are taught to look on women and other groups as inferior, and to treat them as such, is more difficult to measure than harm done to those who are subject to discrimination. However, psychological and social studies also offer ample evidence as to its nature.

This large body of research shows that had the Buddha seen women as inferior or more flawed than men; had he set up special rules to limit them; or had he taught such beliefs or rules to others, he would have harmed his disciples, their cultures, future generations, Buddhism, and the Buddha himself—just as those same views and practices harm entire cultures today.

Such teachings and practices also convey not only that it is acceptable, but that it is spiritually and morally sound to view entire segments of the population as inferior, and to establish social systems that treat them as such. They are the antithesis—not only of core Buddhist teachings on non-harm, kind- ness, compassion, and avoiding harsh speech and aversion—but also of the most essential dharma on Right View and the Middle Path:

According to the Dharma, it is precisely by realizing that what we mistakenly perceive to be inherently existing, separate selves and others are, in fact, interdependent, subjective, and transitory illusions—constantly evolving compounded aggregates, subject to causes and conditions, and closely connected with other beings and phenomena—that one can abandon self-clinging and discriminatory thinking, and bring an end to suffering. The Soma Sutta spells out that identification with gender—or with “anything at all”—makes one fit for Mara to tempt. “The Tathagata . . . is equal toward all things and does not discriminate among them” (Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutta).

 

The Early Buddhist Canon contains several accounts of the Buddha’s methods for assessing the validity of spiritual teachings and practices. Much of the Tripitaka and later sutras are also devoted to detailed analyses of Right and Wrong View, and the right and wrong way to think, speak, behave, practice, and teach. These passages convey that false or distorted dharma, misguided teachers, and Wrong Views are among the most common problems that practitioners face. This is one of the main reasons why one mustn’t accept spiritual teachings without investigating them.

In several discourses, the Buddha warns that false teachings are among the conditions that will lead to the Dharma’s demise. He also gives instructions for evaluating spiritual teachers and teachings.

In one of the Buddha’s best-known calls to question, in the Jnanasara-Samuccaya and the Tattva-samgraha by santaraksita, the Buddha insists that his followers question and test all teachings they have heard directly from the Buddha himself, and rely on their own judgment and investigations in the process:

“Brethren, when I speak to you, don’t accept it blindly because you love and respect me. But examine it and put it to the test, as a goldsmith examines gold, by cutting, heating, and ham- mering it to know whether it is genuine gold or counterfeit. If you see it is reasonable, only then accept it and follow it.”

In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha directs that even when the source of teachings is a monastic who claims to have heard the dhammas “from the Lord Buddha’s own lips,” or directly from “elders or a community with distinguished teachers,” the practitioner must not outright accept or reject their claims. She or he should “carefully note and compare the claims with the discourses and review them in light of the discipline….If the dhammas are found not to conform to the discourses or the discipline, the conclusion must be: ‘This is not the word of the Buddha, it has been wrongly understood by this monk—or by that community, or by those elders, or that elder’—and the teachings or practices are to be rejected.”

Photo by Staffan Scherz

Photo by Staffan Scherz

According to a dialogue between sakyamuni and a group of villagers in the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha advises that practitioners are right to question all sources of spiritual authority, including himself. He goes on to warn them not to rely on the traditional bases of religious doctrine—including scriptures, teachers, religious authorities, and tradition— when making a decision as to whether or not to accept a teaching. Instead, one should make one’s determination based on what one “knows for oneself” of dharmas’ qualities and of what “dhammas . . . lead to”—one should rely on personal knowledge and experience, and whatever else one “knows for oneself” to be reliable, concrete evidence concerning dharmas’ qualities and effects. Teachings and practices are to be abandoned if they lead to long-term harm or suffering, or possess any of a series of spiritually counterproductive traits listed in the passage.

Several other teachings reiterate a similar message: if a teaching or practice leads to spiritually counterproductive or otherwise harmful results—or fails to lead to any of several beneficial states or outcomes outlined—one can “definitely hold, ‘This is not the Dhamma, this is not the Vinaya, this is not the Teacher’s instruction.’”

Unquestioning faith and acceptance of spiritual teachings and teachers is dangerous and discouraged in the strongest terms. To investigate, and only then accept or reject any teaching or rule is not a sin, nor is it heresy, blasphemy or bad judgment. It is, in fact, a Buddhist’s duty—the prerequisite, necessary step that Buddhists should take before accepting teachings as authentic.


Allison Goodwin is a writer, teacher, and activist who has helped facilitate the translation of some of the best scholarship that presents evidence the negative Buddhist teachings on women are harmful and contradict the most essential Buddhist Dharma.

Excerpted from “Right View, Red Rust, and White Bones: A Reexamination of Buddhist Teachings on Female Inferiority,” published in The Journal of Buddhist Ethics in 2012. Please refer to the full article for a more detailed discussion and list of works cited.

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