I have entitled this post O Tempora o mores after a sentence by Cicero, meaning “Oh what times! Oh what customs!” I would like to discuss how some of the messages we get from religious writings are defined by the age in which they were written.
As a result, I argue that it is wiser to pay more attention to the overall message of a given spiritual tradition, rather than to subject our view on a single quote.
One of the most popular texts in Thai Buddhism (which is of Theravada tradition) is called Phra Malai Klon Suat, “Chanted Version of Phra Malai.” It was reproduced copiously in the 19th century, with the earliest version dating from the 18th century. However, its origins are believed to be more ancient, coming from the original Indian Buddhism.
It is a story of an enlightened monk called Phra Malai who travels who hell and then to heaven. The main aim of the discourse was to encourage lay people to “make merit”, (we would now say “earn karma points”). While in heaven, Phra Malai encounters Maitreya, the next Buddha to come to the earth after the teachings of the historic Buddha fade away here.
Maitreya describes the condition of the human world right before his descent from heaven. These are supposed to be an ideal state of the world, according to Buddhist cosmology, because the conditions in the human realm gradually deteriorate after each subsequent Buddha had taught, and then improve before the coming of the next one.
I was curious to see what Maitreya had to say about ideal gender relationships in this utopian future world. What I have found was a picture of a sort of a patriarchal heterosexual paradise, wherein women and men live in perfect harmony with men ruling over women.
When husbands and wives live together as a couple for a long time […] loving each other, sharing the same room, having affection for one another, […] happy and joyful;
When men are satisfied with doing good deeds and are content with one wife, and women take delight in loving only one man as their husband and lord. […] when men won’t go around with other women, and those women certainly won’t commit adultery.
(Cited from Buddhist Scriptures, ed. By Donal S. Lopez, Jr., Penguin books, 2004, pp. 92-98)
Aside from the obviously patriarchal statement “their husband and lord” note the emphasis that women “certainly” should not commit adultery. This sounds as if almost admitting that “boys will be boys” and men will sleep around, Maitreya or no Maitreya.
The first citation is positive enough, apart from the fact, of course, that it only refers to a heterosexual marriage. The rest of the document is also quite upbeat paints a lofty picture.
When people of Chomphu (human realm) will be concerned even about those far away, and they will love each other as if they are one family;
When women and men won’t struggle to make their fortune; when […] they’ll have no pain;
When women and men are bedecked in necklaces […]; with crowns and gold ornaments adorning their bodies
Maitreya says he will arrive.
In this Buddhist text both men and women are specifically said to be worthy of gold crowns, fortune and living in peace and love with the rest of humanity. They are also meant to have a happy marriage as long as it is a monogamous heterosexual one, with man as head of the family.
Material well-being seems to be one of the treasured goals of humanity since our emergence on the earth. Consideration for the whole humanity is not surprising to find in the text dating from 18th-19th century, when Enlightenment ideas ruled and the world was connected by transport and modern communications.
Patriarchal loving relationships between genders must have been perceived as the best possible. I have no doubt that compared to the reality of domestic violence against women and men having multiple affairs out of marriage it indeed seemed like some utopian unachievable goal.
Nevertheless, viewed from our modern perspectives this “ideal” falls short. Feminism revision of this picture would be equality of people of all gender identities.
Having said that, I would like to note that our current view if also determined by the time and place in which we live. It is very possible that in the future people will find new was of defining ideal gender relations. Perhaps the two genders will be defined differently. Maybe there will be more than two genders.
Moreover, it is possible that feminists will find a way of working around the gender specific language of religious texts. The divine in religious texts might lack a gender pronoun. Alternatively, a new pronoun for Her/Him might be found.
Having resolved the tensions that we see as challenging now, the future feminist generations might look back at our attempts to reconcile feminism and religion and smile. “O tempora, o mores!” they will exclaim.
Oxana Poberejnaia is a frame drummer, writer and an artist at http://poeticoxana.wordpress.com. She was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and has been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention, now in its 10th year. Oxana is exploring the Sacred Feminine through frame drumming, working with her menstrual cycle, frame drumming and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Her frame drum band Incidentals can be found here.