Buddhist Misogyny Revisited – Part I by Barbara McHugh

Recently, I wrote a novel about the Buddha’s wife disguising herself as a man to join his religious community. When I showed the manuscript to a Buddhist friend, whose knowledge and practice I respect greatly, he expressed apprehension that it violated the basic myth of Buddhism. I assumed he meant that my storyline of gender deception strays too far from the versions of the Buddha’s life as recorded in the traditional canon, which adherents regard as the Buddha’s inviolable teachings. The last thing I wanted to do was to misrepresent these teachings.

What does it mean “to violate a myth”?  If I had portrayed the Buddha as a psycho-killer or wife-beater, I could appreciate this charge, but I had presented an enlightened Buddha whose values were in alignment with standard scripture and the mores of his day. The change I made was to tell the story from a woman’s point of view, and to do so, I modified some of the traditional legends and created new material to make my choices plausible. Predictably, my modifications came up against many of the stories’ misogynistic elements.

For instance, in the canon, the Buddha initially refuses to admit women to the monastic order.  Eventually his attendant Ananda persuades him, but then the Buddha adds 104 extra rules for nuns, eight of which (the Garudammas) clearly put women in an inferior position.  One rule states: “A nun who has been ordained even for a hundred years must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, do proper homage to a monk ordained but that day.” The Buddha also told Ananda that thanks to the admission of women, the Dharma (the teachings and practices of Buddhism) would die out after only 500 years.

Modern scholars attribute this sexism to the Buddha’s need to appease patriarchal supporters, protect women from physical danger (when he excludes them from his community), or test the devotion of Ananda and the women who wished to ordain. These excuses, unfortunately, perpetuate the view of women as helpless, ripe for abuse, and not worth risking one’s power for.

Other scholars address the misogyny problem by acknowledging these stories as later additions to the canon, not attributable to the Buddha. In that case, these add-ons already violate Buddhism’s basic myth, even as they have become a part of it. And the anti-woman material gets worse. There are depictions of women as inferior or downright evil. After the Buddha’s death, for example, Ananda is publically condemned not only for supporting women’s ordination, but for allowing the women to weep over the Buddha’s body lying in state, “polluting” the sacred relics with “women’s tears.” In another instance, Ananda asks the Buddha, “Lord, how should we behave toward women?” “Not look at them!” he replies. “But what if we must look at them?” “Not speak to them” “But what if we must speak to them?” “Keep wide awake!”

This question-and-response, inconsistent with the Buddha’s affirmative attitude toward women, is justified as the Buddha simply warning celibate monks against the dangers of sensual desire. But if that were the case, why is there no corresponding Q&A in which he warns women against the dangers of men? There is a painting at Wat Suan Mokkh, an important monastery in Thailand, that depicts a woman in a mini-skirt adorned with fishhooks. And in Thailand, if a woman (lay or monastic) sits next to a monk on the bus, the monk will often jump up and move, not to be polluted or tempted by her touch. This depiction of women as a vile species is reflected in other scriptural passages, e.g. in the Anguttara Nikaya, which compares women to black snakes: dirty, foul-smelling, and untrustworthy (AN 5.229 at AN III 260,24).

So I ask again, what myth is a contemporary author violating when she attempts to envision these stories from a women’s point of view? I’m not trying to pass my version of them off as history (unlike the accretions to the canon, which indeed pretend these are the Buddha’s words). Scriptures from all faiths, even when not explicitly misogynist, reflect the values of their times for better and for worse. Buddhist scriptures also contain inspiring stories of enlightened women; many of these stories of awakening are in their own words. Even more significant, the nuts and bolts of the Buddha’s Dharma (teachings)—the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, Dependent Origination—do not concern themselves with gender differences: They are truths and practices for all. Today, especially in the West, many women practice and teach the Dharma, so is it possible we’re in a “post-misogynist” era, when we needn’t fear being harmed by attitudes expressed in ancient texts? I very much doubt it, any more than we’re in a “post-racist” society.

One symptom that indicates we still have a ways to go is the resistance to female-centric stories, a resistance that often manifests itself as orthodoxy.  I mentioned the premise of my work, that Ananda’s true identity was Yasodhara, to another Buddhist scholar who immediately cut me off: “Surely that doesn’t appear in the suttas! (scriptures)”  I tried to explain that I was writing fiction, but that didn’t seem to matter. I was not suggesting a reinterpretation of the narrative; I was just writing a novel using legendary and historical elements. But the problem seemed to be that I was pushing against the edges of a sacrosanct myth, even though accretions have already made their way into the texts…

Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow…


Barbara McHugh is a Buddhist practitioner with a Ph.D. in religion and literature from the University of California at Berkeley. Her novel Bride of the Buddha will be published by Monkfish Book Publishing Co. in January 2021.

16 thoughts on “Buddhist Misogyny Revisited – Part I by Barbara McHugh”

  1. I highly recommend Barbara McHugh’s novel, well-researched, riveting, and equally accessible to Buddhists and non-Buddhists. As one of the latter, with a certain grudge against Prince Siddhartha, I found the Yasodhara’s story deeply satisfying–and, well, enlightening. I ended up with a new respect, understanding, and even affection for the Buddha as a teacher and a fallible human being. That said, this is not his story through her eyes. It is decidedly her story from beginning to end, including a memorable sojourn with a tribal female shaman.

    Great post, Barbara. I look forward to the next installment.

    Liked by 7 people

  2. I think Buddha’s teachings are misogynist. I think any religion that states that this life is not good enough implicitly denigrates women as mothers. To escape the cycle of birth and death is to say that there is something inherently flawed about life in the body in the world, life that is the gift of life given by the mother is somehow cursed.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree that the Buddhist goal of “getting off the wheel” might be interpreted as anti-life, but he is not anti-mother, nor is her gift cursed In fact, the gift of a human birth is the greatest gift a person can receive, because only as a human being can one awaken. As for the value of motherhood, I quote him. “I declare that there are two persons that are not easily repaid. What two? One’s father and one’s mother. Even if one should carry about one’s mother on one shoulder and one’s father on the other, and while doing it…reach the age of a hundred yeas; and if one should attend to them by anointing them with balms, by massaging, bathing, and rubbing their limbs …– even by that one would not do enough for one’s parents, nor would one repay them. Even if one were to establish one’s parents as the supreme lords [sic] and rulers over this earth so rich in the seven treasures, one would not repay them….”

      Also, the idea that the world is inherently flawed is not something that most Buddhists teach. The problem come when we believe that there’s something wrong with the world, and suffer accordingly.

      Nonetheless, patriarchy has done its number on Buddhism, as it has so many religions.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I guess I have a question about re -writing any of these misogynist stories. Do these stories help free us from the past? My sense is that they don’t. I think what we desperately need are new stories that have new elements…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. News stories can be great, and stories about contemporary people making new kinds of choices are crucial, but I fear we don’t free ourselves from the past by ignoring it. I grew up in the fifties in the North, where the new stories were all about the New South and how well it was doing, and about how modern “Negroes” were now full citizens and slavery was a thing of the past. I also fear that a failure to address the stories of the past will leave the past to those who would romanticize it — think Gone with the Wind.

      Liked by 3 people

        1. Wow, such an interesting discussion about re-writing old stories or just trashing them and beginning anew. I would come down on the side of re-writing.

          The reason I think re-writing makes is important (and what I do myself) is that I believe there is a reason these stories have endured for thousands of years. There are kernels in there that speak to people and to the human condition If we can reveal these kernels as a core and build new stories from based on their original power then we have the foundation for new paradigms and foundations for our culture.

          I also think its important in order to reveal where our culture went wrong. For me, its only by looking at the past and understanding it that we can change course as we move forward.

          Sara, I hear you about the scary times and new stories have power as well so nothing wrong, in my book, with that pathway.

          Liked by 2 people

  4. There’s a small, urban, Buddhist monastery here in Long Beach, CA. I’ve never been in it, but I see the monks walking on the streets sometimes. Always men. I haven’t studied Buddhism enough to know about the misogyny, but I’m not at all surprised, The Indian men I’ve met (one was an editing client) seem to think they’re gods and expect women to bow before them and serve them. This has always puzzled me, but having read your post, I’m better understanding what I’ve seen and heard. I agree with Sara that Buddhism desperately needs new stories with new elements. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s post. Bright blessings!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I just remembered this: Back in the early 90s, one of the really famous orders of Tibetan Buddhist monks was doing a world tour (or something) and giving seminars on meditation. Here in L.A., they were staying at a monkery (sorry) in Hollywood or one of the exclusive neighborhoods thereabouts. I was one of the few women in the audience. During his introductory speech, one of the monks told us about the work his order does, how devout the monks and nuns all were. There wasn’t a single nun in the room. Well, being a smart-ass, I raised my hand. “Where are your nuns today?” The monk smiled at me. “They’re all back at the monastery doing the housework.”

    True story. Cross my heart.

    Liked by 6 people

  6. Ani Choying Drolma is a Buddhist nun who has been addressing these issues for many years. She became a Buddhist nun at a very young age because of her father’s abuse. While at the nunnery she developed her amazing singing voice and has been an internationally acclaimed singer for more than two decades. In 1998, she established the Nuns’ Welfare Foundation (NWF), an NGO, to promote the education of Buddhist nuns and has created other initiatives that provide for the education of girls, among other humanitarian causes.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. “But the problem seemed to be that I was pushing against the edges of a sacrosanct myth, even though accretions have already made their way into the texts…” That is the problem, since the pushback against naming these problems is tremendous. What has been done to women does not matter to them, only a narrative that glorifies the founders. The extremely sexist passages are already there in the oldest Nikayas, and everyone wants to pretend this was never a real issue, and that any of that bad stuff was only really to “protect” women. Think of all the homeless women turned away, because the Sangha would not give them refuge.

    Liked by 2 people

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