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.