Buddhist Misogyny Revisited – Part II by Barbara McHugh

Read Part I here first

Webster defines myth as “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon,” and in this way myths tell us who we are. Unfortunately, they include stories, from Adam and Eve to Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, that define women by using criteria such as gullibility, passivity, and the size of their feet.

But today women are shining light on the likes of Circe, Mary Magdalene, and Briseus, the young woman dismissed by Homer as an impediment to Achilles’s higher purposes. These stories counter the traditional narratives that restrict women, as well as men, to roles that rob them of their full humanity. In my novel, Bride of the Buddha, the Buddha’s wife embarks on a spiritual journey of her own. When her quest leads her to the Buddha’s all-male sangha, she disguises herself as a monk, eventually becoming Ananda, who in the scriptures is the Buddha’s attendant, the one who struggles with all the questions unenlightened practitioners face today.  The answers to these questions cannot be stated as propositions; they must be felt and lived. Hopefully, my version of Ananda suggests new possibilities for feeling and living these responses. If this “violates” the myth, it does not violate the Buddha’s fundamental views.

I don’t believe the Buddha was responsible for the misogyny in the stories of his life and teachings. In addition to the gender-free nature of the teachings themselves, textual scholars confirm that the Buddha admitted women and lower castes into his sangha at a time when such things were simply not done. Moreover, insisting on the texts’ authenticity can lead to fundamentalism, which is an anti-Buddhist attitude.

The Buddha himself is quoted: “Do not believe in something because it is reported. Do not believe in something because it has been practiced by generations or becomes a tradition or part of a culture. Do not believe in something because a scripture says it is so. Do not believe in something believing a god has inspired it. Do not believe in something a teacher tells you to. Do not believe in something because the authorities say it is so. Do not believe in hearsay, rumor, speculative opinion, public opinion, or mere acceptance to logic and inference alone. Help yourself, accept as completely true only that which you test for yourself and know to be good for yourself and others.” (Anguttara Nikaya 3.65 Kalama Sutta).

Fortunately, fiction doesn’t have to be “believed.”  Through new stories or reworking old ones, we can relate to the earliest teachings in new ways and understand their possibilities without being confined to a literalism that blinds us to the Buddha’s deepest truth.


One of our own FAR contributors, Elizabeth Cunningham, has reviewed the Bride of the Buddha and shares the following:

“From the first page to the last, the tale of this feisty bride and seeker held my heart. Yasodhara/Ananda repeatedly risks the hell realms out of love for others and a passion for justice. In her scrupulous honesty with herself about her own faults, she is often blind to her own goodness, but her sometime husband, aka the Buddha, sees her more clearly and tenderly. As someone who has found Buddhism baffling, I was deeply informed and moved by Barbara McHugh’s brilliant imagining of Yasodhara’s life.”
― Elizabeth Cunningham, author of
 The Passion of Mary Magdalen


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.

Categories: Art, Buddhism, Feminism and Religion, Fiction, Gender, Sexism

Tags: ,

3 replies

  1. The Buddha’s list of “do not believe in…” what you have not investigated and tested for yourself could be an Rx for a time when as a culture we are especially susceptible to conspiracy theories. I am wondering if we are vulnerable partly because we’ve lost an understanding for the nature and purpose of story–which is neither fact (as in the only truth) nor fiction (as in false, not real). The expression “history is told by the winners” can be challenged by historians and storytellers who through research and imagination bring another point of view to life. FAR blogger Mary Sharratt has a mission to write women back into history. Novelist Phillippa Gregory, who wrote many historical novels about queens, has recently launched a series of novels about working and disenfranchised people in beginning of Britain’s colonial period. Those are just a couple of examples. My daughter recently wrote materials for classrooms studying the Quebec uprising of 1970. In one exercise students analyzed news coverage of the event for point of view and purpose. Who is this story for, who is telling it, why, are questions we can all ask as examine history and current events. Since we have inherited historical, cultural, and religious myths that shape our views without our even knowing it, we can benefit from re-telling re-imagining old stories from new points of view. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece, Barbara.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. So delighted you are peering under the surface and breaking apart old tropes and stifling conventions that have only served to keep those in power in their positions. I do a similar work with biblical myths. I have never really known much about Buddhism and so I especially look forward to learning more and will look up your book.

    As you say, we all need to feel, live and experience the pathways. If fact, it is the birthright of all humanity.

    Thanks for this.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Thanks, Barbara, for these two posts. I think what Elizabeth says in her response here is important, namely “Since we have inherited historical, cultural, and religious myths that shape our views without our even knowing it, we can benefit from re-telling re-imagining old stories from new points of view.” As feminists we need remember, invent, and reinvent. As Monique Wittig wrote, “There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember….You say there are not words to describe it; you say it doesn’t not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or failing that, invent.”


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