From the Archives: 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…

BIO: 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 was published by Monkfish Book Publishing Co. in January 2021.



Categories: Art, Fiction, Gender, General, Myth

Tags: , ,

30 replies

  1. I read this novel last year and loved it!
    Thank-you Barbara McHugh for having the courage, imagination, and diligence to not only dream up but to write so beautifully and to publish such a compelling re-visioning of early Buddhism. This is bold and highly talented feminist work and my hat goes off to you.

    Personally I find the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh very compelling, but I noticed at his very recent funeral, held in Vietnam, that the women monks were mostly kept outside the temple. His very closest nun-friend was allowed inside near his body, but there were large groups of nuns outside the temple while the temple was full of male monastics.

    The tentacles of sexism are myriad and far-reaching. Recuperating the good insights from patriarchal religions and re-fashioning them is essential for our times. Bride of the Buddha should be integrated as part of mainstream Buddhist teachings.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “Modern scholars attribute this sexism to the Buddha’s need to appease patriarchal supporters” – frankly I find this excuse ridiculous. Why can’t we own that the Buddha had little use for women?

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    • Sara, You make a very good point. Buddha abandoned his wife and new born son to pursue a life of monasticism and meditation. … And yet, Buddhism is steeped in appreciation for the cyclical nature and inter-being of all life — hardly possible without women. … monastic renunciation of worldly concerns includes renunciation of family life, but without families of some sort humanity would die off. …

      Liked by 1 person

    • I would never, ever deny the sexism that existed and still exists in Buddhism. However, the Buddha was the first religious leader of his extremely patriarchal time to accept women into his community and esteem them as teachers, of men as well as women. The earliest collection of suttas includes books devoted entirely to women’s teachings. But the point is not to revere or “give the credit to” the Buddha or any other charismatic figure. The Buddha himself said, again and again, “Don’t listen to me, find out for yourself.” In my experience, Buddhist philosophy and practice has a lot to teach us about how the mind works and how to live more wholly and lovingly in the world.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Many years ago, I went to a workshop presented by members of one of the most famous Tibetan Buddhist orders. The men–only men came to teach–explained some of the teachings and then danced. When I asked one of the men about Buddhist nuns, he merely nodded. When I asked where the women were, he replied, “They’re at the monastery keeping house.” Or words to that effect: the nuns did all the menial work while the guys got all the fame.

    Thanks for your post. Bright blessings!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Misogyny dies hard!
      What men through the ages have missed is not only the riches they can gain from the women around them, but also from the feminine side of their own nature. This is the secret of the yin-yang symbol.

      Liked by 1 person

      • re: the yin yang symbol: isn’t it interesting that while it is supposed to be a symbol of balance with the opposites of black/white in perfect balance – it is in fact wholly contained within the feminine circle…

        but perhaps Barbara will yank this too…

        Like

    • oh crap – that would have been the end for me – i HATE housework!!!!

      Like

  4. “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.”

    Well said! Thank you.
    The Hermeneutic of Suspicion, is, for me, the centre, the “spine/helix” of intersectionality.

    Like

  5. “Modern scholars attribute this sexism to the Buddha’s need to appease patriarchal supporters”. What this says to me is that he was driven by expediency and attachment to advancement, which equates to complicity. In fact, the Eight Severe Rules go far beyond complicity to actually encoding male domination into the canon. No one disputes that Gautama turned away women in the beginning, and only yielded after they showed strong determination to break down the sexed barrier. Yet I often see claims that he could not have imposed those rules, even though they (and the misogynist verses “Women are stupid, Ananda,” etc) are in the oldest scriptures. There seems to be no end to the excuses for this fundamental failure of humanity toward women.

    All the talk about detachment and compassion falls flat when we see how durable the attachment to male egoism / masculine supremacy has been over more than two millennia. That’s not to say Buddhism or Buddhists have no insights to offer, because they do; but this ego-self-clinging is a wound at the core that needs to be overcome if true compassion (as opposed to self-elevating pity) is to be achieved.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. actions always speak louder than words – anyone can say anything – but if they don’t follow through, well????

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  7. Scholars have sifted through a lot of the sexism of Buddhism’s oldest scripture, and most of them believe that much of the misogyny comes from later accretions. In any case, the story of the Buddha is a story. It’s hard to know what the Buddha’s underlying motives were. Part of the richness of a story is that it’s open to many interpretations, which could help us all think.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Until recently, though, the sexist implications of that story went unexamined.

      I do appreciate your attempt to tell a different kind of story, one which foregrounds the exclusion of women, and the pain this has caused. To begin to remedy the structural misogyny.

      Like

  8. I’ve found that any religion, or spiritual practice, that has a bloke at the top of the food chain is, by its very nature, misogynist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • you nailed it Widdershins – women need not apply for the dalai lama position… and if a woman were to ever somehow impossibly become dalai lama, the vast majority of monks would undoubtedly leave – such is the misogyny buddhism is rooted in…

      and Barabara will undoubtedly yank this – such is her apologist defense of buddhism…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. again i pose this koan:

    how long does a buddhist monk have to meditiate before he Realizes ‘fe-male / male’ is an illusion, and he is the nun prostrating herself in front of him?

    and how is it possible if Gautama was ‘enlightened’, Ananda had to point out his obvious hypocrisy regarding his teachings vs his actions towards women? so obvious that Gautama did a 360 and allowed women to join – but with enough humiliating rules to keep them in their subservient place below the boys…

    both of these enlightened Masters below LIVED their teachings – without ever having to be corrected and taught by their students/disiciples… that’s what made them enlightened…

    what you do to an ‘other’ – you do to your Self – Yeshua, the Golden Rule before the ‘christian’ church mangled it…

    when you understand an act done to an ‘other’ is done to your Self, you understand the Great Truth -Lao Tzu

    Liked by 1 person

  10. dragonfly dreams, Barbara didn’t take out any posts of yours. As a moderator I did that. Please check out our community policy. Internet communications can go awry very quickly and when discussions get too heated that creates issues that can’t be pulled back. We do welcome a variety of opinions and invite you to express yours in a respectful manner.

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    • my apologies to Barbara – apparently it is Janet who has issues with the simple obvious Truth that Gautama was a hypocritical misogynist and buddhism is rooted in hypocrisy and misogyny…

      no different than Thomas Jefferson being a slave owner, rapist and genocidally advocating the “extermination” of the Original Inhabitants – while vociferously penning his views on ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’…

      ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS

      Like

  11. If you see Guatama on the road, tell him what a hypocritical misogynist he is – and then kill him…

    it took Zen to knock Gautama off his ‘enlightened’ pedestal…

    “Since everything is an illusion, Perfect in Being what it is, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may burst into laughter.” -Longchenpa (Zen monk, 14th century)

    even better – if you are a woman and you see a buddhist monk on the road, go give him a big warm hug and see if he bursts into laughter…

    generally speaking, an enlightened Master would be loathe to announce to the world they are enlightened – they let their actions speak for themselves…

    ——————————-

    “Although ‘Being’ is logically divided into ‘that which is’ and ‘that which can be,’ it is really indivisible, indistinct, and ONE – without difference of part and whole, principle and unprincipled. Everything is in every thing, and consequently ALL IS ONE – unity in multiplicity and multiplicity in unity.” -Giordano Bruno, a truly enlightened One burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600

    “Ultimately, the entire Universe has to be understood as a single undivided WHOLE, in which analysis into separate and independent parts has no fundamental status. The WHOLE is present in each part, in each level of existence. The Living Reality, which is total and unbroken and undivided, is in every thing [actually it IS every thing]. The Universe is a Cosmic Hologram.” -David Bohm, Theoretical Physicist

    “I was six when I saw that everything was God, and my hair stood up, and all that,” Teddy said. “It was on a Sunday, I remember. My sister was only a very tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean.” -J. D. Salinger, Teddy

    “For those upon Earth to learn to ‘love one another,’ it isn’t enough that they should know themselves to be members of ONE and the same thing… they must acquire the Consciousness, without losing themselves, of becoming ONE and the same Person.” -Teilhard de Chardin

    “Seldom and slowly the mask falls, and the pupil is permitted to see that ALL IS ONE stuff, cooked and painted in an infinite number of counterfeit disguises.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

    when the sense of distinction and separation is absent – you may call it Love -Nisargadatta

    God [Consciousness] is Love -Yeshua

    Like

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