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Was the Lord Buddha a sexist?

By METTANANDO BHIKKHU, Bangkok Post, May 9, 2006

This question is not intended as a blasphemy against the Lord Buddha or his teachings, but it is pertinent to the survival and progress of Buddhism in the modern world

Bangkok, Thailand -- Determining the Lord Buddha's attitude towards women is directly related to the very nature of Buddhism itself, and whether or not Buddhism supports the human rights movement for equality and democracy. In answering this question, one can always argue that there is no way to verify the answer, since the Lord Buddha has long since passed away into Nirvana. However, passages in the Tripitaka, which is the largest body of religious teaching in the world, serve as a good reference in our quest.

In order to find out whether or not the Buddha discriminated against women, the Tripitaka is the only appropriate historical source for reference. Nevertheless, the method is not simple.

The interpretation of Buddhist texts depends largely on the method employed in the reading, i.e., taking the words literally as many traditionalist Buddhists do, or using a more holistic approach to understanding, as many modern scholars do.

The latter also requires critical analysis and the art of reading between the lines. Like most religious texts handed down from antiquity, the Tripitaka offers conflicting information regarding the status of women.

One of the key references that strongly discriminates against women is the legend of the origin of the nuns (bhikkhuni), in which the Buddha showed his strong disapproval of women's ordination as requested by Prajapati Gautami, his aunt and stepmother. Ananda, the Buddha's close attendant stepped in and negotiated on her behalf. As a result, the Buddha laid down a set of special rules, or the so-called Eight Heavy Duties (Garudhammas) that established the conditions for women's ordination, and nuns were required to strictly adhere to them for the rest of their lives.

The Eight Heavy Duties are:

1. A nun, even if she has been ordained for 100 years, must respect, greet and bow in reverence to the feet of a monk, even if he has just been ordained that day. (Monks pay respect to each other according to their seniority, or the number of years they have been ordained.)

2. A nun is not to stay in a residence where there is no monk. (A monk may take an independent residence.)

3. A nun is to look forward to two duties: asking for the fortnightly Uposatha (meeting day), and receiving instructions by a monk every fortnight. (Monks do not depend on nuns for this obligatory rite, nor are they required to receive any instruction.)

4. A nun who has completed her rains-retreat must offer herself for instruction to both the community of monks and to the community of nuns, based on what is seen, what is heard and what is doubted. (Monks only offer themselves to the community of monks.)

5. A nun who is put on probation for violating a monastic rule of Sanghadisesa must serve a 15-day minimum probation, with reinstatement requiring approval from both the monk and nun communities. (The minimum for monks is a five-day probation with no approval by the nuns required for reinstatement.)

6. A woman must be ordained by both monks and nuns and may be ordained only after a two-year postulancy, or training in six precepts. (Men have no mandatory postulancy and their ordination is performed by monks only.)

7. A nun may not reprimand a monk. (A monk may reprimand a monk, and any monk may reprimand a nun.)

8. From today onwards, no nun shall ever teach a monk. However, monks may teach nuns. (There are no restrictions on whom a monk may teach.)

The legend recalls that, after memorising the Eight Heavy Duties, the Lord Buddha's disciple Ananda returned to inform Prajapati the aunt, of the Buddha's words. She accepted all eight rules without reservation. Delighted, she said:

''I accept all the Eight Heavy Duties, and shall abide by them without fail throughout my life, like a young girl or boy who enjoys her beauty, having bathed and shampooed, accepts a garland of jasmine or lilac, accepts it with her hands and puts it on her head.''

Apart from these discriminatory regulations against women, the Buddha further prophesised that because of the women's ordination the core teaching of his religion would be cut short from 1,000 to 500 years. This is stated in the following passage in Tripitaka:

At that time, the Venerable Ananda went to see the Lord. Having sat at one side, he said to the Lord, ''Lord, Mahaprajapati Gautami has accepted the Eight Heavy Duties. The aunt of the Lord has now been ordained.'' The Lord said to Ananda, ''Ananda, if women had not renounced their household lives and ordained in the religion of the Tathagata, the holy life would have lasted long, the core teaching of Buddhism would have remained for a thousand years. Because the ordination of women has occurred in this religion of the Tathagata, the holy life will not last long; the True Dharma will last for only 500 years. Ananda, in whatever religion women are ordained, that religion will not last long. As families that have more women than men are easily destroyed by robbers, as a plentiful rice-field once infested by rice worms will not long remain, as a sugarcane field invaded by red rust will not long remain, even so the True Dharma will not last long. Ananda, as a man builds a large surrounding dike to prevent the flow of water, I prescribe the Eight Heavy Duties for the nuns to adhere to for the rest of their lives without fail. (Vin. II, 256)

Of course, Buddhists who are traditionally trained take for granted that the passage above is an actual quotation from the Buddha. Therefore, they take it to mean that women are inferior to men, and they are cause of destruction of the religion.

If this is true, then there is only one conclusion: the Buddha was a sexist. However, the word ''sexist'' is too strong for most Buddhists. No traditional Buddhist would want to acknowledge the Buddha's prejudice. Instead, they usually stand up to defend the message of the Eight Heavy Duties, claiming, ''This is the way things are. This is the Dharma of the Universe, and there is nothing we can do but accept them [the Heavy Duties] as they are authentic messages of the Buddha.''

This fundamentalist interpretation has isolated Buddhists from the belief in democracy based on human rights and gender equality. Buddhism has become a tool used to marginalise half of the world's population. Educated people often turn away from Buddhism in repugnance since they see the religion as a part of the problem rather a solution for social progress.

However, another way of answering the question is through a critical reading of the Tripitaka. This is the methodology of modern scholars. It clearly shows a different picture of the Buddha's attitude towards women. According to other parts of the Tripitaka, the Eight Heavy Duties are against the Buddha's principles of compassion and the nature of humanity. According to the Buddha's version of the Genesis, male and female characters emerged as a result of continuous decay of the physical world, i.e., they do not belong to the true nature of what we are. Since gender is only the external appearance of our true nature, both men and women are enabled with an equal ability to attain the highest enlightenment.

Moreover, when this particular part of the Tripitaka _ the legend of the origin of the order of nuns and the Eight Heavy Duties _ is compared to other parts of the Tripitaka, there are many discrepancies and contradictions. For example, in the Books of Theragatha and Therigatha (psalms composed by enlightened monks and nuns) we see a situation in which a monk became enlightened by the teachings of a nun who, as a result, was respected as his mother. This contradicts the last rule of the Eight Heavy Duties, which prohibits a nun from teaching a monk.

Also, the phrase ''from today onwards'' suggests that there had been nuns who were previously teaching monks, and the rule was issued to stop the activity in the name of the Buddha. This is also supported by the metaphor of the ''dike'' used in a later part of the story. This part of the story tells of a dike that was built to quarantine rice and sugarcane fields in India once a farmer saw the fields being infested by rice worm or red dust. The dike had to be built as soon as the farmer spotted the pests, but not earlier than that. The use of the metaphor is against the logic of the condition that the rules were set before the community of nuns was formed. Rather, these eight rules were post-dated some time after the foundation of the order of nuns. These small hinges suggest that the legend of the Eight Heavy Duties were interpolated in the Tripitaka as a part of the Buddha's teaching. It seems, then, that the Duties were the work of a younger generation of monks who had negative attitudes towards women.

Elsewhere in the Tripitaka, we see no evidence of nuns acting as a cause of decay to Buddhism. On the contrary, several sutras, dated before the passing of the Buddha, never describe a visit of a king to a monk in order to learn the Dharma. However, three references in the Tripitaka mention visits of a king to see a nun while the Buddha was alive. In one episode, King Pasenadi of Kosala praised the teaching ability of nun Khema in front of the Buddha; he claimed that her teaching was as good as the Lord's himself!

Also, in the Books of Theragatha and Therigatha, we see that Buddhist nuns were more active than monks in the promotion of the Dharma. While monks tended to enjoy living a solitary life rather than living in a community, the nuns had stronger community ties where they were very much engaged in teaching and learning. One passage even describes a nun who professed boldly to the public, come and listen to my teaching! Such evangelical expression is not described in regard to any monk in the Tripitaka. The Book of Therigatha was the first religious literature in the world known ever known to be composed by women. It shows the period at the earliest history of Buddhism when women enjoyed equal rights with their male counterparts.

These small pieces of evidence scattered in the Tripitaka confirm that the original teaching of the Buddha did not favour men over women. Unfortunately, however, elements of sexism found their way into the Buddhist community soon after the passing away of the Lord Buddha in order to reinforce men's superior status over women. The Eight Heavy Duties, as formatted in the legend of the origin of the order of nuns, became a social tool to gain control over the nuns, many of whom were outstanding teachers and successful enough to enlighten some monks.

The rules were not just a part of the Buddhist canon, but were enforced in the nuns' community through repetition and affirmation every fortnight. The period of suppression of the nuns is suspected to have lasted a few generations before the nuns' order finally disappeared from India. It was not long before Buddhism disappeared also. This hypothesis is substantiated when Buddhism is compared to the Jainism, or the sister religion of Buddhism, founded by Mahavira, a contemporary spiritual leader of the Buddha.

Like Buddhism, Jainism was seen as heterodox by the Hindus and later by the Muslims. The Buddhist community and Jain community share the same structure, being composed of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen; Buddhists worship statue of the Buddha, whereas Jains worship the statue of Mahavira.

While Buddhism disappeared from India, Jainism did not. Many historians blame the extinction of Buddhism in its own motherland to the Muslim oppression, but this theory cannot explain why Jainism was not also destroyed since the two religions held the same position for Muslims. The significant difference lies in the treatment of the nuns: in Jainism, the nuns were not discriminated against as in Buddhism. Even now, nuns in Jainism enjoy their liberty in teaching equal to their male fellows. There are no such rules as the Eight Heavy Duties in the teaching of Mahavira.

In this light of analysis, the evidence points to the fact that sexism in the Buddhist community was responsible for the destruction and extinction of the Buddhist religion from its own motherland. It was the result of the karma committed by sexist monks of later generations soon after the passing away of the Buddha.

Sexual discrimination or sexism was not at all a part of the original teaching of the Buddha, who excluded no one. The Lord Buddha, we may conclude, was not a sexist.

Sadly, the karma of sexism is still healthy and strong today in most Buddhist countries, such as Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Only some communities in Sri Lanka ordain women.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, ordination of women is illegal. The Ecclesiastical Council of Thailand, for example, announced publicly that any monk who supports the ordination of women will be subject to severe punishment.

Nevertheless, in the Theravada tradition as a whole, the Eight Heavy Duties are followed faithfully as authentic words of the Lord Buddha.

In Theravada countries, Buddhist religion has never been in support of human rights and social justice. As long as there is no reformation of the religious education system in Buddhism and the Tripitaka, the religion will remain the biggest obstacle for the development of democracy and social justice in these countries.

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Mettanando Bhikkhu is a Thai Buddhist monk and a former physician. He studied at Chulalongkorn University, Oxford and Harvard, and received a PhD from Hamburg. He is special adviser on Buddhist affairs to the secretary-general of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.



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