A Woman’s Place

The Buddha had an ambivalent attitude towards women. While acknowledging that they are as capable of awakening as men, there were also times when he seems to have been skeptical about their moral and spiritual abilities. Theravada on the other hand, is quite unambiguous on this matter – it is uniformly misogynistic. In fact, Theravada’s exclusion of women from a meaningful role in the spiritual life has been even more complete than that of Islam’s. There have been at least a few Muslim women saints, poets and theologians; in Theravada until the 20th century there have been none that I know of. This exclusion of woman is particularly ironic when one realizes that to a very large extent it is woman who seem to keep the religion alive. In Theravadin countries women are the most conspicuously pious. It is mainly they who look after the monks, run around for them and make sure their dana arrives on time. Audiences at sermons are often made up almost entirely of women. Go to any monastery in Sri Lanka on a full moon day and the overwhelming majority of those keeping the eight Precepts will be women, usually, as at sermons, very old ones.

Despite this, monks treat all females as being physically and ritually impure. Thai monks will not take anything directly from a woman’s hand, and in Burma they will not visit the home of a woman who is menstruating, nor will a woman in that condition visit a monastery or temple. In Thailand, particularly in the north, women are not allowed to circumambulate stupas because their inherent impurity will destroy the power of the relic within. In Burma they are not allowed to touch certain sacred Buddha images, enter simas or even some particularly holy shrines. When I visited the beautiful shrine at Kathiayo in Burma I noticed the large sign for the benefit of Western female tourists. It read: ‘Ladies Must Not Enter.’ Burmese women need no such signs; they know their place. Apparently, even the image of a woman can be polluting. I recently came to learn that some people in Thailand consider it an offence against the Vinaya for a monk to accidentally touch a picture of female while reading a newspaper or magazine. A Buddhist group in Europe recently invited a visiting Thai prelate to a function and one of their members, a women who spoke Thai, translated his talk. Later the Thai ambassador who had also attended this function informed the group that they had gravely insulted the prelate and made him break his Vinaya by allowing his words to be ‘touched’ by the woman. Theravadin apologists say that these and numerous other embarrassing ideas and practices are the result of misunderstanding and superstition and are not ‘real Theravada.’ But with monks having such pervasive influence and teaching ‘real Theravada’ for so many centuries one can only wonder how such superstitions have managed to survive. The truth is that the monks do teach such things and where they do not they have never bothered to teach against them.

The nun’s Sangha was founded by the Buddha himself and has managed to survive down to the present in several Mahayana countries. [1]

In Theravada, the nun’s Sangha flourished for a few centuries, then went into a long period of neglect and decline and finally died out around the turn of the first millennium. Until recently no attempt was ever made to reestablish it. In Burma and Thailand the Sangha hierarchy can and definitely will use their influence with the secular authorities to prevent the nun’s Sangha being reestablished within their respective countries. It often seems that the only way to arouse the Sangha into action is to suggest changing anything. As with a lot of other things the situation is somewhat better in Sri Lanka. There the Sangha does not have the power to stop the revival of the nun’s Sangha and a few progressive monks and lay people are even encouraging towards such moves. However, the attempts in this direction have so far been inept and have received little popular support. As one would expect from Theravadins, emphasis has been on the problem of getting a ‘valid’ ordination ceremony rather than on more important issues such as education, training, selecting promising candidates and giving careful thought to what form a modern nun’s Sangha should take.

Notes

  1. Western women who believe that females were given more place in Mahayana and Vajrayana should read Ronald Davidson’s fascinating and erudite Indian Esoteric Buddhism – A Social History of the Tantric Movement, 2002, p. 91 ff. [back]