Once I was staying in a Sri Lankan Buddhist center in the West. One day in response to the bell I opened the door and invited the two woman who stood there to come in. As soon as they entered I realized from the way they were dressed and made up that they were both probably prostitutes. I felt a bit uneasy but they were already inside so I led them into the sitting room. They told me about themselves and as they did I began to feel somewhat ashamed of my initial reaction to them. Both had been pushed into prostitution by addiction to heroin and now after nearly ten years on the streets they were struggling to free themselves from its grip. One was soon to go into a drug rehabilitation program and the other was on the waiting list at the same place. They told me that they hoped Buddhism might help them recover their dignity and freedom and they wanted to know something about the Dhamma. I gave them my full attention, answered their questions, tried to encourage them and told them that they were welcome to come to see me at any time and that I would be happy to visit them at the rehabilitation center. Half way through our talk the bell went again and I got up to open the door. It was three little old Sri Lankan ladies who had come to bring my dana. As usual they were all smiles and bows – until they saw my visitors. They could hardly disguise their disapproval. Being alone with a female was bad enough, but this! And any Theravadin would react in the same way. They simply could not conceive that a monk might be counseling a desperate soul or be discussing Dhamma with someone who just happened dropped in. The idea that a monk might have some integrity or principles unless he is being watched like a hawk is equally unthinkable.
Before the two woman left I gave them some incense and some books on Buddhism and one of them began to cry, in fact she sobbed. Through her tears she told me that before she and her friend had rung the bell they had hesitated because they didn’t know what sort of reception they would get. She thanked me and told me how moved she was by my modest gift. ‘Ordinary people generally don’t like to have anything to do with us’ she said. I was happy to have been able to have done at least something for these two poor women but I knew I was in trouble. That evening two Sri Lankan lay men from the society’s committee came to see me about this incident. They accepted my explanation but told me that under no circumstances could I ever invite a female into the center again unless there was someone else there. People might ‘get the wrong idea’, It didn’t ‘look good.’ And besides, ‘you are not supposed to help people, you are supposed to follow the Vinaya’, And sadly, they were quite right. For a Theravadian monk, humoring parochial minds, looking good on the outside and following petty rules must always come before the immediate needs of those in distress. I never saw the two prostitutes again although I thought about them from time to time. My only hope is that if they pursued their interest in the Dhamma that they went to a Tibetan or Zen center where they might have at least some chance of a getting sympathy and support.