Saturday, September 20, 2008

Can we talk about the Siddhartha Gautama's attitudes towards women?

So I just finished reading Karen Armstrong's biography of Buddha. I never quite know what to think about Karen Armstrong's work. On the one hand, she's clearly a brilliant writer, she's one of the foremost experts in the world on religion, and she invests massive amounts of time and energy into researching her subjects. But the problem I have when I'm reading her writing is that I don't know where she ends and the facts begin. In my experience, she retells the history of Christianity as if it's all been a bunch of post-modern mystical Unitarians getting together from the beginning -- and I have a hard time believing that's true. It seems to me she does the same thing with "Axial Age" world religions as well -- importing modern values back into the historical narrative -- and not separating out the two.

That being said, I really enjoyed reading Buddha, and was thankful for someone to take me through the entire story in 187 pages. I've studied a lot of Buddhism and done a fair amount of meditation but I've never read the story of the Buddha's life start to finish (Siddhartha back in high school doesn't count).

But what struck me most about the book was the following passage concerning the Buddha's attitudes towards women:

While he was living in the Nigrodha arama, the Buddha was visited by his father's widow, Pajapati Gotami: she was also the Buddha's aunt, and had become his foster-mother after the death of his own mother. Since she was now free, she told her nephew, she wanted to be ordained in the Sangha. The Buddha adamantly refused. There was no question of admitting women to the Order. He would not change his mind, even though Pajapati begged him three times to reconsider and she left his presence very sadly. A few days later, the Buddha set out for Vesali, the capital of the republic of Videha on the northern bank of the Ganges. He often stayed in the arama there, which had a hall with a high-gabled roof. One morning, Ananda was horrified to find Pajapati sobbing on the porch with a crowd of other Sakyan women. She had cut off her hair, put on the yellow robe and had walked all the way from Kapilavatthu. Her feet were swollen, and she was filthy and exhausted. "Gotami," cried Ananda, "What are you doing here in such a state? And why are you crying?" "Because the Blessed One will not have women in the Sangha," Pajapati replied. Ananda was concerned. "Wait here," he said, " I will asked the Tathagata about this."

But the Buddha still refused to consider the matter. This was a serious moment. If he continued to bar women from the Sangha, it meant that he considered that half of the human race was ineligible for enlightenment. But the Dhamma was supposed to be for everybody: for gods, animals, robbers, men of all castes--were women alone to be excluded? Was rebirth as a man the best they could hope for? Ananda tried another tack. "Lord" he asked, "are women capable of becoming 'stream-enterers' and, eventually, Arahants?" "They are Ananda," The Buddha replied. "Then surely it would be a good thing to ordain Pajapati," Ananda pleaded, and reminded his master of her kindness to him after his mother had died. The Buddha reluctantly conceded defeat. Pajapati could enter the Sangha if she accepted eight strict rules. These provisions made it clear that the nuns (bhikkhunis) were an inferior breed. A nun must always stand when in the presence of a male bhikkhu, even one who was young or newly ordained; nuns must always spend the vassa retreat is an arama with male monks, not by themselves; they must receive instruction from a bhikkhu once every fortnight; they could not hold their own ceremonies; a nun who had committed a grave offense must do penance before the monks as well as the bhikkhunis; a nun must request ordination from both the male and the female Sangha; she must never rebuke a bhikkhu, though any monk could rebuke her; nor could she preach to bhikkhus. Pajapati gladly accepted these regulations and was duly ordained, but the Buddha was still uneasy. If women had not been admitted, he told Ananda, the Dhamma would have been practiced for a thousand years; now it would last a mere five hundred years. A tribe with too many women would become vulnerable and be destroyed; similarly, no Sangha with women members could last long. They would fall upon the Order like mildew on a field of rice.

What are we to make of this misogyny? The Buddha had always preached to women as well as to men. Once to had given permission, thousands of women became bhikkhunis, and the Buddha praised their spiritual attainments, said that they could become the equals of the monks, and prophesied that he would not die until he had enough wise monks and nuns, lay men and lay women followers. There seems to be a discrepancy in the texts, and this has led some scholars to conclude that the story of his grudging acceptance of women and the eight regulations was added later and reflects a chauvinism in the Order. By the first century B.C.E., some of the monks certainly blamed women for their own sexual desires, which were impeding them from enlightenment, and regarded women as universal obstacles to spiritual advance. Other scholars argue that the Buddha, enlightened as he was, could not escape the social conditioning of the time, and that he could not imagine a society that was not patriarchal. They point out that despite the Buddha's initial reluctance, the ordination of women was a radical act that, perhaps for the first time, gave women an alternative to domesticity.

While this is true, there is a difficulty for women that should not be glossed over. In the Buddha's mind, women may well have been inseparable from the "lust" that made enlightenment an impossibility. It did not occur to him to take his wife with him, as some of the renouncers did, when he left home to begin his quest. He simply assumed that she could not be the partner in his liberation. But this was not because he found sexuality disgusting, like the Christian Fathers of the Church, but because he was attached to his wife. The scriptures contain a passage which, scholars agree, is almost certainly a monkish interpolation. "Lord, how are we to treat women?" Ananda asked the Buddha in the last days of his life. "Do not look at them, Ananda." "If we do not see them, how should we treat them?" "Do no speak to them Ananda." "And if we have to speak to them? "Mindfulness must be observed Ananda." The Buddha may not have personally subscribed to this full-blown misogyny, but it is possible that these words reflect a residual unease that he could not overcome.

--Karen Armstrong, Buddha, p. 151-154 [Armstrong uses the Pali spellings rather than the Sanskrit than many are used to seeing in writings about Buddhism.]
I want to make a few caveats before sharing my thoughts on this passage. To begin with there are a couple things we don't know. 1.) We don't know if Karen Armstrong got this section correct (that's a caveat we make with any author). 2.) We don't know if the various original authors of the sacred texts got the story correct (or if this was added later by overzealous and chauvinistic monks perhaps). Furthermore, it does seem that despite his initial reluctance, the Buddha did break important new ground. I imagine 2500 years ago it was a pretty tough sell to tell folks that women and men were equal (at least a tough sell to the men who benefited from patriarchy).

But here's what I want to say: IF this passage is a correct reflection of Siddhartha Gautama's views on women, it means that he never attained enlightenment. (As Chris Rock would say, Yeah, I said it!) Indeed it calls into question the entire concept of enlightenment -- because if the Buddha wasn't enlightened then who is? Buddhists are not simply claiming that Siddhartha Gautama was a great teacher who was ahead of his time. They are not claiming that he was a really swell guy who broke new ground. They are claiming that he attained enlightenment -- that he broke through to a timeless, universal, truth that transformed his whole being. But if this supposed enlightenment also retained a hatred of women, or a preference for patriarchy, or however you want to say it -- then by definition it's not timeless, universal, or true. It's not fucking enlightenment if you still discriminate against women.

Let's put an even finer point on it. There has never been a female Dalai Lama. Monks sitting in meditation for their whole lives, have never figured out what any six year old can tell you -- that women are just as good as men. By definition then, no Dalai Lama has attained enlightenment. The whole things starts to unravel at that point. If meditation can't teach you what a few hours of actual human experience can teach you -- then why place an emphasis on meditation?

Furthermore, those who brought the dharma to the U.S. aren't enlightened. Notorious alcoholic womanizer Chogyam Trungpa wasn't enlightened. I'm not saying he wasn't smart or charming -- I'm just saying you have to actually live your transformed self not just talk about it. His dharma heir Osel Tenzin sure as fuck wasn't enlightened.

Look, I love meditation and yoga and the whole nine. But it seems to me that the whole enlightenment industry, pales by comparison to the wisdom of actually living an ordinary modern life of experience.

In the end, Buddha the book and Buddha the man just felt terribly sad to me. I know Buddha claimed that by seeking nothingness he could experience a universal love for all of humanity. But I wonder if for most people it's not the reverse -- that through a particular love we experience a universal timeless love.

Update #1: Descartes' Error is often read as an indictment of Western rationalism (indeed, it's a very effective indictment of the rational tradition). But it seems to me that Descartes' Error is an equally effective indictment of Buddhism and Buddhism's denigration of the body, emotion, and the created world.


Heather W. Reichgott said...

Religious people still have their failings? Shock and surprise...

RFK Action Front said...

Ah yes, very well said.