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Ordination of women causes controversy in Buddhism
April 14, 2010 1:10 PM   Subscribe

In 2009, four Buddhist nuns (Bhikkunis) were secretly ordained in Australia - the first ever ordination of Bhikkunis in Australia, and a first for the Thai Forest tradition anywhere. London-born Ajahn Brahm, a long-time supporter of women's equality in Buddhism, facilitated the ordination. For this he was expelled from his community, the Wat Pa Phong Sangha, and his monastery's status was revoked. This video summarizes the conflict, and is possibly the first use of the Downfall meme related to Buddhism. This March, more nuns were ordained in the UK for the first time since the Australia controversy, but they're still not equal to male monks. This blog post discusses sexism, fundamentalism, and the conflict between East and West. The modern opposition to bhikkhuni ordination is no ancient Buddhist tradition. It can be traced no earlier, so far as I am aware, than the abhorrent 1928 ruling against bhikkhuni in Thailand, made by monks who thought it reasonable to arrest nuns and throw them in jail for ordaining.


A brief overview of the historical role of women in Buddhism.
posted by desjardins (72 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Regardless of the problems with the history of women's involvement in Buddhism, I think it's great whenever there is progress or positive changes that affect living Buddhist women today.
posted by ServSci at 1:34 PM on April 14, 2010


If the monks at Wat Pa Phong fail to meet the needs of their growing community, then new forms of community will organize themselves to meet that need. They don't have the right or the power to revoke anything other than membership in their own hierarchy. Bald claims to authenticity or tradition don't really cut it in the modern world any more, particularly when the sangha is composed of so many people who walked away from their prior religious practices to get away from that sort of thing.
posted by 1adam12 at 1:38 PM on April 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Bald claims

I see wot u did thar
posted by everichon at 1:41 PM on April 14, 2010


Same bullshit, different religion.

How pleasant to come in here and see a centuries-old social issue boiled down to an inaccurate and completely disrespectful quip. In case you can't remember, the subjugation of women was universal around the world until the late 19th century. The justification given for the extra bhikkuni rules was that allowing nuns to walk around with monks and make alms would be seen by villagers both male and female as an upheaval of the social order. Now, if you want to know why the bhukkuni lineage was not reintroduced to Thailand as it has been to Australia, you will have to look to the political climate of pre-World War I Thailand, and the response of the people to revolutionary ordinations of that time. Should I continue, or do you even care about the issue which you feel so free to snark on?
posted by shii at 1:43 PM on April 14, 2010 [10 favorites]


Not knowing much of the history of Buddhism I googled:
According to Buddhist scriptures, the order of bhikkhunis was first created by the Buddha at the specific request of his foster-mother Mahapajapati Gotami, who became the first ordained bhikkhuni, relayed via his attendant Ananda (who also urged for the Buddha's acceptance of it). The bhikkhuni order spread to many countries.^
posted by vapidave at 1:49 PM on April 14, 2010


So, allowing nuns to walk around with monks would be seen as an upheaval of the social order. But then, Buddhism itself was intended quite deliberately as an upheaval of the previous Hindu social order. What wrong with upheaving a corrupt social order? Sorry, shii, but I'm with VikingSword. Same bullshit, different religion.
posted by grizzled at 1:50 PM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


How pleasant to come in here and see a centuries-old social issue boiled down to an inaccurate and completely disrespectful quip.

Inaccurate. OK. "It's not bullshit, it's fabulous" - better? Sorry, discrimination is still BS. Feel free to disagree.

In case you can't remember, the subjugation of women was universal around the world until the late 19th century.

Which makes it A OK. 19th century - well, you should have said so! Also, I'm calling Apple right now, cause my computer shows 2010. Get with the times.

The justification given for the extra bhikkuni rules was that allowing nuns to walk around with monks and make alms would be seen by villagers both male and female as an upheaval of the social order. Now, if you want to know why the bhukkuni lineage was not reintroduced to Thailand as it has been to Australia, you will have to look to the political climate of pre-World War I Thailand, and the response of the people to revolutionary ordinations of that time.

I have yet to hear about discrimination anywhere, that's not seen as having "justification given". Funny that. It's still discrimination, and still bullshit. Feel free to disagree.

Should I continue, or do you even care about the issue which you feel so free to snark on?

You say snark, I say succinct. What is the truth quotient - that's my criterion. Discrimination is bullshit, and many religions engage in it. Not surprising to me, and yes, I'm sure all sorts of justifications are on tap, historical, cultural, religious and plain old pull-out-of-the-ass/al. It's still bullshit, and shame on you for attacking me for pointing to it. But feel free to tell me all about the amazing justifications, I've heard plenty from other religions.
posted by VikingSword at 1:55 PM on April 14, 2010 [13 favorites]


Yet it's worth remembering that the women would not even be given this status if not for Ajahn Sumedho.

Nothing to do with their own efforts, I assume, then?
posted by jokeefe at 1:59 PM on April 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


a centuries-old social issue boiled down to an inaccurate and completely disrespectful quip

We can't ordain women - the RCC, it's a centuries old tradition. We must maintain homophobic practices - the RCC, it's a centuries old tradition. We must be anti-Semitic, - the RCC, it's a centuries old social issue - oh wait.

I don't give a good damn how old the discriminatory practice is - frankly, the older, the bigger the shame.

Enough of the hiding behind "tradition" when engaging in unacceptable practices.
posted by VikingSword at 2:00 PM on April 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


That's one of the better uses of the Downfall-captioning meme that I've seen, although that bar isn't very high or anything.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:17 PM on April 14, 2010


Same bullshit, different religion.

Fwiw, when it comes to Buddhist monastic life, sexism may indeed be an issue, but in general I think Buddhism (taken as a whole and as a practice for non-monastics) is historically and culturally a lot less susceptible to the kinds of anti-scientific fundamentalist attitudes that currently plague other major religions (in part b/c the Buddha did not take an explicit stance on the kinds of cosmological questions one finds in the Bible for instance, so science itself presents no immediate or obvious obstacle [re: evolution] to most major Buddhist ideas).

Enough of the hiding behind "tradition" when engaging in unacceptable practices.

Fair enough, but I think the poster was struck by the smug air of dismissive moral superiority that your comment projected: it seemed designed not to stimulate discussion on the historical background or details of the topic at hand, but merely to confirm your own existing black-and-white bias against "religion." Just my two cents.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 2:18 PM on April 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


VikingSword, it's true that the discrimination against women one finds in many areas of Buddhism is terrible, but if you think rushing in to make a glib first comment shitting on all religion isn't going to get a negative reaction, you're kidding yourself. A lot of us are critical of religion, but also not fond of the "they're all assholes amirite" approach.
posted by aught at 2:20 PM on April 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


I have no stake in this particular controversy; I've never followed the Theravada tradition. My last roshi (Zen teacher/priest) was female, fwiw, and Zen doesn't seem to have any particular problem ordaining women.
posted by desjardins at 2:20 PM on April 14, 2010


Ladies, let's be more nuanced about this misogyny.
posted by basicchannel at 2:22 PM on April 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


@vikingsword, trust me when I tell you that you don't get it. No one is saying that discrimination is OK, or that this practice of excluding women from ordination is good. It has a long and complicated history and contrary to one poster's response, the linage ties are of supreme importance to many (even to western converts).

This situation is changing, but far too slowly for my tastes. As a Gelug, I take heart when I see statements from H.H. such as this one issued in 2002:

I have felt that the re-institution of the Bhikkshuni ordination is very important. After all, the Buddha confirmed that both women and men have equal opportunity and potential to practise the Dharma and to achieve its goals. We have an obligation to uphold this view.

Now, as to how the re-institution of the Bhikkshuni ordination should be done, this is a matter for the Sangha to decide. No single person has any authority to take such a decision. Some of my friends and colleagues have suggested that as the Dalai Lama I could issue a decree or make a decision, but this is not a matter on which any individual, whoever he or she is, can decide. It is a matter for the Sangha community.
- H.H. The 14th Dalai Lama

I hope the issue for our Theravadan sisters in reconciled soon.
posted by jchack at 2:23 PM on April 14, 2010


Fair enough, but I think the poster was struck by the smug air of dismissive moral superiority that your comment projected: it seemed designed not to stimulate discussion on the historical background or details of the topic at hand, but merely to confirm your own existing black-and-white bias against "religion." Just my two cents.

And I in turn say - fair enough. I can see how my comment might come across as such. The background to this, FWIW, is that I have seen a tendency among those who would not hesitate to criticize Christianity, to be a lot more reluctant to criticize Buddhism in particular (sometimes it seems like it gets a free pass from liberals) - and I wanted to take a strong stand that Buddhism or not is not the issue - discrimination is still unacceptable. It was more toward that aspect of it, than my wanting to get in with my "bias against religion", but I supposed everyone will read it as they see fit, and I am not complaining.
posted by VikingSword at 2:25 PM on April 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Same bullshit, different religion.

Can we please try not to threadshit right out of the gate? Please? This is an interesting topic and a fascinating event in a religion that has not traditionally been believed to be discriminatory by outsiders. Your snarky comment seems intended to shut down discussion about this post, rather than encourage it.
posted by zarq at 2:29 PM on April 14, 2010


I really need to start using the preview button :P
posted by zarq at 2:30 PM on April 14, 2010


The stories of early Buddhism have it that the Buddha admitted nuns, but more or less under protest, on unequal terms, and with him complaining that this decision would mean that Buddhism would only persist half as long as it would have without girl cooties (it's disputed how long this period would be.) Another story of early Buddhism (maybe ascribed as involving the Buddha directly; I don't remember) involved a teacher refusing to let a woman become a nun because she was too beautiful and would distract the men. So she horribly scarred her face, and then was allowed to become a nun. The story is presented as a triumph of dedication to the pursuit of Buddhist training.

There's plenty of sexism to go around in the history of Buddhism. It's a 2500-year-old religion that today spans the globe. Every human vice and virtue has been practiced under its banner at some point, as would be true of anything involving that many people over that much time.
posted by Zed at 2:33 PM on April 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


I have seen a tendency among those who would not hesitate to criticize Christianity, to be a lot more reluctant to criticize Buddhism in particular

I see this too; I think that some people idealize Buddhism because they haven't been exposed to the politics and machinations of it for hundreds of years. It doesn't generally show up in the news here until the Dalai Lama comes to town, and then it's all happy and bright and wonderful.
posted by desjardins at 2:33 PM on April 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


I see this too; I think that some people idealize Buddhism because they haven't been exposed to the politics and machinations of it for hundreds of years. It doesn't generally show up in the news here until the Dalai Lama comes to town, and then it's all happy and bright and wonderful.

Which is additionally complicated by the fact that most people are deeply sympathetic wrt. Tibet. It seems churlish to criticize a religion that is so tightly bound with a leader who in turn is the face of an occupied nation yearning to be free.

There's been some movement to put Tibetan society in historical context of deep feudalism and inequality before the Chinese takeover, but that effort is often marred by talking points coming from China.

All this makes it very hard to say a bad word about Buddhism.
posted by VikingSword at 2:41 PM on April 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


I have seen a tendency among those who would not hesitate to criticize Christianity, to be a lot more reluctant to criticize Buddhism in particular

It's difficult because Buddhism is not a mainstream religion in the West. However, if you want to examine a microcosm of everything that can go wrong in a Buddhist community (with Buddhism providing few tools to correct the situation), you could always use the San Francisco Zen Center Apocalypse as a case study:

And what, then, “is Buddhism”?
As abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, between the abbot’s budget and use of community-owned residences and resources, [Baker] lived in a style that he estimates could be duplicated by a private citizen with an annual salary of close to half a million dollars a year (Tworkov, 1994).
Discipline under the transmitted “Frisco Zen master” then reportedly (Downing, 2001) included:
In the end, Baker's problems at the Zen Center weren't so much about his seven or eight sexual affairs over a 20-year span (Chapter 23, if you get impatient). They weren't so much about about money (Chapter 27, if that's your cup of tea). It was more about power, about finding another way to govern and manage an operation that was never sure if it was a California commune, a Japanese monastery or a New Age business.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:53 PM on April 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


Some background to the controversy I alluded to above:

"The serfdom in Tibet controversy rests on both a political and an academic debate. In the political debate, Chinese sources claim moral authority for governing Tibet, based on narratives that portray Tibet as a "feudal serfdom" and a "hell on earth" prior to the invasion of Tibet in 1950.[1] Tibetologists have presented a range of opinions as to the accuracy of this characterization, and there continues to be a lack of consensus on the topic. Accusations of the existence of a variety of unfree labour have been a recurrent theme, covering periods both before and after the Chinese takeover."

"Chinese sources portray Tibet before 1950 as a feudal serfdom in which serfs suffered terribly under the despotic rule of lamas and aristocrats. Tibetan sources describe the people as happy, content, and devoted to Buddhism.[24] For instance the Tibetan Phuntsok Wangyal, who founded the Tibetan communist party in the 40's, describes the old system as unequal and exploitative.[25]"
posted by VikingSword at 2:58 PM on April 14, 2010


....It seems churlish to criticize a particular school of a religion that is so tightly bound with a leader.....

FTFY
posted by TheOtherGuy at 3:07 PM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


a particular school of a religion

True, but equally true, for many, this reluctance has spilled to criticizing Buddhism, period.
posted by VikingSword at 3:11 PM on April 14, 2010


Yeah, another problem is the lack of awareness about Theravada vs. Mahayana vs. Vajrayana (and all their subcategories). Probably no one is blaming the Lutherans for the Catholics' current scandal, even though they're both under the Christian umbrella.
posted by desjardins at 3:11 PM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Discrimination is bullshit, and many religions engage in it.

It's very strange to me to see the complexity of a faraway issue boiled down to "lolreligion". Religion is an English word, correct? Why does this Western category matter in Southeast Asia, and aren't issues of feminism, discrimination, dehumanization just as problematic over here? So, to give me a little understanding of how you see the very real problems of "secular" American culture, I went and looked through your last few pages of comments to see if you've had anything to say on that subject. Unfortunately the first three pages of comments you have left on MetaFilter are all devoted to religious topics, mostly the Catholic Church.

When the American military fires on a Reuters photographer, what should be done to solve the problem? You didn't leave any comments on that horrific post, so I'll have to guess: a shrug, perhaps. The answer isn't "flee the church" or "separate church and state", so you don't have an answer. But yet, this is undoubtedly discrimination, dehumanization of the Iraqi other. There is no pat answer. The incident arose out of a complex social, economic, political situation that informed the American military in way that shocked our sensibilities. Here's a little secret: there is no simple answer for the bhikkuni situation, or any other situation in human society. If you don't care about that history you skimmed over in my comment, you can't solve the problem. Period.

Now, feel free to leave another dozen comments on this article to carry out your myopic rage towards all things "religious", or quote Wikipedia at me, but I think I will rest happily in the knowledge that your knowledge of Thai culture would be considered ignorant and boring if you ever brought it up with a Thai.
posted by shii at 3:16 PM on April 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


All this makes it very hard to say a bad word about Buddhism.

You seem to be doing a fine job here.

I respectfully assert that you are mistaken in your understanding of comments on this post. I cannot find even one that defends the practice of refusing full ordination to the nuns. You would be equally mistaken if you were to assert that Buddhism is somehow safe from controversy or ridicule.
posted by jchack at 3:19 PM on April 14, 2010


Clearly. Plus, if you ask most people, they'll associate Buddhism with the Dalai Lama and Tibet first and foremost - you criticize Buddhism, this is what they're thinking. A smaller group might come up with Zen. A smaller yet will have some vague recollection of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire in Indochina. Buddhism is not a mainstream religion here in the West, as pointed out by KokuRyu, but religions that have a greater presence don't necessarily fare much better from the point of view of being seen as distinct - take Islam. GWB famously didn't even know about Shiites and Sunnis. OK, he's a special kind of moron, but frankly, ask about Islam and most people in the West will conjure up some kind of composite Wahhabist variant.
posted by VikingSword at 3:21 PM on April 14, 2010


I can remember being pretty horrified by the representations of women in texts on monastic discipline, particularly as exemplars of the problem of desire (natural enough, I suppose, when your audience is celibate males struggling with the proper value of their bodies' inclinations) not just sexual desire, but making women a symbol of the larger central issue.

Anyway the most direct text on the topic was Liz Wilson's "Charming Cadavers". If you don't want to confront some real ugliness, avoid it.
posted by ServSci at 3:31 PM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


When the American military fires on a Reuters photographer, what should be done to solve the problem? You didn't leave any comments on that horrific post, so I'll have to guess: a shrug, perhaps.

"You failed to comment on this thread about a different atrocity, so I guess you consider it less evil than this one?" Really? I wasn't aware that a person shouldn't comment on a given atrocity unless they had already denounced all greater atrocities.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:37 PM on April 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


Plus, if you ask most people, they'll associate Buddhism with the Dalai Lama and Tibet first and foremost - you criticize Buddhism, this is what they're thinking. A smaller group might come up with Zen.

I tend to think that most would probably think of statues of the Budai Buddha -- the Fat, or Laughing Buddha -- immediately after the Dalai Lama. He's a ubiquitous feature in Chinese restaurants in the US. Outsiders may not know exactly that Buddhism is or what it stands for, but that statue would be immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever ordered a Lo Mein dish from their local China Wok.

Buddhism is not a mainstream religion here in the West, as pointed out by KokuRyu, but religions that have a greater presence don't necessarily fare much better from the point of view of being seen as distinct - take Islam. GWB famously didn't even know about Shiites and Sunnis. OK, he's a special kind of moron, but frankly, ask about Islam and most people in the West will conjure up some kind of composite Wahhabist variant.

Worse yet, immediately following 9/11, the local Sikh population here in Queens was subjected to repeated hate crimes by people who thought they were Muslim. I remember watching a poor Sikh man pleading on a local television newscast after his sons were beaten and nearly killed outside their home in Sunnyside. He wanted New Yorkers to know that he and his family had lived here for years, weren't Muslim, and the Sikh community had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks. It was heartbreaking.
posted by zarq at 3:38 PM on April 14, 2010


you know, shii, I'm not going to engage in a flamewar here with you. I'm amazed that you would troll my comment history, and criticize me for not commenting on the Reuters photographer thread, and from that you speculate that I must be indifferent to the horrific fate of those photographers - it's just bizarre. What does that have to do with this FPP? Do you really want to discuss my views in general and my posting history here? In this FPP thread? To what end, other than completely derailing this FPP? Merely picking a few comments at random and from that concluding that I must have nothing to say about the problems of discrimination in "secular" American culture:

"So, to give me a little understanding of how you see the very real problems of "secular" American culture, I went and looked through your last few pages of comments to see if you've had anything to say on that subject. Unfortunately the first three pages of comments you have left on MetaFilter are all devoted to religious topics, mostly the Catholic Church."

Just straight up bizarre. You wonder if I ever addressed "feminism, discrimination, dehumanization" in the U.S.? Pro tip: instead of trolling the last 3 pages of general comments to see if a poster has anything to say on a given topic, why not make it easier and see if s/he has made an FPP of it? It's a lot easier than wading through general comments. Like this:

Gender Gap Report 2009
posted to MetaFilter by VikingSword at 2:14 PM on October 27, 2009 (61 comments) [add to favorites] 8 users marked this as a favorite

Don't ask and don't tell and especially don't tell your life partner
'Silent partner' examines what happens when people 'don't tell'
posted to MetaFilter by VikingSword at 12:20 PM on July 19, 2009 (19 comments) [add to favorites] 6 users marked this as a favorite

Civil Rights defeat in Maine
Maine became the 31st state to block same-sex marriage through a public referendum
posted to MetaFilter by VikingSword at 1:11 PM on November 4, 2009 (292 comments) [add to favorites] 8 users marked this as a favorite

Should Obese, Smoking and Alcohol Consuming Women Receive Assisted Reproduction Treatment?
posted to MetaFilter by VikingSword at 1:31 PM on January 21, 2010 (63 comments) [add to favorites] 5 users marked this as a favorite

Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.
A Muslim American soldier battles on friendly ground.
posted to MetaFilter by VikingSword at 1:44 PM on March 24, 2010 (54 comments) [add to favorites] 38 users marked this as a favorite

A sample. Not all, by any means.

Frankly, with your quality of research, coupled with your personal hostility, and your misrepresentation of my posts even in this very FPP, I don't feel it would be productive to engage you, nor would it be fair to allow you to derail this thread into some kind of inquiry into my posting history. You can have the last word, and best of luck.
posted by VikingSword at 3:43 PM on April 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


DevilsAdvocate, Fox News just called... they need a partially literate intern to give shallow rejoinders to what no reasonable person would have said. Interested?
posted by shii at 3:43 PM on April 14, 2010


VikingSword: “Same bullshit, different religion.”

Too true; all religions are guilty of discrimination, and all religious people have sexist notions about what role women should play in society. When will these silly religious people learn that it's simply unfair to generalize about whole groups of people out of hand?
posted by koeselitz at 3:44 PM on April 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


...and all religious people have...

Wait a minute! This religion is made out of people?!?!!!
posted by ServSci at 3:52 PM on April 14, 2010


You didn't leave any comments on that horrific post, so I'll have to guess: a shrug, perhaps. The answer isn't "flee the church" or "separate church and state", so you don't have an answer.

You didn't comment on the post about US involvement in Central Asia, so I'll have to guess that your response would have been: a shrug, perhaps. The answer isn't "you have no knowledge of Thai culture," so you don't have an answer.
posted by nestor_makhno at 3:53 PM on April 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


“Same bullshit, different religion.”

koeselitz: "Too true; all religions are guilty of discrimination, and all religious people have sexist notions about what role women should play in society."

Oops. Somebody missed a class when Venn diagrams were discussed. Never mind set theory though. Apparently school was missed entirely when logic was taught. Bad inferences, hobbled reasoning and insane conclusions. When would a silly person go back to school and learn the basics of reasoning? My guess: never.
posted by VikingSword at 3:57 PM on April 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Fox News just called... they need a partially literate intern to give shallow rejoinders to what no reasonable person would have said.

Feel free to explain how what you actually said is substantially different from my characterization of what you said as far as its relevance to the topic at hand. While my characterization was a deliberate exaggeration of your statement (cf. hyperbole), I stand by the implicit assertion that I was making, i.e., that your actual statement bears no more relevance than my exaggerated characterization of it.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:04 PM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sweet tap-dancing Vaisravana on a pogo stick, this thread got ugly in a hurry.

For the record, Buddhism, like most other religions, has many positive qualities; the sexism and chauvinism espoused by some sects, as this post explains, is not one of them.
posted by infinitywaltz at 4:04 PM on April 14, 2010


VikingSword: “When would a silly person go back to school and learn the basics of reasoning?”

When they offer free David Hasselhoff statuettes for every completed enrollment application?
posted by koeselitz at 4:07 PM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


So, to give me a little understanding of how you see the very real problems of "secular" American culture, I went and looked through your last few pages of comments to see if you've had anything to say on that subject. Unfortunately the first three pages of comments you have left on MetaFilter are all devoted to religious topics, mostly the Catholic Church.

shii, this isn't cool. You're trolling through his comment history to try and prove that he doesn't care about various topics just because he hasn't offered an opinion on them. Worse, when he does comment on a post, he doesn't say what you would like him to. You're creating a situation where he is damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. Please don't do this.

There are currently multiple, active FPP's on the Catholic Church thanks to its self-inflicted scandals. For well or ill, VikingSword and I have both posted heavily in those threads for the last three weeks. The fact that his posting history is filled with activity there right now means very little.
posted by zarq at 4:13 PM on April 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


MeTa
posted by nestor_makhno at 4:20 PM on April 14, 2010


One of the marring bits in the Lotus Sutra that really stuck with me was an account of how the dharma in general, and the Lotus Sutra in specific (it talks itself up), was so amazing that even a woman who heard just one line of it would attain enlightenment. Not just sentient beings trapped in the lower realms as hungry ghosts and animals and so on, sure that's pretty powerful, but the Lotus Sutra is so powerful that even women can attain! In retrospect, it was a formative shock that helped crack open my eyes to just how very thoroughly misogyny is woven through the world.

Dukkha is usually translated as "suffering," but "bullshit" works pretty well, too.
posted by Drastic at 4:26 PM on April 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Sweet tap-dancing Vaisravana on a pogo stick, this thread got ugly in a hurry.

It's an epic and unenlightening derail at this point, totally removed from the actual topic of the FPP. Probably any thread on metafilter that involves religion, and begins with a provocative, unproductive, and reductive comment that appears to be merely a swipe at religion in general (even if the comment was not intended that way) will very likely turn sour.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 4:28 PM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


[few comments removed - VikingSword has taken some time off of his own accord, please carry on.]
posted by jessamyn at 4:50 PM on April 14, 2010


Well, how about I regale you with one of my Travel Stories? Oh yes? I know you want to hear one. Wait, don't leave....

In 1999-2000 Mrs Primate and I were in Thailand for several months, and we took a trip to Laos (the slow boat down the Maekong is not to be believed). Wait, I have photos....

Oh, nevermind. One of the things that stuck me about Laos was how the monks were different than Thai monks even though they practiced nearly identical forms of Theravadan Buddhism. In Thailand (and we were pretty much everywhere for a good three months), the monks, in public at least, really stuck to the whole girls-have-cooties thing. But, in Luang Prabang, the first Wot we hit (and there are a LOT of Wots in that town!), the monks came right up to Mrs Primate and wanted to ask her about Europe and her blonde hair and her portable CD player and what did she think about this and that.

So, maybe the issue is more about how monks in different countries with differing expectations from - and exposure to - the rest of the world feel about women than it is about how this one branch of one school relates to women?
posted by digitalprimate at 6:14 PM on April 14, 2010


"Chinese sources portray Tibet before 1950 as a feudal serfdom in which serfs suffered terribly under the despotic rule of lamas and aristocrats. Tibetan sources describe the people as happy, content, and devoted to Buddhism.[24] For instance the Tibetan Phuntsok Wangyal, who founded the Tibetan communist party in the 40's, describes the old system as unequal and exploitative.[25]"

Hey, exact parallel with the portrayals of the ante-bellum US south, depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line the question is posed.
posted by telstar at 6:18 PM on April 14, 2010


I also promise not to reveal how much the word Bhikkunis reminds me of the word "bukkake". (real can of worms in that link, so be careful.)
posted by telstar at 7:20 PM on April 14, 2010


telstar: "depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line the question is posed."

and maybe other details, like the ethnicity of the person answering the question
posted by idiopath at 7:24 PM on April 14, 2010


I really don't see what was so egregious about VikingSword's original comment. It might have been glib, but ultimately, Buddhism has been infected with misogyny just like many other religions. Too often, westerners see Buddhism as special, immune from many of the ills of the Abrahamic traditions, but it too is vulnerable to the machinations of a powerful chauvinist charismatic elite.

Ultimately, the one teaching attributed to the Buddha that I see as sacrosanct is to be a light unto oneself. The power of rational thought can cut through much of the bullshit that tradition can bring with it.
posted by sid at 8:31 PM on April 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


anyway back to the thread. i found out about this scandal when i interviewed Brad Warner author of Hardcore Zen last week. His point, as a Buddhist monk in a different tradition, was that this is a natural reaction to the institutionalization of Buddhism around the world. He said that as B becomes more like a religion and less like an artform, the temples and teachers and practitioners will be further and further more beholden to some high office than they are supposed to be, simply because thats where the power is coalescing. His exact words were: That is not Buddhism, and I don't want anything to do with that shit.

its interesting to me the way things seems to resolve themselves into corrupt and conservative hierarchies the longer they exist, so even something without proselytizing and heavy indoctrination more and more starts to resemble every other massive organization.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:50 PM on April 14, 2010


Kung fu empowers Nepal nuns
posted by homunculus at 11:31 PM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, this is a great post. Thanks, desjardins; I knew nothing about this and it's fascinating. Thanks for putting it together for us.
posted by mediareport at 5:04 AM on April 15, 2010


Potomac Avenue, I'd be interested in reading/hearing a copy of your interview. Is it online?
posted by desjardins at 5:57 AM on April 15, 2010


@Potomac Avenue - I can see how Warner's view on this topic fits his brand image, but I'm not sure that it is an accurate understanding of the the issue of full ordination for nuns in various Buddhist traditions. I also disagree that the ordination issue is simply one of 'corrupt and conservative hierarchies'. As has been stated in the comments and more clearly in the links, the issue for nuns within some disciplines are quite difficult at the moment whereas for nuns in other disciplines/countries is quite the opposite.

What is clear from the responses to this thread, is that it is not possible to approach these topics with openness in this kind of forum. We come at these topics with strong bias and impatience to attach the strongest labels and worst motivations. The issue with Vikingswords initial comment (in my mind anyway) was the snarky reduction of a complex issue to a general swipe at religion. Religious organization takes apparently hypocritical stance, asserts tradition as defense. News at 11. This type of oversimplification does not help our understanding, to the contrary it divert our attention and keeps us stuck.
posted by jchack at 6:37 AM on April 15, 2010


Resisted posting to this thread because I feel so passionately about the topic of this post, sexual discrimination and the secrecy around this in traditional Buddhism. I am Buddhist and have been since 1975 but have deep reservations about the traditional Tibetan culture in which I learned Buddhism, while studying in India for 10 years among the Tibetan refugees there. So I waited a day for my ire to cool.

Conservative hierarchies in Tibetan Buddhist culture certainly do still exist and are, thankfully, being changed, though very gradually, by a handful of brave people, women and men. There is also the gradual demystifying of the bs around The East, in particular about Tibet and Tibetans.

This sexual discrimination is the reason I opted out of being around Tibetan Buddhists, except at a distance on FaceBook. The word for woman in Tibetan is "inferior birth"; kye meaning birth and min, meaning less than or inferior. The syllable min in Tibetan is basically a negative, added to many words it means "not". And that's the negative, sexist intent foundation about women, built deliberately right into the Tibetan language.

A monk in Tibetan is referred to as Venerable so and so. A nun is referred to with the demeaning word that means auntie. This was supposedly due to the fact that the 'official' lineage of nun's ordination died out in Tibet. I cannot see how this actually happened, as there have been nuns in Tibet for many centuries. There is no Venerable term for nun that I've ever heard used by monks, lamas or Tibetan Buddhists, the respectful term in Sanskrit for nun, bhikkuni, is never used.

A middle aged American woman I knew, who became a Tibetan Buddist nun, Jampa Palmo, studied at the Dalai Lama's School of Dialectics in the 1970's, then in Dharamsala, India. She was advised to do so by her teacher (lama). This was the first woman in the history of that ancient school and the only Western woman ever allowed to study there. She told me that the Tibetan monks there routinely called her whore, slut, idiot and regularly denigrated her with sexist insults. I think it gradually caused her a nervous breakdown, while also increasing her determination to try and become a Buddhist professor, a "geshe". She never made it and lives alone now, still a nun, isolated.

Her being verbally, psychologically and spiritually abused like that, over years, made me furious about the hypocrisy regarding women Buddhists among the Tibetan lamas. These women make up about 70% of the Western students studying Tibetan Buddhism and the fact that the abbots, head lamas or the Dalai Lama did nothing to stop the abuse, they just looked the other way caused me to detach from any Buddhist group and to warn female students spending time around any Tibetan lama.

As for looking the other way when it came to sexual abuses of women wanting to study Buddhism with Tibetan lamas or yogis, the Tibetan administration and network of old boys is just as bad as the Catholic Church's secrecy and denial about its own sexual abuses. Of this I have bitter personal experience.

A good friend of mine told me recently that his biological mother was raped by the Catholic priest she went to see for counseling and he, the product of this rape, was given up for adoption. He is angry that all the focus now is only on the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, not also on the many adult women abused sexually by priests. The typical comment he is met with is that if a woman is not a minor it is consensual sex. Or "she wanted it" or "was asking for it". Not true in the stories I've been told by survivors of sexual abuse by Buddhist 'monks' or lamas.

A former Buddhist nun, June Campbell, now a professor in Scotland, wrote what is in my estimation, a brilliant book about the core misogyny in Tibetan society, particularly in Tibetan Buddhism A Traveller In Space. Readable free online. Here is an interview with her in which she discusses some of her thoughts on the matter. She was the translator and disciple for a renowned 'monk' lama, Kalu Rinpoche. she was ordained as a nun by this lama, who was revered as an embodiment of innocence, morality and compassion. This lama convinced June she should express her faith in having sex with him, very aged at the time...and his nephew too, if she were really, really devoted to the Noble Path. He threatened her with death if she broke the secrecy. It was a devastating and crushing betrayal of trust. It is also very typical in my experience of how women and nuns in particular are treated in Tibetan Buddhism.

So it's time the topic of sexual discrimination among Buddhists was exposed, outed and discussed. I'm very thankful for this post, desjardins. Thank you.
posted by nickyskye at 12:16 PM on April 15, 2010 [16 favorites]


Thanks for writing from your personal experience, especially about Tibetan Buddhism, of which I have only cursory knowledge.
posted by desjardins at 12:42 PM on April 15, 2010


As a counterpoint to nickyskye's helpful comment, I practice Tibetan (from Sherpas actually) Buddhism, and in the major teachings I have received, I have been clearly advised to revere all women.
posted by mblandi at 6:50 PM on April 15, 2010


in the major teachings I have received, I have been clearly advised to revere all women

The teachings may teach one thing. The practice in real life among Tibetans is quite another. If you are taught by a Tibetan teacher, the word used to teach you to "revere" women is still kyemin (transliteration=skyes dman), inferior birth.
posted by nickyskye at 8:17 PM on April 15, 2010


I don't know much about Buddhism, so here's a grain of salt appetizer. My gut feeling is that any dualistic religion is prone to sexism, and that Buddhism shares a "spirit good, body/world bad" dualism with Christianity. (I'm partial to Taoism myself.) Curious what others think.

On the other hand, I travelled in Tibet and Tibetan areas of India, in fairly non-touristed areas relatively early in the game (1986-7), and found an openness about gender and sexuality that was very unusual and strikingly more positive than either India or China at the time. For example, hanging around the Tibetan govt. in exile library in McLeod Ganj, I stumbled across a book called "Tales From Uncle Tompa." He was the legendary rascal of Tibet, coming up with various schemes to (for example) disguise himself as a nun to get into a nunnery and GET SOME.

On the third hand, he's kinda male and not horribly different than OC and Stiggs now that I think about it, so I'm not sure which side that example supports.
posted by msalt at 10:56 PM on April 15, 2010


in the major teachings I have received, I have been clearly advised to revere all women

A lot of religions say they revere women. Often (but not necessarily) this means that they put women on a pedestal as long as they conform to gender expectations of being weak, quiet, obedient and domestic. That pedestal involves holding women up as being exemplars of ideal moral behavior and beauty while restricting their rights. As far as those religions are concerned, a woman who doesn't conform forfeits one of her few allowed rights, the right to respect from men.

Not that I know much about Buddhism apart from what I read on Metafilter. But I am familiar with other religious traditions that have similar statements about women which contradict their actual practice. It doesn't surprise me to find out that some branches of Buddhism have the same double-standards as many other religions.
posted by harriet vane at 6:13 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


msalt: "I don't know much about Buddhism, so here's a grain of salt appetizer. My gut feeling is that any dualistic religion is prone to sexism, and that Buddhism shares a "spirit good, body/world bad" dualism with Christianity. (I'm partial to Taoism myself.) Curious what others think."

Well, this heavily varies by sect and formulation. You'll find Buddhists arguing that their particular true scotsman's truth is that reincarnation's a literal thing, or that it's a symbolic non-literal thing, or that it's not part of real Buddhism at all but more of a kind of myth-barnacle that attached itself long ago. Likewise between a true-spiritual-ground-of-being dualism (or dualism-trending) formulation versus a heavy focus on the truth of non-dualism versus straight-up humanist materialism. Everything from theistic to atheistic to panentheistic narratives get bandied about--Buddhism is if anything more schismed than Christianity, it's just that those schisms have generally been more quiet.

Personally, I think that belief in dualism or not is an entirely separate axis than the amount of sexism. One's an unfalsifiable model of reality, whose varying positions can be useful in some ways of looking and unhelpful in other ways; the other's just...bullshit.
posted by Drastic at 7:49 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


My gut feeling is that any dualistic religion is prone to sexism, and that Buddhism shares a "spirit good, body/world bad" dualism with Christianity.

Buddhism is not dualist (also see discussion of monism in Buddhism). I would posit that society is prone to sexism, and religion incorporates certain cultural beliefs and codifies them. This is perhaps especially true in Buddhism, which is practiced in vastly different ways in different societies, many of which have a long history of expecting subservience from women.
posted by desjardins at 9:31 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


The teachings may teach one thing. The practice in real life among Tibetans is quite another. If you are taught by a Tibetan teacher, the word used to teach you to "revere" women is still kyemin (transliteration=skyes dman), inferior birth.

Sure, I understand, and I called your comment helpful because I suspect that cultural norms in Nepal and Tibet are not in keeping with the teachings. Also, wouldn't the roots of that word precede Buddhism's arrival in Tibet?

In the end, all I am saying is, I lived with my lama, he taught me in English, and I practice it. I know tulkus from his lineage, and they live it. One lama's daughter will also be a lama, his wife is in politics, they are unfettered.
posted by mblandi at 9:36 AM on April 16, 2010


Please forgive me if the following may seem ranty and axe-grindy. It is. But it also includes information about Buddhist nuns and I hope that redeems it a bit.

"secular literature outside of folk tales was practically unknown in Tibet up until the Chinese occupation". Almost all of society outside the monastery walls in Tibet (97%!) was illiterate. Almost all literature was religion based.

There were a small handful of poems by a few lamas and oral tradition tales. All 'literature' was in the monasteries, for males, who were mostly taken there at the age of 4 to 6 years old, no choice, and dressed as 'monks' when they had basically nothing to renounce. Very young males placed in 'monasteries' experienced a forced 'renunciation'. The main renunciation these children experienced was that of having a family. The monastery became 'home'. Forcing a very young child to renounce something they do not have yet, an experience of sexuality, sexual experience is, imo, not a renunciation that comes from the spirit, which is what authentic Buddhism seems to be about. Renunciation in the Buddhist sense is typically thought of as giving up worldly attachment. What is a male child of 4 supposed to renounce, drinking milk, playing with a top, being hugged by his mother?

Nuns on the other hand in Tibet were not created with forced 'renunciation' at an early age. They were usually widows, women who didn't have a husband, homeless girls, grandmothers at the end of their lives.

Now there is a new generation of Tibetan Buddhist nuns, educated, deciding of their own volition, not because there isn't a man around to protect them. I have respect for the daughter of Mindrolling Rinpoche, Jetsun Khandro, who is a Buddhist nun, teacher and has created a retreat center, Samten Tse, for Buddhist nuns, who have chosen renunciation from worldly activity of their own volition, not merely because they are elderly or widows etc.

I stumbled across a book called "Tales From Uncle Tompa". He was the legendary rascal of Tibet, coming up with various schemes to (for example) disguise himself as a nun to get into a nunnery and GET SOME.

*sigh. Yes, the hilarity is enormous about Agu Tompa's schemes to screw the nuns with the agenda being how ri-dick-ulous for nuns to fantasize they could live without penises or that all along they were just waiting for a hero to penetrate the nunnery walls and screw them. Hardy har har. The stories tell what was assumed to be the truth all along, they weren't real nuns after all, just horny old aunties in robes.

No stories were told ri-dick-uling the reality-based hypocrisy that many 'monasteries' in Tibet (and now notably in Sikkim) have brothels outside the 'monastery's walls.

My gut feeling is that any dualistic religion is prone to sexism

A good point. June Campbell also made some fascinating points in her book, A Traveller In Space, about the origins of the mindset that denigrates women. I hope my interpretation is not incorrect. The gist of it is that overvaluing thing-based thinking, facts, traditionally thought of as in the male domain, and not honoring the amorphous, less easily definable emotions, which have been traditionally thought of as female, the very nature of how the mind has been traditionally imagined is misogynistic.

In the traditional concept of the mind, reality as we have known it, fact dominates as real and male, over feeling (emotions), thought to be less valuable and female. Hard, shining, phallic facts valued over the dark, elusive, and scary orifice of spacious feelings. The blunt (male) valued over the subtle (female). The simple (male) valued over the complex (female).

Valuing the half of humanity that is female has been an interesting journey, especially in the last few centuries. Naturally, it would also reflect in Buddhist nuns, wherever they may be, seeking their ordination being valued.
posted by nickyskye at 9:59 AM on April 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Thanks, desjardins. Obviously these are very complex concepts that have been thought to death. I am using dualism to refer to the 4 Noble Truths, which I assume are common to all schools of Buddhism. If desire/craving is the root of suffering and enlightenment comes from rejecting it, that is very close to spirit/body dualism in my view, and certainly will make sexual politics complicated at best. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that both Christianity and Buddhism (usually) have celibate monks.

It's funny to me that your first link describes Taoism as dualistic because of yin and yang (not actually discussed in the Tao Teh Ching, by the way.) Maybe I'm using the wrong word, but to me, nondualism is fundamentally the acceptance of seeming opposites as intrinsically connected, the two sides of the same coin. I'd say that any time you reject a big part of the world, as desire or illusion or Satan or whatever, you've created a dualistic world view. And given how large the male/female distinction looms in life, sexism is likely to follow.
posted by msalt at 10:03 AM on April 16, 2010


The story of the Buddha's awakening is that as a young prince, he tried libertinism; as a spiritual seeker, he tried extreme asceticism; he rejected them both and began teaching the Middle Way. No small part of the point of Buddhism is the rejection of any "spirit good/body & world bad" dualism. The Buddhist teaching is that attachment to carnal or worldly pleasures predictably gives rise to suffering, so it teaches being unattached to them. It doesn't teach that they're bad, or that you shouldn't enjoy them.

It teaches that your love of them can be a trap. And that love of your rejection of them is its own trap. It's how you do it, not what you do.
posted by Zed at 10:04 AM on April 16, 2010


If desire/craving is the root of suffering and enlightenment comes from rejecting it

"Desire" is a really imprecise word. I don't know Sanskrit or Pali, so I can't speak intelligently about translation issues, but in my understanding, it does not equate to the Western concept of desire. You desire a shiny car, a beautiful woman, lots of money, etc. That is not in itself what leads to suffering. The wanting isn't the bad thing. It's ignorance that is the real issue; we think that a shiny new car is going to make us happy. When we discover that it doesn't (in any meaningful sense), that's when we suffer. You can desire something without lusting after it, without craving it. I desired cookies so I made some and ate them. I may desire a new laptop, but it crosses the threshold into craving when I feel I need it (while intellectually knowing I don't) and it causes distress that I do not have it.

To expand on Zed's point about the middle way:
The cause of the enlightenment factor of equanimity is the impartial state, the middle state, free from attraction and repulsion. If that freedom from attraction and repulsion exists then there is equanimity; when it does not exist there is no equanimity. This state of freedom from attraction and repulsion is twofold by way of scope: detachment in regard to beings and detachment in regard to things.

Repulsion is thrown away even by the development of the enlightenment factor of calm and in order to show just the way of casting out attraction is the instruction beginning with detachment in regard to beings taught.

Specially, equanimity is an enemy of lust and so the commentator said: Equanimity is the path of purity of one who is full of lust.

The detached attitude towards beings is developed by reflection on the individual nature of moral causation and by reflection on soullessness. By reflection on ownerlessness, the state of not belonging to a soul is brought out and by reflection on temporariness, the impermanence of things is brought out to produce the detached attitude towards inanimate things.. (source)
posted by desjardins at 10:45 AM on April 16, 2010


sorry to get all buddhism 101 on your ass
posted by desjardins at 10:45 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


No, that's great, thanks. I still perceive a judgment at the root of Buddhism that has implications for sexism -- men and women do famously get attached, by any definition, and rejecting that seems to lead naturally to, well, things like celibate monasteries. I perceive a deeper acceptance of humanity and the world in (my gloss on) Taoism. But I defer to the greater knowledge of Buddhism of many here.

BTW, I stand corrected. The Tao Teh Ching does mention yin and yang once, in ch. 42. But it's hardly a central concept.
posted by msalt at 1:52 PM on April 16, 2010


The Continued Pernicious Influence of Sloppy Translating
posted by homunculus at 8:38 AM on April 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


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