Was the Buddha a Male Chauvinist?
The Buddha may not have thought men and women were equal, but don’t judge him by our socially progressive values.
By Dr. Robert Schwarz
It might come as a surprise to some to learn that the Buddha, supposedly the embodiment of enlightenment, was a male chauvinist. Seen from our present point of view, he definitely was. But relative to his own time and place of birth, the term doesn’t fit.
Since the Buddha was a mere man and not a god, he must, like other men, be judged by the values of his own culture. Considering the Buddha’s reluctance to accept women into the sangha (monastic order), one may object to the word “enlightenment” in this connection. But it should be noted that in the Buddha’s time, to be “enlightened” meant to be liberated from the bondage of desire, not to any socially progressive attitude.
Buddhist scripture describes the Buddha’s reservations when it came to allowing women to enter the sangha. It seems that his wet nurse and aunt, a lady by the name of Maha-Pajapati, wished to enter the monastic order. The Buddha turned her down. But Maha-Pajapati was nothing if not committed to her cause. Determined to wear her hallowed nephew down, Maha-Pajapati essentially played the same role in “integrating” the sangha as did the first African Americans in Selma and Little Rock in breaking through the solid front of white supremacy. As Martin Luther King’s refusal to submit to segregation eventually led to its abolition, so Maha-Pajapati’s refusal, after two fruitless efforts, to give up her request to be received into the sangha finally resulted in success. The Buddha grudgingly gave in to her third request, but only when Ananda, his favorite disciple, interceded for her, and then only after two of Ananda’s pleas had fallen on deaf ears.
Only when Ananda argued with the master on the grounds of his own teaching did the Buddha relent. Ananda asked whether women are or are not capable “when they have gone forth from the household and entered the homeless state, under the doctrine and discipline proclaimed by the Blessed One (the Buddha), of obtaining conversion.” The Buddha was compelled to admit that there was no reason to believe them not to be as capable as men. At this point, Ananda had the Buddha where he wanted him, and fortified the plea with a personal touch as well as an interesting application of practical psychology. He reminded his master that Maha-Pajapati had nursed the Buddha as a baby and won the battle—but not the war.
There was to be no complete equality with men after all. Though admitted into the community of the sangha, a nun had to abide by certain rules—rules which sharply discriminated against her sex. No matter how great her seniority in the order, a nun, the Buddha proclaimed, apparently making up his rules on the spur of the moment, had to make obeisance, i.e. rise in the presence of a monk and bow before him, even if that monk was a novice. Nuns would have to receive religious exhortation from monks, and would have to confess any offenses committed against the order to them. Nuns were required to open up their consciences regarding the purity of their lives before a mixed group of monks and nuns, but monks were not obligated to confess to their female counterparts. While a mixed group would mete out disciplinary action against a nun, monks were subject only to other men. Final ordination for nuns was bestowed by a mixed group, but a monk did not have to subject himself to a woman. No nun could rebuke a monk, but the opposite was allowed. And on and on.
When I mentioned the story of Maha-Pajapati in class once, one of my students called the Buddha an “Indian giver.” Was he? Or was he merely a man formed by the social and sexual mores of his time, who had, if not the courage, at least the good sense to take the first step, however faltering, toward sexual equality?
On Ananda’s advice, Maha-Pajapati accepted the Buddha’s terms, surely not because she hoped for later amendments to the inequality in the status of women, but because she could not possibly hope for better terms. In fact, there is the greatest probability that she never expected complete equality to begin with, and was simply happy with the victory she had won.
From the modern point of view, the sharpest indignity was yet to follow. After the Buddha, with the greatest possible hesitation, even repugnance, condescended to admit women into the sangha, he then predicted that because of this decision, the religion he founded would last only half as long as it would have if women had been kept out. “And Ananda, just as when the disease called blight falls upon a field of sugar cane in good condition, that field of sugar cane does not continue long, just so, Ananda, under whatsoever doctrine and discipline women are allowed to go forth from the household life into the homeless state, that religion does not last long.” The Buddha justified the rules he imposed on nuns as a bulwark against female influence: “As a man would in anticipation build an embankment to a great reservoir, beyond which the water should not overpass, just even so, Ananda, have I in anticipation laid down these Eight Chief Rules for the nuns, their life long not to be overpassed.”
What are we to make of a great religious founder who set out to liberate mankind from bondage and lead it to emancipation and freedom, and who at the same time was afraid of women? The matter is especially puzzling when one remembers Buddhist insistence on the essential quality of all sentient beings, even “lower forms of life,” who are potentially in possession of ultimate liberation and redemption.
One possible answer is tied up with the concept of reincarnation. One may be reborn to a higher or lower status depending on one’s karma. There is, therefore, no complete equality in the race for Nirvana. A man may be reborn as an animal, a woman as a man, an animal as a man. So, although all sentient beings are inherently open to ultimate enlightenment, egalitarianism in Samsara (the realm of transmigratory existence) is not necessarily vouchsafed.
I personally prefer a socio-cultural explanation for the Buddha’s attitude. We cannot take this great religious figure out of his environment. The India of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. was not a country in which women were considered the equals of men, and the Buddha saw the religious order as an extension of the social order. In addition, he knew that sexual temptation and the ascetic life don’t mix, and there is a great deal of evidence that he wished to “keep women in their place” because of their potentially unwholesome influence on the monks. The Buddhist monk’s dedication to the cause of the Dharma (the law or teaching of the Buddha) might be in jeopardy if women were to gain entrance to the sangha without stringent rules of segregation.
But this explanation still leaves one critical question unanswered. Why did the Buddha emphasize the superiority of men over women, especially in matters of human dignity? The only possible explanation is that to the Buddha, women were, essentially, slaves to their bodies, and therefore incapable of transcending the bonds of the physical world. There is no question that, in common with many other religious leaders in the history of the world, and in spite of his reply to Ananda that women are as capable as men of conversion and even arahatship (state of perfected sainthood), the Buddha believed men to be physiologically, biologically and psychologically in a favored position concerning the acquisition of sambodhi (complete enlightenment and deliverance from the wheel of birth and death). For though women may be as capable as men, they are still bound by natural and biological ties to their bodies—a point of view that still crops up from time to time 2,500 years later.
Despite this seeming non-enlightenment of the Enlightened One, the Buddha was relatively more egalitarian than most Christian, Jewish and Moslem religious leaders would be in centuries to come. The Christian church fathers, the Talmudic and medieval rabbis, and the Islamic sages, beginning with Mohammed himself, were, on the whole, even more suspicious of women than was the Buddha. Compared to the rabbinical Responsa, the Mohammedan scripture, including the Koran, and the writings of the Catholic saints, starting with St. Augustine and including St. Thomas Aquinas, the Buddha was comparatively “progressive,” particularly if one considers that India half a millennium before Christ was the leading bastion of male superiority.
Some years ago, Christine Worth recounted the story of her ordination into the ministry of the Buddhist church in New York. Worth reminded her audience of the “women’s liberation movement” in the days of the Buddha, when his female relatives “marched across the country…their bare feet leaking blood, the pebbles hurting their tender toes.” She speaks of the reservations the Buddha had in admitting women to the sangha, but defends him nonetheless: “Buddhism was developed by men for men.” Only by leaving home and wife and striking out in poverty and self-denial could the Buddha conquer his former existence and live at the very outpost of domestic, civilized existence. The Buddhist undertaking was much like the American pioneering venture, a rigorous thrust into uncharted lands, demanding of its devotees poverty, devotion, and austerity. Thus, a woman in the earliest Buddhist organizations was an anomaly. Ms. Worth claims that the blame for women’s second class status in religion “should not be placed on men alone. From the time of the Buddha, equality has been ‘granted’ to women who were ready to take responsibility for themselves rather than depend on male leaders.”
So, to answer the question of whether or not the Buddha was a male chauvinist, we must remember that no achievement has been more difficult for women than the breakthrough into the religious “profession,” surely a paradox of its own. And we must remember that words are exceedingly tricky. A person considered a disciplinarian in American schools today would have been regarded as an easygoing “softy” in Hohenzollern, Germany. Today’s conservative would have been viewed as a flaming liberal in 1920 Mississippi. Relative to his locus in history, and judged as a man among other men, the Buddha was really no “male chauvinist.” But I would suggest to him that if he ever decides to make a reappearance today, he’d better leave his Eight Chief Rules at home!
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Dr. Robert Schwarz is professor emeritus of philosophy at Florida Atlantic University, where he taught from 1964 to 1989, receiving the university's undergraduate teaching award upon his retirement. Dr. Schwarz is the author of a book on the Nazis and has published numerous essays, reviews, and journal articles.
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