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A Buddhist perspective on Gender

Amaranatho's picture

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What about the boys!


Monks, I do not know of a form that captivates the mind of man as that of woman. The form of a woman indeed captivates the mind of a man.[1]

Monks, I do not know of a form that captivates the mind of woman as that of man. The form of a man indeed captivates the mind of a woman.[2]

The Buddha did not distinguish between the capacity of a man or woman for realising the ultimate goal of Buddhism: freeing the heart - both are equal in this. Yet gender attitudes do affect us. In the context of ultimate reality, gender plays no role, but in the context of conventional reality, gender is layer of deep conditioning. Buddhism has much to offer about how to live in the conditioned realm as a human being. As a Buddhist male monk, I live in a mixed community where nuns are not equal to monks. Personally whenever somebody starts to speak about gender, I immediately think of women and the way they are treated. 


Monks and nuns

Buddhist women in England twenty five years ago asked the monks within the tradition I'm in, to develop a order to support them becoming nuns, which I think with some reluctance they did.[3] In terms of the wider Theravadin monastic form there is no direct way for women to ordain as nuns, as there are no female lineage holders. Lineage holders means that there must be a direct link back to the historical Buddha, as the Theravadin nuns order died out (although proving this even for the monks is difficult - more here ). It is not possible for it to be created, as in general no monk will do this (although late in 2007 a monk within our tradition has started to do this).


The Dalai Lama in 2007 organised a large conference in Germany to bring scholars and monastics  from various traditions together to discuss the question of women's ordination in Buddhism, and what I understood was said was that there was no legal monastic problem, it was a political/social one.[4]


In October 2007 when the Burmese monks rose up against their government, I joined an organized demonstration in London.[5]  With me was a senior nun, two other nuns, and one other monk. In the photograph which was distributed widely throughout the media was just me, or me and another monk. The media cut the nuns out of the picture even though they were next to me. There were a considerable number of female journalists and photographers there. So why is this?


The Buddha taught meditation as a way of understanding the way things are. The way I have been taught to do this is by observing my body and mind, seeing how body and mind responds to situations and then learning from that. As the thinking mind calms down, a natural sense of wisdom or discernment arises which is beyond the thinking mind. Gender, and its close friend sexuality, in my opinion are formed in the main by social/political and cultural attitudes and until we get some perspective on this we limit ourselves and form narrow opinions of what we think is correct.


Why is it like that?

Opinions are formed by conditions so if you live in a family of racists, there is a good chance that you might learn racist opinions. The more we get to see how conditioning works, the easier it is to see that in some situations you are more male and in others more female. Maybe then, gender is more grey than the black and white of male and female. Buddhism can also be seen in terms of two levels the mundane level and the super-mundane level. The mundane level is all about the social/political/cultural level - that is being a civilised person and this is very dependant on culture that it is in. So Buddhism comes from India 2500 years ago, a country that still has very different attitudes towards sex and gender. The super-mundane level is about freeing the heart and has no interest in gender, sex or any other condition.[6]


If gender is only on the conditional level then you need to use tools for looking at the issues at that level. I have noticed many of the Theravadin Buddhist monks that I have met who make problems with the nuns or won't live with them, or have problems with a woman in their life, their mother, sister or ex-wife and the same goes the other way around. So usually I connect gender with women issues, but I would say that men also need to look at what society/politics and culture have done to us. A good man, is a person that can drink the most, have sex with as many women as possible, fights for his country, defends his castle, has a big penis and great muscles; men are not allowed to cry, show emotions or be angry.[7]


The Buddha's teaching can be summed up as ‘there is suffering and there is a way out of suffering.' Part of this suffering is that life is just unfair. It's not an excuse for gender inequality or any other injustices, it's just something that I've noticed as part of living in what would seem a reasonable and fair community based on very good rules of harmlessness. Part of our deepest desire is that life should be perfect. From a Buddhist perspective this just traps us in a very tight corner, and from my experience leads to a cyclic behaviour which does not lead to freedom. 


So how does this help you? The point that I am making is to investigate, explore what you think is pre-given about your gender, and how sometimes we unconsciously support our gender identity because that is what we have learnt. Are you really interested and, if you're not, explore that?





[5] Buddhism has a lot to say about developing a civilised personality, and it is very unlikely that you will have a peaceful heart without this. To understand this in more detail it is very important to read this article


[7] To understand more about this read the article by ? (Boys will be men, Guiding our sons from boyhood to manhood) and Robert Moore

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