In the previous post I discussed the phenomenon of Theravada Buddhist monks “strictly following a corrupt tradition,” that is, breaking the rules in the texts without acknowledging the fact by following later corruptions of those rules. In another recent post I mentioned having seen two of the somewhat controversial new bhikkhunis, the first two I’ve ever seen. And what I noticed is that these bhikkhunis were evidently conforming to the same kind of corruption of monastic discipline as the aforementioned “strict-ish” bhikkhus (for example, neither of them was wearing the regulation clothing of a bhikkhuni), in addition to simply ignoring some of the other rules specifically pertaining to bhikkhunis (for example, with regard to sitting in the presence of a bhikkhu). So this post is a kind of appendix to the previous one—a logical continuation of the same theme, although moving in a tangential direction. The big question herein is: Why revive an ancient order if those who revive it are unwilling to follow the code which defines that ancient order?
The following discussion may turn out to be very politically incorrect. I’m not deliberately trying to be politically incorrect, although I do freely admit that I consider political correctness to be insane bullshit. Furthermore, cutting through bullshit is one of my callings in life. So mainly I’m just trying to cut through some bullshit here, so that somebody might see a certain situation with a little more clarity, or at least from a different angle. *Fair warning*
How many new bhikkhunis sit crosslegged, say, when they meditate? Guess. Probably most if not all of them, right? I figure that’s probably the case. But did you know that it is against the code of monastic discipline for a bhikkhuni to sit crosslegged? She is required by the Pali Vinaya to sit with both feet tucked in to one side, the way Burmese women traditionally sit. Almost every Vinaya rule comes with an official explanation for why the Buddha established the rule in the first place, and the official reason for the prohibition on nuns sitting crosslegged is to prevent them from “consenting to the touch of the heel.” I. B. Horner, the translator of the Pali Text Society’s English rendering of Vinaya, included in her translation a quaint, innocent little note discussing the question of whose heel these nuns were consenting to. Based upon an ignorance of the lotus position and/or of human anatomy, combined with some old-fashioned maidenly naïveté, she concluded that bhikkhunis sitting in a group were causing distraction by having their protruding heels rubbing against other bhikkhunis. Personally, however, I don’t think her theory is correct. Long ago, before my ordination, a female friend told me that as a young girl she learned how to masturbate by sitting on her heel and rocking back and forth; and I’m pretty sure that that’s what “consenting to the touch of the heel” really means. So the rule which probably nobody follows is intended to prevent nuns from turning their meditation into a masturbatory experience.
It may be that most of the new bhikkhunis are simply ignorant of the existence of this rule, although ignorance is no excuse for breaking it. Even if they find out, I’d guess that they’ll continue to sit crosslegged, possibly without seeing it as an offense. It could be argued that the rule shouldn’t be followed because it discriminates against women: monks are allowed to sit crosslegged, and nuns aren’t. On the other hand, some rules are less strict for nuns than for monks, but that is not used as an excuse for monks to ignore their own rules. For example, masturbation itself is a much more serious offense for monks than for nuns; but monks don’t refuse to do penance for masturbation using this discrimination as an excuse. Besides, the rule against bhikkhunis sitting crosslegged is due in large part to the biological fact that female genitalia are designed differently from that of males; and there’s not much that can be done about that. So again, women want to be acknowledged as bhikkhunis, but they don’t want to follow the ancient discipline required of bhikkhunis. This strikes me as a serious stroke against the credibility of their cause.
It isn’t just “lesser and minor rules” either which may be seen as discriminatory against ordained women. Bhikkhunis have twice as many pārājika rules—the most serious rules, which result in automatic excommunication if broken—as bhikkhus have; and anyone who understands how Vinaya works knows that there’s no way in hell that that is going to be changed. It can’t be changed, unless maybe via some extraordinarily radical decree of an international Great Council of the Sangha, which is very unlikely to happen. Also, the ordination procedure discriminates against women, for example by the embarrassing personal questions asked of a woman before she is ordained; and changing these rules would no doubt be seen by many conservatives as simply rendering the ordination invalid, thereby worsening the situation.
Many politically correct individuals, especially in the West, vehemently insist that the bhikkhuni order must be revived and immediately modified, not caring about such quibbles as technical validity or even democracy, for the sake of gender equality—despite the plain fact that inequality is built deeply into the system of the Bhikkhuni Sangha. In this case political correctness trumps obvious facts and also the will of the majority, the majority here being the majority of Theravada Buddhist monastics, almost all of whom are Asian. The whole situation is quite a dilemma.
So again, the big question is: Why go to the trouble of reviving an ancient system that pretty much nobody really wants to follow, and then immediately overhaul it so that it is no longer the ancient system, but is something else? Why try to reinstate an extinct order defined by Vinaya, and then reject much of the same Vinaya which defines it? The answer seems pretty obvious: Mainly what these folks want is the name, the official status, the worldly recognition of women being genuine bhikkhunis, which is largely a desire to make a political statement, to assert an idealized social principle. The trouble with this is that names, official status, and worldly recognition (let alone political statements) are part of the very same worldliness that a true renunciant is supposed to renounce. It has nothing to do with genuine Dhamma. It is a symptom of Western mentality that social issues, political correctness, and other superficialities take precedence over what is truly essential. What is truly essential often isn’t even on the radar.
I have suggested before (and I still think it is a good idea) that an obvious solution to the dilemma of reviving an ancient system that pretty much nobody wants to follow is to start a new order. Maybe two orders could be started—one for women, and one for men. The founding members could establish whatever rules they considered to be appropriate for a modern world, with female and male monastics being completely equal, so that presumably it would be a matter of seniority and nothing else that would determine who bowed to whom, and who got to go through the doorway first. Technically it wouldn’t amount to full ordination as bhikkhunis and bhikkhus, but so what; I do not believe that official ordination into a particular ancient tradition is necessary for enlightenment anyway, and enlightenment is supposedly the main purpose of the whole thing. Furthermore, this way would not amount to real schism, so long as the women and men were not claiming to be really ordained bhikkhunis and bhikkhus. The Japanese Buddhists and the Catholics already have something like this. I would guess that the officially ordained Theravadin Sangha would even allow the existence and affiliation of a kind of quasi-Sangha more suited to the West. Possibly the biggest problem with this scheme, if it were really to become manifest, is that politically correct Westerners might make a deliberate show of disrespecting the older monastic system as remaining incorrigibly sexist…which could then warrant dissociation from Theravada proper. We would then have a new sect—Navakavada, or “Doctrine of the Newcomers”—which might still manage to avoid the stigma of schism if its members just minded their own business and did not consider themselves to be officially ordained bhikkhunis and bhikkhus. They could call themselves anything else they liked, however. I think it could be a really good idea, and one more likely to be without sticky problems than reviving the official bhikkhuni order, or just controversially attempting to revive it, and then mutating it, in the face of opposition of the majority and lack of official recognition.
But of course, this scheme would not provide what many appear to consider the essential point of the thing: the absurd crap of worldly status, which crap of course the new renunciants ideally should be renouncing. It’s the name “bhikkhuni” that seems to be the primary issue for some. Trying to reconcile Dhamma/Dharma with the Western point of view is really a dilemma. Dhamma just doesn’t fit into Western society without it being dismembered and the pieces that fit stuck in around the edges.
In Buddhism it is taught that it is the inner state that is most important; the outward form of things is of secondary importance at best. Good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, are mental and volitional, not external, physical phenomena. And even the Pali texts show the Buddha freely admitting that women are the spiritual equals of men, being equally capable of enlightenment. So really, if women are not equal to men NOW, they never will be, unless maybe genetic engineering or some such changes one or both human genders. What is on the inside is what really matters, and what is on the outside is supposed to be mindfully let go of by a renunciant. If you think that artificial laws, social patterns, and political correctness will somehow make women equal, and that they are not equal already, then you are more worldly, superficial, and sexist than I am. But maybe more about this some other time.
If there are any women who read this who want to be real bhikkhunis, then I respectfully suggest that you follow the real rules for bhikkhunis, and not an amputated, mutated version of same. On the other hand, if you don’t want to subject yourself to such discrimination, which is understandable, then please create something better. Something different. I know you are equal, and I’m really on your side, and am willing to help. At least I feel like I’m on your side. appamādena sampādetha.
a modern Western conception of female equality
APPENDIX TO THE APPENDIX: MASTURBATION RULES AND THE ORIGINS OF THE BHIKKHUNI MONASTIC CODE
In the foregoing discussion I mentioned that the rules against masturbation in the pātimokkhas for monks and nuns differ between the sexes. There are more rules in place for preventing bhikkhunis from playing with themselves at all; yet masturbation all the way to orgasm bears a much stricter penalty for bhikkhus, requiring them to do six days and six nights of penance, followed by a large, inconvenient reinstatement ceremony. In fact nuns' masturbating to orgasm is not mentioned in the Pali, and thus carries no stricter penalty than simply the insertion of a finger past the second knuckle. My explanation for "complete" masturbation being a saṅghādisesa offense for monks and only a medium-severity pācittiya offense for nuns is this: The puritanical celibate Elders who came up with the rules did not know that women are able to have orgasms! Otherwise, there can be little doubt that they would have penalized it severely.
Now, I would assume that Gotama Buddha, being an extremely wise person, would at least be aware of this relatively important aspect of female sexuality. After all, he had lived a sensual life before he renounced the world, and had a wife, and maybe even a harem. Consequently I consider this masturbation rule business to be one of several bits of evidence that the Buddha himself did not devise the bhikkhuni pātimokkha—and possibly not the bhikkhu pātimokkha either. Some very ancient texts actually warn against a renunciant subjecting himself to systematized rules; and it is fairly clear that a primary purpose of the first Great Council, convened after the Buddha's death, was to formulate a monastic code.
There is circumstantial evidence in the Pali texts that some Elders did not like the idea of having a Bhikkhuni Sangha; and the texts themselves have the Buddha himself asserting that instituting it was a bad idea which would greatly shorten the lifespan of the Sāsana in this world. But that assertion, plus much of the negative discrimination, may have been added by the aforementioned unsympathetic Elders who participated in the formulation of official Doctrine. It may be that the Buddha really did allow an order of ordained nuns; but the extant monastic code for these nuns (and maybe for monks too) may not have been his idea.
Therefore, I consider this to be another argument in favor of spiritually-oriented Buddhist women today simply creating a brand new order more sympathetic to the needs of women. In order for it to work, pretty much all that is required is to avoid that one contentious word “bhikkhuni,” since technically a bhikkhuni is defined by the same monastic code which is designed in part to drive women away from the Sangha, and possibly back into the arms of insensitive husbands who don’t even know that they can come.