Religious Dispensations and the Subordination of Women

Upul Wijayawardhana, courtesy of Daily News

The systematic suppression of women, persisting over centuries, has been legitimised, largely by religions and is an art-form mastered by ‘Men in Robes’. At the dawn of civilisation, women were considered superior for the simple reason that only they could produce an offspring for the continuation of the species. There is evidence to show that in Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of civilisation, if not ‘The Cradle of Civilisation’, there was equality. In the early Sumerian period, “a council of elders”, represented equally by men and women, ruled the population but gradually a patriarchal society emerged.

Though some Rishakas are mentioned in the Vedas, with the transition of Hinduism to Brahminism, male Brahmins have dominated, the excuse made for not allowing women to be pujaris being that menstruation can dirty the house of god. Fortunately, barriers have been broken and there are female priests now. In Athens of Socrates, there was democracy but that was only for men. Confucius is well-known to have expressed very strong opinions against women. Though female Rabbis are not uncommon nowadays, women are denied priesthood in orthodox Jewish congregations.

Ordaining of women is a bone of contention among Christians, some Anglican women converting to Catholicism when the Church of England decided to ordain women, clearly illustrating how successful ‘men in robes’ have been, in brain-washing some women too. All this happens because of what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians: “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church”. In that case, are they to pray in silence and not sing hymns? Fortunately, new research has shown that this is a passage added later on, not an uncommon occurrence with religious texts.

Sunni Muslims have Imam Khatibs; imam meaning leader and khatib, the preacher. According to the 13th century scholar and jurist, Imam an-Nawawi: “”If a woman leads a man or men in a congregational prayer, the prayer of the men is invalid. As for her prayer, and the prayer of the women praying with her, it is sound.” Thus, though the Quran states that men and women are spiritually equal, there is a difference. In spite of this, in some Western countries female imams lead congregations but more rigid sects like Wahabis impose severe restrictions on women. After all, Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive only last month but no Western nation fought against this denial of human rights because they were more interested in selling arms to the Saudis.

Though Gautama Buddha rebelled against the existing order for equality, men in robes diminished the status of women. When women won the right to ordination, it is claimed that the Buddha set stipulations subjugating them to Monks, which I find totally incomprehensible. How can He, who proclaimed that no one is born a Brahmin or untouchable but do so by action,advocate discrimination against women. It is said that at the first Buddhist Council (Sangayana) which was held shortly after the Parinibbana of the Buddha, those assembled blamed Ananda Thero for two things, not requesting the Buddha to live longer and persuading the Buddha to establish Bhikkhuni Sasana. To me, both are utterly implausible; surely, Buddha took the decision to ordain women and being of such advanced mental faculties would, surely, have sensed approaching death. It is said that Venerable Rerukane Chandawimala Maha Nayaka Thero, the great scholar who brought Abhidhamma texts from Burma and translated them to Sinhala, foresaw his death. On 4th July 1997, just two weeks before his hundredth birthday, he had called his assistant and asked whether he had seen someone dying. When the assistant replied ‘no’, he had said ‘You will soon see’ and closed his eyes for ever, a few minutes later. If he could sense, I see no reason why the Buddha would not have sensed his impending demise. Unfortunately, illogical stories constructed along the life of the Buddha do not add anything; if at all, detract the greatness of the greatest human being that ever lived.

Unfortunately, the actions of men in robes in the guise of Buddhist monks have been troubling me for some time. I do not expect Buddhist monks to be perfect; after all they are human and can have faults but I cannot condone conduct that is totally un-Buddhist. The behaviour of some Bhikkhus of BBS leaves me startled. Though I was initially against Buddhist monks engaging in political activity, after reading Venerable Walpola Rahula’s thought provoking and inspirational book,Bhikshuwage Urumaya’ (Monk’s Heritage) I have changed my mind. As long as Bhikkhus indulge in politics for the common good, not for personal benefits, it is totally acceptable. After all, if not for their political activity where would we be today? If not for the campaign led by Bhikkhu’s like Venerable Rahula, we would not have had free education and, in all likelihood, I would not be writing this; would have died some time ago as a retired teacher or clerk.

It is not indulging in politics that we should be concerned with; it is the disgraceful way they behave and the demeaning language they use. Can you imagine a person who is supposed to be following in the footsteps of the ‘Compassionate One’, leading an attack on a safe-house giving shelter to refugees? Do they not understand Buddhists extend compassion to all living beings, even enemies?

YouTube, created by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim in February 2005, is a wonderful video-sharing site which has given expression to all. However, at times I wish it was not created, this happening recently when I watched videos by two very well-known Bhikkhus who were attacking fellow Bhikkhus using the most uncivilized language.

To add to my agony, shortly before seeing these clips, I had read about the downfall of the well-known Tibetan scholar and teacher Sogyal Rinpoche. His well-known work “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” has sold millions and translated into many languages including Sinhala. His organisation ‘Rigpa’, meaning essential nature of mind, has more than 100 centres in 40 countries around the world. His headquarters, Lerab Ling in Southern France is the largest Tibetan Buddhist Temple in the West and looks marvellous in photographs. It was opened in 2008 by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, in the presence of Carla Bruni Sarkozy, then First-Lady of France and many distinguished guests. Rinpoche was reputed for the use of an unconventional teaching technique, which he dubbed ‘crazy wisdom’, where he expected total subservience from his students, enduring even physical assaults.

Rumours had been circulating about his behaviour which got worse after a case of alleged sexual assault was settled out-of-court in 1990s. Things had come to a head in August last year, when during his annual teaching at Lerab Ling, he punched a Danish Nun hard on her stomach, in front of over 1000 students. In July, eight leading present and former students sent him an open letter highlighting his misdeeds which included sexual promiscuity and traumatising his students with his assaults. They stated in the letter, which was copied to the Dalai Lama: ‘If your striking and punching us and others, and having sex with your students and married women, and funding your sybaritic lifestyle with students’ donations is actually the ethical and compassionate behaviour of a Buddhist teacher, please explain to us how it is.’ He had refused to budge, till the Dalai Lama dissociated himself from Rinpoche, when he announced his retirement.

As Buddha stated, some who accumulate knowledge without gaining wisdom, get intoxicated and behave irrationally. This indeed is what happened to Rinpoche as well as the two Buddhist monks I saw insulting themselves, more than others, on YouTube. I shall refrain from naming them as I do not want to discredit the great services they had rendered. I feel sorry for a young monk for whom I have the greatest admiration, as he was the person who taught Abhidhamma to the masses. He seems to have been misled and has started behaving in an aggressive manner. The video he has recorded, attacking a fellow Bhikkhu who had criticized him, in the most un-Buddhist language was a hard-watch. Worse still was the attack on a Maha Nayaka by a Bhikkhu whose in-depth knowledge of the Dhamma is in no doubt but behaviour so distant from the self-claimed ‘Enlightened state’. He alleged that Maha Nayakas are good only in undressing females nearby and blamed them for blessing ‘demalas’ and ‘thambiyas’. May be, I am a naïve Buddhist who thinks that it is the duty of the Bhikkhus to bless anyone who seeks their blessings.

Distressed, I rang my meditation and spiritual ‘guru’, Venerable Teldeniyaye Amitha, Head of Nottingham Vihara and Mediation Centre and told him; “Hamuduruwane, when we have Bhikkhus like this, we do not need enemies to destroy our religion?” He pacified me and told that Buddha had predicted this; he had said that His doctrine will be destroyed from within, like rust destroying an iron rod. He referred me to Saddhamma Sammosa Sutta, where I found this pertinent paragraph: “Moreover, monks, the Sangha is broken; then monks revile one another, accuse one another, quarrel with one another and repudiate one another; those of no faith do not find faith there and the faithful fall away. This, monks, is the fifth thing that leads to the corruption and disappearance of the True Dharma”

While tendering my apologies to the vast number of Bhikkhus who render a great service to mankind, also to other dedicated priests of other denominations too, for the criticisms made in good faith, I have to raise a few questions: Why are Senior Prelates not taking action, advising these Bhikkhus as regards their unacceptable behaviour? Or, why don’t the take disciplinary action? There are numerous ‘Adhikarana Nayakas’ of all Nikayas spread. Are they only titular? Has the decline of the ‘Sambuddha Sasana’ already started? Hope not!

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