Gender in Gethin’s “The Buddhist Community”

In his chapter, “The Buddhist Community: Monks, Nuns, and Lay Followers,” Rupert Gethin paints a broad strokes picture of the ways in which Buddhist communities have historically been organized and sustained. In the service of this effort, Gethin examines Buddhist ordination practices and monastic ideals. In this paper, I wish to explore how Gethin and Buddhism (as presented by Gethin) engage issues of gender, ordination, and the place of nuns in Buddhist life.

According to Gethin, Buddhist tradition holds that the Buddha himself was reluctant to ordain women, as he believed that doing so would “hasten the decline of the Dharma.” (Gethin 90) Nonetheless, the Buddha acquiesced to the wishes of his female followers who longed to live the committed spiritual life, sanctioning the ordination of women as Buddhist nuns. Yet, this action was not a gesture of egalitarianism, as the Buddha is credited with having outlined the eight special rules (garudhamma) which function to subordinate the nuns’ orders to those of their brother monks. (Gethin 90) What is of specific interest to me when considering the place of nuns in Buddhist life is that the corrupting or polluting force that is often ascribed to women in Abrahamic religions (as evidenced most notably by Jewish and Muslim purity laws regarding menstruation) seems to be functioning similarly in Buddhism as well. In the vary least, the Buddha seems to have held women responsible for the fraternization that was presumed inevitable when men and women (regardless of their status as nuns or monks) were in close quarters.

In attempting to make sense of the Buddha’s statement regarding the ordination of women hastening the decline of the Dharma, Gethin writes: “This attitude has often been interpreted as betraying a negative view of women, although in part it might be read simply as reflecting a realistic view of what happens when men and women who have undertaken the celibate life live in close proximity.” (Gethin 90) This statement reveals the author’s own bias, as he clearly fails to make the simple connection between misogyny and the subordination of women in response to feared consensual sexual contact between adults. The bias in Gethin’s scholarship is further exposed by his failure to outline the content of the garudhamma, an overt indication of the lack of importance that he places on the laws that govern the lives of Buddhist nuns.

Ultimately, in regards to gender and ordination in Buddhism, I found Gethin’s article to raise many more questions than its author was willing to engage. While Gethin spent several pages writing about the rules and customs that shape the lives of monks in his chapter, nuns seem almost to have been an afterthought for the author (a sentiment betrayed by the subtitle of the small section of the chapter devoted to the matter: “A note on Buddhist nuns”). I would be excited for the opportunity to read texts focused on Buddhist nuns written by authors who believe that women’s roles in the tradition are as worthy of study as those of men, and plan to withhold judgment on bias in the tradition until I have read such a text.

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2 Responses to Gender in Gethin’s “The Buddhist Community”

  1. Sarah says:

    Emma – thank you for your thoughtful and beautifully articulated post! also, many thanks for the recommendation, i look forward to picking it up!

  2. Emma says:

    I definitely agree with your criticism of Gethin’s downplaying of the nuns’ experience of monastic life, his omission of the eight heavy rules, and his failure to examine more critically the supposedly “realistic view of what happens when men and women who have undertaken the celibate life live in close proximity.” This is particularly striking to me because if we were really to take a “realistic” view of sexual misconduct and the celibate life, it would be obvious that monks are perfectly capable of and susceptible to all kinds of sexual misconduct without any nuns around, and vice versa.

    I am also curious about how the eight heavy rules affect merit, which is something that Gethin obviously didn’t address. If the nuns are bound by more rigorous strictures, would they not then generate more merit by virtue of the effort they must put into their practice? Yet, of course, monks are still considered to be a greater field of merit.

    I was also irritated by the “note about Buddhist nuns,” in a chapter ostensibly focusing on the relationship between the lay community and Buddhist monastics as a whole. If you do want to read more about Buddhist nuns by a non-biased author, I’m currently reading a book called Being a Buddhist Nun by Kim Gutschow which I would recommend–here is the link to the publisher’s listing if you want to look:

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