In the village of Jam Jaeng, Namboluang Sub District, Sanpatong District, Chiang Mai Province, the Jam Jaeng Buddhist temple is building a bot, a temple building used for special services related to priests and novices. A bot usually looks a lot like a small vihara, which is an assembly hall with elaborate decorations and a collection of images of the Lord Buddha on raised platforms facing east. A vihara (or wehan) is the main building of a temple. The bot is different in one regard. During its construction nine holes are dug, into which, with great ceremony, nine stone poles are set, resting on nine balls of stone. The nine holes are arranged in three rows, with the center one exactly in the center of the floor of the bot and the other eight serving as boundary markers outside. When construction of the bot is finished the balls are suspended over the holes to be cut free so they drop into the ground simultaneously during the dedication ceremony.
From that moment on, no women are permitted inside the bot.
The nine stone pillars are planted so that the outside eight can be seen. They may be of various shapes, including a square post with a round cap or a short obelisk with a point. In that shape they are identical to the sema or phallic representations of the Hindu god Vishnu, but with roots going back millennia before Vishnu was ever mentioned by name.
Similarly, the city pillar of Chiang Mai in its shrine just inside the front gate of Wat Chedi Luang, to the left as people enter, is also a Vishnu symbol. The pillar is a large carved pole inside a square pavilion with glass doors on all four sides, with signs in several languages warning females to stay out.
The same prohibition pertains to certain precincts of all Hindu temples.
Naturally, women feel discriminated against by this. Some are highly offended. A few do not take the affront quietly.
What is this all about? Why are women so excluded?
This discrimination has a long history, of course. I got an insight about it last February that I have been thinking about ever since. The Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (the first female Thai monk (rather than a lower ranking nun) in modern history) made a bold comment February 22, 2013 at the Sinclair Thompson memorial lectures at Payap University in Chiang Mai. She explained that the reason menstruating women are placed under special restrictions is that this blood is immensely powerful in mythic terms. She mentioned that an occult practitioner in Thailand takes ten years to acquire the powerful magic, which can then be nullified in moments if he comes into contact with menstrual blood.
The implication of this is that as long as Buddhism in Thailand contains elements of magic there will be at least one basic barrier to full inclusion of women into Buddhist leadership and into the Sangha order of monks. The Ven. Dhammananda did not mention that it is male monks in Thailand who have a monopoly on many magical arts and the production of amulets, astrological charts, magical tattoos, and a bewildering variety of highly lucrative products and events.
Her comment sent me scurrying to my resources.
Dr. Geza Roheim back in 1945 in “The Eternal Ones of the Dream” asserted, “It is a well known fact that the sight of the bleeding vagina produces castration anxiety in the male….” (p. 174)
But there is more to it than that. In mythic terms there was a time when “Adam was both male and female.” Aristophanes reiterates this in Plato’s Symposium, where Apollo divides the too-powerful double beings into halves, each with just 2 hands and feet, one face rather than two, and so forth. The same separation is mentioned in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.1-5: “…in the beginning this universe was but the Self in the form of a man. He looked around and saw nothing but himself. However, he still lacked delight … He desired a second. He was just as large as a man and woman embracing. This Self then divided himself in two parts; and with that there was a master and mistress.”
Ruth Underhill was more insightful: “…the mysteries of childbirth and menstruation are natural manifestations of power. The rites of protective isolation, defending both the woman herself and the group to which she belongs, are rooted in a sense and idea of mysterious danger, whereas the boys’ and men’s rites are, rather a social affair. The latter becomes rationalized in systems of theology. But the natural mysteries of birth and menstruation are as directly convincing as death itself, and remain to this day what they must have been in the beginning, sources of religious awe.” [See Ruth Underhill, “Withdrawal as a Means of Dealing with the Supernatural,” paper read at the Fifth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Philadelphia, 1956 quoted by Joseph Campbell (1959) in Primitive Mythology, New York: Penguin Books, p. 372.]
So it is not some female shortcoming or lack that leads to the fear of female blood, but a subconscious conviction of the immense supernatural potency of the blood and the natural processes of death, that produce such fears and protective actions.
Anyone familiar with gay traditions knows that shaman in many cultures are often androgynous figures, that being one of the marks of a person with spiritual gifts and access to resources and power. Naturally, the other more important necessity was ability to contact the spirit world. The dual nature of androgynous individuals referred to the primal memory (in some sense) that we were once both male and female in one.
One other vestige of that ancient sub-conscious heritage, close at hand, is the lang song which official dictionaries translate as a “medium”. The definition explains the medium as, “a person for the lord” (the spirit lord). Further, “A person who is the physical body for a spirit or sacred being to indwell.”
In Thai folklore and animism (veneration of spirits), the medium is usually a female in some sense. Many are women, but a high percentage of katoeys are also lang song, mediums. Katoeys, sometimes inappropriately called “ladyboys” mostly by Westerners and those insensitive to the derogatory meaning of the term, are widely believed to be adulterers in a previous life sentenced to be reincarnated as women’s spirits in male bodies, their true nature being female. Here, in our own time, are un-separated dual beings that were so powerful in mythic times they represented a challenge to the gods.
From this small study I would like to propose a few tentative conclusions:
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.