Essay 2: Women Are Too Dangerous to Be Monks
[This is a continuation of the discussion of why women are not eligible to be ordained in Thai Buddhisism. For the first essay in this series see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/monks-manage-pii ]
Ancient religious tradition is arrayed against women being allowed into the leadership elite.
Buddhism, as the narrative of Gautama implies, was born into a religious climate in which radical asceticism was considered the way to achieve insight. The Buddha was steeped in this severe tradition before deciding on a more moderate middle way. On the whole, the Jains were the most serious ascetics in history. Their attitude toward women practitioners is instructive.
The Jains were the archetypal ascetics of all time. Jains were adamant that women were incapable of advanced forms of renunciation necessary for religious achievement. Women supposedly emanated forces from their bodies that required them to remain clothed and not go “air clad” as Jain adepts did (and still do). Note, it was because of these “forces” (and for the protection of men and beasts) that the women were to be clothed; and it was this clothing which prevented women from subjecting themselves to the extremes of weather and nature that was the Jain key to religious attainment. Women were not too weak to be religious at the highest level; they were too potent to be allowed to be so.
The roots of this perception can be traced all the way back to Paleolithic and Neolithic times. Karen Armstrong, using her gifts of reducing complex religious topics to easy terms, describes how the hunters of ancient times dealt with the twin issues of killing in order to live and living in order to die:
Hunters risked their lives to support their women and children. The guilt and anxiety induced by hunting, combined with frustration resulting from ritual celibacy[as preparation prior to the hunt], could have been projected onto the image of a powerful woman, who demands endless bloodshed. [Armstrong refers to Homo Necans, by Walter Burkert, 1983]. She continues, “The hunters could see that women were the source of new life; it was they – not the expendable males – who ensured the continuity of the tribe. The female thus became an awe-inspiring icon of life itself – a life that required the ceaseless sacrifice of men and animals. [Karen Armstrong, 2005. A Short History of Myth. Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd. P. 39]
Judy Grahn agrees. “Women’s oldest magical-science powers revolved around menstruation and birth, and the blood of both these states of being was considered sacred.” [Judy Grahn, 1984, 1990. Another Mother Tongue, NY: Quality Paperback Book Club edition, p. 214] Armstrong gives the key as to how this sacred blood became so negative that religions everywhere loathed it. “The history of religion shows that, once a myth ceases to give people intimations of transcendence, it becomes abhorrent.” [Armstrong, p. 94] Armstrong follows Karl Jaspers and other proponents of the “axial age” analysis of history, that a new age required a new mythic narrative. In the axial age men took over, but they did not – they could not – forget the power of blood. Rites were created, therefore, by which men and boys also bled. Says Grahn, “To ritually shed blood, meant the ability to take on women’s ancient powers.”
Joseph Campbell frames it in Freudian terms:
…the mysterious (one might even say magical) functioning of the female body in its menstrual cycle, in the ceasing of the cycle during the period of gestation, and in the agony of birth – and the appearance, then, of the new being; these, certainly, have made profound imprints on the mind. The fear of menstrual blood and isolation of women during their periods, the rites of birth, and all lore of magic associated with human fecundity make it evident that we are here in a field of one of the major centers of interest of the human imagination. [Joseph Campbell, 1959, 1969.Primitive Mythology. NY: Penguin Books, Arkana edition, 1991. P. 59]
Campbell concludes, “There can be no doubt that in the very early ages of human history the magical force and wonder of the female was no less a marvel than the universe itself; and this gave to woman a prodigious power, which it has been one of the chief concerns of the masculine part of the population to break, control, and employ to its own ends.” [p. 315]
Still, through the new era of agriculture in place of hunting and gathering, the Great Mother ruled. That was true everywhere. “The interdependence of death and sex, their import as the contemporary aspects of a single state of being, and the necessity of killing – killing and eating – for the continuance of this state of being, which is that of man on earth, and of all things on earth, the animals, birds, and fish, as well as man – this deeply moving emotionally disturbing glimpse of death as the life of the living is the fundamental motivation supporting the rites around which the social structure of the early planting villages was composed.” [Joseph Campbell, 1962. The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology. NY: Viking. P. 164]
…The mythological foundation of the Indus Civilization overthrown by the Aryans appears to have been a variant of the old High Bronze Age vegetal-lunar rhythmic order, wherein a priestly science of the calendar required of all submission without resistance to an ungainsayable destiny. The goddess mother in whose macrocosmic womb all things were supposed to live their brief lives was in her sway; and no such puny sentiment as heroism could hope, in the field of her dominion, to achieve any serious result. “She is self-willed,” said Ramakrishna, “and must always have her way.” Yet for those children who submit without tumult to their mother’s will, “She is full of bliss.” All life, all moments, terminate in her insatiable maw; yet in this frightening return there is ultimately rapture for the one who, in trust, can give himself – like the perfect king: the son and yet the bull of his cosmic mother. [Campbell, Oriental Mythology, p. 179]
As farm village culture gave way to cities another change in religious perception resulted.
A broad zone of readiness had … been established for the reception of a new approach to the problem of man’s highest good. Dislodged from the soil as well as from the old necessities of the hunt, a rather sophisticated urban population had appeared, with a certain leisure, considerable luxury, and time, consequently, for neuroses. Inevitably the new initiators appeared, who had, themselves, in their own experience, faced out the new anxieties: the first systematic psychologists of all time and in many ways, perhaps, the best. And their basic tools were everywhere the same: the old ritual lore, inherited from the hieratic past, with its concept of hidden harmony and equivalence uniting the microcosm and the macrocosm and of a consequent resonance conducive to magical effects. However, now the concern was no longer magical (the weather, crops, abundance of goods, and long years) but psychological (the detante and harmonization of the psyche) and sociological (the integration of the individual with a new society based on a secular instead of hieratic tradition). [Campbell, Oriental Mythology, p. 251]
In the West, the predominance of social concerns over survival issues took the form of theological narratives, based on families of divinities with developed personalities, followed by a revolution of monotheism. In Campbell’s synthesis: “…the typical Occidental hero is a personality, and therefore necessarily tragic, doomed to be implicated seriously in the agony and mystery of temporality.” (That is, the god-hero must have some responsibility for “sudden monstrous death [which] becomes therewith a revelation of the inhumanity of the order of the universe,” and moreover, “a god-willed monstrosity”). [Campbell, Oriental Mythology, p. 243]
The Oriental hero is a monad: in essence without character but an image of eternity, untouched by, or else casting off successfully, the delusory involvements of the mortal sphere.
The focus of concern is not the individual, but the monad, the reincarnating jiva, to which no individuality whatsoever intrinsically pertains, but which passes on, like a ship through waves, from one personality to the next: now a mealworm, now a god, demon, king, or tailor. [Campbell, Oriental Mythology. Pp. 242-3]
In India as well as Israel the chief effect of this intellectual triumph of mind over matter was firmly in the control of men. But the triumph was, obviously, incomplete. The reality of “sudden monstrous death” remained. The memory of the terrible-nurturing mother refused to dissipate. Eternal life might be subject to “an absolutely impersonal law suffusing and harmonizing all things” but daily life was fraught with more urgent mysteries. Men’s control over all aspects of concern remains tenuous. The scripted shedding of blood through ritual regicide, sacrifice of first-born sons, or symbolically through circumcision or the even less bloody shaving of one’s head to simulate initiation into the naked state of birth through death have not yet eclipsed the fearful force of Great Mother in whose womb we live until we die, as we surely shall.
[This is the second of three essays on the reasons why men are afraid to relinquish total control in Theravada Buddhism. Expect the conclusion before Christmas.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.