Guest Post: Buddha and the Women

by Libby

(On a three-child-induced career sabbatical, Libby spends her time sewing lavish Halloween costumes, reading, and volunteering on the board of her daughter’s cooperative preschool. She lives near Boston.)

When the Buddha came back to his home after his enlightenment, he welcomed followers, even allowing his young son to become a monk. His wife, who loved him deeply, and his aunt, who had raised him like a mother, also wanted to follow him.

“No,” said the Buddha. “I cannot allow it. We will walk for many days. We will be hungry, wet and dirty. It is not the life for a woman.”

They begged him again and again for ordination, but he would not relent.

Over time the Buddha became well-known throughout the land. He and his retinue were so holy, so concerned with the lives of small creatures, that they would not leave a dwelling during the rainy season for fear of crushing the worms that came up out of the mud. They had gained favor with a rich man who housed them on his estate for several months. One day, through the rain, they saw a stream of saffron-robed monks in the distance, traveling toward them. They lit fires to cook and began to prepare for the travelers’ comfort. Imagine their surprise when the people who entered the house were women – hundreds of women, including the Buddha’s wife and aunt. There were so many of them, and they were so devoted to achieving enlightenment, that the Buddha could not refuse them. Weeping, he ordained them at once.

Does this have any relevance to Mormon women? Why or why not?

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19 Responses

  1. Jessica says:

    I think that too often in Mormon culture we think that change must come from the top and filter down to the masses. I do think that if we really study our history that it was people who saw a need, acted, and created something to fill that need in their own lives that tricked up. I think that Jesus gave blessings and headings to people because they sought him out. I think that too often members of the church are content to sit and wait, when what I read in the scriptures is to seek, to hope, and to act in faith.

    I think that as a church we live far below our privilege.

    • Annie B. says:

      Could this be partly due to emphasis on obedience over personal revelation? I commented in the post about prayer that as a teenager I often prayed for guidance and to be able to make good decisions, but often when I felt I was making a good decision my parents retracted it, lectured me about it, and steered me towards what they thought was right, even when the choice was between two worthwhile things.

      • Annie B. says:

        (Sorry, I didn’t even finish my thought in writing.) Because of that I lost my confidence in making a good choice for myself. I relied on my dad, and any church material he cited to basically tell me what to do. It feels like church leaders often do that as well. After being corrected several times it seems more logical to cut out that extra step and just do it their way the first time.

      • Jessica says:

        Oh I totally think that this is a major part of the problem. I think the doctrine of agency is so beautiful, yet we do not teach/learn how to use it. It drive me crazy. And most people would argue that they do make choice, but making choice in a small confined set of expected behaviors is not really choice. And to me it is so sad, but I think letting people choose and sometimes choose wrong is hard. But it is so essential and really important. Why don’t we teach it, we could.

        What do you think?

      • Annie B. says:

        I agree. I grew up in a pretty strict household though. My dad could have been teaching us so much, but instead he restricted us. I just wanted to be good, so I was obedient most of the time though it really frustrated me. I was totally unprepared for the world when I got older. I wish more people could understand the balance that needs to happen between discipline/rules, and choice and natural consequences. Being too lax, or too restrictive– either one is a detriment.

  2. CatherineWO says:

    I couldn’t read this story without being reminded of the organization of the Nauvoo Relief Society, which was initiated by the women themselves in much this same way. Of course, church organization was much simpler then than it is now, but I can’t help but think that all the female angst in the Church today is not that different than it was then and eventually someone at the top will start listening.

    • Jessica says:

      I think you are so right, I didn’t even think about that parallel. But there was really nothing for women before they set out to make their own organization and then Joseph received revelation to add to it.

  3. Kip Riley says:

    In the story, the desire, the angst was not enough. It was only when the women banded together and did something that they achieved the recognition and inclusion they desired. I think the point of the story (and the self organization of the Relief Society) is specifically NOT to wait for “someone at the top to start listening”.

  4. DefyGravity says:

    I had a flashback to Elder Oaks at the Payson temple groundbreaking, where he did not let women participate because they would not want to get their shoes dirty. Like this story, he assumed he knew what women were like and what they wanted, without asking them. I’d like to say that if women showed what they eanted and were capable of, the church would accept them as Buddha did, but there is historic evidence to the contrary. But hopefully that will change as women continue to express who they are, rather then who they are expected to be.

    • amelia says:

      I thought of exactly the same anecdote, DefyGravity. That whole story just made me see red. Does Oaks not realize how insulting his assumption is about women and how they shallowly care more about the immaculate cleanliness of their shoes than about being an active participant in an important spiritual event, rather than just an observer? ugh. Still makes me mad.

      • DefyGravity says:

        The really sad part is that he has no clue. He thought he was being polite, and was probably amazed when he heard about the negative reaction (if he did.) That’s the problem, most of the GAs have no clue what chauvinism is. They see it as courtesy, or base their assumptions about women on women of their own generation. They’ve made up their minds about women and I’m not sure they can change their minds, or that they think a change is necessary, considering how they continue to talk about women in a world where it no longer makes sense.

  5. EmilyCC says:

    Well, Libby, that got me crying.

    I think Kip makes an excellent point about the angst and the initiative that CatherineWO of the early RS are important components to this discussion.

    I just worry that the trend in Mormon women’s culture is to be told what to do, to wait for permission, and to not try and be innovative or “pushy.”

  6. Monica R. says:

    I love this thread so much. I remember near the beginning of what has become my feminist awakening, I visited the church history exhibit at the (relatively new) Joseph F. Smith building on BYU campus, and I was surprised and delighted at how many essential church programs were the result of bottom-up innovation–Primary, Relief Society, seminary. I remember also thinking as a result of that visit, how innovation, questioning authority, thinking outside the box, doing things wildly differently, is a major theme of Mormonism from its inception…until recently, anyway.

  7. Caroline says:

    Yes, Libby, this is a great question.

    It reminds me of what Pres. Hinckley said when asked about women’s ordination. It was something along the lines of “Our women are happy – they don’t want the priesthood, there is very little agitation for it.” If we did talk openly and sincerely, without shame, about feeling called to be priests, I wonder if Mormon members and leaders would rethink the question. The problem, however, is that to admit that one questions the male-only priesthood policy is seen as a kind of heresy by most Mormons. That’s a true shame — there should be more room for discussion on the issue.

  8. Miri says:

    I also have to say, I don’t think our church organization is conducive to things happening quite the same way as they did in the story (which I love). When women try to “do something” in the church, they’re often shot down by local leaders before they even have a chance to get in touch with the ones up top. So while I fully agree with the point Kip makes, I think we should also make sure we don’t err on the side of just blaming LDS women for never having taken any initiative. The church today is not the same one in which the Relief Society was begun.

    Thanks for the post, Libby!

  9. There were many examples of how the Buddha acquiesced to the sexist context in which he lived. It’s easy to put someone on a pedestal… but I’m constantly reminded that to be human means to be inherently complex.

    Right now in my life there are so many variations on this theme popping up – that we have a lot more power than we claim. I relate to what Jessica said, that we live far below our privilege.

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