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BSQ Tracts on Buddhism No. 12

The Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
Women and Feminism

by Dr V. A. Gunasekara

A Refutation of a Christian Critique
of the Buddha's Position on the
Question of Women, together with

an Examination of the Views of Jesus

on the same Subject


  1. Introduction
  2. The Buddha's Position on Women
  3. The Position of Jesus on Women
  4. Some Further Observations

First Published: April 1994

Permission may be obtained to reproduce this publication.
Views expressed in BSQ publications are those of the writer, and not necessarily those of the Society.


1. Introduction


The critique of the Buddha's teaching by those of other belief systems is not new. The Buddha himself had to answer many questions posed by adherents of other faiths, and according to the texts as we have them many of these inquirers were converted into the Buddha's way of thinking. The Buddha lived in an age of great tolerance, and Buddhists received great courtesy and hearing from followers of other religions which they in turn reciprocated. In general this atmosphere of religious tolerance continued to prevail in India (and Asia generally) with only relatively minor exceptions.

Religious tolerance however was absent in the monotheistic religions that emerged in the Middle East. Two of these religions, viz. Christianity and Islam, have been the greatest culprits in spreading intolerance and have been responsible for most of the religious crimes in history. Buddhists have suffered from both these. Initially it was Islam which ravaged Buddhist lands, burning and destroying Buddhist monasteries, killing and raping Buddhist monks and nuns, burning their books, and converting Buddhist populations into Islam (1). With the advent of Colonialism in the sixteenth century Buddhists had to face a new peril. The new conquerors carried the sword in one hand and the Bible in the other. Moreover at the time of their advent Europe was going through one of the darkest periods of religious intolerance. Religious wars were rife, and Catholics and Protestants alike indulged in the killing and torture of heretics and each other. With their new rulers coming from such a background Asian populations which had been brought up in a tradition of religious tolerance could not expect much respite, and received little.

However there were some differences between the techniques used by the earlier Muslims and the later Christians in converting Buddhist and Hindu populations. Of course Christian powers too have used direct force in their "evangelical" activities e.g. killing and torture, burning of libraries, desecration of temples and construction of churches on their sites. But they have also used other methods amongst which the following could be mentioned:

(1) The use of economic and material incentives (jobs, business privileges, educational opportunity, money, food, medicine, etc.) to induce people to adopt Christianity, and to give those who had been converted a material advantage over others. In India people converted for such reasons were dubbed "rice Christians" because they sold their "souls" for a plate of rice!

(2) Amongst Hindus the caste system was used to convert the low caste Hindus. In Sri Lanka most of the Tamils converted to Christianity were low caste Tamils. The paradox here was that these low-caste people converted to Christianity remained low-caste, and were so treated even by their Christian high-caste co-religionists!

(3) Amongst Buddhists those most vulnerable where those engaged in fishing and other occupations which could be considered as not falling into the "right livelihood" category of Buddhism. Such people were told that the God of Christianity has given human beings "dominion" over animals which includes the freedom to kill them at will for food or other economic gain.

This is not the place to consider the question of the validity and morality of conversions using such techniques as these. But a method employed by Christians which had not been used by their Muslim predecessors is of importance to us here. This is the attempt to use the Buddhist and Hindu texts themselves as a critique of Indian religions. For this purpose many missionaries studied Pali and Sanskrit in their attempt to refute Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, etc. (2) In general this tactic has not been very successful because compared to their own Bible the Buddhist and Hindu scriptures were far less vulnerable. Nonetheless the combing of these texts either to distort their meaning or to use them to show that these religions hold positions that are not compatible with what is currently considered fashionable, has indeed continued. This activity is usually presented as an ecumenical exercise in inter-religious dialogue, but the "evangelical" objective that lies behind them is very often plain to see.

This work seeks to examine a current attempt at a Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Sri Lanka with particular reference to the issue of feminism. This has become a topic of universal interest at the present time. Other issues have been involved in this dialogue, notably liberation theology which is a recent development in Christian circles in Third World countries. While this question is closely related to the question of female liberation we shall have to postpone discussion of this issue for a later occasion.

The specific focus of our inquiry will be the arguments advanced on these questions by a Christian body in Sri Lanka. The Organisation concerned styles itself as The Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue, its organ is the journal Dialogue, and its chief protagonist is Father Aloysius Pieris S.J. (3) In addition to the two issues which we shall examine, the Institute seems to be concerned with several other current issues amongst which the so-called ethnic problem in Sri Lanka is the most important. (4)

While the arguments advanced by Fr Pieris and his group are critically examined we do not in any way suggest that these activities cease. Indeed it is welcome sign to see a dialogue taking place on issues that are significant to the two religions involved and to the society at large. In many countries this kind of dialogue is absent. The efforts of Fr Pieris' group has to be commended and we hope that this kind of activity is undertaken by other bodies as well. Modern Buddhists have failed to study other religions, indeed even their own, critically. This is of course contrary to the Buddha's teaching and should be rectified.

The efforts at a Buddhist-Christian dialogue should not in any way allow us to be detracted from the real objectives of people like Father Pieris. Fortunately he has provided us his credo as a catechism of 8 points. (5) The following points are taken from this credo (the numbers in parentheses indicate the original numbering):

The frankness of this credo is perhaps prompted by the criticism to which Fr Pieris has been subjected by his conservative religious superiors especially those abroad (6). Many of them still seem to consider that saying anything positive about the Buddha is a cardinal sin. Hence the need for Fr Pieris to affirm his orthodoxy.

Fr Pieris, in spite of his criticisms of the Buddha, does not display malice, and indeed is quite complimentary towards the Buddha in many ways. While we will be criticising many of Fr Pieris' interpretations of Buddhism in this work it is perhaps necessary to make this acknowledgment at the very outset. He seeks to absolve the Buddha by claiming that the offending sections of the Canon were the work of later redactors, a theory we have to reject.

Fr Pieris seems to be claiming that his is a more effective way of conversion than that adopted by his predecessors. His goal is the same as the goal of his predecessors. Whether the older method or the newer method of conversion is used they are both detrimental, because the true light of the Dhamma is obscured by the absurd tale of a God who sends his Son to be crucified, by which he is suppose to "save" mankind from its sins! Earlier missionaries at least did not conceal the start reality of the doctrine they were preaching; the new evangelists not only adopt all those ruses we have identified earlier, but even obfuscate the message of the Gospels.

Whether Christians like Fr Pieris are genuine seekers after the truth or not, Buddhists should treat them as such. There have been very few attempts at dialogue or debate between Buddhists and Christians. Last century we saw the celebrated Panadura Debate of 1873 at which Ven Megettuwatte Gunananda stoutly upheld the cause of the Dhamma. Since then there have been few open debates or dialogues between Christians and Buddhists. What is clear from Fr Pieris' forthright credal statement the followers of Jesus have not given up the attempt to convert Buddhists to what Fr Pieris calls "Yahweh's plan of liberation". In a later work we shall examine what precisely this plan of liberation is. As the world's first missionary religion Buddhism cannot object to anyone seeking to convert Buddhists to other faiths. But what we should be vigilant is that fraud and deception is used as a means of this conversion. The best way to confront such plans is not to proscribe them legally (as some religions including Christianity itself have done in their heyday) but to engage them in active debate and "dialogue".


2. The Buddha's Position on Women

The feminist movement which started a few decades back has now become universal, and has affected almost all areas including religion. One consequence of this has been an examination of the position of women in the various religions. Compared to religions like Christianity Buddhists have generally shown a lesser degree of interest on this question. Perhaps this may be due to the fact that compared to most religions Buddhism had given spiritual equality to women and men, and even in other respects has generally maintained a favourable disposition to women. However criticism of the Buddha and Buddhism has been made and this critique must be examined. Two main grounds have been adduced for this critique: (1) the alleged characterisation of women in some passages in the Pali Canon, and (2) the circumstances attending the formation of the Bhikkhuni order, and the special rules imposed on Bhikkhunis. These criticisms have recently been articulated by certain Christian critics, and Buddhists should not dismiss such criticisms but examine their validity using the procedures advocated by the Buddha (7) himself.

A small literature has accumulated on the question of the position of women in Buddhism. The earliest study on the question was the book by the noted Pali scholar I. B. Horner entitled Women Under Primitive Buddhism (8). Even though over 60 years old this study is still the most comprehensive on this subject. Horner considered most of the matters now held against the Buddha (such as his initial reluctance to initiate an Order for Bhikkhunis), and given some hints on how passages on women in the Pali Canon should be interpreted. She showed that the Buddha's position on women was more liberal than that adopted by the other religions in India at the time and gave a favourable assessment of the position of women in Buddhism. Most of the arguments still adduced to show the liberality of the Buddha in this regard are contained in Horner's work. But there was no comparison with other religions, particularly Christianity, and the book naturally did not address some of the issues that are raised by the modern feminist movement. Despite these shortcomings Horner adopted a thoroughly independent and scholarly attitude to the question she was studying.

More recently shorter tracts have appeared on this subject not all of them discussing the question in any degree of detail. The following is a short list of recent writings on this subject with a few comments on each of these.

From this brief survey of writings on the subject it will be seen that most modern feminist writers, including Christian feminists, take a positive view of the position of women in Buddhism. Indeed they must do so if any semblance of impartiality has to be accorded to their conclusions on this question.

This however is not to say that criticism have not been made on the Buddha's stand on the question of women. A convenient list of the passages from the Pali Canon to which the Buddha's critics take exception to is contained in two articles that have appeared in Sri Lanka as part of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue mentioned in the introductory section of this work. The first is by Fr Aloysius Pieris and has the rather imposing title "Woman and Religion in Asia: Towards a Buddhist and Christian Appropriation of the Feminist Critique". The second is by Elizabeth Harris entitled more modestly "The Female in Buddhism". The other articles in this volume on this subject will not be considered in detail. (9)

It must be stated at the outset that both writers do not attribute the statements they criticise to the Buddha directly but to the compilers of the Pali Canon. This is a line of defense which had already been taken by earlier Buddhist scholars like Mrs Rhys Davids and Ms I. B. Horner. It is also a line adopted by certain Buddhist writers as well. The problem with this approach is to produce credible evidence that these anonymous compilers in fact altered the text. As such we shall assume that words ascribed to the Buddha in the Canon are his own; otherwise no statement of the Buddha in the Canon can really be accepted as his own words. (10) We shall drop the fiction that the Buddha is not criticised when in fact he is so criticised.

We can first deal with Fr Pieris' direct comments on the Buddha's statements on women as they are rather brief. Some of his other views on the subject of feminism, and the alleged congruence between the teachings of the Buddha and Jesus will be examined in the last section. In his article Fr Pieris claims (p.155) that "horrendous anti-woman prejudices" are attributed to the Buddha, that his words are those of a "misogynist" and "sound coarse".

In spite of the severity of his strictures Fr Pieris gives only two references to the Canon in support of his extreme views. He may have other references in mind, such as those mentioned by Harris, and these will be considered later in this section, but we will have to deal first with the two references identified by Fr Pieris as these are presumably the most serious in his view. These are:

More extensive references on what are considered offensive to women in the Buddhist scriptures have been culled by Elizabeth Harris. These same references have also been previously noted by writers on the question (e.g. Horner and the authors listed on pp 7-8 above). They come from various parts of the Canon, the Aguttara Nikâya (AN), Dîgha Nikâya (DN), the Dhammapada (Dpd), the Sayutta Nikâya (SN) and the Vimanavattu (Vm). Some of these are considered below:
In addition to the above several other passages are quoted which advise women to do "wifely" duties (e.g. in the Sigâlovâda Sutta and in the Aguttara Nikâya, and from the Vimânavattu where women are rewarded for so doing). Harris considers the duties expected of the wife to be "exploitative of the woman" (p.46). Since similar duties are laid down for the husband this could be regarded as being exploitative of men. The references identified by Harris cannot be construed as remarks directed against women as such but a recognition of accepted social norms for the society of the day which was not in contravention of the Dhamma. The Buddha's concern was not with social reform but with spiritual emancipation, and in this respect he gave full equality to women. It was the middle Eastern religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) that were interested in laying down the details of social organisation like the rules for marriage, divorce, etc. The Buddha however recognised that these were civil matters which society has to work out in terms of its own situation. So he tended to accept social and political norms as they existed unless there was a fundamental conflict with the Dhamma. In the Sigâlovâda and other suttas these conventional social values are affirmed so long as they do not pose this fundamental conflict. (12)

The other criticisms of the Buddha center around the creation of the Bhikkhuni Order. The Buddha's reluctance in this area may be due to the difficult life-style that was imposed on the Sangha, e.g. homelessness and dependence on the laity for even the most basic of necessities. The Buddha finally agreed to establish a Bhikkuni Order even though Ananda is given more credit for this than may be his real due. On his enlightenment the Buddha proclaimed that his task was to lead all those with "little dust in their eyes", be they male or female, to final liberation. Since the usual method of liberation was through ordination. This might imply that the Buddha had the intention of forming the nuns' order from the very inception, but at the appropriate time. The nuns' order has died out in Theravada countries, probably bearing out the fears of the Buddha (13). The special rules (garudhammâ) imposed on women certainly made them take a second place to the monks especially in the matter of seniority. While the critics of the Buddha have made much of this they have ignored the fact that Buddhism concedes full spiritual equality to women. The rule is mere protocol, and a Bhikkhuni could if she so wished completely shun any association with men so that she would not have any opportunity to observe the rule of seniority. In the possibility of spiritual attainment there was no "second position" accorded to women. In the Buddha's time only the Jains had given parity of status to women as to men, but the equality in Buddhism was perhaps even more radical than that in Jain practice. As we have seen most impartial feminists agree with this assessment. But instead of appreciating the revolutionary impact of creating a Bhikkhuni Order equal in all real aspects to the Bhikkhu order, the Buddha's critics carp on mere matters of protocol.

It is not our purpose here to establish the positive points in the Buddha's treatment of women as this task has been done elsewhere. (14) By way of conclusion a few aspects of relevance to this question may be mentioned:

(1) Gender is not eternally fixed in Buddhism unlike in theistic religions like Christianity where it is God's will that makes a person a man or a woman. In Buddhism throughout samsâra the sex of a person may change, so that in a samsâric sense there is no man or woman. Indeed even in this world gender differences were the result of an evolutionary process (cf Agañña Sutta in the DN).

(2) While the arahantship of women is beyond question some question has been raised as to whether women could aspire to the position of Sammâ Sambuddha i.e. a full Buddha. Mahâyânists have conceded this, but some doubts remain as to the position in Theravâda. But the consideration given above considerably weakens this argument against Buddhism even if a categorical statement to this effect can be found in the Pali Canon.

(3) Not only are Bhikkhunis given spiritual parity (as against mere rules of protocol) with monks, but female lay followers (upâsikâs) given full parity with males lay followers (upâsakas) this time without any rules of protocol intervening. As this is not generally contested no specific documentation need be adduced.

(5) The inclusion of the Therigâtâ in the Canonical texts is significant because none of the major religions contain texts definitely ascribable to women in their sacred collections, at least in a significant way.

(6) The position of women in Buddhist countries is not very germane to this question as this position is moulded by many things other than what is the correct Buddhist position on this matter. However most independent observers have given a favourable view of the position of women in Buddhist countries. Against this the Christian critics we have considered in this section can only adduce the patently biased views of Christian missionaries of the last century like Rev Selkirk, Rev Oakley, and Rev Gogerly (15)

A few additional points on the Buddha's position will also be made in the next section in which we examine the views of Jesus on this same question.

3. The Position of Jesus on Women

The Buddha's views on women must be contrasted with those of Jesus if we are to have a real Buddhist-Christian dialogue on this question. There are grave misconceptions on the views of Jesus on this question, and this section will be devoted to an analysis of Jesus' views.

There is very little of any significance on the question of the status of women in the sayings of Jesus as given in the New Testament (16) (NT). This is not surprising because the total amount of discourse attributed to Jesus in very meagre when compared to the sayings of the Buddha recorded in the Pali Canon. Even when not relating stories Jesus is said to have spoken in "parables", which in effect means that his statements were ambiguous and capable of diverse interpretation. Jesus does not generally elucidate the meaning of these ambiguous statements, as the Buddha was wont to do, leaving much room for theological speculation. It is therefore not surprising that Jesus' does not provide any definitive statements on women (such as those we considered in connection with he Buddha), but his views on this question, such as they be, are ambiguous.

Of course a good deal has been written on the position of women in Christianity. The views considered have emanated from Paul, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, Aquinas and the other early fathers of the Church (17). That their position is one of extreme sexism, chauvinism, and misogyny is conceded by everyone except the most fanatic of apologists. There is therefore no need to establish this point. The position of the early fathers of the Church on the question of women is however a logical outcome of the views propagated by Jesus, and most of the views proclaimed by them can in fairness be attributed to Jesus himself. This proposition is not generally conceded by Christians, and even many non-Christians are not aware of this. It is this that we seek to establish.

Christianity from its very inception continued the denial of the spiritual equality of men and women which is characteristic of early Judaism and is a basic tenet of the Old Testament. In its turn the Christian Church helped to keep women in subjection. One of the early feminist philosophers Simone de Beauvoir has written: "Christian ideology has contributed no little to the oppression of woman" (The Second Sex). But even Simone de Beauvoir attributes this more to the practices of the Church than to the fundamental teaching of Jesus. Apologists for Christianity still seek to exonerate the founder of Christianity and attribute the misogynist views that still rule in the various Christian denominations, both Catholic and Protestant, to subsequent Christian leaders. However this cannot be sustained because the position of women in Christianity derive from the basic dogmas of the religion itself which are of course due to Jesus and the Jewish religion to which he belonged and which he never repudiated.

To appreciate the anti-feminist basis of Christianity we need only look at the basic dogmas which from the very inception have defined Christianity. In spite of the diversity of interpretations of the teaching of Jesus, there is substantial agreement on the core of the religion which could be discerned from the various creedal statements which emerged quite early in its history. One of the best known of these is the Nicene Creed which has the advantage of being affirmed by all Christian denominations (Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox). The following extracts from this Creed should suffice:


"I believe in one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds ..., begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; ... and was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, ... and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end."

The masculine tone of this fundamental creed is basic to Christianity. All three elements of the Christian Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) are indubitably masculine. In the NT Jesus speaks repeatedly in the same vein about his "Father" the supposed creator of the world who sits in heaven. There is not a single mention of the mother, let alone any other female in a spiritual or divine context (18). The chosen apostles are 12 men and no women. Women are completely excluded from the higher levels of spiritual attainment. (19) Moreover nothing can be done about gender because sex differences were made by God "from the beginning of the creation" (Mk 6.10). The Buddhist view is that gender changes over the samsâric progression, and even in a particular world sex differentiation is an evolutionary phenomenon (cf the Aggañña Sutta).

Two main sources have been used to find Jesus' views on women. The first consists of the few direct references to women in Jesus' sayings. The second is his own conduct towards the women whom he encountered and who are mentioned in the NT. We too will have to explore these sources, but from a Buddhist respective.

The direct references to women in the sayings of Jesus occur in specific contexts. Women are seen mainly in the family context (mainly as mothers and wives) and less frequently in a professional context (usually as prostitutes, which profession seems to have fascinated the authors of the NT). Much has been made of Jesus extolling the role of parents (Mk 7.10-12, Mk 10.19) and family. (20) This is however a simple affirmation of Jewish practice of the period (which in this respect was no different from other ethnic groups). Jesus' views on marriage and divorce (Mk 10.6-12, Mt 19.3-10) differ somewhat from Jewish practice because he seems to have dispensed with Moses' concession of divorce. Some people have considered this an improvement because Moses gave the right of divorce only to men. But to be progressive this right should be extended to women, but Jesus simply proscribes divorce altogether which could keep some women in permanent servitude (21). However this injunction of Jesus has not been observed by Christians who usually divorce and re-marry even though Jesus repeatedly states that re-marriage is adultery (Mk 10.11-12, Mt 5.32, Lk 16.18). There are also a couple of references to widows, one condemning scribes for exploiting a rich widow (Mk 12.40) and the other praising a poor widow who gives "two mites" to the Temple (Mk 12.41-44, Lk 21.1-4). In the latter incident, which Jesus holds as an example to his disciples, the sex of the person seems to be irrelevant. While great play has been made of these incidents, many would find it difficult to understand why the poor widow should be made to contribute to the maintenance of the well-endowed Temple while the wealthy widow is defended from financial exploitation!

Jesus also warned his (male) disciples not to be a prey to sexual lust, and even states that looking lustfully at a woman is equivalent to adultery (Mt 5.28). This view may echo some of the Buddha's views on the subject to which we saw that some critics like Harris have objected. If they consider this to be a reprehensible matter then Jesus is also guilty. But the difference between the Buddha and Jesus becomes clear when we consider the remedy suggested. The Buddha traced the cause of lust to the mind and encouraged his followers to train the mind by meditating on appropriate subjects (which in some cases could even be the morbid cemetery reflections). Jesus seems to have thought that the trouble was with the physical organ involved in the transgression! He thus states: "If your right eye [or right hand] causes you to sin pluck it out and cast it out from you" (Mt 5.28-9).

Thus the primary source from which Jesus' views on women could be reconstructed is extremely meagre. This is in itself may indicate that Jesus did not find anything radically deficient in the prevalent androcentric Jewish views on the subject, which indeed is the case. There is however more evidence on the subject from the second source we had mentioned, viz. Jesus actual relations with the women he encountered. It is these that many writers have used to show that Jesus dissented from the prevailing views about women, and was in fact favourably disposed towards them. According to apologists Jesus' relationships with women are positive. However this cannot be sustained if these relationships are subjected to a careful, even if not necessarily Buddhist, critique. The women mentioned in the NT fall into two classes. Firstly there are more-or-less casual meetings of Jesus with women, and then there are the women who had a longer relationship to Jesus either as his relatives or as his followers.

We shall commence by examining the first of these categories of women. Here the principal incidents recorded in the NT are the following:

The second category of women in the NT are those with whom Jesus had a longer connection. Whereas the women of the first category are not named (unlike similar men), which may imply that these women were not recognised as individuals in their own right, we do have the names of the women belonging to the second category.

The most important is these is Jesus' mother Mary. Her role may be compared to Pajâpatî Gtamî the foster-mother of the Buddha (whose own mother Mâyâ died shortly after his birth). Unlike Pajâpatî Gotamî (who was the first Bhikkhuni) Mary does not have an independent role in the Jesus story. On the portrayal of Jesus' mother in the NT Simone de Beauvoir has written:

"For the first time in history the mother kneels before her son; she freely accepts her inferiority. This is the supreme masculine victory, consummated in the cult of the Virgin - it is the rehabilitation of woman through the accomplishment of her defeat" (The Second Sex, p. 171).

Several incidents demonstrate Jesus' rudeness and contempt for his mother. The two references to Mary in John may be taken as examples. In the wedding scene at Cana when the mother tells Jesus that the wine had run out Jesus retorts: "Woman what right do you have to tell me" (Jn 2.4) as if a mother does not have a right to speak to her son! Jesus however proceeds to perform one of his "miracles". His rudeness to his mother did not even cease even when he was on the cross and his mother had come to witness his execution. He is reported as saying to her: "Woman there is your son" (Jn 19.25) as if this fact could have possibly escaped her notice given that she came there for the express purpose of witnessing the execution of her son, and as if she was in some way responsible for what happened to Jesus (24). Theologians have tried to provide ingenious explanations for Jesus' rudeness to his mother (25), but the simplest explanation may be Jesus' chauvinistic attitude to women including his own mother, not to mention the view that he propagates that his own real father is none other than God himself. This was probably known to the women of the time, as evidenced by the woman who cries out to Jesus in Lk 11.27: "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which suckled you". Jesus does not agree with this woman but instead talks about the greater glory of those "who hear and keep the word of God". As always his mythical "Father" comes before his real mother! The Buddha gave an exalted position to the mother in her own right, and even when compared to the father. While Jesus was reluctant to acknowledge the milk he drank from his mother the Buddha has observed that the quantum of mothers' milk drunk by a person through samsâra (including himself) exceeds "the waters of the four oceans" (S 15 1 4).

Next in importance to his mother come the two sisters Martha and Mary, both of whom became early followers. Of the two Mary become the more devoted neglecting her own work and leaving all the housework to Martha (Lk 10.38-42). Jesus clearly preferred Mary to Martha. Some writers, keen to present Jesus as a feminist, have claimed that Jesus' preference for Mary over Martha shows that Jesus did not favour women doing the traditional house-work (26). This is however a far-fetched interpretation. Mary and Martha emerge at a time when Jesus had few followers, and he would have welcomed any especially those like Mary who were willing to accept all his claims. Also Mary (like the woman at the banquet of Simon the Parisee) is reported to have anointed the feet of Jesus with perfume (Jn 12.3), a procedure which Jesus seems to have relished. Martha on the other hand was a bit of a sceptic on Jesus' ability to revive the rotting corpse of Lazarus because as Martha put it "there is an odour as it is four days since his death" (Lk 11.39). On the whole the gospel writers seem to be enthralled about Mary and Martha, but Jesus seems to have treated them as blind followers or servants - the position he normally accords to women.

Several other women are also mentioned in the Jesus narrative, travelling with Jesus witnessing his execution, and even discovering the empty tomb. Of these Mary Magdalene is usually given prominence. Jesus does not seem to have given his female followers a discourse on women, which would have put his position on women beyond question. Not much information is given about these female followers either, even Mary Magdalene, a reticence which has given rise to a considerable degree of speculation about Jesus' real relationship with them (27).

Many of the pro-Jesus writers claim that Jesus' treatment of women is more enlightening than that of traditional Judaism. This is however questionable. The areas where he disagrees from the prevailing values (like divorce) do not necessarily represent any progress. It is true that he is presented as having more contact with women than other rabbis generally, but this contact was to promote women as servile lackeys pandering to his petty vanities like anointing and perfume, or as credulous and unquestioning followers. Moreover he was looking for followers and this is where he seems to have found them. This does not represent a real "liberation" of women.

But the most damning indictment is that no status is given to women as spiritual leaders. There is no exhortation for women to become apostles, or to teach. There is no Christian equivalent of Dhammadinnâ. As we have seen the Buddha concedes spiritual parity of status to women. This is perhaps the most striking contrast between the religious teaching of the Buddha and Jesus on the question of women. In the case of Jesus he laid the foundations for the male dominated Christian religion which has continued to this day. The conventional view that lays the androgenic character of Christianity throughout the centuries at the door of its early "patristic fathers" is not correct; it must be laid at the door of Jesus himself.

4. Some Comparative Issues

The comparison in the two previous sections of the views of the Buddha and Jesus has clearly set out the fundamental differences between the two.

In Christianity we see a religion which is steeped in masculinity, venerating a male God through his supposed Son. In the current trend towards feminism this has proved to be an embarrassment, some women claiming that God is a woman, while theologians peddle the line that God is beyond gender, essentially that he was a neuter. This seems to contradict the claim that man was made in the image of God. In any case such a revision will change the whole character of Christianity; in effect it would become a new religion. In the past such accommodations had been done to discard parts of Christian dogma which have been refuted by unfolding events or knowledge. This has generally been successful with the credulous following and the vast resources devoted to propagating this kind of back-pedalling. It may well be that the current revisions too may succeed. But it merely shows not only that the claims of the critics of Christianity is correct in this regard but that it is a religion lacking all scruple.

By contrast the fundamental tenets of Buddhism on this question (or indeed on any other) do not need revision. Some mythical elements associated with the legend of the Buddha may have to be abandoned but they do not touch the core. On the question of feminism the fundamental point is that gender is irrelevant to the question of salvation. Whatever differences in the treatment of males and female are fundamentally social ones, which were not the major matters of concern to the Buddha.

Another aspect raised by Fr Pieris' theory of "Asian feminism" deserves mention (28)

. He finds a parallel to the situation in Asia in the story he cites of an indigenous tribe of Argentina (the Toba) who were colonised by whites, in whose wake came the inevitable missionaries. Then Pieris writes:

"The HOUR OF REDEMPTION strikes when the White Man's religion sweeps across the Toba land. ... Conversion of the males to the new religion was quick and definitive, for it was the fulfilment of their secret longing. It was like a resurrection from the dead ... [In Asia too] the ancient cultures are entrenched in a patriarchal social order thanks to the ideological support provided by Asia's religious traditions. [I]n the Asian as well as the Toban situation the women's emancipation that came under influence of the Western [Christian] colonisers was short-lived and illusory. In both instances traditional religions played a restraining role. Therefore there is good reason to fear that a lack of proper analysis may drive Asian feminists to either of two extremes: to overestimate these metacosmis [i.e. their traditional] religions as a sure source of ideological inspiration in the women's struggle, or to abandon religion altogether and resort to a secularist approach characteristic of some Western protagonists."

The travesty of history contained in this is truly monumental. Without a blush Fr Pieris describes the rape of primitive cultures like the Toba by the White Christian missionaries as "an act of redemption"! (29) He then accuses Asian women as held in bondage in their religions when this description is more suited to Christianity. It is not surprisingly Fr Pieris dreads the possibility that Asian women converted to Christianity may turn to secularism and their traditional religions, because it is precisely from these quarters that they can seek escape the oppression imposed on them by the Christian view of feminism. Instead Fr Pieris wants to keep them tethered to the dogmas of the Christian church, by making minor changes to the ruling dogmas of Christianity.

Fr Pieris theory of "Asian feminism" is based on three "axioms":

All three "axioms" can and should be controverted: (1) Feminism is an attempt to redress wrongs and when redressed will cease to be. It will be permanent only so long as it is enshrined in an "eternal truth" like the Father-Son claim of Christianity. (2) There is no necessary link of feminism to religion. Indeed religion has acted as an impediment to women's emancipation and the sooner women (and indeed men) are liberated from this yoke the better. (3) Finally reason, intellect and socio-political action are the means for redress, not the febrile theories and actions of "liberationist theologians" (30).

While on the one hand arguing that Asian women (and perhaps men too) have to be liberated from their ancient traditions, Fr Pieris also find some parallels between Christianity and Buddhism. This is another view that is put forward from some quarters in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue that deserves examination. According to this there is no fundamental difference between Buddhism and Christianity in their more important aspects including the treatment of women. Theologians are noted for holding simultaneously the most contradictory positions and it should not be surprising that his view is also articulated by Fr Pieris. Our position on this is that whatever similarities exist they are on relatively superficial issues, and that on the fundamental questions the two religions take fundamentally different positions.

A few examples of an alleged parallelism between Buddhism and Christianity may be mentioned:

While Buddhism maintained a reasonable attitude to women it must not be thought that it was some kind of ancient "female liberation" movement. Buddhism recognises that differences exist between the sexes. The true liberation for any individual is not merely liberation from social bondages (including gender bondages created by a dominant gender) but the liberation from the ignorance that lies within all individuals be they male or female. The Buddha made only few comments on social and political matters, and these were determined by the specific problems brought to his attention. The question of "male chauvinism" was not explicitly put to him, and so no direct comment on this is available in the texts.

By way of conclusion we must mention that we have to be thankful to writers like Fr Pieris and his group who have subjected Buddhism to a Christian critique. There are some Buddhists who take exception to any criticism of the Buddha and the Dhamma. This is a view in direct opposition to the advice of the Buddha himself. Not only should dialogue and debate between Buddhism and Christianity, with no holds barred, continue, it is something that will enlighten both Buddhists and Christians. Most Buddhists and Christians (like the adherents of other religions) have not chosen their religions by an act of sovereign choice but have been inducted to their religions by the accident of birth. It is very unlikely that in the foreseeable future a charter of children's rights will be adopted which will remove the present unfettered right of parents to indoctrinate their children in their own belief systems. In this situation the only way in which gain a better understanding of their own religions is for individuals to undertake a dialogue and debate with those of different belief systems. Indeed such a debate should not only be permitted but should be actively encouraged.


1. Almost all the Islamic lands in Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia) once had thriving Buddhist populations who were converted generally by force. Hindus too lived in these lands but they have been a little more successful in resisting the Muslim onslaught.

2. Many of the founders of the Pali Text Society, which has rendered signal service to scholars in publishing the Pali texts in a more accessible form, and in providing translations of the same, were themselves missionaries. Many of these scholars did not embrace Buddhism, and some of their translations remain suspect. However in this area the lethargy of Buddhists has been monumental, and no alternative standard source of Buddhist texts is available for scholars of Buddhism even now, other than the publications of the Pali Text Society.

3. . The Institute is an offshoot of the Centre for Religion and Society founded by a Methodist evangelist Rev Basil Jackson. This Centre was later taken over by Rev Lynn de Silva another Methodist priest. Currently the Institute seems to run the Tulana Research Centre under a Jesuit priest Father Aloysius Pieris. The Institute publishes an annual volume called Dialogue. The issues of this Journal for 1992 and 1993 have been combined into a single special issue (vols xix-xx) which is entitled Woman and Man in Buddhism and Christianity. We shall be concentrating primarily, but not exclusively, on the articles contained in this issue of Dialogue.

4. A brief note about the ethnic problem may be in order as it will not be referred to in this work after this. This is centered on the demand by a section of the Tamil people for a separate State in the North and East using violent terrorist means. The most extreme of the Tamil separatists are Christian Tamils and they see their war as much as a crusade against Buddhism as against the Sinhalese in general. However the conflict is presented in the West as a Sinhalese-Tamil or a Buddhist-Hindu conflict.

5. . In the Lakshman Wickremesinghe Memorial Lecture of January 1993 as reproduced in the Christian Worker for October 1993.

6. . A Dutch writer Jos Demon has even called Fr Pieris "a Buddhist Jesuit", a term which is as absurd at the term "Christian Zen" propagated by another Jesuit Fr Merton!

7. . In the Brahamajla Sutta (DN i I 5) the Buddha is criticised by the ascetic Suppiya, and the Bhikkhus were agitated by this criticism . The Buddha advised them to consider such criticisms carefully, and refute them if they are wrong . It is in this spirit that we must approach the criticisms of the Buddha on the question of the role of women.

8. . First published in London in 1930 it has been re-issued by an Indian publisher in 1975. This was Ms Horner's first work. Since then she has edited (and translated) many Pâli works for the Pali Text Society. Ms Horner has also written a short tract on women in Buddhism for the Buddhist Publications Society.

9. . The articles by Lily de Silva and L.P.N.Perera referred to on p. 8 are from this volume. Three other articles may be mentioned: (1) A Catholic Priest Fr Bernard de Give writes on Tibetan Buddhist Nuns and makes some surprising statements, e.g. that "Tibetans are faithful to early Buddhism" while in reality the Tibetans consider themselves Mahayanists. He refers to "deep anti-feminism" but ascribes this later Buddhist texts. His time frame seems to be obscure. (2) Mahabajra Bajracharya (described as a tantric priest), deals with a variant of ethnic Buddhism (Nepalese Tantra). (3) Ruben Habito writes on Zen as an "exploration of Buddhist Christian practice"! He advances the thesis that the Kwan Yin (Kannon) cult in Japan is a secret worship of the mother of Jesus, because Christians were banned in Japan by the Tokugawa (although their "persecution" of Christians fell far short of the persecution of"heretics" by Christians in Europe.

10. . This does not mean that every word attributed to the Buddha was actually spoken by the Buddha but that we cannot arbitrarily exclude some statements and accept others. We may be justified in

excluding only super-natural events as we have evidence that these do not happen. But the really significant events and sayings are not supernatural, and have to be accepted. We must also remember that since the Dhamma exists independently of the Buddhas, the person of Gotama is not as important for Buddhism as the person of Jesus for Christianity. When the words of the Buddha are criticised then it is really the Dhamma that is criticised, and Buddhists are obliged to examine the validity of these criticisms..

11. . Horner has pointed out that the term putta is sometimes used in Pali to mean "child" rather than a male offspring (which it literally means). This view is also expressed by Lily de Silva (op. cit.).

12. . Even if Harris' claim that "There is a consistent strand within the Buddhist texts which presents a woman's role in unglamourous terms" is true this is merely a statement of social reality, neither an endorsement or condemnation of this situation. The Buddha's aim was for all individuals to liberate themselves fully, not to effect some social improvements.

13. . The critics of the Buddha never fail to mention the "prophesy" that the dispensation would be halved because of the creation of Bukkhunis. Our critics ascribe this to later compilers, and de Give even says that "history has given the lie to this prophesy" (p.64). But has it? Even though texts survive how much of the Buddha's message is now really understood let alone practised?

14. . See in particular Horner (op. cit) and the short BSQ tract listed as No. 9 on p. 8.

15. . The views of this trio, blissfully forgotten, have been recalled by Elizabeth Harris. Rev Oakley and Rev Selkirk claim that women were astonished by their claim that "women have souls as well as men". No wonder the women were astonished because even men do not have souls! Rev Gogerly, described as a "Pali scholar", claims that Buddhist writings say that "that which is women is sin". So much for his knowledge of Pali texts! Elizabeth Harris says that to disregard the views of these reverend gentlemen is "also a mistake".

16. . Even a pro-Jesus feminist admits: "There is no recorded speech of Jesus concerning women `as such' " (Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex [1975], p. 79). Of the books in the NT it is only the first three Gospels ("the Synoptics") which are regarded by scholars as being closest to the sayings of Jesus. The fourth (John) is a later addition and the sayings of Jesus in the rest of the N.T. is even less reliable.

17. . Of these it is Paul who set the tone. A crucial passage reads: "Let your women keep silent in the churches..., they are to be submissive as the law also states. And if they want to learn something let them ask their husbands at home..." (I Cor 14 34-5). But as will be shown these are merely the application of Jesus teachings.

18. . Jesus treatment of his mother will be dealt with later. The Cult of Mary Mother of Jesus which arose in later Catholicism has no foundation in the sayings of Jesus.

19. . By contrast there were many distinguished women followers of the Buddha some of whom were described as "foremost in Dhamma", etc. Elizabeth Harris, whose criticism of the Buddha we have examined in the previous section, observes that "only" 13 Bhikkhunis are mentioned by the Buddha in the famous list in the Etadaggavagga of the Eka Nipâta of the Anguttara as against 40 Bhikkhus. She forgets that Jesus did not have any female apostle at all. According to Harris the Buddha's score was 13 to 40 on the female-male question; she may well compare this with Jesus' score of 0 to 12! Besides other works in the Pali Canon (e.g. the Therîgâthâ and the Sayutta) record many more distinguished Bhikkhunis. More Bhikkhus are mentioned in the Pali texts than

Bhikkhunis because of the simple fact that the number of Bhikkhus greatly exceeded that of Bhikkhunis.

20. . Later Christianity elevated the family as an institution favoured by Jesus. In fact Jesus encouraged people to abandon their homes, families and children and follow him because they will then "inherit eternal life" (Mt 19.29, Mk 10.29-30). In contrast it may be mentioned that the Buddha forbad anyone to follow unless he got the family permission.

21. . The banning of divorce strictly refers to those "whom God has joined". Since the Christian God is invisible nobody will ever know whether a marriage is "made in heaven" so the statement in Mk 10.9 is completely ineffective.

22. . In a well-known statement Jesus asks people to be like children. It is well known that children because of their as yet not-fully-developed mind are more gullible and could easily be brain-washed into accepting preposterous claims. Jesus apparently felt that women were also in this position. This attitude of Jesus far from being complimentary to women actually demeans them.

23. . Most of the recorded miracles on men are given in John. It has been noted that this gospel tries to pair a miracle on a female with a corresponding miracle on a male. These male miracles may well be fabrications of John. If so women appear as subjects on which Jesus felt most at home in performing his "miracles". Most people now regard these "miracles" as being nothing more than magical illusions, and women were regarded by Jesus as good material on whom to perform these deceptions.

24. . A comment may be made here on the execution of Jesus (incorrectly called an "assassination" by Fr Pieris). Jesus was condemned (1) by the Jews for calling himself the Son of their God Yahweh; and (2) by the Romans for calling himself the "King of the Jews". According to the rules of the day both were capital offenses. Even many centuries later Christians and Muslims would have executed anyone who claimed to be fathered by God or Allah. A colonial power like Rome could not tolerate a rival ruler over their domains. In his trials Jesus was given ample opportunity to deny these charges, but he did not, i.e. in effect pleaded guilty. Thus his execution was lawful according to the rules in force. It cannot be represented as Christians do as some act of vicarious atonement for the "sins" of others; it was his own "sins" that were paid for.

25. . See e.g. John McHugh. The mother of Jesus in the New Testament (N.Y., 1965) pp. 361-403, for a discussion of this problem.

26. . See e.g L. Schweidler, "Is sexism a sign of decadence in religion" in Plaskow and Romero (eds) Women and Religion, p. 168.

27. . Barbara Thiering in Jesus the Man (Doubleday, 1992) claims that Jesus married Mary Magdalene soon after he appeared in Palestine as a preacher. This is based on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the apocryphal Gospels (suppressed by the early Church). According to Thiering Jesus was cut from the Cross before he had died and handed over to the Jews to complete the execution according to Jewish custom (burial alive). However the Jews did not do this. Perhaps they felt that Jesus' claim to divinity had been amply refuted, and indeed while on the Cross Jesus said things which amounted to a repudiation of his alleged Father. So they let Jesus go and he lived for a long time in obscurity, moving to Rome, and fathering a family. Meanwhile the myth of his "resurrection" was actively propagated by the Church. Jesus thus can be considered as having connived in this deception. The Thiering thesis is however not essential to our argument.

28. . The principal reference here is to Fr Pieris article "Woman and religion in Asia: towards a Buddhist and Christian appropriation of the Feminist Critique" (Dialogue, op. cit.). This is a condensation of the theory presented by Fr Pieris in his Asian Theology of Liberation N.Y>: Orbis, 1988).

29. . Of all the deeds of Christian evangelism the conversion of primitive (sometimes even "stone-age") people to Christianity is one of the most despicable. What these people needed most is education, and the right to develop in their own way at their own pace. Instead their very ignorance was used to convert them to the dogma of God which is even less advanced than the tribal gods which these people previously believed in. While the white colonisers killed them or ruined them economically, the missionaries destroyed them spiritually. When even Christian priests like Fr Pieris, who present themselves as radical reformers, extol these acts of genocide one wonders what justice the "primitive" peoples can expect. Their full liberation must involve their liberation from the tutelage to the alien Middle-Eastern God (Yahweh) that has brought them so much misfortune.

30. . Fr Pieris sees "modern Western technocracy" as a "heretical departure from the Biblical Christianity's teaching on Nature". At a time when theologians, religious practitioners, scientists, ecologists, etc. are abandoning this teaching on nature (with the "dominion" given to humans over nature) in droves it is surprising to see Father Pieris denouncing these modern trends. He would be perfectly at home with creationist teaching and the scientific absurdities of the Bible.

31. . The legend of the Virgin Birth comes from a misunderstanding of the relevant passages. When it is said in the Accâriyabhûtadamma Sutta in the Majjima that the Bodisattava left the "Tusita body" and entered the womb of his mother ("Tusitâ kâya cavitvâ mâtu kuccim okkham"), which the Lalita Vistara later depicts as a white elephant entering the womb of Maya, what is described is not the impregnation of Maya but of the entry of the gandhabba the carrier of Karmic energy. According to Buddhism a conception requires three components, the sperm, the ovum, and the particle of karmic energy. In all cases including the birth of Siddhartha the first two comes from the parents, and only the third comes from outside. There is no parallel in Buddhism to the Christian theory of conception and birth, and comparisons here are irrelevant.

32. . The work of academics like Gananath Obeysekera and S.J.Thambiah in this area are well-known. Their works have unfortunately not been refuted by Buddhist scholars. This is a task which the present writer hopes to do in the future.