The vajra: cutting through to the truth

3 Sangharakshita’s Teachings in Theory and Practice

III Theory and Practice

a | Men and Women

The FWBO Files’ interpretation of Sangharakshita’s teaching on the relative spiritual aptitude of men and women is based on a serious, though not uncommon, misunderstanding of his views on the various issues that men and women have to work with in the spiritual life. In asserting that Sangharakshita is a misogynist it cites Subhuti’s Women, Men and Angels. However its quotes are inaccurate, and in some instances fabricated. [ 112 ]

The idea that birth as a female is less advantageous than birth as a male is a commonplace of Buddhism that has stimulated much critical discussion. Far from contradicting Buddhist teaching, Sangharakshita takes it as his starting point, and considers how to make sense of it in the modern world. Sangharakshita has observed, in his experience of thousands of students, that a significant proportion of women seem to find spiritual progress more difficult at the outset of their spiritual life than most men. In this sense he argues that men and women have different aptitudes for the spiritual life in the earliest stages.

However, saying that women’s biological conditioning has an influence on their spiritual lives is not misogyny — that being a form of hatred. Sangharakshita’s intention is simply to communicate what he sees as a truth about the spiritual life, unpalatable as that may be in some contemporary contexts, in order to help people in their Dharma practice. Sangharakshita adds that women have the same spiritual potential as men — the potential to attain Enlightenment — and should be encouraged to realise that. As Subhuti says:

Sangharakshita affirms that women can go for Refuge to the Buddha Dharma and Sangha, just as much as can men. This affirmation is witnessed by the fact that he has ordained women into the Western Buddhist Order.... One must take each individual, woman or man, as one finds them, acknowledging and encouraging whatever spiritual aspiration they may have. [ 113 ]

Sangharakshita’s women disciples (of whom there are thousands) attest to his concern for their spiritual welfare. Women in the FWBO have created a vibrant, highly effective spiritual community. They have founded residential communities, right livelihood businesses, Buddhist centres and retreat centres, [ 114 ] and taken leading roles in the FWBO itself. [ 115 ]

However, The FWBO Files is not impressed:

The existence of a separate women’s wing, in what is a non-monastic environment ... indicates the existence of both apartheid and sexism in Order hierarchies ... the relative ease with which one can find female ex-Order members who have left because of the above reasons being a clear indicator of the sexism and apartheid that goes on behind the egalitarian façade of the FWBO. [ The FWBO Files, 18 ]

This argument is one part prejudice and one part hearsay. Why should the FWBO’s single-sex activities be termed “apartheid” any more than other such activities in our society for men or women alone, that are considered quite normal? The insulting implication that people do not choose a single-sex environment freely ignores the range of lifestyles — from family life to monasticism — that people in the FWBO choose to follow, and the positive reasons that are asserted by those who choose to live with members of their own sex. As to the claim that one can easily find female ex-Order members who have left primarily for reasons of sexism, the writers of this Response know of none.

This is not to say that some people might not have experienced misogyny within the FWBO, or that misogynistic attitudes have never been held by individuals in the FWBO, and there may have been those who have left the FWBO for these reasons. However, sexist attitudes are wholly out of keeping with the purpose for which single-sex activities were established. This purpose was to create conditions for Dharma practice that are free from the tensions of mixed-sex environments, and to facilitate the development of friendships. There has been considerable discussion in the FWBO of how these aims gave rise to tensions between the sexes, especially in the late 1970s when they were new and untried. However, as the FWBO has matured, single-sex activities have increasingly fulfilled the aim of providing a strong, vibrant and supportive environment for both men and women Dharma practitioners.

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112 ]
The FWBO Files has several apparent quotes from Subhuti, Women, Men and Angels, (Windhorse Publications, 1995), which are inaccurate or incomplete.

1. The FWBO Files misquotes: Women are anchored in a ‘lower evolution’ than men. This is not found in Women Men and Angels, or any other book by Sangharakshita or Subhuti.

2. The FWBO Files quotes out of context: Women have less ‘spiritual aptitude’ than men. Men are better able to actualize their potential for enlightenment than women. Women, Men and Angels actually says: Men generally are better able to actualise that potential than women. It should be well noted that this does not say that women do not have the aptitude to actualise their potential.

3. The FWBO Files says: On the occasions when Buddha did talk about the nature of female existence, he described it as ‘less advantageous.’ Subhuti however, translates ‘less advantageous’ as ‘less aptitude’, a discrepancy which goes unnoticed, even by himself. Women Men and Angels actually says: Whatever the manner of discussion of women occasionally found in Buddhist texts, the tradition seems universally to consider the female form less spiritually advantageous. This was sufficient starting point for Sangharakshita.
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113 ]
Women Men and Angels, op. cit., p.10.
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114 ]
See The Moon and Flowers: A Woman’s Path to Enlightenment (Windhorse Publications, 1997); Lotus Realm Magazine, an FWBO magazine for women published thrice yearly. For an account of a response to Women Men and Angels from a woman in the FWBO see “Where Angels Need to Tread’, interview with Maitreyi, Dharma Life 2, July 1996.
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115 ]
[At the time this Response was written, t]he College of Public Preceptors, the body that is assuming Sangharakshita’s primary responsibilities, [comprised] three men and three women.
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