In the Agganna Sutta (Digha Nikaya 3.80–98), the Buddha explains the origins of the existing social order, describing it as a fall from a golden age in which bodiless beings are self-radiant and live on delight. This state, in which there is no duality whether in terms of matter, space, or time, is also nondual in terms of gender: “no male or female are known,” and beings (satta) are “called (or defined as) only beings.” As time passes, a substance appears and a greedy being tastes it (it is not explained why this particular being is greedy). As the being develops a liking for the substance, it develops craving (tanha), a clear reference to the second noble truth of the origin of suffering (dukkha) taught by the Buddha. Other beings follow suit and also develop craving. As they eat the substance, their self-radiance disappears, causing the appearance of the moon and sun and night and day, as well as the calendar and seasonal divisions. As the beings continue eating the various coarser and coarser substances that appear on the surface of the earth, their bodies also become coarser and differences in their appearance emerge (although, as in the case of the initial greed, the text does not explain how or why the differences occur). As the better-looking (vanna-vanto) ones despise the bad-looking (dubbanna), the substance they have been eating disappears and is replaced with a “fungus.” This process again is repeated several times as creepers, then rice, replace the fungus and the beings’ bodies become coarser and coarser still. After eating the rice for a long time, the physical alteration culminates in the appearance of the sexual organs: “the female sexual organs appeared in the women, and the male sexual organs in the men” (itthiya ca itthilingam paturahosi, purisassa ca purisalingam). This sexual differentiation marks both the end of the physical process and the transformation of the moral process from a personal focus (arrogance and conceit) into a social focus.

Just as the text does not explain why the difference in looks develops, it does not explain why the difference in sexual organs appears. Nevertheless, the fact that both men and women arise at the same time from the same beings contrasts markedly with religious myths that see humanity as primordially male, with women a subsidiary, and usually inferior, addition. This attitude is illustrated in what the prominent Buddhist scholar Peter Skilling describes as the “gender pairing” feature of early Buddhist literature. He notes that Buddhism, whether in the texts of various schools or in stone inscriptions, regularly mentions the four assemblies composed of bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay male and female disciples, and he gives a nonexhaustive table of gender-paired terms such as savaka (male disciple) and savika (female disciple), upasaka (male lay follower) and upasika (female lay follower), to mention a few. Another pair, which he does not mention, is ubiquitous in the Pali texts: woman (itthi) and man (purisa). Including this pair extends the analysis beyond an already established Buddhist community and underlines the Pali texts’ gender-paired perspective. Skilling rightly sees gender-paired terms as “only natural.” But while this may be natural, it rarely happens. In reality, many texts, whether religious or otherwise, tend to include “woman” within the masculine “man”—even at present, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights still employs masculine gender within the body of its text as inclusive of men and women—so that the Pali itthi va puriso va (“whether woman or man”) may appear as somewhat of a felicitous and noteworthy oddity.

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