Women, Men and Angels
Subhuti (Alex Kennedy)
Windhorse Publications: Birmingham, UK, 1995.
97 pp., $9.99 (paper).
The copy of Women, Men and Angels that I read was purchased at a Windhorse outlet in England, where it was found not on display but in a closed cabinet. No surprise. The text has ignited controversy and ill-feeling within the otherwise docile ranks of the UK-based Western Buddhist Order (WBO), of which the author is a senior member. Subhuti himself predicted that his words would be “blazoned for the purposes of execration in magazines of . . . the ‘Buddhist Establishment’ . . . in the United States of America where that Establishment is very much dominated by modern pseudo-liberal egalitarianism.” Nonetheless, Women, Men and Angels is illuminating reading—not because its arguments are convincing, but because of the window it provides into the mind of Sangharakshita, the British-born founder of the Western Buddhist Order, whose beliefs on the relative spiritual aptitudes of men and women Subhuti spells out here.
The title is drawn from a statement by Sangharakshita that appears on the frontispiece: “Angels are to men as men are to women—because they are more human and, therefore, more divine.” The peculiar syntax of this sentence almost obscures its meaning—but not quite. It actually does say men are more human than women. Subhuti begins by laying out the two principal ideas that the book will defend: first, that “men generally have a greater spiritual aptitude than women” (aptitude being defined as “the ability to actualize the capacity for enlightenment”); and second, that “the feminist reading of history as the story of woman’s oppression and exploitation by man belongs not to history but to mythology.” Subhuti tells us that he would prefer not to undertake this task (“there are other matters in which I am much more interested”), but “it appears that some of Sangharakshita’s ideas about women and spiritual life fly so much in the face of [common] assumptions . . . that it is necessary to explore them further.”
With respect to the first idea, the exploration of which comprises most of the text, Subhuti acknowledges that a significant problem exists: the proof of Sangharakshita’s views rests on a level of spiritual insight that is not accessible to all. The fifty-year-old Subhuti, who has spent half his life in the WBO, readily admits that he himself does not possess this insight. Nevertheless, he explains, for “those of us who are Sangharakshita’s disciples, the position is clear. He does say that women generally have less spiritual aptitude than men and we should try to understand . . . why he says it.”
Why he says it, as it turns out, has much to do with upholding traditional Buddhist beliefs that, according to Subhuti, “universally . . . consider the female form less spiritually advantageous.” That “less advantageous” has been translated to “less aptitude” is a rhetorical sleight of hand that Subhuti does not directly address. As we discover later in the book, the notion of culturally sanctioned restraints on women’s personal autonomy throughout much of recorded history is “a myth.” Sangharakshita himself explains: “Men have of course sometimes oppressed women (and women, men), just as Jews have sometimes enslaved Gentiles (and Gentiles, Jews).” And with that myth handily dismissed, to what else can we possibly attribute the less advantageous position of women if not . . . well, there’s just no delicate way to put it: their inborn inferiority.
Sangharakshita points out two aspects to the lesser aptitude women generally have for spiritual life. Firstly the woman’s form, her ‘psycho-physical complex,’ already gives greater expression to interests and concerns that have little affinity with spiritual life. Her consciousness is therefore, from the outset, likely to be more limited because it expresses a more limited predisposition. Secondly, the form once taken as the manifestation of previous volitions now exercises its own influence on consciousness, tying it down and limiting it to a far greater extent than does a male form. Having ‘chosen’ that female form, women are then subject to its influences.
The Buddhist path culminates in the full flowering of equanimity, wisdom and compassion. Nevertheless, Subhuti asserts that the qualities of “patience, endurance, stability, and [empathy]” (which might be honed through the experience of bearing and raising children) “are not characteristics that, by and large, support spiritual commitment.” Far from seeing the rearing of children as a bodhisattva proving ground vastly more challenging than any that could possibly be found in the hermetic environment of a spiritual community, Subhuti proclaims:
[T]he spiritual has . . . nothing to do with . . . the family. . . . From a spiritual point of view, that whole world of interest is quite simply a distraction from the fundamental issues of life, and a distraction that men can never feel in the same way.
He goes on to say that women “are far more at the mercy of their feelings and instincts than men. . . . They are characteristically far more anchored in the lower evolution and have to make stronger efforts to pull themselves free of its influences.” Subhuti avoids altogether any discussion of most men’s significantly greater tendency to sexual arousal, and the difficulties this may pose to meditative concentration and absorption. Instead, he touts the greater spiritual aptitude of men “because they have a greater propensity to imagination and will arising from their biologically determined initiative and aggression.”
For those who may be having trouble following this subtle line of reasoning, let me recapitulate: “Female” qualities of patience, endurance and empathy (which nurture life) are prima facie evidence of women’s lesser aptitude for the spiritual life, but “male” qualities of initiative and aggression (which often violate life) are marks of particular spiritual strength. In defense of his statement that the greater spiritual aptitude of men is rooted in their greater propensity for imagination and will, he writes:
Imagination is the faculty that takes us beyond our immediate experience. . . . A man’s body grounds him less in the immediate, for he is not tied to the menstrual cycle and the necessity of sacrificing self for the moment by moment needs of children. He is therefore free to reconstruct reality on a new basis. Further, his aggression leads him to try to dominate and surmount his immediate experience. . . . [He is] freed by reason from the tyranny of the moment. . . .
When did fleeing the moment and the reconstruction of reality become goals of Buddhist practice? Here, in particular, I had to remind myself that the author identifies himself as a Buddhist, because the argument runs exactly counter to the sine qua non of practice, which is attention within the present moment.
Subhuti bolsters his arguments in support of his teacher’s views by pointing out that Sangharakshita is not alone in viewing most women as inferior to most men; many Great Men agree—Schopenhauer, for example, and Nietzsche. Furthermore, there are Great Women who agree, as well. Camille Paglia, for instance. Subhuti throws her famous line into the stew in which he’s cooking himself: “If history had been left in the hands of women, we’d still be living in grass huts.” Didn’t Gautama leave his palace and all of the worldly attainment that it represented for the equivalent of a grass hut? This odd conflation of cultural achievement with spiritual achievement occupies many paragraphs in Subhuti’s discourse, leaving us to presume that he views the two as structurally related. If this were so, we ought to be able to see in our most gifted scientists and artists the bodhisattvas of our age. Yet even those brilliant minds whose discoveries in the field of quantum mechanics resonate so deeply with the Heart Sutra cannot be said to have become enlightened through those achievements.
It would be unfortunate if Women, Men and Angels were to constitute a reader’s sole encounter with the thought of Sangharakshita, who in many ways has proven himself a skilled innovator in his efforts to translate Buddhism to the West. However, if Subhuti has accurately conveyed his teacher’s views on men and women, then he reveals a strikingly large lacuna in Sangharakshita’s understanding.
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