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.
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