Woman in Buddhism

The following encounter between the enlightened nun Subha and a harassing man provides us a glimpse of the challenges encountered by woman while practicing Dharma. Even in our modern day society, rude and uncouth man continue to treat woman as sex objects or trophies to be won. Let’s jump right into the encounter and you can judge for yourselves.

One day Subha the nun was going through Jivaka’s delightful mango grove when the son of a goldsmith accosted her.

“What wrong have I done you that you stand in my way? It’s not proper, my friend, that a man should touch a woman gone forth. I respect the Master’s message, the training pointed out by the one well-gone. I am pure, without blemish: Why do you stand in my way? (Subha)

You — your mind agitated, I — unagitated; You — impassioned, I — unimpassioned, unblemished, with a mind everywhere released: Why do you stand in my way?” (Subha)

This passage from Therigatha is quite alarming to me already. It sounds like that guy grabbed Subha and is preventing her from leaving. Subha did exactly what our modern girls will do in such a situation. She told the man that his action is inappropriate and she didn’t want his attention on her. She made known that she is a chaste nun and have nothing in common with her harasser.

“You are young & not bad-looking, what need do you have for going forth? Throw off your ochre robe — Come, let’s delight in the flowering forest. (Harasser)

Such blatant disrespect towards a woman is alarming because nothing had changed since 2,500 years ago. Man had been taught to make inappropriate advances against woman and treat it like a game. Woman safety issues continue to surface on our news today.

A sweetness they exude from all around, the towering trees with their pollen. The beginning of spring is a pleasant season — Come, let’s delight in the flowering forest. (Harasser)

What else can we say? Feel like smacking this young man in the head huh?

The trees with their blossoming tips moan, as it were, in the breeze: What delight will you have if you plunge into the forest alone? (Harasser)

If one’s mind is clouded by passion and lust, every sensory perception seems to allude to passion and lust. (okay, I am rolling my eyes now) For a Dharma practitioner, secluded area is ideal because it is quite. Unfortunately, this young fellow is thinking otherwise.

Frequented by herds of wild beasts, disturbed by elephants rutting & aroused: you want to go unaccompanied into the great, lonely, frightening forest? (Harasser)

Wow, he just quote animal porn? It is unimaginable that someone can speak so rudely to a nun. However, that is an unfortunate reality of life. The holy robe of nun only mean something for a Buddhist like us. It will not protect the nuns from such advances and attacks.

Like a doll made of gold, you will go about, like a goddess in the gardens of heaven. With delicate, smooth Kasi fabrics, you will shine, O beauty without compare. I would be under your power if we were to dwell in the wood. For there is no creature dearer to me than you, (Harasser)

Next, he attempted to praise Subha but as we can see, it is nothing but objectifying her as a subject of passion. A doll? Seriously?

O nymph with the languid regard. If you do as I ask, happy, come live in my house. Dwelling in the calm of a palace, have women wait on you, wear delicate Kasi fabrics, adorn yourself with garlands & creams. I will make you many & varied ornaments of gold, jewels, & pearls. (Harasser)

Then he tried to “buy” her with promises of riches and comfort. For a non-Buddhist, life is all about material well-beings. But speaking about such mundane stuff to an enlightened being, he is offering dung and rotten things.

Climb onto a costly bed, scented with sandalwood carvings, with a well-washed coverlet, beautiful, spread with a woolen quilt, brand new. Like a blue lotus rising from the water, where there dwell non-human spirits, you will go to old age with your limbs unseen, if you stay as you are in the holy life.” (Harasser)

It didn’t take long for him to go back to his intent, going to bed and seeing her exposed limbs.

“What do you assume of any essence, here in this cemetery grower, filled with corpses, this body destined to break up? What do you see when you look at me, you who are out of your mind?” (Subha)

Subha tried to point to the inevitable fate of mankind, Death. She asked her harasser what exactly is so pleasing about her body that make her harasser behave so madly. Even in ancient times, such uncivilized behavior by her harasser would be criminal. But we need to know that this encounter took place in a secluded forested area.

“Your eyes are like those of a fawn, like those of a nymph in the mountains. Seeing your eyes, my sensual delight grows all the more. Like tips they are, of blue lotuses, in your golden face — spotless: Seeing your eyes, my sensual delight grows all the more. Even if you should go far away, I will think only of your pure, long-lashed gaze, for there is nothing dearer to me than your eyes, O nymph with the languid regard.” (Harasser)

You can see how this passionate youth missed the Dharma topic of impermanence completely and mistaken Subha’s question as an invitation for him to express his admiration. He therefore put on his Romeo hat and tried to cajole Subha by praising her beautiful eyes.

“You want to stray from the road, you want the moon as a plaything, you want to jump over Mount Sineru, you who have designs on one born of the Buddha. For there is nothing anywhere at all in the world with its devas, that would be an object of passion for me. (Subhas)

Here, Subha is exclaiming and invoking her spiritual identity. Born of the Buddha refers to enlightened beings and she further elaborated that nothing can rouse passion in her anymore.

I don’t even know what that passion would be, for it’s been killed, root & all, by the path. Like embers from a pit — scattered, like a bowl of poison — evaporated, I don’t even see what that passion would be, for it’s been killed, root & all, by the path. (Subha)

Try to seduce one who hasn’t reflected on this, or who the Master hasn’t instructed. But try it with this one who knows and you do yourself violence. For whether insulted or worshiped, in pleasure or pain, my mindfulness stands firm. (Subha)

Here, we see Subha declaring herself to be free from passion and lust, a completely enlightened disciples of Buddha. By having inappropriate thoughts towards Subha, her harasser is actually creating harm for himself.

Knowing the unattractiveness of fabricated things, my heart adheres nowhere at all. I am a follower of the one well-gone, riding the vehicle of the eightfold way: My arrow removed, effluent-free, I delight, having gone to an empty dwelling. For I have seen well-painted puppets, hitched up with sticks & strings, made to dance in various ways. When the sticks & strings are removed, thrown away, scattered, shredded, smashed into pieces, not to be found, in what will the mind there make its home? (Subha)

Fabricated things refer to all things in samsara, which is compounded. All compounded things are impermanent and will fall apart. Therefore, they are never source of everlasting happiness. Buddhism is also known as the noble eightfold path and in this case vehicle is used instead of path because it brings us towards enlightenment. Subha also used a simile and described our body as like a puppet.

This body of mine, which is just like that, when devoid of dhammas doesn’t function. When, devoid of dhammas, it doesn’t function, in what will the mind there make its home? Like a mural you’ve seen, painted on a wall, smeared with yellow orpiment, there your vision has been distorted, meaningless your perception of a human being.

Like an evaporated mirage, like a tree of gold in a dream, like a magic show in the midst of a crowd — you run blind after what is unreal.

Here, Subha chided the youth for perceiving the precious human body as nothing more than playthings for enjoyment in Samsara.

Resembling a ball of sealing wax, set in a hollow, with a bubble in the middle & bathed with tears, eye secretions are born there too: The parts of the eye are rolled all together in various ways.”

Subha counter the youth’s exclamation of love for her beautiful eyes. Accordingly, the eyes by itself is not really that desirable.

Plucking out her lovely eye, with mind unattached she felt no regret. “Here, take this eye. It’s yours.” Straightaway she gave it to him. Straightaway his passion faded right there, and he begged her forgiveness.

You can probably imagine her harasser grinning foolishly while listening to her preaching. Believing that he had successfully struck a conversation with his object of desire. Then in less than a minute after saying what she had to say. Subha plucked out her eyes and gave it to him.

“Be safe, follower of the holy life. This sort of thing won’t happen again. Harming a person like you is like embracing a blazing fire, It’s as if I have seized a poisonous snake. So may you be safe. Forgive me.” And freed from there, the nun went to the excellent Buddha’s presence. When she saw the mark of his excellent merit, her eye became as it was before.

Although this story ends with Subha regaining sight miraculously, I cannot help but wonder at its significance. If we remove the last portion of the story, this encounter narrated a harrowing experience of a young nun (enlightened or not). Threatened with rape in a secluded forest. There is nothing much she can do to protect her dignity except to guard it with her life.

Such is the harsh reality of a woman’s safety in our world. Therefore, their determination to pursue dharma and practice it with the same discipline as man comes at an extra price, and that should be recognized and respected.

May all be well and happy

Material taken from Subha Jivakambavanika: Subha and the Libertine” (Thig 14.1), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, .

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