What the Buddha Said About Sexual HarassmentFMWPadmin2019-04-09T22:03:02+00:00
– by Jan Chozen Bays
Note: This article originally appeared in Tricycle, the Buddhist Review, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
“At one time a certain woman was wearing a rough blanket. A certain monk, being infatuated, said to this woman, “Sister, is that thick, short hair yours?” She did not understand and said, “Yes master, it is a rough blanket. ” He was remorseful and said, “What if I have fallen into an offence entailing a formal meeting of the Order?” He told this matter to the Buddha who said, “Monk, it is not an offense entailing a formal meeting of the Order, it is an offense of wrong-doing.” (1)
Fast forward 2,540 years. I am sitting in a mandatory training at the hospital where I work. Lawyers in dark suits and ties are talking us through handouts, lists of things we cannot do for fear of being sued. We are not to touch coworkers on the head, above the elbow or below the knee. Below the knee? I try to imagine how this could be done. Would I hide under a desk like the man in the movie The Piano, waiting to touch Leila’s leg through a run in her nylons? We protest. The “suits” as my gen-X son calls them, tell us this rule was developed for shoe salesmen who grope women while fitting shoes. Oh.
Hugs are out. Even if someone’s father just died? No hugs. Too easy to misinterpret. Misinterpret? We’re talking grief here. This is a hospital, right?
Next, lists of dangerous gifts. No intimate garments or anything that could be (mis) interpreted as romantic in intent, such as perfume or stockings. I get a little nervous. Those tights that didn’t fit, I gave to another lady doctor. What can we give each other? Not much. Even flowers are tricky, some falling in to the romantic category (roses), some safe (daffodils). We protest. This is going too far. We are warned that fairness does not matter, that everything on the three page list has been the subject of a suit. Examples of successful suits for millions of dollars are described. We grow confused. Can we compliment a coworker on weight loss? A new tie? People take notes, adding forbidden acts and topics to the lists. Are we supposed to memorize the lists? Consult them before talking or touching?
In national companies, in Dharma centers, and now in the White House ,we have become a nation focused on the issue of sexual harassment. We are obsessed with the details. If we can just get the “facts” right about what the President or an aide did or said, we can check what happened against the legal definition of sexual harassment. Then we will know if someone has done wrong/been wronged.
There are some fundamental problems here. First, we can never get the facts straight because our human memories are just memories, shaded, imprecise, serving the needs and defending the fears of the small self. Memories are not reality. The second problem is that we cannot teach or mandate appropriate behavior by making lists of inappropriate behaviors. We cannot carry around lists to consult before speaking or acting. In the absence of overarching principles we remain confused, inconvenienced and fearful.
When in doubt I turn to the words of the Buddha, the brightest, most sensible of humans. Did the Buddha have anything to say about sexual harassment? Yes. In the Vinaya. Wait, you say, isn’t the Vinaya a moral code based on lists? Lists of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors? Yes and no.
The Vinaya records that many instances of what we would now call sexual harassment were brought to the Buddha for resolution. As is characteristic of the Vinaya the questionable behavior, like the monk teasing a certain woman about her pubic hair, reoccurs in many and slightly different forms. Each instance is a bit of “case law” that makes the intent of the original precept clearer. Here are a few examples of lewd speech and behavior, almost identical to the speech and action that are considered today at least inappropriate and possibly cause for an expensive lawsuit settlement.
“At one time a woman was wearing a newly dyed blanket. A certain monk. . . .said, “Sister is that red thing yours?”
At one time a certain woman said to a monk dependent on (her) family, “What, honored sir, may I give to the master?” “The highest gift, sister,” He said. “What is the highest gift, honored sir?” “Sexual intercourse, ” he said. He was remorseful ….
At one time a certain woman was doing some work. A certain monk, infatuated, said, “Lie down sister, I will work …..” She, not understanding …..He was remorseful…
“If the monk, pointing out (any part) from below the collar bone to above the knee to the woman, speaks in praise, speaks in blame, begs, implores, exhorts and abuses, there is an offense of wrong doing.” (1)
Each word is carefully defined. “Abuses” means to say, “You are without sexual characteristics, you are defective in sex, you are bloodless, your blood is stagnant, you are always dressed, you are dripping, you are a deformed woman, you are a female eunuch, you are a man-like woman, your sexuality is indistinct, you are a hermaphrodite.” (1)
Monks are not to speak words to women concerning genital organs, anuses, intercourse, or question women about experiences of intercourse.(2) The rules apply to ordained women as well.
If a biksuni, aroused by desire, comes into bodily contact with a man aroused by desire, such that they touch one another between the eyes and the knees …flirts, charms, behaves immodestly…. makes inviting signs…. or lies down extending her limbs in a place suitable for relations between a man and a woman …she is expelled from the order.” (3)
If we look beneath the lists and careful definitions (which arose because of hundreds of cases that were brought before the Buddha or Elders in the sangha) to what the Buddha said in the cases brought before him, there are some clear overarching principles. First, what was the intent of the actor? Second, what was the effect on the actee? (It helps to remove the loaded words victim and offender. Then we can step back from a view point centered in a particular self and be more objective about action and reaction, karma and its fruits.)
With the word “fruits” we encounter the third problem. As humans with a short life span we cannot know the long-term effects of our actions. However, recognizing that what we say and do can have repercussions for months, years, eons, and that we cannot know the “final” outcome of something we think, do or say, Buddhists, like all other major religions, have developed a set of precepts, ten to sixteen more general rules for lay people, hundreds of specific precepts for the ordained. These precepts prohibit actions that have a bad outcome and cause harm ourselves or others almost all, maybe 99.999%, of the time.
What about the remaining 00001%? We all want to be the exception, the one who can do something proscribed by all the worlds religions for thousands of years, and NOT cause harm. Is there an exception? There is an advanced Zen koan that asks this very question.”Is an enlightened person subject to cause and effect or not?”
The Dalai Lama was asked this question in a specific form. Was it ever possible for a Buddhist teacher to have sexual contact with a student and not cause harm? He pondered and then replied that the exception might be a person of such clarity that they could drink urine and eat feces. This was dubbed the “taste test” for enlightenment.
Let’s look at his answer. Such a person would be free from aversion, free from clinging, and free from the illusion of space and time …. but not free from cause and effect. If filet mignot, chocolate mousse and fine wine reappear five minutes after consumption, what are they? Vomit. In a few hours? Urine and feces. The passage of time and the action of enzymes transforms the delicious into the repulsive. There might be a very rare person to whom (vomit = chocolate mousse + time) is a mathematical equation and who could eat vomit with the objectivity of a mathematician swallowing a piece of paper covered with sums. There actually was such a person with a Mind of such clarity that when a leper’s finger fell into his begging bowl he saw it as (food + time) and ate it with equanimity. Such a person might be able to break a basic precept with a good outcome. However that person, the Buddha, the rarest and wisest of persons, did not.
From the Buddhist point of view sexual harassment is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of who we are. If I believe that I am the subject, the center of the Universe, then everything else is the object, the means by which my needs are met. “Everything else” then is used to affirm my separate and special existence and to relieve my fear that I will stop existing. Then I can tease you to make you blush to meet my need to feel powerful. I can brush your breasts or crotch “accidentally” to arouse myself and escape briefly from boredom, from depression or from my doubt about how well I am doing in a stressful, high level job. I can do these things without considering how this affects you or what your needs are.
The ultimate remedy for sexual or any other kinds of harassment will never be legal. It has to be spiritual. The remedy lies in the vivid experience of the interdependence of all existence. From this arises a dynamic and deep awareness of the reactions of “the other” to what we do, say and think. True awakening expands this awareness to include not only other people but all beings we recognize as living, plants, animals, fungi and bacteria, and even those existences we consider non-living, rocks, water and sunlight. Out of this huge awareness we become as responsible for the welfare of others as we are for ourselves. Maybe more.
(1) Horner, I.B. The Book of Discipline, Volume X. The Pali Text Society, London, 1982.
(2) Vajirananavarorasa, S.P.M.S.C.K.P. The Entrance to the Vinaya, Volume I. King Mahamakuta’s Academy, Bankok, 1969.
(3) Karma Lekshe Tsomo. Sisters in Solitude. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1996.
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