Sacred Custodians of the Earth? Women, Spirituality, and the Environment

By Alaine Low; Soraya Tremayne | Go to book overview

11
Nature and Gender in
Theravada Buddhism

Sandra Bell

Based on a survey of ethnographic research, this chapter considers the role of rural women in two Buddhist countries Thailand and Sri Lanka. It explores recent debates about the causes and degree of women’s religious disadvantage brought about through their exclusion from the order of monks known as the Sangha. Questions arise about how women’s exclusion is culturally validated in spite of the vital contribution that they make to the maintenance and continuity of the Sangha. Exploring these issues leads to an examination of protective sacred power in Theravada Buddhism, its connections with male celibacy and the threatening effects of female sexuality.

While women, as inheritors of land and as primary agricultural producers, possess a high degree of economic and social independence relative to their sisters in other parts of Asia,1 perceptions of femininity as polluting and dangerous impede women’s association with the sacred. Furthermore, women are not identified with nature. Ethnographic evidence suggests that women require protection from the fearsome forces of the wild represented by the forests, which are only safe for the most ascetic monks, and that the binary oppositions between female/male and nature/culture advocated by structuralist anthropology do not apply to Theravada Buddhist societies.

Before launching upon a discussion specific to the topic of gender, it would be helpful to provide a brief sketch of the background to Theravada Buddhist belief and practice. To begin with, there is a great deal of discussion in the literature about the relationship

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