Pāli Buddhist and Christian Analyses of Gender

This article explores the implications of early Buddhist and Christian textual analyses of gender and sex for contemporary questions about gender and physical bodies. One of the tenets of contemporary studies of gender and sexuality is the unmooring of the category of gender from the biologically identifiable and sexed bodies. Christian literature reveals a binary view of sex and gender that allowed women only very limited access to spiritual training and community. The Pāli canon and commentarial traditions, in contrast, draw on both vinaya legal and abhidhamma analytic traditions to lay out a relationship between biologically sexed bodies and gender that is not, fundamentally, essentialist yet still retains an analysis of material bodies and sex. Tracing the actual passages through the commentaries on one vinaya passage, this essay shows how the logic of vinaya and abhidhamma analyses of physical bodies, gender, and behavior is both unique to each genre while being used by commentators to explain the difference between male and female bodies and gender. At the same time, this article confirms recent scholarship that argues the Pāli commentaries are markedly sexist in their devaluation of women and female gender where the Pāli canon is not. Practitioners of both Pāli Buddhism and early Christianity included monastics, male and female. In both communities, the sexes practiced separately, and the presence of one in a locus reserved for the other would be cause for consternation and concern. Despite many obstacles to women participating with the male monastics, textual evidence of that very situation abounds in both traditions. Its occurrence, however, was recognized and handled quite differently among Buddhists than among Christians. For the Buddhist material we discuss herein, the context is perceived as spontaneous sex change. For the Christian material, the context is that of transvestite female saints. We will consider first the Buddhist materials, then the early Christian, and finally, draw some comparative conclusions.

Publication Date:
Nov 20 2018
Date Submitted:
Jun 21 2019
Buddhist-Christian Studies

 Record created 2019-06-21, last modified 2019-08-06

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