Our Bog is Dood
Reflections on the dangers of charismatic authority in the FWBO sparked by the publication of Subhuti's book Women, Men & Angels, written by a former order member in the late 1990s, reprinted here with his permission.
Our Bog Is Dood
Just as Subhuti writes in the introduction to his book "Women, Men, and Angels" (WM&A) that he approaches his subject matter somewhat reluctantly because writing a book about Sangharakshita’s thoughts on the special difficulties women experience in living the spiritual life “inflates its importance and dignifies the problems it throws up” (p. 9), I am also reluctant to have to write yet another article about the problems inherent in Subhuti’s treatment of the topic. However, I feel duty bound to do so because so many people have contacted me with requests to clarify some of my points or expand upon others. I did not always reply to the personal communications I received, wanting to give people time to respond and then reply in a more extended manner to the most common issues and concerns which arose. I would like to thank everybody who took the time to reply to my first article ("Women, Men &Subhuti") as well as to some of the issues raised in my threaded discussions. I was very struck by the courteous and considerate tone of many respondents and think that many of these replies would be of interest to the wider Order, not least because they would illustrate how widespread are the concerns I raised about Subhuti’s text among Order Members generally.
First I need to clarify that my article was not meant to address the issue of women’s spiritual aptitude vis a vis men. I have no opinion on this issue. I was, instead, criticising Sangharakshita’s argument, outlined by Subhuti, that the oppression of women-as-a-group by men-as-a-group belongs to mythology, not history. Particularly, I targeted the analogy made on p. 11 of the book, that “the feminist reading of history as the story of Woman’s oppression and exploitation by Man...can be compared with the anti-Semitic reading of history as the story of the world-wide conspiracy on the part of the Jews to concentrate wealth and power in their own hands so as to be able to enslave the Gentiles (cf. The spurious ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’)”. As I pointed out, these two “readings” of history cannot be compared because the first is theory whereas the second is propaganda. In this sentence, Sangharakshita twice defeats his own argument. Firstly, he speaks of feminist readings of history which are presumed analogous to anti-Semitic “readings.” However, “feminist” history which is often carried out by very fine academics, produces texts which present arguments based on historical evidence. People may disagree about the nature of the evidence, they may accuse feminists of over-emphasising certain points and disregarding others but, nevertheless, they are based on some evidence. The texts upon which anti-Semitic “readings” of history are based, such as the Protocols are, as Sangharakshita admits (thus doubly undermining his own argument) “spurious.” They are entirely the product of anti-Semitic propaganda and have no basis in any reasoned evidence whatsoever. The Protocols were forged documents created by the Russian secret police in 1897 in order to stir up public support for Tsarist pogroms being waged against Russian Jewish communities. They were exposed as forgeries by a New York Times reporter in 1921 but this did not stop them being revived by the Nazis as part of their propaganda war against the Jewish people during the Second World War and they still crop up occasionally today in the anti-Semitic propaganda produced by far-right groups. Feminist arguments are of a totally different nature from anti-Semitic ones. Only they can be legitimately termed “readings” in that they relate to historical evidence whereas anti-Semitic arguments are based upon deliberately falsified propaganda and have, demonstrably, no basis in history.
It was my disagreement with Sangharakshita and Subhuti on the above point that motivated me to write my first article. I discovered WM&A by chance on the shelves of the Hong Kong University Library. It could only have got there through being ordered by an individual doing research in the university on “Women in Buddhism;” indeed, this is how the book was indexed which suggests that it is probably on the shelves of most universities where research into women in religion is taking place, which these days, is most universities. I was appalled to discover that Subhuti not only accepted Sangharakshita’s analogy at face value, but that he built on it, adding insult to injury by repeatedly scripting supposedly “feminist” arguments only to tear them down. As an academic who has published on gender issues in “feminist” journals, I MUST point out how profoundly alienating and irritating Subhuti’s polemical attack on “feminism” is in this book and what a great disservice it does to the intellectual integrity of the Order.
I need not point out that anti-Semitic propaganda, of which the Protocols is perhaps the most famous, lay behind the holocaust, one of the most obscene events in human history and that to relate feminist arguments to anti-Semitic ones is a gross misjudgement of their relative valencies. Sangharakshita’s analogy occurs in Travel Letters where it is probably just a passing thought in a communication to a friend. I wonder if he would have made this statement in a book destined for widespread publication. Subhuti, however, takes this passage and places it at the very beginning of his own text outlining and defending Sangharakshita’s views (it occurs on page 3 of the Introduction). So bizarre, and actually insulting to the intelligence of people with feminist leanings is this analogy, that it comes as no surprise that it is commonly reported that many people, usually women, simply cannot bear to read the book. In the next section, I would like to consider what it actually means to “read” a book.
Linguistics theory suggests that when an individual encounters a text, there are two ways of reading it. The first is termed “decipherment” and the second simply “reading.” Decipherment takes place when the person already has a context within which to place the text either by having read other similar texts, say by the same author, or being a member of a group or a community where the ideas contained in the text are already in circulation. Therefore most people who are already within the FWBO “decipher” Subhuti’s writing in WM&A in terms of their own experience of Subhuti as an outstanding leader, their experience of Sangharakshita as their spiritual guide and their experience of women Order Members who they know to be effectively engaged in the spiritual life. These readers are more inclined to give Subhuti the benefit of the doubt when he raises points which are counter-intuitive to them or to make the mental effort to work out what he really means when points are badly or unclearly expressed.
People who “read” the text, however, are not in-group members and have no context for understanding the arguments other than that provided by the book itself. They also bring with them certain cultural baggage and expectations about how arguments about gender should be conducted. As I pointed out above, WM&A is probably on the shelves of many libraries as well as stocked in bookshops. The readers who would be interested in browsing through it probably have an interest in “women’s issues” particularly as they relate to world religions: now a major growth area in academia as well as within feminism generally. These readers can be expected to have fairly sophisticated notions of gender including an awareness of how women’s and men’s identities have been variously constructed over time and in different cultures, as well as an awareness of how “science,” “biology,” and “history” are key linchpins of the Enlightenment Project and have been ideologically deployed in the production of different versions of social truths. Such readers are very likely to be the kind of “relativists” so often attacked in the FWBO. Subhuti’s attack on feminism, as I pointed out in my previous article, fails to live up to the standards of a fair argument. It is, in fact, a polemic and can be expected to alienate most intelligent readers who come across it. There is no reason why a person not connected with the FWBO should respect Subhuti’s arguments: he must earn that respect through a reasoned analysis of the topic.
This latter point doesn’t seem to bother Subhuti in that he says at the very beginning of WM&A “I think it is important that these and other issues are discussed quite openly, regardless of whether or not they may lead some people to reject [the] movement” (p.9). Certainly, it would be quite wrong to hide or disguise certain ideas of Sangharakshita’s which fly in the face of public opinion simply because they may alienate some people. However, in taking on this task, Subhuti should at least have done it well so as to minimize reaction. Unfortunately, there seems to be a culture of blind acceptance developing in the Order where Subhuti, increasingly seen as the main spokesperson for Sangharakshita’s teaching, is protected by the same mantle of impenetrability which has always covered Sangharakshita himself. By all means we should give both Subhuti and Sangharakshita the immense credit they are due, but we do a disservice to them and to our integrity as Order Members and to the vision of the Order as a whole if we remain silent on issues where they have demonstrably failed to give a reasoned explanation for positions which they hold and which we, as members of the Order, are expected to explain in our interactions with the public. Both Sangharakshita and increasingly, Subhuti, are to a certain extent protected by their personal charisma and the esteem in which they are held which deflects any criticism of their views back on to the critic who is seen to have a “problem” understanding what they mean. This is partly the reason why many people in the Order were happy to write to me individually thanking me for expressing doubts that they have long held about Subhuti’s treatment of the “women” issue, but were reluctant to publicly speak out in Shabda.
With the above in mind, I return once more to criticise Sangharakshita’s argument as outlined by Subhuti that men’s oppression of women is a myth. I want to outline some of the historical facts which underlie feminist readings of history and thereby show how unjust is Sangharakshita’s equation of these arguments with anti-Semitic propaganda. I hope that even if people do not agree with everything I say, they will at least acknowledge that I have a case, and that if WM&A is to remain in the public sphere in its present form, we can expect increased conflict with the general public over some of its claims. Were the Education Department, for example, to get hold of a copy, I think the arguments in the text in their present form could be used to question whether the FWBO should be involved in the production of classroom teaching materials on Buddhism, in a State system dedicated to gender equality.
Recently at my university, I was required to teach a course on Women in Japan which meant that I needed to familiarise myself not only with the ways in which women’s roles were conceptualised in Japanese history but how they were structured in China, for Japan has borrowed very heavily from Chinese civilisation. It soon became apparent that Confucianism, or more correctly the Neo-Confucianism which arose in China in the 11th century and was transmitted to Japan from the 16th, was a creed of institutionalised sexism which provided social, political and cosmological rationales for the thoroughgoing and persistent repression of women-as-a-group by men-as-a-group. The effects of this “discourse,” as it is now popular to term such ideologies, is still with us today. Due to China’s “one-child policy” the male:female ratio throughout China is rapidly falling out of synch due to the widespread abortion of female foetuses. In China, due to the persistence of Neo-Confucian views, most families, including both mother and father, would prefer to have a son and have no qualms about repeatedly aborting female foetuses until this aim is achieved.
The difference between Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism is that the latter, having picked up a number of religious elements, established itself as the sole state religion of China from the 12th century. It was a politically conservative ideology which insisted upon rigid status distinctions, particularly between men and women. Women were always to be subordinated to a male relative whether it be their father, brother, husband or son. They had no independent right to property and no right to legal representation as a separate individual: they existed only as a “minor” under the authority of a family patriarch. Subhuti, when he questions whether within a family it can always be assumed that the man has the upper hand (can a wife or daughter not give as good as she gets?) is assuming a western model (and a very recent one at that) where one wife and one husband are equally matched. In China however, a man could have as many wives as he could afford. This did not, however, lead to solidarity among women in the family but to competition, as a woman’s status resided solely upon her ability to produce male heirs for her husband. There was much competition between wives to produce sons and for their sons to inherit from their father, for this was the only way in which a woman could ensure that she would be looked after once her husband had died. Given that junior wives could be decades younger than their husbands, this was a very real concern. Marriage practices in China were patrilocal in that a woman, usually just a girl, was taken in by her husband’s family. She often had to compete with other wives of her husband and could be badly treated by her in-laws, particularly if she did not quickly reproduce. Wives, in Neo-Confucianism, were spoken of as “borrowed wombs”.
Frank Dikotter (in Imperfect Conceptions) suggests that “Women were often dependent on the production of healthy male offspring in order to improve their status in the family...in a gender hierarchy which inhibited the social mobility of women, the social...recognition to which a woman aspired were best achieved by being the mother of a successful son” (p.29-30). Some may object that this was a concern of only a small social elite, but Dikotter differs. He says that for women: “Care in old age was literally dependent on the permanent allegiance, recognition and achievements of a son, not only within sections of the gentry but also among merchants and artisans” (p.30). (Dikotter is the leading British historian of sex in China. He is not, to my knowledge, a “feminist”.) Could a widow simply not remarry? Well, Chu Hsi, one of the originators of the Neo-Confucian system had this to say: “It is a very small thing to die as a result of starvation, but a very serious evil to lose chastity towards one’s dead husband by remarrying”.
Within this system which spread from China to Korea and Japan, female children had little value in and of themselves. They had to be looked after for years only to be given up to another family (along with an expensive dowry) when it came time to get married. It is for this reason that the practice arose in Korea of naming the fist-born girl “Last Girl” in the hope that she would be the first and last girl born to the family. Sons were preferred, not simply because it was only men who could pass on the family name and thus preserve the ancestral lineage, but because only sons could get an education and work in the world. Only a son could improve the family fortunes. Because, in this system, it was difficult to see what use women were, other than as producers of sons, Chinese philosophy produced some tracts of remarkable misogyny. For instance, take this passage cited by Dikotter: “There are too many women, hence there are too many people; because there are too many people, they are poor and there is not enough available land to support them.” The writer of this text, a nineteenth century Government advisor suggested that in order to reduce population pressure “all female children born of poor parents, and sons who were physically abnormal...should be drowned” (p59; emphasis mine).
Here is a eugenicist discourse parallel to Nazi ideology which, in the name of racial purity, advocated the destruction of the Jewish race, and it is therefore ironic that Sangharakshita should equate feminist discourse with anti-Semitism when it seems clear that women, like Jews, have at times been subjected to similar oppression. I have written elsewhere in Shabda about the practice of female infanticide, particularly with regard to Japan. Here, I want to simply point out how female infanticide is still a widespread and accepted practice in present-day China.
With regard to modern eugenic practices in China, Dikotter says: “the lack of any serious efforts to establish guidelines on what constitutes a ‘birth defect’ is compounded by gender prejudice, in particular the cultural preference for a son: a female embryo may be considered a defect in itself” (p.181). He points out that although the use of ultrasound technology to detect the sex of a foetus for purposes of abortion is illegal, “doctors readily accept gifts to detect and abort female foetuses” (p.181). He points out that even Chinese researchers are concerned and that some surveys have shown a 10:1 male-female ratio for a second child (ibid.). The China entry in the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality provides even more startling statistics: a 1990 census showed that 3 out of 5 single adults were male and that unmarried men outnumber unmarried women by 10 to 1. It has consequently been suggested that the Government should actively encourage families to have girls through incentives like tax breaks. India too, sees a similar disparity in the number of men vs women (133 single men for every 100 single women). However, in America, single women outnumber single men by about 54:46 (International Encyclopedia of Sexuality).
Without wanting to labour the above point, I hope it is clear that discourses valorizing men over women are not “fictions” of the distant past, but still operative today among the world’s most populated nations. Choosing to abort a female foetus because she is considered to be of little or no value seems to me a eugenic practice analogous to the Nazi destruction of Jews. In the one case, the individual’s sex is considered to render her worthless whereas in the other it is her race. I find it perplexing, then, that Sangharakshita should equate feminist theory with anti-Semitic propaganda and that Subhuti should seek to broadcast this fact as if it were some kind of revealed truth. I would ask each of them to explain: what on earth do you mean by this analogy? Are you suggesting that clear instances of the oppression of women such as the widespread abortion of female foetuses in China are historically untrue, pure fabrications? Or, is your point rather that these examples of men (or ideologies preferencing men) disadvantaging women need to be balanced with examples of how women-as-a-group have oppressed and disadvantaged men? If so, could you please outline your evidence. Or, are you suggesting that despite instances of seeming oppression of women by men, from your special position you can show how these are in fact illusory, products of the biased imaginings of a few “feminists?”
In my arguments, I look at male-dominated institutions and discourses which prefer men over women. Subhuti, however, resists looking at the big picture. For instance, he (p.84) questions whether “men rule women as their slaves” and asks whether we can tell if there were more “hen-pecked husbands than mouse-like wives.” This kind of passage is symptomatic of Subhuti’s failure to engage with clearly documented instances of how men-as-a-group have used the power mode to disenfranchise, control and oppress women-as-a-group. He trivialises the issue, bringing it down to petty power struggles within the marital relationship and artfully avoids considering wider social forces. For instance, a clear example from the Chinese tradition illustrating the way in which women were quite unambiguously controlled by men is “foot binding.” This was a practice common among China’s indigenous Han elite from the 12th to the beginning of the 20th century where an infant girl’s feet would be tightly bound so as to inhibit their growth, eventually resulting in breaking the bones in the foot so as to produce tiny, erotically charged “lilly”-shaped feet. This caused immense pain which continued into adult life, effectively crippling women and requiring that they be carried around on litters. It was a symbol of a man’s power and riches that he could support several of these obviously unproductive women. The fact that many elite women had been made into cripples is a further indication of how important it was for them to give birth to a son so as to ensure their survival upon the death of their husband (for the son of a rival wife was hardly predisposed to undertake the care of his father’s other wives).
It would be naive to state that even this horrible practice is an unambiguous illustration of men’s domination of women, for as Foucault famously pointed out, “there are no power relations without resistances.” It was, after all, the women of the family who did the binding, fearing that if a girl were to grow up with healthy feet she would not find a husband. Given that she was forbidden an education and had no access to work other than as an entertainer/prostitute, it was necessary to an elite woman’s survival that she comply with the erotic code of the time that constructed tiny feet as optimally desirable. Thus a woman with bound feet was a more valuable piece of merchandise than a woman with normal feet. It should also be remembered that at the same time, among lower social strata, many boys were being made into eunuchs so that they could gain employment in the imperial household or as actors/prostitutes; illustrating that bodily mutilation was not something men as a group only did to women. The point I wish to emphasize is that Subhuti’s reduction of power relations to conflict between men and women on an individual level, ignores the very widespread institutional violence inflicted on women either by men or by discourses which serve the interests of men.
It would be tedious to reel off a long list of these forms of institutionalized violence but I do want to emphasise that they were not exotic practices confined to the distant past. Let me take just one example from present-day Japan where, despite 30 years of lobbying by women’s groups, oral contraceptives are still unavailable. The Japanese medical establishment (an overwhelmingly male institution) has refused to licence “the pill” because of concerns over its safety, despite the fact that it has been freely available to women in Europe and America since the late 60s. However, Viagra, the male “impotence pill,” despite serious concerns over its safety for men with heart-problems and high blood pressure, received a licence after only 6 months of investigation.
Women’s organisations have claimed that this is a clear example of male bias within the medical establishment. But why should making the pill available to women be such a big issue? The main women’s argument is that because of the unreliability of other contraceptive measures such as condoms and the rhythm method, many women get pregnant and have to undergo abortion: a major money earner for Japan’s private medical practitioners (nearly all men). Crowded Japan has extreme population pressures and most families try to limit the number of children to one or two. The average number of children per family has fallen from a post-war high of 4.3 to 1.4 and abortion is used as a major method of birth control. So many women undergo abortions and are left with the feelings of guilt and remorse which this occasions, that Buddhist temples have moved in to provide special rites for aborted foetuses, so-called “mizuko” or “water babies.” Unfortunately “many Buddhist temples have created a highly lucrative industry from Japan’s high abortion levels” (Helen Hardacre, Marketing the Menacing Foetus in Japan, p.88). And, as I have argued elsewhere, this is symptomatic of a tendency within Japanese Buddhism to compromise with social mores rather than challenge and radically transform them. I am increasingly of the opinion, shared by Japanese feminists, that institutionally Buddhism has followed the major trend in Japanese history of disadvantaging women. The whole issue of women and abortion in Japan and the ways in which the male-dominated medical and Buddhist institutions are complicit in condoning the practice are, to me, a further example of how the interests of men (in this case doctors and the male Buddhist clergy) are prioritized over the interests of women, even in cases where women’s health is at stake.
Finally, I would like to end by expressing concern over the way in which some of my arguments criticising views held by Subhuti, and by implication Sangharakshita, have been dealt with. A woman Order Member told me recently that academics “just read books and administer questionnaires” (Well, I for one do reflect on the information I obtain...) and that Subhuti simply “sees things more clearly.” It is to be regretted, then, that Subhuti’s clear vision has yet to be translated into clear communication. Or perhaps it has, but my own irrational biases prevent me from acknowledging that with regard to men and women, Subhuti has access to a direct apperception which renders my academic bickering futile and redundant. I cannot help thinking though, that it is not the strength of Subhuti’s arguments which have proven so convincing for so many within the FWBO, but the strength of Subhuti’s charisma. Faced with claims that Subhuti is speaking from another dimension, I must necessarily remain silent. Or perhaps, I do have one thing left to say, except it has already been better said by Stevie Smith, who wrote the following:
Our Bog is Dood
Our Bog is dood, our Bog is dood,
They lisped in accents mild,
But when I asked them to explain
They grew a little wild.
How do you know your Bog is dood
My darling little child?
We know because we wish it so
That is enough, they cried,
And straight within each infant eye
Stood up the flame of pride,
And if you do not think it so
You shall be crucified.
Then tell me, darling little ones,
What’s dood, suppose Bog is?
Just what we think, the answer came,
Just what we think it is.
They bowed their heads. Our Bog is ours
And we are wholly his...
Oh sweet it was to leave them then,
And sweeter not to see,
And sweetest of all to walk alone
Beside the encroaching sea,
That soon should drown them all,
That never yet drowned me.
Note: Subhuti publicly apologized for the publication of Women, Men and Angels in 2017, admitting it “was a serious mistake". Sangharakshita, however, remained silent on whether he still held the views that Subhuti had attributed to him in that publication.