The Buddha Would Have Believed You

In too many Buddhist communities, women have not been believed when revealing harm caused by men. Bhikkhu Sujato looks to the Vinaya and finds another approach.

By Bhante Sujato

Matthew Wakem / Alamy Stock Photo.

People come to community because they are suffering. They are looking for comfort and healing; they join in community to lift each other up, to give each other strength, to believe in each other when they can no longer believe in themselves. A spiritual community is nothing if it cannot take care of its most vulnerable.

Unfortunately, communities sometimes fail.

There are too many cases in which spiritual leaders—whether monastics, teachers, or supposedly enlightened gurus—have abused their position, taking advantage of the very people they are meant to protect. Sexual violations within a community are especially damaging, as for some, it is the one place that is seen as pure and safe in a corrupt and dangerous world. If even here is fraught with abuse, what hope to find sanctuary anywhere else?

One of the tragedies of sexual assault is how hard it is for survivors to find justice. They suffer terrible trauma, only to undergo a second trauma at the hands of the justice system. They know there is only a small chance of bringing their abusers to justice, and yet if they say nothing, they live with the knowledge that their abusers are still out there and, in all likelihood, harming others.

It is critical, then, that every Buddhist community, whether the traditional monastic sangha or contemporary lay-centered groups, have an explicit and responsible procedure for dealing with sexual abuse within their walls. Assume that it is not a matter of if but when. And in monastic communities, it is essential to support the order of fully ordained women (bhikkhuni). Without them, the monks have no female peers, no sisters and equals to stand up for women and call monks out on their blind spots.

The principles laid down by the Buddha for addressing sexual misconduct were strikingly progressive, though they sometimes seem to have been honored more in the breach than the observance. It is worth taking some time to understand these procedures, which are relevant both as rules for monastics and as examples for lay communities.

Sexual assault or harassment is frequently discussed in the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic codes. There are several Vinayas in existence, each of which can trace its origins back to the time of the Buddha. They share a core of rules and procedures, but the explanations and stories differ somewhat, as they were settled and organized in the few centuries following the Buddha’s life. Each represents a historical school of Buddhism in India, only three of which survive and are practiced today: the Theravada Vinaya in Pali, the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya in Chinese translation, and the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya in Tibetan translation. While variations reflect the fact that these texts were the products of communities in different schools or traditions, the basic rules are common among all the traditions and must stem from the earliest community.

The Buddha took an active part in guiding the monastic communities—but perhaps not how you think. If you are expecting a system of hierarchical control and unquestioning obedience to the teacher, then the Buddha has some surprises in store for you. The Vinaya texts organize the sangha as an anarchist collective: consensus decision making, property held in common, full community participation, and no power of command or hierarchical authority.

Even in a student–teacher relationship, the student is explicitly instructed to disobey the teacher if they ask them to do something that is against the Dhamma. Crucially, there is no assumption of male superiority, nor any allowance for monks to give any commands to nuns at all, in any context. Nuns ran their own lives, and apart from a few points of procedure, were entirely independent of the monks.

When an accusation is made against a male monastic, there is a strong presumption of innocence—in most cases, a monastic can only be found guilty of an offense if they confess. And it is that last point that is especially relevant here. It is the old problem of sexual assault: who do we believe?

The order of nuns was established after that of monks, and in some ways is positioned as an adjunct to the male sangha; for example, the nuns inherit many of the monks’ rules. While modern Buddhist apologists for patriarchy use this to undermine women’s ordination, it is under-appreciated how much the rules of the Vinaya protect women.

Sometimes it is the simple things—monks are prohibited, for example, from getting nuns to do their laundry, and are restricted in accepting their alms-food. Today, however, in Buddhist communities where full ordination for women is opposed, it is common to find nuns spending much of their day in the laundry or cooking food. When monastic women are stripped of the protections offered by the Vinaya, the patriarchy reasserts itself, prioritizing the needs of men. It takes women out of the meditation hall or Dhamma seat and puts them literally back in the kitchen.

The #MeToo movement has highlighted both the horrifying prevalence of sexual assault and the critical importance of believing women. This is especially important when dealing with an organized patriarchal institution. Under patriarchy, men monopolize real estate and physical assets while arrogating moral superiority and infallibility. When accused, the institution falls behind the man, arguing that its own existence is more important than the lives of women. We have seen this happen countless times: in Hollywood and the music business, in sports and colleges, in families and churches, in the highest courts and parliaments, even in the White House. Buddhist centers are no different. So long as power is concentrated in the hands of men, the same dynamics will recur. It’s only a matter of time.

This situation is dealt with in the Vinaya through two special rules called Aniyata, which means “uncertain, undecided.” These rules only apply in the case of accusations against monks by women and require that the male sangha take such accusations seriously. The “uncertainty” here refers to the proper way of dealing with an accusation. Unlike other rules, which dictate that a certain transgression demands a certain response, here the sangha must first determine the nature of the transgression.

The two Aniyata rules are similar; the second merely has a narrower scope, and I’ll pass over it here. Here’s the first:

Suppose a monk were to sit alone with a woman in a private and concealed place convenient for having sex. And suppose a trustworthy laywoman, seeing him, were to accuse him of one of three offenses, either [sexual intercourse] entailing expulsion, [sexual contact or lewd speech] entailing suspension, or [dubious intentions] entailing confession. The mendicant who admits sitting in this way must be dealt with according to whichever one of these three offences applies, or according to what the trustworthy laywoman has said. This rule is undetermined [aniyata].

Like all Vinaya rules, this was prompted by a specific circumstance and deals with a narrow range of cases. It is not meant to be a complete policy. Nevertheless, it does raise a range of relevant issues.

The responsibility is unquestionably on the monk. There is no hint that the woman who is sexually involved is in any way culpable, nor is the accuser. This, of course, stands in rather stark contrast with contemporary cases, in which the character and morality of the women involved immediately comes under scrutiny and attack. There is no “boys will be boys”; he is an adult and must take responsibility for his actions.

Also, there is no question of protecting the institution by a cover-up or denial. The Buddha understood that an institution is served by truth and accountability.

As this is a case dealing with a vowed celibate, any sexual behavior is out of bounds. In broader context, the problem is nonconsensual or otherwise inappropriate misconduct. While consent does not come up in this rule, in the Vinaya it is a central component of sexual morality, the dividing line that marks an action as assault. In a spiritual community, moreover, the relation between a monastic or teacher and student is not equal, and the very possibility of consent becomes blurred. Much like a relationship between an employer and employee, or therapist and client, things get messy fast. Even if the teacher is not a celibate monastic, such unequal relationships are wide open to manipulation and abuse and should be completely avoided.

Another striking phrase here is the idea of a “trustworthy” laywoman. The Pali is saddheyyavacasa, literally “whose words are believable.” The rule thus places believing women at its core. And this gets to the heart of the he-said-she-said problem.

What exactly does “trustworthy” mean here? It is not a technical term, so it should be read as an ordinary-language phrase. In other words, it means just what it seems to mean: someone whose testimony is reliable.

But how are we to know who is trustworthy? In the background story, the monk Udayin visited a family he knew well and found that the daughter had been recently married. He went to see her in her bedroom and sat chatting with her in private. The laywoman Visakha also happened to visit the family, and she called out Udayin on his inappropriate behavior. She was a prominent member of the community, well-known to the Buddha and the sangha, so clearly she was regarded as trustworthy.

But not every woman is so well-known in the community. What then? Where lies the burden of belief when a woman accuses a man of sexual transgression?

For the man’s part, that’s easy: when accused, men will almost always deny it, implying the woman is lying. Thus a man’s denial is of little weight.

The Vinaya’s Aniyata rules apply in the case of accusations against monks by women and require that the male sangha take such accusations seriously.

On the other hand, it is difficult to estimate the reliability of accusations of sexual misconduct by women, and I don’t know of any that cover the same situation as envisaged in the Aniyatas. However, there have been several studies of reliability in the case of rape. These typically analyze information provided by the police, and most conclude that the rate of false accusations is around 4 percent, give or take. That’s extremely low. And obviously, if two or more women make an accusation against a man, the probability of his innocence becomes vanishingly small.

Women’s testimony is reliable when reporting rape. So it is reasonable to assume that it will be no less reliable when it comes to other forms of sexual accusation. This all suggests that rather than restricting trustworthiness to a tiny circle of women who meet certain Dhamma criteria, we should extend it to women in general.

Response to accusations of sexual violation should focus on the woman’s protection and well-being, while holding the
man accountable. But in the Buddhist world, as in the world at large, we still find that in cases of sexual assault, people believe the men, who often lie, over the women, who almost always tell the truth.

I recall an example in which this is exactly what happened, and the monks, though following the supposedly strict Vinaya practice of the Thai forest tradition, did not follow the rule. In this case, a laywoman was staying in a center. She was a respected meditation teacher in her own right, the very definition of a trustworthy laywoman. Some recently arrived monks were at that time in charge of the place. She witnessed inappropriate sexual behavior by one of the junior monks, who was flirting with a younger woman. In keeping with her responsibilities, she told the senior monk. The monks discussed it, the junior monk denied it, and the senior monk dismissed the accusations. But it was all true. It became clear that the junior monk was spiraling, and he soon disrobed. The senior monk disrobed some time later. There was no justice or accountability, but the laywoman learned an important lesson about the patriarchy. No longer trusted or trusting, she left the center, a place she had contributed to far more than those monks.

Notice how crucial the control over real estate is to the patriarchy. This is the ultimate source of power—to control who stays and who goes. And they get to ascend the high seat from which they can prescribe what is right and what is wrong.

Does this mean that we risk the false conviction of innocent men? Not all patriarchs are abusers, even if they support an institution that enables abuse. And as we have noted, the Vinaya in general holds a very high standard of presumption of innocence. Typically, a monk or nun cannot be held guilty until they have actually confessed.

The Aniyata rules appear to present an exception to this. This creates a tension between the presumption of innocence and the emphasis on believing the woman’s testimony. As we have seen, contemporary studies show that a woman’s testimony is reliable, thus supporting the exceptional case of the Aniyata rules. It should be noted that the Pali Vibhanga, the old commentary on the rules, undoes this, requiring that the monk confess. However, if we compare Vinaya texts of different schools, we find that most of them—namely, the Mahasanghika, Mulasarvastivada, Sarvastivada, and Dharmaguptaka—allow legal action to be taken solely on the basis of the woman’s accusation, although each works out the exact details somewhat differently. In this case, the Pali Vibhanga is clearly the exception, and does not represent the consensus of the ancient Indian sangha.

In addition, in the Pali Vibhanga, the slightest flaw in the woman’s testimony is sufficient to dismiss the whole case. For example, if she says, “I saw you sitting down having sex with a woman,” and he says, “I wasn’t sitting but lying down,” then he gets away with it.

The rule laid down by the Buddha emphasizes believing women and holding men accountable. The Vibhangas, written some centuries later—with the notable exception of the Dharmaguptaka—shift the focus to exonerating men and disbelieving women.

The medieval Pali commentary Samantapasadika, by Acariya Buddhaghosa, justifies this by pointing out that sometimes what is seen is not what really happened. He is not suggesting that the woman is lying, merely that she may be mistaken.

However, the Thai commentary Vinayamukha, by Sangharaja Vajirananavarorasa, points out the fallacy in this idea. If in the end only the bhikkhu’s word is accepted, then the “trustworthiness” of the laywoman becomes meaningless. To be trustworthy is more than just not lying—it is to be a reliable source of information. Someone who is trustworthy can, by definition, be trusted to know what it is that they saw and describe it properly. This argument is substantially the same as the position of the Dharmaguptaka Vibhanga. Vajirananavarorasa concludes that “trustworthy” indicates that the authorities should believe in her testimony.

He also accepts the implication of this, namely that the testimony of the laywoman can be sufficient even if the bhikkhu denies the charge. He further agrees that by restricting “trustworthy” to only “noble disciples,” the Vibhanga is “defining it on an excessively high level.” He assigns this definition to the “arranger” of the Vibhanga rather than to the Buddha.

When an accused abuser is exonerated, he doesn’t take it as a chance to reflect on his conscience and reform his acts. He is being told by the patriarchy that he is invulnerable.

(When I make textual arguments, I am frequently accused of being biased due to my Western feminism. So it’s interesting to see these arguments made by an Asian monk of a royal family, one who literally bears the title “Supreme Patriarch.” I, as a white Australian monk of anarchist leanings, reached similar conclusions quite independently.)

These reasonable considerations by the Thai Sangharaja were walked back by the American commentator Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who discusses this point in his Buddhist Monastic Code, an unofficial manual for Vinaya practice among contemporary Western monks. He acknowledges that “the Buddha at one point was willing to let the bhikkhus give more weight to the word of a female lay follower than to that of the accused bhikkhu.”

Yet the burden of his analysis is given over to explaining at length how a monk can only be held accountable if he confesses. While admitting that the texts on which he relies are later, he argues that they “supersede” the earlier rule, which was laid down by the Buddha. Thus the exoneration of the patriarchs takes precedence not only over the woman but over the Buddha himself, and even over the Thai Sangharaja, the former head of the lineage to which Thanissaro owes allegiance.

Thanissaro makes the extraordinary argument, used nowhere else in his manual, that even if guilty monks get away with it, in the long run their karma will catch up with them—small comfort to the women. But then, the welfare of women is never a factor in these debates, and a woman’s perspective is never invited.

When an accused abuser is exonerated, he doesn’t take it as a chance to reflect on his conscience and reform his acts. He is being told by the patriarchy that he is invulnerable. His sense of narcissism and entitlement only swell, and his actions grow bolder.

We need to get past the idea that it is possible for a “good man” to hold a seat of unassailable spiritual authority; that our patriarch is wise and compassionate and only acts for our good. A good man rejects absolute power and authority because he knows that whatever his intentions may be, any institution that requires obedience and submission inevitably leads to abuse.

Patriarchy conditions men to believe they can do whatever they want and get away with it. And it conditions women to believe that they can only survive by colluding with the patriarchy against other women. Men become besotted with power, worshipped and exulted each time they commit a worse depravity, daring themselves to go further and indulge their darkest desires. And all too often, it turns out, what men desire is to hurt women.

Men don’t start out that way. They begin life as innocent boys, loving and laughing and full of joy. They do not become abusers by chance, but by choice—choices that are shaped and encouraged by patriarchal culture. When they should be stopped, they are excused. The method of patriarchy is to strip women of voice and agency; the purpose is to allow men to act with impunity; the seat of power is real estate; and the endgame is rape.

There’s only one way to turn this back: believe women and hold men accountable. The Aniyata rules provide not only an early example of how this can be applied in a monastic context, but also a model for how it can be applied in any community. It is far from a complete and final solution, but it gives us a place to start. When we encounter Buddhist men who deny women’s voices or strip their agency, we know that no matter how revered they may be as teachers or practitioners, they do not speak as the Buddha did; they do not represent the Buddha’s heritage.

When men behave badly in a spiritual community, center, or monastery, women often feel beleaguered and alone, that they have no power and everything is stacked against them. They feel that no one believes them—that the sangha, their last refuge from a world of danger, has become the danger.

But you should know: the Buddha would have believed you. And for what it’s worth, I believe you too.

Thanks to Ayya Suvira for help with the Chinese Vinayas and commentaries, and to Jens W. Borgland for his excellent article on this subject “Undetermined Matters: On the Use of Lay Witnesses in Buddhist Monastic Procedural Law,” in Buddhism, Law & Society (Vol. 2, 2018)

Bhante Sujato

Bhante Sujato

Bhante Sujato is an Australian Theravada Buddhist monk and cofounder of the website SuttaCentral, which provides free translations of early Buddhist teachings alongside the texts in their original languages. He lives in Sydney at Lokanta Vihara, the Monastery at the End of the World, which he established in 2019 with his student