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“Separate but Equal”, the ideal doctrine for Monastics?

By Bhikkhunī Vimala

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Our spiritual practice cannot not be seen as separate from the world we live in and the world we live in today in the West is vastly different from that of India at the time of the Buddha. The Vinaya, the monastic rules, or more precisely, the guidelines for our practice, is however flexible enough to accommodate for changes and we see in countless examples that the Buddha relaxed rules in certain circumstances or laid down new rules in reaction to new developments.

However, since the Vinaya has become canonized at some point after the Buddha’s lifetime, it has been frozen and no changes have been made to it since. Then how are we to practice in this world that is so different? How do we fit into a 2500 year old system that has seen many socio-cultural changes over time? How many changes have actually been made to the texts after the Buddha’s passing away and why? How do we relate to other people and to our teachings in a meaningful way to support each other in our practice? And how do we deal with aspects of this system that clash with social values? These are question that many monastics struggle with and although I cannot be complete here, I just want to lift out one aspect that I think is of vital importance for the growth of Buddhism in the West.

“Separate but Equal”, it sounds like the most ideal situation for monastics nowadays and no doubt what many monastics strive for. Monks and nuns living in separate monasteries, each having their place but completely equal.

But is it realistic or is this concept too idealistic? Maybe we should have a look at history, what this concept of “separate but equal” really is and what lessons can we draw from how it has affected the lives of people in the past.

United States

In the United States, “separate but equal” was a legal doctrine in US constitutional law according to which racial segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1868, which guaranteed “equal protection” under the law to all citizens. Under the doctrine, as long as the facilities provided to each race were equal, state and local governments could require that services, facilities, public accommodations, housing, medical care, education, employment, and transportation be segregated by race.

The “separate-but-equal” doctrine was first espoused in Plessy v. Ferguson, the famous 1896 case upholding a Louisiana statute forcing white and non-white passengers to ride in separate railway cars.

The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education expressly overruled Plessy’s holding in the education context. This celebrated case held that separate schools for children of different races were functionally unequal because such separation created a “feeling of inferiority.” (1)

South Africa

The doctrine of “separate but equal” has also been developed in South Africa in the 1950s. Since he came to power in 1954, Prime Minister Strijdom has attempted to impose a policy of “separate but equal”, also termed “apartheid” (which literally means “segregation”). An article by Robert Neumann from 1957 is an attack on Strijdom’s policies to show that there is a lot of “separate” and not much “equal” in this doctrine. (2)

Both cases have shown that in the context of race, the doctrine of “separate but equal” in itself actually creates inequality, and most notably, has shown to create feelings of inferiority in the group that is seen as less desirable.

But what is actually the problem with this concept? The problem is that such a concept is always imposed on one group by another, who feel themselves to be superior but who also have a great need to protect themselves from influences that they fear. This goes back to a very deep-rooted fear of the “evil other”, a fear and distrust of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange and a threat to our survival or that of our clan.

Various famous experiments, like “A Class Divided” by Jane Elliott and the “Stanford Prison Experiment” have shown that there is too much risk of abuse; there is too much danger that “badges” of inferiority will develop, regardless of which group bears the brunt of the blow.

As soon as two groups are divided, one will be seen as superior to the other. Comparing ourselves to others is a basic function of our mind and it creates conceit. As soon as we think that we are superior or inferior in relation to another or even the same, we are conceited. How the mind actually evaluates which is superior and which is inferior has it’s roots in our conditioning, which has created these false perceptions.

As we have seen from these two countries, “separate but equal” is not at all equal and even after it’s official abolishment, the conditioning is so deep that the groups and the associations with them keep persisting.

The question is, then, whether this separate-but-equal doctrine, abolished in the context of race, is permissible in the context of gender.

While in the United States racial segregation is now explicitly forbidden, this is not so in the case of gender. Gender-separated schools can still exist and this has sparked much debate in recent years. Much of the current debate surrounding single-gender education has rested upon the differences between the genders themselves. This seems to place this question within the larger framework … the question of how men and women are equal, and how they could be so unequal as to justify a difference in political intrusions and civil rights. (1)

United Kingdom

An interesting case happened a few months ago in the United Kingdom that might set a precedent for cases to come. (3)

In HM Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills v Al-Hijrah School, the UK Court of Appeal has concluded that sex segregation in education is discriminatory. Al-Hijrah school is a voluntary aided co-educational Islamic faith school in Birmingham which teaches children aged 4 to 16. From the age of 9, boys and girls are separated on arrival and are taught and go about their school lives entirely separately; eating, undertaking sporting and other school activities and even walking along the corridors separately, with no opportunities to mix or socialise with each other. Sex segregation in mixed schools is highly unusual but not unprecedented: approximately 25 such schools exist in the UK (all faith schools, but Jewish and Christian as well as Islamic). Last year, Ofsted concluded that the gender segregation at Al-Hijrah School was discriminatory even though both sexes had almost identical access to the full curriculum. The High Court supported the school’s right (in accordance with parental wishes) to segregate its pupils. However, … the Court of Appeal decided that the school was in breach of the Equality Act 2010 by reason of direct sex discrimination.

The Court’s conclusion was based on a deceptively simple argument: a girl pupil who wishes to mix or socialise with a boy pupil is precluded from doing so because of her sex, a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010; if she did not have that characteristic, and was a boy, she would be able to mix or socialise with all the other boys. Equally, if a boy pupil wishes to mix or socialise with a girl pupil, he is also precluded from doing so because of his sex. Because both groups (that is, boys and girls) suffer the same detriment in their education, the High Court concluded that there is no unequal treatment as between the sexes and, thus, no sex discrimination. However, all three judges in the Court of Appeal concluded that this restriction on the freedom of girl and boy pupils to mix or socialise with pupils of the opposite sex is detrimental to their education and such a detriment is – in the case of each individual boy and girl – “because of sex”, constituting unlawful direct sex discrimination in the provision of education (contrary to sections 13 and 85 (2)(a), (b), (d) and (f) of the Equality Act). The Court, therefore, builds on the Supreme Court’s judgment in Coll v Secretary of State for Justice (in May 2017), in which it was acknowledged that separate but equal treatment can nevertheless be discriminatory.

Now there are various very interesting parallels to be drawn from this:

  1. Firstly, it is surprising that the article mentions that all schools where this type of segregation happens are faith schools, either Jewish, Christian or Islamic and therefore implies that the segregation has it’s roots in religious beliefs. In our Monastic order, the segregation obviously also has its roots in the religious doctrine and I will come back to this point later.
  2. Secondly, it is explicitly stated that if a girl wishes to mix or socialise with a boy or vica versa and is precluded from doing so because of her/his sex, this is discrimination, regardless of the equal treatment of either group. This is exactly the same in the Buddhist monastic order. Basically this article is saying that at least in the United Kingdom, certain Buddhist monastic institutions are in breach of the law.

But there is a catch because single-sex segregated schools still exist in the UK and are deemed legal. This verdict was only on the basis that both sexes are present within the same institution.

Whereas in the case of race we could rightfully argue that “separate but equal” was only in name but in practice there were no equal facilities and opportunities, this argument no longer seems to hold in this case.

Only the dissenting judge, however, concluded that gender segregation in mixed schools is disproportionately discriminatory against girls in that it creates more harmful practical and symbolic consequences for girls in a society in which women have been and remain the group with minority power. Lady Justice Gloster agreed with Ofsted that an educational system which preserves segregation between the sexes within co-educational schools, so that both groups – from an impressionable age – find it more natural to form exclusive and different social and professional networks with those of their own sex, has the result that women lose out in later life more than men, because women are still disproportionately excluded from networks of power and influence. In other words, sex segregation endorses gender stereotypes about the inferiority of women or their perceived place in a society where predominantly men exercise power.

However, does the latter conclusion also not hold true when there is segregation between the sexes in separate establishments?

In religious institutions, there seems to be a fear of improper sexual relations and these fears are at the base of this type of segregration. But in how far does such a thing still hold in a world where gender-identitity is increasingly redefined? It is a myth that people are only attracted to the opposite sex and people like myself and other LGBTQIN do not readily fit in either monk’s nor nun’s monasteries.

But more importantly, where does such fear come from? In the Early Buddhist Texts, we see that body contemplation is practiced by focussing on the repulsiveness of the own body and by seeing the decaying corpses and reflecting that “I too will one day be like that”. This practice however has later evolved for monks to reflect on the repulsiveness of a woman’s body in order to overcome sensual desire. Thereby projecting their own defilements onto the women, seeing them as repulsive and the cause of that same sensual desire. It is not surprising then that there is a fear of women as the “evil other”, who lures away monks from the holy life and this seems to be a notion that is still very much alive today in traditional Buddhist countries. Women are seen as a threat to the monastic life and should therefore be kept separate.

From the Early Buddhist Texts, we can see that the Buddha radically departed from the norm and did away with all perceived differences in race and caste that were prevalent in society at that time. As soon as a monastic entered the Sangha, there was no more difference. The situation nowadays is however rather different in many traditional Buddhist countries where there is a hierarchy based on caste. (4) It is obvious that these social constructs have started seeping back into the Sangha after the time of the Buddha. It is then not so far-fetched to assume that this could also have happened in the case of gender.

Of course in our context of the monastic Sangha we run into a problem here. It is clear that by simply defining that there is a Bhikkhu and Bhikkhunī Pātimokkha in the Vinaya, segregation is already a fact. But what we do not know is how these texts came to us exactly and how they were formed. We know that the Bhikkhunī Pātimokkha has been lost and was only later re-constructed from a commentary. But what we do not know is how this has changed in the time in between the Parinibbāna of the Buddha and the date that this commentary was written or even how the compiliers of this commentary obtained the information.

Some great research has been done in the last decade, most notably by Ven. Anālayo a.o. but more work is needed to establish in how far changes were made after the Buddha’s passing.

Bhante Sujato shows in Bhikkhunī Vinaya Studies (5) that the Vinaya, unlike the bulk of the Suttas, has seen many more changes after the Buddha’s time and most of the Vinaya can probably be seen as having emerged later as a means for teaching and training. Only the Bhikkhu Pātimokkha as we have it today can be seen as authentic and the same in all schools. Only the Pātimokkha is named in the Suttas as the way in which monastics should train themselves.

The “Bhikkhunī Pātimokkha” itself is not mentioned at all in the Suttas. There is only a mention of “both Pātimokkhas” in several Aṅguttara Nikāya texts, but all of these have no parallels with any of the other schools. I do not want to go as far as to claim that therefore they are a later addition, but it is an indication.

The early roots of the Vibhanga can probably already be traced back to the time of the Buddha itself because no doubt interpretations of Pātimokkha rules would have been discussed within the Sangha, and continued after this time. Notably is also the role of the Second Council in the redactional process. (5)

In the textual evolution of the Vinayas, the Second Council is of preeminent importance. It is the only major event in Buddhist history that revolves exclusively around a Vinaya dispute. The victory of the Pāveyyakas, the ‘rigorist’ Vinaya group at the Second Council, is consistent with a scenario that attributes the systematic formation of the Vinaya texts to this period. Although the canonical accounts do not divulge what textual work may have occurred on that occasion, it seems likely that the form of the Vinayas we have today was a product of the Second Council; probably essential structures and themes were agreed there, while details were worked out in different monastic communities over subsequent generations, resulting in the different Vinayas we possess today.

If we are to take this scenario seriously, it suggests that the bulk of the Vinaya texts as we have them today were added well after the Buddha’s death. This again contrasts with the Suttas, which appear to stem more directly from the Buddha, with more moderate editorial involvement.

A lot more research needs to be done in the field of the authenticity of the Vinaya texts and especially in regards to the role of women and nuns in this. We will never be able to go back in time to ask the Buddha about his intentions, but it seems fairly clear from the Early Buddhist Suttas that there was a fair amount of equality between monks and nuns and that there was a fair amount of contact between them, but that this has evolved over time, even during the time of the Buddha, to accommodate for the growth of the Sangha in a society where equal treatment was far from the norm.

If we go back to the base of the Buddha’s own teachings: all of these perceived differences between people are just that: they are perceptions, they are mere mirages that people have come to believe. It is then our task to look inside ourselves and see where these perceptions come from and to see their true nature. But it is also our task to help others to see how these perceptions influence their behavior and how this behavior can be harmful to other individuals or groups.

I believe that the Buddha saw people as people. “Separate but equal” to me is an illusion and can never truly happen. “Seperation” in itself implies unequalness. Only when we are inclusive of all people, regardless of race, caste, sex or gender can we make real progress. Only when we focus on the things we have in common instead of defining ourselves and others by our differences can we really start to see each other as fellow human beings.


  1. Lily A. Saffer, 2013.
    Sex Segregation in Public Schools: Separate But Equal?
    William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law.
  2. Robert H. Neumann, 1957.
    Apartheid: South Africa
    The Harvard Crimson
    Apartheid: South Africa | News | The Harvard Crimson
  3. Claire McCann, 2017.
    Separate but Equal? Gender Segregation in UK Schools
    Oxford Human Rights Hub
  4. Lasni Buddhibhashika Jayasooriya, 2018.
    Caste in Popular Buddhism in Sri Lanka
  5. Bhikkhu Sujato, 2007
    Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies

1 Comment

  1. Helen Hancke

    Enjoyed reading this well written document, interesting thoughts and abviously still much work to be done to fully understand the Vinaya rules for Bhikkunis and Nuns.

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