Feminism started with the Buddha and Confucius 25 centuries ago

The Telegraph: by Bettany Hughes —

Socrates, Confucius and the Buddha were not exactly model family men.

The Buddha left his wife and newborn son to hit the road in search of his own enlightenment; Socrates allegedly had two wives, one of whom, Xanthippe, famously despised both her philosopher-husband and his younger, rival spouse; Confucius delighted in the group of male students he attracted as he travelled from state to state in 6/5th century BC China, while trying to persuade its rulers to govern virtuously.

On his death-bed the Chinese sage was said to have ignored his wife and daughter (some sources even deny their existence) again preferring the stimulating company of his scholar-retainers.

But read between the lines and both Socrates and the Buddha are counterintuitive for their age in that they seem to include women in their game-changing thinking. Even Confucius’s emphasis on the value of the family and of education and the power of all human minds, had – and still has – the potential to benefit women.

For the last few months I have been tracing the history of these three philosophy giants across China, India and Greece – and have been pleasantly surprised by most of my findings.

Daibutsu, KamakuraThe Buddha included women in his game-changing thinking  Photo: Roy Garner/Rex Features

These three figures’ emancipated attitude towards women is nigh-on miraculous if you consider the mood of the time they were living in. In Ancient Greece women were described as dogs, demons, degenerates. One popular author Semonides suggests the best way to deal with your wife is to silence her by knocking her teeth out with a stone. In China and India girls were encouraged to stay indoors from the age of around 10.

Yet the central belief of these three philosophers that humans have agency, that the power of the mind and nourishment of the soul is the route to human happiness and to ‘the good’, led to the logical conclusion that fifty percent of the human population could not simply be eradicated from the equation.

Socrates, via Plato in the Republic, says that women could have real muscle in society. If not, “the state will only ever be a half of itself”. In Xenophon’s under-discussed Symposium we hear: “A woman’s nature is not at all inferior to a man’s…”

Rather than remaining shut up during daylight hours, the radical philosopher seems to suggest the female of the species should play a concrete role. Socrates was fascinated by Sparta – where women and girls were many times feistier than in Athens – Spartan women could own land, eat the same rations as boys, exercise naked and ride in chariots. He controversially posits: “If we are to use women for the same things as the men, we must also teach them the same things.”

Around the same time, but 6,000 miles to the East, the Buddha shook society by suggesting that women, like men, have the potential for enlightenment. Despite initial resistance, this one-time prince eventually insisted there should be Buddhist nuns as well as monks; “I will not take final Nirvana until I have nuns and female disciples who are accomplished…until I have laywomen followers…who will….teach the Dhamma.”

Admittedly this reformed playboy worried that women might be a needy, sexual distraction; there are more rules for nuns than monks and they are subordinate to their male equivalents. But in the Vimalakriti Sutra – widely used in Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, we hear: “In all things, there is neither male nor female.” Given the stringent restrictions of both contemporary religion and the caste system this gender-blindness and proto- egalitarianism is mind-blowing.

There is of course a danger of rose-tinted glasses; Socrates also refers to women as horses and slaves. Confucius compares them to servants, and condones girls being taught docility plus indoor womanly work – the preparation of hemp, silk and food. His ideas attempted to revive a Golden Age of Chinese history – and in that past women were meant to be subservient: “Of all people, girls and servants are the most difficult…If you are familiar with them, they lose their humility. If you maintain a reserve towards them, they are discontented.”

The Buddha’s teachings can imply that family ties are a drag. And some seem to suggest a sexual anxiety worthy of St Augustine of Hippo: “The female defects – greed, hate, and delusion and other defilements – are greater than the male’s…You [women] should have such an intention…Because I wish to be freed from the impurities of the woman’s body, I will acquire the beautiful and fresh body of a man.”

Male lust – a barrier to enlightenment – is immortalised here as woman’s fault. Even the stories about Socrates’ shrewish bigamy were probably invented to promote misogyny – one later source describes Xanthippe pouring the contents of a bedpan on to the philosopher’s head after an argument. “I always knew rain would follow thunder,” the sage resignedly opines.

But whatever the local difficulties and the tribulations of historical reception, the bigger message is undoubtedly empowering. The fundamental belief of all three of these ancient philosophers that self-cultivation, nourishing our own minds and souls, using ethics as a robust delivery tool for virtue, means that each and every one of us can achieve good in the world.

We hear from Socrates that ‘love is the one thing I understand’, the Buddha advises ‘love without limit’ for Confucius Ren, compassion or ‘human-heartedness’ (interestingly the ancient Chinese character for Ren is two people embracing) is central to the success of humanity. These were pioneers in human consciousness – trouble-makers who say we aren’t just the victims of fate and the gods; irrespective of caste, social status, circumstance or indeed gender, we all have agency; our minds can shape the world.

Origional Post here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11785181/Feminism-started-with-the-Buddha-and-Confucius-25-centuries-ago.html

Categories: Asia, Buddhism

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