Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Buddha and the BAD GIRL

Crystal Quintero, Dhr. Seven, Amber Larson, Wisdom Quarterly; Ven. Thanissaro (ATI)
How to be a "bad girl" in India today cartoon (
The most famous "bad girl" in the ancient Buddhist texts is the wonderful Ambapali, a "courtesan." How could a courtesan be wonderful? In those days, not unlike these, a who stepped out of line was called a wh*re to bring her back in line.

In India today men might rape a woman on a bus and use the excuse, like the man sentenced to death is doing, that he was merely "teaching her a lesson." It's not his fault; he just did the doing. It's her fault, you see, for "provoking" him. She's dead from her injuries after a horrifically violent gang rape, which she resisted, he said, but he's the victim of her provocation. The shocking thing here is not the blaming of the actual victim, it is how many people agree, women as well as men, in India and some parts of fundamentalist Christian America. She was the "aggressor" pushing him, "Rape me, rape me"? Maybe she couldn't find a football player to do it. Hey, come to Vanderbilt next time.

So in the past, as in the Bible, when a female historical character is called a "courtesan" or "wh*re," be careful it's not just our sexist society putting us in our place. The Buddha treated women quite nicely, even women of ill repute like Ambapali. Later, following the Buddha's example (see scholar of Christianity and Buddhism Holger Kersten, Russian travel writer Nicolas Notovitch, cult leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet, Swami Abedananda who confirmed Notovitch's findings, et. al.) Jesus also treated women well.
Hey, animal-killer, Mara's coming.
The dominant religions of their day (the temple priests' Brahamanism and Judaism) did not, and our religions today do not. Maybe the founder of the only other world religion, Mohammed, did too. Certainly women are better treated in Islamic texts than they are in the media and its interpretation of Muslim practices in some parts of the world.
Buddhist Bad Girls
Ambapali's beauty (
But, still, with the exception of Ambapali's redemption, the "bad girl" often gets cast in a familiar and unflattering light in Buddhism right from the beginning -- the temptress taking men off their spiritual goal of enlightenment and nirvana. Here is one good example from the Psalms of the Brethren (Theragatha 7.1), "The Monk Sundara Samudda and the Courtesan," based on an original translation by Ven. Thanissaro.
The Temptress
Ornamented, finely clothed, garlanded, adorned, her feet daubed red with lac, she wore slippers: a courtesan.
Stepping out of her slippers -- her hands raised before me, palm-to-palm over her heart -- she softly, tenderly, in measured words spoke to me first:

"You are young, recluse. Heed my message: Partake of human sensuality! I will give you luxury. Truly, I vow to you, I will tend to you as to a fire.
"When we are aged, both leaning on canes, then we will both become ascetics, winning the benefits of both worlds." [Liberation, spiritual salvation, all of that can wait.]
And seeing her before me -- a courtesan, ornamented, finely clothed, hands palm-to-palm over her heart -- like a snare of death laid out, apt attention [mindful realization] arose in me, the drawbacks appeared, disenchantment stood at an even keel: With that, my heart/mind was released.

See the Dharma's true rightness! The Three Knowledges have been attained; the Buddha's bidding, done.

What about the Courtesan?
You don't own me.
Ambapali was rich by being independent and making her own money at a time when such a thing was nearly impossible. Men so dominated the world and the society she lived in that anything she did on her own behalf would have gotten her the label "courtesan." So it is not certain she was in any way anything we would criticize today. She would have gotten this label for simply being a successful business person without being under the thumb and property of a man or a "b-tch," a catchall term for any female who steps out of a line.
But Ambapali got to talk to the Buddha directly so that her tarnished reputation and the disrepute heaped on her by the influential men who also spoke to the Buddha could not bring her down.
We're No Angels (illustration by Penelope Dullaghan/Kathryn Harrison/
You mean I can make history? Wow.
She outdid them in generosity and weathered their criticisms and attacks, suggesting she was either a very good and successful courtesan or something else as well. Sadly, people today think "Pretty Woman" Hindu Julia Roberts (who co-starred with Buddhist Richard Gere in the famous Disney Corporation film) is example of bad girl gone good, but it's actually an old and tired trope.
A sex worker is fine. A sex worker with a heart of gold or with higher business or educational aspirations is not a compliment but an insult that accuses anyone who works without these societally-approved goals in the fore. Some people are victims but can't say they are victims because they will simply be accused of crying and complaining for their own choices.
(Liz Curtis Higgs/
Others say they are not victims so they can own their own agency and future without pity or prejudice, which doesn't really work. The "bad girl" is a valuable historical figure in the sutras and biblical tales, on India's streets and in every city in these United States today. A great book idea about the "Bad Girls of the Bible" was disappointing. The publishers titled a boring book about women of the Bible that way to stir up interest, but if only someone would write a juicy book with that aim in mind!

The world is far more interested in the flying carpets we call "bad girls" than the throw rugs most of are or act like we are. The most famous explanation of why this is was once uttered by social scientist Laurel Thatcher Ulrich:

"Well-behaved women seldom make history."

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