On Manhood


This article is based upon a talk I gave recently at a Men’s Event at Padmaloka. Consequently, although I hope women readers find it interesting, the article, like the original talk, is addressed to men, or rather, to those men who aspire to become bodhisattvas!

Now, you might think that my speaking on the theme of ‘manhood’ at a Men’s Event was quite unnecessary, if not presumptuous. By virtue of being adult males, didn’t the audience understand perfectly well what it meant to be men? Surely, they did not need that explained to them, any more than a cat needs to be told how to be a cat! Well, you might be surprised to learn that manhood was a topic to which we devoted quite a bit of thought and discussion in the formative years of the FWBO, back in the seventies. In more recent times, however, it has been somewhat neglected. It was for this reason that some of us thought that we needed to give it a fresh look and to try once again to see what significance it might have in the Buddhist context.

Presumably, men come along to the FWBO because they are interested in the Dharma, and one might be tempted to think therefore that the issue of ‘manhood’ is quite irrelevant. After all, It is not a matter that the Buddha ever addressed — so far as I am aware. All the same, it cannot be ignored, as I hope to demonstrate. To make any progress in the Buddhist life calls for considerable self-knowledge. We must be aware of our characteristic mental states, both skilful and unskilful, and have a deepening understanding of our conditioning. Each of us is conditioned by a variety of factors, which combine to form the unique human personality that must serve as our working basis for the Buddhist life. To put it more plainly — we start with what we’ve got and move on from there. If one happens to have been born as a man, then one’s starting point is a male human body and all the conditioning intrinsic to it.

By the time one reaches the age of eighteen, or perhaps twenty-one, one might feel entitled to consider oneself no longer a boy, but a man. Unfortunately, reaching a certain age guarantees no such thing. Frequently, what appears from the outside to be a fine specimen of manhood is not the genuine article. Perhaps things were more straightforward at the time of the Buddha, and that may be why he never commented upon the matter, but nowadays to become a man is not easy. Many men are confused about what they are, or should be, and have become quite demoralised. Often, they hardly seem like men at all. Some, although adult males in years, seem unable to take full responsibility for themselves and are therefore, effectively, boys. A capacity for taking responsibility is perhaps the defining characteristic of a real man, as opposed to an immature one, or a boy. Yet many men are only able to take responsibility if they have the emotional support of a woman. If that is taken away, they begin to flounder. This emotional and psychological dependence on women is the hallmark of the weak man, and he must not be confused with the real man.

In the Buddhist life, you start with what you’ve got. But if, as a human male, what you’ve got are the borrowed plumes of manhood, the first thing you need to do is to exchange them for the genuine article. If you are simply a twenty-year-old (or even a sixty-year-old) boy, then it is time to grow up. Before you can hope to make significant spiritual progress, you need first of all to claim your manhood. Both the weak man and the boy need to become real men. The boy needs to learn to take responsibility, and the weak man needs to break his dependence on women — otherwise he cannot act without the approval of women, and therefore cannot take full responsibility for himself.

I don’t suppose that any of us took up the practice of the Dharma in order to become real men. It is extremely unlikely that any such thought would have entered our heads. Nevertheless, the capacity for responsibility, which is the definitive quality of manhood, is also necessary for the development of bodhisattvahood. The bodhisattva is dedicated to the attainment of Enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. This means that he undertakes the supreme responsibility of working for the good of others. If, therefore, you cannot even take responsibility for yourself, or if your capacity for responsibility is dependent on the emotional support of someone else, then to think in terms of becoming a bodhisattva is rather premature.

The first step towards bodhisattvahood, for most men, is to become a real man, which, although not a spiritual attainment, is nonetheless requisite for further progress. Presumably, there is an equivalent initial course of action for a woman, but that is the subject of an entirely different discourse, which I would not presume to attempt. My aim in this article is to shed light on the connection between manhood and bodhisattvahood, and I should make it clear at the outset that I do mean manhood: I am quite specifically considering men as men. What I have to say may also have some relevance for women, but probably not in the same way.

In one of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras (Ashtasahasrika XX, 371-373), the bodhisattva is described as a ‘great compassionate hero’, because, amongst other qualities, he embodies the heroic virtues. One conclusion we should draw from this is that the aspirant bodhisattva must strive to develop them. Consequently, in this discussion, I am going to focus on those virtues and relate them to the idea of manhood. Despite protests to the contrary from some quarters, men and women are very different from one another. Certain qualities tend to be more frequently associated with the one than with the other and these differences cannot be explained simply as expressions of social conditioning — though that undoubtedly is a factor. For many, this is contentious ground, but I am not going attempt to argue my case in the context of this short article.

One of the fundamental qualities of men qua men is our aggressiveness: men tend to be much more aggressive than women. It is not that women lack this trait, but it does not characterise them in the same way. The aggressive nature of men is very dangerous and frequently causes havoc and extreme suffering when it gets out of control, but nonetheless it is also one of the sources of our manhood — especially of the heroic virtues — and of our creativity, as I hope to illustrate. Camille Paglia has said (infamously) that, ‘There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper’ and I do not doubt that she is correct.

This dynamic aspect of men’s character needs to be acknowledged and given a positive outlet if boys (of all ages) are to develop into real men and develop the heroic virtues — and if, ultimately, they are to become bodhisattvas. Nowadays, unfortunately, such acknowledgement is often lacking and no healthy outlet is provided. So what happens instead? If aggression is a strong component of a man’s make-up, he may give it free rein, becoming a belligerent, even brutal, man. Alternatively, it may be channelled into a macho personality, perhaps supported by occasional acts of violent behaviour. The greater likelihood, however, is that the aggression will simply be stifled. Men often feel ill at ease with this potentially ungovernable facet of themselves, especially in the current social climate of the West. Consequently, rather than be perceived as nasty, aggressive males, they become somewhat emasculated. How to deal with our inherent aggressiveness is a problem for the men of today — particularly for those who want to lead a spiritual life.

This basic, raw energy that drives us, which can so readily express itself through hatred, can also be harnessed to the good. All the great heroic virtues illustrate this. Confidence, the ability to confront the difficulties of life and overcome the obstacles to one's objectives — is an aggressive quality. So is determination — the refusal to give up whatever the odds. Courage — the willingness to face up to danger or hostility — is, too. ‘Drive’ — the ability to marshal all one's energies unflaggingly in the service of one’s aim — is equally rooted in aggression. The same is true of adventurousness — the refusal to be confined within the limits of the known — and even of the simple act of taking the initiative. We could add persistence, forthrightness and leadership to the list. Always allowing for exceptions on either side of the sexual divide, all these qualities are found more frequently in men than in women because they are more closely allied to men’s fundamental ‘nature’. They are all to be counted among the attributes of the hero, and also of the bodhisattva.

Some of the qualities I am speaking of are strikingly illustrated in the lives of certain Thai forest monks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In her highly readable book Forest Recollections, Kamala Tiyavanich gives a fascinating sociological analysis of the biographies of ten of these men. Her book is very interesting from several points of view, but one thing that impresses the reader again and again is that the men she describes really were forest monks. They did not simply describe themselves as such because they were ordained into a particular lineage. They did not cling to the comforts of modern urban life, even in a modest fashion. They actually spent much of their time living in the jungle, confronting its dangers and enduring its hardships, whilst maintaining a rigorous meditation practice. For example, these monks often stayed in remote places on their own, where they were exposed to all the dangers that such a life inevitably entails. The book gives several hair-raising stories of their encounters with wild animals, including tigers, snakes and elephants. Equally noteworthy was their capacity for endurance at times of illness and shortage of food. When suffering from ‘jungle fever’ — probably malaria — they had little option but to bear it and regard it as an opportunity for strengthening their resolve to practice the Dharma. More remarkable still is that they deliberately sought out these hazards, with a purely spiritual purpose in mind. Most extraordinary of all, some even went out of their way to frequent places where they knew they would be likely to chance upon tigers, regarding this as a great test of their ability to overcome fear and of their concentration and metta. Not all survived to tell the tale.

Nowadays, many people would regard all this as too extreme, but that merely shows how soft we have become. The heroism of these Thai forest monks is validated by the Buddhist tradition. There are accounts in the Pali canon of bhikkhus — and indeed the Buddha himself — showing similar courage and taking comparable risks. Whether at the time of the Buddha or two thousand, five hundred years later, such episodes are only what a forest-dwelling bhikkhu would expect. They illustrate not the excesses of a handful of fanatics, but the paradigm implicit in the life of many of the Buddha’s personal disciples, who, following His own example and exhortation, chose to live in the jungle. Though the fact may be difficult for us to comprehend, their way of life was conceived within the context of the Middle Way — a Path between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-torture. Reflection on this should bring home to us the radical nature of Buddhist practice.

The Thai forest monks did not content themselves with the perils of the jungle. Like the Tantric yogis of India and Tibet, they also sought out the ordeals of the cremation ground, making it their occasional abode. Here they would meditate, amongst the charred remains of dead bodies, in an attempt to overcome the fear of death. However, the most difficult task of all was, apparently, facing sexual desire, in the sense of fully experiencing it whenever it might arise, and overcoming it. Against this enemy, even those who had faced tigers did not always triumph!

Although the forest monks spent much of their time quite literally in the jungle, engaging in intensive spiritual practice, they were also very active in the villages, helping the local people in many ways. Their bodhisattva-like willingness to enter into the world of the villagers made them very popular. The monks celebrated festivals with the ordinary people and taught them how to meditate and practice the Dharma. They even worked with them. This is significant because such work contravened the Vinaya — the monastic code of discipline. Such willingness to breach the letter of tradition in order to honour its spirit sometimes got the monks into trouble with the sangha authorities of Bangkok.

The forest monks’ evident dedication was a source of inspiration to the villagers, whose confidence in the Dharma was greatly increased by their living example. The monks evidently led a carefully balanced spiritual life, as bodhisattvas should. They worked rigorously upon themselves, especially when on retreat in the forest, but also exerted themselves for the benefit of the wider community of which they were a part. Sadly, the life of the forest monk is no longer possible in the same way in Thailand today, as the jungle, together with its wild animals, has virtually disappeared during the course of the last few decades.

I have used the example of these Thai monks because they are not distant legendary figures. Many of them lived well into the 20th century, and people still remember them. It is easy for us to feel inspired by them, as they are close to our own era, while their example also brings us nearer, in our imagination, to the great ones of the remote past. But most importantly, they exemplify to a remarkable degree the heroic spirit so necessary to the spiritual life. They were prepared to risk and even to sacrifice their lives for the Dharma — which is quite in keeping with its spirit. The ultimate purpose of the Buddhist life is to transcend the ego, which means, in effect, undergoing a kind of death by giving up and ceasing to identify with anything that has previously been regarded as ‘me’ or ‘mine’. This is the ultimate act of renunciation and calls for very great courage, which these monks possessed in abundance.

Unfortunately, the heroic spirit that they embodied is no longer fashionable and is often debunked. Pseudo-egalitarian prejudice is the great leveller of our times. Many cannot bear to think that someone might be morally better than themselves — or indeed, better than anyone else. Nowadays, as far as some people are concerned, we are all heroes (or artists, as the case may be) ‘in our own way’. But if all are heroes and artists, then none are, because a term that does not distinguish one thing from another has no meaning.

Not long ago, men were prepared to sacrifice their lives for their country. Such feelings are often satirised now because we know that they can be manipulated by powerful men for dubious ends, and perhaps also because patriotism is frequently confounded in people’s minds with one of the greatest evils of modern times: nationalism. But a love of one’s country is a positive thing, which should not be confused with the prejudice and fanaticism that accompany its near enemy. The disparagement of patriotism is a deplorable and even dangerous tactic, as it contributes to the devaluation of the heroic spirit. This, in turn, makes us less likely to honour our heroes or strive to emulate them — or even to have any. Allegedly, an American soldier, commenting to a journalist on the prospect of involvement in a land war in Kosovo, said that he hadn’t joined the army in order to get shot at. The soldier’s attitude, however paradoxical, was very much in keeping with the mood of recent years.

The idea of being willing to sacrifice, or at least risk, one’s life for something one really believes in is not commonly upheld today and may even be scorned or viewed with suspicion. Yet it is at the root of all that is genuinely heroic. Such a perspective springs from the idea, feeling or perception that there is something ‘bigger’, ‘better’, ‘higher’, or ‘more important’ than oneself, to which one is willing to give oneself, forgoing personal advantage. An outstanding figure from the last century who was deeply inspired in this fashion was Dr. Ambedkar, who courageously dedicated his whole life to the uplift of the millions in India who, like himself, were inhumanely treated as ‘untouchable’ by the Hindus. In so doing, he endured much hostility, deep resentment and opposition.

Within a more specifically Buddhist context, Urgyen Sanhgarakshita, in a recent talk, drew our attention to Atisha, the great Indian Buddhist teacher of the eleventh century CE. Atisha went to Tibet, at the urgent entreaty of the Tibetans, to help reinvigorate Buddhism there, despite knowing that by doing so his life would be shortened by many years. In this way he gave his life for the Dharma. In modern times too, there have been Buddhists who sacrificed their lives for the Dharma. In the nineteen sixties, for example, several Vietnamese monks and one nun burned themselves alive, in order to bring the attention of the world to the plight of Buddhists in their country, who were being systematically persecuted by the Roman Catholic regime of the time.

There is a visionary dimension to any genuinely heroic endeavour — such as those I have mentioned — that needs to be cultivated by those who would become bodhisattvas. But how is that to be done? The context of this question (let us remember) is the process of transition from boyhood — actual or emotional — to bodhisattvahood. The key term in any account of this transition must be ‘responsibility’ — the quality that distinguishes the real man from the weak man and the boy. The real man is able to take responsibility for himself and, to some extent, for others; but the Bodhisattva is able to do this to a much greater degree — even to the point where helping living beings becomes his primary focus. This orientation towards others is the key to Enlightenment — the state that is often described as ‘the transcendence of the ego’. In a sense, it means forgetting one’s self so that one can go beyond it. This ‘forgetting’ is not simply a trick of the mind or a mental exercise. One forgets oneself, in the positive sense, by an imaginative identification with others, which manifests in altruistic action. However, such empathy as this can only be achieved if one is capable of taking full responsibility for oneself, which, only too frequently, the adult males of today do not do. Why? No doubt there are many causes, but I am going to highlight only one or two.

The decline of manhood in the present era is inextricably bound up with the way in which men relate to women. This is not an attempt to blame women for the troubles facing men. Women cannot be held responsible for the weak way in which men interact with them; the culpability must rest entirely with men themselves. The pickle in which men find themselves in their relations with women is to do with feelings and emotions. The distinction between these two phenomena is not very precise; indeed one of my dictionaries defines emotion as ‘any strong feeling, as of joy, sorrow, or fear’ and another renders feelings as ‘emotions, susceptibilities and sympathies’. Buddhism does, in fact, make a significant distinction between them but I won’t go into this, because in popular usage the words tend to be interchangeable, and what I have to say really relates to both, anyway. The term ‘feelings’ is the more general of the two and includes the ‘emotions’, so I will therefore speak of ‘feelings’.

Women are often said to be more concerned than men with their feelings and with the feelings of people intimately connected with them. Certainly, until recently, men did not seem to consider their feelings so engrossing as the women in their lives might have liked. But things are changing. The past 30 years have seen an increasing feminisation of Western society. One aspect of this process has been a growing fascination with feelings among men. Feelings have cast their spell on the minds of today’s feminised males. This phenomenon ought to worry us. Feelings, by definition, are subjective and, to the extent that you become absorbed in them, you lose your connection with the external world (and, to make matters worse, you do so for the sake of something not particularly edifying).

Of course, I realise that the topic of feelings has become a very complex and emotive one, around which a whole mystique has been woven (and out of which much money has been made!). But the Buddhist view of the matter is quite different from the fashionable interest in feelings, despite the fact that the two get confused with one another by talk of the importance of ‘getting in touch with’ one’s feelings. The Buddhist view on the matter is that we need to develop mindfulness of feelings and emotions, but mindfulness has an objective and even a critical element, which is very different from preoccupation. From a psychological-cum-spiritual point of view, a disproportionate concern with feelings is unhealthy because it is narcissistic and leads to a loss of vital objectivity. Such preoccupation locks you into yourself and makes you a prisoner of your feelings, allowing them to determine who you are and what you do. To lose objectivity is to lose the initiative — and thereby the capacity to take responsibility, even for yourself. Such a loss leaves you unable to lead a genuinely ethical life, because ethical behaviour requires awareness of others, conjoined with the initiative that enables you to act responsibly.

Feelings and emotions form the frequently messy basis for relations between men and women. Women generally do not have difficulty in knowing what they feel, but men often do, which puts them at a serious disadvantage. One reason why men seek female companionship is that it enables them to experience their feelings more readily and they become more emotionally alive. The problem is that, if you take the woman away, then the weak man just regresses into a bleak, emotionless landscape where he feels lost and numb. This is the classic symptom of the dependence on women that characterises the weak man, and it is ethically stultified.

In such circumstances, a man has lost the initiative. He has become addicted to the company of women for the stirring of his affections, and therefore will do whatever is necessary to retain the favour of women or (more probably) the woman in his life. He is thereby prone to emotional manipulation and possibly to the nagging and henpecking that often reward such weakness — for women do not really like weak men. This dependence is what really determines the way in which a weak man leads his life — not ethical principles.

To make this point clear, let us consider the example of sexual morality. The weak man’s fidelity is founded not upon real moral integrity but on his anxious dependence on the approval of his partner, which he rationalises to himself as virtuous and tender concern for her happiness. However (being weak and endlessly fascinated by Woman), he cannot stop his thoughts from roving. When a tempting opportunity does present itself, he is quite likely to yield, despite his anxiety. As a result, he inevitably falls foul not only of the third precept but also of the fourth. That is, he starts telling lies. The last thing he want to do is to upset the one whose love (despite his peccadilloes) he cannot bear to lose. Far better, therefore, to maintain peace by making sure that she does not find out. He is obliged to maintain a lie until such time as he is confronted with the truth by the woman he ‘did not want to hurt’ (i.e. whose goodwill he feared to lose), and finally admits his perfidy. For women are much sharper in these matters than their foolish men, having been gifted by nature with a lie detector that is most acute in relation to affairs of the heart.

My point is that the weak man, both before and after he is caught out, cannot act freely. Before his infidelity, he flatters himself that he is virtuous, when really he is just afraid. After it, or while it continues, he is enmeshed in a lie. At neither stage is he taking responsibility for himself or his own actions. As I have tried to show, one of the sources of this problem is his feelings — or lack of them, and his consequent reliance upon women for experiencing them. That dependence must be broken if he is to become a real man and take responsibility for himself.

Some people might be tempted to dismiss the ‘weak man’ as an abstraction. Nonetheless, the inability, or unwillingness, to take responsibility for oneself probably affects most men to some degree, and is something one needs to be constantly on guard against. The most effective remedy against weakness of this kind, whether incipient or actual, is simply to get to know other men and spend more time with them. The development of genuine friendship between men is the best antidote to dependence on women. Friendship implies mutual feeling and enables men to experience themselves as emotional beings in relation to each other, rather than exclusively with women. I hasten to add that I am not referring to any kind of romantic or homosexual bond. When men begin to develop a warmth for one another as friends, the feeling that arises, being free of carnality, is qualitatively different from the sentimentality they tend to direct towards women and which renders them such lamentable apologies for the male of the species. As men learn to delight in one another’s company they are taking the first steps towards the emotional independence upon which the fullness of manhood rests.

It is for these reasons that, in the FWBO, we provide so many opportunities for men to come together. The more time that they spend with each other, away from women, the more likely are they to strengthen their manhood and therefore be in a position eventually to take up the bodhisattva ideal. Weekly participation in a study group for men is a good start in this direction. Going regularly on men’s retreats is even better. In fact, any man who is very serious about his practice of the Dharma — for example if he is seeking ordination — would do well to eschew mixed retreats of all kinds, however useful these may be for beginners and Friends. Best of all is to live and work with other men, so that more and more of one’s life is lived in close association with them. By such means, the focus of one’s emotions may eventually switch entirely away from women. By this I do not intend any hostility towards women. Neither do I mean to suggest that they can have no place at all in one’s life. But the importance of women (as women) in a man’s life should become increasingly peripheral as he develops spiritually, and some re-organisation of his lifestyle is necessary to support this. For a Buddhist, this idea is in no sense extreme. It is simply the foundation of the traditional pattern followed by the Buddhist monk for millennia.

Applying such a strategy, it should be possible by degrees to become less emotionally dependent, to take greater responsibility for oneself and therefore be able to lead a more ethical life. One may, eventually, even feel able to practise brahmacarya — complete sexual abstinence. I realise that this is not an attractive option for most people, but with the practice of the Dharma, one’s perspective shifts. A life uncluttered by the complications attendant upon sexual relations can offer a freedom, independence and contentment that is beyond the imagination of most people. What is more, from the perspective of the bodhisattva ideal, chastity makes the practice of ethics easier, leaving one better placed to take full responsibility, not just for oneself, but for the well being of others. As an anagarika, one is free to go wherever one is needed at any time — just as a bodhisattva should be — and therefore better placed to respond to the objective needs of others. This is what it really means to take responsibility. One sees that something needs to be done and does it, not because one has no choice (having lost the initiative in one’s life) but because one chooses to do it.

To retain the initiative, to have the strength of character to determine how you lead your life and what you do with it, is what it means to be a real man. However, this cannot be done if you depend on the approval of someone else. To free oneself of this need, and then direct your energies for the benefit of others, is what it means to be a bodhisattva. To become a man in the sense I have defined is, in spiritual terms, no more than a preliminary step, but it is an indispensable one. If you cannot retain the initiative in your own life then you cannot take initiative for the benefit of others.

In the course of this article, I have written about the heroic virtues and have emphasised their importance, but one must be careful not to become one-sided. If a man only develops heroic virtues and neglects such qualities as kindness, patience and sympathy, then he will end up looking for those softer qualities outside himself. In other words, he will fall back into the arms of a woman. To remain emotionally independent a man needs to cultivate both, but he must take care to foster the ‘feminine’ virtues from a proper basis. A man who is fearful of his aggressive nature and who disowns it in order to become ‘a caring sort of person’ — with the emphasis very much on the word ‘person’ — will simply emasculate himself. The softer qualities need to be teased out of the harder ones. Men need to become angels, not eunuchs.

But angels too — like heroes and men — have fallen into a sorry decline in recent times, having become, in the popular mind, castrated and woefully sentimentalised creatures. But it was not always so: the archangel Michael carried a sword and was a warrior. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Michael and his comrades are powerful, dauntless creatures who battle with Satan, whilst Rilke speaks in the Duino Elegies of the ‘terrible beauty’ of the angel. The angel is not just beautiful, but sublime — awe-inspiring and potentially dangerous. He does not come merely with love, but with the power of the thunderbolt and (like the bodhisattva) is thereby a truly androgynous figure. The bodhisattva, in uniting Transcendental Wisdom and Universal Compassion, soars further still, reminding us that we must ultimately aim even higher than the angel. To begin with, however, many of us must set our sights much lower and simply reclaim our patrimony as men.

Originally published in Madhyamavani 5: Summer 2001 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2001).