Raymond Lam

Our musings on gender in Buddhism rightly focus on the feminine, underrepresented voice that it is. However, Buddhism’s gentle values and ethics often seem to be in (apparent) conflict with the toxic masculinity of today’s pop culture, where men are caricatured as avatars of explosions and gods of war, their churning inner lives spitting out destruction like a tornado or volcano. More enlightened perspectives are emerging, sometimes prevailing, but too often masculinity is still defined as or framed through dubious and harmful traits: violence and anger, a propensity to control others, predatory and rapacious attitudes to women, and all-round selfishness.

In the real world this vision of a negative masculinity does not bear out. A domineering or deceitful man will always be looking over his shoulder for the revenge of those he has mistreated. The overwhelming majority of women gravitate toward considerate, generous, and attentive men. Even in macho male circles, honourable ideals endure, like keeping one’s word and looking out for each other in solidarity. A sense of teamwork and self-sacrifice are prized, while a man who only looks out for number one or betrays his mates will be quickly isolated or shamed, much like a wolf ostracized from its pack.

As we leave behind restrictive and unhelpful ideas of how a boy should mature into a man, we become free to explore alternative visions, including what the Buddhist tradition has to say. For example, compassion is a masculine virtue in this religion, the feminine equivalent being wisdom. This is an interesting inversion of the assignment of the intellect to the male and the emotional to the female, which occurs in other world religions and folklores. And the question of violence needs no further discussion: it is simply not acceptable in Buddhism, for males or females.

Even those men who feel naturally dominant, who are born to lead, will find good advice in Buddhism. We can see in ancient Indian Buddhist sanghas, taking responsibility, considering the views and opinions of others, and owning up to faults or mistakes even when they aren’t known to others (the basis of the ancient fortnightly Patimokkha confession ritual) fostered an environment of trust and openness that are very nourishing visions of masculine behaviour.

At the heart of this discussion about manhood is what constitutes the most beneficial, helpful form of masculinity. Questions men should ask include: does my ideal of masculinity marginalize women or demean the oppressed and voiceless? Does it inflict suffering on those weaker than myself or alienate my peers and superiors? Or does it attract loyalty and affection from close ones and strangers? Does it make us feel whole and fulfilled, rather than empty and restless?

How well do we weather the storms of samsaric life? A great deal of insecurity, sadness, and raging powerlessness that men feel today is partially due to their creeping, uneasy sense that they can’t weather the world’s tribulations and challenges well enough. If masculinity has through the ages been about taking responsibility and providing security for others, then Buddhist teachings provide the foundational counsel for what men need to live well-weathered lives.