Uttaraloka Sketches 09

A Sacred Space for men

Recent events at Guhyaloka, and my experience of the ‘feminist’ film Barbie have prompted me to reflect on why we have tried to maintain a ‘sacred space for men’ at Guhyaloka over the the last forty years.

The first FWBO retreat for men was almost fifty years ago. Being a great believer in coed activities, I resisted this development quite strongly; but eventually I went on a men’s retreat at Padmaloka and contrary to my expectations I experienced a particular kind of freedom. I was converted to the idea and practice of men’s activities. I enjoyed coed retreats and so on, but they had a very different flavour – in many way rather brighter and more pleasant – but much less serious, focused and challenging. At the time I was not able to articulate why I felt this way but over the years I have reflected on the value of men being in company with other men. Especially at Padmaloka, Guhyaloka and Uttaraloka I have enjoyed and valued exclusively male society.

If ‘sacred spaces for men’ are to be maintained in a culture that strongly discourages them – even occasionally with the backing of the law – there needs to be a clear understanding as to why they are of value. It is not enough to fall back on thoughtless acceptance of rules that have developed from past experience.

In the following comments I should stress that I believe that all individuals are unique – each of us has our own history and karmically established tendencies. I also recognise that individual characteristics lie on some sort of spectrum or scatter graph. However generalisations can be useful and what I am about to say is based on my understanding that generally speaking men and women are different, physically and psychologically.

The values of exclusive male society.

Perhaps the most quoted reason for men-only retreats is that the sexual tensions felt by heterosexual men in the presence of women are eliminated. Many heterosexual men feel these tensions in all situations and they can interfere with focus on other activities. It has been said that men should be able to overcome these tendencies, but for many men it seems that – as with sexual preference – this is a deeply rooted natural propensity. There are a variety of sources for these tensions. It is not only basic physical attraction to a beautiful, pretty, or sexually attractive woman, it can be yearning for physical intimacy or emotional support, it may be the need for the kind of admiration that only women can provide. Women of all types and ages can stimulate these tensions.

Experience of a positive masculinity

However, although this is a very obvious reason for men needing to spend time without women there are far more important and positive reasons. Especially in our modern feminised culture men need opportunities to experience themselves as men in the most positive way possible, and for this they need to be in the company of other men. Men need an ambience, a context, to know themselves in certain ways. There are a number of characteristics that men need to experience in themselves that are not supported – even denigrated – by contemporary culture. I mention a few of these and would be interested to hear of others that I have missed.

a) Decision making. Even in the Buddhist World there is a tendency to believe that decisions should be made by consensus. I have observed that most men are happy to have someone make a suggestion which, unless they strongly disagree, they will happily support. In this way an individual who seems to make good suggestions will be accepted as a leader. Once a voluntary hierarchy has been established most men will fall into their natural position. Establishing this hierarchy may of course involve a bit of a struggle as individual men try to establish their positions – but this is part of the process. This is very different to the consensus process favoured by contemporary counter-culture.

b) Resistance to Rules. Taking one’s place in a hierarchy is very different to having rules.The ethically sensitive ‘rule breaker’ is often a hero. Confident men do not need rules they will rely on their own integrity and face the consequences if they fail. They can thus feel free from convention but also be ethically responsible. There is a strong tradition of ethical ‘rule-breakers’ in Western myth and literature as well as the Buddhist traditions of the East, and many men find these characters very attractive. The Buddha provided ethical principles not rules.

c) Taking risks. Men love to have adventures. They love dangerous explorations of distant unknown lands, or radical social or political enterprises, they like to drive too fast and fly too high. Men like to take risks and are happy to make mistakes. They love challenge and the defiance of death – even to the point of courting injury and death. Alone they chase the hero’s crown, or together they relish being one of a Band of Brothers. Even if it is only a long bike ride or a walk up a mountain, the call for an adventurous quest needs to be answered. I confess that I am not personally attracted to team sports but, as has been pointed out by one of my friends, team sports are one of the main ways in which men face challenges together. They have of course the added value of being a sublimation of the aggressive and violent tendencies that are also part of men’s lot but which lead to the horrors of war.

d) Discomfort. Adventures involve a certain amount of discomfort. Milarepa tells his young disciples that to receive the Teaching requires a man who disregards discomfort and suffering. I once wanted to upgrade the style of Guhyaloka to create a simple but more comfortable set of facilities. I was outvoted because, in the words of a friend, men relished the adventure of making do with very basic facilities – they wanted to camp out in stone tents, not visit a spa. Many men wanted a break from tidy domesticity to rough it in the mountains. It allowed them to feel more ‘manly’ and perhaps inspired by the examples of the Buddha, Milarepa and other Buddhist heros. Many men love a challenging simple life – even if only for a short time.

e) Emotional Support. Men tend to rely on women to give them the kind of emotional support that they receive in Blake’s Beulah – “a mild and pleasant rest”, “a Soft Moony Universe feminine lovely/ Pure mild & Gentle given in Mercy to those who sleep eternally” or “As the beloved infant in his mother’s bosom round encircled/ With the arms of love & pity & sweet compassion.” But there is another form of emotional support that healthy men require – that which encourages and heartens, that which lifts one out of negative states rather than indulging them. This is also an encouragement to take responsibility for one’s emotional states rather than indulge in the contemporary tendency to blame others or expect them to carry the responsibility. Being aware of feelings and emotions is crucial but so is being free of their tyranny. Buddhism, of course, strongly encourages the awareness of feelings (vedana) and emotions (samskara) but also teaches that they are empty (sunyata).

f) Abstract Principles. Many men enjoy the discussion of abstract principles – the image of young men discussing philosophical subjects, over glasses of wine, way into the night is very attractive. It is true that sometimes these discussions can be a little alienated from actual experience but one needs only to think about the ultimate abstraction of mathematics on the one hand and its crucial contribution to general human life on the other to see the value of abstract reflections when they connect to direct experience. A lively context is essential to this kind of thinking. And clearly articulated ideas and ideals can inspire men to selfless action.

g) Physical Work. On a much more physical level, men delight in practical skills and in direct physical work with other men. From digging a ditch, to building a house, felling trees, and making roads, these are the kind of activities that generate bonds between men. And if heavy machinery is involved – so much the better. Men love to build – houses, roads, bridges, aqueducts, boats, planes, rockets, – this spirit needs to be encourages even if in a small way. As Camille Paglia famously pointed out in her book Sexual Personae without this spirit we would all still be living in grass huts. After a hard day’s work men liked to gather in the local pub or club to enjoy the camaraderie that working together develops.

h) Male Friendship is increasingly rare, especially amongst older men – and the opportunities and places for men to meet are rapidly declining. Pubs, clubs, and even sporting locations are increasingly coed. Where can men meet unless we create these facilities. There seem to be so many retired men who have no connections outside their families – no men friends to support what they thrive on. Male friendship has been praised for millennia. We are familiar with the value of friendship to the Ancient Greeks and Romans as well for Buddhist and ancient Chinese cultures.

i) Solitude. As Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”, so we should not be surprised to discover that men also need to be alone, to enjoy their own space. It might be a ‘den’ at the top of the house or the bottom of the garden, or a solitary hut or cave high in the mountains or deep in the dessert. When men meet together there is a recognition that they do not have to be together. It is to be expected that our fellows will want to be away from social expectations and interaction. It is well know among those who have lived in men’s communities that the members often tend to go off into their own rooms at the earliest opportunity. It is therefore also true that this tendency needs to be moderated if there is to be an effective community life. This is why I have always appreciated men’s communities – I can be with my friends but I also feel free to be alone.

The Buddhist life essentially consists of knowing ourselves more and more deeply, and of renouncing the conditions (internal and external) that inhibit this process, even to the point of transcending that self. Only in this way can we be of any real benefit to other beings. For men to do this they must know themselves as they really are – not as contemporary culture determines them to be. And, as is well known, context is important, men can get to know themselves more effectively by being in the company of other men – especially when engaged in explicit Buddhist practices like retreats, community life, and other occasional meetings for those whose lives are inevitably embedded in a coed environment.

This is why, in my opinion, it is so important to maintain places for men only – sacred places to enable men to develop spiritual and even psychological health. Such places are becoming more and more rare and so the value of those few that remain are even more important.