A Western Buddhist's Travels

Sightseeing & detours on the path of enlightenment

Prostitution diminishes us all

I was having a discussion with someone who I have know for years. I won’t use the word friend, because that would imply more of a connection than exists. He brought up the topic of prostitution and Buddhism. He seemed to think that Buddhism accepted prostitution whereas Christianity denounced it. He pointed out that China has had a long history of accepting this profession and that the role of courtesan was prized before the communist revolution. He then mentioned Japan and the tradition of the Geisha. Finally he mentioned modern examples such as Vietnam during the Vietnam War, Thailand and the sex tourist trade that exists there today.

Firstly lets look at a Christian Saint‘s view on the topic: “Remove prostitutes from human affairs, and you will unsettle everything because of lusts.” St. Augustine.  The idea that people who follow a moral code would accept this has always puzzled me. If you follow the Christian commandments, then sex outside marriage is a sin, which is the same as the Buddhist view that sex belongs in a marriage, and not a casual pursuit. In the Jewish period that Christ was born in, there were temple prostitutes, who engaged in sex with men, and the fee went directly to the temple. This was considered a way to gain the favor of God or Gods, depending on the temple. In ancient India during the period before the Buddha was born, prostitution existed. About the same time The Buddha was teaching his followers the Middle Path, in Greece  Solon, a renowned legalist and social reformer was establishing a brothel, to decrease sexual misbehavior among men and women. Here once again the proceeds went to the temple. In Babylon about 1600 years ago, women were required to offer their bodies at least once during their lifetime, as a sacrifice to the goddess Mylitta as a way of earning merit. The Catholic church in many parts of the world has turned a blind eye towards these activities. The sinner was to make a monetary donation as part of their penance. One need look no further than South America or the Philippines today to see this in action. My point is that most religions or codes of morality denounce prostitution, it is up to the followers to actually uphold this.

Some support it as a way for women with no education or other skills to earn money. To me this is admitting that society has not given these women equal opportunity, and now punishes them by allowing their bodies to be a commodity, used for gratification without a spiritual connection or bond between the parties involved. Yet others use the reasoning that this allows men to release uncontrollable urges, in ways that otherwise be satisfied in less desirable ways. This view is degrading to men, by implying that men have no control over their own bodies. Yet the majority of men do not engage in these pursuits with prostitutes. Both of these views take the opposite extreme view. One places the responsibility on women, the other on men, neither realizes that it is somewhere in the middle where the reality exists.

The story of Ambapli who in one life was born as the younger sister to Venerable Pussamuni. She practiced the Dharma skillfully and made much merit,, and in the next life was reborn beautiful and in a Bhrahman family. However she was very vain about her beauty and insulted a bhikkhuni or nun. For many life’s after she was reborn as a prostitute, until during the time of Buddha Kassapa she was reborn and became a bhikkhuni herself. Her next rebirth was in a heavenly realm where she resided until her last birth. During the time of Gotama Buddha she was again born as a prostitute. In the Maha Parinibbana Sutta the end of this story unfolds. The Buddha and his followers stopped and rested at her mango grove.  She paid respect to the Buddha and invited him and his followers to lunch the next day.  A group of nobles from Licchavi wanted to have the Buddha and his followers eat lunch with them the same day as her invitation. They offered her a lot of money to withdraw her invitation, and when she refused, the nobles approached the Buddha directly. He informed them that he has already accepted Ambapli’s invitation and declined theirs. The next day when the Buddha and his followers were at lunch with Ambapli, she offered her mango grove to the Buddha and his Sangha. Later she gave up her possessions, renounced her life and joined the Sangha as a bhikkhuni. She was a skillful at the practice of following the Dharma, and became enlightened.

Buddhism stresses that the proper relationship for sex is in a committed monogamous one. However the prostitute is seen as having the same potential to achieve enlightenment, as any other human. As with any other human, they must renounce their old life, and practice living a pure life. For the rest of Buddhist society, we are not to judge her, on her previous actions in this or any past life, but rather to accept her as she is now. To look down on anyone, or call them by labels such as prostitute is to diminish ourselves.

China and the sex trade has had a varied history through the ages. During the Imperial era, the Tanka is Hong Kong were considered low class. For part of the time the Chinese government listed the number of prostitutes in Hong Kong as the number of Tanka women, assuming they were all prostitutes. In Shanghai by the 1930s there were reputed to be about 8000 White Russian women engaged in the sex trade. During the Communist era prior to 1978, the elimination of the sex trade was triumphed. Marxist doctrine assumed that only economic necessity drove women into selling their bodies to strangers for sex. It did not disappear, rather was forced underground, where the conditions for the women became even more oppressive. There are considered to be seven types of women who are engaged in the sex trade, each having a different staus. The ones considered to be the top are concubines, many of whom hope to become a real wife of their customer. The next tier below this is called the packaged wife, one who accompanies a rich official or business man for a set duration and price. next down are the karaoke, teahouse bar hostesses. Below this are a group known as dingdong ladies, who phone around to hotels etc looking for customers. Then come the hairdressser, masseuse types who provide extra services above the official reason for the visit. The last two classes are the street walkers, followed by those who serve the transient labor camps. Unfortunately some government officials have turned a blind eye to these activities, in hopes that the economic beefits from more visitors will result in more tax revenue from these establishments.

In Japan the Geisha was an artist, entertainer and hostess. The term became synonymous with prostitution after the second world war, when prostitutes wearing kimono’s served the occupying American service men. It would take too much writing to try and delineate the various types and eras.

Perhaps Thailand has gained notoriety because since 1934 prostitution has been legalized. King  Rama I abolished slavery and also legalized prostitution. At first the legalization only applied to Bangkok, but was expanded to include the entire country. He legalized it because of concerns over violent pimps, and the spread of diseases. This lasted until 1960 when Thailand brought in new legislation to deter prostitution to follow the UN in their deceleration of abolishing prostitution. Unfortunately today recruiters travel the villages, with offers of unlimited wealth, beauty and travel to lure girls into occupations that are just covers for prostitution. These young girls having grown up with hard work everyday, and no creature comforts, have already seen the lifestyles depicted by television and other media, so are easy prey for the recruiters. They want the beautiful fashions, and lifestyle shown by the media. Also as in many countries not just Asian ones, if  a girl has lost her virginity prior to marriage she is considered unworthy. Yet for the male there is no similar view, and in many countries it is permissible for him to sow his wild oats, so to speak. He is taught there are girls for fun, and girls to marry. Until we eliminate these views of a dual nature with different standards for each sex, we diminsih the value of over half the people on the earth. In the Philippines, the areas around the US bases rapidly developed bars that featured Guest Relations Officers or GRO’s who could be bought from finishing their shift at the bar for a set amount. In theory this was to compensate the establishment for lost revenue from her not being there to serve customers drinks. In reality when a small bar of 30 seats had almost as many GRO on staff, the sales were not diminished, and one might argue many of these bars would not have existed without the prostitution.

The issue of prostitution does not exclusively belong to one country, nor does it be tolerated by any one religion than another. Rather it is a problem that will require all of us to value everyone else to the same degree we value ourselves. To value chastity equally important in males as well as females, and if either is not a virgin on their wedding night, to consider a monogamous future as more important than a unwise act in the past.


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