I recently came across a post in my facebook feed, which narrated the story of Amrapali – a beautiful woman who was forced into prostitution. As per the account, when she wanted to join Buddha’s monastic order, Buddha first refused, because he was worried that her presence may distract adversely affect the monks of the order. She further asked why the monks should be so weak that their mind is swayed by the mere presence of a woman. Buddha had no answer to give her and accepted her into the order. Without going into any other parts or aspects of the story, what I want to attempt to present here is the answer that Buddha did not give Amrapali.
The mind is swayed because it is the nature of the mind to be swayed. Just as it is the nature of the cloud to be carried by the wind, the mind is carried by thoughts arising from memory or those induced by the senses. The aroma of our favorite dish is enough to spawn a series of thoughts that will fix our mind on this object of attraction. A novice who is trying to fast or avoid specific types of food would do well to avoid exposure to this aroma.
If a person is trying to free himself from the grip of smoking, it is best that he does avoid places where he will inhale smoke from cigarettes smoked by others. If a person is trying to stop drinking, he would be wise to avoid parties where he may be offered a drink. By that same logic, it makes perfect sense for a monk to avoid the company of women.
Now, of all the temptations and attractions of the world to which a man is exposed, there is none as powerful as in the form of a woman. This has been unequivocally stated at several places in Srimad Bhagavata, which is perhaps the greatest guide there is for a spiritual aspirant. In Lord Kapila’s instructions to her mother, he categorically says “Lord Brahma (creator of the universe), at the sight of his own daughter, was bewildered by her charms and shamelessly ran up to her in the form of a stag when she took the form of a doe. Of all who come in the line of his (Brahma’s) creation, which man is not distracted by this Maya (deluding potency) of mine, except for the sage Narayana himself” (Srimad Bhagavata III:31:35,37)
This advice by Lord Kapila and the extreme example of the most knowledgeable and powerful being vulnerable to this temptation should help us appreciate how powerful it is. Celestial Sage Narada also gives the same advise when expounding the dos and don’ts for the different ashramas (stages/modes of life, roughly). He says that a brahmachari, one with a vow of celibacy who has not taken up family life, should avoid company of women since the senses are so powerful that they may agitate the mind of even a sanyasi (renunciate). Even for those who have accepted family life and are of the world, the sage cautions them against freely interacting with women (VII:12:7). He says that a man should avoid associating with even his own daughter in a secluded place (VII:12:9).
A monk’s life of renunciation and austerity is like a palm used to cover a flame just lit, to protect it from wild winds of worldly temptation. Once this grows into a wildfire that is capable of consuming the forest of innate tendencies (vasanas), these winds can threaten it no more (and might even aid in spreading it and burning out all of those latent tendencies). Such a person has no need to stay in a monastery. He may live as a monk or as a worldly man, without his inner peace being affected either way.
(On the other hand, a person whose mind is so terribly agitated is like wet wood and not fit to be cloistered in solitude. It has to be dried in the sunlight of the presence of an enlightened soul before a flame may be kindled, and till that point, it may not make a big difference whether it is exposed to wind or not. But even in this state, being exposed to water of worldly men and will make it even more unfit for the fire of wisdom)
A monk is a spiritual seeker who has forsaken his house and loved ones and lives in a monastery. He does this the primary purpose of staying away from any stimulus that can distract his mind and pull it back into the quagmire of worldly desires from which he is striving to escape. Will it not be cruel to expose him to the overwhelming temptation in the form of proximity to a woman? Perhaps it would be for Amrapali to answer – who, of all women, was the one famed to be so attractive that her beauty even threatened the unity of the kingdom she lived in.