skip to Main Content

Bhikkhunis Articles

Most Venerable Bhikkhuni Dhammananda (Dr.Chatsumarn Kabilsingh)
The Chief Abbes – Songdhammakalyani Bhikkhuni Arama and The Medicine Buddha Vihara, Nakhonpathom, Thailand

bhikkhuni_dhammananda_bhikkhunis_magazineThe Brighter of Bhikkhuni Sasana….
For those who are interested in the ordination of women, this is one of the most puzzling questions, which needs a great deal of contextual understanding. When King Suddhodana, the Buddha’s royal father passed away, the duty of a wife to her husband was completed. It was the right time for Maha Pajapati to consider following the teaching and the practice of the Buddha seriously. But, when she approached and asked for permission the Buddha simply said, “Please do not ask so.” The Tripitaka, which is the most important primary source, did not provide any reason for not allowing women to join the Order. Many interpretations were given in later commentaries trying to explain the situation. This led also to common belief that the Buddha did not want to allow women to lead a religious life. This is not without basis. According to Indian social mores, to lead a religious life is not the path for women. Manudharma Sastra was very clear to spell out that salvation for a woman is possible only through bhakti (devotion) to her husband.

But Maha Pajapati was unshaken in her decision. After the Buddha had gone, she, along with 500 Sakiyanis (Sakyan women) from the royal court shaved their heads and donned the yellow robes. ey followed him on foot until they arrived at Vesali where the Buddha resided. Upon arriving at the arama (residence) they did not ask to have an audience with the Buddha for fear of being rejected again. Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and personal attendant, found them at the entrance covered with dust, with torn robes and bleeding feet. Many of them were miserable and in tears of desperation. He learned from them of their request and on their behalf approached the Buddha. Again, the Buddha forbade Ananda in the same manner, “Ananda, please do not ask so. There are various reasons to be taken in consideration in attempting to understand the possible difficulties or obstacles which presented themselves in the mind of the Buddha. First of all Maha Pajapati was a queen who, along with 500 ladies of the court, knew only the life of comfort. To lead a reclusive life allowing them only to sleep under the tree, or in the cave, would be too hard for them. Out of compassion the Buddha wanted them to think it over. Furthermore, accepting a large group of women to be ordained all at once would immediately involve teachers to provide them both instruction and training. The Buddha also could not make himself constantly accessible for them. The Sangha was not ready with competent teachers to handle a large crowd of women. This proved to be a reality later on when women were already accepted to the Sangha. Monks who could teach the nuns must be not only learned but also require an appropriate attitude to help uplift women spiritually.

The Buddha already received criticism from outsiders for breaking up families by ordaining either the husbands or wives. When Maha Pajapati approached him with 500 Sakiyanis, definitely this would be a major cause of criticism. Particularly Sakyas did not marry people from other clans. By allowing 500 Sakiyanis to be ordained would definitely affect the social status quo. But it was revealed that these women’s husbands had already joined the Order. Thus, the criticism that accepting these women would break up their families became groundless. The fact that these women followed him on foot to Vesali is a proof of their genuine commitment to lead religious lives and removed the doubt that their request might be out of momentary impulse. These could have been some of the reasons behind the Buddha’s hesitation. The Buddha needed the time to examine both the pros and cons to their request. Ananda also tried to understand the Buddha’s refusal. Is it because women are not capable of achieving spiritual enlightenment? If that is so, then ordination, a spiritual path is open only to men. To this, the Buddha made it clear that both men and women have equal potentiality to achieve spiritual enlightenment. We have to mark this statement, as this is the first time in the history of religion that a religious leader declared openly that men and women are equal on spiritual grounds. Previously in the Hindu context, the Vedas, the most sacred religious texts, were available only to men. Buddhism has transcended race, nation, caste and gender differences to declare that the highest spiritual achievement transcends obstacles or discrimination of gender. With this important reason, the Buddha allowed women to join his Order.

Theravada context which preserved the teachings in Pali. Theravadins believe that their teaching is most authentic from a historical point of view. We need to understand that the Tripitaka that we know of was not a written work from the Buddha’s time. Religious knowledge was to be practiced and handed down from teachers to chosen disciples. Hence no religious teaching was recorded. This applied also to the teaching of the Buddha. The Tripitaka was first recorded in Sri Lanka not before 450 B.E. (about 90 B.C.) What was recorded was according to the understanding of the monk recorders. What they chose to record was subjective, hence it is understandable why the Tripitaka is androcentric. The Tripitaka was recorded by men who were ridden with Indian social values. They were men who by the vinaya, were expected to lead lives of purity. The most immediate obstacle to their chastity was the opposite gender. Many teachings as preserved by these men therefore projected women (embodiment of their obstacles) as evil, unclean, etc. This is a necessary barrier to fence themselves off from failing into the pit of the unchaste. While reading the Tripitaka one must remind oneself of this limitation in order to sift the essence from its social contextual limitations. Looking at the teaching from the Paramattha level, one sees clearly that Buddhism is free from gender bias, Buddhism is the first religion in the world to recognize the equal spiritual potentiality of men and women. This provides a special place for Buddhism which started in India to lift up to the world spiritual level without boundary in race, caste, or gender. Among western feminists, abortion is one of the most discussed social issues. One argues that a woman should have right over her body because it is hers. Buddhism does not argue on this point but takes a clear stand that abortion is killing. One who chooses abortion transgresses the first precept. But whether the government should pass a bill to legalize abortion or not is an issue which needs consideration from various related fields e.g. social, economic, cultural, etc.

To the argument which raises a question whether abortion is killing “life” or not, Buddhism supplies a detailed explanation of conception and its various stage of formation. This explains the coming together of sperm and egg, then through 01st, 02nd, 03rd, 04th week to a stage called ‘Pancasakha’ or “05 branches” namely head, arms, legs Life is present through all these stages since conception. To complete killing there are at least 05 factors: 01 – that it has life, 02 – knowing that it has life, 03 – willingness to kill, 04 – try to kill, 05 – that life is destroyed. If one has completed these five factors, killing is completed bearing fruit of action (Vipakkarma). As a Buddhist woman, one may be forced to choose abortion but must be willing to receive the fruit of her action without trying to explain away the teaching to suits one’s choice. That a man should bear equal responsibility of pregnancy is true but entirely a separate issue to consider.

Women’s role in Buddhism….

There is no direct record from the Buddha’s time, partly because when the Buddha allowed women to join the Order, it was the Queen Maha Pajapati who approached him. Because of their close relationship even if some monks may not have approved of the decision, no one made it known to be sufficient evident for recording. But at the First Council only three months after the Buddha’s passing away, with Maha Kassapa presiding over the council, discontentment was made known for admitting women to the Order by asking Ananda to confess that it was his offence for being an important mediator to approach the Buddha on behalf of women and finally got them admitted to the Order. Venerable Ananda clearly made his point that he did not see his intervention as an offence, but with respect to the Sangha he confessed.

An interesting incident to be mentioned in this connection is that Maha Kassapa who presided at this historic council, was not on good terms with the bhikkhunis. We found an incident recorded when he went to give teaching to the bhikkhuni Sangha, he was ridiculed by them as the bhikkhunis expressed their doubts as to how could he know of any dharma with his brahminesses background. Apart from that, the bhikkhunis also made clear their preference for Ananda’s teaching. This caused Maha Kassapa to be much displeased and again Venerable Ananda had to intervene asking for forgiveness from Maha Kassapa on the behalf of the bhikkhunis. This background incident implies the already existing unpleasant feeling between Maha Kassapa and the bhikkhuni Sangha. What followed at the First Council is understandable. When the Buddha allowed women to join the Order, a large number of women welcomed the opportunity given to women for the first time in Indian history. Some wanted to join the Order to escape the dreadful life of having to remain in the kitchen for most of their time, some wanted to escape from a meaningless life of widowhood, some were doing it as a fashion, or simply followed their close relatives. In the latter case, some of them proved to be trouble for the Sangha, but for most of the cases, these women were sincere in their spiritual search as it was the first time they enjoyed such freedom.

There were bhikkhunis who were recognized by the Buddha as being foremost in the Vinaya, teaching dharma, etc. They were active in propagating the teaching of the Buddha in the same manner as the bhikkhus. Some bhikkhunis were well known in preaching and were popular among ministers and noble families. Once a king asked a learned nun to explain certain dharma and later asked the same question to the Buddha. He was surprised to find that the bhikkhuni expounded the dharma topic the same way as the Buddha. He was happy and convinced that in fact the teaching of the Buddha had taken root properly. The Tripitaka mentions 500 and more. There were 13 who were singled out and received praise from the Buddha with their different distinctions: Maha Pajapati was praised for her long standing as the first bhikkhuni KhemaTheri, former queen of King Bimbisara was praised for her wisdom, Upalavanna Theri was praised for her achievement in performing miracles, Patacara Theri was praised for her good memory on the Vinaya Dhammadinna Theri was praised for being capable in teaching Nanda Theri was praised for meditation, Sona Theri was praised for her patience, Sakula Theri was praised for having divine sights, Kundalakesi Theri was praised for achieving sudden enlightenment, Bhadda Kapilani was praised for remembering past lives, Bhadda Kaccana (Princess Yasodhara) was praised for her Great Abhinna, Kisa Gotami was praised for wearing coarse robes Sigalamata was praised for holding fast to faith.

In Patidesaniya, one section in the Patimokkha, we find such a prohibition. Checking in the Vibhanga, where we learn the historical context of the rule, we found an interesting story. An elder bhikkhuni of 120 years old went for aims in the city at the distance of 4 to 5 kms. Upon her return a young monk was waiting with his empty bowl. Out of respect for monks as prescribed in the Garudharma, she reverently offered him her alms received for that day. The young monk got an idea of not having to go all the way for alms himself and received alms from the same nun on the following day also. On the third day, the bhikkhuni went for alms in the city. While roaming in the city a chariot passed near her path. She took a step aside, fell down and fainted. The millionaire who was riding that chariot came out to make inquiry and learned from her that she fainted out of hunger and tiredness, as she had not eaten for three days. Upon learning the reason, the millionaire criticized the young monk and later brought this to the attention of the Buddha. From then on, to protect the nuns from being taken advantage of, the Buddha laid down the rule for the monks not to receive alms from bhikkhunis.

I have already given you the picture of what the bhikkhunis did in the previous pages. Here I would like to mention the role of Visakha as a case study reflecting on the positive role of women in Buddhism during the Buddha’s time. Visakha was born in a Buddhist family. As a child she used to follow her grandparents to listen to the teaching of the Buddha. She was married to an equally wealthy family. Not only was she herself interested in Buddhism, she was also successful to influence Singala, the millionaire who was her father-in-law to convert to Buddhism as well. Because of this, sometimes people addressed her as “Singalamata” or “mother of Singala” to honor her. She had been so involved in Buddhist circle from childhood that she was known both to the Buddha and the Sanghas. Her role was not limited only to following the teaching of the Buddha but she also played a significant role of consultant as well as regular supporter. Furthermore, she was equally well versed both in the Dharma and Vinaya. When she noticed that some monks were not behaving well she brought it to the Buddha’s attention and as a result rules were laid down at her request. Two Aniyata rules came into existence because of her suggestion. Bathrobes for the monks also became a monastic requirement as suggested by her.

In the role of a consultant to the Sangha, there was a case of pregnant bhikkhuni who was expelled by Ven Devadatta. But this bhikkhuni appealed to the Buddha and insisted upon her purity. The Buddha ordered the Sangha to reinvestigate and Visakha was invited to the newly appointed committee to give advice to the Sangha. Visakha came from a large family. She herself had many children and grand children, hence an experienced householder. Upon her investigation she found out that the bhikkhuni was pregnant before being ordained. When the purity of this bhikkhuni came to light, the Buddha allowed her to remain without having to disrobe and the baby was later adopted by the royal family. Visakha played a very significant role as a lay female disciple; she indeed met the requirement of an established Buddhist who was responsible for propagating and establishing Buddhism in the early period.

The lineage….

The Bhikkhuni Sangha prospered alongside the bhikkhu Sangha in India for more than 1000 years. A passage found in the Vinaya Pitaka saying that by accepting women to the Order would shorten Buddhism only to 500 years proved to be invalid. When King Asoka the Great came to the throne around 248 B.E.., (about 290 B.C.) he made it clear his policy to support and propagate Buddhism by sending out missionaries at nine different directions. One particular mission was led by Mahinda Thera, the king’s son, to establish Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Later Princess Anula, sister-in-law of King Devanampiya Tissa of Sri Lanka expressed her desire to be ordained as bhikkhuni. Ven Mahinda Thera suggested that. the King send an ambassador to King Asoka of India asking permission from him to invite Ven Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta Theri, his sister, and the bhikkhuni Sangha to come to establish the bhikkhuni Sangha in Sri Lanka.

The Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta arrived in Sri Lanka along with a group of bhikkhunis and also brought with her a sapling of the Bodhi tree as a token of respect to King Devanampiya Tissa. Princess Anula and her large retinue received ordination and became the first group of Sri Lankan bhikkhunis. Princess Sanghamitta Theri remained in Sri Lanka until her last day. In China, Ching Chien was the first Chinese woman to request ordination, and received ordination from only the bhikkhu Sangha. Later in 972 B.E, (about 430 A.D.) the Bhikkhuni Devasara from Sri Lanka was invited along with a group of 10 bhikkhunis who arrived in Nanking and gave ordination to 300 Chinese women. The ordination of the bhikkhunis in China branched out to establish the bhikkhuni Sangha in Korea and East Asia, which has survived until the present day. Apart from bhikkhunis in Asian countries, in the past 2 to 3 decades Buddhism has spread westward. We need to understand that when the Buddha established four groups of Buddhists, namely bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen, there was no distinction between Theravada and Mahayana. In fact, the differentiation came into existence many hundred years afterwards. The bhikkhunis who went to plant the seed of ordination in China belonged to Theravada, and even the vinaya which the Chinese Sangha follow is Dhammagupta, subsect from Theravada.

During King Asoka’s period in the 3rd century B.E. there were at least 32 schools but with clear record and separate set of teachings only 18 schools were established, twelve sprang from the early branch and eight emerged from the Mahasanghika which could be roughly said to be the forerunner of Mahayana. The basic reason for Theravada not to accept bhikkhuni Sangha tracing their lineage from Mahayana lineage is unfounded. The ordination lineage followed by Mahayana derived from early Buddhism. Next question is how does Mahayana differ from Theravada? Generally speaking Mahayana differs from Theravada in its philosophical exposition of Dharma. However, the highly complex way of explaining dharma all took root from the early teaching of Buddhism which branched out and blossomed in Mahayana. In the Tripitaka when Ananda asks how a monk should behave towards women, the Buddha was made to say, “Stay away from them,” and if they should confront women “they are not to look at them.” If this instruction is true, we have to take it with a grain of salt. It is possible that this instruction is meant only for Ananda. As we know he was a good-looking monk and had a charming personality. At one certain instant he almost lost himself to a seductive woman but the Buddha intervened and saved him. The teaching might also be taken, as general instruction when we understand that most monks are still not enlightened beings. Should they be allowed close connection with women, they can easily become confused. To avoid being side-tracked, monks should keep clear from women. But not having direct contact with women does not imply impurity an inherent negative quality in women.

The Buddha himself never had to avoid women. He received them at every appropriate time because he was enlightened having transcended any sexual inclination. There is also more positive passage in which he recommended monks to treat women the same age as their mothers the way they would treat their mothers, etc. How can the four groups of Buddhists work together as foundation for Buddhism when women as half of the population are always excluded? If women are weakened in supporting the Sanghas, Buddhism also becomes meaningless as it is used as a tool for liberating only the other half of the population. Both women and men must come together as established by the Buddha in supporting and promoting Buddhism. There were fewer people interested to study Buddhism. The immediate concern of leading day-to-day life took its precedence. It is unthinkable that women would have ample time to think of practicing Buddhism enough to commit themselves to ordained life. From a comparative study we find one common factor responsible for the ordination of women: it is that women are committed to Buddhism deeply enough to inspire them to think of leading an ordained life. This is true in Sri Lanka, China, Korea, and Japan.

The Spirit of Buddhism….

Buddhism will prosper or decline depending on the establishment of the four groups of Buddhists: monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. However, when we see some shortcomings in our society, we are accustomed to pointing our fingers towards the monks holding responsibility for the problems. In fact, the monks are only one of the four groups in Buddhist community. All of us, laymen and laywomen, hold equal responsibility for the problems. When the Buddha established the four groups of Buddhists, he wanted to make sure that this establishment will be solid foundation. Each one shares equal responsibility towards the development of Buddhism. Three important factors are involved in this establishment i.e. they have studied and understood the teaching, they put the teaching into practice, and they are able to defend and explain the teaching correctly. As female followers of the Buddha, Buddhist women must be aware to fulfil each one’s duty and responsibility towards this establishment.

Generally, Thai Buddhists tend to hold on to an attitude “If it is bad, it’s up to the nuns, if it is good, it is up to the monks,” that is if the monks or nuns should do anything bad, it’s their business, we as laypeople should not interfere. This attitude is harmful for the establishment of Buddhism. If we see one of the four members of the groups do wrong yet we remain silent, our silence, our non-interference, promotes wrongdoing and further harms the growth of Buddhism. It is therefore important the each one of the Buddhist groups must bear equal responsibility and see themselves as one united community. If one is doing something harmful, it’s going to harm the rest of the community and with the age of globalization the negative acts result in a domino effect. In the Pali Tripitaka there was a case of a man who was enlightened but could not find the robes and the bowl as required for ordination within 07 days. He died of an accident. In Thailand, even if we have no women ordained as bhikkhunis, mae jis are considered leading a celibate life and hence should be included. It is explained that the enlightened mind is too subtle to remain in a course physical body of a layperson; hence ordination is required to prepare the body to help maintain the subtlety of the mind.

Americans came across Buddhism during the Second World War through the work of Ven. D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese priest. The unique characteristic of Zen Buddhism fit in well with the spiritual vacuum in the USA at that time while many Americans were critical of the conservative institutionalized church and found satisfactorily the same matching spirit in Zen Buddhism. Later there were many other forms of Buddhism i.e. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Tibetan. Among the Theravadin propagators, Sri Lankan and Burmese monks gained the upper-hand being equipped with better access to English. American Buddhists became aware of the need to sift the essential teaching from various cultural cloaks. An Important factor one may find in Buddhism is the Indian cultural baggage which tends to suppress women. Critical American Buddhists became more aware of the need to do away with unnecessary cultural burdens and by so doing they have, to a great extent freed Buddhist woman from suppressing elements. A unique characteristic of Buddhism in the US is the strong participation of women in Buddhism. In Asia, women have limited opportunity both in their role and responsibility toward Buddhism. This not only bars women’s participation in Buddhism but also prevents the natural growth of Buddhism as a whole.

After women were accepted to join the Order it is recorded in the Vinaya that the Buddha prophesied that Buddhism would be shortened to 500 years. Luckily, we are now some 2000 years from the time the teaching of the Buddha was recorded, and we are able to judge clearly that such a saying was purely with bias against women and not in conformity with the spirit of Buddhism. We have studied the historical context to see how both the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni Sanghas prospered in India alongside each other. During King Asoka’s reign (C 03rd Century B.C.) Sanghamitta Theri, the King’s daughter was invited along with a group of bhikkhunis to establish the bhikkhuni Sangha in Sri Lanka and they received full royal support and prospered for more than a thousand years. In India, both historical and archaeological findings proved that the bhikkhuni Sangha existed through 10 – 11th century A.D. e.g. a stone inscription found at Bodh Gaya mentioned that Kuranji bhikkhuni, former wife of King Indramitra became enlightened; an inscription from Kusana mentioned the Buddhamitta bhikkhuni, disciple of the monk Bala was recognized as “Tripitaka” one who was well versed in the Tripitaka. These evidences are weighty enough to say that both Sanghas existed side by side until the Turk Muslims attacked India.

In Sri Lanka after the arrival of Sanghamitta Theri and the bhikkhunis from India, they gave ordination to Princess Anula, King Devanampiya Tissa’s sister-in-law along with a large number of women from the royal court. An inscription from the 16th Century found at Kukurumahandamana mentioned Mahindarama Hospital situated in front of the bhikkhuni Arama in Anuradhapura. It seems that bhikkhunis at that time were also involved in the social welfare of the people. Both the Mahavamsa and Culavarnsa referred to activities of the bhikkhuni Sangha. Only after 1050 A.D. after the invasion of a South Indian King, both the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni Sanghas disappeared from Sri Lanka. Later on Thai monks came to Sri Lanka on royal invitation and reestablished the bhikkhu Sangha which continues its existence up to present day. There was no mention of the bhikkhuni Sangha. During the time the bhikkhuni Sangha prospered in Sri Lanka, a group of them went to China on invitation and established the bhikkhuni Sangha there in 434 A.D. this lineage spread to the neighboring countries like Korea and Vietnam. Two points need to be mentioned in this connection. First, it is to be noted that Buddhism still prospers in the present era (B.E. 2540/1997 A.D.) not only in the East but it also travelled to the far West and begins to take root there. Second, we need to mention that the disappearance of both the Sanghas they were always together. These historical facts and evidences disqualify the common belief that by accepting women to the Order Buddhism will be shortened only to 500 years.

“The Eight Garudharmas”….

The Tripitaka, a large body of a Buddhist canonical texts, consists of three major parts. The teaching was recorded and put into three baskets called pitakas. The first part, Vinaya, deals with monastic prohibitions and allowances for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. Sutta, the second part deals with the teachings both of the Buddha and his major disciples. Some deal with the development of the mind free from social context while others are still cloaked with Indian social values. Some are Jatakas or the stories of the Buddha’s previous births woven out of popular stories from the Indian soil. These two portions of the Tripitaka were recited at the first council which took place three months after the Great Passing Away of the Buddha. Abhidharma, the third part of the Tripitaka, is philosophical exposition of the mind and its function composed by later commentators. All three parts of the Tripitaka were first recorded in written form not earlier than 450 B.E.

The materials found in the Tripitaka may be divided into two major portions: Lokuttara and Lokiya. Lokuttara deals with pure dharma aiming at mental freedom. By its nature, the mind has no gender difference. Lokuttara dharma is therefore beyond gender difference and bias. The latter portion, namely lokiya, is the teaching within a social and historical context. Therefore, its value is subjected to social and historical factors. This is portion may further be divided under two categories. The first part is that taken from the Indian social context, hence carried on and reinforced by Indian social values. This is responsible for the large part of materials found in the Tripitaka which appear to be suppressing women if we read the Tripitaka without understanding its framework. The other portion clearly presents an attitude of Buddhism trying to free itself from Indian social values, e.g. the caste system. The Buddha clearly denied the caste system which was a social measure to divide people into different castes. He, instead, emphasized that a brahmin is not one who is born from brahmin parents but becomes one through his righteous action.

Then he made his standpoint very clear to announce that men and women are equal in their potentiality to achieve spiritual enlightenment. A woman’s spiritual achievement came from her own action, not through devotion to her husband. Once women were admitted to the Order, they enjoyed equal opportunity to practice dharma. Many vinaya rules were laid down so that the bhikkhus will not take advantage of the bhikkhunis, e.g. monks are not to ask the bhikkhunis to wash their robes, rugs, etc. In this portion of materials, we find the Tripitaka supports and promotes women. We should take this as a true spirit of Buddhism. It is indeed social reform in an attempt to uplift women to share the responsibility as one of the four groups of Buddhists equally responsible for the growth or decline of Buddhism. In conclusion, we can say that it is true that there are certain passages in the Tripitaka which are suppressing to women but that they do not represent the true spirit of Buddhism.

When the Buddha finally allowed women to join the Order, he gave the Eight Garudharmas for them to follow. The Queen Maha Pajapati took these upon herself as a garland decorating her head. Nevertheless, these Eight Garudharmas have been much criticised, assuming after all the Buddha was not free from Indian social conditions. We need to take a close look at the Eight Garudharmas: 01 – A nun who has been ordained (even) for a century must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, do proper homage to a monk ordained but that day. 02 – A nun must not spend the rains in a residence where there is no monk. 03 – Every half month a nun should desire two things from the Order of monks : the asking (as to the date) of the Observance day, and the coming for the exhortation (of a monk). 04 – After the rains a nun must invite before both the Orders in respect of three matters; what was seen, what was heard and what was suspected. 05 – A nun, offending against an important rule, must undergo manatta (discipline) for half a month before both the Orders. 06 – When, as a probationers, she has been trained in the six rules for two years, she should seek ordination from both the Orders. 07 – A monk must not be abused or reviled in any way by a nun. 08 – From today admonition of monks by nuns is forbidden, admonition by monks is not forbidden.

The Buddha actually prescribed the Eight Garudharmas for the bhikkhunis to follow so that they function as a protection for themselves. Looking at them superficially one may think that they are measures to control women. To understand and appreciate Garudharma one needs to look at them within the given social and historical contexts. Indian society has always been patriarchal. Men are always at the central points of thoughts and interests. Women were brought up within a cultural and social setting which placed them as subordinates. They are under the care of their parents when young, under protection of their husbands when married, and under protection of their sons in their advanced age (Manudharmasastra). Women are taken as dependent beings. They cannot be left alone so much so that women are not accustomed to making decisions on their own. Their lives completely depend on the guidance of male members of the families. Religious life is not to be mentioned. A woman can expect to have spiritual salvation only through devotion and service to her husband. She may make offerings as the other half of her husband, but independently she cannot perform any ritual. She is neither allowed to recite nor to read the Vedas as she is unclean, and vice versa, she is unclean because she cannot study the Vedas. Social and religious conditions permit the only salvation for her through devotion to her husband. It also linked to her obligation of bearing sons to her family. It is believed that the son must perform the final rite to allow the access to heaven for his parents. In case a woman cannot bring forth a son to her husband’s family, her presence is indeed considered inauspicious. Buddhism emerged from Indian soil full of these social values. One needs to be reminded that Buddhist monks in the early period were after all Indian men from different castes molded with these social norms and values. Women came to join the Order at least five years after the bhikkhu sangha was established. It is only natural and understandable that the Buddha would place the bhikkhuni Sangha in a subordinate position to the bhikkhu Sangha for the harmonious coexistence and for a functional purpose in order to establish a balanced foundation of administration.

The bhikkhuni Sangha may be seen as a later arrival of younger sisters who must accept and pay respect to the bhikkhu Sangha, comparatively their elder brothers. The Buddha was well aware that with the admission of a large group of female followers he would need assistance from the bhikkhus to help him in the teaching and training of the newly ordained bhikkhunis. The easiest way to make their path smooth is to make them subordinate to the bhikkhu Sangha for functional benefit. I should also mention that the 06th Garudharma mentions that “a sikkhamana having completed the 02 year training, is to ask for higher ordination” is a later requirement. When the Buddha allowed Queen Maha Pajapati to join the Order, She was ordained as a bhikkhuni. Sikkhamana was not in existence at that time. What may be drawn from this seeming discrepancy is that the Garudharmas was introduced in a later period but placed at the conception of the bhikkhuni ordination to give emphasis to its authority as the recorder might have thought this to be a good measure for the bhikkhu sangha to control the bhikkhuni Sangha. More over the Eight Garudharmas may be found already in the Patimokkha itself.

“Life of purity”….

This is the Buddha’s instruction to the monks as found in the Tripitaka. The Buddha warned them to be careful of women. As a result, in Thailand, it is a custom when a woman wants to make offering to a monk, the monk always must lay a piece of cloth to receive it. Women tend to feel themselves lowly and not worthy, some would even see themselves as obstacles to the purity of monks. We must take this teaching in a new light. This is one of the examples showing how the teaching is androcentric by nature, giving the teaching from the standpoint and interest of monks. Newly ordained monks with little mental training might easily be led by defilements through contact with women. It is not the fault of women, but rather the weakness of the monks, so they must be mindful when they come in contact with the opposite sex. Even without women in front of them, some monks still face problems from “Women” in their own imagination and thoughts. Women cannot be held responsible for any failure on the monks’ side. The monks themselves must train and uplift themselves from sexual desire. Those who are already enlightened have transcended gender differences. The Buddha never had to avoid women, as they no more appeared to him as sex objects. He was well balanced and master of all desires. In the conversation with Ananda, the Buddha instructed him not to look at women, and not to linger while talking to them. “There is no stronger bonding for men than women”.

At the same time, he also warned women “there is no stronger bonding for women than men,” and “men are also enemy to the purity of women.” But the latter teaching is not applicable to monks, and as we have only monks giving teaching in Thailand, we hear only a one-sided teaching for men. As a result, society tends to blame women as if women are the only source of impurity. After women were accepted to join the Order it is recorded in the Vinaya that the Buddha prophesied that Buddhism would be shortened to 500 years. Luckily, we are now some 2000 years from the time the teaching of the Buddha was recorded, and we are in a position to judge clearly that such a saying was purely with bias against women and not in conformity with the spirit of Buddhism. Second, we need to mention that the disappearance of both the Sanghas they were always together. These historical facts and evidences disqualify the common belief that by accepting women to the Order Buddhism will be shortened only to 500 years. Buddhist academics explain that in the formation of the Tripitaka some parts are older than the others. The oldest is the Patimokkha, which is the monastic code for both monks and nuns. In Theravada there are 227 rules for monks and 311 for bhikkhunis.

 2,026 views

Back To Top