Opening the Door

and letting the ladies in

Thich Nhat Hanh


This description of the obstacles that confronted the female disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha is from Old Path White Clouds, the life of the historical Buddha as retold by Thich Nhat Hanh. On of the most compelling and revolutionary dimensions of Shakyamuni Buddha was his defiance of the caste system. Rich people and poor, illiterates, intellectuals, and criminals were all accepted by the great sage. But as we shall see here, women who wanted to be ordained presented a special challenge.

The first women disciples were from the Buddha's own birthplace, Kapilavatthu, where he had been raised in protective splendor by his father, King Suddhodana and his step-mother, Mahapajapati Gotami. At age twenty-nine, he abandoned his wife, Yasodhara, and their infant son, Rahula, and afterward rarely returned to Kapilavatthu. For six years he sought but renowned masters and lived the life of a forest yogi. Following his great enlightenment under the bodhi tree, he walked the width and breadth of northern India spreading the good news: that the human mind contained not only the capacity to create enormous suffering but to dissolve it as well.

The Buddha did not wish to reaffirm the traditional view that women were innately handicapped in their capacity for spiritual attainment. Nor could he risk provoking the ruling Brahmins into rising against him. And then, too, he had to consider the effects (if women on his community of celibate monks. finally a compromise was reached: women could become bhikkhunis if they agreed to "The Eight Rules." These discriminatory rules defined a second class status for nuns that reiterated their position in the society at large. Nonetheless, for these women the rules were a negligible price to pay at the doors liberation. Furthermore, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, the rules were considered temporary, a conciliatory strategy that reflects the diplomatic skills of this pragmatic mystic. Sadly though, the rules did not dissolve with time. Rather, with the Buddha's death, they crystallized and created a canonical justification for a pervasive and long-lasting discrimination against women. From the traditional monastic organizations in Asia to the experimental Buddhist communities in our own society, the Buddha's teachings on gender equality have yet to be actualized.

This episode opens with the funeral of King Suddhodana. On hearing of his father's death, the Lord Buddha returned to Kapilavatthu with his cousin and close attendant, Ananda, and 500 saffron-robed bhikkhus, ordained male followers. —Ed.

THE BUDDHA SLOWLY CIRCLED the funeral pyre three times. Before he lit the funeral pyre, he said, "Birth, old age, sickness, and death occur in the life of all persons. We should reflect on birth, old age, sickness, and death every day in order to prevent ourselves from becoming lost in desires and in order to be able to create a life filled with peace, joy, and contentment. A person who has attained the Way looks on birth, old age, sickness, and death with equanimity. The true nature of all dharmas is that there is neither birth nor death, neither production nor destruction, neither increasing nor decreasing."

Once lit, flames consumed the pyre. The sound of gongs and drums intertwined with chanting. The people of Kapilavatthu attended in great numbers to see the Buddha light the king's funeral pyre.

After the coronation of the new king, the Buddha remained in Kapilavatthu in order to help his half brother during his initial months of rule. One day Mahapajapati Gotami visited him at Nigrodha Park. She offered a number of robes and also requested to be ordained as a nun. She said, "If you will allow women to be ordained, many will benefit. Among our clan, many princes have left home to become your disciples. Many of them had wives. Now their wives desire to study the Dharma as nuns. I want to be ordained myself. It would bring me great joy. This has been my sole desire since the king died."

The Buddha was silent for a long moment before he said, "It is not possible."

Lady Pajapati pleaded, "I know this is a difficult issue for you. If you accept women into the sangha [community] you will be met with protest and resistance from society. But I do not believe you are afraid of such reactions."

Again the Buddha was silent. He said, "In Rajagaha, there are also a number of women who want to be ordained, but I don't believe it is the right time yet. Conditions are not yet ripe to accept women in the sangha."

Gotami pleaded three times with him, but his answer remained the same. Deeply disappointed, she departed. When she returned to the palace she told Yasodhara of the Buddha's response.

A few days later, the Buddha returned to Vesali. After his departure, Gotami gathered all the women who wished to be ordained. They included a number of young women who had never been married. All the women belonged to the Sakya clan. She told them, "I know beyond a doubt that in the Way of Awakening, all people are equal. Everyone has the capacity to be enlightened and liberated. The Buddha has said so himself. He has accepted untouchables into the sangha. There is no reason he should not accept women. We are full persons too. We can attain enlightenment and liberation. There is no reason to regard women as inferior.

"I suggest we shave our heads, get rid of our fine clothes and jewels, put on the yellow robes of bhikkhus, and walk barefoot to Vesali where we will ask to be ordained. In this way we will prove to the Buddha and everyone else that we are capable of living simply and practicing the Way. We will walk hundreds of miles and beg for our food. This is the only hope we have to be accepted into the sangha."

All the women agreed with Gotami. They saw in her a true leader. Yasodhara smiled. She had long appreciated Gotami's strong will. Gotami was not one to be stopped by any obstacle, as proved by her years of working on behalf of the poor with Yasodhara. The women agreed on a day to put their plan into action. Gotami then said to Yasodhara, "Gopa, it would be best if you didn't come with us this time. Things may go more smoothly. When we have succeeded, there will be plenty of time for you to follow."

Yasodhara smiled in understanding.

EARLY ONE MORNING on his way to the lake to get some water, Ananda met Gotami and fifty other women standing not far from the Buddha's hut. Every woman had shaved her head and was wearing a yellow robe. Their feet were swollen and bloody. At first glance, Ananda thought it was a delegation of monks, but suddenly he recognized Lady Gotami. Hardly able to believe his eyes, he blurted, "Good heavens, Lady Gotami! Where have you come from? Why are your feet so bloody? Why have you and all the ladies come here like this?"

 Gotami answered, "Venerable Ananda, we have shaved our heads and given away all our fine clothes and jewels. We no longer have any possessions in this world. We left Kapilavatthu and have walked for fifteen days, sleeping by the roadsides and begging for our food in small villages along the way. We wish to show that we are capable of living like bhikkhus. I beseech you, Ananda. Please speak to the Buddha on our behalf. We wish to be ordained as nuns."

Ananda said, "Wait here. I will speak to the Buddha at once. I promise to do all I can."

Ananda entered the Buddha's hut just as the Buddha was putting on his robe. Nagita, the Buddha's assistant at that time, was also present. Ananda told the Buddha all he had just seen and heard. The Buddha did not say anything.

Ananda then asked, "Lord, is it possible for a woman to attain the Fruits of Stream-Enterer, Once-Returner, Never-Returner, and Arhatship?"

The Buddha answered, "Beyond a doubt."

"Then why won't you accept women into the sangha? Lady Gotami nurtured and cared for you from the time you were an infant. She has loved you like a son. Now she has shaved her head and renounced all her possessions. She has walked all the way from Kapilavatthu to prove that women can endure anything that men can. Please have compassion and allow her to be ordained."

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