and letting the ladies in
SHAKYAMUNI BUDDHA: A LIFE RETOLD
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 WAS silent for a long moment. He then asked Nagita to summon Venerables Sariputta, Moggallana, Anuruddha, Bhaddiya, Kimbila, and Mahakassapa. When they arrived, he discussed the situation with them at length. He explained that it was not discrimination against women which made him hesitant to ordain them. He was unsure how to open the sangha to women without creating harmful conflict both within and outside of the sangha.
After a lengthy exchange of ideas, Sariputta said, "It would be wise to create statutes which define the roles of nuns within the sangha. Such statutes would diminish public opposition which is certain to erupt, since there has been discrimination against women for thousands of years. Please consider the following eight rules:
"First, a nun, or bhikkhuni, will always defer to a bhikkhu, even if she is older or has practiced longer than he has.
"Second, all bhikkhunis must spend the retreat season at a center within reach of a center of bhikkhus in order to receive spiritual support and further study.
"Third, twice a month, the bhikkhunis should delegate someone to invite the bhikkhus to decide on a date for uposatha, the special day of observance. A bhikkhu should visit the nuns, teach them, and encourage them in their practice.
"Fourth, after the rainy season retreat, nuns must attend the Pavarana ceremony and present an account of their practice, not only before other nuns, but before the monks.
"Fifth, whenever a bhikkhuni breaks a precept, she must confess before both the bhikkhunis and the bhikkhus.
"Sixth, after a period of practice as a novice, a bhikkhuni will take full vows before the communities of both monks and nuns.
"Seventh, a bhikkhuni should not criticize or censure a bhikkhu.
"Eighth, a bhikkhuni will not give Dharma instruction to a community of bhikkhus."
Moggallana laughed. "These eight rules are clearly discriminatory. How can you pretend otherwise?"
Sariputta replied, "The purpose of these rules is to open the door for women to join the sangha. They are not intended to discriminate but to help end discrimination. Don't you see?"
Moggallana nodded, acknowledging the merit of Sariputta's statement.
Bhaddiya said, "These eight rules are necessary. Lady Gotami has commanded much authority. She is the Lord's mother. Without rules such as these, it would be difficult for anyone except the Buddha himself to guide her in her practice."
The Buddha turned to Ananda, "Ananda, please go and tell Lady Mahapajapati that if she is willing to accept these Eight Special Rules, she and the other women may be ordained."
THE SUN HAD already climbed high into the sky, but Ananda found Lady Gotami and the other women patiently waiting. After hearing the Eight Rules, Gotami was overjoyed. She replied, "Venerable Ananda, please tell the Buddha that just as a young girl gladly accepts a garland of lotus flowers or roses to adorn her hair after washing it with perfumed water, I happily accept the Eight Rules. I will follow them all my life if I am granted permission to be ordained."
Ananda returned to the Buddha's hut and informed him of Lady Gotami's response.
The other women looked at Gotami with concern in their eyes, but she smiled and reassured them, "Don't worry, my sisters. The important thing is that we have earned the right to be ordained. These Eight Rules will not be barriers to our practice. They are the door by which we may enter the sangha."
All fifty-one women were ordained that same day. Venerable Sariputta arranged for them to live temporarily at Ambapali's mango grove. The Buddha also asked Sariputta to teach the nuns the basic practice.
EIGHT DAYS LATER, Bhikkhuni Mahapajapati paid a visit to the Buddha. She said, "Lord, please show compassion, and explain how I may best make quick progress on the path of liberation."
The Buddha answered, "Bhikkhuni Mahapajapati, the most important thing is to take hold of your own mind. Practice observing the breath and meditate on the body, feelings, mind, and objects of mind. Practicing like that, each day you will experience a deepening of humility, ease, detachment, peace, and joy. When those qualities arise, you can be sure you are on the correct path, the path of awakening and enlightenment."
Bhikkhuni Mahapajapati wanted to build a convent in Vesali in order to enable the nuns to dwell close to the Buddha and his senior disciples. She also wanted later to return to Kapilavatthu to open a convent in her homeland. She sent a messenger to Yasodhara to announce the good news of the women's ordination. Bhikkhuni Gotami knew that the acceptance of women into the sangha would create an uproar. Bitter opposition would undoubtedly result, and many people would condemn the Buddha and hissangha. She knew the Buddha would have to face many difficulties. She was grateful, and understood that the Eight Rules were temporarily necessary to protect the sangha from harmful conflict. She was sure that later on, once the ordination of women was an established fact, the Eight Rules would no longer be necessary.
The Buddha's community now had four streams—the bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, upasakas (male lay disciples), and upasikas (female lay disciples).
Bhikkhuni Mahapajapati gave careful thought as to how the bhikkhunis should dress. Her suggestions were all accepted by the Buddha. The bhikkhus wore three garments—the antaravarsaka or pants, the uttarasangha or inner robe, and the sanghati or outer robe. In addition to these three garments, the bhikkhunis added a cloth wrapped around the chest called a samkaksika, and a skirt called a kusalaka. In addition to their robes and begging bowl, each monk and nun also had the right to own a fan, a water filter, a needle and thread to mend their robes, a pick to clean their teeth, and a razor to shave their heads twice a month.
From Old Path, White Clouds, Parallax Press, 1991. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King and has continued to advocate peaceful social action.
Image 1: Conference for Buddhist nuns,
Bodh Gaya, India
Image 2: Thich Nhat Hanh (Simon Chaput)