Filed in Community, History

Opening the Door...

and Letting the Ladies in

Thich Nhat Hanh

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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.

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