Dear Ayye: Questions for Bhikkhunis

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Venerable Ayya Tathaaloka Explores the Question: Is Buddhism Patriarchal?

There can be many ways to answer a single question.  Some answers are questions themselves.

I would ask, “If a religion or philosophy, a teaching or way of life is founded by a man, does that mean it is patriarchal?”  My thought would be no.

Another question: Is only the body or is the mind gendered?  If only the body, then anyone who is a stream-enterer and has entered the Arahant Path, who has destroyed the fetter and distortion of sakkayaditthi (“view of self identity as existent in the body”) should have mentally escaped the snares of patriarchal views.

Is the mind and consciousness gendered? And is rebirth karma gendered? Different Buddhist traditions seem to have gone different directions in this regard.  Some early teachings on rebirth and the past life stories of the great disciples of the Buddha illustrate single gender transmigration, even from animal life to human and divine life; others do not.

Texts often considered by scholars to contain some of the older or oldest strata of the Early Buddhist texts illustrate transgender rebirth.  In example, in the Therigatha, the venerable Mahapajapati Gotami Theri, the Buddha’s aunt and foster mother, often acclaimed as the founder of the Bhikkhuni Sangha, speaks of her past lives as both male and female.  This is not the only such mention among Buddhist texts.  And yet, there are some traditions within Buddhism, particularly within later Pali-text genres, that do not accept this, seeming to have adopted the view that gender identity runs deeper than this.

The Apadana (“Sacred Biography”) genre of the Pali Texts is a tradition in which gendered identity does run deeper and spans lives.  In the Theri Apadana (the “Sacred Biographies of the Women Elders”), often written of as the younger sister of the Therigatha above, all of the awakening women’s past lives remembered are of female incarnation.  This doctrine thus places enormous emphasis on awakening in the woman’s body, and realizing full fruition on the spiritual path as a woman.  For within this important genre of texts, one cannot transgender over lives.  The life stories and past life stories contained within this body of texts illustrate women in foremost positions of leadership, teaching and eminence within the early Buddhist Sangha.  A far cry from contemporary Asian Theravada in which it is often considered improbably to impossible that a woman realize the epitome of the spiritual path as a woman, and rebirth as a man is sought as favorable.  Unsurprisingly, where this doctrine is strong, the contemporary Buddhist culture is highly patriarchal.

Returning to a different picture in early Buddhist teachings, Buddhist scholar Peter Skilling has noticed the parallels that run across Early Buddhism, in which both men and women seem to have had equal opportunities in both the lay Buddhist world and the monastic spheres.  And yet, as we have seen in brief above, in adapting with various cultures, times and places, this practice too was adapted and has adapted again and again in various ways, and continues to adapt.  The variety that we find now is the legacy of these adaptations in past.

A student of certain Buddhist traditions such as Zen might ask, “What about the lineages of patriarchs?”  Having studied Buddhism in various Asian languages; Sanskrit, Pali and Classical Buddhist Chinese; this is one of the questions that brings on a little chuckle for me.

I would say that early Buddhism had both patriarchs and matriarchs, both Mothers and Fathers of the Sangha, with their gatherings of students and adepts who sang their praises in gratitude.  These leading “Elders” were called Theras (m) and Theris (f), or the gender neutral 高僧 in Chinese.  (These words should appear familiar from the text names above.)  They were also called Etadagga Savakas (m) or Etadagga Savikas (f)–“Foremost Leading Disciples of the Buddha”.  Later traditions also called them Pubbacariyas in Pali or Purvacaryas in Sanskrit, literally the “Former” or “Foremost” or “Preeminent Masters/Teachers”.

It is this last, that was very literally translated into what is now known as Classical Buddhist Chinese into 祖師 or ‘”Former (or Foremost/Preeminent) Masters”.

Interestingly enough, it is in English, that these two terms, originally non-gendered in Asian Buddhist languages, have become the specifically gendered English “Patriarchs”; while their Asian predecessors were not necessarily so constrained.  And we find, to our surprise, that the lineage of Indian Zen patriarchs contains within its ranks a women, Prajnatara, no less than the preeminent master of the very founder of Zen, Bodhidharma, who brought this Buddhist meditation tradition from India to China.

Inscriptions from the early centuries CE, when Buddhism was still flourishing in India, shine light on ancient women masters of the tradition. Women who mastered the entire Tipitaka such as the 2nd century CE Kushan bhikkhuni Buddhamitra, women who had many students such as the Buddha’s eminent disciple Patacara Theri, and those who were master teachers such as the venerable Dhammadhinna Theri who’s words the Buddha praised as buddhavaca—just as if spoken by the Blessed One himself. Women who left the highest stations of life as reigning queens to become humble recluses such as the 5th century BCE Indian venerable Anoja Theri of Madda or 7th century CE queen Seondeok of Shilla , women who were the leaders and supporters Buddhism, from all walks of life.  Early Buddhism seems to have been a very woman-friendly tradition.

Perhaps it was neither originally truly patriarchal nor matriarchal, but as Buddhism spread, it showed itself capable of morphing according to the times and places and circumstances. Most always in its metamorphosis it retained its core teachings of awakening and full liberation for women at the core level.  And yet, in some times and places, even this most sacred point was touched upon, whether in denying those incarnated into the female body access to the Bodhisattva Path or Buddhahood, or later, even into the hallowed ground of legitimate status in Buddhist monastic life.  And yet, these adapted doctrines, have never been able to take over the radical spirit of Buddhism entirely.  Whether in branches of Mahayana or Vajrayana, Zen or Theravada, the women awake make their way through the cracks, shining in their transcendence and the glory of the Awakened Ones, in every one of the Buddhist traditions. As if to say: all these ideas aside, the female body is no hindrance for me.  The nature of the human heart being what it is, and the Path being practicable and realizable; I have attained awakening, I am liberated, I have done what needs to be done, this is my last birth, there is no more need to come to any state of being, whether amongst humans or the divine.

Heart gone beyond gendered identity views, they still shine to us as glorious examples of what is possible as women, or beings of any gender, and ultimately beyond gender.

And this is one of the things I have loved about the living of the traditional Buddhist monastic life.  In the going beyond, and in the non-gender bound form, one can just be as one is, and the full qualities of one’s own heart-mind, unbound from identity views, shine in their full spectrum of richness. Eminent elder and leading female monastics can be strong and sure in themselves, elder eminent male monastic leaders gentle, tender and compassionate; vice-versa, and everything in between.  As there are, no gendered restrictions to the full living of these wonderful natural qualities of the embodied awakened and awakening heart.

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