Beyond Ambiguity: Going Beyond Gender Ambiguity in Theravada Forest Tradition

Beyond Ambiguity: Going Beyond Gender Ambiguity in Theravada Forest Tradition

By Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni

This article is dedicated to my Venerable Brothers and Fathers in the greater Thai forest tradition

Together with all of my Sisters and Mothers – the female monastics of the tradition in their many forms

And all the good people whose lives this tradition has touched and will touch, who aspire to be free from suffering

The Thai forest tradition harkens back to the rigor, simplicity and purity or the very early days of the Buddha Sasana.  This is its inspiration and affirmation of itself, which has also been my inspiration.  Some say that this is a dream or a romantic vision, but the forest tradition lives and exists vitalized by this vision of itself, which i would say is truly admirable in many ways and not without basis. This vision has spread throughout the fabric of the Thai society in past century, and in the past 40 years, throughout the world.

Over the years, i have become aware of the painful ambiguity that currently exists within this tradition related to women in monastic life (1).

Roots
One might say that this ambiguity is part of the nature of Thai society itself, however, pre-twentieth century Westerners’ travelogs and diaries record Thai culture as being far more gender equal than the Western culture of that time.  They also record sightings of golden-robed monastic women in remote provinces.  Such travelogs date from the days before the very thorough and extensive spread of the influence of the Western-influenced culture of the 18th and 19th centuries (2).  To whatever extent Thai Buddhist monastic culture disfavors women, the cause may be a long and strong influence of Brahmanism and Brahmanical teachings throughout the various Thai people’s histories, with the inclusion of popular works that are highly gender discriminatory such as the Hindu Laws of Manu or Manudharmasmriti, aka theManudharmashastra, which has been propounded and extolled by kings alongside the Buddha’s Dharma.  In modern times, Buddhist scholars have noted the mixing of Brahmanical, Islamic and Christian theology of gender influencing both modern Thai and Sri Lankan Buddhist culture and the slant in the interpretation or trend of Buddhist teaching (3).

One might also say, as many Buddhists do, that the ambiguity is deeply rooted in the ancient and original Buddhist texts of the Pali Canon themselves.  However, it is important to remember that widespread knowledge of the Pali texts is a very recent phenomena.  Previously, these texts were largely only known to those few monastics who were educated in the Pali-language and highly trained in the oral tradition of textual exposition.

Now
In modern times, with open public access via the World Wide Web to the Buddha’s teaching, in ways that may have only had parallel in the Buddha’s lifetime — if ever at all in Buddhist history — the seeming ambiguity of the Buddhist Sutta and Vinaya texts related to gender has become a phenomena of which there is a global awareness.  And with the ambiguity, in our modern cultural context, there arises doubt and a substantial amount of suffering, along with waves of attempts at clarification and reconciliation.

The Pali-texts are sometimes spoken and written of as the earliest of the Buddhist teachings.  There are some within the forest traditon who say that the Vinaya, or the monastic discipline, is the oldest of all..

But is this true?

Going Back 
For those who spend hours and days and years of their lives looking at the Pali texts and their English translations as i have, we may understand that this is may partly, but not completely, true.  The Pali texts are not the only textual renditions of the Buddha’s early oral teachings; and the Pali texts, as well as other early texts such as those of the Middle Indo-Aryan languages (4), have their strata.  This means that they exist in layers that developed over time, just as is true with the modern English language.  Modern native English speakers can tell the difference between Shakespearean English and early New World English and the modern English of 21st century New York or California.  Scholars of the Pali language and other ancient languages can also read such differences of time and place, called stratification.

From this study of the stratification of the Buddhist texts, we understand that both the Pali Suttas and the Vinaya have taken shape and come to be in their present form over a vast period of time.  The last Buddhist Council, in which the Pali Canon was set in its current form, took place in Burma remarkably recently, just a little over 50 years ago.  This version of the Tipitaka, that of the 6th Buddhist Council or Synod, can be found here: www.tipitaka.org, available for all the world to freely see and learn from.

The Vinaya is commonly spoken of within the Thai forest tradition as one of the oldest and purest teachings of the Buddha.  But the Vinaya shows such textual stratification.  It developed a little differently in different times and places; some parts of the Vinaya where “closed” earlier, while other parts continued to develop.  Only the Patimokkha is considered to perhaps belong, more or less, to the very ancient strata.  It is also interesting to compare the differences between the stratification of the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Vinayas, the monastic disciplinary texts for male and female Buddhist monastics, the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.

As has been noted by venerable Vinaya scholars such as Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Sujato Bhikkhu, the Bhikkhu Vinaya shows a level of potentially later development in terms of its analysis that the Bhikkhuni Vinaya does not.  It is curious why this should be.  It has been theorized that the two Vinaya traditions may have been independant of one another for some time.

From the 3rd century BCE, 200 years after the Buddha’s Parinibbana, and for the next approximately 800 years, Sri Lanka was home to the Pali-language traditon of Theravada Buddhism as well as to a Canon of the Buddha’s teachings and the Old Commentaries in the native old Sinhalese language, which became outdated and lost popularity over time.  These older texts were re-rendered into a new modernized Pali language by Acarya Buddhaghosa, an Indian monk who worked extensively with the Tipitaka and wrote volumnous new Commentaries, still considered greatly authoritative by many Theravadan Buddhists, particularly in Sri Lanka and Burma.  After acceptance of his new and revitalized works, according to one later and questionably reliable source, the Venerable Buddhaghosa burned the old texts, a not uncommon practice in India at that time (5). For a good number of years thereafter, Sri Lanka was one of the main centers for Pali-text Theravada Buddhism.  Later, in the 10th century CE this earlier Buddhist tradition was brought to at least a temporary end by political invasion of the Sri Lanka, which resulted in the eradication of both the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sanghas.

It seems that the Pali-text tradition of scholarship related to Bhikkhuni Vinaya, as developed and preserved by the Sri Lankan Bhikkhuni Sangha itself, ended at that time, approximately 1500 years after the Parinibbana.

The comparatively further development of the Bhikkhu Vinaya would indicate that, with the refounding of the Sri Lankan Bhikkhu Sangha not so long afterwards, that the tradition of development of the Bhikkhu Vinaya, particularly in its intricacies and its Analysis, as well as in its Commentaries, continued on until later, within the past 1000 years, both in Sri Lanka and in Burma.  This is to say that such developments in the Bhikkhu Vinaya may actually postdate the Buddha’s Parinibbana by anywhere from between 1500 – 2500 years.  Such later-middle period developments can not reasonably be considered the oldest strata of the Buddhist teachings.  Although austensibly based upon older commentaries closed by the 2nd century BCE, the vast majority of the Pali-text Commentaries also fall within the period of 1000-1200 years (or 800 to 1000 years) after the Buddha’s Final Nibbana (depending upon when that is dated) with later commentarial style works continuing into the 18th and even now into the 21st century.

In comparative Vinaya studies, it has been noted by eminent modern scholars such as the Venerable Bhikkhu Analayo, that the Pali-texts, as compared to other renditions of the original Vinaya of the Buddha’s lifetime, have a realtively greater instance of gender discriminatory statements.  In addition, the Commentaries also authored by Acarya Buddhaghosa 1000 years after the Parinibbana, contain a substantial increase in gender discriminatory (or some even say misogynist) statements and interpretations of the Vinaya.

It is important to remember here that these Commentaries do not necessarily represent the oldest strata of Buddhist teaching.

Going Deeper
Returning now to the modern love of ideas of original Buddhism in all of its purity within the Thai forest tradition, we ask the question of which Buddhist Canonical texts are considered by the best of modern scholars to belong to the oldest strata of Theravadan Buddhist teaching?

In regards to the aspiration and the painful ambiguity mentioned above, we wish to particularly focus on the view of Buddhist women and the view on women in monastic life within these oldest of texts that we have inherited.

Amongst Buddhist scholars, the Theragatha and the Therigatha (the enlightenment Verses of the Male and Female Elders) are amongst texts generally considered to be of this very oldest strata.  The Samyutta Nikaya is also considered from amongst the earliest strata of Sutta texts by scholars such as the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi – of which one section is the Bhikkhuni Samyutta.  There are also texts telling the tales of the lifestories or “Sacred Biographies” of the ancient bhikkhunis called the Theri Apadana which are generally agreed by scholars to be of later composition, perhaps 500 to 800 years post-Parinibbana.

The World View
Entering into the world of the Therigatha, we find a world in which women’s voices are radically honest with regards to the sufferings and joys that they faced both in lay life and monastic life.  The joys of the senses and of relationship, as well as the sufferings of abuse, the death of loved ones, even the suffering of Buddhist practice and apparent non-progress on the Path before their final enlightenment is all related in the ancient Theris’ enlightenment verses with fresh forthrightness and honesty.  It is a kind of “no holds barred” text in terms of the gritty and glorious realities of these ancient monastic women’s lives.

One notable feature of this text, in relationship to the issue of the painful ambiguity that is mentioned above, is that there is not a breath or a sign or trace of it.

The women of the Therigatha recognize gender discrimination, not dissimilar in many ways to what we find in modern life, in their greater society; but not in monastic life.  There is only one notable exception to this, that is, when the women are approached, as they regularly are, both before and after enlightenment, by Mara the Evil One.

Mara is regularly portrayed as making gender derogatory statements in the Therigathaand the Bhikkhuni Samyutta, such as seems to be intended to undermine the confidence of the woman involved or to test her enlightenment.  In the Theris’ enlightenment verses, such statements by Mara are always triumphantly balanced by the bhikkhuni Theri’s declaration of her seeing through and transcendance of any of the perceived limitations of her gender in the ideas and culture of her society.  And when the Buddha appears in the Theris’ Gathas or Verses, he is invariable the supporter and advocate or the confirmer of the Theri in the rightness of her victory.

Even subtle ambiguities, such as the later restrictions in the Vinaya on the number of women who can be ordained and trained at one time (which have led to inferences of supportiveness as well as to inferences of suppression of the Bhikkhuni Sangha by the Buddha), appear nowhere in the Therigatha.

An Abundance of Fully-Affirmed Fully Enlightened Women
The Venerable Patacara Theri, affirmed by the Buddha as his Foremost Disciple in Monastic Discipline in the Anguttara Nikaya, appears in the Therigatha with a following of 500 enlightened students who sing her praises in gratitude for her teaching (6).  She would have had to live a 1000 years to ordain so many of them according to the modern Pali-text Vinaya.  However, we understand that she was not a rogue monastic in this regard, but rather we know and remember her as the Buddha’s Foremost Bhikkhuni Disciple in Monastic Discipline, praised and commended by him on par with her bhikkhu peer, the venerable Vinaya expert Upali Thera, another of the Foremost Disciples of the Buddha.

Not only is there Patacara with so very many students, the former queen Anoja is also supposed to have had such an enormous following, as well as the Venerable Maha Pajapati Gotami Theri whose very large following the Buddha himself directed to be ordained.  And, beyond all others, the Buddha’s former wife and mother of his son, the Venerable Theri Yasodhara Rahulamata, is recorded in the Theri Apadana as having a following of not only 500, but 1000 or even (according to some translators and Commentaries) 1000s of bhikkhunis.

 

‘‘‘Nibbinditvāna saṃsāre, pabbajiṃ anagāriyaṃ;

Sahassaparivārena, pabbajitvā akiñcanā.

 

Disillusioned with Samsara,

I went forth from home life into homelessness;

Surrounded by a retinue of a thousand,

I was untroubled after my going forth [into monastic life].

— Yasodhara Theri Apadana 402 (6)

 

If we look at the Bhikkhuni Samyutta Chapter within the collected texts of the Samyutta Nikaya as well, we find a picture of the ancient Theris abiding in the solitude of the wilderness, their words of Dhamma well-spoken, the only voice of discrimination in the present other than their memories of their past lay lives, coming, in every single case, from Mara the Evil One.

Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi writes of this collection:

“These poems of the [bhikkhunis] of old still speak to us today through their sheer simplicity and uncompromising honesty. They need no ornamentation or artifice to convey their message but startle us with the clarity of unadorned truth… The last two suttas are philosophical masterpieces, compressig into a few tight stanzas insights of enormous depth and wide implications. Full appreciation of their richness and power would require extensive acquaintance with the whole corpus of early Buddhist texts.”

In the Bhikkhuni Samyutta, once again, as with the Therigatha, we do not find a single word indicative of the ambiguity that seems to have crept into or been deliberately inserted or written into later strata of Buddhist Dhamma and Vinaya.  Despite uncompromising honesty in relating the pain of gender discrimination in the outside world of their then contemporary Indian society, in the rigors of forest ascetical life and in the overcoming of the defilements and hindrances in their own hearts and minds, the bhikkhuni Theris do not once mention even the slightest bit of painful ambiguity with regards to the Buddha, the Bhikkhu Sangha, or their status as women within the Buddha’s monastic community.

Ambiguity’s End

“Endmaker, you too are ended.”

—  Kisa Gotami Theri to Mara, Bhikkhuni Samyutta, i, 128

For those who love, honor and revere this ancient way and its practice, and believe it still has a place in inspiring the practice of not only laypersons but also monastics, both solitary and in community, in the modern world, i would like to suggest that this vision is not absent in what is affirmed as the oldest strata of the Theravada Buddhist teaching — a strata in which gender discrimination belongs to the sphere of Mara and those deluded in the lay world.  Reading these texts, the ambiguity for women in monastic life is a thing of the past or of the future, but not of the present; a present in which the hallmark is of simplicity, honesty and an utterly unambiguous clarity, in the Dhamma and its living, as women disciples of the Buddha, in the monastic life.

This is utterly unsurprising for a Dhamma and Discipline in which the Buddha himself says he is unsurpassed: rightly remembered and rightly praised for a Holy Life that is completely purified and completely fulfilled in both its essence and its conventions.

For this characteristic, according to the Buddha’s teaching, i rightly praise the Buddha
For this characteristic, according to the Buddha’s teaching, i rightly praise the Dhamma and Discipline
For this characteristic, according to the Buddha’s teaching, i rightly praise the Sangha

[Evam]

References

(1) Sujato Bhikkhu, A Painful Ambiguity
(2) Kamala Tiyavanich, Buddha in the Jungle
(3) Dr Ranjini Obeyseke, Portraits of Buddhist Women & Yasodhara: The Wife of the Bodhisatta
(4) See KR Norman’s Collected Papers, Vol 3, “The Value of the Pali Tradition”
(5) For the practices and rites of Brahmins and Buddhists when engaged in public debate or Dharma combat see: Light of Liberation: A History of Buddhism in India, Nyingma Crystal Mirror Series, Ancient One
(6) Pancasata PatacaraTherigatha 6.1, PTS vv.127-132 and related Commentary
(7) The Pali-text is from www.tipitaka.org, English translation by Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni.  Jonathan Walters in his unpublished English translation of the Yasodhara Apadana here translates 1000 as “thousands”