Where Are the Women Monastics?

Where Are the Women Monastics?

By Susan Pembroke

I was introduced to Buddhism in the mid 1980’s. One of the first books I read was Jack Kornfield’s “Living Buddhist Masters,” a remarkable compendium of extraordinary Thai teachers, subsequently reprinted under the title “Living Dharma: Teachings of Twelve Buddhist Masters.” What was striking was the presence of only one female, Achaan Naeb, and she was a laywoman to boot. Why the voice of only one woman? And where were the women monastics?

Achaan Naeb had been born into an affluent family, her father a Thai governor, the implications of her elevated status clear. Without money, education, prestige, and the opportunity, power, and freedom that flow from those things, a Thai woman lacked the conditions needed for spiritual training and advancement.

My life at the time was crowded with graduate school and all the usual demands of contemporary American life. Thailand was remote and exotic, its institutionalized oppression of women not something I thought I could impact or should even consider trying. A trip to Kuala Lumpur in 2006 to attend a Sakyadhita conference changed those assumptions.

In Malaysia, I met several Thai bhikkhunis and learned of their ongoing struggles. At the time, there were only a handful of them. The number remains small, with no more than about twenty samaneris and bhikkhunis total. Thai monks are banned from ordaining women under the 1928 Sangha Act which remains in effect. Not recognized as legitimate monastics, bhikkhunis are not eligible for the free education enjoyed by the monks or the institutional support the bhikkhus receive.

I was sad and dismayed to discover how little has changed in Thailand since the Kornfield book first appeared thirty years ago. Upon returning to the U.S., I checked on the status of American bhikkhunis to determine how they were faring and what assistance, if any, they might need. I was stunned to learn that there were only about a dozen bhikkhunis in the entire U.S., with less than a handful American born.

Why were women not ordaining at a time when our world — rife with violence, addiction, poverty, domestic violence, racism, AIDS, other epidemics and diseases, starvation, and wars — is so in need of the wise counsel and compassion of women monastic leaders?

So began my education on the obstacles to the ordination of Theravada women, barriers that impact Vajrayana women as well. I also learned about the garudhammas, eight special rules that apply only to women monastics. The first rules states that a monk ordained one day is superior to a women ordained for 100 years. This institutionalized gender oppression has prompted some women in Sri Lanka (See Tessa Bartholomeusz’s “Women under the bo tree.”) to pursue an independent religious life rather than ordain and be dependent on monks who are trained to view them as inferior.

Fortunately, things are changing. Research and discussion are debunking the cherished myths and distortions that have kept women marginalized. Misinformation attributed to the Buddha is no longer credible or logical. Papers delivered at the First International Congress on Women’s Role in the Sangha, held in Hamburg, Germany in 2007, are dismantling the misogyny which was never in keeping with the Buddha’s teachings but was and continues as a cultural manifestation.

One such groundbreaking paper was given by Bhikkhu Dr. Analayo from the University of Marburg, Germany. Ven. Dr. Analayo pointed out an obvious timeline discrepancy that amazingly has gone undetected until now. It involves the deeply held belief that Ananda played an instrumental role in the founding of the bhikkhuni sangha. He was credited, and later chastised by the First Council, for advocating for the ordination of the Buddha’s maternal aunt and stepmother, Mahapajapati. In the abstract to his paper, Ven. Dr. Analayo writes, “There are many problems chronologically, however, in the traditional account of Mahaprajapati. She first requested ordination five years after Buddha’s enlightenment; but Ananda, who requested Buddha on her behalf, first ordained only twenty years after Buddha’s enlightenment. Considering that Mahaprajapati, as Buddha’s maternal aunt, raised him after his mother’s death, she would have been about eighty years old when Ananda was senior enough to make the request.”

It is astounding that this fabricated narrative about the Buddha’s aunt has gone undetected until now when only elementary math was needed to overturn it. We see what we are trained to see, what we expect to see. It begs the question: what else are we missing?

Another wonderful casualty of the Hamburg conference is the bhikkhuni garudhammas, the eight rules the Buddha purportedly imposed on his aunt as a condition for her ordination, their creation intimately linked with the fabled account of the hesitant Buddha finally acquiescing to his aunt’s request. American Ayya Tathaaloka Theri, an attendee at the German conference, summarizes the consensus of scholars regarding the eight special rules as a “definite historical impossibility.”

Her Vinaya research following the conference leads her to hypothesize that the garudhammas, in their earliest formulation, had nothing to do with gender but applied to bhikkhus and bhikkhunis alike, and referred to weighty and grave offenses that should never be committed by anyone. (See the links in this edition to the Australian seminar in 2008, including Ayya Tathaaloka’s 3-part talk on the garudhammas in which she explains her findings and reasoning, and a link to the Hamburg conference as well.)

If you listen, you can hear the creaking sound of a patriarchal structure collapsing under its own weight. This is a freeing and wonderful thing for men as well as for women. Bhikkhus have not had the blessings and advantages of having their sisters at their side. They have been in need of wise counsel and compassion, too.

I see a future in which bhikkhus and bhikkhunis show respect to each other, not based on gender, but on years ordained and recognized accomplishment. I am happy to report that this is already happening in Australia.