By Karen Andrews, Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley, CA
Buddhism has, throughout its history, slowly moved east, from India through China, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Japan. Most recently, it has begun its jump across the ocean to the United States. With each move, the expression of Buddhism has changed to suit the culture of the people. Buddhism has not yet been in the United States (or any other Western country) long enough to develop into a clear new form, suitable for Western culture. There are many aspects of traditional Buddhism which need slight adaptation in order to be accepted within the complex structures of Western society. One of the areas of traditional Buddhism which modern Western Buddhists find the most problematic is the area of gender. In most Asian Buddhist traditions, the leaders and teachers are all male, while females are given less prestigious roles. Western Buddhists tend to come from highly educated and socially liberal backgrounds, which means that they tend to feel that men and women are equal and should be given equal opportunities in all endeavors. This difference of opinion between Western and Asian Buddhists causes a certain amount of tension.
As a female Western Buddhist, I am naturally extremely interested in this issue. While admittedly it may have little bearing upon men’s practice on Buddhism, it has the potential to have an enormous effect upon my practice of Buddhism. I decided to use the opportunity this paper presented me to examine the role of women in Theravada Buddhism. Theravada is the oldest and most traditional of the various sects of Buddhism being imported to the United States. In order to understand the current situation, it is necessary to understand the historical setting. Therefore, I thought I would start by examining the role of women in early Buddhism, and trace the historical role of women in Theravada Buddhism through to the present.
What, then, was the role of women at the time of the Buddha? The historical Buddha lived in northern India at approximately 500 BCE. Women seem to have held an extremely subordinate place in the society in which he lived. They spent their lives serving. A typical woman spent her youth serving and obeying her parents, her middle years serving and obeying her husband and his parents, and her old age serving and obeying her grown children. Women usually had to marry the husband chosen for them by their parents, although occasionally young women would be given the choice of several suitors. The literature also mentions occasional elopements, without the permission of parents. However, for the most part, daughters could be married off at the discretion of their fathers.
Once married, women were supposed to obey their husband and his parents. Wives cooked, cleaned, bore and raised children, and looked after the servants. Women ate only what was left after the men had finished eating. If a husband was displeased with his wife, he could beat her or throw her out of the house. Divorce could be initiated by the husband, but not the wife. Women were supposed to bear children for their husbands. If no children were forthcoming, the husband would often take another wife. Adulterous wives were punished with death, while adulterous husbands were not punished at all. There were instances in which husbands would give their wives away to other men. Women were lowered nearly to the point of being mere chattel.
There were, of course, some women who were courtesans or prostitutes. Some women chose this life for themselves. Others had less choice. It is recorded that in Vaisali, there was a law forbidding a perfect woman to marry, and demanding that she be made available for the pleasures of the people. There were both advantages and disadvantages to the life of a courtesan. Courtesans often learned to play music and to dance. They were relatively independent, and could earn their own living. They had an accepted place in society. However, their lives were unsafe. As they had no one protecting them, they easily fell victim to robbers and murderers.
Many women were lower-class servants or slaves. These women had to follow all of the orders of their masters. Most of them worked hard all day, everyday. They could not marry without the permission of their masters. The slave women did not have the right to refuse the sexual advances of their masters. If the masters chose, they could beat the slave women to death. There are instances recorded in which slave women were beaten so regularly and heartlessly by their masters that they committed suicide.
In all their roles, women were less powerful than were men. As Janice Willis says,
“They were helpmates at best and burdens at worst, but always they were viewed as being inferior, second class citizens.” 1
Women seldom were allowed to make their own decisions. They were told what to do by men and spent their lives in service to others.
This, then, is the society in which the Buddha grew up and taught. Into this culture, the Buddha made what would have then been a radical statement on the potential of women. When asked by Ananda (his closest disciple) the Buddha said that women are capable of becoming arhats. If women follow the path of renunciation, they can become completely enlightened, just as men can. Elsewhere in the scriptures, the Buddha elaborates on this idea, while using the imagery of a chariot to explain the Buddhist path:
” ‘Straight’ is the name that Road is called, and ‘Free From Fear’ the Quarter whither thou art bound. Thy Chariot is the ‘Silent Runner’ named, With Wheels of Righteous Effort fitted well. Conscience the Leaning-board; the Drapery Is Heedfulness; the Driver is the Dharma, I say, and Right Views, they that run before. And be it woman, or be it man for whom Such a chariot doth wait, by that same car into Nirvana’s presence shall they come.” 2
Thus we find the Buddha teaching that not only can women reach the same levels of enlightenment as can men, but women also follow the same path to get there. The Buddha does not say that there are no differences between men and women. However, in these statements, he seems to feel that any differences between men and women are unimportant in the pursuit liberation.
The Buddha acted upon his conviction that women and men could pursue liberation in the same way. He established both an order of bhikkhus (monks) and an order of bhikkhunis (nuns). The two orders practiced in the same way and most of the rules governing them were identical. The Buddha also preached to both men and women. He was willing to teach anyone who was willing to learn. He put himself out of his way to bring both women and men to a deeper understanding. His belief that women could become arhats in the same way men could was validated by the enlightenment of many of his female followers.
However, the portrait of the Buddha painted by the Pali canon does not always validate the efforts of women to practice a life of renunciation. In an oft quoted passage, the Buddha is entreated by his step-mother to ordain an order of nuns. He warns her to be wary of the idea. She and a large group of women who want to be nuns dress as nuns, shave their heads, and walk barefoot to Vesali, where the Buddha had gone. They arrive at the Buddha’s door crying, with swollen feet. Ananda is moved by their determination and sincerity, and pleads their case with the Buddha. The Buddha at first refuses to ordain the women, although he admits that women who live the monastic life can attain arhatship. Eventually, Ananda changes the Buddha’s mind, and the women are ordained as nuns. However, the Buddha insists that they take upon themselves eight rules which place the nuns in a position decidedly subordinate to the monks. He also warns that his teachings, which would have lasted a thousand years, will only last five hundred years because of the ordination of the nuns.
Why does the Buddha, who is usually willing to bend over backwards to promote the growth and enlightenment of every person, suddenly so hesitant and gloomy when confronted with the opportunity to institutionalize a path towards enlightenment for women? Some recent commentators have argued that this incident never really happened, but was invented later in order to justify changes to the status of the bhikkhunis which were made to bring the practice of institutional Buddhism more in line with societally accepted norms. In other words, the Buddha thought of men and women as equal, and made the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis equal. After his death, the society could not deal with the existence of a group of women which were acknowledged to be equal with or superior to most men. Monastic Buddhism had to be acceptable to lay society, because the monastics were completely supported by the lay people. Therefore, various rules were made to lower the status of the bhikkhunis, and this story was invented to justify the change. This explanation of the story of the Buddha’s reluctance is possibly correct. The scriptures were not written down until four hundred years after the Buddha’s death, which gave plenty of time for small changes to creep into the stories.
Other modern commentators feel that the story is an accurate representation of what actually happened. These people feel that the Buddha himself must have been aware of the problems society would have in accepting an independent order of nuns. He made the rules about the bhikkhunis’ subordinance to the bhikkhus especially to mitigate action against the bhikkhunis. These rules call for gestures of submission on the part of the bhikkhunis, but in no way diminish the bhikkhunis’ ability to meditate and follow the path towards enlightenment. The Buddha may have seen this as the best way to preserve women’s ability to work towards enlightenment within the confines of their society. These commentators generally explain the Buddha’s statement about the amount of time his teaching would survive by saying that the Buddha felt that it was as valuable to reach twice as many people (both men and women) for half the length of time (five hundred rather than one thousand). It is possible that the Buddha thought his teaching would end sooner if women were ordained because he thought that society simply wouldn’t accept a teaching which allowed that much freedom for women.
All commentators agree that what was new and important about Buddha’s teachings about women was that women could attain arhatship and that women could do so by following basically the same path as men. Certain limitations were made on the social equality of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, and these limitations were probably made in order to increase societal acceptance of the monastic orders.
In any case, Buddha opened the doors for women’s entrance to monastic life. Women flocked by the thousand to join the order of bhikkhunis. Women joined for all sorts of reasons. Many women joined simply because the Buddha’s teachings made sense to them, and aroused in them a desire for liberation. Other women, though this first reason was true for them, had other reasons as well. Some become bhikkhunis because their husbands or other relatives were becoming bhikkhus. Others became bhikkhunis when they were widowed, or when their other relatives died. Some very poor women joined because the order would provide them with some measure of security. Courtesans who were disgusted with their lives of sex left to become bhikkhunis. Some young women chose the renunciate’s life as preferable to marriage.
Women had more freedom and independence within the order of bhikkhunis than anywhere else in society. Bhikkhunis were not anyone’s slave or servant. For the most part, they ran their own community and made their own decisions. They seldom had to take orders from any one and did not have look after anyone’s physical needs. They were specifically forbidden to do household chores. They had only to work for liberation from samsara. Once they, themselves, were liberated, then they often taught other women.
And many women became liberated, becoming arhats. There are dozens of instances of female arhats in the Pali canon. There must have been many more who were not recorded. These women were often accomplished speakers who led many other women to liberation. Some of their words are recorded in the Pali canon. These snippets show the female arhats’ delight and self-confidence in their freedom from traditional women’s positions. Soma, a bhikkhuni and contemporary of the Buddha, was taunted thus:
“That vantage point the sages may attain Is hard to win. With her two-fingered consciousness, That place no woman is competent to gain.”3
” Soma replied:What should the women’s nature signify When consciousness is taut and firmly set, When knowledge rolleth ever on, when she by insight rightly comprehends the Dharma?” 4
Soma clearly felt that her femininity was no obstacle to her enlightenment. She acted with self-confidence and poise. Her position was completely in accord with the Buddha’s teaching of anatman, or no-self. This teaching states that people have no fixed or permanent nature. All human attributes are in a constant state of change, and are not inherently real. If we see something that looks real, like “women’s nature,” we simply need to transcend this illusory attribute.
The greatest source of women’s voices in the Pali canon is in the Therigatha–the enlightenment songs of the early bhikkhunis. Although the Therigatha was probably edited by monks, it still allows us a glimpse of the early bhikkhunis’ delight at their freedom. For example, a nun named Mutta wrote:
“Free I am free I am free from the three crooked things: mortar, pestle, and my crooked husband. I am free from birth and death and all that dragged me back”.5
Bhikkhunis were not the only women who were important in the early years of Buddhism. Lay women were also important in the early vitality of the sect. Many women who were converted to Buddhism did not join the order of bhikkhunis. Quite a number of these women gained some level of enlightenment, and a few even became arhats. Perhaps more important to the young movement, however, was the financial support of wealthy lay women. Wealthy women gave the monastic orders mansions, money with which to construct monasteries, material for robes, bowls, food, medicine, and so forth. Historical studies have found that during the first seven or eight centuries of Buddhism in India, Buddhism was patronized by wealthy queens. These women provided a large portion of the material wealth of the monasteries, as well as probably helping the political position of the Buddhists. Although we cannot definitively say that Buddhism would not have survived that period without the help of the queens, it is certain that Buddhism would not have prospered nearly as much as it did.
On a more mundane level, most of the daily giving of food to the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis was done by lay women, as they were the ones who traditionally prepared and served food. Thus, the daily life of the renunciates required interaction with the lay women. As the bhikkhus were supposed to be celibate, this constant interaction with lay women could cause quite a problem. The lay women provided a temptation and a target for lust. In defense against their own lustful tendencies, the bhikkhus developed a misogynistic philosophy. For example, in the Anguttara-Nikaya (vi, 5, III, 56), monks are warned:
“Monks, a woman, even when going along, will stop to ensnare the heart of a man; whether standing, sitting or lying down, laughing, talking or singing, weeping, stricken, or dying, a woman will stop to ensnare the heart of a man. Monks, if ever one would rightly say: “It is wholly a snare of Mara,” verily, speaking rightly, one may say of womanhood: “It is wholly a snare of Mara.”6
This point of view was given credence by the circumstances surrounding many monks’ entrance to the order. Often, husbands abandoned their wives and children in order to become monks. As the women were left with little financial support and a greatly reduced status in society, they often tried to woo their husbands back. Although this tendency to present women as temptresses did have the positive effect of helping the monks resist the temptation to renounce the monastic life, it also had the negative effect of vilifying women. It placed the blame for monks’ feelings of lust on the women instead of on the monks. These misogynistic ideas also provided support for reducing the freedoms allowed to bhikkhunis.
So what happened to the order of bhikkhunis in the centuries after the Buddha’s death? The order flourished for several centuries. It is claimed that in the third century B.C.E., 96,000 bhikkhunis once gathered in Jambudipa. This is probably an exaggeration, but the order was clearly thriving.7
In the same century, Mahinda and some other monks travelled from India to Sri Lanka to convert the inhabitants to Buddhism. He preached to many people, converting many. He started an order of bhikkhus there. Queen Anula and her maidens heard him and were impressed by his wisdom. They wanted to become bhikkhunis, but he told them that he could not ordain them. Traditionally, it takes ten bhikkhus to ordain a bhikkhu, and both ten bhikkhus and ten bhikkhunis to ordain a bhikkhuni. Mahinda sent for his sister, Sanghamitta, who was a bhikkhuni in India. She came, with eleven other bhikkhunis, and started the nuns’ order in Sri Lanka. This happened in approximately 250 B.C.E.
The bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka propagated the faith and also seem to have worked as nurses. In the early fifth century C. E., Sri Lankan bhikkhunis went to China and established an order of nuns there. As the centuries progress, there is less and less mention of the bhikkhunis. By the third century C. E. there is almost no mention of bhikkhunis in India, although we know the order survived there in some form until at least the seventh century. There is similarly little mention of Sri Lankan bhikkhunis.
We do know that the bhikkhunis were declared wards of the king, and their monasteries were kept within the walled interiors of major cities, where they could (theoretically) be protected. The last certain reference to them is at the end of the tenth century. By then the order was not very numerous. The nuns were probably largely controlled by the edicts of the monarchy, and spent much of their time working as nurses and performing other social duties. It seems unlikely that they maintained much of their original spiritual autonomy and freedom to pursue enlightenment.
In the eleventh century, Sri Lanka was conquered by the Colas of southern India. The Colas destroyed all the monasteries and killed the monks and nuns. When the Colas were finally defeated in 1070, the new government worked to restore Buddhism. They managed to get some monks from Burma to come and restore the order of bhikkhus, but there were no surviving orders of Theravada nuns. (Buddhism had pretty much disappeared in India by this time.) Since ten nuns were needed to ordain a new nun, ordination of bhikkhunis stopped. Since that time, there has been no fully ordained order of Theravada bhikkhunis.
Thus, for the last millennium, female Theravada Buddhists have had to content themselves with lay life. The primary religious practice available to them has been support of the bhikkhus. While lay women’s support has certainly been useful for the continuance of institutional Buddhism, it is questionable whether this support has been similarly useful in freeing women to attain nirvana.
Clearly, not all Sri Lankan women have been content to pursue nirvana only in the limited ways permitted by traditional lay life. By the end of the nineteenth century a group of women had appeared in Sri Lanka who had renounced the lay life and vowed to keep the ten precepts (the most basic of the monastic vows). These women are referred to as “Dasa-Sil-Maniyo,” (DSM) or mothers of the ten precepts. As of 1984, there were approximately 2500 such women in Sri Lanka.
These women live very much as bhikkhunis used to. To most people’s eyes they would appear to be bhikkhunis. They shave their heads and wear saffron colored robes, just as the bhikkhunis did. They spend much of their time teaching people about Buddhism, meditating, and participating in Buddhist ceremonies. However, both the DSM and the people of Sri Lanka insist that the DSM are not bhikkhunis, because they could not be properly ordained by ten bhikkhunis and ten bhikkhus, as was the custom.
Not being allowed proper ordination has made life difficult for the DSM. Traditionally, laity gain merit by donating to ordained monastics much more than they gain merit by donating to lay people. Therefore, the laity do not feel they have strong religious reason to help support the DSM. Consequently, the DSM are poverty stricken. According to one recent report,
“The majority have no proper dwellings, no means of subsistence, no provision for obtaining clothing and material for their robes, and . . . no opportunity is given them to improve their understanding of the religion.”8
The government of Sri Lanka is making some attempt to rectify this unfortunate state of affairs. I do not know how much success this effort has had.
There is also a very small group of women in Sri Lanka who claim to be real bhikkhunis. They live in a cloister in the same complex as a a cloister of bhikkhus. The chief monk of the complex explains the claim that the women are bhikkhunis by pointing out that the traditional ordination was merely a custom, begun to encourage institutional stability. The Buddha only preached about the monastic life, and not about the details of ordination, so it is the monastic life which is important. What matters is that the monastic women properly understand the dharma and vow to follow the monastic rules. It is this that makes them bhikkhunis. This argument, however, is not accepted as valid by most Sri Lankans. This order of modern bhikkhunis does not seem likely to prosper. Thus, the two primary choices offered to female Buddhists in Sri Lanka are the life of a lay woman, supporting the bhikkhus, or the life of a marginalized quasi-monastic lay-nun.
And what of the West? How is Theravada Buddhism being incorporated into the lives of female Western followers? There are women in the United States who are living lives much like those of the DSM. These women dress like nuns and accept the ten precepts, but are not officially ordained. They often have difficulties similar to the DSM in Sri Lanka. The monastic women who live alone have difficulty supporting themselves and often have to resort to taking paid jobs just so they can eat and have a place to live. Doing paid work is against the traditional monastic rules, but these women have little other choice but to starve. They often have difficulty receiving religious instruction.
Other monastic women live in temples or meditation centers. These women are usually more financially secure and have regular religious instruction. However, they have to abase themselves before monks regularly. Western monastic women must let monks eat first, must sit in the back of the room during religious instruction, and must bow down before all monks, no matter what their level of religious attainment. Western women are not brought up to humble themselves before men, so these traditions tend to rankle enormously. There are a few women who are so involved with the meditation practice that they scarcely seem to notice the sexist social structure within which they practice. Other women are acutely aware of the sexism and try to ignore it so that they can reap the benefit of the actual practice. These women tend to try to use the humbleness demanded of them as a practice, but often they cannot help but mind the fact that this humbleness is not required of male practitioners. Although the Buddha taught that the same path leads women and men to enlightenment, women and men are given somewhat different paths.
A number of women have split off from the traditional monastic paths. These women, after receiving extensive training in Theravada Buddhist meditation, have become independent teachers of meditation and the dharma. They continue to follow the basic Buddhist precepts, but disregard all traditional limitations put on women. They bow down only to people whom they feel are more advanced than they are, themselves. They live where they choose and wear what they choose. Some of them are married. They teach both men and women. They often teach traditional Theravada meditation, but they sometimes combine Theravada meditation with the practices of other sects of Buddhism, or even practices of completely different religions. They often explain the dharma in their own language, eschewing the traditional explanations in favor of language less foreign to typical lay Americans. From the perspective of traditional Theravada practice, these women are renegades, scarcely similar enough to most Theravadans to be worthy of the identification.
Yet I suspect that these women, revolutionary as they are, probably point the way to the future of American Buddhist practice. Their way is one of dissolving boundaries. They dissolve the boundaries between various Buddhist sects, between traditional Buddhist language and secular American language, between lay and monastic life, and between traditional male and female roles. Somehow, all this dissolving of boundaries strikes me as being quite true to the Buddha’s original teachings. Although Theravada Buddhism as traditionally practiced may not survive in the melange that will probably become American Buddhism, I have a feeling that the most important pieces of the Theravada tradition will be preserved. At least, I hope so. I have high hopes for the ultimate outcome of the peculiar admixture of American independence and Buddhist liberation.
1. Janice D. Willis, “Nuns and Benefactresses: The Role of Women in the Development of Buddhism,” in Women, Religion, and Social Change, ed. by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad & Ellison Banks Findly (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1985), p. 61.
2.Samyutta Nikaya; I.5.6, quoted in Alan Sponberg, “Attitudes Towards Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism,” in Buddhism, Sexuality, and Society, edited by Jose Ignacio Cabezon, (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), p. 9.
3. quoted in Anne Bancroft, “Women in Buddhism,” in Women in the World’s Religions, Past and Present, edited by Ursula King, (New York: Paragon House, 1987), p. 82.
4. quoted in Alan Sponberg, “Attitudes Towards Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism,” In Buddhism, Sexuality, and Society, edited by Jose Ignacio Cabezon, (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), pp. 9-10.
5. quoted in Lenore Friedman, Meetings with Remarkable Women: Buddhist Teachers in America, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1987), p. 11.
6. quoted in Janice D. Willis, “Nuns and Benefactresses: The Role of Women in the Development of Buddhism,” in Women, Religion, and Social Change, ed. by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad & Ellison Banks Findly (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1985), p. 65.
7. Lenore Friedman, Meetings with Remarkable Women: Buddhist Teachers in America, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1987), p. 12.
8. Cleophas Thamel, “The Religious Woman in a Buddhist Society: The Case of the Dasa-Sil Maniyo in Sri Lanka,” Dialogue 11 (1984): 67.