Self-Reliance and Liberation from Poverty
by Ven. Dr. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni
Buddhism is one of the major world religions, and one of its strong characteristics is self-reliance. Buddhism frees itself from the Brahmanistic background of its time by breaking from the total belief and dependence of taking the Vedas as the complete and absolute authority. That is why Buddhism was categorized as nastika (“one who denies”), as opposed to other trends of belief and practices of the time that accepted the authority of the Vedas as absolute.
In addition to denying the authority of the Vedas, Buddhism goes even further and claims that to be a Brahmin is based on one’s actions rather than one’s genealogy. Therefore, early communities (Sangha) drew people from all walks of life, the line drawn between different castes was lifted, and people were able for the first time to enjoy true spiritual freedom through their own potentiality and achievement.
Buddhism recognizes people’s equality in their spiritual potentiality and cuts across gender differences. Buddhism is the first religion in the world to offer a true liberation to all humankind.
Tracing back through its historical context, we find that the Buddha discovered this Supreme Truth and liberated himself from the bondage of old age, sickness, and death at the age of thirty-five. He spent the remaining forty-five years of his life preaching this wonderful message to the rest of humankind.
His Sangha started first as a male Sangha, which was in accord with the social attitudes of the times. Later on, when his own aunt and stepmother, Queen Mahaprajapati, re-quested that she be allowed to join the Sangha, the Buddha hesitated. But when she had proven to him her sincerity for pursuing the spiritual path by following him on foot from Kapilavastu to Vesali with a large retinue of women, he agreed to allow her to join the monastic order. It is very interesting to read closely this event. It was Ananda who asked the Buddha if women were not capable of spiritual attainment. The Buddha confirmed that women are equal to men in their spiritual potential to be enlightened.
This recognition opened up a new vista of spiritual pursuit, as had never before women had this opportunity. To recognize and make known this spiritual equality itself made the teaching of the Buddha shine through the clouds of social myth.
Women are independent and must be responsible for their own spiritual development. Women must be self-reliant. We all must be self-reliant.
This message of self-reliance for women is supreme, not only in the context of Buddhism, but also in the history of world religions. There is no other religion before or after Buddhism that propounds such a clear and vivid message of spiritual self-reliance for both men and women equally.
Prior to Buddhism, Indian women had to get married. Salvation for them was through complete bhakti (devotion) to their husbands, no matter what kind of husbands they might be. Another social and religious bond that came after marriage was the expectation that married women would bear sons. For the sons would have to perform sraddha, the rites to enable their deceased parents to go to heaven. A married woman without a son was treated as inauspicious, and the husband then was entitled to seek yet another wife.
An unmarried girl was looked down upon, and became a social and financial burden to her parents.
It was within the social values of this context that the Buddha came forth with his teaching liberating women from the social and religious responsibility to get married.
A woman’s salvation relied totally upon herself, and came neither through her husband nor her son. With this message of absolute freedom, socially and spiritually, it is no wonder that women flocked to Buddhism.
The nun Mutta in the Therigatha (Songs of the Nuns) was a clear example of this freedom. She was freed from her hunchbacked husband, and also freed from pots and pans– which was symbolic of being liberated from the household chores that bound women of all nations and all times to the kitchen.
This message of spiritual self-reliance outshines all other messages.
At the time of ordination, one is to repeat:
“Sabba dukkha nissarana, Nibbana sacchi karanattha ya,” which means: “I will try to end all the suffering (myself), and I will try to make Nirvana a reality (myself).”
The message again is loud and clear. Nobody, not even the Buddha, can assist us unless we walk the path ourselves. The Buddha, at best, can only show us the path that he himself had walked to find spiritual salvation.
When we talk about enlightenment, we talk about that specific quality of the mind that has gone beyond the bonds of all worldly attachment. When we talk about that enlightened mind, we do not make any distinction between male and female. Enlightenment is beyond gender. This realization is very powerful and enables each one of us, male or female, to strive with equal perseverance toward this spiritual goal.
When the highest spiritual potentiality is recognized, women’s self-reliance in other spheres also follows suit.
Social and cultural customs in Thailand are such that they generally place women in a house-bound context. This is understandable if in that household we have a balanced number of men and women. But in many households, women are more numerous than men, although the reverse is also possible. We cannot be rigid any more in the way we look at the role of gender. As we have all kinds of work in the family, if we are stuck with the notion that this work is only for men and that work is only for women, then we run into a problem when we do not have a sufficient number of men or women in the family.
In order to be able to face poverty squarely, let us face the need and the work as it is without attaching any unnecessary gender label.
Do not keep driving only for the men, and do not keep cooking only for the women.
In order to crack this stereotype mentality, allow me to narrate a tale of the training at our temple. One day, I went to work in the garden. Our temple is a Buddhist nunnery without any men. That day we were supposed to remove the concrete wall to make another entrance to our garden. I worked with five other girls and women. We all faced the wall with our equipment, hammers and pounders.
The girls were quite taken aback, as our task was to remove the old brick wall, 3 meters wide and 2.5 meters high. I did not ask them whether we could do it or not. But I asked them how to do it. Psychologically, I provided them with a presupposition that we can do it. This is very important, for much of the work we do not do is purely from the belief that we cannot do it. I did not give them the chance to doubt whether they could do it or not.
I asked them which point on the wall they thought we should begin pounding first. One teenage girl suggested that we start right in the middle. I asked her for the reason. She said that it was because it is the furthest from the posts on the two sides. Others seemed to agree.
So we decided to start from the center, but no one wanted to make the first move. I provided them with the leadership role, but to tell you the truth I had never done it before. I gave forty-six bangs with a heavy pounder on the center of the wall before I could make a hole. When we cracked the first hole, I could feel that the girls had really gained the sudden belief that they could also do it. We started opening up the crack from the one hole and finally within one hour we could remove the whole wall.
The older woman in our group helped to pick up the loosened bricks and piled them on the other side.
When we moved over to the next wall, this time the youngest girl in the group, who was fifteen, volunteered to make the breakthrough hole. We allowed her to take the initiative. That was a very good and effective way to boost her self-confidence. When she got halfway through, I encouraged the others to come and help. I knew that it was too strenuous to expect the girl to do it all by herself. They cracked the first hole with only thirty-two bangs. And before we knew it we had finished the second wall within half an hour. It only required half the time of the first wall.
By working on tearing down these two walls, the group achieved immense self-esteem and self-reliance. Otherwise, in our stereotype, the women tend to say “Oh, let the men do it.” Or otherwise someone would suggest “Let’s hire some workers to do it.”
Self-reliance comes with self-esteem and self-worth when we are able to overcome these social values and stereotypes, which often make us unnecessarily handicapped.
From this understanding and training, we can examine some of cases of poverty. We find that in many households, it is only the males, the fathers or the husbands, who are wage earners. But it is not necessarily so. Women are capable of doing many things to bring in some income for the family as well.
The age-old social values that put the financial burden on the shoulders of male members only must be redefined. In this fast-moving age, both husband and wife should work to lessen the financial burden.
Education should be given equally to both daughters and sons. In Thailand, particularly on the village level, sons tend to get better opportunities for education than daughters, who are told that it is because the boys will grow up to be the heads of families.
Now we need to prepare both sons and daughters to grow up to be equal partners, and both should be responsible for supporting the family.
Education for boys only, or for boys first, has no place in the reality of the world today.
Both boys and girls must be trained to be fully self-reliant to lead their lives efficiently and morally with or without the responsibility of raising a family.
All children must be given the opportunity to blossom to the completeness of their potentiality.
All human beings must be allowed to grow to their fullest potential, both physically and spiritually.
As Buddhists, we need to realize the most beautiful message that the Buddha provided for us: that each one of us has an equal opportunity to be enlightened. That is the highest human achievement. That is the most meaningful message on self-reliance.
Published with the author’s permission.