Strengthening the Tradition: Women in Buddhism

by Ven. Dr. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni / Prof. Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh

New Zealand, December 5-8, 2008

by Ven. Dr. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni / Prof. Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh

New Zealand, December 5-8, 2008

In this globalized world when news gets across from this end of the world to the other end within a matter of minutes, we realize, more than before, that the teaching of Buddhism is a reality. We are all interconnected, not only human beings but also animals, trees, etc. The Dhamma is all-inclusive.

Recently I had an opportunity to be at a particular religious center in Europe which was at its height in the 1950s having now dwindled to only a Sunday meeting of the elder members of the group. But paradoxically, it made me ponder about how great the teaching of the Buddha is, as it has lasted through so many centuries. It has a rejuvenating strength which takes its own message far and wide. The teaching is very revealing and convincing to everyone alike.

Anyone who is serious about the meaning of life will be drawn to the teaching of Buddhism. The Buddha himself started his spiritual search from basic questions—how can we be free from suffering of illness, old age and death?

The question is existential in its nature, and it is our quest as much as the Buddha’s. But it was he who took it upon himself, with perseverance, to renounce the world of comfort and go into the wilderness and explore the world from within the mind.

His spiritual discovery was even greater than his quest. It opened up the spiritual horizon of insight into the Dhamma. It is a discovery to which everyone has access.

The Beauty of the Buddhist Tradition.

Once the Buddha had made his spiritual discovery known, it became clearer and clearer that the spirit of Buddhism is very free. It was free from the binding of caste system which caused social stagnation and suppression. For the Buddha, the highest spiritual goal was accessible without caste limitation, as one becomes a ‘Brahmin’ through good deeds and not by birth.

The Buddha also viewed the potentialities of women as the same as those of men. At the time of the Buddha, birth-right was replaced by action which demands the right discernment, decision and action here and now.

In Vedic time gender limitation and subjugation was prevalent in India prior to the Buddha’stime. We have a clear picture, now, from the Theravada texts of how Mutta, an enlightened bhikkhuni exclaimed how she was free from “pots and pans and a hunched back husband.”[1]

When Mahapajapati, the Queen of Kapilvastu, and the Buddha’s aunt and step-mother sought for an ordained life, the Buddha refused three times. Perhaps out of compassion, because he could not imagine how he could allow his beloved ‘mother’ who had breast-fed him in the palace to take up the life of a mendicant which he had experienced without worldly comforts.

But the Queen was serious in her decision, she went shaved her head and donned the saffron robes like the Buddha and followed him on foot with a large retinue of women from the palace. They experienced physical suffering and discomfort. Having walked bare foot from Kapilvastu to Vesāli where the Buddha had taken residence.

When they arrived at Kuāgāra Mahāvana in Vesāli, they waited outside the main gate, and it was Ānanda who intervened. He approached the Buddha on their behalf and again the Buddha refused. Then, Ānanda asked from another direction (pariyāyena) whether women are capable of enlightenment.

Then came the golden phrase, the Buddha affirmed for the first time in all religious traditions, that women are cable (bhabbo) of achieving the fruit of Sotapanna, Sakadāgāmi, Anāgāmi and Arahat[2] and that they can see it with their own eyes (sacchikātunti).

Ordination was seen as the direct path to this life of freedom and with this recognition, it was then made available also to women. Hence came the establishment of the bhikkhuni sangha.

Establishment of the fourfold Buddhists.

It was the Buddha who established the fourfold Buddhists. The establishment of the Fourfold Buddhists means: (i) bhikkhus (monks); (ii) bhikkhunīs (female monks); (iii) laymen; and (iv) laywomen. He expected them to follow these three basic requirements :

*Study dhamma or his teaching,

           *Put it into practice,

           *And be able to protect it.

In modern times, in some Buddhist communities there are fears that other religions will make inroads into Buddhism and eventually destroy it, but no outside destruction can take place as long as the fourfold Buddhists are sincere in their responsibility. Recorded textual history proves this to be true.

The Buddha, however, predicted that, in the future, Buddhism would decline because the fourfold Buddhists would lose respect for the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, Sikkha (study) and Samadhi (practice.) Also, elsewhere, he predicted that Buddhism would decline when the fourfold Buddhists did not respect each other.

Women’s participation

Women, the other half of human population and the other half of the fourfold Buddhists, have always played a vital role in supporting the sangha.

Here, I should add some interesting statistics from Thailand: as of this year (2008) the male and female population are the same at birth, but at 27 years of age the number of males reduced markedly. Then on the other hand, men generally live a shorter life than women and this is true in all countries. What we have, for sure, is a larger number of women.

Even though the Buddha had established fourfold Buddhists, in some countries like Thailand Myammar, Cambodia, Laos which follow Theravada Buddhism, bhikkhuni sangha never arrived.

This is a vital point to note.

The same also happened with those countries and communities following the Tibetan tradition, i.e.Tibet, Ladkh (in India), Mongolia, and all the cities along the Himalayan range.


[1] Therigatha, Suttanta pitaka

[2] Four stages of enlightenment

Downlaod full article: /sites/default/files/Dhammananda_Strenghthening.pdf

Published with the author’s permission.

Related Articles