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A Painful Ambiguity -
Attitudes towards nuns in Buddhist myth
Santi Forest Monastery, Australia
Buddhist texts are, by and large, nice. There’s no draconian punishments, no irrational fervor, no ‘smiting with swords’. A serene air of reason, balance, and sanity pervades.
This niceness is a huge problem. We are used to hearing that ‘Mind is the forerunner of all things’ or that ‘Hatred is never appeased by hatred’; and so we are simply unprepared to face up to some of the monsters that haunt the texts. And of all the doubtful issues, none has the same contemporary ethical urgency as the role of women, and in particular nuns.
Again, the niceness of the treatment can be beguiling. There is no condemnation of women, no outright cruel or malicious intent. On the contrary, we can easily find many passages that express startlingly progressive views about women. The mainstream position of the texts shows that the bhikkhunis were accepted as a normal, essential part of Buddhism as a healthy religion. But alongside these, other passages show women in a light that raise contemporary hackles; and a few, a very few, appear positively neurotic. It seems to me that we must face up to this painful ambiguity, for it reflects how human groups actually are: messy, unclear, conflicted. Even though we traditionally see our texts as the products of pure Awakened beings, the reality is far more complex, and hence, far more interesting.
The texts are a collective enterprise. They are the work of many hands, most of them male.[ii] It would be a strange, if not unique, thing if they were to not show any signs of the hands through which they have passed, and by which they were shaped. The empirical, ethical teachings so beloved of modernist Buddhists, while important, are only one part of the story. In their eagerness to find and depict a rational religion, modern scholars have often sidelined the mythic dimension of the texts; but it is myth that shaped the experience of Buddhism for the majority of Buddhist followers. And it is here, in the mythic realm, that we can discern the subconscious conflicts that twist the rational elements, making the rational appear, at times, curiously irrational.
In this essay, I use the Pali texts and language as the main framework, as these are the ones I am most familiar with. I have, however, spent considerable time with all the different versions and am in the process of preparing translations of all relevant passages from all Vinayas. The dense mass of textuality, however, gets rapidly unwieldy, so for this general overview I will abstain from textual comparisons as far as I can.
The Myth of Origins
Let me illustrate by just one important example, the story of the Buddha’s aunt and step-mother Mahāpajāpati, who according to the tradition was the first bhikkhuni.[iii] The Buddha’s mother died very early, traditionally after seven days. He was raised as part of an extended family, and his aunt Mahāpajāpati nursed him from when he was a baby. After the Buddha had found Awakening he returned to his family in their town of Kapilavatthu, near the India/Nepal border.
Mahāpajāpati came to him with 500 ladies of the Sakyan clan, and requested ordination. The Buddha refused three times, and left. The women donned the yellow robes and shaved their hair (thus transgressing the ritual boundaries of the Sangha), and followed the Buddha and his entourage to Vesālī. Ānanda, the Buddha’s attendant, saw Mahāpajāpati standing outside the gates of the monastery: ‘her feet swollen, her limbs covered with dust, with tears on her face...’. Taking pity, he asked what the problem was. When he heard, he took the question to the Buddha himself.
After a further three refusals, he finally managed to persuade the Buddha. The versions differ as to the exact means he used to persuade, but the three main arguments were:
But the Buddha’s capitulation is not unconditional. He lays down the eight ‘Principles to be Respected’ (garudhammas) as the pre-requisite for Mahāpajāpati’s ordination. Finally, only after being persuaded[iv] does the Buddha reveal the reason for his reluctance: the entry of women into the monastic order is like the disease called ‘red rust’ that blights the fields of sugar-cane; or the disease called ‘white-bones’ that blights the fields of rice. Previously, Buddhism would have lasted 1000 years; but with the entry of women, this will be reduced to 500. The 8 garudhammas are like a dyke that holds back the floods.
Notice how this story melds two quite different kinds of things. One is a mythic background story, the other is the legal rules governing the nun’s order. The two go hand in hand throughout the Buddhist literature, and are particularly important in the monastic codes (Vinayas). Such myths belong to the class known as aeteological, in that they explain a present-day practice or custom through reference to its ‘first’ occurrence as performed by great sages of the past. In such myths, the legal details tell us what to do; the narrative context tells us what to feel.
A Virtual Hero Myth
The Buddha’s life story conforms to the general outline of the classical hero cycle; indeed, the it was used as one of the fundamental examples in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.[v] In the early texts like the one we are dealing with here, the various episodes that make up the heroic cycle (miraculous birth, early prodigy, embarking on a quest, and so on) all appear, but they are not yet arranged in a formal organized structure. There is not one canonical rendition of the Buddha’s life; rather, we find episodes scattered here and there. They are welded together, not by formal literary construct, but only in the memory and imagination of the listener. Within a community who is bound together by a particular story, a myth is heard many times; it soaks into the consciousness and frames the perspective of the community. When we hear one episode, we are not learning new facts, but are being reassured that the old truths are still valid. Thus the fact that there is no single chronological account of the Buddha’s life in the early texts does not mean that it was irrelevant; rather, it has not been consciously expressed.
Even though explicitly mythic episodes only occur in a minority of early texts, the texts are all preceded by the formula saying that at that time the Buddha was staying at such & such a place. This little tag embeds each text, no matter how simple or prosaic, in the story of the Buddha, and imbues it with the authority, the aura, the glory, of the supreme Awakened One. In this use of literary form to unify the texts, we can discern how the redactors were moving towards framing the entire scriptural collection as a massive heroic epic.
It’s difficult to pin down the sense in which a text such as this ‘exists’. During recitation, only one phoneme at a time is heard; the rest of the story is assimilated only through memory, both the immediate memory of what has just been recited, and the longer term collective cultural memory of the story as a whole. The scope for individual, personalized interpretation is huge; each person will remember it in a different way, and it will therefore ’exist’ differently for each. Notice that this is a psychological reality, entirely independent of the question of to what extent there was a standardized canon at this stage: even if there was a perfectly standardized group of texts, each person would still remember different texts, with different order, different emphasis, and so on.
But this ‘virtual epic’ from an early time gravitated towards a more concrete literary instantiation. As was memorably documented by Frauwallner,[vi] the earliest attempt to create an organized, overarching myth of the Buddha’s life is preserved in the section of the Vinaya known as the Skandhakas. This collection of about 20 chapters[vii] is found in several of the existing Vinaya collections. Frauwallner argued that the basic structure of the Skandhaka was discernable in all Vinayas, but had been subject to varying levels of decay, obscuring the earlier structure. This part of his thesis, while persuasive in certain cases, is not generally accepted as being a sufficient explanation of the variations in the Skandhakas.
But there is no doubt that the elements from which the overall narrative was constructed are in fact present in all schools; and I am suggesting here that, while the ‘official’ organization of this into the Skandhaka narrative was significant, the overall narrative would have been understood in memory, regardless of whether this was instantiated in an explicit literary form. This is merely to say that the Buddha’s early followers would have had an idea of his life story, and when hearing the various episodes taught, these would naturally be understood as part of that story. This suggests that the various episodes would have been seen together (synoptic), even when separated in the textual collections.
This can be amply proven by the massive parallelism between discreet elements in the narrative: as just one example, the story of the Buddha’s illness after eating his last meal is paralleled in the Sarvāstivāda version by him becoming ill after eating his first meal following Awakening; clearly these ideas evolved as a pair, even though in this case neither of these texts are included in the Skandhaka narrative. The implication of this is that we are justified in looking for a relatively unified redactor’s perspective in this narrative, even when the episodes are not all subsumed within the Skandhaka structure.
The Skandhaka narrative usually starts off immediately after the Buddha’s Awakening, tells the story of his hesitation to teach, etc., then the first teaching, conversion of disciples, and leads up to the time of the ordination of the great disciples Sāriputta and Moggallāna. Then the text merges off into more legalistic concerns, firstly for ordination procedure; then each chapter deals with a different topic, sometimes melded with mythic aspects, such as the rebellion of Devadatta.[viii] Chapter 20 tells of the bhikkhunis, starting off with the story of Mahāpajāpati we have told above. In Chapter 21 the narrative leads to the Buddha’s parinibbana, followed immediately by the First Council, where the scriptures were collected; and 100 years later Chapter 22 tells of the Second Council, which dealt with certain disciplinary laxities.
When we reflect on the matter in this way, two things become immediately apparent. First is that the story of women’s ordination appears now, not as a startling, singular event, but as an episode in a hero myth. This gives us a context; and the news is not good. Heroism is a bloke thing, and women are often relegated to the role of the distant unattainable ideal (Helen); the temptress leading away from the path (Circe); the deceitful witch (Medea); or the passive, stay-at-home bride (Penelope). While there are exceptions to this, as a rule, deeper expressions of feminine perspectives in myth should be sought outside of the hero cycle. In Indic myth in particular, the most common role played by women is the temptress. Representing all that is seductive in worldly entanglement, she appears time and again to distract the yogi from his path, her sensual wiles trapping our hero into the cycles of birth and death. The Buddha famously resisted the daughters of Mara during his struggle for Awakening. In considering the story of Mahāpajāpati, then, we should not think of it as a concrete historical event in isolation without also giving due regard for the function the story plays within the myth as a whole.
The second fact that becomes apparent is that the conscious construction of this heroic cycle was, in all likelihood, achieved by those who most directly benefitted from it. While the hero cycle has typically been seen as a healthy assertion of the individual’s development, the myth also has a political dimension. As Buddhists, we like to focus on the individual evolution of consciousness, and tend to marginalize the social and institutional aspects of our texts. Thus, we are happy to see the Buddha myth as an example of how we should develop spiritually; but we avoid noticing how this same story is used to justify institutional authority.
In this case, the authority that is justified is that of the victorious party at the Second Council. This group of monks, who hail from diverse parts of India but who may be known as Pāveyyakas (those from Pāvā), upheld the rigorous, hardliner position of Vinaya, and refused to allow even the tiniest relaxation of rules as had been laid down. Hence we can assume that they shaped the textual material they inherited in order to enhance their own perspective.
The textual details of this process are, of course, extremely complex and I cannot go into them here. But if we are prepared to accept this idea as working hypothesis, a number of issues become clear. Recollect the sequence of the chapters in the Skandhakas: Chapter 20 deals with bhikkhunis; 21 deals with the death of the Buddha and the First Council; 22 deals with the Second Council. In Chapter 20, the Buddha is depicted as reluctantly allowing the bhikkhunis to ordain, only at the behest of Ānanda. In Chapter 21, Kassapa scolds Ānanda severely for a number of ‘transgressions’, prominent among which is that he allowed women to ordain; in addition, for example, he allowed women to first worship the Buddha’s body, so that their tears smeared his feet. Chapter 22, written, I suggest, by the Pāveyyakas about themselves, does not explicitly address bhikkhunis; but they have tied these narratives together with such a tight web of allusions that it seems certain that bhikkhunis were on their minds.
Kassapa: the Vessel of Power
Kassapa is the archetypal rigorist, whose ascetic fervor contrasts with Ānanda’s gentle compassion. Throughout this narrative, Kassapa is associated with fire, the tapas that burns away the ‘outflows’ (āsavas), while Ānanda is associated with water, and specifically with tears. Mahāpajāpati is also pre-eminently associated with fluids; almost every time she appears in the Pali canon she is mentioned along with tears, mother’s milk, or menstruation; the physical outflows (āsavas) that defile the body just as the mental outflows defile the mind.
While we may be forgiven for thinking that Buddhism, as the psychological religion par excellence, speaks only of the mental outflows, in fact this belief just shows how well our attention has been diverted by our preconceptions. Kassapa enters our narrative on the road from Pāvā, and is thus irrevocably identified with the rigorist Pāveyyakas of the Second Council. He hears of the Buddha’s demise through being gifted a divine flower from the Buddha’s funeral, which provides a physical link between the Buddha and Kassapa.[ix]
Right then the corrupt monk Subhadda[x] rejoices, saying: ‘Now we are not going to be hassled by the Buddha, we can get rid of all those bothersome rules and do as we please!’ This is the direct motivation for Kassapa to form the plan of holding a Council to preserve the Dhamma. He goes to Kusinārā to see the Buddha, whose cremation had been delayed for a week, as the devas had refused to allow the fire to light until Kassapa arrived. As soon as he bowed with his head on the Buddha’s feet (thus noticing the smears left by the women’s tears) the cremation fires erupt.
We thus have a direct physical transmission to Kassapa, and Kassapa alone; and this transmission is symbolized by fire. This parallels very closely the situation in Christendom, where the authority for the priestly line in the early Church was traced through the disciples to whom Jesus had physically appeared following his ascension. In both of these cases, we see the unmistakable influence of essentially magical beliefs, as the power of magic or taboo, which in itself is morally neutral and may be used for either good or harm, is transmitted through physical contact.
Thus empowered, Kassapa becomes the unquestioned authority at the First Council. One of his key roles is to refuse entry to Ānanda; he is kept outside the gates, just like the weeping Mahāpajāpati, as his ‘outflows’ had not ended. This means, in a literal sense, that he was not yet an arahant; but given that Ānanda has just been depicted crying (like a woman!) we may not be totally arbitrary in seeing a connection with the physical outflows here as well. To cement the parallels with the Second Council, Ānanda is then the one to mention that the Buddha had said the Sangha could abolish the lesser and minor rules. He thus appears, like both the corrupt Subhadda and the Vajjiputtakas of the Second Council, to advocate the elimination of the rules that define the community. The other arahants appear amenable to the suggestion, but it is adamantly opposed by Kassapa, who of course wins the day.
By making the participants all arahants, the story is trying to insulate the First Council from the ‘outflows’. Kassapa ensures this insulation is not just mental, but also physical, enforcing a draconian ’exclusion zone’ that forbids all other monks from the vicinity of Rājagaha, thus emphasizing the ritual purity and isolation of the ceremony. Yet Ānanda appears, like a leak in the dyke. We are told that he, too, became an arahant before the proceedings; nevertheless, his mythic associations cling on. Remember the dramatic scenes at the Buddha’s deathbed: the unenlightened, including Ānanda and, one need hardly add, the women, were overcome with tears and weeping, while the arahants reflected calmly on the nature of impermanence. The Theravāda account succeeds in maintaining the textual separation between these communities, insulated just like Kassapa’s 500 arahants in the First Council. But for many other accounts, such as the Mūlasarvāstivāda, the boundaries are more blurred: the arahants, too, feel grief at the Buddha’s passing, and even fall down in a faint during the Council itself.[xi] So we know beyond a doubt that these feelings run strong in the community at the time. And it is hardly implausible to suggest that the spiritual insulation set up by Kassapa did not provide total isolation from the worldly concerns of the community. They feared, deeply and terribly, that their beautiful religion was on the brink of annihilation. While the Buddha quite rationally attributed the long-lasting of his religion to the good practice of the bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay-men, and laywomen, the irrational fears of the community demand a scapegoat, someone to blame, someone who cannot answer back; someone who, even if they are fully enlightened, is still the source of destructive ‘outflows’.
The Second Council
All this provides a mythic precedent for the events at the Second Council. In composing their version of history, the Second Council was working according to the inexorable, unalterable logic of the cyclic time of myth, found without variation in hundreds of examples throughout Buddhist literature: if it is happening now, it must have happened in the past. As the classical saying has it: ‘These things never were, but are always.’ For the redactors, composing such an account is the very opposite of lying; it is revealing the essential truth of how things must have been. It merely involves arranging and editing the pre-existing episodes to settle the correct meaning, thus excluding the possibility of error; that is, of other ways of seeing.
The Second Council itself deals with fairly prosaic matters of discipline, and is light in mythic elements. It reads in a concrete, literal way; in fact, rather more like journalism than myth. This suggests that the Second Council narrative was composed relatively close to the events in question, when they were still in the memories of those who had taken part. But by then the Buddha’s life was generations ago and was already illuminated by that numinous glow that can hide so much. So the Second Council and the earlier chapters are both expressions of the same ideology; but the Second Council deals with the explicit, rational elements, while the First Council addresses the unconscious.
The avowed purpose of the Second Council was to maintain the Buddha’s Dhamma and Vinaya unaltered, so that the true Dhamma might last a long time. The same passage appears at the start of the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, in the First Council, and in the Second Council. Typically we read this in the narrative order: the passage was first uttered by the Buddha, then echoed by Kassapa, then echoed again by Yasa at the Second Council. But I am suggesting we might also look at it from the reverse direction, the order of composition: the phrase encapsulates the ethos of the Pāveyyakas, and they incorporated it in the earlier scriptures to express what for them must have been.
Thus the theme throughout this narrative of the fear for the loss of the Buddha and the uncertainty whether Buddhism would survive (or rather, the certainty that it would not survive) is inextricably intertwined with the theme of the preservation of the exact, literal form of the Buddha’s teachings, and especially, the disciplinary rules.
Containing the Flood
Women, in the form of bhikkhunis, erupt into this narrative as an invasion that threatens the ritually established boundaries of the male Sangha, and which therefore must be contained by a framework of special rules.[xii] In contrast with the Buddha’s avowed reluctance to lay down rules, and his refusal to do so unless necessary, the garudhammas are imposed, without, it seems, any justification.
The garudhammas themselves are highly ambiguous in their ethical implications. Six out of the eight appear elsewhere in the Vinaya,[xiii] and these may easily be seen as neutral, or even positive, in their impact on the bhikkhuni’s community. For example, one of the rules requires that the bhikkhunis go to the bhikkhus for teachings every fortnight. While this seems archaic in modern societies, in the Buddha’s day educational opportunities for women would have been far less than for men. Given that the monks, being monks, may well have been reluctant to teach the nuns (this is in fact the case in the only Sutta example, the Nandakovāda Sutta), this rule should be seen as an example of affirmative action, a special provision for the nun’s education over and above what was provided for the monks. Even today, I know of a western bhikkhuni who appreciates that this rule gives her access to teachings that she would be otherwise too shy to seek out.
This example is far from singular: in fact, the Vinaya in general acts to protect the nuns far more than it does to exploit them. It is, for example, forbidden for monks to get the nuns to wash their robes for them, thus preventing them from being used as domestic servants. Curiously enough, this is exactly what most nuns in modern Theravādin countries actually spend their time doing.
The garudhamma that evokes the most resistance is the one that requires a bhikkhuni, even if ordained a hundred years, to bow to a bhikkhu who has ordained that very day. Obviously, we are dealing here with a socially conditioned response, as the Vinaya justifies this rule because even other ‘badly-taught’ religions do not allow paying respects to women. In confirmation of this, the rule is in fact found in identical form in Jainism.
But leaving aside the cultural aspects, the act of bowing invokes a deeper response, harking back to the ritual submission of one animal to another in a fight. Bowing, like trees bending in the wind, shows that one will bend to the will of the other. And while the Vinaya as a rational legal text does not grant the monks any power of command over the bhikkhunis whatsoever, the emotional surrender signified by the bow conveys an unmistakable submission. Here the earlier mentioned dichotomy between the individual and institutional becomes fully apparent: on a personal level, the act of bowing is a graceful training in humility, but on an institutional level it serves the interests of power.
But this garudhamma, and other rules for controlling the bhikkhunis, by their very existence expose their counter-story. One does not set up control mechanisms for the weak. Only the powerful need control; and the stronger the controlling mechanisms, the stronger the perception of the power to be controlled. The bhikkhunis are not merely a distraction or a complication in the holy life. They are a disease that threatens the very life of the Sangha, a flood that stands poised to sweep away the whole dispensation. Perhaps the bhikkhunis might wish that they in fact had such power; but clearly, this is how they were perceived by the authors of the Mahāpajāpati narrative, who I am identifying with the victors at the Second Council.
This power cannot be spiritual: after all, the Buddha says that bhikkhunis can become arahants, and nobody disputes this. How can arahants, whose minds are completely pure, be a threat to Buddhism? But we have seen that the problem is not the outflows of the mind, but the outflows of the body: the flood that will destroy Buddhism is the flood of women’s tears, milk, and blood. These ‘outflows’ have tremendous magical potency; it is a widely held belief that the approach of menstruous women will blight crops, just as the entry of bhikkhunis will destroy the Sangha, the ‘field of merit’. To this day, menstruation taboos are current throughout much of the Buddhist world. Such survivals of magical beliefs are of course common in society at large; but it is a shock to recognize what a powerful role they play in supposedly ‘rational’ Buddhist texts. But nothing else can explain why bhikkhunis are likened to a disease that will destroy Buddhism.
If it is felt that I am making too much of this matter of ‘outflows’, it should be bourne in mind that the story of Mahādeva found in the Mahāvibhāsā attributes the first schism between the Sthaviras and the Mahāsanghikas to the question whether an arahant can have wet dreams. The debate is explicitly formulated in terms of the contrast between the mental ‘outflows’, which an arahant has eradicated, and the physical ‘outflows’, which he may still have. It is no great leap from here to the treatment of ‘outflows’ in the Skandhaka narrative.
Assertion of equality for bhikkhunis has nothing to do with personal pride or ‘self’; it is a recognition of the fundamental fairness that is the very reason we fell in love with the Dhamma in the first place. Recognizing the issues and agendas that drove the establishment of these structures in the first place allows us to understand the fears and concerns of the monks who resist empowered women in the Sangha. Contemporary concerns are, after all this time, not all that different.
It’s important to not over-emphasize the negative. If I have focussed on critiquing some aspects of these texts that I love so much, it is not out of a lack of respect or lack of appreciation for the genuinely liberating message running through so much of the Buddhist scriptures. In the end, the problems are not so great; nothing, really, unexpected or out of the ordinary. It’s virtually impossible to find any old texts that can satisfy modern gender values. This doesn’t mean the old texts have no value; merely that they are not perfect. The modern concern for gender equity arises squarely from the very same values that inform so much of the Buddhist teachings. The critique I offer here should be seen, not as destructive of Buddhist values, but as rescuing them from some old mistakes. This rescue does not go very deep: it doesn’t challenge any of the important Buddhist teachings or practices. It has, rather, only one main implication: that we all, in every Buddhist tradition, have a duty to work for the establishment and development of the Bhikkhuni Sangha as equal partners with the Bhikkhu Sangha. When our textual work is done it is to this, much harder, task that we must turn.
* * *
[i] Frederich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Douglas Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pg. 61.
[ii] While inscriptural evidence makes it clear that bhikkhunis played a powerful role in transmitting the Buddhist scriptures in India, there is no evidence that they actually took part in the creation and redaction of the texts. All our accounts of that process depict it as being under the control of the bhikkhus (monks), and in general there is no internal reason from the texts to doubt this. An exception is a small number of texts that were in common usage among the bhikkhuni community for their own legal proceedings. This includes the bhikkhuni patimokkha, and the transaction statements for the ordination of nuns. In such places we can discern, here and there, the use of terminology such as vutthāpana for ordination and pavattinī for the preceptor, which are quite different from the bhikkhus’ terms (upasampadā and upajjhāya). Such cases suggest an independent oral tradition among the nuns; and the treatment within the existing texts suggests that the monks tried, with partial success, to assimilate them within their own procedures.
[iii] A claim I don’t accept, but that’s a topic for another time.
[iv] In most versions; some have this episode earlier.
[v] Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
vi E. Frauwallner, The Earliest Vinaya and the Beginnings of Buddhist Literature, Roma, Is. M. E. O., 1956.
[vii] Variously called skandhakas, khandhakas, vastus, or pratisamyuktas.
[viii] The betrayal by a close associate or family member is one of the deepest mythic motifs, closely related to the fundamental myth of the sacrifice of the divine king, who is ritually slaughtered in favor of a younger relative.
[ix] This motif prefigures the famous later story where the Buddha held up a flower and Kassapa alone smiled, indicating he was worthy of the Dhamma transmission.
[x] Or Upananda, etc.
[xi] Such issues remain alive in modern Theravāda: a great controversy recently ensued when the famous monk Luang Ta Bua, widely regarded as an arahant, wept as he spoke of his profound meditation experiences.
[xii] See Kate Blackstone, "Damming the Dhamma", (http://www.buddhistinformation.com/damming_the_dhamma.htm)
[xiii] There is some variation between the Vinayas here.
Source: Santi Forest Monastery, Australia, http://santifm1.0.googlepages.com/
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last updated: 30-11-2007