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Damming the Dhamma:
Problems with Bhikkhunīs in the Pali Vinaya

Kate Blackstone
University of Manitoba

In the clichés of contemporary science, little equals the devastating power of water running out of control. Having just moved to Winnipeg, which experienced the "flood of the century" a couple of years ago, and having seen the huge Red River Floodway which circles half the city of 700,000 to protect it from the ravages of flooding, I have developed a new appreciation for the image. In Buddhist terms, the flood carries equally negative connotations of raging power, devastation, destruction, and contamination. The flood is one of the most commonly used metaphors of samsāra and all that it conveys. Similarly, metaphors of obstructions to the flood, or measures to cross it, convey the opposite. The Buddha's dhamma is often compared to a raft, nibbāna to the far shore.

Thus, in the story of the inauguration of women's ordination, when the Buddha utilizes the metaphor of a dam for the eight special rules he imposes upon Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī as a condition of ordination, the implications are clear. The presence of women in the order poses a serious and inescapable threat to the dhamma and vinaya, liable, like a flood, to wash away the edifice he had so carefully built up.

Women's entry into the Buddhist sangha is both highly significant and terribly dangerous within the worldview of this narrative. Given the emphasis on preserving the dhamma throughout Pali literature, we should expect to see the story seriously address the reasons for the danger posed by women's ordination. Yet in the story, the reasons why women pose such a threat and the logic of how subordination can alleviate the threat are not explored. Nor are they explored in other recensions. The story appears in virtually identical form in almost every recension of the Vinaya still extant.[2] The similes of the house prey to robbers, the rice field stricken by disease, and the sugar-cane attacked by red rust are also consistent in the differing accounts of the story.[3] Similarly, all accounts present the metaphor of the eight rules holding back the threat of devastation as a great dam on a river prevents flooding. The threat, the danger, and the solution are consistent in all accounts, as is the narrative reticence to explain why women's ordination poses such a threat and how institutional subordination can avert it.

Scholarship on women in Buddhism has attempted to fill this lacuna, mostly by placing the story within a hypothetical chronological schema positing either an early egalitarianism amended by later, less forward-looking editors,[4] or a gradual progression from an inherent sexism, even misogyny, to the development of egalitarianism in Mahāyāna, even Vajrayāna.[5] Alternately, studies of the story have attempted to place the story within its sociological context, insofar as we can reconstruct that context,[6] or to situate its language within the context of the Vinaya's legalist discourse.[7]

These previous studies are important contributions toward our understanding of the story which plays such a crucial role in the history and contemporary situation of women in Buddhism. However, I continue to feel dissatisfied with the solutions posed. None answers the question of why women pose such a dangerous threat or how institutional subordination is a logical means of averting it. Additionally, all study the text for glimmerings of historical circumstance without accounting for the obvious literary features of the story. Yet the story of women's ordination is precisely that, a story.

Alan Sponberg is one of the few scholars to address the obvious literary features of the story. Arguing that the notorious inconsistencies in Pali presentations of the feminine should be understood not as a simple inconsistent ambivalence," but rather as a "rich multivocality", he interprets the story as a literary compromise between contesting voices in the early sangha; as response to historical events rather than as description of those events.[8] Exciting as Sponberg's analysis is, however, it still does not fully resolve the issues raised by the account of women's ordination. Why should one of the contesting voices insist on the decline of saddhamma? How can women's subordination help preserve the dhamma?

This paper poses a possible solution. Following Sponberg's insight into the literary features of the story, I analyze the story in a literary context, the context of the Pali Vinaya, treating the Vinaya itself as a story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending.[9] The Vinaya represents a very formalized statement of both the individual and communal dimensions of monastic life. It prescribes the activities, appearance, decorum, and lifestyle of individual bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs. It also specifies the procedures and protocol for the administration of the sangha. In so doing, the Vinaya authorizes and delimits the mandate of the monastic community over its members and in relation to its supporting community. In the terms of my analysis, it articulates a model of self-identity and a set of guidelines for the expression of that identity.

This model of identity is perhaps most evident in the frame narratives that pervade the Vinaya, opening both major categories of rules [the Sutta-Vibhanga and the Khandhakas], and introducing each individual rule. These introductory stories, or frame narratives, describe the particular circumstances underlying the necessity of the rule and its characteristics. They provide justification for the rule and place it in a meaningful context. The "master-narrative" which frames the Vinaya as a whole is the Buddha biography. It is in the context of the Buddha's realization of nibbāna and his subsequent teaching career that the rules of the Vinaya make sense. We see this very clearly in the frame narratives of the Vinaya's main sections and individual rules. The Khandhakas and Vibhangas both open with a description of the Buddha's activities which explains and justifies the type of rules contained in each category. In the Mahāvagga, which opens the Khandhakas, the frame narrative describes the Buddha's experience of nibbāna, his decision to teach, and the subsequent origins of the sangha. The rules and procedures of the rest of the Khandhakas are thus placed in the context of the Buddha's enlightenment and are explained by his decision to institute a monastic community. Similarly, the SuttaVibhanga opens with a description of the attributes of the Buddha's enlightenment and introduces a dialogue in which the Buddha explains to Sāriputta how the longevity of brahmacariya under Buddhas of the past was determined by their introduction of the Pātimokkha or failure to do so. The Suttavibhanga, therefore, is contextualized within the cosmic dimensions of Buddhas of the past.

Each individual rule in both sections is also placed in the context of the Buddha's teaching career. The stories introducing each rule open with a statement of the Buddha's location at the time of formulation. For the vast majority of rules, the Buddha himself voices the rule and its modifications.[10] Though there is general agreement among scholars that the Vinaya was compiled and much of it composed after the Buddha's death,[11] his presence and voice function to authorize and validate the rules and the Vinaya as a whole.[12]

I am interested in the nature and function of that authority as a way of understanding why women's ordination is considered so dangerous in the story and how institutional subordination can logically avert the danger. If, as I maintain, the Pali Vinaya consists of a systematic transference of the authority of the Buddha onto the sangha as a corporate body, and if that authority is presented as inherently masculine, then women, by definition, cannot embody the ideal and, therefore, cannot be treated as full members of the sangha.

Buddha biography in the Pali Vinaya[13]

The Buddha biography as it appears in the Pali Vinaya is much less elaborate than in later more developed biographies.[14] It also differs in its emphasis on the Buddha's experience of nibbāna. The Khandhakas open with a description of the Buddha immersed in contemplation of his nibbāna and end with events in the sangha following his parinibbāna. The rest of his life is clearly of little concern to the redactors of the Vinaya. But even with the centrality of nibbāna, priority is not given to the characteristics of the experience, but to what the Buddha does with it. What does the Buddha do? He travels, extending the experience geographically [he moves to four different trees, reveling in the bliss of his awakening], socially [he encounters beings representing different social groups], and cosmically [he encounters beings from different cosmic realms]. His awakening is an event for all beings in manifest realms. Up to this point, however, it is still confined to the Buddha. He has yet to teach the dhamma, yet to incorporate these others into the sphere of his bodhi, though the boundaries of his sphere impinge upon them.

When he does teach the dhamma to the group of five, dramatic events unfold: devas sing, the worlds shake, and light permeates the manifold realms. Significantly, this does not happen with the Buddha's enlightenment, but with Kondañña's dhamma-vision, his insight into the nature of causality and cessation prompted by the Buddha's words. The world-shaking events do not happen until an outsider has penetrated the boundary of the Buddha's bodhi. The doors are now open and the Buddha can accept Kondañña into the sphere of his enlightenment.

However, Kondañña, like all the monastics to follow him, does not need to be enlightened to enter that sphere. Rather, it is within that sphere that he is able to attain nibbāna. He does, however, need to purify his perspective.

Repeatedly in this episode the narrative stresses the concept of purity: the "true" brahman is devoid of āsavas and protrusions [ussada] that impinge on the world [Mahāvagga I 2]; both the nāga king and the catuddisa kings protect the Buddha from defilement [the nāga from the elements; the catuddisa kings from dirtying his hands, Mahāvagga I 3-4]; Brahmā argues that because some people lack defilements [apparajakkhajātikā] they are capable of learning the dhamma [Mahāvagga I 5.6]; Upaka recognizes the complete purity [parisuddha] of the Buddha's appearance [Mahāvagga I 6.7]; and the Buddha declares himself a conqueror because he alone is undefiled [anupalitta] and free of āsavas [Mahāvagga I 6.8-9]. Clearly, purity is an important concept in the narrative. It encompasses all aspects of the enlightened being, of which the Buddha is the epitome. It pervades his body [Upaka's recognition of his appearance], his speech [the pure dhamma with which he will combat the impure dhamma], and his mind [his pure comprehension of the four noble truths which led to his enlightenment].

It also marks him as separate from the worlds represented by the various beings initially encountered by the newly awakened Buddha. Prior to his conversion of Kondañña, before he preaches a word of the dhamma, he manages to attract a brahman, a nāga king, the catuddisa kings, an unnamed devatā and his first upāsakas. All recognize his accomplishments without him speaking a word.[15] Their gifts and homage mark their recognition of him as somehow other than they are, as worthy to receive, as a productive field of merit. They also recognize a boundary around him. The brahman and the merchants stand at a respectful distance from him and the nāga king encircles him to protect him from cold, heat, flies, mosquitoes, wind, and snakes. Significantly, the nāga thinks to prevent contact [samphassa] between these elements and the meditating Buddha [Mahāvagga I 1.2]. The homage and gifts given to the Buddha reinforce this boundary, this ontological difference between the Buddha and his audience, though the audience includes distinguished representatives of various super-human realms [the catuddisa kings and the nāga-king].

These interactions play a crucial role in the narrative. By virtue of his attainment of supreme buddhahood, the Buddha is superior to all kinds of beings,[16] a superiority the narrative portrays them as recognizing: the brahman asks the Buddha to define a true brahman; the nāga king protects him and pays him homage; the merchants, devatā, and catuddisa kings affirm his worthiness to receive gifts; Brahmā depends on him to save the world; and his former colleagues find themselves receiving him with honor, despite their intentions to ignore him [Mahāvagga I.10-11].

The Buddha of the introductory narrative of the Mahāvagga, therefore, is a being characterized by purity of body, speech, and mind, by a physical and ontological separation from the condition of ordinary or supernatural beings, and by a concomitant superiority that derives from his purity and his separateness.

Embodying Buddha: Appropriation of a Paradigm

These characteristics are also paradigmatic for the sangha as it is presented in the Vinaya. If we read the Vinaya as a story progressing from the beginning, marked by the Buddha's enlightenment and early teaching career, through the middle, marked by the introduction of the Pātimokkha code,[17] to the ending, marked by the Buddha's parinibbāna, we can detect a process of transference of the characteristics and authority of the Buddha onto his sangha.

The first indication of the process of transference is the Buddha's commission to his newly formed sangha. When the Buddha commissions the sangha to teach in his place, he explicitly compares it with himself:

Free am I, monks, from all snares, both those that come from divine sources and those that come from human sources. You, monks, are also freed from all snares, both divine and human. Go, monks, on tour for the benefit of the common folk, for the happiness of the common folk, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the benefit, the happiness of the gods and human beings. Let not two of you go the same way. Teach the dhamma, monks, that is lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle, and lovely at the end. Explain in spirit and in detail the brahmacariya that is perfectly pure and entirely fulfilled. There are some beings who are languishing from not hearing the dhamma, yet lack defilements and are capable of learning it [Mahāvagga I 11.1].[18]

Just as the Buddha is completely devoid of attachments, so is the sangha. Just as the Buddha travels from tree to tree, extending the geographical presence of his enlightenment experience, so he disperses the sangha in all directions.[19] Just as the Buddha extends the social parameters of his enlightenment by preaching the dhamma, so does he compel his bhikkhus to preach. Just as the Buddha is convinced to teach by the existence of some beings without defilements, so does he convince his sangha. Just as the Buddha's enlightenment is marked by the last temptation of Māra,[20] so is his mandate to the sangha marked by the appearance and conquest of Māra.[21]

The process of transference of the Buddha's bodhi onto the newly formed sangha is well underway. The identity of the Buddha as an enlightened being merges completely with that of the sangha. The Buddha's purity in body, speech, and mind also characterizes the sangha which, at this point in the narrative chronology, contains a membership comprised entirely of arahants. Their bodies travel to expand the dhamma, they speak the same dhamma, and their minds are completely lacking in attachment. They are utterly separate from the condition of normal folk and are subject to the same kind of homage as that received by the Buddha. Their status has become completely transformed. In assuming the identity of the Buddha, the identity of the sangha has become characterized by the same tripartite foundation of purity, separation, and hierarchy.

The process continues throughout the Khandhakas. The first set of procedures instituted after the frame narrative concerns the admission of men. Men who are not eligible for ordination include those who are diseased [Mahāvagga I 39.7]; those in service to a king [40.4]; a thief marked by a sign [dhajabaddha cora 41],[22] wanted by authorities [42-3], or who has been punished [44]; someone under twenty years of age [49]; a homosexual [pandaka, 61];[23] a matricide [64]; a parricide [65]; one who has killed an arahant [66]; a seducer of bhikkhunīs [67]; a schismatic [67]; one who has shed the blood [of a Tathāgata] [67];[24] a hermaphrodite [ubhatovyañjanaka, 68]; one without a preceptor [69]; one without a bowl or robe [70]; or someone with any kind of physical disability, ranging from loss of limbs, to birth defects, to old age [71].

A concern for wholeness underlies these emphases. Wholeness of body is a requirement for ordination.[25] Men cannot be ordained whose bodily integrity is breached in any way, whether by disease, uncertain sexual characteristics,[26] or physical deformity. Their moral integrity must also be intact -- violence against parents, arahants, or a Buddha automatically disqualifies a candidate. And their personal integrity involves a social dimension as well. Men bonded to the social world by ties to the army, to servitude, to punitive retribution, or to filial obligation are not permitted entrance into the sangha.

This integrity is also evident in the emphasis on group cohesion. Not only must a candidate affirm his personal integrity, but, for a legally valid ordination, the sangha must also conform with an ideal of group solidarity. A quorum of ten bhikkhus indicates institutional acceptance of the candidate by silent approval. Thus, the wholeness of the individual corresponds with the wholeness of the institution which embodies the wholeness of the Buddha.

The requirement for institutional wholeness is even more obvious in the section on the uposatha rite which follows that on ordination. The uposatha involves the gathering together of all bhikkhus[27] within the sīmā boundaries for the complete recitation of the Pātimokkha. Prior to the recitation, bhikkhus have had the opportunity to confess any transgression to each other, thereby purifying themselves of it. The Pātimokkha is recited by an experienced, competent [vyatta patibala] bhikkhu who lists the rules and inquires of the convened sangha if all are pure [parisuddhi] with regard to each category. When the sangha conveys its assent with silence, he affirms that complete purity is attained.

The uposatha rite thus represents symbolically the reaffirmation of upasampadā, required bi-monthly of all monastics. In coming together for what Jotiya Dhirasekera has termed a "ritualistic purge,"[28] bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs reaffirm the purity, wholeness, separateness, and hierarchy they assumed when they became members of the sangha. On an individual level, uposatha represents a periodic review of one's conduct as a renunciant. On a communal level, uposatha actually binds the community together, affirming that the sangha is a united body.[29] The parameters of accountability remain the same: the individual's purity in body, speech, and mind is scrutinized during the uposatha rite by the entire assembly of bhikkhus which is required to join together with their bodies, chant the rules together with their voices, and examine with their minds the truthfulness of their declaration of purity. [30]

The physical boundaries of the individual bhikkhu must be structurally intact, just as the geographical boundaries of the sangha must be intact. Any breach at the micro level [the individual] produces a breach at the communal level [the local sangha] which breaches the transcendent level [the universal sangha]. The boundaries thus define and preserve the very identity of the bhikkhu, the local sangha, and the universal sangha. To be a bhikkhu in this model is to be perfectly pure with respect to body, speech, and mind, fully separate from physical, social, and psychological bonds, and unquestioningly compliant with one's place in the hierarchical schema within the sangha.

The characteristics of the identity of an enlightened being are consistent throughout the story, whether they apply to the Buddha himself or to the sangha that emulates him. The sphere of enlightenment transcends space and time; it is cosmic in its dimensions. As long as the boundaries between the sphere of bodhi and the defiling world of samsāra remain intact it can be embodied by a pure community [the Cātuddisasangha] and by a pure individual [the ideal bhikkhu]. Physical containment, social detachment, and psychological control are vital components of purity at both a communal and an individual level.

This condition of complete purity, however, is very vulnerable. A breaching of the boundaries at an individual level intrudes upon the purity of the community and the structure of the cosmos. In the Vinaya the cosmos shakes on two occasions. The first is when Kondañña enters the Buddha's sphere of enlightenment by attaining the dhammacakka [Mahāvagga I 6.37], and the second is when Sudinna impregnates his former wife [Pārājika I 5.9]. It is this vulnerability to rupture and concomitant defilement that explains the extreme emphasis on boundary formation and maintenance throughout the Vinaya. The boundary between pure and impure is fragile and must be fortified. As is clear in the frame narrative to the Suttavibhanga, however, the boundaries are destined to collapse. The brahmacariya will decline, as it has in past aeons under previous Buddhas [Pārājika I 3].[31] The point of Pātimokkha is not to nullify the decline, but to postpone it for as long as possible. This is the explicit rationale for instituting the individual rules of the Pātimokkha code.

The postponement of decline is also the implicit rationale for the Vinaya as a whole. At key points in the narrative chronology of the Vinaya the threat of impurity explains and justifies the need for stronger boundaries. The Buddha is convinced initially to teach because of the existence of an impure [asuddha] dhamma in Magadha [Mahāvagga I 5.6]. It is this decision that leads him to open up his sphere of enlightenment to Kondañña, and consequently, the disturbance to the cosmos. Similarly, it is the entrance of impurity [asuddha] that marks both the necessity of instituting the Pātimokkha and the beginning of the decline of brahmacariya. Again, the event is accompanied by a disturbance to the cosmos.

The ending of the Vinaya story conveys the same logic. The threat of decline prompts Mahākassapa to convene the first council to establish the true dhamma and vinaya, "before non-dhamma [adhamma] shines forth and dhamma should be withheld, before non-vinaya [avinaya] shines forth and vinaya should be withheld, before those who speak non-dhamma become strong and those who speak dhamma become weak, before those who speak non-vinaya become strong and those who speak vinaya become weak" [Cullavagga XI 1.1].[32]

This account condenses the content and sequence of the whole of the Khandhakas which precedes it. A reference to the Buddha biography [in this case, its conclusion] opens the account as it opens the Khandhakas [Mahāvagga I 1-5]. Likewise, the account refers to the impact on celestial regions of events in the Buddha's life [the notice of various deities and their gifts] and death [the mandārava flower descending from the heavens]. The decision to proclaim dhamma and vinaya is prompted in both cases by the threat of adhamma [Brahmā's reference to the "unclean dhamma" and Mahākassapa's desire to protect true dhamma], and the first action in each text involves the admission of selected persons. Furthermore, just as these people all become arahants immediately upon entry into the sangha [Mahāvagga I 6-10], so are all the participants in the council arahants.[33] Just as the Khandhakas move from admission to a discussion of uposatha, and particularly to specifications for boundaries [sīmā] to enclose it, then onto the rituals of vassa, including the pavāranā and the kathina rites [Mahāvagga II-VII], so the first council account includes an establishing of the social and physical parameters of the meeting venue [the sīmā], and requires Ananda to confess various offenses.[34] These events are slightly different from the uposatha, sīmā, and pavāranā, but are clearly similar in structure and function. Similarly, the kathina rite does not appear as such, but Ananda does receive a large donation of robes. In short, the first council account incorporates in very condensed form the whole ritual life of the sangha as it is prescribed in the Mahāvagga.

The first council account thus presents the content and sequence of much of the Khandhakas. In so doing, it reflects the same emphasis on the characteristics of the enlightened being and the transference of those characteristics onto the sangha. The purity that defines that being also defines the convened sangha; the sangha is composed entirely of arahants [at least for the actual business of the meeting]. The separation from worldly concerns and external defilement required to maintain the purity of the enlightened being is maintained by the council. The meeting is physically bounded, socially isolated, and emotionally detached.[35] Also, the hierarchy that both establishes and expresses the separation and purity of the enlightened being is clearly emphasized in the council account. The conclave is composed entirely of elders [thera] within the sangha and is firmly under the leadership of Mahākassapa, who not only convenes the meeting and selects participants, but also delegates himself as the chairperson who questions Upāli and Ananda to prompt their recital of Vinaya and dhamma.

The convened sangha personifies the attributes of the Buddha as they are developed throughout the Vinaya: from the beginning where it receives his mandate to teach in his place, through the ending where it assumes his authority after his death. It assumes the identity of an enlightened being. But this enlightened being is a masculine being. In the introductory frame narratives initiating the expansion process, women are omitted [all of the beings initially encountered by the newly awakened Buddha are male]. [36] Throughout the Khandhakas, bhikkhunīs are systematically excluded: like non-renunciants, transgressors, and novices, bhikkhunīs must be outside the boundaries during bhikkhu's recitation of Pātimokkha [even though it includes the rules for bhikkhunīs, Mahāvagga II 36.1-2]; similarly, they cannot be present at the pavāranā ceremony [Mahāvagga IV 2-14]; they cannot be counted to make up the quorum required of any of the formal acts of the sangha from ordination of bhikkhus to disciplinary proceedings, to the major ritual events, nor can they split a sangha even if they side with schismatics [Mahāvagga VII 5.1]; they cannot even protest statements uttered during official proceedings, nor can they critique bhikkhu behavior.[37]

A Masculine Model: the Problem with Bhikkhunīs

There are clear indications that the Mahāprajāpatī story is a product of the same worldview as the rest of the Vinaya narratives. The logic of identity conceptually based on purity, separation, and hierarchy is the same logic that applies to the story. In this story, however, they do not function to define the ideal renunciant or the ideal sangha, but their antithesis.

In contrast with the image of the ideal renunciant portrayed throughout the Vinaya, Mahāprajāpatī is depicted as dirty, travel-stained, weeping outside the gate. Clearly, she is not a paragon of purity in this description. She is covered in dirt, probably sweating, and has tears flowing freely down her face. Her tears in particular reveal the fraudulence of her renunciant garb. [38] Tears represent the physical leaking out of emotion, a complete lack of control. They are thus a symbolic manifestation of the āsavas, the "outflows" which presage the decline in brahmacariya in the frame narrative to the Pātimokkha.[39] Yet it is her tears that attract Ananda.

Importantly, despite her evident impurity, she is dressed as a bhikkhunī. The contrast between her dress and her physical and emotional distress highlights the fact that she is not really ordained. In our story, Mahāprajāpatī realizes this: she stands outside the gate [bahi dvārakohake ahāsi] of the vihāra. Mahāprajāpatī knows she cannot cross the physical boundary into the sangha for she is not really ordained. Yet she is virtually indistinguishable from those who are truly ordained. Like bhikkhus, she is bald and dressed in the yellow robes of renunciation. She respects the sangha's boundaries by remaining outside the physical parameters of it, yet, in assuming the garb of a renunciant, Mahāprajāpatī has breached the symbolic parameters of the sangha. Mahāprajāpatī's fraudulent dress represents a very serious challenge to the integrity of the sangha and the validity of those who are truly ordained. In assuming the guise of a bhikkhunī, Mahāprajāpatī has undermined the care taken in the Vinaya to admit only those deemed suitable to represent the sangha. She has obliterated the distinction that separates the lifestyle of renunciation from that of householders. In so doing, she ruptures the integrity of those boundaries and introduces the possibility of contamination.

Perhaps most serious, however, is her assumption of the authority of the Buddha himself. In the story, Mahāprajāpatī functions as a leader of women who parallels the Buddha's leadership of bhikkhus.[40] Despite the Buddha's initial rejection of her request, Mahāprajāpatī and her followers shave, don the yellow robes and follow the Buddha and his sangha.[41] In defying the Buddha, Mahāprajāpatī overturns the hierarchical scheme maintained throughout the Vinaya. She poses a direct challenge to the Buddha's authority.

In so doing, Mahāprajāpatī and the women she represents also challenge and threaten each of the elements of the Vinaya's tripartite conceptual foundation. By contaminating the sangha's purity, breaching its boundaries, and overturning its hierarchy, the presence of female renunciants challenges the very identity of the sangha as it is constructed in the Pali Vinaya. In the logic of the Pali Vinaya, female monastics have no official place. To have women ordained in the order is to modify or overturn either the masculine model of enlightenment or the process of authorization by which that model is transferred onto the identity of the ideal monastic and the ideal sangha.

It appears, though, that the Vinaya redactors had no choice but to accept the presence of bhikkhunīs. They could, however, minimize the threat. Hence the "great dam" of the garudhamma which re-establishes the [proper] hierarchy of bhikkhus over bhikkhunīs, thus separating the bhikkhu-sangha from the flood of contamination and allowing it to [re-]gain its purity. The dhamma may be doomed with the entry of women into the sangha, but, given its prevailing logic, the Vinaya has done what it could to postpone the inevitable.



1.  This is a revised version of a paper presented at the Twelfth Conference of the International Association of Buddhist Studies in Lausanne, August, 1999. I am grateful for a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada which funded my travel expenses.

2.  Jan Nattier, Once Upon a Future Time [Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1991], provides a thorough list of the texts in which this story is found, including several occurrences in Pali texts [AN IV, 278; Milindapañha IV, i, 55-61, and Cullavagga X], the Vinayas of the Dharmaguptaka school [preserved only in Chinese, T No. 1428, 22.923c9], the Mahīsāsaka [T No. 1421, 22. 186a14], and the Haimavata [Vinaya-Mātrkā [P'i-ni mu ching, T No. 1463, 24.818c4], the Sarvāstivāda Madhyamāgama [Chung a-han ching, T No. 26, 1. 607b9], and two texts of uncertain sectarian affiliation [Ch'u-t'an-mi chi-kuo ching, T No. 60, 1.857c29 and Chung pen-ch'i ching, T No. 196, 4.159b8].

To this list we can include the Vinaya of the Mūlasarvāstivādins. For the story in Sanskrit, see C.M. Ridding and L. De La Vallee Poussin, "A Fragment of the Sanskrit Vinaya: Bhiksunīkarmavacana" [Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 1 [1919]: 123-143] which is translated by Frances Wilson, "The Nun" [in Diana Paul, Women in Buddhism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979, pp. 82-105]. It also appears in the Mūlasarvāstivādin Dulva, preserved in Tibetan [11, f. 326b-338] and translated by W. Woodville Rockhill, The Life of the Buddha [London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. Ltd., 1884], pp. 60-62.

Nattier has also missed a crucial appearance of the story in the Vinaya of the Mahāsāmghika-Lokottaravādins, ed. by Gustav Roth, Bhiksunī-Vinaya: Including Bhiksunī-Prakīrnaka of the Arya-Mahāsāmghika-Lokottaravādin [Patna: K.P. Jayaswal Research Institute, 1970], pp. 4-21,translated by Edith Nolot, Regles de Discipline des Nonnes Bouddhistes [Paris: College de France Publications de l'Institut de Civilisation Indienne, 1991], pp. 2-12. This omission in Nattier's work is serious: it leads her to construct a chronological scheme in which the story appears after the sectarian divisions in Buddhism. The existence of these texts raises questions about her chronology. As it appears in the Mahāsāmghika branch, the story must be treated as pre-dating the sectarian division. Granted that the story, as such, does not appear in the Mahāsāmghika-Bhiksunī-Vinaya, the text still refers to it in "other sūtras," which Akira Hirakawa cites in Monastic Discipline for the Buddhist Nuns: An English Translation of the Chinese Text of the Mahāsāmghika-Bhiksunī-Vinaya [Patna: Kashi Prasad Jayaswal Research Institute, 1982], pp. 47-48, n. 2.

3.  Some accounts omit or condense one or more of the three similes, but all employ the imagery of contagion and contamination concomitant with women's entrance into the sangha. The Mūlasarvāstivādin account translated by Rockhill omits reference to the rice field [p. 61]; the Sanskrit Mūlasarvāstivādin text omits the diseased rice field, but describes a field struck by lightning [Ridding and de la Vallee Poussin, p. 126; Wilson, p. 84]; the Mahāsāmghika-Lokottaravādin account omits reference to thieves entering the household, but presents three crops falling to disease [Roth, p. 9-10; Nolot, p. 12].

4.  This theory was initiated by I. B. Horner in her seminal Women Under Primitive Buddhism: Laywomen and Almswomen, [Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975 [rpr. of London, 1930]]. Other scholars have followed her lead. See, for example, Nancy Schuster Barnes, "Buddhism" [in Women in Religion, ed. by Arvind Sharma, Albany: State University of New York, 1987, pp. 105-133], pp. 107-108. For a similar perspective, see also Cornelia Dimmitt Church, "Temptress, Housewife, Nun: Women's Role in Early Buddhism [Anima 1 [1975]: 52-58], p. 54; Rita Gross, Buddhism After Patriarchy [Albany: State University of New York, 1993], pp. 34-38; Kajiyama Yuichi, "Women in Buddhism" [Eastern Buddhist ns. 15 [1982]: 53-70], pp. 59-61; and Tessa Bartholomeusz, Women Under the Bo Tree [Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Virginia, 1991], pp. 55-61.

5.  Diana Paul stands as the central figure in this chronological schema with Women in Buddhism: Images of the Feminine in the Mahāyāna Tradition [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979]. Paul attributes the misogyny of "early" Buddhist texts to the Indian context in which they developed. It was only when Mahāyāna took root in China that truly egalitarian doctrines could flourish and develop further. See, in particular, Part III [pp. 245-302] which Paul presents as the exaltation of the feminine in female deities such as Kuan Yin [p. 307].

Following Paul's lead, Janice Willis, "Nuns and Benefactresses: The Role of Women in the Development of Buddhism" [in Women, Religion, and Social Change, ed. by Y. Haddad and E. Findly, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985, pp. 59-85] describes a gradual historical progression from Pali to Mahāyāna texts in the positive portrayals of women. For a similar perspective, see Karen Lang, "Lord Death's Snare: Gender-related Imagery in the Theragāthā and the Therīgāthā" [Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 2 [1986]:63-79], p. 78.

Depending on these studies, Rita Gross, Buddhism After Patriarchy [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993] develops this trend even further, arguing that full flowering of an incipient egalitarianism had to await the development of Vajrayāna Buddhism [p. 57 and 114]. However, Gross departs from Paul's model in acknowledging positive portrayals of women in "early" Pali materials such as the Therīgāthā.

6.  Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, A Comparative Study of Bhikkhunī Pātimokkha [Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia, 1984], Mohan Wijayaratna, Les Moniales Bouddhistes: Naissance et Developpement du Monachisme Feminin [Paris: Ed. du Cerf, 1991], pp. 29-30. See also Appendix 1 in his Buddhist Monastic Life: According to the Texts of the Theravāda Tradition [trans. by Claude Grangier and Steven Collins, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990], pp. 158-163. Summarizing the results of these is Karma Lekshe Tsomo's recent contribution, "Mahāprajāpatī's Legacy: The Buddhist Women's Movement: An Introduction," Buddhist Women Across Cultures [State University of New York Press, 1999, pp. 1-44], pp. 6-7.

7.  Ute Hhsken's work is exemplary in this regard. For her study of the story, see "Die Legende von der Einrichtung des buddhistischen Nonnenordens im Vinaya-Pitaka der Theravādin," in Studien zur Indologie und Buddhismuskunde, ed. by Reinhold Grhnendahl, et al., Bonn: Indica et Tibetica Verlag, 1993, pp. 151-170.

8.  Alan Sponberg, "Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism" [in Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. by Jose Cabezon, Albany: SUNY, 1992, pp. 3-36].

9.  In my analysis of the "Vinaya story" I follow the lead of Erich Frauwallner, The Earliest Vinaya and the Beginnings of Buddhist Literature [Rome: Instituto Italiano per il Medi ed Estremo Oriente, 1956], though I differ from him in emphasizing literary rather than historical features of the Vinaya's usage of the Buddha biography. My analysis is supported by Buddhaghosa's assumption of the importance of beginnings and endings. In his long discussion of the first council, Buddhaghosa highlights the authority and completeness of the Pali canon: "all this has three divisions, the first words of the Buddha, the intermediate words of the Buddha, and the last words of the Buddha" [sabbam eva h'idam pathamabuddhavacanam majjhimabuddhavacanam pacchimabuddha-vacanan to tippabhedam hoti]. N.A. Jayawickrama, ed., The Inception of Discipline and the Vinaya Nidāna [London: Luzac and Co. Ltd., 1962], pp. 147-148.

10.  There are exceptions to this, usually in the secondary rules which modify or extend the application of the main rule. See, for example, the secondary rules in Sanghādisesa IX, X, and XI. For a discussion, see I. B. Horner, BD I, p. xvi.

11.  Most scholars accept a relatively early dating for the Vinaya because of consistency among the recensions in the various schools. For the most part, the composition and compilation of the Vinaya as we have it, the theory maintains, must predate the schisms that follow the second council, c. 340 BCE. For a thorough discussion of the schism and debates in the scholarship about dating and reasons for the schism, see Janice Nattier and Charles Prebish, "Mahāsānghika Origins: The Beginnings of Buddhist Sectarianism" [History of Religions 16 [1977]: 237-272] and references therein. Recently, Gregory Schopen has challenged this theory, arguing that important sections of the Pali Vinaya dealing with stūpas have been either lost or intentionally omitted from the extant texts. "The Stūpa Cult and the Extant Pāli Vinaya" [Journal of the Pali Text Society 13 [1989]: 83-100]. Scholars of Pali Buddhism refute Schopen's claim in the next volume of the Journal of the Pali Text Society [15 [1990]]. See O. von Hinüber, "Khandhakavatta: Loss of Text in the Pāli Vinayapitaka?" [pp. 127-138]; Richard Gombrich, "Making Mountains Without Molehills: The Case of the Missing Stūpa" [pp. 141-143]; and, especially, Charles Hallisey, "Apropos the Pāli Vinaya as a Historical Document: A Reply to Gregory Schopen" [pp. 197-208]. Steven Collins, however, affirms the cautionary note introduced by Gregory Schopen, arguing that the whole of the Pali Canon, indeed, the actual concept of the Pali Canon as a "closed list of scriptures with special and specific authority as the avowed historical record of the Buddha's teaching" is best understood as the product of a particular lineage in Sri Lanka who employed their recension of the texts in a context of political struggles for hegemony in the fifth century as a strategy of legitimation." "On the Very Idea of the Pali Canon" [Journal of the Pali Text Society 15 [1990]: 89-126], p. 89.

12.  This point is made by almost all scholars studying the Vinaya. For example, see Horner, BD I, p. xvi, G.S.P. Misra, The Age of Vinaya [New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1972], p. 9, and John Holt, Discipline: The Canonical Buddhism of the Vinayapitaka [Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1983], p. 16.

13.  For recent studies in the biography of the Buddha, see the excellent collection edited by Juliane Schober, Sacred Biography in Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia [University of Hawaii Press, 1997] which build on the influential article by Frank Reynolds, "The Many Lives of the Buddha" in The Biographical Process, ed. by Reynolds and D. Capps [The Hague: Mouton, 1976, pp. 37-66].

14.  For a fascinating discussion of the development of the biography of the Buddha see Jonathan Walters, "Suttas as History: Four Approaches to the Sermon on the Noble Quest [Ariyapariyesanasutta]" History of Religions 38/3 [Feb. 1999]: 247-284.

15.  Some might see his conversation with the brahman as an exception to this. I think, though, that the brahman soliciting the Buddha's opinion as to what constitutes a brahman is at least an implicit recognition.

16.  According to Ellison Banks Findly, the term "arahant" itself conveys status implications from which, in her analysis of Pali texts, women were exempted. She claims "[t]here is not a single case of the term being applied definitively to a specific woman in the Vinaya [disciplinary texts] or the Nikāyas [texts of the Buddha's sermons]." "Women and the Arahant Issue in Early Pāli Literature" [Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 15/1 [Spring 1999]: 57-76], p. 58.

17.  Here I encapsulate the Suttavibhanga within the structure of the Khandhakas, in particular within the section on the uposatha. Conceptually, the Khandhakas take precedence over the Suttavibhanga. The Suttavibhanga details and prohibits for individual bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs behaviours deemed offensive, and provides an account of the circumstances of the first infraction of each offence. In so doing, however, the text assumes elements of communal life which are articulated in the Khandhakas. The sangha itself is instituted in the Mahāvagga as are the admission procedures which undergird the very designation of "bhikkhu" and "bhikkhunī". Moreover, the Pātimokkha which is recited at the bi-monthly uposatha rite is introduced, apparently for the first time, in Chapter II of the Mahāvagga which describes the origins and procedures of the uposatha. Since the Suttavibhanga is essentially the long version of the Pātimokkha, it is, in a certain sense, also contained conceptually within the Mahāvagga.

18.  mutt' āham bhikkhave sabbapāsehi ye dibbā ye ca mānusā. tumhe pi bhikkhave mutāà sabbapāsehi ye dibbā ye ca mānusā. caratha bhikkhave cārikam bahujanahitāya lokānukampāya atthāya hitāya sukhāya devamanussānam. mā ekena dve agamittha. desetha bhikkhave dhamma ādikalyānam majjhekalyānam pariyosānakalyānam sāttham savyañjanam kevalaparipuññam parisuddham brahmacariyam pakāsetha. santi sattā pparijakkhajātikā assavanatā dhammassa parihāyanti, bhavissanti dhammassaññātāro.

19.  Significantly, in both textual sources and in inscriptions, the term cātuddisa sangha [the sangha of the four directions] is used to designate the sangha in its entirety. This geographical metaphor apparently had wide currency from an early date in Buddhism. In his classic study, Sukumar Dutt interprets this designation as indication of an early itinerant stage of the sangha, arguing that originally monks did not live in dwellings but traveled constantly. Early Buddhist Monachism [London: Luzac and Co. Ltd., 1957], p. 13. For a stringent critique of Dutt's theory, see Dhirasekera, Buddhist Monastic Discipline, pp. 6-10.

20.  In the account of his enlightenment experience which opens the Mahāvagga frame narrative, Māra is vanquished in the third and final watch of the night [Mahāvagga I 1.7]. In other accounts of the Buddha's biography, the conquest of Māra plays an elaborate and significant role. For a discussion and references to Māra in Buddhist and non-Buddhist sources, see E. J. Thomas, The Life of the Buddha: As Legend and History [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949], pp. 70-80, 230-233, etc.; James Boyd, Satan and Māra: Christian and Buddhist Symbols of Evil [Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975]; and Alex Wayman, "Studies in Yama and Māra" [Indo-Iranian Journal 3 [1959]: 112-131].

21.  Mahāvagga I 11.2.

22.  This is an interesting inversion of the famous story of Angulimāla, the thieving mass-murderer who joins the sangha and attains arahant-hood [MN Sutta 86 and Theragāthā 869-891]. In the Vinaya reference to a similar [murdering?] thief, the Buddha introduces his prohibition to the admission of dhajabaddha thieves after the ordination of a thief [cora] described as wearing a garland of fingers [angulimāla] whose presence in the sangha terrifies people. Here, the prohibition refers specifically to thieves marked by a sign [dhajabaddha; Horner translates this as "wearing an emblem" perhaps in reference to the garland].

23.  For a discussion of the elusive pandaka and Buddhist theories of sexual differentiation, see Leonard Zwilling, "Homosexuality as Seen in Indian Buddhist Texts" [in Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender ed. by Jose Cabezon, New York: State University of New York Press, 1992, pp. 203-214] and L. P. N. Perera, "Faculties of Sex and Related Phenomena in Buddhist Sexual Theory" [in Buddhist Philosophy and Culture: Essays in Honour of N. A. Jayawickrama, ed. by David Kalupahana and W. G. Weeratne, Sri Lanka: N. A. Jayawickrema Felicitation Volume Committee, 1987, pp. 179-188].

24.  I.B. Horner follows the commentary in assuming Tathāgata in textual lacuna [BD IV, p. 113 n. 2].

25.  I am indebted to Mavis Fenn for this insight into the importance of wholeness in the Vinaya's embodiment of the Buddha's person.

26.  A miraculous transformation of sexual characteristics poses no problem for Buddhaghosa. See, for example, the case of the bhikkhu who changed overnight into a bhikkhunī. His [her?] cell-mate incurred no transgression for sleeping in the presence of a woman and the new bhikkhunī retained her [his?] previous status though now applied to the bhikkhunī-sangha [Samantapāsādikā, pp. 211-212]. It is the fuzzy areas between male and female that disturb Buddhaghosa, just as they appear to disturb our redactor. Pandakas and hermaphrodites [ubhatovyañjanaka] are consistently excluded from any interaction with the sangha.

27.  The text of Mahāvagga II addresses only bhikkhus. Bhikkhunīs are also required to attend an uposatha rite of their own under the guidance of a designated bhikkhu [Cullavagga X 6.1], but their rite is clearly separate from that of the bhikkhus.

28.  Jotiya Dhirasekera, Buddhist Monastic Discipline, p. 101.

29.  Almost all scholars agree that this binding together of a disparate community is one of the primary functions of the uposatha. See, for example, Richard Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism, p. 110.

30.  I am indebted to John Holt [Discipline, p. 130] for this analysis of the unity of body, speech, and mind in the recital of the Pātimokkha.

31.  I use the term "decline" to refer to the breakdown of brahmacariya and the expected demise of saddhamma as it is used in the Vinaya. The idea of inevitable decline in other Pali sources refers to the cosmic cycle of evolution and devolution during vast periods of time. See, for example, the Aggañña Sutta [DN III, no. 27] and the Cakkavatti-sīhanāda Sutta [DN III, no. 26]. For a discussion of the role of decline throughout Buddhist history and textual transmissions, see Jan Nattier, Once Upon a Future Time: Studies in a Buddhist Prophecy of Decline [Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1991].

According to Nattier, differing notions of decline and its causes lead to differing responses from the traditions that maintain them. For Theravāda Buddhists, the idea of inevitable decline leads to "a fierce conservatism, devoted to the preservation for as long as possible of the Buddha's teachings in their original form. Set within the cosmological framework...[according to which ours is an age of general decline] and anticipating the disappearance of the Dharma within a finite number of centuries, this historical outlook views change of any kind as being -- by definition -- change for the worse. Thus the impulse to preservation [and, accordingly, the tendency to deny any change that may actually have taken place] is both understandable and expected" [p. 137].

32.  pure adhammo dippati dhammo patibāhīyati, avinayo dippati vinayo patibāhīyati, pure adhammavādino balavanto honto dhammavādino dubbalā honti, avinayavādino balavanto honti vinayavādino dubbalā honti.

33.  Note, however, that Ananda does not become an arahant until the night before the assembly. As the only non-arahant chosen to participate, his presence is anomalous. For a discussion of this and other anomalies associated with the character of Ananda, see Michael Freedman, "Ananda in the Theravāda," pp. 442-485 and Ellison Banks Findly, "Ananda's Hindrance: Faith [saddhā] in Early Buddhism" [Journal of Indian Philosophy 20 [1992]: 253-273].

34.  This "trial" of Ananda has been interpreted by many scholars as the chronological "core" of the first council account. See Louis de La Vallee Poussin, "The Buddhist Councils" [Indian Antiquary 37 [1908]: 1-18 and 81-106], pp. 11-12 and Bareau, Les premiers counciles, pp. 14-15. Jean Przyluski focuses on the account as it is preserved in sūtras rather than in Vinayas, arguing that the account reflects legendary themes associated with the seasonal rituals of the rains. At the conclusion of these rituals, Przyluski contends, the community purified itself by the reprimand and expulsion of a scapegoat, here personified by Ananda. Le Concile de Rājagrha [Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1926], p. 372, and especially, Chapter II, pp. 257-278.

35.  This is clear from Mahākassapa's description of the calm response of passionless [vītarāga] bhikkhus to news of the Buddha's parinibbāna [Cullavagga XI 1.1].

36.  Women do not appear in the account until the conversion of Yasa [Mahāvagga I 7.1-15], where they symbolically represent the world of entanglement from which Yasa must extricate himself. It is in seeing women in their disheveled condition that Yasa develops the perspective that entitles him to special treatment by the Buddha. It is in women that delusion, death, and suffering are most evident. And it is the women who remain asleep while Yasa "wakes up" [patibujjhati]. Note how in other biographies, it is Siddhartha himself who plays the lead character in this sequence. See the Buddhacarita or the Mahāvastu.

37.  Bhikkhunīs are prohibited from disciplining bhikkhus in any way: they cannot suspend the pavāranā of bhikkhus, reprove them, or remind them [Cullavagga X 20].

38.  Mahāprajāpatī's emotional outburst resembles that of the bhikkhus who wept and wailed at hearing news of the Buddha's death [Cullavagga XI 1.1]. In contrast, arahants are perpetually calm. The argument that convinces the Buddha to admit women also carries connotations of impurity. The Buddha is indebted to Mahāprajāpatī because she nursed him, supplying him with the milk that flows from her breasts -- a bodily secretion over which women have no conscious control and which symbolizes the emotional and social bond between mother and child. Note also that a bhikkhunī who gives birth must leave the sangha while nursing the child, even if she has committed no offense to become pregnant [Cullavagga X 25].

39.  In the Buddha's explanation of the rationale for instituting the sikkhāpada and Pātimokkha, he explicitly states that none of the rules is necessary until āsavas have entered the sangha. By implication, when Sudinna impregnates his former wife, thus necessitating the first sikkhāpada, the āsavas have entered and decline is inevitable.

40.  In his work on the Gotamī-apadāna, Jonathan Walters argues that the Gotamī [Mahāprajāpatī] is the female counterpart to the Gotama [Buddha]. Their clan-names reflect this, as does their treatment in the text. Both appear surrounded by their disciples [female and male, respectively]; both save a group of 500 [nuns and monks, respectively] by their pity; both are worshipped by deities [Buddha by gods, Mahāprajāpatī by goddesses]; and each pays mutual homage to the other. Walters also highlights a conscious [he argues] parallelism in the descriptions of their respective deaths in the Gotamī-apadāna and the Mahāparinibbānasutta. Jonathan Walters, "A Voice from the Silence: the Buddha's Mother's Story" [History of Religions 33/4 [1994]: 358-379], pp. 374-375. On the basis of these parallels, Walters argues for the historical existence of two separate paths for women and men in early Buddhism. My work on the Therīgāthā and Theragāthā tends to confirm Walters' argument. In a detailed comparison of the texts' use of terms, phrases, contexts, and characterizations, I discovered pervasive differences between the texts' concept of nibbāna: while the Therīgāthā emphasizes nibbāna as struggle, the Theragāthā emphasizes nibbāna as an end to struggle. Though the texts are clearly designed as companion volumes, modeling the quest for nibbāna for women and men, respectively, this quest is slightly different for women and men. Women in the Footsteps of the Buddha: Struggle for Liberation in the Therīgāthā [Curzon, 1998]. Liz Wilson challenges Walters' argument, contending that the parallels are only "equal" if we ignore the gender connotations in the text. Instead, Wilson argues, Mahāprajāpatī's presentation in the Apadāna exemplifies the subordination required of all women in ancient India whether in the Buddha sangha or not. "Seeing Through the Gendered 'I'," pp. 44-51.

41.  In the Mahāsamghika-Lokottaravādin account of the story, her leadership and her subversiveness are emphasized. After the Buddha has rejected her initial request, she returns to her friends and proposes that they shave, don the yellow robes, and follow the Buddha. She then says "if the Buddha allows it, we will enter the religious path. If not, we will do it anyway." sace mo Bhagavān [anu]jānī[ni] syati pravrajisyāmo no ca anujānī[ni]syati evam tu tāyi Bhagavato santike brahmacaryañ carisyāmah. Bhiksunī-Vinaya 1.2 [Roth, p. 6]. See also Edith Nolot's translation, Regles de Discipline des Nonnes Bouddhistes: Le Bhiksunīvinaya de L'Ecole Mahāsamghika-Lokottaravādin [Paris: College de France, 1991], p. 3.


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