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Women and the religious order of the Buddha
Ven. Professor Dhammavihari

At the time the Buddha set up his Order of Bhikkhus, there was in Indian society the widespread but groundless belief that woman is inferior to man. The position which the woman lost under the dominance of the Brahmanas [ i.e. the literature and the literary tradition which went by that name ] had not yet been retrieved. The brahmins of the day evidently showed little sympathy for her sad lot. Altekar describes the position of woman in India at the time as follows: ' The prohibition of Upanayana amounted to spiritual disenfranchisement of women and produced a disastrous effect upon their general position in society. It reduced them to the status of Sudras... What, however, did infinite harm to women was the theory that they were ineligible for them [Vedic sacrifices] because they were of the status of the Sudras. Henceforward they began to be bracketed with Sudras and other backward classes in society. This we find to be the case even in the Bhagavadgita IX.32. [.Altekar, A.S.,The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization, p.204 f.]. In the Manusmrti we witness the cruel infliction of domestic subservience on woman. The road to heaven is barred to her and there is hard bargaining with her for the offer of an alternative route. Matrimony and obedience to the husband are the only means whereby a woman can hope to reach heaven.

Nasti strinam prthag yagno na vratam napyuposatham patim susrusate yena tena svarge mahiyate. Manu. V. 153

Women have no sacrifices of their own to perform Nor religious rites or observances to follow. Obedience to the husband alone would exalt the woman in heaven.

This hostile attitude to woman both in religion and in society was repeatedly criticised and challenged by the Buddha on numerous occasions. In the Kosala Samyutta the Buddha contradicts the belief that the birth of a daughter was not as much a cause of joy as that of a son, a belief which the ritualism of the Brahmanas had contributed to strengthen. The Buddha pointed out clearly that woman had a dignified and an important part to play in society, and he defined it with great insight, fitting her harmoniously into the social fabric. She is a lovable member of the household, held in place by numerous relationships, and respected above all as the mother of worthy sons. The sex did not matter, he argued , and added that in character and in her role in society, she may even rival men.

Itthi ' pi hi ekacciya seyya posa janadhipa medhavini silavati sassudeva patibbata. Tassa yo jayati poso suro hoti disampati evam subhagiya putto rajjam ' pi anusasati. S.I.86

A woman child , O lord of men, may prove Even a better offspring than a male. For she may grow up wise and virtuous, Her husband's mother rev'rencing, true wife. The boy that she may bear may do great deeds, And rule great realms, yea, such a son Of noble wife becomes his country`s guide. Kindred Sayings I. 111

But it is not unusual to find scholars who have missed this singular virtue of Buddhism. It would be grossly unfair to say that the Buddha did not devote much attention to the duties and ideals of lay women or that he showed indifference to or contempt of women. Speaking of Buddhism and Jainism Altekar unjustly says: ' Both these were ascetic religions, and they have not devoted much attention to the duties and ideals of lay women. The founders and leaders of both these movements showed the indifference to, or contempt of women, which is almost universal among the advocates of the ascetic ideal.' [Altekar, A.S. op.cit. p.208]

The instances are numerous where the Buddha defines and describes the duties of woman in society [A.IV. 265ff.]. Further, the Buddha recognises the fact that these by no means constitute the whole of her life. It is not with a view to limiting their life solely to the secular affairs of the household that the Buddha laid down a code of good living for women, but to serve as a complement to the good life already enjoined in his religion to all his followers, irrespective of their sex. A host of these considerations as they are addressed to women are grouped together in the Samyutta Nikaya in a chapter solely devoted to them as Matugama Samyutta [S.IV.328ff.].

A good lay woman endowed with religious devotion, moral virtue and liberality as well as wisdom and lerarning , makes a success of her life in this world. For it is said:

Saddhaya silena ca y ' idha vaddhati pannaya cagena sutena c ' ubhayam. Sa tadisi silavati upasika adiyati saram idh ' eva attano ' ti. S. IV. 250

Such a virtuous lady who possesses religious devotion, cultivates virtue, is endowed with wisdom and learning , and is given to charity makes a success of her life in this very existence.

Her virtuous character gives to her life in the household poise and dignity [ Pancahi bhikkhave dhammehi samannagato matugamo visarado agaram ajjhavasati. Katamehi pancahi ? Panatipatapativirato ca hoti... surameraya-majjapamadatthana pativirato ca hoti. S. IV. 250 ]. The following are also given as virtues endowd with which she can make her life fruitful , both here and hereafter: Saddho [religious devotion], hirima ottappi [sense of shame and fear] , akkodhano anupanahi [not given to anger ] , anissuki [not jealous], amacchari [not niggardly] , anaticari [chaste in behaviour] , silava [virtuous] , bahussuto [learned ] , araddhaviriyo [zealous] , upatthitassati [mentally alert ] , pannava [ wise. Ibid. 243-44 ]..

We notice that all these virtues enumerated so far are within the reach of a woman living in the household. She is not rooted out of her domestic setting. The good and successful life of the laywoman, as much as of the layman, seems to have loomed large in the ethics of Buddhism. In the Anguttara Nikaya two sets of virtues are given whereby a woman is said to strive for success in this world as well as in the other : idhalokavijayaya and paralokavijayaya [ Catuhi kho Visakhe dhammehi samannagato matugamo idhalokavijayaya patipanno hoti ayam sa loko araddho hoti. Katamehi catuhi ? Idha Visakhe matugamo susamvihitakammanto hoti sangahitaparijjano bhattu manapam carati sambhatam anurakkhati... Catuhi kho Visakhe dhammehi samannagato matugamo paralokavijayaya patipanno hoti par ' assa loko araddho hoti. Katamehi catuhi ? Idha Visakhe matugamo saddhasampanno hoti silasampanno hoti cagasampanno hoti pannasampanno hoti. A. IV. 269f.].

It is also worth noting here that the Buddha accepts the reality and significance of the instituton of marriage for woman. But unlike in Hindu society, it was not the only means for the social elevation of woman. In Hinduism , a woman is supposed to become a dvija, a truly initiated member of the religion and the society, only after her marriage [ Prabhu - Hindu Social Organisation . p.284 ].

The virtues referred to in the Anguttara Nikaya [ A. IV. 269f. ] are household duties of a woman as wife which lead to domestic peace and concord. They are also calculated to keep the family administration in gear and secure for the family economic stability. This significant part which she is called upon to play is meticulously defined and it reveals neither indifference to nor contempt of women on the part of the Buddha.

The good laywoman has also her duties for the development of her religious life. It is a course of graduated training which does not conflict with her household life. It is, in fact, smoothly woven into it. Religious devotion [saddha ] , moral virtue [sila ] , and a generous disposition [ caga ] , for instance, form part of it. This healthy combination of social and religious virtues of woman is further witnessed in the Anguttara Nikaya where it is said that the following eight virtues pave the way for her to proceed to heaven.

Susamvihitakammanta sangahitaparijjana bhattu manapam carati sambhatam anurakkhati saddhasilena sampanna vadannu vitamacchara niccam maggam visodheti satthanam samparayikam. Iccete atthadhamma ca yassa vijjati nariya tam ' pi silavatim ahu dhammattham saccavadinim solasakarasampannam atthangasusamagatam. tadisi silavati upasika upapajjati devalokam manapam. A.IV.271

These virtues are:

  1. organises the work of the household with efficiency,
  2. treats her servants with concern,
  3. strives to please her husband,
  4. takes good care of what he earns,
  5. possesses religious devotion,
  6. is virtuous in conduct,
  7. is kind,
  8. is liberal.

The first four items of this list are identical with the first four of the five good qualities ascribed to the virtuous wife in the Sigalovada Sutta, the fifth being general efficiency [ dakkha ] and enterprise [ analasa sabbakiccesu D.III.190].

It was also held in Indian belief that woman was intellectually inferior to man and therefore had no capacity to reach higher spiritual attainments. This idea clearly echoes in the Samyutta Nikaya where Mara, as the personification of the forces of evil, strives in vain to dissuade a Bhikkhuni from her religious endeavours.

Yam tam isihi pattabbam thanam durabhisambhavam na tam dvangulapannaya sakka pappotum itthiya. S.I.129.

No woman, with the two - finger - wisdom which is hers, could ever hope to reach those heights which are attained only by the sages.

These words of Mara are undoubtedly resonant of the beliefs of the day and the Buddha was vehement in contradicting them. Bhikkhuni Soma to whom Mara addressed these words answered. Illustrating the Buddhist attitude to the spiritual potentialities of woman she said:

Itthibavo kim kayira cittamhi susamahite nanamhi vattamanamhi samma dhammam vipassato. S.I.129

When one's mind is well concentrated and gathered together and wisdom never fails, does the fact of being a woman still make any difference ?

However, there is evidence that this age-old scepticism about the spiritual potentialities of woman died hard. Even in the face of success achieved by Bhikkhunis in Buddhism, a groundless belief seems to have prevailed which distrusted the capacity of woman for spiritual perfection. On the eve of her final passing away, when Mahapajapati Gotami visits the Buddha to bid him farewell, he calls upon her to give proof of the religious attainments of the Bhikkhunis in order to convince the disbelieving sceptics, the men in society.

Thinam dhammabhisamaye ye bala vimatim gata tesam ditthipahanattham iddhim dassehi Gotami. Ap.II.535

O Gotami, perform a miracle in order to dispel the wrong views of those foolish men who are in doubt with regard to the spiritual potentialities of woman.

Buddhism, with its characteristic note of realism, also recognises the inherent qualities of woman which make her attractive to the opposite sex. Nothing else in the world, it is said, can delight and cheer a man so much as a woman. In her, one would find all the fivefold pleasures of the senses. The world of pleasure exists in her.

Pancakamaguna ete itthirupasmim dissare rupa sadda rasa gandha potthabba ca amanorama. A.III.69

All these five-fold pleasures of the senses which gratify the mind are centered in the feminine form.

The power which the woman derives through this may, at the same time, extend so far as to make man throw all reason to the winds and be a pawn in her hand, under the influence of her charm. Thus, it is even possible that a mother may err in relation to her son or vice versa.

Kin nu kho so bhikkave moghapuriso mannati na mata putte sarajjati putto va pana matari ' ti. A.III.68

What, O monks, does that foolish man think that a mother would not feel lustfully attached to her son or the son to his mother ?

See Gradual Sayings, III.p.55 where this is incorrectly translated as ' What, monks, knows not this foolish man that a mothr shall not lust after her son ,nor son, after his mother ?

N ' aham bhikkhave annam ekarupam ' pi samanupassami evam rajaniyam evam kamaniyam evam madaniyam evam bandhaniyam evam mucchaniyam evam antarayakaram anuttarassa yogakkhemassa adhigamaya yathayidam bhikkhave itthirupam. Itthirupe bhikkhave satta ratta giddha gadhita mucchita ajjhopanna te digharattam socanti itthirupavasanuga. [ A .III.68].

Therefore a man might say without exaggeration that woman is a trap laid out on all sides by Mara [Yam hi tam bhikkhave samma vadamano vadeyya samantapaso marassa ' ti matugamam yeva samma vadamano vadeyya samantapaso Marasa ' ti. Ibid. ]. These observations are made, however, not as a stricture on their character but as a warning to the men, who in seeking their company, might err on the side of excess. It is true that at times these remarks tend to be overstressed, but obviously with no malice to women. There is pointed reference to the unguarded nature of the man who falls a prey to these feminine charms. These warnings are specifically directed to the mendicants who need to guard themselves against the allurements of the flesh.

Mutthassatim nam bandhanti pekkhitena mhitena ca. Atho ' pi dunnivatthena manjuna bhanitena ca. N ' eso jano svasaddo api ugghatito mato. [A.III.69]

Women ensnare a man of heedless mind with their glances and smiles or with artfulgrooming [dunnivattha ] and pleasing words. Women are such that one cannot approach them in safety even though they may be stricken and dead. [ Translation at G.S.III.57 is not very accurate.]

Thus it becomes clear that it is not in the spirit of Buddhism to brand woman as a source of corruption for man. Note the words `a man of heedless mind ' in the above quotation. It would be interesting to contrast here the words of Manu who says, `It is the nature of woman to seduce men in this world ' : svabhava eva narinam naranam iha dusanam. [Manu.II.213]. The Jains too, inspite of their admission of women into the monastic order, do not seem to have differed very much from the Brahmins in their attitude towards women. The Acaranga Sutra, in the course of a religious admonition known as the Pillow of Righteousness, makes the following comment which stigmatises woman completely. `He to whom women were known as the causes of all sinful acts, he saw the true state of the world.' [Jaina Sutras I., SBE.XXII, p.81]. The position of woman in Jainism is summed up as follows. "Right in the earliest portions of the Canon woman is looked upon as something evil that enticed innocent males into a snare of misery. They are described as `the greatest temptation', `the causes of all sinful acts', `the slough', `demons' etc. Their bad qualities are described in exaggerated terms. Their passions are said to destroy the celibacy of monks `like a pot filled with lac near fire'." [Deo.S.B.,History of Jaina Monachism, p.493]. In Buddhism, on the other hand, the caution which men are called upon to exercise in their dealings with the opposite sex springs solely from the Buddhist attitude to kama or the pleasures of the senses. Kama are described in Buddhism as leading to grief and turbulence. Kama thwart the path to transcendental happiness. This attitude is eloquently manifest in the counsel given to Arittha in the Alagaddupama Sutta [M.I.130 ff.].

Of this vast field of sense experience of man, sex is only a segment but it is admittedly one with irresistible appeal and thus required a special word of warning , particularly to those who are keen on the pursuit of mental equipoise. The Buddha says that if it were left unbridled, it would, in expressing itself, shatter all bounds of propriety.

He asks ' Does this foolish person think that a mother could not feel lustfully attached towards her son or a son , towards his mother [ Kin nu so bhikkhave moghapuriso mannati na mata putte sarajjati putto va pana matari ' ti . A.III.68 ]. Hence the desire to lead a chaste and moral life, eschewing, even completely, the gratification of sex desires, can as much be the aspiration of a woman as of a man. Besides this philosophic attitude to the pleasures of the world in which the woman admittedly plays a dominant part, there seems to be nothing in Buddhism which looks upon sex or woman as being corrupt in themselves.

Thus it becomes clear that the philosophy of early Buddhism had no reservations whatsoever regarding the spiritual emancipation of woman. In the ocean of samsara her chances of swimming across to the further shore were as good as those of man. Emancipation of the mind through perfection of wisdom which is referred to as cetovimutti pannavimutti was the goal of religious life and for this the way which had proved most effective was the life of renunciation [ agarasma anagariyam pabbajja ]. The woman was as much encumbered by household life as man and in her spiritual earnestness she would have equally well echoed the words of the man who chooses renunciation. She would say with him that the household life is full of impediments and contrast it with the life of pabbajja [Sambadho gharavaso rajopatho abbhokaso pabbajja. M.I.179].

But according to the evidence of the Pali texts [A.IV.274 & Vin.II.253] the admission of women into the life of pabbajja in Buddhism does not seem to have been effected with as much ease as one would expect. According to these, the Buddha appears to have shown some reluctance to admit women into the Order. When Mahapajapati Gotami [ his step-mother who nursed him and nurtured him when his mother passed away seven days after his birh ] requested the Buddha to consent to the entry of women into his Order, he is said to have put her off three times, saying: `Do not be interested O, Gotami, about the entry of women into my Order ' [ Alam Gotami. Ma te rucci matugamassa tathagatappavedite dhammavinaye agarasma anagariyam pabbajja ' ti. Ibid.].

This does seem to imply that the presence of women in the monastic institution of brahmacariya was considered, for some reason or other, to be somewhat problematic. In an atmosphere and in a social setting where women were considered a danger to spiritual life, their presence in the inner circle of religious life as members of the monastic community would have naturally called for serious comment. However, there is evidence that Jainism had already broken through this barrier against women. But the vicissitudes of the Jaina monastic community, in the relations between the two orders of monks and nuns, as well as of nuns and laymen, could not apparently have been very heartening to the Buddha. Speaking of the reforms introduced by Mahavira [ the Buddha's senior contemporary of the Jain Order ] with the addition of the fifth vow of chastity to the earlier cauyama samvara of Parsva , Jacobi says : `The argumentation in the text presupposes a decay of morals of the monastic order to have occurred between Parsva and Mahavira...' [ Jaina Sutras II, SBE.XLV.122. n.3]. There is also evidence from another quarter of the promiscuity in the behaviour of male and female mendicants [ non-Jain ] in the Buddha`s day. The Buddha takes note of this in the Culladhammasamadana Sutta. He speaks of Samanas and Brahmanas who, repudiating the view that sensual pleasures are detrimental to spiritual progress, mingle freely with female mendicants, vociferously enjoying their company [ Kim su nama te bhonto samanabramana kamesu anagatabhyam sampassamana kamanam pahanam ahamsu kamanam parinnam pannapenti. Sukho imissa paribbajikaya tarunaya mudukaya lomasaya bahaya samphasso ' ti te kamesu patabyatam apajjanti. M.1.305] These are the observations of the rebellious mendicants.

Whatever can be the basis for pleading for the renunciation of sensual pleasures? What future calamity can lie in wait for us? Saying ' Blissful indeed is the contact of the soft and tender hairy hands of these young female mendicants ,' they enjoyed their company.

However, the Buddha concedes to Ananda that women, having taken to the life of pabbajja in Buddhism, are capable of attaining the higher fruits of religious life as far as Arahantship. [Bhabbo Ananda matugamo tathagatappavedite dhammavinaye agarasma anagariyam pabbajitva sotapattiphalam ' pi sakadagamiphalam ' pi anagamiphalam ' pi arahattaphalam ' pi sacchikatun ' ti. A.IV.276 & Vin.II .254]. The considerations which seem to have weighed heavy in the mind of the Buddha regarding the admission of women into the Order are concerned more with the wider problem of the monastic organization as a whole. He would have been undoubtedly most averse to stand in the way of the personal liberty of woman. But in the interests of the collective good of the institution of brahmacariya [ Institute of Celibacy ] which was the core of the religion, women had to make certain sacrifices, surrendering at times even what might appear to have been their legitimate rights. This is evident from the following eight conditions [ atthagarudhamma ] under which the Buddha granted them permission to enter the Order [Bhikkhuni sasana].

  1. A nun who has been ordained even for a hundred years must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, do proper homage to a monk ordained but that day.
  2. A nun must not spend the rains in a residence where there are no monks. [See Bhikkhuni Pac.56: Vin.IV. 313 ]
  3. Every half month a nun should desire two things from the Order of Monks : the asking as to the date of the Observance [ uposatha ] day, and the coming for the exhortation [ bhikkhunovada ]. [See Bhikkhuni Pac.59: Vin.IV. 315 ]
  4. After the rains a nun must 'invite' [ pavarana ] before both Orders in respct of three matters, namely what was seen, what was heard, what was suspected. [See Bhikkhuni Pac. 57: Vin. IV.314 ]
  5. A nun, offending against an important rule, must undergo manatta discipline for half a month before both Orders.
  6. When, as a probationer, she has trained in the six rules [ cha dhamma ] for two years, she should seek higher ordination from both Orders.
  7. A Monk must not be abused or reviled in any way by a nun.
  8. From today , admonition of monks by nuns is forbidden, admonition of nuns by monks is not forbidden. [ Book of the Discipline, V.354-55 ]

The insistence on these atthagarudhamma is the most vital issue, much more than the delayed consent of the Buddha, in the founding of the Bhikkhuni Sasana. The delay, it may in fact be argued, would have proved useful to emphasise the conditions which he was going to lay down. It is these conditions alone which gave the women access to the monastic life in Buddhism [ Sace Ananda Mahapajapati Gotami atthagarudhamme patiganhati sa ' va ' ssa hotu upasampada.Vin.II.255]. The Dharmagupta Vinaya in the Chinese version compares them to a bridge over a great river by means of which one is enabled to cross over to the further bank [Taisho, Vol.22. p.923 B ]. These garudhamma are observances which pertain to monastic propriety and procedure in the Order of Bhikkhunis in relation to the Bhikkhus. The women are not to violate these as long as they remain in the monastic community. In the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sasana, these conditions seem to have engaged greater attention than even the formulation of the code of moral precepts, which incidentally is not even mentioned at this stage. There is no doubt that in maintaining the vigour and vitality of the Sangha, whether of the Bhikkhus or of the Bhikkhunis, the code of the Patimokkha played a vital part. But it seems to be equally true to say that in bringing the newly inaugurated Bhikkhuni Sangha into a healthy relationship with the older institution of the Bhikkhu Sangha, the atthagarudhamma were calculated to play a greater role. They take no note of moral considerations. A perfect functioning of the latter, in the case of the Bhikkhunis too, was apparently taken for granted at this early stage of their Sasana. That a similar state of affairs did exist even in the Bhikkhu Sangha in its early history is evident in the Kakacupama Sutta [M.I.124].

On a closer examination of the atthagarudhamma we are led to make the following observations. According to these the Bhikkhu Sangha is looked upon as the more mature and responsible body, evidently on account of its seniority [i.e. its earlier establishment ], which is capable of leading the way for the Bhikkhuni Sangha. This is clearly evident from the garudhamma 2 and 3 [Vin.II.255]. The Bhikkhunis are expected to recognise the spiritual leadership of the Order of Bhikkhus. At least at the outset, the Bhikkhunis had to seek the assistance of the Bhikkhus in such vital monastic rituals like the Patimokkhuddesa and Bhikkhunovada. But it is also evident that, as circumstances necessitated and experience proved opportune, the Buddha did transfer some of these powers to the Bhikkhunis themselves [Ibid.259]. However, the recognition of the leadership of the monks over the community of nuns and this position of the Bhikkhus in loco parentis to the Bhikkhunis seem to have continued much longer. Even when the authority to recite the Patimokkha by themselves was finally transferred to the Bhikkhunis, the Bhikkhus were still left with the right to instruct them on its proper performance [Anujanami bhikkhave bhikkhuhi bhikkhuninam acikkhitum evam patimokkham uddiseyyatha ' ti. Ibid.].

There is slso evidence of a similar reservation of power while effecting the transference of authority to the Bhikkhunis to impose penalties and punishments on their fellow members. The Bhikkhus who carried out these acts at the outset are latterly barred from doing so but are left with the authority to explain to the Bhikkhunis the proper procedure. [Anujanami bhikkhave bhikkhuhi bhikkhuninam acikkhitum evam kammam kareyyatha ' ti. Vin.II.260]. In the matter of bhikkhunovada too, it was a Bhikkhu who was appointed to remind the Bhikkhunis regularly of the proper observance of the atthagarudhamma [ Vin.IV. 51f. ]. Thus on account of this complete dependence of a Bhikkhuni on the leadership of a Bhikkhu, the second of these eight garudhamma forbade the Bhikkhunis from going into residence for the Rains-Retreat in a place where there were no Bhikkhus. The third garudhamma too, implies the reliance of the Bhikkhunis on the Order of Bhikkhus in the performance of the two functions of uposathapucchaka and ovadupasankamana. Both the Bhikkhus and the Bhikkhunis seem to have been vigilant about the proper observance of these functions which they considered, no doubt, to be vital for the healthy progress of the newly established Order of nuns. At the first sign of slackness with regard to these there is a storm of protests and we notice that the authorities take immediate action to remedy it. These considerations are brought within the legal framework of the Bhikkhuni Sasana and the failure to observe these come to be declared punishable offences [ Ibid. 313,315. See Bhikkhuni Pacittiya 56, 59]. In other words they become part of the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha. In the study of the sikkhapada [i.e. the regulations ]of the Bhikkhu Patimokkha , we note this interesting phenomenon of the change over into legal statutes of what were once observed as honoured conventions.

The garudhamma 4, 5 and 6 concern themselves with some of the other major items of administration in the Buddhist monastic community, viz . (i) the performance of the pavarana at the end of the rains retreat, (ii) the imposition of necessary penalties on the commission of a grave offence, and (iii) the conferment of upasampda or higher monastic status. As far as the Bhikkhunis are concerned, they are barred under these garudhamma from performing any of these acts within their own Order of the Bhikkhuni Sangha. These acts of the Bhikkhunis are not considered valid unless they are carried out jointly together with the monks [ ubhato sangha ].

However, practical considerations soon necessitated amendments to these and we see in the revised version of these conditions the sanction given to the Bhikkhunis to perform these acts, in the first instance, by themselves. Then they are expected to bring their decisions before the Bhikkhu Sangha for ratification. The following is the amended procedure for the conferment of upasampada on a Bhikkhuni by the Bhikkhu Sangha : Anujanami bhikkhave ekato upasampannaya bhikkhuni- sanghe visuddhaya bhikkhusanghe upasampadan ' ti. [ Vin.II. 271, 274 ].

It shows that the candidate had been already approved by the Bhikkhuni Sangha. The Bhikkhunis were also allowed to perform their pavarana in two stages before the two assemblies. First among themselves and then before the Bhikkhu Sangha [ Anujanami bhikkhave ajjatana pavaretva aparajju bhikkhusanghe pavaretun ' ti. Ibid.275].

Thus, from the manner in which the Buddha directed the activities of the Bhikkhunis, it becomes clear that he did realise that as the Bhikkhunis formed a part of the single body of the Sangha, their decisions would affect not only themselves, but also the rest of that vast organization. Hence the Bhikkhus were given the right to advise and assist the Bhikkhunis in their affairs, and thus regulate the destinies of the Sasana. Public opinoin must have played a considerable part in bringing Bhikkhunis under the wing of the Bhikkhu Sangha. At any rate, it appears to have been considered wise to have all the important monastic activities of the Bhikkhunis linked up with the more established and senior group of the Bhikkhu Sangha. However, when and wherever this advisory role had to be transferred from the collective organization of the Bhikkhu Sangha to a single individual, the Buddha took every necessary precaution to avoid possible abuse of privilege.

He has laid down a very comprehensive list of eight requirements which should be satisfied before a monk could be selected to the role of a bhikkhunovadaka to give counsel to the congregation of nuns. There seems to be little doubt about his anxiety and his foresight regarding the safety and well-being of the female members of his Order. A monk who is entrusted to preside over their welfare should conform to perfect standards of moral virtue. He should also possess a thorough knowledge of the teaching of the Master and know well the complete code of the Patimokkha covering both the Bhikkhus and the Bhikkhunis. He should be of pleasant disposition, mature in years and acceptable to the Bhikkhunis, and above all, should in no way have been involved in a serious offence with a Bhikkhuni [Vin.IV.51].

The three remaining garudhamma 1, 7 and 8 appear to have baffled some students of Buddhism as being contrary to the Buddha's general attitude to women. However, if these are examined carefully in their context, this apparent contradiction becomes less glaring. They all strive to see that the Bhikkhunis do not, under any circumstance, assert their superiority over the Bhikkhus. We notice that even in the observance of sikkhapada, the Bhikkhunis are to follow the lead of the Bhikkhus wherever the sikkhapada are common to both groups. The Buddha advises the Bhikkhunis to follow the Bhikkhus in the practice of such sikkhapada [...yatha bhikkhu sikkhanti tatha tesu sikkhapadesu sikkhatha ' ti.Vin.II 258 ]. But referring to the sikkhapada which are peculiar to the Bhikkhunis, he suggests that they should be followed, as they are laid down, according to the letter of the law [...yathapannattesu sikkhapadesu sikkhatha ' ti. loc. cit. ].

What seems to follow from these words of instruction to the Bhikkhunis is that even if there was a difference between the text of the sikkhapada laid down for the Bhikkhus and their practice at the time, the Buddha did not think it wise, for purposes of communal harmony, to leave room for the Bhikkhunis to be critical of this discrepancy. Such a challenge would have completely undermined the prestige and the authority of the older institution of the Sangha, quite out of proportion to any degree of moral good it could bring about by the correction of Bhikkhus by the Bhikkhunis.

There is evidence to show that the Buddha was always concerned with the esteem in which the public held his monastic organization. Such a consideration was vital for its existence and prosperity. The first remarks which he made to his erring disciples as he criticised their conduct always pertains to this [ Netam moghapurisa appasannanam va pasadaya pasannanam va bhiyyobhavaya. Vin.I.58; II.2; III.21,45].

As much as the Buddha wanted his disciples to correct their mistakes and be of faultless conduct he did not want any of them to divulge to any one other than a Bhikkhu or a Bhikkhuni the more serious offences of their fellow members. Such an intimation was allowed only with the approval of the Bhikkhus [ Yo pana bhikkhu bhikkhussa dutthullam apattim anupasampannassa aroceyya annatra bhikkhusammutiya pacittiyam. Vin.IV.31]. One who violates this injunction is guilty of a Pacittiya offence [Pac. 9].

This provision was undoubtedly made with the best of intentions and should not be misjudged as contributing in any way to the perpetuation of monastic offences. On the other hand, it is in fact repeatedly declared that it is irregular for a monk to conceal intentionally an offence of one member from the rest of the community. Pacittiya 64 of the monks and Parajika 2 and Sanghadisesa 9 of the nuns are all calculated to avoid such a possibility [ Vin.IV. 127, 216, 239]. All these precautions, therefore, seem to be a part of a system of internal security set up by the Buddha in the interest of the monastic organization. They emphasise the Buddha's concern both for the public esteem and for the moral soundness of his Order.

There seems to be a general agreement about the fact that the eight garudhamma were laid down by the Buddha as a condition governing the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sasana. However, strange as it may seem, after the Bhikkhuni Sasana was instituted under the leadership of Gotami, she appears before Ananda to make the request that the Buddha should remove the first garudhamma and allow Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis to pay courtesies to each other according to seniority alone [ Ibid.257-58 ]. This is hardly accords with the spirit in which Gotami accepted the garudhamma [ Ibid.255-56 ]. We are inclined to think that she was here undoubtedly subjected to the pressure of her own group.

This dissentient and challenging attitude which we find recorded in the Cullavagga does not seem to have found general acceptance elsewhere. Of the Chinese Vinaya texts , it is only the Mahisasakas who record it and that too with a different emphasis [Taisho. Vol.22 . p.186 A]. According to their text Gotami, prior to her being ordained, sends Ananda to the Buddha to request him to make this change. The Buddha refuses to do so and says that since he has now allowed women to enter the Order they should follow what has been laid down and not go against it. In the Cullavagga too, the Buddha declines to make this concession. But in trying to give a reason for this attitude of the Buddha , the Theriya tradition attempts to make out that in the organization of the Sasana social considerations, as much as moral and ethical values, loomed large in the mind of the Master. In the Cullavagga he is reported as saying: ` Not even the Titthiyas who propound imperfect doctrines sanction such homage of men towards women. How could the Tathagata do so?' [ Vin.II.258].

We should also here consider the fact that any concession for the abrogation of what had already been laid down after careful deliberation would be grossly contradictory to the ideal which the Buddha and his early disciples appear to have upheld regarding the observance of the rules and regulations laid down for the guidance of monastic life [ Ibid.III.231]. The reply which the Buddha seems to have given to Gotami in the Chinese version of the Mahisasaka Vinaya is definitely more in keeping with this spirit. But we should take note of the fact that this reply would run contrary to the Theriya tradition, which at some stage, seems to have accommodated the idea that the Buddha conceded the abrogation of the minor rules [D.II.14 & VIn.II.287].

As far as we are aware there is one other Vinaya tradition which records a challenge of the garudhamma. The Chinese version of the Dharmagupta Vinaya has a chapter entitled Bhikkhuni Khandhaka wherein the question is asked whether the Bhikkhunis cannot accuse the Bhikkhus under any circumstances [Taisho Vol. 22 , p.927 A]. The Buddha replies to say that they could not do so even if the Bhikkhus violated the rules of discipline or were guilty of offences. These two protests on the part of the Bhikkhunis seem to show that the Bhikkhuni Sangha, or at least a section of it, resisted what it considered to be harsh legislation unfavourable to them.

At the same time one has to view dispassionately the position of the Buddha, who as the head of the Bhikkhu Sangha which was already a well groomed institution, had to safeguard against its disintegration through dispute and discontent. The fifth accusation levelled against Ananda at the First Council, that he agitated for the admission of women into the Order [Vin.II.289], is a clear indication that even after the recognised success of the Bhikkhuni Sasana [Apadana II.535, v. 79] there was a section of the Bhikkhus who formed as it were a consolidated opposition against it. The motive for such an attitude could have been generated by the fear of being eclipsed by the newer Order. The Chinese version of the Mahisasaka Vinaya includes a statement which is ascribed to the Buddha which seems to lend support to this assumption. The Buddha says that if there were no Bhikkhunis in the Sasana, then after his death the male and female lay-devotees [upasaka and upasika ] would have honoured the Bhikkhus in diverse ways. But now that the Bhikkhunis had entered the Order it would not happen so [Taisho Vol.22, p.186 B].

It is difficult here to decide how and why the presence of Bhikkhunis in the Sasana brought about such a radical change in the attitude of laymen and laywomen towards the Bhikkhus. Why were the Bhikkhus deprived of the honour that would have been theirs had not the Bhikkhunis appeared on the scene? Are the Bhikkhunis to be held responsible for the loss of prestige of the Bhikkhus? At any rate, this record of the Mahisasakas was undoubtedly representative of the opinion of the day regarding the Bhikkhuni Sasana.

The Pali records of the Theriya tradition which belong to an earlier phase of the history of the Sâsana6 give expression to a similar feeling in the chastisement of Ananda in whom ultimately lay the responsibility for the admission of women into the Order. An echo of this is felt in the Mahisâsaka Vinaya where Ananda apologises to the Buddha for having requested him to permit women to enter the Order. But the Buddha absolves him saying that he did so unwittingly under the influence of Mâra (Taisho Vol.22 p.186 A) The Theriya tradition is not alone again in expressing the fact that the presence of women in the Sasana would reduce its life span by half. We find it recorded in the Chinese version of the Dharmagupta Vinaya that the Buddha told Ananda that if women did not enter the Order it would have lasted 500 years longer (ibid.p.923 C. See also Vin.II.256)

It becomes clear from what has been said so far that at the time of crystalization of Theriya traditions two ideas regarding the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sasana stood out clearly. A section of the Bhikkhu Sangha was reproachful of Ananda because he interceded with the Buddha for the sake of the bhikkhunis. The admission of women was also considered a categorical danger to the successful continuance of the Sasana. In the light of all this evidence a study of the garudhammâ reveals to us the fact that the Buddha was keenly conscious of the need to steer clear of the possible rivalries of the Bhikkhus and the Bhikkhunis and maintain healthy and harmonious relations between the two groups.


Updated: 25-9-2000

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