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BANNER OF THE ARAHANTS

Chapter VII - 

BHIKKHUNIS AND BUDDHIST NUNS NOW 1

 

Kamma and rebirth as woman with more dukkha - attraction to works and faith - position of women in India - history of Bhikkhuni - Sangha - Eight important points - dangers of sex and conceit - double ordination - novices - special rules - some Bhikkhunis of the Buddha-time - Asoka’s daughter a Bhikkhuni - bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka to China - Are there bhikkhunis now? - Upásikás (nuns) and their support - their life - westerners becoming nuns - The foundation of Thai Nuns and its work - nuns in Burma and Sri Lanka

 

Having described the different sorts of Bhikkhu life it is now the turn of the Bhikkhuni, as the original Buddhist nuns were called. Their Sangha was formed six years after the first Bhikkhus and to appreciate their position in India at that time, before giving their history, the Buddhist teaching on rebirth should be clarified. The point that we shall be interested in is why one is reborn specifically as man or woman.

 

Kamma (in Sanskrit, karma), is the key to understand about rebirth generally. In the present time we are constantly deciding, ‘I shall go … ‘ or ‘I like’ or ‘I hate’ or any number of other decisions. Many of the varied kinds of minds, which pass in a stream (and which I call collectively ‘my mind’) are concerned with decision-making. Every time a decision is made, always with reference to the fictional self - the ‘I’ or ego, this is called kamma, the work of the mind. This work bears fruits, just as work done with the hands, and the results or fruits it bears are manifest in different ways - as happiness or suffering. Kamma is good when beneficial to oneself and others, that is, it leads to growth and purification of one’s own mind and to the benefit of other people. When that kamma fruits, its fruits will be happiness; but bad kammas, actions done for one’s own deterioration and others’ harm bear the fruits of suffering. Not all kammas fruit in the present life. We may see good people whose goodness seems to come to no good fruit, while there are evildoers who get away with everything and never come to harm. Their present kammas are not fruiting yet, obstructed by previous kammas giving different results.

 

When a person comes to die, craving is usually part of the character, that is, craving to exist, to continue experiencing. With strong craving in the stream of mind and having made much kamma not yet come to fruit, a person is bound to continue in the wheel of birth and death. The next birth depends on the last moment of consciousness before death and that in turn is dependent upon what sort of kammas one has made during life. A person dying with human thoughts in mind destines himself for rebirth as a human being. Death with thoughts affected by the roots of evil - greed, aversion or delusion, produces rebirth of various sub-human varieties, including birth as animals. On the other hand, if the last moment is occupied by thoughts of religion, or thoughts purified and inspired by religious practice, the mind being uplifted ‘above’ ordinary human level, then rebirth takes place in the super-human heaven realms.

 

Nothing is permanent here. There are no permanent states of existence because the kammas giving rise to them are conditional, so rebirth states are conditioned too. And there is no entity, which is unchanging and passes from life to life, a soul or atman, or call it what you will. We discover no such ‘being either through rational investigation, or by meditation experience: only conditional factors are found. This means that there is nothing essentially human, such as a soul. At present, the mind flows along the human channel - except when we are lustful or angry, when it becomes sub-human; or when we exercise loving kindness, compassion or generosity, when it is super-human. So mind varies, becoming different with the different mind of which it is composed. There is no special human particle, nor can we talk about an abiding masculinity or femininity.

 

If we take the case of a woman who in a past life has led a rather ordinary life - she has married, had children, brought up the family, looked after the house, we can see how much of her time will have been taken up with typically feminine activities. These centre around having a body which is capable of giving birth, suckling children and generally caring for their needs. Where so many kammas are made centred about female activities, it will not be surprising if at death, assuming that her mind is not raised or lowered by factors mentioned above, she grasps at rebirth as a woman again. Some women who become tired of the work bound up with a woman’s body, grasp instead at birth as a man.

 

Now if we compare honestly, a typical man with a typical woman, it becomes clear that a woman has more sufferings to bear then a man. By the very nature of her body she has menstruation and the difficulties that this brings. The body’s workings are geared to motherhood - with its pains and sufferings which can be increased a thousandfold by death of children and the other mishaps that may befall them. Here are some of the Arahant Kisagotami’s verses on this subject:

 

            „Woman’s state is painful
            declares the Trainer of tameable men,
            a wife with others is painful
            and once having borne a child
            some even cut their throats,
            while others of delicate constitution
            poison take, than pain again,
            And then there’s the baby obstructing birth
            killing the mother too.

                                    (Verses of the Elder Nuns - 216-217).

 

Also, as women have this function of bearing children they crave usually for a secure environment to raise their family. Usually this means depending on a man who will gain a livelihood and provide that security. It is generally true to say too, that women are less physically strong than men and require more protection than a man does, though there are obvious exceptions.

 

More difficulties, more sufferings, more dukkha, means from a Buddhist point of view, a less favourable birth, one which is created by kammas made with attachment to the continuity of existence. When the Buddha finally allowed women to go forth and when he had to make, special rules for them, probably the facts discussed above influenced his rulings.

 

There are other factors too which should be considered, specially the inclination of many women even when given the chance to lead the Holy Life, to be drawn towards faith and the sort of pious expressions of it combined with household activities which might well be called ‘holy domesticity’. It is noticeable that wherever a religion gives room for these things, there are many nuns, indeed they can outnumber monks. Examples of this can be found among Roman Catholics, also in Chinese Buddhism. But original Buddhist teachings emphasise the cultivation of mind, speech and body kammas through wisdom, meditation and moral conduct, an all-round and balanced development not a one-sided approach through faith. It is easy to have faith (in a God, Buddhas or Bodhisattvas) but it is another thing to balance it with wisdom so that finally by knowing and in-seeing impermanence, dukkha and non-self, one goes beyond faith. The Arahant is called ‘faithless’ - he no longer believes anything, instead he or she knows Dhamma. As women generally have more potential for belief and faith than men it may be more difficult for them to pursue the Holy Life in original Buddhist teachings which goes beyond the usual objects of belief (gods, devas, Buddhas, etc.).

 

Another and very important factor obstructive to the Holy Life among women was their position in India at the time of the Buddha. A western woman who knows nothing of the sort of restrictions imposed by the Brahmins upon women, especially those of high caste, in India, cannot appreciate the Buddha’s actions when he allowed them to become bhikkhunis. The brahminical attitude towards women is summed up in the well-known verse which says: „Their fathers protect them in childhood, their husbands protect them in youth, their sons protect them in age: a woman is never fit for independence“.[1] This means obviously, that the Brahmins held strongly that a woman’s place is in the house. (It is still this way among orthodox Hindu households where women keep house, prepare food, bear children, preferably sons and get very little education or none at all). The teaching of the Brahmins, the priests of the Aryans who invaded India, did not favour spreading knowledge - they themselves and the noble-warrior caste shared power while the rest of the people, farmers, workers and outcasts, supported them. Their theory of a four-caste society made no allowances for people to leave home and seek a path through meditation in the forest. This teaching, of going forth, was not Aryan in origin but part of the religion practised by the pre-Aryan civilisations of India.[2] When Brahmins came into contact with this practice they did not approve as it went beyond their system. Finally, of course, they incorporated it into the late classification of the four stages of life: celibate student, householder, retreat from social life and renunciation, which means that a man is only to go forth in old age, when he is weak and too conditioned to household life to make it practicable. Nothing is said about women going forth (and in fact modern Hinduism has almost no nuns).

 

Women coming from the little republics and federations with a more or less elected leadership where the power of the Brahmins was not yet consolidated, as in the Sakiyas and the Licchavis, may have had more freedom, even those of noble lineage. But as brahminical teachings spread, with the growth of kingdoms and the disappearance of other forms of government, women of high caste became more and more restricted. Of course in the lower ranks of society, farmers and other poor folk, women still had the right - it was a necessity - to leave the house, go to market, plant the fields, and so on. These women too will have had little education.

 

What is very important to realise is that women then had no chance to organise anything for themselves. This is in sharp contrast to our times when there are numerous ways in which women can come together and organise their energies to achieve their ends. So this is another point to remember when reading below the regulations laid down by the Buddha upon bhikkhunis. In Chapter III we had mentioned that some rules for Bhikkhus are subject to the principle of time-and-country and it could be that this principle would apply now to the bhikkhunis too, if they came into existence now instead of two thousand five hundred years ago.

 

People may say that it is because women have been trained from childhood to depend on men that they have an inferior position. No doubt this is partly true, in particular for the Indian scene but this view only takes account of the present life and does not realise that the tendencies made in past lives may have influence too. It is possible that the facts presented so far and the account of the establishment of the Bhikkhuni-Sangha below may displease some women. The truth, however, is not always palatable and pleasing. In case displeasure or anger should arise, these manifestations of aversion should be examined: from where do they arise? Wounded vanity? Damaged pride? Then this is conceit, a mental factor as far from the practice of Dhamma as humility is near to it. More will be said about this below.

 

Now what is the history of the Bhikkhuni Sangha? The Commentaries say that when Prince Siddhattha left his palace at the time of his Great Renunciation, cut off his hair and donned yellowish brown robes, Yasodhara his wife, hearing that he had done these things, resolved to live in the same way in her palace. She shaved her head and wore rough patchwork robes, ate once a day from a bowl and slept on a low, hard bed. No doubt she strove also to develop her mind through meditation.

 

So even before there were any nuns formally ordained, Yasodhara out of devotion to the way shown by the prince, led a nun’s life. When the Buddha, a year after his Enlightenment, returned to Kapilavatthu at the request of his father, Yasodhara had an opportunity to pay her respects together with the other Sakiyan ladies, foremost among whom was Queen Mahápajápati Gotami, the Buddha’s aunt and foster-mother. This lady became a Stream-winner upon hearing the Buddha’s teaching while King Suddhodana won the third Path and Fruit - of Non-returning.

 

Four or five years then passed before the Buddha again visited the Sakiya people. This time he went there because his father was gravely ill and taught him Dhamma upon his deathbed so that the King attained to Arahantship.

 

At this time Mahápajápati Gotami went to him and asked if women might also get the chance to go forth into homelessness. The Buddha’s reply is interesting as it is not a flat refusal: „Enough Gotami, do not ask for the going-forth from home to homelessness in the Dhamma-Vinaya declared by the Tathágata“. And though she asked three times the reply was the same, so she thought, „The Exalted One does not allow it“ and she was sad and unhappy. If the Buddha wished to prohibit the formation of the Bhikkhuni-Sangha, he could have used much more forceful language, such as: ‘It is impossible, Gotami, it cannot happen that …’ All he told Mahápajápati Gotami was ‘enough, do not ask …’ and these words may be assumed to be a test of the sincerity of that lady and her companions. The life led by Bhikkhus, at the beginning of the Buddha’s teaching, was a hard one, hard even for the aristocratic men from the various princely and brahminical families who joined the Sangha then: how much harder would it not be for ladies from a sheltered palace life! Since the Buddha was aware of the intentions people had in their minds, he must have known that Mahápajápati Gotami intended to go forward with her idea but as she had not yet demonstrated her unshakeable resolve he did not grant permission.

 

We are told that after the Buddha left Kapilavatthu he went to Vesáli, a distance of 200 or 300 miles. „Meanwhile Mahápajápati had her hair cut off and put on the yellow cloth. With a number of Sakiyan women she set out for Vesáli. On arrival there she went to the Peaked Gable Hall in the Great Wood, and she stood there outside the porch. Her feet were swollen, her limbs covered with dust, and she was sad and unhappy with tears on her face and sobbing. Sakiyan ladies of rank were not accustomed to travel in this manner for they usually journeyed by palanquin or upon elephants. Then venerable Ananda, who was especially compassionate with the troubles of women, saw her and asked what she did there. She told him that the Exalted One had not allowed her to become a Bhikkhuni, so he offered to ask the Buddha again. The answer was still the same but venerable Ananda was not deterred by this for he thought, „But suppose I asked the Exalted One in another way?“ So he asked if it was possible for women to attain to the noble Paths and Fruits after Going-forth? Could they attain Arahantship? The Buddha replied that it was possible for them to do so. From this we can know that the Buddha saw nothing innately inferior in a woman’s mind, though the Holy Life might be more difficult for her physically. Then venerable Ananda pleaded the case of Mahápajápati Gotami in these words „ … (she) has been exceedingly helpful to the Exalted One when as his mother’s sister who was his nurse, his foster-mother, his giver of milk, she suckled the Exalted One when his own mother died. Since that is so, Lord, it would be good if women could obtain the Going-forth“.

 

 

The Buddha then permitted women to become bhikkhunis, (rather because they could attain Arahantship, not because of venerable Ananda’s specious plea), provided that certain points were accepted. Mahápajápati Gotami could count as her Going-forth and Acceptance the following eight important points:

 

 

1.      „A Bhikkhuni who has been accepted even for a hundred years must pay homage to, get up for, reverentially salute and respectfully greet, a Bhikkhu accepted that day“. This means that a senior Bhikkhuni (a theri) must bow down thrice even to a newly ordained Bhikkhu. This is not pleasing to some women these days whose idea is to be free from male domination. But when the Buddha laid down this rule he knew that some principle of respectful relations must be established between Bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. Later, Mahápajápati Gotami requested that juniors, male or female, pay respect to senior Bhikkhus or bhikkhunis without distinction. The Buddha however, replied that n Bhikkhu should pay homage to a Bhikkhuni. Certainly he had no feelings of male superiority or of female inferiority (which after all, are just extensions of the basic conceit ‘I am’), but he took into a account how this matter would appear to laypeople. In that day and age men in lay society hardly acknowledged female ability, certainly not bowed down to them! To permit this would be too great an inversion of the social norm and could be a cause for the decline of the Buddhist religion. The Buddha was already making a great innovation by allowing women to go forth but to allow equality of respect was probably too much for that time. In the Vinaya (the Lesser Chapter, Bhikkhuni-section), the Buddha actually refers to other religious groups and how they do not permit salutation of nuns by monks. This seems to support our argument here. We shall return to the question of conceit and humility below.

 

2.      „A Bhikkhuni must not spend the Rains in a place where there are no Bhikkhus“. Bhikkhunis were made dependent upon Bhikkhus in a number of ways as we shall see in the following points. This rule was also for the bhikkhunis’ safety since unscrupulous men might molest a nun if she was alone but they would think twice about it if she lived near to Bhikkhus.

 

3.      „Every half-month a Bhikkhuni should expect two things from the Bhikkhu-Sangha: the appointment of the Uposatha-day each half-month and the visit for exhortation“. The Buddha-time was without calendars and almanacs and it was learned Bhikkhus who calculated the phases of the moon and worked out when the Uposatha-days would fall. The visit for exhortation was in part a Dhamma-talk given by an eminent Bhikkhu to the bhikkhunis, (see the Exhortation by Nandaka to the bhikkhunis in the Middle Length Collection, Discourse 146) and partly an exhortation regarding these eight important points. The Bhikkhu who gave it had to be agreed upon by the Bhikkhu-Sangha, he had to be a Thera with twenty or more Rains and he had to give the talk during the day, before the sunset. Otherwise the bhikkhunis should not be approached by a Bhikkhu to teach them Dhamma unless one of their numbers was ill. The Buddha while seeing that it was necessary that the bhikkhunis depend somewhat on Bhikkhus, also saw the danger of too many contacts between the two Sanghas and so limited this. The fact that a great Teacher from among the Bhikkhus would give the fortnightly exhortation did not mean that the bhikkhunis had no Teachers among themselves. In this connection the section on the bhikkhunis who were declared ‘foremost’ in different abilities in the Book of the Ones, Numerical Collection, should be noted, besides which there are the many beautiful verses of the Enlightened bhikkhunis in the Therigatha (Verses of the Elder Nuns). Discourses spoken by bhikkhunis, some of them Arahants, are found scattered throughout the collections of Discourses.

 

4.      „At the end of the Rains a Bhikkhuni must invite the admonition of both Sanghas with regard to three matters; that is, whether any thing untoward in her conduct has been seen, heard or suspected“. Bhikkhus have to invite admonition on the last Full Moon day of their Rains-residence (usually in October) from the rest of the Sangha. This ceremony is held in place of the recitation of the Patimokkha wherever a minimum of five Bhikkhus have kept the Rains. If anyone among them has seen or heard or suspected that one of the others has done some wrong which has not been confessed he can speak at that time. It also means that Bhikkhus invite such admonition from other Bhikkhus for the future. They make themselves ‘admonish able’ by doing so and know that their Teachers and friends will therefore help them with good advises. The bhikkhunis have to make this declaration in the presence of both Sanghas, first her own and then to the Bhikkhus. This is no doubt to help the restraint of the bhikkhunis and to assist the good government of the bhikkhunis-Sangha.

 

5.      „When a Bhikkhuni has committed an offence entailing initial and subsequent meeting of the Sangha, she must do the penance before both Sanghas“. This is a group of thirteen offences for Bhikkhus (already outlined in Chapter III) but for bhikkhunis they number seventeen. A number of these thirteen, as well as of the extra Bhikkhuni rules, concern sexual misconduct and it would surely be a grave deterrent for a woman to have to confess them in the presence of Bhikkhus after she had done so in front of the bhikkhunis. Like a Bhikkhu, she has then to practise the penance for seven days plus a period of probation equal to the time of concealment if her offence has been deliberately concealed.

 

6.      „A probationer who seeks Acceptance must do so from both Sanghas and after training in the six things for two years“. A probationer (sikkhamáná) was a special kind of female novice (sámaneri). The latter has ten precepts just as a samanera but on reaching the age of eighteen, that is, two years under the age for Acceptance, the Bhikkhuni-Sangha could announce a motion to give her permission to train (specially) in the first six rules: not killing living creatures, not taking what is not given, no unchaste conduct, not speaking falsely, no intoxicants causing carelessness, and no eating at the wrong time (after noon until dawn). If during the following two years she does not break any of these six precepts then she can seek Acceptance by the Bhikkhuni-Sangha first. (If any are broken the two-year probation period has to begin again). Then she is taken to the Bhikkhu-Sangha who ordains her by proclamation and without investigation. She is then a fully ordained Bhikkhuni. But if she gets only the Acceptance ceremony from the Bhikkhus, or she gets it from the bhikkhunis and does not go to be re-ordained by Bhikkhus, then she is only a ‘once-accepted-Bhikkhuni’, not fully-fledged according to the Vinaya. When twice ordained however, she is called a ‘both-accepted-bhikkhuni and fully-fledged. This has an important bearing on the present day we shall see below.

 

7.      „A Bhikkhuni must not find fault with or abuse a Bhikkhu in any manner at all“. Here again the aim is to stop malicious gossip and promote concord between the two Sanghas. A Bhikkhuni could of course report a Bhikkhu to his Teacher or abbot if his actions went against the Vinaya and damaged the good name of the Sangha but she should not directly speak against that Bhikkhu to his face or behind his back.

 

8.      „From today onwards it is not allowed for bhikkhunis to address discourses to Bhikkhus but it is allowed for Bhikkhus to address Bhikkhunis“. As we have seen a Bhikkhu was expected to exhort the bhikkhunis at least twice a month but a Bhikkhuni should not teach Dhamma to Bhikkhus. No doubt this rule was also to curb conceit in bhikkhunis and help them in their training.

 

The Buddha finished his eight points saying, „These eight things are to be honoured, respected, revered and venerated and they are not to be transgressed as long as life lasts. If Mahápajápati Gotami accepts these eight important points, that will count as her full Acceptance“ .

 

Five of these eight points, if transgressed, are offences of expiation, which are righted by confession to another Bhikkhuni.  


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[1]The Laws of Manu (Manavadharmasastra), Ch. IX, 3.

[2]See, „Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism“, Wheel 150-151 B.P.S.