Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Buddha's Women

Dhr. Seven, Wisdom Quarterly
Burmese novice (samaneri) Phaung Daw Oo Temple (Huggy's pics/
Do beauty queens ever become nuns?
Sadly Buddhism became a patriarchal and, at least inadvertently, sexist world religion. But it was not always this way.
When the Dharma was just the Dharma spreading throughout India, it was neither a religion nor opposed to women. On the contrary, it uplifted females and members of all castes.
It had the audacity to treat people fairly and equally, at least in line with their own actions. "Noble" and "Brahmin" were redefined not as birthrights (ariya, kshatriya, and brahmana) but as the results of one's own actions (karma) in this life.
Let us judge people, if we must judge, on their own merit. It is not because one was born to this family or that, to this social group or that, to this assumption or that, which nevertheless would have partly resulted from one's previous karma. It is because one for him or herself undertakes a course of action that one advances or declines. We have our own deeds to thank or mend. Nowhere is this more true than in the view and treatment of women.
Monastics find that beauty is only skin deep
Women were not highly regarded by that time in India. This is illustrated in how often they are referred to as "beautiful" rather than their more outstanding capacities such as wisdom, compassion, appreciative joy, kindness, energetic effort (viriya, "virility"), or equanimity. It is remarkable that so many of the significant women in the Buddha's life are extolled for their outstanding beauty like a backhanded compliment.

However, one must remember that the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, which precipitated ancient "India," was very advanced in its treatment of women and much older than generally thought possible. Like Atlantis it sinks in the waters of time and looms large as merely a mythical place with a golden age. No matter how many archeological sites are uncovered, great chronicles and epics and histories remembered, or the depth and excellence of Sanskrit revealed, we have the conceit to assume that modern humans are always superior to humans of the past.

The golden age is actually behind us. Nevertheless, others are yet to come. Many are the ages and their appearance is cyclical. In this view of time, the ages roll on, revolving and devolving, revolving and evolving... Humankind has reached the pinnacle many times on this planet [and other similar planets]. And one mark of an approaching pinnacle is the equal treatment of the sexes.
The Buddha could remember prehistoric times and see previous buddhas, whether silent or teaching, the nuns, the monks, the lay people, and devas. He asserted that his mission was to (re)establish the Dharma he had (re)discovered, the path to complete liberation, so that it would not be dependent on him or any other teacher in his place. It would be able to survive on its own, governed by its intensive practitioners, the monastics, in a democratic-parliamentary fashion.
Do nuns ever revert to beauty queens?
To do this, the Buddha claimed, he had to have an "enlightened community" of male and female ascetics and lay followers. Ordained women were part of the plan from the beginning. What happened?
Eventually men and monks returned to their sexist assumptions, and women and nuns, as long as there were some, bought into it. Colonized minds are the worst minds to have because disenfranchised groups buy into the dominant view of who is worthy and who is inferior and, worse, take this to be the natural course of things.

But whatever damage was again done to the social order the Buddha had corrected, women are found throughout the teachings. They have not been removed even if people today speak of the "Order of Monks" as a definition of Sangha, which really refers to the "community (monastic and nonmonastic) of enlightened practitioners," the Noble Sangha, rather than the people in robes. Any person who becomes a stream enterer experiences a "change of lineage" (gotrabhu) making him or her "superhuman" in a sense, far more worthy of honor, gifts, and hospitality than the oldest monastic. There is no comparison. Anyone may partake of the honor of the Monastic Order simply by ordaining, but real nobility comes from penetrating the Four Ennobling Truths. Who can compare learning and reciting them to comprehending and realizing them?

Where are the women of Buddhism? Who were the Buddha's women?

The Buddha's biological mother, Queen Maya
It is very interesting. Examine these facts from the texts: When Siddhartha was just a prince, prior to renunciation and setting off to find enlightenment, he was surrounded by women.
When he was born, his mother Maya and a retinue of Shakyan women brought him into the world like a salabhanjika and an Amazon tribe of women. They were on their way to homeland of Maya's parents in the west (Seistan-Baluchistan province in the region of modern Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan).
The Buddha's stepmother/aunt, Maha Pajapati
He came into the world in the company of women and devas, space "fairies" and nature "sprites," sylphs and spirits. His biological mother is remembered iconically as a kind of "tree goddess" (salabhanjika) holding the branch of a Sal tree.

When he returned to his hometown of Kapilavastu (perhaps not so far from Kabul and Bamiyan, but traditionally assumed to be Southern Nepal due to British and German archeological shenanigans), the capital of the Shakyan territory, he had many friends. And many females were interested in him. But as per tradition a marriage was arranged for him shortly after puberty, age 16, with another 16-year-old, the unrivalled beauty Yasodhara.

There have long been white-clad Ten Precept "nuns" (Thai, mae chi)
That was not enough female companionship in the mind of his father, King Suddhodana, who was married to at least two women, Queen Maya, who passed away shortly after Siddhartha's birth, and Maha Prajapati, her sister. Maha Prajapati went on to become the world's first Buddhist nun. But there were already nuns, for another "wandering ascetic" (shramana) movement, Jainism, had ordained them: Mahavira after his enlightenment saw women as equal, contrary to the Brahminical priestly caste religion that held sway in India at that time. (Now one will often hear it said that Buddhism was the first world religion to accept women and treat them as equals, and that is true. Jainism never became a world religion, and what constitutes "enlightenment" in Jainism, Brahmanism, Hinduism, or even "sainthood" in Christianity and Islam, is not what constitutes it in Buddhism.

The Buddha, being from the northwest frontier region, came from a part of the then "civilized" world, judging from ancient Indian standards, that did not fully accept the Vedas and Brahmanism as ultimate authorities. In that area, it was disputed who was at the top of the caste system, a system said by Brahmins to be derived from the Vedas and ancient epics. In that area, the nobles (kshatriyas, kattiyas) were rulers and considered themselves at the top; Brahmins were their ministers and priests. 
  • The same holds true today in Rome and Tibet, in Catholicism and Vajrayana. Who is at the top, the secular government or the religious authority, the pope or the king? The Dalai Lamas were considered pope-kings in a sad marriage of church and state; in Rome the ope were always bossing around the secular rulers, and the leaders craved the influence of the church. Even in the Buddha's adopted land of India-proper, Magadha, King Bimbisara's patricidal son Prince Ajatasatru plotted with Ven. Devadattu (Buddhism's "Judas" figure) to join church and state if only Devadattu would agree to kill the Buddha and assume leadership of the Sangha, while Ajatasatru himself murdered his stream enterer father, King Bimbisara. All of this is simply illustrative of the goal of power, monopoly, as a corrupting influence. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" (whereas partial power corrupts only partially).
Journey of One Buddhist Nun
Siddhartha's royal father not only had multiple wives, he had concubines (women in waiting) as well. He thought that appropriate for a king, as apparently did the other Shakyans. Prince Siddhartha was a Shakyan, the future king of their "great territorial holding" (maha janapada), so his father thought he should have what we can only call a harem or, more euphemistically, female dancers and musicians surrounding him in his various palaces.

He had three palaces for the three Asian seasons -- hot, cold, and rainy. Rather than eunuchs, women were were installed as guards. Siddhartha would go upstairs where there were only women -- musicians, dancers, cooks, servants, entertainers, and one assume his wife as well. Interestingly, of course, although they were married at 16, they did not have their first child until they were 29. Quite a feat if monogamy were the order of the day.

There were men -- cousins, fellow princes and princesses, and his trusty attendant Channa. Men in later generations bring these males to the forefront. But to do so they have to shove, dismiss, and bury many females.

The Buddha's sister, the nun Sundari Nanda
The Buddha had a sister -- Sundari Nanda. We never hear of her. "She was only a half-sister!" well-meaning people explain. Of course, she was a half-sister since his mother, having given birth to him late in life, passed away a week later.
She is a lot like Shakespeare's sister (A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf) -- a notion popularized in feminist literary and psychological circles that can be summarized with the question: "What have we lost by European sexism, that is, how many 'Shakespeares' has it cost us to ignore women?" For if she, too, in her genius had written all he is assumed to have written, we would never know it. It would have been buried and regarded as nothing or less than nothing due simply to her being a female.

Sundari Nanda is denied not because people say she did not exist. She is denied because women, not being considered important, are dismissed as not important enough to talk about. Who is it that would not like to know more about her? She was more important than his attendant and horse, which we hear so much about. The former eventually became a bad monk, proud and conceited, who earned Buddhism's "higher punishment." But Sundari Nanda became enlightened. Likewise, one rarely hears about the Buddha's half-brother, Sundari Nanda's brother Nanda. He was going to marry the most gorgeous woman in the land, the undisputed belle Janapada Kalyani. The Buddha induced him to follow a higher course, which if he failed would lead him to marry a large number of celestial nymphs (superior space beauties, whose appearance far excels human women, quite like the borrowed ancient Greek notion of Aphrodite, Eros, and statuesque godlings.

Siddhartha left his wife, harem, son, sister, brother, adoptive mother, royal father, cousins, and friends. He left them to pursue enlightenment, the meaning of life, and the solution to the problem of suffering. All beings are disappointed, dissatisfied, suffering, and going unfulfilled, not only Siddhartha.

He went to male teachers. He joined the company of men -- all male bands of yogis and ascetics under his wanderer teachers Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputra. And he failed to reach enlightenment.
Sujata's offering a crucial meal to the meditating Bodhisatta striving for buddhahood
So after six years, he lightened up. A woman named Sujata saved his life: She fed him a nourishing meal of "creme de la creme rice" and brought him back to health. His five male friends, fellow ascetics failing to find enlightenment, abandoned him for accepting something from a woman's hands.

Sujata and her female servant prepared that rich meal and served it to the ascetic Siddhartha, saving his life and his quest. He went alone into the forest where males attacked him -- Mara (the killer) and demons (yakkhas).

A female defended him -- Bhumi, the Earth Goddess (Greek, Gaia). The famous Earth-touching pose (bhumiparsa mudra), frustrating Mara whose three "daughters" (Craving, Boredom, and Lechery) had given  up trying to entice him in the service of their father's mission. (Why would the commentators create female foes when the principals were men, why other than a normative sexism that pervaded their thinking and society even after the Buddha had elevated women to a kind of equal but separate status? Furthermore, it seems far more tragic that to enforce and assure the supremacy of men in the Sangha, later commentators seem to have inserted Eight Additional Rules (garudhammas) that do nothing but formally subordinate women in the Sangha.

The Buddha intended to ordain women from the beginning (DN 16: III, 7-8)
The crime is that words were put in the Buddha's mouth of how reluctantly he accepted women, which would cut the lifespan of the Dharma's survival in this world by half, we are told. Women believe it; men do not even think to question it. Fortunately, the American nun Ayya Tathaaloka (facebook) investigated it and found that it could not be true, that it was noncanonical. The Bhikkhuni Vinaya or Female Monastic Code recounts an origin story for each rule. There is a story about Maha Prajapati, the Buddha's mother and first nun, seeking advice about a matter that -- if those Eight Rules had been established by the Buddha himself as a prerequisite of female ordination -- would never have come up. (See more on Ayya Tathaloka's scholarship) Why didn't a monk or male scholar find this discrepancy? Could it be our implicit sexism at work, our discounting of women then imagining that the Buddha discounted them as well?

White-clad Dhammakaya girl, Azusa (WQ)
Recall that the Buddha from the very beginning of his mission, his ministry or sasana, set out to have female disciples. We were formerly asked to believe that he so reluctantly and regrettably allowed women to join his ascetic community -- having already been contributors and supporters as laypersons -- only because a male, the attendant monk Ananda, intervened on their behalf. Those females seeking ordination were Shakyan women, headed by the Buddha's mother who raised and cared for him more than her own children.

It is silliness. Of course, ordaining women was the plan all along. Those words of the Buddha were not cut out. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (DN 16, Part III) he reiterates that that was the plan all along:
  • 7. "For the Blessed One, O venerable sir, spoke these words to me: 'I shall not come to my final nirvana, Namuci, until my monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen, have come to be true disciples -- wise, well disciplined, apt and learned, preservers of the Dharma, living according to the Dharma, abiding by the appropriate conduct. And, having learned the Teacher's word, they are able to expound it, teach it, proclaim it, establish it, reveal it, explain it in detail, and make it clear. Not until then, so that when adverse opinions arise, they are able to refute them thoroughly and well and can teach this convincing and liberating Dharma.'
  • 8. "And now, O venerable sir, monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen, have become the Blessed One's disciples in just this way. So, O venerable sir, let the Blessed One come to his final nirvana! The time has come for the final nirvana of the Enlightened One! For the Blessed One, O venerable sir, spoke these words to me: 'I shall not come to my final nirvana, Namuci, until this supreme-life taught by me has become successful, prosperous, far-renowned, popular, and widespread, until it is well proclaimed among devas and humans.' And this too has come to pass in just this way. So, O venerable sir, let the Blessed One come to his final nirvana, let the Happy One utterly pass into nirvana! The time has come for the final nirvana of the venerable one."
The Buddha with enlightened male and female disciples (firstfire53/
But the Buddha did more than merely ordain women and then forget about them. While he may have lived apart from women, as a monastic in the "wandering ascetic" tradition of India, he certainly had a lot of interaction with them. Their community was always nearby. When it is said that the Buddha traveled about with a large company of monastics, it is likely this included female monastics. There were two monastics in particular who illustrate this.

The first was his chief disciple, Khema, whom the Buddha dubbed "foremost in wisdom." The other was his chief disciple, Uppalavanna, whom the Buddha dubbed "foremost in psychic powers." Their male equivalents, Sariputra and Maha Moggallana, were important in the Sangha because the Buddha attracted disciples when he gave talks. If they wanted to join the monastic Order to pursue enlightenment intensively, they came to the Buddha, whether male or female, and asked for ordination. He gave it, but then he did not usually teach them. We hear of many of the times he did, which he would have done in exceptional cases, because they would often gain at least the first stage of enlightenment on the spot.

No, usually what he did was hand them off to Sariputra, his chief male disciple "foremost in wisdom," the Marshal of the Dharma. Sariputra would teach the monks until they gained stream entry or a subsequent attainment. Then he would not teach them. He would instead guide them to seek out Maha Moggallana for further instruction, who would instruct them until they gained full enlightenment.

It seems perfectly reasonable to conclude that the Buddha did the exact same thing with women who came to him, making them nuns then sending them to Khema, who taught them until they gained the Wisdom Eye before guiding them to Uppalavanna. We do not have these records. We have precious little remaining of anything Khema or Uppalavanna taught. The reason for this seems to be that with the decline and disappearance of the Bhikkhuni Sangha in the ancient Theravada tradition, many sutras were lost. Monks preserved what was said to them and condensed some of what was said to laypeople (householders) -- but they did not memorize and chant what was said to the Buddha's women, the noble female disciples. They tended to that for centuries, prior to the widespread practice of writing out the texts.

With the exhausting of the female order, it was extinguished as were most of their sutras. We have yet to find a single text that begins, "O, bhikkhunis!" But such discourses must certainly have existed; they would have been delivered when they visited the Buddha's compound or when he gathered them around. For when he is talking predominantly to monks (bhikkhus), there is every reason to believe that he means the same to apply to nuns.

Moreover, one would guess that the Buddha mainly talked to monks. But this is in no way the case. He mainly talked to laypeople. He mainly delivered his message to ordinary folk, and to Brahmins, and to other wandering ascetics (shramanas/shamans). Those sutras do not begin, "O, householders!" But when he is speaking to one householder, such as Anathapindika, he does begin, "O, householder!" That was preserved.

Where are his talks with his chief female disciple? Where are the nuns when it comes to instituting a formal religion out of the Dharma, something done mainly by Brahmins, like the prominent Buddhism monks and great disciple Maha Kassapa. It was he who called for the First Council to standardize the Teachings and question Ananda on the discourses and the monk Upali on the Disciplinary Code.

Were nuns questioned? Patacara was Upali's female counterpart, an expert on the nun's Vinaya. Yasodhara may have resumed being like an Ananda to the Buddha. It is hard to imagine that a monk so prominent as the great disciple or "hearer" Maha Kassapa, in spite of being a Brahmin, would have ignored or excluded women. But they are not given their place in history books. And in their absence, most of us are left to assume that they were absent.

Sariputra passed away (into final nirvana) only after asking leave from the Buddha, saying it was only right from a historical perspective that a chief disciple should pass into final nirvana before the teacher. So one must conclude that both female chief disciples had already passed as well. Here is meant foremost disciples. There were at least 90 prominent or "great" disciples. 

My Wise Wife
Bimba, Bhaddakaccana, or Yasodhara, Siddhartha's wife
Whatever happened to the Buddha's wife and former best friend, Rahula's mother (Rahulamata), Bimba/Yasodhara?
When Siddhartha was a teenager, he had many friends and "cousins" from the extensive Shakyan clan. But of all of them, his bride became his closest confidant, not his charioteer or horse, who as stated earlier are often given more prominence.
(Ironically his worst human enemy, if Mara be the worst nonhuman, was Yasodhara's brother, Devadatta, who conspired with Prince Ajatasatru to assassinate him, but who may have been partly motivated by anger that he left his sister , even though she ordained a few years later, as did Devadatta. The Buddha explains the grudge as extending back many lives).

It is amazing that nothing much ever became of his son, Rahula, who because the world's youngest Buddhist monk, ordained at age 7. He was eventually dubbed "foremost at doing quiet good," which almost seems like a reach to give him some distinction for having so prominent a father and such an accomplished family (in that so many Shakyans joined the monastic Order). We are often left to believe that the same may be said of his wife. But that would be an error. They understood one another like few others ever do. And here is what is said of her:

The meaning of the Sanskrit name "Yasodhara" (from yasas "glory, splendor" + dhara "bearing" from the verbal root dhri "to bear, support") is Bearer of glory. Other names she has been called are: Yashodhara Theri (senior nun Yashodhara), Bimbadevi, Bhaddakaccana, and Rahulamata. The name Yasodharā is not found in the Pali Canon, but there are references to Bhaddakaccānā (and others who seem to be her).

The beautiful, formerly Jain nun Bhadda Kundalakesa ("Curly-haired Bhadda") was so wise, incisive, and insightful that she traveled about India with a rose apple tree branch, planting it where she went as a taunt to debate anyone who dared. If one knocked it over, that meant s/he wanted to debate. She was soon feared by Brahmins and shamans throughout the land, who loathed the idea of being outdone by a woman, even an ascetic (saddhvi). But one day the monk Sariputra, foremost in wisdom, decided to take up the challenge. He answered all of her questions, but she was not quite able to answer his first. She brought him to the Buddha, who instructed her. She was so extremely quick witted that she instantaneously attained enlightenment. Like Bahiya of the Barkcloth, she was declared foremost in quick understanding. Brahmin priests throughout the land already felt the Buddha was getting far too much press and praise from other and could not wait to be done with him, so much so that they attempted to hasten the process by discrediting him and sending assassins to kill Maha Moggallana, whom they successfully did eventually kill.

Perhaps the most fun to study is the rich royal courtesan Ambapali. She was an eminent supporter of the Buddha rather than a nun; she nevertheless reached full enlightenment. Hearing that he was coming to her city, she raced to him and offered a meal. When the princes heard, they asked the Buddha to take the next day's meal with them. He was already committed, and they with all their riches could not dissuade her to sell them her good fortune of providing a meal to the Buddha.

Having said much about the Buddha's women, the surface has only been scratched.

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