|Burmese novice (samaneri) Phaung Daw Oo Temple (Huggy's pics/flickr.com)|
|Do beauty queens ever become nuns?|
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|
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.
|Do nuns ever revert to beauty queens?|
|The Buddha's biological mother, Queen Maya|
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|
|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 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|
|The Buddha's sister, the nun Sundari Nanda|
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.
|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.
|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)|
- 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/flickr.com)|
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.
My Wise Wife
|Bimba, Bhaddakaccana, or Yasodhara, Siddhartha's wife|
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).
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.
- First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentaries on the Therigatha [Psalms of the Enlightened Sisters] (Susan Murcott)
- The Life of Princess Yashodhara: Wife and Disciple of the Lord Buddha
- Women in Buddhism (Wiki)
- Buddhist Women at the Time of the Buddha (Hellmuth Hecker)
- Great Discourse on the Lineage (Maurice Walshe)
- Relatives and Disciples of the Buddha (Buddhasasana)
- Women renunciants in Singapore, Malaysia (Bhikkhuni Dhammananda)
- Great Devotion Day: Light of Peace Festival (Dhammakaya, Thailand)