Reuters photo of Burmese nuns and novices Shwedagon Pagoda, Rangoon, Myanmar (abc.net.au)
We deeply honor the ancestral teachers, who transmitted the Dharma to us through their efforts. We chant their names. The names on the list -- which goes back through Shakyamuni Buddha, Bodhidharma, and Dogen -- all happen to be males. Now we also honor the many other teachers in each generation who helped sustain the teaching and practice. This list includes women from India, China, Japan, and America, both ordained and laywomen, who have been inspirational to our practice tradition. Here is a little about their stories.
A universal Buddhist blessing by Ven. Suddhamma (Carolina Buddhist Vihara, USA)
Shakyamuni's aunt and foster mother, Mahaprajapati challenged Shakyamuni's exclusion of women from the monastic order and won women the right of ordination. She became the founder and a leader of the nun's sangha, and was considered chief among women disciples who were nuns of long standing.
Maya was Shakyamuni's mother, who died giving birth to him. Some of the sutras are addressed to her in the heavenly realm where she abides. She is also the 41st teacher of the 52 visited by the pilgrim Sudhana in the Gandavyuha Sutra.
Khema (Sariputra's counterpart, female disciple "foremost in wisdom")
She was known as "Khema of Great Wisdom," because she grasped the Buddha's entire teaching on first hearing it as a laywoman. She helped run the women's monastic order and is named as the most exemplary nun in the Pali Canon.
Uppalavanna (Maha Moggallana's counterpart, female disciple "foremost in magical powers")
She willingly took ordination at her father's suggestion, and then was raped by an angry suitor. Due to this incident the Vinaya was changed to forbid women from solitary forest practice for their protection. She became foremost in magical power and performed miracles.
Tibetan Buddhist nun circumambulating shrine in Barkhor, Lhasa (azfoto.com)
After her children, parents, and husband died, she went mad from grief and wandered the countryside. Eventually she met the Buddha, who calmly told her to recover her presence of mind, and thus she was cured. She became a highly influential teacher who brought many women to the Dharma and had many disciples.
She was called the greatest woman preacher, who converted many people and became the master of many disciples and heirs. Shakyamuni declared her words to be buddhavacana, Buddha words.
Shakyamuni's half-sister, she was considered the most beautiful woman in her country; sundari means "beautiful." She joined the nun's order originally because all of her relatives were joining: her mother, Mahaprajapati; her brother, Nanda; and Shakyamuni's son, Rahula. Shakyamuni declared her to be foremost among the nuns in meditative powers.
The daughter of the minister of King Bimbisara, she became a lay disciple upon hearing Shakyamuni preach on a visit he made to Rajagraha early in his teaching career. She was later ordained as a nun and eventually became an arhat, declared by Shakyamuni to be foremost among the nuns who strive energetically.
She came from Savatthi, where a Buddhist monastery was established in Jeta Grove. The dedication ceremony lasted nine months, during which time she decided to become a lay disciple. She was still uneasy about her life, but decided to become a nun after hearing an enlightened monk speak. She later became an arhat, and was declared by Shakyamuni to be foremost among the nuns possessing the power of the "eye of heaven," the ability to see into all worlds, near or far.
The nun Sanghamitta who brought the female Sangha out of India to Sri Lanka (Committee for Bhikkhunis)
Mural of bhikkhunis (nuns) on Thai temple wall (Alliance for Bhikkhunis)
Bhadda was a Jain at the time of Shakyamuni. She was highly intelligent and felt dissatisfied by the lack of intellectual stimulation among the Jains, who seemed uninterested in understanding truth. She engaged in dialogue with Shariputra and was praised by the community for her rapid thought and great understanding. She is the only nun to have been ordained by Shakyamuni calling her by name. Bhadda's wisdom poem includes, "Going out from my daytime resting-place on Mt. Grjhakuta, I saw the stainless Buddha, attended by the order of bhikkhus. Having bent the knee, having paid homage to him, I stood with cupped hands face to face with him. 'Come, Bhadda,' he said to me; that was my ordination."
Ages ago in the time of Padumattara Buddha, Bhadda heard of a female renunciant who could recall her former lives. She determined to obtain that same power, and with her husband Kassapa (the later Mahakashyapa), she decided to live a life of austerity. Bhadda and Kassapa were married several more times in different lifetimes, including the one in which they met Shakyamuni, in which neither one of them wanted to marry, but were forced to by their parents. They agreed not to consummate the marriage, shaved each other's heads, donned saffron robes, and left home. Kassapa quickly met Shakyamuni and became a monk, but it was five years before Bhadda was able to join the newly-established order of nuns. She was declared by Shakyamuni to be foremost among the nuns who are able to remember past births.
Bhadda Kaccana Yasodhara
Yasodhara was Shakyamuni's wife. Although she wanted to join the order of nuns from the beginning, Mahaprajapati thought it would make establishing the order more difficult, so Yasodhara stayed behind. Later she was able to join the order and was declared foremost among the nuns who attained great supernormal powers.
Kisagotami was Shakyamuni's cousin; however, she grew up in another household in poverty. She married a rich banker's son, but was mistreated by her husband's relatives until she had a child, whom she loved deeply. But the child died young and she went mad, carrying his corpse from house to house. The Buddha told her he would cure the child if she could find a mustard seed from a home that had never known death. When she realized this was impossible and that all beings suffered together, she became a nun. Shakyamuni declared her foremost among the nuns who wore coarse robes.
She was declared to be foremost among nuns who are released by faith.
She was declared to be the most skilled in spreading metta among the nuns.
Shrimala was Queen of Kosala, daughter of King Prasenajit and Queen Mallika. She was hero of the sutra, The Lion's Roar of Queen Shrimala, named after her, one of the earliest Yogacara sutras. Therein, in response to Shakyamuni Buddha, Queen Shrimala proclaims ten vows and expounds the teaching of Buddha nature.
Prabhuta was a beautiful young woman devotee who lived with 10,000 woman attendants in a large mansion is the center of the city of Samudrapratish-thana. She was the 13th teacher of the 52 visited by the pilgrim Sudhana in the Gandavyuha Sutra. (Twenty of the 52 teachers were women, including goddesses; a selection of these women is included among these women ancestors.) Prabhuta had as a vessel an enlightening liberation that was an inexhaustible treasury for manifesting goods. According to beings' wishes, she endlessly dispensed food, drink, couches, clothing, flowers, fragrances, jewels, and conveyances. She especially represented the practice of tolerance.
Sinha vijurmbhita was a nun who sat on lion thrones under each of the many treasure trees in the splendorous Sunlight Park in Kalingavana. She was 24th teacher visited by the pilgrim Sudhana in the Gandavyuha Sutra. Under each tree she taught various groups, including gods and goddesses, birds, serpents, and bodhisattvas of diverse levels. She gave Mahayana teachings to those who had not heard them, and to those who had she offered specific different samadhi instructions.
Vasumitra was an extraordinarily beautiful woman who lived in a jewel-encrusted house in the city of Ratnavyuha. Those who knew no better castigated her as a temptress. But for those of various types of beings who were attracted to her, she taught ultimate dispassion through physical contact, including holding hands, embracing, and kissing. She was the 25th teacher in the Gandavyuha Sutra to be visited by the pilgrim Sudhana, who was sent to her by the nun Sinha vijurmbhita.
Gopa was a Shakyan girl in Kapilavastu who in a past life was the daughter of a courtesan, and vowed to always be practice companion to a prince, who later became Shakyamuni. Gopa was the 40th teacher visited by the pilgrim Sudhana in the Gandavyuha Sutra, and represents the 10th or ultimate stage of bodhisattva development. She taught Sudhana how to practice awareness of ultimate reality right in the midst of the world.
Korean Buddhist nuns (koreanbuddhism.net)
The list continues to grow. To see other prominent female names in the Zen tradition:
- Buddhist nunnery in California (with links and photos)
Thai artist's rendition of the Buddha giving a discourse to the first Buddhist nun, his foster mother Mahaprajapati (circa 500 B.C.)