01 January 2007

Women and Buddhist Ordination

Women in India - photo by DhammaratiIn the last couple of months I attended a series of lectures by Professor Richard Gombrich. These were very stimulating lectures and gave rise to many interesting discussions subsequently with the friends who also attended them. I have several raves to write as a result.

What I want to write about today is women. Specifically I want to take a bit of a look at the Buddhist ordination of women. I practice in a tradition, if it can be called that, in which men and women receive ordination on an equal basis - no extra rules or precepts for women, no extra conditions. It is an explicit acknowledgement that men and women are equally capable of going for refuge to the three jewels. Now in our spiritual community it is sometimes said that despite the equivalence of the ordinations, women have not always been treated as equals. Indeed one of our senior order members wrote a book which dwelt on the traditional Buddhist view that women are spiritually inferior, and sought to justify that view - which is not a line of argument I wish to pursue!

Professor Gombrich was exploring the origins and greatness of the Buddha's ideas and mentioned the case I'm about to explore in passing in an early lecture. Women, so the story goes, were admitted into the Buddhist Order reluctantly and then only with special pleading from Ananda on behalf of the Buddha's aunt Mahāpajapati. The admission of women, it says in the 10th chapter of the Cullavagga book of the vinaya, would be contingent on a number of conditions: they must accept a number of extra rules; have a status lower than the lowest male bhikkhu; and show all bhikkhus respect. Even so the admission of women to the Sangha is said to have shortened the lifespan of the Dharma!*

This is, or should be, fairly familiar ground to students of Buddhism. It does not sit well with us westerners though, especially in this post-modern, post-feminist era. We accept in theory, if not always in practice, that men and women are equal. I think this has been a serious sticking point for many women and not a few men approaching the Dharma! So I was intrigued when Professor Gombrich drew my attention to the verses of Bhaddā Kundalakesa in the Therigatha (107-111). These verses, he says, show that the idea that the Buddha was reluctant to admit women to the order was a later falsification. I will mostly use the translations of K. R. Norman because although C.A.F. Rhys Davids includes portions of the commentaries in hers, Norman's is more clear - fortunately both are printed together in my copy**.

Bhadda was a Jain ascetic, who was drawn to the Buddha after losing a debate with Sariputta. The verses begin:
With hair cut off, wearing dust, formerly I wandered, having only one robe... (107)
This much is enough to identify her as a Jain - dust is a primary Jain metaphor for karma, and clearly she is a wandering ascetic very similar in description to other samaṇas in the the Canon. One of the arguments offered for the Buddha's reluctance to ordain women was that it might have created a dangerous precedent at a time when only men were ascetics. Not so according to this text - there were women Jain ascetics. The commentary suggests that her hair was not so much cut, as pulled out by the roots.

Verse 110 begins:
Having bent the knee, having paid homage to him, I stood with cupped hands face to face with him (110a)
The key second half of the verse runs in Pali:
ehi bhadde'ti maṃ avaca, sā me āsūpasampadā (110b)
Which I translate as
Come Bhadda, he said to me; that was my ordination.
Now this is very interesting indeed. Bhadda goes to see the Buddha, and on the spot he confers on her the higher ordination!

I want to point out a few salient features of this passage. Firstly the formula "ehi bhikkhu" (= "come bhikkhu") is usually considered to place a text very early, before the whole rigmarole of lower and higher ordinations, or even formal vinaya rules came into being. In the beginning the Buddha would just say to you "come", and that was it, you were a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni. I've taken the trouble to include the Pali because the word for ordination in the text is a variant of upasampadā which stands to the higher or full ordination - this by the way, is what it means when someone refers to themselves as a "fully ordained Buddhist monk or nun".

By the time that the story of Mahāpajapati things were a lot more complex. Ascetics from other traditions had a two year stand down period before they could take the lower ordination. They then had to make satisfactory progress as a samanera, or novice monk, before being granted the higher ordination. And as I have already pointed out women had a series of additional rules imposed upon them.

So the instant higher ordination of Bhadda is remarkable in several ways: it is clearly early, there is no hesitation, and there are no extra rules or conditions, and the Dharma is not cut short by 500 years! This story is apparently a one off, but often a one off can be very telling, especially in this case since the Canon has been edited to conform to orthodox Theravada belief at the time it was written down. Bhadda it seems slipped through the net! Having looked at the text, and knowing a bit about the background I find myself agreeing with Professor Gombrich that the whole set up for women with it's low status and extra rules is a late addition, and probably reflects the prejudice of a time after the Buddha.

* Ute Husken. 2000. The Legend of the Establishment of the Buddhist Order of Nuns in the Theravada Vinaya-Pitaka. Journal of the Pali Text Society. (Vol XXVI, pp.43-69).
** C.A.F Rhys Davids and K.R. Norman. 1997.
Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns : Theriigaathaa. (Oxford : Pali Text Society).

see also Bhadda Kundalakesa at Access to Insight

image: dhammarati
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