Never doubt the power of determined women
The Buddha was silent for a long moment before he said, “It is not possible.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, Old Path, White Clouds
Oh yes, it was possible. It was time for The Buddha, the Awakened One, to accept female disciples, or bhikkunis. He just didn’t know it yet.
To be fair, he knew it would create a spitstorm with non-monastic society. It was, after all, 2,500 years ago, and Indian women lived in a highly patriarchal society. There were other details to consider: How would they live with the thousands of existing bhikkus, male disciples? Buddhism pledged sexual chastity for monks, and the Buddha knew human beings were all-too-subject to temptation.
When Queen Gotami, the Buddha’s stepmother, visited and asked to become his first nun, it wasn’t the first time he’d been thus petitioned, but the Buddha had always responded, “This isn’t the right time.”
Sort of sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Equality, or at least rights closer to equality, are never ‘the right time’ for those in power.
The Buddha had much respect for women and understood they shared capable intellects for understanding and following The Dharma as men had. He had already made exceptions for those otherwise rejected from other contemporary spiritual traditions. The Buddha had begun allowing underage novices — starting with his son Rahula — but scandalously, he also accepted those from the Untouchable caste where, in the sangha, or community of disciples, they were regarded as the equals of all other bhikkus, including former princes and kings.
Queen Gotami acknowledged that the notion of female and male disciples would create drama with the rest of the world. But she also noted The Buddha had been unafraid of the public opinion’s before. He never ignored it, but he always responded in accordance with The Dharma.
He acknowledged in return there were other women who had requested to be ordained. He still didn’t think the time was right. His stepmother, the woman who’d raised him as though he was her own son pleaded, but he was resolute. She went away.
But the disagreement wasn’t over for the Buddha. Never underestimate the power of a determined woman.
Or a small army of them!
Queen Gotami returned to the palace and gathered fifty women who wanted to become ordained. She observed that in Buddhism, all were equal, and that if The Buddha could accept Untouchables into discipleship, he could certainly accept women, fully capable of achieving enlightenment and liberation.
It was time to show him they were as serious as any aspiring monk.
So they shaved their heads in accordance with the practice, discarded their lovely clothes and jewels for simple robes, and took begging bowls to the streets to feed themselves en route to their return to the Buddha’s sangha. This was how monks supported themselves; through begging for food, often in exchange for imparting Buddhist wisdom.
The walk was hundreds of miles for the determined ladies. They proved they were ready to give up their lives as every monk including the Buddha had done and demonstrate that women were as rugged as men — that they could handle and love the life of simplicity and hardship, measured by their previous standards, that was the Buddhist seeker’s way of life.
What a surprise it was for Ananda, the Buddha’s assistant and closest friend, to meet up with fifty bedraggled women whom he originally mistook for aspiring monks, so dirty and shaven and with bloody, swollen feet. Even more surprising was to recognize Queen Gotami.
The Buddha had rejected previous requests when Ananda came and brought him the female monk question, but now, with fifty determined women having made a very long trek to speak with him, he was in no position to refuse to see them.
Ananda added a little spin of his own.
He asked The Buddha if it was possible for women as well as men to achieve arhatship, or Enlightenment.
The Buddha acknowledged it was so.
“Then why won’t you accept women into the sangha?” Ananda asked. The Queen had taken care of infant Siddhartha after his mother died shortly after his birth. Gotami had made one helluva gesture to prove she and fifty others were dead serious about becoming nuns, seeking teaching and enlightenment. They had proven they were up to the challenges and hardships of being bhikkunis.
“Please have compassion and allow her to be ordained.”
The Buddha never stopped talking about the need for compassion. He also didn’t believe in discrimination, but there were practical matters to consider.
This time he responded, “Let me think about it.” He called his advisors together and they worked out all the problems they’d foreseen before but just hadn’t taken the time to address.
How to deal with the conflict both inside and outside the temple? How can men and women learn together in harmony and without each other’s distraction?
While the women waited and the men debated, the Buddha and his advisors devised Eight Rules which they felt would enable them to begin ordaining women into the Sangha. These rules, they felt, would address the concerns both inside and out and assure the people that nothing untoward would happen.
The nuns must always defer to the monks.
During the retreat season, the nuns would not stay at the center with the monks, but at one close by from which they would receive instruction.
Twice a month the bhikkunis would invite a bhikku for a special day of observance called uposatha, when he would teach and instruct them.
After the retreat season was over, they would present to the monks and the other nuns what they had learned on retreat.
If a nun broke a rule, or a precept, she had to confess in front of both the nuns and the monks (rather than just their own, as the monks did).
They would take vows in front of all.
A nun would never criticize or censure a monk.
A nun would never teach a community of monks.
Not full equality. But.
The Buddha had finally responded to the numerous requests to ordain women. Other female seekers would surely follow in droves, as had so many men when they’d heard the words of the Awakened One.
One of the Buddha’s closest disciples, Moggallana, laughed at the clear inequality of the Eight Rules. Sariputta, another disciple, observed it was a first step in opening the door to women.
Gotami accepted them. After Ananda had departed, the other women all turned to her. Um, seriously?
Gotami noted the important point that they had achieved the right to be ordained, which was their purpose in making the sacrifices and enduring the hardships they had on this journey.
It had, as Sariputta pointed out, opened the door.
How true is this story? And when did Gotami decide ‘the time is right’ to challenge the unequal Eight Rules?
Historians and scholars now believe the Eight Rules may have been added later, and that this story is more mythology. Old Path, White Clouds is clearly a book like the Bible: History and mythology intermixed.
The truth about feminism and Buddhism is that it was a sexist religion at the start and continues to be to this day. While an Untouchable man, the lowest of the low, he who was believed to pollute anyone in a higher caste he touched, was considered the equal of former kings and princes in Buddhism, women, once reluctantly accepted, still had to be carefully corralled.
Old habits die hard.
Change has only really begun in the last twenty-five years. The current Dalai Lama has proven to be one of the most open-minded spiritual leaders ever, inside and outside of his own tradition. He is, as far as I can tell, the only spiritual leader who is well-versed in science, keeps up on the latest scientific findings, and has stated that if science contradicts a venerable Buddhist teaching, proving it wrong, the teaching must be abandoned, not the scientific finding.
Just try finding a major religious leader anywhere else who will state that.
The Dalai Lama has also speculated it’s possible his successor may be a female, which would be a first for a tradition within Buddhism that began at the end of the fourteenth century (and the title wasn’t created until the late sixteenth century).
He has been moved to grant more understanding to gay Buddhists, although he won’t refute Buddhist teachings. Still, like the Eight Steps, it’s a start for disadvantaged sexual minorities. Buddhism still has some work to do on human sexuality. It still clings to many teachings that are based more on suspicion to healthy sexual activity, even for married couples, than to modern understandings.
The story of feminism in Buddhism is, like so many other religious histories, a mixture of history and mythology. The story of Queen Gotami’s march for women’s rights illustrates the early role women played in the Buddhist tradition, not erased or buried the way the story of Jesus’s female disciples were.
Old habits die hard, and misogyny is one of the oldest. It doesn’t depart anywhere without a fight. It is, however, vulnerable when even the Buddha himself acknowledged women are every bit as capable at attaining Enlightenment as men. What’s good enough for Untouchables is good enough for the double-X chromosome set.
Change will happen.
The time is always right.
This originally appeared on Medium in August 2020.