The following excerpt was adapted from The Gathering: A Story of the First Buddhist Women, a novel by Vanessa R. Sasson.
After the Buddha’s awakening, word soon spread of his accomplishment, and men followed. Like him, they left their homes, obligations, and families with idealistic hopefulness. The monks built a community among themselves, working together but individually in the hopes of achieving what the Buddha had achieved. There were skirmishes and many misunderstandings, but the community was harmonious overall.
Then one day, women showed up and asked to be let in.
They had heard about the Buddha and all he had achieved. They had heard that he was living in the forest, showing the way to the end of suffering, and monks were with him learning to live the life he was living. The women wanted a chance to try the path for themselves, so they, too, asked for ordination. Like many women before them, at other times, in other circumstances, in the face of other institutions, the first Buddhist women were asking for access.
The first Buddhist women were probably not naïve. They must have seen the barriers they were attempting to cross, the glass ceilings they were trying to break. They must have known they would not be immediately welcomed with open arms. But they asked anyway because the cost of not asking was worse than the risk.
Much of the history of the early community is contained in the monastic codes of the Vinaya, but it does not tell us everything. The Vinaya provides us with the story of the women’s first attempt, the Buddha’s obscure rejection, and then describes the women pursuing the Buddha to ask again, but these codes are not the heart and soul of my retelling. My inspiration comes from the Therigatha.
Believed to be about two thousand years old, the Therigatha is a collection of seventy-three poems by some of the first Buddhist women who joined the monastic community. It may be the oldest surviving collection of women’s voices in the world.
What is particularly moving about these poems is not just that they are songs of women’s accomplishments but that their accomplishments often arrive on the heels of great suffering. The Therigatha does not gloss over women’s experiences. It does not idealize their circumstances or try to soften the blow. On the contrary, the stories preserved in the Therigatha are often devastating.
Of course, not all the women struggle, but for many, the stories are steeped in suffering. This is not because the Therigatha is an especially dark text but because suffering is quite simply a feature of human life in general. And perhaps of women’s lives in particular.
The women of the Therigatha are not limited by their suffering, nor does it define them. The wonder of it all is that, despite the pain (and perhaps in part because of it), these women tried for something more. They shook themselves free of their circumstances and walked into the forest to ask for what they needed and thought they could receive.
And, like so many other women, they did it together.
In a deeply stratified and hierarchical world, where caste divisions had begun to take root and communities were pulling apart, the Therigatha is a miracle of collaboration. Prostitutes and queens walk together through the forest and share their songs. Women of all different stations share the pages of this text.
The story of these first Buddhist women is the bedrock on which many practitioners depend. Buddhist nuns the world over carry this story, embody it, and live it in their everyday lives. Every woman monastic I have had the opportunity to sit with has tackled this story with me. Why did the Buddha initially say no? Did he actually not want women around? Whatever his reasons, the Buddha did not at first say yes, and Buddhist monastic communities have been wrestling with these questions ever since.
The first time one learns this story, it can be shocking. How could the Buddha say no? How could an awakened being discriminate that way? The Buddha did not only reject the women. When he finally did accept women into the Order, his acceptance proved devastatingly conditional. The women had to accept eight “heavy” rules (known as the garudhammas) before ordination would be granted. And these rules did not usher in an era of idealistic monastic equality.
The point is not that women’s ordination had strings attached but that those first Buddhist women did not take no for an answer. And according to the Therigatha, those first Buddhist women achieved awakening. How we tell their stories, what their stories mean, and what is carried over (and, by extension, what is left behind) shapes so much of the experience of what it means to be a Buddhist practitioner today. Those women did not get everything they wanted, but they fought for their place in the community, and they became teachers in their own rights. The women of the Therigatha are heroic ancestors of the Buddhist story.
Monastic life is not perfect, monastic history for women even less so, but to live a life of renunciation in a world dedicated to accumulation is something I have always looked up to. The story of the first Buddhist women is not easy. For the reader unfamiliar with it, consider yourself warned. This is a challenging narrative that does not end as many of us might hope. Like many other gatherings women have organized, the women’s gathering to ask the Buddha for ordination was not an unconditional success. The women were initially rejected and dismissed. When they were finally accepted into the community as fellow monastics, it was with heavy conditions attached. Men may have been welcomed into the community with open arms, but women had hoops to jump through that kept them apart. If this sounds familiar to a contemporary reader . . . well, it should. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
“Great Goddess, is she mean!” she declared. “Why is she always after me?”
In another time, many years earlier, I would have scolded her for such impertinence. Or worse—I would have joined her in the easy accusation. There was nothing I used to love more than pointing out other people’s faults.
But that time was long ago.
“She’s not mean, Little One. She’s your teacher.”
“You’re my teacher,” she replied emphatically. “She just likes being mad all the time.”
I shook my head, but I knew better than to argue. Darshani would learn in time, just as we all do. Monastic life does not transform anyone quickly. Bhadda Kundalakesa, my dear friend and steady companion many years ago, once described nuns living together as being like a bag full of rocks. The rocks begin with jagged edges, but if you shake the bag around long enough, the rocks rub against each other and smooth one another out. Monastic life is like that. In time, we all lose our hard edges.
“Shall we go greet Surya the Sun God?” I asked, changing the subject. “He must be expecting us.”
Darshani clapped her hands with glee as she leapt off the bed.
I once told Darshani that to miss a sunrise was to miss the greatest show on earth. She, of course, responded with authority that she had seen the sun rise many times. She was no amateur when it came to the Sun God’s trajectory. Nevertheless, Darshani had been coming into my room almost every morning since then, jostling me awake in time for the show. It was a wonder Sundarinanda had never caught us doing this before now.
I leaned on Darshani’s young body as we limped out the door, every step carefully calculated, slowly maneuvering towards our goal. We eventually reached our favorite spot, right at the edge of our small hill. She helped me into a seated position, then sat down beside me.
“We made it!” she declared. “The Sun God is just about to get started!”
The sky’s darkness was brightening, bit by bit. A light breeze rustled, announcing the tender day ahead. It was the end of the long summer months, my favorite time of year, when the heat evaporates and the promise of cooler days is just around the corner. Winter here is always so dry and cold and Monsoon so very wet and muggy, but in between the extremes, the Earth Goddess provides a moment of respite. The air lands lightly, the sun offers just enough warmth, and the sky is crisp and bright.
“You promised to tell me the story, Aunty. You said when I was old enough, you would tell me. And I’m definitely old enough now! I do my chores, attend to my studies, and I don’t even fight with the other novices anymore.”
The sky was a magnificent shade of orange. Birds were bursting into song.
“Quiet, now. Watch the sky. It’s what we have come to see.” “I know, but I see it every morning. I want to hear your story!” I turned to look at her.
“You are frightfully impatient, you know?”
“You said the young are always impatient, so it’s not my fault. I’m made this way!”
I laughed. Who could resist such an impish little creature?
But I knew she was right.
My body was wasting away, more every day. I was aging at an almost hurried pace. Soon even the short walk out of my room would prove to be too much. I looked down at my hands that were resting in hers. Mine were so old and knotted now. Spotted, with swollen joints, every tiny bone clearly defined beneath my skin. I must look as old as Neelima, I thought. When I was young, I was convinced no one could ever be older than her. She was as ancient as the Earth Goddess, but she dragged herself around on those little legs of hers, undeterred by the fatigue she must have felt with every step.
My, how I had loved her.
Most of the Gathering Women had passed away. I was one of the last ones left. Me and Sundarinanda, in fact. All the others had taken their leave when their bodies were finished with them.
Some of them left behind songs of accomplishment just before they died, and each one of these I carefully transcribed when it was time. As one of the only literate women in the community, the role of preserving the songs was entrusted to me. When a woman felt ready, I was summoned to her bedside. I would bring my jar of ink and a piece of dried-out birch bark and wait for the words to emerge.
It was an intimate experience to hear a woman’s final song. Sometimes the words soared out triumphantly; at other times, they were soft whispers of grace. I always wanted to close my eyes, to savor the experience the way the others could, but as the community archivist, I could not allow myself such a privilege. I kept my eyes open, transcribing each word as it was sung. When the song was over and the ink was dry, I would roll up the birch bark and store it in a clay jar, already painted and prepared for the occasion. We now had dozens of these jars in the nunnery. It was the beginning of our very own library.
I had, however, become responsible for more than the songs over the years. I also had to deliver the story of the Gathering Women to ensure it would be cared for by others after I was gone. This task seemed even more daunting to me than the songs, the weight of it constantly on my mind. How would I tell the story of the Gathering Women on my own? It was a story we had all lived out differently, each of us in our own way. Who was I to be the one to tell it?
“Will you really not share the story with me, Aunty?” Darshani asked again. “I’ve gotten so good at remembering. I can recite dozens of teachings now without even asking for a reminder! I won’t forget any of it if you teach it to me.”
The story was not an easy one to tell. Most women were content to follow the status quo, to keep their heads down, slave for their husbands, their taskmasters, the temple priests. Most women never attempted the lofty heights of liberation. They did not break the rules of requirement in the hope of becoming more than was prescribed by their sex.
But we Gathering Women refused to limit ourselves. We wanted more from our circumstances, we wanted more from the lives we had been given to live. So, we charged forward, daring to ask for the moon and the stars and everything else we dreamt might be ours. We wanted to become free like the Teacher, and all the Teachers before him, to soar inside ourselves with wings as wide as our minds. The smallness of the outside world, with all of its rules and limitations and petty thieveries . . . these did not suit any of us. We refused to shrink ourselves to fit to the world’s demands.
I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the sun’s nourishing rays. A kingfisher was whistling on a branch right above me and I could hear monkeys scampering along the trunk. I knew that if I waited long enough, a herd of elephants would appear and saunter across the field toward the mud banks on the other side. The kitchen pots were clanging in the nunnery and the goatherders were whistling further away. Life was erupting in all directions. I needed to find my inner stillness before I could begin.
Gotami, Bhadda Kundalakesa, Patachara, Gathering Women all, I whispered quietly, stay with me.
Our story was not as pretty as some tellers like to pretend. It was messy and complicated, each of us making the journey with our own reasons, in our own way. One look at Sundarinanda confirmed that fact: she did not join us with wings ready to fly. She was still struggling, all these years later, old habits still proving difficult to shed.
But it was our story, our great adventure. It gave us the opportunity to reach for something most did not believe could be ours to try.
Some of us became great scholars. Others great teachers. Some of us eventually left. But some made it to the furthest reaches of their minds. Darshani represented the next generation. It was time she inherited our story, so that she might continue what we began.
I opened my eyes and I began to speak.
Excerpt from The Gathering: A Story of the First Buddhist Women by Vanessa R. Sasson © Equinox Publishing Ltd. 2023. The Gathering will be published June 8, 2023. For more information and to order (at publication) visit the book’s page here.
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