This description of the obstacles that confronted the female disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha is from Old Path White Clouds, the life of the historical Buddha as retold by Thich Nhat Hanh. On of the most compelling and revolutionary dimensions of Shakyamuni Buddha was his defiance of the caste system. Rich people and poor, illiterates, intellectuals, and criminals were all accepted by the great sage. But as we shall see here, women who wanted to be ordained presented a special challenge.

The first women disciples were from the Buddha’s own birthplace, Kapilavatthu, where he had been raised in protective splendor by his father, King Suddhodana and his step-mother, Mahapajapati Gotami. At age twenty-nine, he abandoned his wife, Yasodhara, and their infant son, Rahula, and afterward rarely returned to Kapilavatthu. For six years he sought but renowned masters and lived the life of a forest yogi. Following his great enlightenment under the bodhi tree, he walked the width and breadth of northern India spreading the good news: that the human mind contained not only the capacity to create enormous suffering but to dissolve it as well.

The Buddha did not wish to reaffirm the traditional view that women were innately handicapped in their capacity for spiritual attainment. Nor could he risk provoking the ruling Brahmins into rising against him. And then, too, he had to consider the effects (if women on his community of celibate monks. finally a compromise was reached: women could become bhikkhunis if they agreed to “The Eight Rules.” These discriminatory rules defined a second class status for nuns that reiterated their position in the society at large. Nonetheless, for these women the rules were a negligible price to pay at the doors liberation. Furthermore, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, the rules were considered temporary, a conciliatory strategy that reflects the diplomatic skills of this pragmatic mystic. Sadly though, the rules did not dissolve with time. Rather, with the Buddha’s death, they crystallized and created a canonical justification for a pervasive and long-lasting discrimination against women. From the traditional monastic organizations in Asia to the experimental Buddhist communities in our own society, the Buddha’s teachings on gender equality have yet to be actualized.

This episode opens with the funeral of King Suddhodana. On hearing of his father’s death, the Lord Buddha returned to Kapilavatthu with his cousin and close attendant, Ananda, and 500 saffron-robed bhikkhus, ordained male followers. —Ed.


The Buddha slowly circled the funeral pyre three times. Before he lit the funeral pyre, he said, “Birth, old age, sickness, and death occur in the life of all persons. We should reflect on birth, old age, sickness, and death every day in order to prevent ourselves from becoming lost in desires and in order to be able to create a life filled with peace, joy, and contentment. A person who has attained the Way looks on birth, old age, sickness, and death with equanimity. The true nature of all dharmas is that there is neither birth nor death, neither production nor destruction, neither increasing nor decreasing.”

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