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. One 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.”

Once lit, flames consumed the pyre. The sound of gongs and drums intertwined with chanting. The people of Kapilavatthu attended in great numbers to see the Buddha light the king’s funeral pyre.

After the coronation of the new king, the Buddha remained in Kapilavatthu in order to help his half brother during his initial months of rule. One day Mahapajapati Gotami visited him at Nigrodha Park. She offered a number of robes and also requested to be ordained as a nun. She said, “If you will allow women to be ordained, many will benefit. Among our clan, many princes have left home to become your disciples. Many of them had wives. Now their wives desire to study the Dharma as nuns. I want to be ordained myself. It would bring me great joy. This has been my sole desire since the king died.”

The Buddha was silent for a long moment before he said, “It is not possible.”

Lady Pajapati pleaded, “I know this is a difficult issue for you. If you accept women into the sangha [community] you will be met with protest and resistance from society. But I do not believe you are afraid of such reactions.”

Again the Buddha was silent. He said, “In Rajagaha, there are also a number of women who want to be ordained, but I don’t believe it is the right time yet. Conditions are not yet ripe to accept women in the sangha.”

Gotami pleaded three times with him, but his answer remained the same. Deeply disappointed, she departed. When she returned to the palace she told Yasodhara of the Buddha’s response.

A few days later, the Buddha returned to Vesali. After his departure, Gotami gathered all the women who wished to be ordained. They included a number of young women who had never been married. All the women belonged to the Sakya clan. She told them, “I know beyond a doubt that in the Way of Awakening, all people are equal. Everyone has the capacity to be enlightened and liberated. The Buddha has said so himself. He has accepted untouchables into the sangha. There is no reason he should not accept women. We are full persons too. We can attain enlightenment and liberation. There is no reason to regard women as inferior.

“I suggest we shave our heads, get rid of our fine clothes and jewels, put on the yellow robes of bhikkhus, and walk barefoot to Vesali where we will ask to be ordained. In this way we will prove to the Buddha and everyone else that we are capable of living simply and practicing the Way. We will walk hundreds of miles and beg for our food. This is the only hope we have to be accepted into the sangha.”

All the women agreed with Gotami. They saw in her a true leader. Yasodhara smiled. She had long appreciated Gotami’s strong will. Gotami was not one to be stopped by any obstacle, as proved by her years of working on behalf of the poor with Yasodhara. The women agreed on a day to put their plan into action. Gotami then said to Yasodhara, “Gopa, it would be best if you didn’t come with us this time. Things may go more smoothly. When we have succeeded, there will be plenty of time for you to follow.”

Yasodhara smiled in understanding.

Early one morning on his way to the lake to get some water, Ananda met Gotami and fifty other women standing not far from the Buddha’s hut. Every woman had shaved her head and was wearing a yellow robe. Their feet were swollen and bloody. At first glance, Ananda thought it was a delegation of monks, but suddenly he recognized Lady Gotami. Hardly able to believe his eyes, he blurted, “Good heavens, Lady Gotami! Where have you come from? Why are your feet so bloody? Why have you and all the ladies come here like this?”

 Gotami answered, “Venerable Ananda, we have shaved our heads and given away all our fine clothes and jewels. We no longer have any possessions in this world. We left Kapilavatthu and have walked for fifteen days, sleeping by the roadsides and begging for our food in small villages along the way. We wish to show that we are capable of living like bhikkhus. I beseech you, Ananda. Please speak to the Buddha on our behalf. We wish to be ordained as nuns.”

Ananda said, “Wait here. I will speak to the Buddha at once. I promise to do all I can.”

Ananda entered the Buddha’s hut just as the Buddha was putting on his robe. Nagita, the Buddha’s assistant at that time, was also present. Ananda told the Buddha all he had just seen and heard. The Buddha did not say anything.

Ananda then asked, “Lord, is it possible for a woman to attain the Fruits of Stream-Enterer, Once-Returner, Never-Returner, and Arhatship?”

The Buddha answered, “Beyond a doubt.”

“Then why won’t you accept women into the sangha? Lady Gotami nurtured and cared for you from the time you were an infant. She has loved you like a son. Now she has shaved her head and renounced all her possessions. She has walked all the way from Kapilavatthu to prove that women can endure anything that men can. Please have compassion and allow her to be ordained.”

The Buddha was silent for a long moment. He then asked Nagita to summon Venerables Sariputta, Moggallana, Anuruddha, Bhaddiya, Kimbila, and Mahakassapa. When they arrived, he discussed the situation with them at length. He explained that it was not discrimination against women which made him hesitant to ordain them. He was unsure how to open the sangha to women without creating harmful conflict both within and outside of the sangha.

After a lengthy exchange of ideas, Sariputta said, “It would be wise to create statutes which define the roles of nuns within the sangha. Such statutes would diminish public opposition which is certain to erupt, since there has been discrimination against women for thousands of years. Please consider the following eight rules:

“First, a nun, or bhikkhuni, will always defer to a bhikkhu, even if she is older or has practiced longer than he has.

“Second, all bhikkhunis must spend the retreat season at a center within reach of a center of bhikkhus in order to receive spiritual support and further study.

“Third, twice a month, the bhikkhunis should delegate someone to invite the bhikkhus to decide on a date for uposatha, the special day of observance. A bhikkhu should visit the nuns, teach them, and encourage them in their practice.

“Fourth, after the rainy season retreat, nuns must attend the Pavarana ceremony and present an account of their practice, not only before other nuns, but before the monks.

“Fifth, whenever a bhikkhuni breaks a precept, she must confess before both the bhikkhunis and the bhikkhus.

“Sixth, after a period of practice as a novice, a bhikkhuni will take full vows before the communities of both monks and nuns.

“Seventh, a bhikkhuni should not criticize or censure a bhikkhu.

“Eighth, a bhikkhuni will not give Dharma instruction to a community of bhikkhus.”

Moggallana laughed. “These eight rules are clearly discriminatory. How can you pretend otherwise?”

Sariputta replied, “The purpose of these rules is to open the door for women to join the sangha. They are not intended to discriminate but to help end discrimination. Don’t you see?”

Moggallana nodded, acknowledging the merit of Sariputta’s statement.

Bhaddiya said, “These eight rules are necessary. Lady Gotami has commanded much authority. She is the Lord’s mother. Without rules such as these, it would be difficult for anyone except the Buddha himself to guide her in her practice.”

The Buddha turned to Ananda, “Ananda, please go and tell Lady Mahapajapati that if she is willing to accept these Eight Special Rules, she and the other women may be ordained.”

The sun had already climbed high into the sky, but Ananda found Lady Gotami and the other women patiently waiting. After hearing the Eight Rules, Gotami was overjoyed. She replied, “Venerable Ananda, please tell the Buddha that just as a young girl gladly accepts a garland of lotus flowers or roses to adorn her hair after washing it with perfumed water, I happily accept the Eight Rules. I will follow them all my life if I am granted permission to be ordained.”

old path white clouds
Thich Nhat Hanh, courtesy Simon Chaput.

Ananda returned to the Buddha’s hut and informed him of Lady Gotami’s response.

The other women looked at Gotami with concern in their eyes, but she smiled and reassured them, “Don’t worry, my sisters. The important thing is that we have earned the right to be ordained. These Eight Rules will not be barriers to our practice. They are the door by which we may enter the sangha.”

All fifty-one women were ordained that same day. Venerable Sariputta arranged for them to live temporarily at Ambapali’s mango grove. The Buddha also asked Sariputta to teach the nuns the basic practice.

Eight days later, Bhikkhuni Mahapajapati paid a visit to the Buddha. She said, “Lord, please show compassion, and explain how I may best make quick progress on the path of liberation.”

The Buddha answered, “Bhikkhuni Mahapajapati, the most important thing is to take hold of your own mind. Practice observing the breath and meditate on the body, feelings, mind, and objects of mind. Practicing like that, each day you will experience a deepening of humility, ease, detachment, peace, and joy. When those qualities arise, you can be sure you are on the correct path, the path of awakening and enlightenment.”

Bhikkhuni Mahapajapati wanted to build a convent in Vesali in order to enable the nuns to dwell close to the Buddha and his senior disciples. She also wanted later to return to Kapilavatthu to open a convent in her homeland. She sent a messenger to Yasodhara to announce the good news of the women’s ordination. Bhikkhuni Gotami knew that the acceptance of women into the sangha would create an uproar. Bitter opposition would undoubtedly result, and many people would condemn the Buddha and his sangha. She knew the Buddha would have to face many difficulties. She was grateful, and understood that the Eight Rules were temporarily necessary to protect the sangha from harmful conflict. She was sure that later on, once the ordination of women was an established fact, the Eight Rules would no longer be necessary.

The Buddha’s community now had four streams—the bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, upasakas (male lay disciples), and upasikas (female lay disciples).

Bhikkhuni Mahapajapati gave careful thought as to how the bhikkhunis should dress. Her suggestions were all accepted by the Buddha. The bhikkhus wore three garments—the antaravarsaka or pants, the uttarasangha or inner robe, and the sanghati or outer robe. In addition to these three garments, the bhikkhunis added a cloth wrapped around the chest called a samkaksika, and a skirt called a kusalaka. In addition to their robes and begging bowl, each monk and nun also had the right to own a fan, a water filter, a needle and thread to mend their robes, a pick to clean their teeth, and a razor to shave their heads twice a month.

From Old Path White Clouds, Parallax Press, 1991.

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