After the Buddha attains enlightenment, men begin to flock to his side, leaving their families and asking to follow in his path. According to early Buddhist literature, the young Buddha welcomes most of these men with a single word, “Come.” Together, the men form a monastic community to support one another in their quest for awakening.
When the Buddha’s aunt and adoptive mother, Mahapajapati Gotami, shows up to make the same request, however, the Buddha does not assent as easily. While he doesn’t explicitly say no, he certainly doesn’t welcome her into the community, insisting instead that she not ask the question.
For centuries, scholars and monastics have debated why the Buddha declined Mahapajapati’s initial request. In her new novel, The Gathering: A Story of the First Buddhist Women, scholar Vanessa R. Sasson takes up this question by offering an imaginative retelling of the story, following Mahapajapati and the women accompanying her as they prepare to ask again. The women know what they’re up against, as they are no strangers to the realities of oppression and social hierarchy. But, as Sasson writes, “they asked anyway, because the cost of not asking was worse than the risk.” Sasson’s novel celebrates the resilience of these women who refused to take no for an answer—and who soon became free.
As a work of historical fiction, the novel takes as its inspiration the poems of the Therigatha, a collection attributed to the first Buddhist women—and arguably the oldest anthology of women’s literature in the world. Drawing from the poems and their commentaries, Sasson gives new life to the women of the Therigatha, whom she refers to as the Gathering women, illustrating both the depths of their suffering and their determination to seek liberation.
Perhaps this forms the heart of The Gathering: the freedom that friendship enables.
While the novel weaves together the stories of many women of the Therigatha, it centers on Vimala, a prostitute who joins the Gathering to escape the grim reality of life at a brothel. When Vimala first encounters the Gathering women, she is startled by their diversity: prostitutes and queens walk side by side, and courtesans, criminals, and ascetics learn to live together on their journey through the forest. Some seek a way out of a life of suffering; others join for companionship or even for food. “The Gathering women were all so very different,” Vimala reflects. “What they shared was their understanding that life rarely gives us what we want. And that it was worth the risk to try for something more.”
And it is indeed a risk. Many of the women face the retaliation of jealous husbands, controlling fathers, and indignant employers, as their actions disrupt societal norms—and even “threaten cosmic harmony.” In refusing to be confined by the roles prescribed for them based on gender, class, and ethnicity, the Gathering women break free from others’ claims on their bodies and livelihoods, escaping unjust debts and unwanted marriages.
But as they release themselves from harmful social bonds, they also form new ones: those of friendship and community. In contrast to their previous relationships, structured by inequality and dominance, the Gathering women’s relationships with one another are rooted in shared sorrow, as well as a shared desire for liberation—a way to transcend the limitations of the lives laid out for them. As Vimala reflects, “They were a community of female renunciants who had renounced before they even knew if they were allowed.” In leaving behind their former social obligations, they build a new community, demonstrating that another way of life is possible.
Perhaps this forms the heart of The Gathering: the freedom that friendship enables. Together, the women help each other imagine and enact different possible futures from the fates they believed to be inevitable. As they walk side by side, they trust each other with the stories of their past—stories of remorse, oppression, and almost unspeakable loss. Through listening to and witnessing each other’s narratives, they learn to face their own, demonstrating the freedom that can come from being heard.
In this way, the women become each other’s teachers, learning from one another’s tales of grief, loss, and resilience and protecting each other from violence, heartbreak, and ridicule. They encourage each other with compassion, humor, and sometimes brutal honesty. And through the many expressions of gender and sexuality they embody, they challenge assumptions about what it means to be a woman and what women are supposed to want.
As the women arrive at the end of their journey, the story does not reach a neat resolution. The Gathering women do not become as free as they had hoped. They’re accepted into the monastic community, but only under conditions that cement their inequality. As Vimala quips, “Even in the realm of the Awakened Ones, women were to be kept apart.” As the women reckon with the stipulations for their acceptance, they must learn to navigate the paradox of seeking liberation while still bound by social hierarchy.
This paradox has not gone away. Buddhist communities around the world continue to wrestle with the Buddha’s restrictions. In most, women monastics remain subordinate to monks, and in some cases, their fate is even bleaker than that of the Gathering women. In many Theravada lineages, for instance, full ordination is illegal for women, and women monastics often face poverty and harassment. In recent years, the movement to revive women’s ordination has gained momentum, and just last year, 144 Bhutanese women became the first nuns in history to receive full ordination in the Tibetan lineage. Just like the Gathering women, women monastics have proved persistent in pushing for what seems impossible, even in the face of continued discrimination.
In a world where such inequality persists, The Gathering offers a different way to explore these tensions. In encouraging us to take seriously alternative modes of scholarship that center on storytelling, Sasson opens up new ways of understanding these ongoing quests for ordination. Structuring the book as a novel, she invites us into the inner lives of the first women who sought ordination, encouraging us to sit with conflicting truths. And by not glossing over the story’s complexities, she offers a more expansive view of the messiness of monastic life and the relationship between renunciation and freedom.
Just as the Gathering women help one another imagine new pathways that at first seem inconceivable, Sasson helps us to glimpse new possibilities as we reckon with the realities of our time, acknowledging that there is no easy path forward. After all, a monastery “is for those who are not awakened yet,” as Vimala comes to realize. “It is a place for the aspiring, for those who hope they can do more with themselves than ordinary life permits.” In this way, Sasson’s novel encourages us to aspire for something greater—for ourselves, for our communities, and for the future of Buddhism.
Listen to an interview with Vanessa Sasson at tricycle.org/podcast.
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