The woman who would come to be known as Mahaprajapati Gautami married the Buddha’s father, King Shuddhodana, as did her sister, Maya. After her sister died, Gautami raised Maya’s son—Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha—as her own child, and she later became one of the Buddha’s early followers.
What follows is a retelling of the story of Mahaprajapati recorded in the Kshudrakavastu, a scripture from the Vinaya (the division of the Buddhist canon that lays out the structure of monastic life) of the Mulasarvastivada school of the Sanskrit tradition.
In a grove of trees near the city of Kapilavastu, Mahaprajapati Gautami sat with the Buddha. As his aunt and adoptive mother, she had sat with him in close conversation countless times in the past.
But today was different. Gautami was not approaching him as a mother to her child. She was seeking permission, on behalf of herself and five hundred other women of their clan, to go forth and become ordained as the first nuns. But that could only happen if the Buddha, in his role as leader of the spiritual community, agreed to her request.
The Buddha gave her a remarkable dharma teaching that inspired both awe and joy. At the end of the discourse, he rested in silence.
Gautami rose from her seat, pressed her palms together, bowed toward the Buddha, then said, “Lord, if indeed women have the opportunity to achieve the fruits of the ascetic life, and rid themselves of afflictive emotions, then we as women request to go forth in the dharma and discipline so eloquently described, to become fully ordained and achieve the status of nuns. We wish to practice the religious life in the presence of the Buddha.”
The Buddha honored the women’s sincere wish to become ordained but refused them permission to adopt the outer emblems of monastic life. “Gautami,” he replied, “wear the white clothing of laywomen practitioners for all your lives, and practice the religious life in a way that is complete, pure, and wholesome. This will be meaningful for you and will bring you benefit and happiness for a long time.”
The Buddha was proposing that the women inwardly devote themselves entirely to the religious life, in effect practicing as nuns, but still maintain the outward appearance of laywomen. In this way, their practice would not become a public concern.
Not content with this compromise, Gautami repeated her request to the Buddha a second and a third time. A second and a third time, the Buddha gave the same reply. Gautami understood that a different answer was not forthcoming. She bowed her head at his feet and departed.
One can imagine what the women thought and felt when they heard from Gautami that the Buddha’s answer was no. They may have expected the Buddha to agree and—like anyone anticipating a joyful life transition—felt excitement as they imagined what it would be like to enter the monastic life. They may also have struggled with a competing emotion, the fear of disappointment; worried that they would be refused; and felt the urge to cushion the emotional blow.
Whatever they thought or felt, the story tells us that these women were of phenomenal strength and undeterred. The Buddha’s time in Kapilavastu drew to an end, and he traveled to the region of Nadika, which was many days’ walk away. When Gautami heard this, she and the five hundred other women of the Shakya clan made their intentions unmistakable. They shaved their heads, donned robes like those of the monks, and pursued the Buddha to Nadika.
The journey was long and difficult. By the time they arrived at Nadika, Gautami was weary, broken, exhausted, and covered in dust. She approached the Buddha, bowed her head at his feet, and took a seat at one side. Just as he had before, the Buddha lifted her spirits with a remarkable dharma teaching to inspire both awe and joy. At the end of the discourse, again he rested in silence.
Just as she had before, Gautami rose from her seat, bowed toward the Buddha with palms pressed together, and asked him three times, “Lord, if indeed women have the opportunity to achieve the fruits of the ascetic life and rid themselves of afflictive emotions, then we as women request to go forth in the dharma and discipline so eloquently described, to become fully ordained and achieve the status of nuns. We wish to practice the religious life in the presence of the Buddha.”
This time, the Buddha responded differently. Rather than continue to insist that the women remain dressed as laywomen, he now affirmed their choice to shave their heads and wear robes, to outwardly express that they had given their whole lives over to the dharma. But still he refused them formal ordination as nuns. To each of Gautami’s repeated requests, the Buddha replied, “Gautami, shave your heads and wear religious robes for all your lives, and practice the religious life in a way that is complete, pure, and wholesome. This will be meaningful for you and will bring you benefit and happiness for a long time.”
She was bereft. Another three times the Buddha had denied the women the lives that they longed for. Gautami walked out of the door and around the side of the building. There, she sat and wept.
Venerable Ananda found her, and, seeing her tears, he felt concern. “Gautami,” he asked gently, “why are you crying?”
Gautami’s grief came spilling out. “Lord Ananda,” she explained, “women are not permitted to go forth and become ordained as nuns.”
Venerable Ananda was moved to act. “Wait here, Gautami,” he said. “I will ask the Buddha.”
Venerable Ananda went in to see the Buddha, bowing down and taking a seat at one side, just as Gautami had done. Before he reiterated her request to the Buddha, Ananda made the same observations that Gautami had about women’s capacity for spiritual practice.
Gautami treated what could have been viewed as an obstacle as cause for celebration.
They discussed the effects of women’s ordination on the future of the Buddha’s teachings. After giving voice to some concern, the Buddha assented and said, “Ananda, I will put in place eight special rules that ordained women should practice all their lives.” The eight rules created protocols for the nuns’ conduct in regard to ordination ceremonies, retreat practice, teachings, and the like.
These eight additional rules for women, still in place today, have been a source of contention since they were created. Still, Thich Nhat Hanh and others have asserted that without them it would have been inconceivable for society at that time to accept women’s entry to the monastic fold. As contemporary readers, we might have strong negative reactions to extra restrictions being placed on women. But if we get lost in our frustration, we miss the depth of Gautami’s spiritual mastery.
The story tells us that Gautami treated what could have been viewed as an obstacle as nothing less than cause for celebration. After all, the women were stepping forward into the monastic life. When Ananda shared with her that the Buddha had handed down the eight rules, Gautami’s reply demonstrated the women’s wholehearted willingness to embrace whatever was required of them. The rules would become the women’s crowning glory.
“Lord Ananda,” she said, “any young woman of whatever caste”—the order of nuns, like the order of monks, would accept persons from any caste—“who is bathed and dressed in white, wearing fragrance, with her hair decorously arranged and nails finely shaped, to whom someone hands a garland of flowers, each flower beautifying in its own way, would be pleased with the person who made the offering. She would receive the flowers with both her hands and place them on the crown of her head.
“Lord Ananda, it is in just this way that I receive the eight rules in word and mind and place them on the crown of my head.”
Gautami’s pointed mention of how she accepted them—with a gesture indicating highest reverence in Indic culture: “I place them on the crown of my head”—also makes it clear that she could have done otherwise. The story shows us that for spiritual practitioners the obstacles are the path. The story of the first women Buddhist monastics is all the more meaningful to us because of the struggles they overcame.
In the same way, as we proceed along the spiritual path, obstacles—including injustice—will definitely find us. They are almost impossible to anticipate, since for every practitioner they present in personal and extraordinary ways. But like Gautami and the Shakya women, we can move through obstacles with purpose and discipline—and even refine them over time into adornments for the buddha we will become.
The Eight Special Rules for Nuns
Note: These rules may differ slightly across traditions.
1. A nun ordained even one hundred years must stand and bow to a monk ordained for as little as one day.
2. Nuns may not spend the annual rainy season retreat at a site where no monks are present.
3. Nuns must request from the sangha of monks dharma teachings, as well as the appropriate date for the nuns’ biweekly confession ceremony.
4. After the rainy season retreat, a nun should perform a confession ceremony in the presence of both the monks’ and nuns’ orders for any breaking of rules that occurred during the retreat.
5. Any significant rule-breaking, including the failure to follow these eight rules, will result in probationary penance from both the monks’ and nuns’ orders. Only following that penance may the nun be reinstated, in the presence of a minimum of twenty monks and twenty nuns.
6. Women’s ordination must be received from both the monks’ and nuns’ orders. [Men’s ordination is received only from the order of monks.]
7. Nuns may never abuse or disrespect a monk in any way.
8. Whereas a monk may bring attention to a nun’s shortcomings, a nun may never warn or reprimand a monk.