220 - Ser El/La Único/a Budista en Tu Familia - Parte 2
222 – Confronting the Buddha’s Sexist Discourse – Part 2

I introduce the text that describes the Buddha’s negative words and actions in response to the question of ordaining women into what was called the “homeless life” of his monastic community. Then I’ll talk about various ways we can explain, dismiss, or justify the story contained in this text. In the next episode I’ll explore how, for some of us, explaining, dismissing, or justifying the story of the Buddha’s sexist discourse does not completely neutralize the discouraging effect of this story’s presence in the Buddhist canon, and how we can relate to the story without losing our faith in this path of practice.

 

 

Quicklinks to Article Content:
The Troubling Story of the Buddha’s Resistance to Ordaining Women
The Gotami Sutta: A Story of the Buddha’s Apparent Lack of Compassion for Women
The Incongruity of the Buddha’s Sexist Discourse
Various Ways to Make Sense of the Buddha’s Sexist Discourse

 

The Troubling Story of the Buddha’s Resistance to Ordaining Women

Recently, someone sent me the following Dharma Question:

“You mentioned the other day that, according to a Sutta in the Pali Canon, the Buddha was against ordination of women as priests. He had to be convinced to do so by Ananda, who accomplished this by reminding the Buddha that he had said all beings can be awakened, including women. I think the Buddha then said something like ‘women will accelerate the degeneration of the Dharma.’ I found that VERY disturbing and it created something of a foundational crack in how I view Buddhism.

The teachings in general were way ahead of their time, even by today’s standards, so you would not expect such a comment from the Buddha himself. I realize we can’t make judgements on views and opinions from 2500 years ago based current values and beliefs, but this is quite shocking and totally outside the fundamentals of Buddhism.

Some of the other fantastical supernatural things in the Buddhist suttas like multiple rebirths and deities flying around can be written off as beliefs of the time or vestiges of other religions, so I guess we should interpret this statement in the same way? I would love to hear your take on this issue.”

In this episode I will introduce the text that describes the Buddha’s words and actions in response to the question of ordaining women into what was called the “homeless life” of his monastic community. Then I’ll talk about various ways we can explain, dismiss, or justify the story contained in this text. In the next episode I’ll explore how, for some of us, explaining, dismissing, or justifying the story of the Buddha’s resistance to ordaining women does not completely neutralize the discouraging effect of this story’s presence in the Buddhist canon, and how we can relate to the story without losing our faith in this path of practice.

 

The Gotami Sutta: A Story of the Buddha’s Apparent Lack of Compassion for Women

The Pali Canon sutta on the Buddha’s resistance to ordaining women is called the “With Gotami” sutta, Anguttara Nikaya number 8.51. I find it troubling as well. At the very least, it portrays the Buddha as having an astonishing lack of compassion for women – particularly, for the women most profoundly called to follow the path of practice he was teaching. In this episode I will read parts of the relevant sutta and then discuss it. I want to explore the questions about how we should relate to this story. Should we dismiss it? Rationalize it? Why should it even matter to us? Obviously, each of us needs to answer these questions for ourselves, but I think what’s most important is that we confront the Buddha’s sexist discourse head on instead of ignoring it.

Speaking of ignoring the Gotami Sutta, I went looking for this text on my favorite Pali Canon website that I’ve mentioned and used many times, Access to Insight, and was very surprised not to find it. The site has modern translations of over 1,000 Pali Canon suttas, but the one describing how women came to be admitted to the ordained Buddhist Sangha was not included. Is the “With Gotami” sutta Buddhism’s dirty little secret? Or is the inclusion of ordained women in the Sangha not important enough a topic in the minds of the presumably male curators of the Access to Insight collection?

In any case, I was able to find a couple translations. The one I am going to share is by Bhikkhu Sujato and is available online at Sutta Central.[i] Just a warning, this sutta contains some statements by the Buddha that you may find rather shocking in their sexism, but stay tuned, we will discuss afterwards. The main character of this sutta, by the way, is Mahapajapati Gotami, the Buddha’s aunt and stepmother, who raised him after his mother died shortly after childbirth. The other main character, Ananda, is one of the Buddha’s closest disciples.

 

With Gotami (Anguttara Nikaya number 8.51, translated by Bhikkhu Sujato; if anyone from Sutta Central objects to the extent I have replicated the text here, please let me know.)

At one time the Buddha was staying in the land of the Sakyans, near Kapilavatthu in the Banyan Tree Monastery. Then Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī went up to the Buddha, bowed, stood to one side, and said to him:

“Sir, please let females gain the going forth from the lay life to homelessness in the teaching and training proclaimed by the Realized One.”

“Enough, Gotamī. Don’t advocate for females to gain the going forth from the lay life to homelessness in the teaching and training proclaimed by the Realized One…”

[Gotami asks a second time and a third time, a traditional demonstration of sincerity and determination, but receives the same answer.]

…Then Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī thought, “The Buddha does not permit females to go forth.” Miserable and sad, weeping, with a tearful face, she bowed, and respectfully circled the Buddha, keeping him on her right, before leaving.

When the Buddha had stayed in Kapilavatthu as long as he wished, he set out for Vesālī. Traveling stage by stage, he arrived at Vesālī, where he stayed at the Great Wood, in the hall with the peaked roof.

Then Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī had her hair shaved, and dressed in ocher robes. Together with several Sakyan ladies she set out for Vesālī.

[A traditional commentary on this sutta says that 500 women joined Gotami, in part because their husbands had already run off to be ordained by the Buddha. The commentary says the royal relatives of these ladies sent carriages for them, figuring they were too delicate to travel by foot, but they refused the carriages, saying “That is disrespectful to the Teacher,” and walked fifty-one leagues (about 150 miles) to reach the Buddha.]

Traveling stage by stage, [Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī] arrived at Vesālī and went to the Great Wood, the hall with the peaked roof. Then [she] stood crying outside the gate, her feet swollen, her limbs covered with dust, miserable and sad, with tearful face.

Venerable Ānanda saw her standing there, and said to her, “Gotamī, why do you stand crying outside the gate, your feet swollen, your limbs covered with dust, miserable and sad, with tearful face?”

“Sir, Ānanda, it’s because the Buddha does not permit females to go forth in the teaching and training proclaimed by the Realized One.”

“Well then, Gotamī, wait here just a moment, while I ask the Buddha to grant the going forth for females.”

Then Venerable Ānanda went up to the Buddha, bowed, sat down to one side, and said to him:

“Sir, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī is standing crying outside the gate, her feet swollen, her limbs covered with dust, miserable and sad, with tearful face. She says that it’s because the Buddha does not permit females to go forth. Sir, please let females gain the going forth from the lay life to homelessness in the teaching and training proclaimed by the Realized One.”

“Enough, Ānanda. Don’t advocate for females to gain the going forth from the lay life to homelessness in the teaching and training proclaimed by the Realized One…”

[Ananda asks two more times but still receives “no” for an answer.]

…Then Venerable Ānanda thought, “The Buddha does not permit females to go forth. Why don’t I try another approach?”

Then Venerable Ānanda said to the Buddha, “Sir, is a female able to realize the fruits of stream-entry, once-return, non-return, and perfection once she has gone forth?”

“She is able, Ānanda.”

“A female is able to realize the fruits of stream-entry, once-return, non-return, and perfection once she has gone forth. Sir, Mahāpajāpatī has been very helpful to the Buddha. She is his aunt who raised him, nurtured him, and gave him her milk. When the Buddha’s birth mother passed away, she nurtured him at her own breast. Sir, please let females gain the going forth from the lay life to homelessness in the teaching and training proclaimed by the Realized One.”

“Ānanda, if Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī accepts these eight principles of respect, that will be her ordination…

[So, the Buddha finally agrees to let women receive ordination. However, he requires the women to follow eight principles of respect which subordinate them to the male monks.]

“…A nun, even if she has been ordained for a hundred years, should bow down to a monk who was ordained that very day. She should rise up for him, greet him with joined palms, and observe proper etiquette toward him. This principle should be honored, respected, esteemed, and venerated, and not transgressed so long as life lasts.

A nun should not commence the rainy season residence in a monastery without monks…

Each fortnight the nuns should expect two things from the community of monks: the date of the sabbath, and visiting for advice…

After completing the rainy season residence the nuns should invite admonition from the communities of both monks and nuns in regard to anything that was seen, heard, or suspected…

A nun who has committed a grave offense should undergo penance in the communities of both monks and nuns for a fortnight…

A trainee nun who has trained in the six rules for two years should seek ordination from the communities of both monks and nuns…

A nun should not abuse or insult a monk in any way…

From this day forth it is forbidden for nuns to criticize monks, but it is not forbidden for monks to criticize nuns. This principle should be honored, respected, esteemed, and venerated, and not transgressed so long as life lasts.

“If Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī accepts these eight principles of respect, that will be her ordination…”

[Ananda goes to Gotami and tells her this. Gotami replies:]

“…Ānanda, suppose there was a woman or man who was young, youthful, and fond of adornments, and had bathed their head. After getting a garland of lotuses, jasmine, or liana flowers, they would take them in both hands and place them on the crown of the head. In the same way, sir, I accept these eight principles of respect as not to be transgressed so long as life lasts.”

Mahapajapati, first Buddhist nun and Buddha’s stepmother ordains. Wat Olak Madu, Kedah, Malaysia.

[The sutta doesn’t end there, however. Ananda reports back to the Buddha that the women have accepted the eight principles of respect and thus ordination as nuns. The Buddha then observes:]

“…Ānanda, if females had not gained the going forth from the lay life to homelessness in the teaching and training proclaimed by the Realized One, the spiritual life would have lasted long. The true teaching would have remained for a thousand years. But since they have gained the going forth, now the spiritual life will not last long. The true teaching will remain only five hundred years.

“It’s like those families with many women and few men. They’re easy prey for bandits and thieves. In the same way, the spiritual life does not last long in a teaching and training where females gain the going forth.

“It’s like a field full of rice. Once the disease called ‘white bones’ attacks, it doesn’t last long…

“It’s like a field full of sugar cane. Once the disease called ‘red rot’ attacks, it doesn’t last long. In the same way, the spiritual life does not last long in a teaching and training where females gain the going forth.

“As a man might build a dike around a large lake as a precaution against the water overflowing, in the same way as a precaution I’ve prescribed the eight principles of respect as not to be transgressed so long as life lasts.”[ii]

 

The Incongruity of the Buddha’s Sexist Discourse

Ouch. The Buddha – according to this canonical story – resisted ordaining women even after the women and his closest disciple begged him to. He says no even after teaching that women were completely capable of awakening, and then witnessing the anguish of the women who wanted to leave the household life and devote themselves to the path of practice he had laid out so carefully. The Pali Canon is full of stories of men expressing willingness to devote themselves to the homeless life and being unceremoniously ordained on the spot, with no inquiry into their circumstances. But faced with women who had walked 150 miles to see him and who were tired, dirty, with sores on their feet, and weeping with longing, he still declined to ordain them.

Unless the women were given ordination, their ability to practice the Dharma would be severely limited. They would be forced back into labor in a household, made to marry or remarry and bear more children, or would wander in dangerous destitution because they would not be legitimate recipients of the alms that supported the male Buddhist monks.

Then, to add insult to injury, when the Buddha finally gave in and gave women ordination, he compared women to a weakness or disease that will eventually – and inevitably – destroy the entire Sangha.

To me, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the Buddha had some misgivings about accepting women into the ordained Sangha at first. It probably complicated the Sangha situation immensely, and he was concerned about the survival of this new religious order. Seeing as people of the Buddha’s time believed women could just pray to reborn as men in the next life, it’s not like he was permanently shutting them out of living the homeless life. I can also get my mind around the eight principles of respect that subordinated all nuns to all monks if I think of it as a way to make sure society tolerated the creation of a women’s order. (Although it’s a tragic waste to the Sangha that men would never be able to benefit from the wisdom of senior nuns.)

What feels unforgiveable is the nasty comments the Buddha makes after the women have been admitted, comparing them to a disease that will consequently shorten the life of the Sangha as a whole. Even if the presence of both sexes in the ordained Sangha made things a lot more complicated, this prediction completely dismisses any positive contributions women might make to it.

The weirdest thing about the “With Gotami” sutta is that, as far as I can tell, it’s the only sexist discourse attributed to the Buddha, and I honestly can’t think of any other significant Buddhist text that targets women in a negative way. Unlike so many other religions, there is nothing in Buddhist teachings about the inferiority of women, or careful prescriptions for their subordination to men. In fact, in numerous places, in both Theravadin and Mahayana Buddhism, the capacity of women to fully awaken is specifically mentioned many times. Sure, throughout the history of Buddhism sexism has been the rule, but that’s because Buddhists are human beings and that’s been the way of the world. There’s nothing in the teachings (that I know if anyway, which is saying something), apart from the story we’re discussing today, which justifies sexism. (Although male monks are frequently warned to avoid women and to cultivate negative thoughts about sexual attraction, this was only to guard their celibacy; female monastics were similarly supposed to avoid contact with men.)

Contrary to what you might expect from the Gotami Sutta, the Pali Canon frequently mentions accomplished and devout women practitioners, lay and ordained. For example, just a few suttas later in the Pali Canon is a text called “To Gotami” which describes the Buddha’s answer to one of her Dharma questions. There is even whole section of the Pali Canon containing 73 poems by the Elder Nuns (called the Therigatha). Here’s a couple of these poems illustrating that these women meant business:

 

I.11 — Mutta {v. 11} 

So freed! So thoroughly freed am I! —

from three crooked things set free:

from mortar, pestle,

& crooked old husband.

Having uprooted the craving

that leads to becoming,

I’m set free from aging & death.[iii]

 

I.17 — Dhamma {v. 17} 

Wandering for alms —

weak, leaning on a staff,

with trembling limbs —

I fell down right there on the ground.

Seeing the drawbacks of the body,

my mind was then

set free.[iv]

 

Various Ways to Make Sense of the Buddha’s Sexist Discourse

As practitioners or students of Buddhism, how should we relate to the Buddha’s only sexist discourse, and the fact that it is part of the official canon of Buddhism? There are many possibilities.

First, we can conclude that the Buddha, assuming such a person ever existed, never said the stuff in the Gotami Sutta. That this sutta was made up by others, probably men looking to undermine the women who had left the home life and taken up monastic practice. There are reasons to suspect this is the case. In a footnote to an article on Ananda on the Access to Insight website by Hellmuth Hecker, Hecker says, regarding the Buddha’s statement about how the admission of women to the Sangha will hasten its decline:

“In the Vinaya (monk’s discipline) the Buddha is represented as saying this, but such a prophecy involving time is found only here. There is no other mention anywhere in the whole of the Vinaya (discipline) and the Suttas (discourses). This makes it suspect as an intrusion. The Commentaries, as well as many other later Buddhist writings; have much to say about the decline of the Buddha’s Dispensation in five-hundred-year periods, but none of this is the word of the Buddha and only represents the view of later teachers.”[v]

If the parts of the sutta about the periods of degeneration of the Dharma were an intrusion, why not the parts about the Buddha resisting the ordination of women, or especially his comparison of women to a disease within the Sangha? Of course, this is just Hecker’s opinion and it’s unlikely that traditional Theravadin practitioners would agree to dismiss a sutta or any parts of it so completely.

As a second way to make sense of it, we can accept the Gotami Sutta as a reasonably legitimate story in the sense that the Buddha may well have said and done these things, but we can justify his actions. Maybe the Buddha always intended to grant ordination to women, but was just skillfully testing the nuns’ resolve, or was waiting for the right time to give his permission. Or, despite the fact that the Buddha’s position may seem sexist to us over 2500 years later, we can’t possibly judge him by modern standards. Indeed, to allow the ordination of women at all was incredibly radical and could have been seen by people of his time as a threat to their culture and family order, or a reckless endangerment of the women monastics who would be living on their own, away from male relatives.

In addition, you might argue that the Buddha’s resistance to ordaining women wasn’t a big deal because there’s nothing about the Buddhist monastic path that was designed to make it easy or possible for any person to do it. Many Buddhist practitioners had to practice in lay life even if they wanted to be ordained, because they didn’t want to abandon children, aging parents, or other responsibilities, or because they were sick or infirm and the homeless life was physically very difficult. The Buddha and the Buddhist path were not judged negatively because ordination wasn’t an equal-opportunity endeavor. Besides, early Buddhists believed in rebirth and figured someone who wanted to become a monk but couldn’t do it this time around could pray for rebirth in circumstances more favorable to ordination. A woman prevented from practicing as a monastic because of her gender could pray to reborn as a man in the next life.

 

Within the week I’ll release Episode 2 of this topic and discuss the challenge of relating to the Buddha’s sexist discourse when dismissing or justifying it just doesn’t cut it for you. There are many reasons we may remain troubled by the presence of the Gotami Sutta in the Pali Canon, including our need to trust that this path of practice leads to the development of truly liberated and beneficent people (that is, not people still to small-mindedness, prejudice, delusion, or cruelty).

 

Read or Listen to Part 2

 


Endnotes

[i] Anguttara Nikaya number 8.51, translated by Bhikkhu Sujato (https://suttacentral.net/an8.51/en/sujato)

[ii] Ibid

[iii] “Chapter 1: The Single Verses” (Thig 1), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 24 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/thig.01.00x.than.html (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/thig.01.00x.than.html#sutta-11)

[iv] “Chapter 1: The Single Verses” (Thig 1), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 24 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/thig.01.00x.than.html  .(https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/thig.01.00x.than.html#sutta-17)

[v] https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/hecker/wheel273.html#fn-30, “Ananda: The Guardian of the Dhamma”, by Hellmuth Hecker. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/hecker/wheel273.html .

 

Photo Credit

Mahapajapati, first Buddhist nun and Buddha’s stepmother ordains. Wat Olak Madu, Kedah, Malaysia. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:059_Mahapajapati_Ordains_(9014201532).jpg
Photo Dharma from Sadao, Thailand, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

220 - Ser El/La Único/a Budista en Tu Familia - Parte 2
222 – Confronting the Buddha’s Sexist Discourse – Part 2
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