Bhikkhuni Sasana: The gravel road to purification

Bhikkhuni Sasana is the right kind of narrative that epitomises gender equality in the Buddha’s spiritual community. This equal ease of access regardless of gender was not achieved in a day. The proposal to establishing an order for the ladies was met with rejection from the Buddha at the outset.

The Buddha’s initial move came to be scoffed at by certain quarters including the feminists. They lose no time to question if the woman cannot attain Nibbana, the ultimate goal in the Buddha’s teachings. That argument sounds well-pedigreed and well-grounded, though, in reality, exhibits the lack of common sense as well as the appalling nescience of the teachings. The Buddha was only reluctant to install the Bhikkhuni Order, but he preached to women such as his mothers and wife: Maya, Pajapathi and Yasodhara.

Persistent plea

Pajapathi mustered the support of 500 wives of princes. They all shaved their heads, wore yellow robes, and met Venerable Ananda Thera. Only following his chief attendant’s persistent plea did the Buddha accept the Bhikkhuni Sasana.

Incidentally that came to pass on a Binara Full Moon Poya Day. Pajapathi became the first nun in the Buddhist order, but on eight conditions.

Maha Pajapathi Gothami – the name goes on to mean that she would have a large retinue - played an instrumental role in the Buddha’s lay life, by bringing him up following Queen Maya’s death. She was Maya’s younger sister. Dandapani and Suppabuddha were her brothers. She had Nanda and Sundari Nanda from King Suddhodana, hence they became the Buddha’s step-siblings.

The Buddha always stressed the fact the woman can always attain Nibbana while still being a laity. Women entering the monk establishment, however, is a different story. It will lead to more complications. If the monk order has the life span of 10,000 years, the Buddha went on to envision, it will be reduced to a mere 5000 years with the ladies welcomed on board. He likened the Bhikkhuni participation as a house full of women being vulnerable for smugglers. It will disturb the peace of the monk's mind and make a path for misuse, mostly.

Right opportunity

Suddhodana’s death left no reason for Pajapathi to remain in lay life since she was already a Sotapanna, the first stage of Buddhist sainthood. She was looking for an opportunity to approach the Buddha on initiating the nun order. The Blessed One was on a visit to Kapilavatthu to settle the row between Sakyans and Kolyans on receiving water from River Rohini. The Buddha preached the Kalahavivada Sutta, and 500 princes became monks leaving their wives alone. Gothami had the support of these wives.

The validity of Gothami’s ordination raised concerns. Certain ladies did not much like the idea of taking robes under her tutelage. The Buddha interfered at this point and declared the validwity of Gothami’s Bhikkhuni status.

Gothami once prepared an elegant looking robe for the Buddha with a distinctive material. The Buddha refused to accept it alone and suggested it should be given to the whole order. Gothami was feeling down, but then she realised it was to her own benefit – to accrue more merits. This offers a lesson to the devotees who shower and flood the Buddha statues with food and various other provisions. Leaving statues in a deluge of food is a layman-made statute, for the Buddha always encouraged offering alms to the Order in general emphasising that it is a more merit-accruing exercise.

No more re-becoming

Andrew Olendzki translates a stanza from Theri Gatha which is uttered by Pajapathi Gotami. The stanza is reproduced along with the translator’s introduction.

The woman who is said to have composed this poem was Pajapati, the Buddha's stepmother and a Queen of the Sakyas. Her younger sister was Maya, married to King Suddhodana only after Pajapati herself was unable to conceive an heir. Queen Maya died in childbirth, and it was Pajapati who raised Gotama as her own son. After his enlightenment, Pajapati also left the palace and became the first of the Bhikkhunis, the order of nuns.

The third stanza suggests that her attainments included the recollection of past lives, by which she was able to verify empirically the truth of continual rebirth —the ‘flowing on’ (samsara) from one life to another. This process, as she mentions in her poem, is fueled by craving and by ‘not understanding’. In the second and fourth stanzas, Pajapati declares her attainment of Nibbana, of final and complete liberation in this very life.

It is remarkable to think that when Maya is remembered in the last stanza, the author has in mind not the icon of motherhood and sacrifice that Maya became in the Buddhist tradition, but a dearly-loved younger sister who died tragically young —without ever seeing what her son had become.

Buddha! Hero! Praise be to you!

You foremost among all beings!

You who have released me from pain,

And so many other beings too.

All suffering has been understood.

The source of craving has withered.

Cessation has been touched by me

On the noble eight-fold path.

I've been mother and son before;

And father, brother — grandmother too.

Not understanding what was real,

I flowed-on without finding [peace].

But now I've seen the Blessed One!

This is my last compounded form.

The on-flowing of birth has expired.

There's no more re-becoming now.

The Buddha proved his gratitude by attending to Gothami when she was ill. He preached to her consolation.

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