“Oh, so Rinpoche you are still a novice?”
– Tenzin Palmo
It’s circa 5th century BC. North Indian plains. The prince-turned-charismatic-leader of a significant social and philosophical movement is laying on his deathbed. Buddhism has by this point claimed hundreds of healthy and employable men and women, who have deserted their royal and civic lives for an existence of community-facilitated introspection. Now, moments before attaining parinirvana or ultimate enlightenment, the Buddha has a sudden change of heart about certain ‘minor’ rules guiding his community, the sangha. But his attendant monk, the distracted and overwhelmed Ananda, can’t make sense of his gasping and mumbling. And so the master passes away without having his final will known, and without – at least – something akin to a self-help manual to his name. These two would’ve been breakaway bestsellers even today: 30 Steps to Successfully Run the Sangha in the CE and 300 Things Every Aspiring Nun Should Know (the latter, perhaps, proverbially subtitled ‘It’s Better to Know and Be Disappointed, Than Not to Know and Always Wonder’, in case the Buddha wasn’t the feminist we’d like to think he was.)
The same Ananda, Buddhist records tell us, was instrumental in getting women admitted into the sangha in the first place. When his stepmother Mahaprajapati, together with other women from the same Shakya clan begged the Buddha to let them join the sangha, he waved them off like flies. But then Ananda interceded, tricking the Buddha with some savvy reasoning into complying: “Don’t you think women are capable of achieving nirvana?”
This is the most circulated story of the first women’s ordination in Buddhism. But contemporary feminist hermeneutics offers some interesting interpretations of this historic moment, too. Reiko Ohnuma, an associate professor at Dartmouth college, suggests that the nuns’ order was not founded due to the Buddha’s good will or his belief in women’s spiritual capacities, but because the Buddha simply owed it to his stepmother. In fact, she reminds us that Ananda added this weighty, regularly discounted argument: It’s your stepmother you’re talking to, he said to the Buddha.
To shore up against this unexpected calamity, the Buddha, rumour has it, came up with Eight Garudhammas or special ‘heavy rules’ for the nuns, bhikkhunis. Summed up, these Eight Heavies proclaim that a bhikkhuni who has been ordained even for more than a century must bow to a monk, bhikkhu, even if he has been fully ordained on that very day; a bhikkhuni must not spend the rains in a residence where there are no bhikkhus; bhikkhunis are always accountable to both sanghas, male and female, but they must never admonish a bhikkhu (while the reverse is allowed).
Alas, his sangha that was meant to endure a millennium, the Buddha lamented, will now last only half as long.
Two millennia and a half later, the sangha is still alive and kicking. But instead of one, we now have many ‘Buddhisms’. In several of these variants, including the Tibetan Vajrayana so popular in the West, the bhikkhuni order is neither self-sustainable nor vital, as full ordination of nuns is not practiced. Somewhere down the timeline, it has ceased to be a viable option, if ever it was. (China, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam do practice the full female ordination.) For this, most nuns haven’t been receiving an exhaustive Buddhist education, and so haven’t been able to publicly teach or perform social rituals such as blessings, weddings and funerals, explains Rita M Gross in her seminal book Buddhism After Patriarchy. Nuns haven’t, therefore, been particularly interesting to donors or the larger public, except as easily available workforce, on the premise that they have nothing better to do. Nunneries have traditionally been raggedly sights (there’s been improvement on that front recently and several noteworthy incentives), while monasteries dazzle with their gilded roofs and exquisite artwork, and stupefy with their cryptic lore, passed down from one generation of privileged males to the next.
In recent times, the pressure for restoring the full bhikkhuni ordination in Tibetan Buddhism (and those Theravadan traditions where it’s still absent) has been voiced more articulately. The Committee for Bhikshuni Ordination (CBO) was established in 2005, various other foundations have been set up, panels organised, congresses held, papers published and presented, favourable arguments laid out. But every time the efforts reach an impasse: a two-and-a-half-millennia-old Buddhist red tape. Or so it seems. “I think here we have to ‘complain’ a little bit to the Buddha himself,” the 14th Dalai Lama said to journalist and author Michaela Doepke several years ago. “While he was alive, he was the final authority; it was in his own hands. When he passed away, he didn’t give final authority to a single person, but to a group of monks. That is the problem now.”
Dalai Lama has been reiterating similar arguments in his latest speeches and interviews, always adding, however, that he personally supports the ordination of nuns, and is ready to seriously discuss the issue with his friends in high places. Some nuns, he often repeats, are already becoming Buddhist scholars, since education programs on a more equal footing with the male monks have been opened up to them. (Unfortunately, these studies only go up to a certain level, as partial ordination precludes further education. But the statement, nevertheless, elicits hearty applauses from audiences worldwide.) And while Dalai Lama’s characteristic open-mindedness and public backing does, in a way, lay a solid groundwork for further initiatives, the fact that an indeterminate body of high lamas would have to reach a consensus on the issue before any reforms are implemented leaves everything hanging in the air.
There is a certain nonchalance to the way in which Vajrayana and other Buddhist authorities respond to this pressing question (the adverb ‘eventually’ is somewhat overused in discussions and negotiations). Rather than being an urgent issue that demands immediate attention, this appears to be an intriguing debate to them, taking its own sweet time to unravel. Meanwhile, generations of Asian nuns from underprivileged backgrounds are consigned to only a basic education, and are not allowed access to the orbit of Buddhist influence and exchange. There are women who are better off, from the East or West, who arrive at Buddhism already educated or half-way there: they can easily pursue a PhD or further research in Buddhist and Asian studies at any university. It’s a great combination with Buddhist practices, and they might hardly want anything else. They can also travel to various destinations for ordination within a different tradition. For them, the rigid patriarchal hierarchies of Buddhist institutions may be an unfortunate anachronism, but luckily, nothing fatal.
Historically, ordination of women hasn’t been practiced in Tibetan Buddhism because nuns, it is said, didn’t cross the Himalaya in the 8th century when Nalanda’s abbot Shantarakshita did and spread Buddhism to Tibet. That’s why there is no trace of a female lineage within which women could ordain women. But as Dalai Lama reminds in his interviews, the bhikkhu order was revived after Buddhist monks in Tibet had faced royal persecution in the 9th century, which had them heading for the hills, or the plains. Monks do strike as better organised.
Still, one cannot accuse the authorities of not trying their best. A carefully selected group of monks and nuns have been assigned the daunting task, philologically and otherwise, of examining canonical Buddhist texts, especially the Tibetan Vinaya, for a usable precedent of female ordination within the Mulasarvastivada tradition (an early Indian school of Buddhism). Once such precedent has been found, the full ordination of nuns can be revived. However, in an article from 2013, German Buddhist nun Jampa Tsedroen expressed concern that conservative circles of monks might state their dissatisfaction if any such precedent was actually unearthed. By way of consolation, bhikkhuni Tenzin Palmo’s paper (read at the first International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha at the University of Hamburg in 2007) claims that, according to the Eight Heavies and Vinaya, monks get to keep their higher position even if full ordination of nuns were to be allowed.
So what would happen if a thoughtful monk (in another tradition) chose to skip similar delay tactics and simply started ordaining women? In 2009, at Dhammasara Monastery in Perth, Australia, British bhikkhu Ajahn Brahm headed the ordination of four bhikkhunis after having established a pre-existing Theravadan lineage. One part of the Buddhist community hailed it as a praiseworthy gesture that proved Buddhism could be relevant and responsive to contemporary contexts, but the monastery’s Thai authorities fiercely revoked the ordination and excommunicated bhikkhu Ajahn Brahm. Some harsh criticism came also from the American monk Ajahn Thanissaro, a strong presence in the Thai Theravada Buddhism, who denounced the ordinations as going against the Thai Vinaya.
But isn’t this eavesdropping on that bygone Buddha’s whisper into Ananda’s inattentive ear and poring over various Vinayas for guidelines like waiting for linguists to fully decipher the Indus script before we can carry on with the 21st century? The historical Buddha – adamantly anti-ritual and heretical as he was – has little to do with the spectacular, ritualised and hierarchical religious blend that is Tibetan Buddhism, though he might have contributed to the brilliant psychological tools it has to offer. In Therigatha, for example, bhikkhuni Punnika uses humour and irony to convince a Brahmin of the pointlessness of his water ablutions, and the efficacy, instead, of pure insight.
Besides being time-consuming and unnecessary, using any of the Vinayas to validate what would be a perfectly valid decision anyway (the full ordination of women) is problematic from at least two standpoints. First, turning to Vinaya for historical evidence of women’s equality within the sangha, or the lack of it, masks the fact that the ongoing discrimination is a human-rights issue that should be tackled in the present. Second, one cannot hope to find in a Vinaya that which has been, most likely, deliberately omitted. This latter point introduces the pivotal question of the original Vinaya’s authorship, the document’s legitimacy and applicability in the contemporary context. So how did it come to be in the first place?
The Rashomon effect
Evam me suttam (thus have I heard) is a refrain-like opening phrase for individual texts or teachings in the Buddhist Pali canon. It tells us, more than anything else, how the Buddha’s words were recorded and transmitted.
The legendary First Buddhist Council took place in a cave close to Rajgir, during the rainy season. Soon after the Buddha’s parinirvana, a group of bhikkhus – presided by the imperious monk Mahakashyapa – gathered to recollect the Buddha’s teachings and instructions, and eventually arrive at his definitive oeuvre, the Buddha’s collected works. They were mostly relying on Ananda’s and bhikkhu Upali’s memory. But it should be taken into account that Ananda had been severely criticised and sanctioned for advocating women’s ordination and being trouble in general, and forced to mend his ways before he was rehabilitated. In legal lingo, the witness might have been extorted into telling the truth as Mahakashyapa and his adherent monks would have it. No burning bushes or divine words chiseling themselves into stone in strokes of lightning. Just a group of men in a cave on a rainy day weaving together the various strands of the Buddha’s fugitive sentences and, in the best of scenarios, slightly adjusting them as they went.
By the end of that meeting, the monks had the Buddhist canon engraved on their minds, and only centuries later scratched onto palm leaves and stored in woven baskets, pitakas (to await countless future transcripts and interpolations). One set of those fragile manuscripts formed the notorious prototypal Vinaya Pitaka – The Basket of Discipline.
But what had happened to the bhikkunis? Where were they at this deciding moment? No one really knows – the records keep mum about the nuns. The aged Mahaprajapati and her retinue had all allegedly chosen to die sometime before the Buddha. The event was celebrated as their collective parinirvana (or, as Reiko Ohnuma suggests, good riddance). The surviving nuns either didn’t receive the invitation to this cave rendezvous, or their presence was not recorded, their contribution uncalled for. You may consider the whole process undemocratic, but that, it seems, was the approach du jour.
Is it then wise or justifiable to take into account such a set of regulations as promulgated by the original Vinaya and its derivatives, and use them to steer the sangha in this day and age? Hardly.
What is more, some scholars, like In Young Chung, see the Eight Heavies as an appendix of a later date: facts don’t add up, and there are certain discrepancies with other sources. Could it be that the Buddha was a feminist after all? If we were to believe the Buddha discriminated against women even after achieving enlightenment, either we have to change the meaning and definition of enlightenment – as Richard H Jones puts it, “a sage need not be a saint” – or conclude that he might have reached full self-realisation and Bodhisattvic compassion only in his parinirvana, in that final act of mumbling, the unrecorded change of heart. The former is one of the most critical questions Gross poses.
A glance at some of the Buddhist canonical texts, especially the Therigatha (The Poems of Early Buddhist Nuns, shaped at the time when Patna was “the fairest city on earth”) might offer an insight into the nuns’ lives pre-Eight Heavies (if there ever was such a time), and could partially explain the present deadlock.
Therigatha’s commentary praises some of the nuns as excellent preachers to mixed audiences, while the verses give detailed accounts of the stages of enlightenment they went through to get there. These are ascribed to an anonymous sister (from Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids’s translation, Psalms of the Sisters, originally published in 1909):
And now I know the days of the long past,
And clearly shines the Eye Celestial,
I know the thoughts of other minds, and hear
With sublimated sense the sound of things
Ineffable. The mystic potencies
I exercise; and all the deadly Drugs
That poisoned every thought are purged away.
A living truth for me this Sixfold Lore…
These phases are, however, technically predictable and same for both men and women throughout the Buddhist canonical literature, notes Ellison Banks Findly. Just like their male counterparts, the early nuns presented in this anthology did attain full self-realisation or arahantship, if judged by these vivid descriptions. But, Findly points out, the term itself, arahant – when it stands for an individual who has attained enlightenment, full realization – is in the early Pali canon applied only to men, although the canon does acknowledge women’s capabilities of theoretically becoming one. In the parallel monks’ collection Theragatha, for example, the title is explicitly attributed to some monks. In connection to the sisters of Therigatha, on the other hand, it is used only in the later-date commentaries. So what’s the matter here?
The term arahant, Findly continues, is not simply a spiritual honorific – it’s a donors-oriented strategy. The Rig Vedic verb root arh relates to giving of gifts, dispensing of material goods, and arahant can mean ‘entitled, worthy of gifts,’ she adds, quoting various sources. The useful title arahant, which men so open-handedly bestowed upon each other, served as something of a reference letter, a voucher or chit to the lay public that their generosity is being put to the best of uses, and that merit will follow.
Even though majority of donors were women, they preferred giving to men, explains Findly. Nuns were not seen as worthy or pure. One of the reasons was the inevitable menstruation, the pollution so feared by the largely Hindu society of the day. (From Hindu texts to Rupi Kaur’s recent Instagram case, I think we’ve established an unbroken lineage here.) So while monks made sure their inflow of goodies is regular and abundant, their monthly flow kept nuns from getting any.
Activism and mindfulness
While some feel that activism is to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness what the massive oil spillage in 2011 was to the colony of endangered, frolicking penguins of the Nightingale Island in the South Atlantic others feel they should go hand in hand. Gross, for instance, talks about ‘detached activism,’ ie mindful activism, as the ‘middle way’ between passive acceptance of oppressive conditions (by ascribing them to karma) and futile, theatrical raging. In that sense, there must be an option for women in Buddhism that cuts straight between the old-fashioned breaking of plates and endless, polite dialoguing in controlled environments, with little results. Otherwise, women are in a bind. Even if they are widely respected and popular Buddhist teachers and sometimes fully integrated into the Tibetan Buddhist sangha by getting ordained elsewhere (a good example is Pema Chödrön, ordained in Hong Kong), they are still part of a well-defined hierarchy, subordinate to their male teachers and monks. While some of the monks are genuinely in favour of women’s ordination, but cannot act independently, others are just flaunting quasi-feminist platitudes in lieu of workable solutions. So how do women navigate these intricate relationships? Is remaining silent on the women’s issue in the sangha better than inadvertently offending a few beloved brothers? And could decisive speaking out somehow endanger their hard-won image of composure on which their students and the public are counting? The latter is the patriarchy’s best trick, as many Buddhist feminist scholars and practitioners will tell you – the ancient shaming: women are made to feel that their concerns about their position in the Buddhist hierarchy are just a reflection of their ever rampant egos, of how far they still have to go to attain enlightenment. Instead of being preoccupied with full ordination, they should desire full detachment. It’s not that they are the only ones being historically excluded from it. So what’s the fuss? Murderers, hermaphrodites, dwarfs, those missing a limb, the blind, the deaf, lepers and their ilk couldn’t get ordinated either (as Janet Gyatso relates the Pali Vinaya). Gyatso takes it a bit further when she says she’s “tempted to speculate” that hermaphrodites were, most likely, chosen as the Other to the Female Other, and that’s what redeemed and got women in, at least partially, at least temporarily.
But whatever the situation, it could be argued that women’s joining in the debate around the issue is lending validity to the male sangha’s excuses. Trying to make a case for full female ordination (full inclusion, education) by examining and stretching patriarchal Buddhist records beyond what they could possibly offer, might actually be counter-productive and misleading. Nuns have enough on their hands as it is. To be made to waste their precious time on apologetic papers to prove they have the right to be ordained at superfluous conferences with little bearing on the Path is something they cannot really afford if we were to take to heart the basic Buddhist axiom that the world is ablaze, and time is running short.
Is it then time to kill the Buddha, as the old Zen precept goes, and shift the responsibility for the sangha into the present moment? The only reason why nuns need full ordination is to be given a fulcrum. It doesn’t mean conferring superpowers on them or appointing them to preside over Brahma’s Heaven. That’s something one works for. Another alternative for women is to walk out of the sangha altogether, if it fails to evolve and retain meaning. But where would that leave Buddhism?
Female Buddhist voices
There have, however, been some positive shifts recently, and hopefully, many more are to come. In her book Dakini Power, a German reporter, lecturer and practicing Buddhist Michaela Haas presents 12 engaging life stories that reflect a powerful feminine presence in Tibetan Buddhism today. These women are all internationally acclaimed Buddhist teachers, some ordained, some not, either Western or Asian; they lecture at universities, build nunneries and retreat centers from Himalaya to Colorado, go into years-long solitary retreats, marry lamas, mother children, translate recondite Buddhist texts, tweet and do rock climbing. Instead of dropping their mortars and kettles to pursue enlightenment (like some of the nuns of Therigatha did), they’ve left their journalist desks or surfboards, and have followed portentous dreams or gone through dramatic, life-altering events. While some of them choose to openly engage with the feminist question in the sangha, others are more focused on the teaching, writes Haas.
One of them is Lama Tsultrim Allione, who, like many other Americans in the 1960s, traveled to the East, driven by her interest in Eastern philosophy and culture. She became a Buddhist nun, studied extensively with various teachers in the East and West, drove with the poet Allen Ginsberg in a Volkswagen Bug around the US, was disrobed for marriage and children, and was later recognised as an emanation of Machig Labdrön, an 11th century Tibetan tantric Buddhist yogini, in her monastery in Tibet. Tsultrim’s retreat center in Colorado, Tara Mandala, is dedicated to the sacred feminine, and is a manifestation of her long-time immersion in the study of the feminine principle in Tibetan Buddhism. In an interview conducted in 2008 by Heather Kessinger and Fran Anderson, she emphasises the need for the “reemergence of the nurturing wisdom of the feminine,” revealing that Buddhist authorities often downplayed this interest by wanting her to believe that she has not overcome the duality of gender.
When I asked her in an email interview whether there is enough space for the feminine in the current arrangement of Tibetan Buddhist institutions and hierarchies, and if women can thrive within that tradition, Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel, an author and Tibetan Buddhist teacher from the US, says that presently it seems that there is a lot of attention on nunneries and the education of nuns. “I was just at a fundraiser this summer where Tsoknyi Rinpoche was raising money for his nunnery in Nepal. He also has a continuous commitment to support around 2,000 nuns in the Nagchen region of East Tibet associated with his lineage. I met my own teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, at Nagi Gompa – Tulku Orgyen Rinpoche’s nunnery – in Nepal in 1986. The nuns there helped run the nunnery and he treated them all with tenderness and respect, imparting upon them the highest Dzogchen teachings. I recently heard that the 17th Karmapa is looking to re-establish the complete ordination for nuns in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition.”
Namgyel also believes that women don’t need institutions to thrive in this tradition. On the contrary, it can often prove beneficial to stay clear of them. “There are many amazing Tibetan women who practice the dharma,” she says. “In fact, because they haven’t had to get involved with the politics of institutions, they have had more time to do retreat. In the West it is a different story altogether. I went up to our retreat center last week and couldn’t help noticing that there are 90 percent women in retreat. It’s almost always like that there. At any given dharma event – even when the teacher is a Tibetan male – I find more women than men. I actually think, at least in the West, it is now a boon to be a woman in the context of the Buddhadharma.”
In an email interview with me, author Michaela Haas points out that the real spiritual path leads beyond any divisions of culture, gender or geography. “But in the meantime, both Asians and Westerners have their own sets of prejudices and deeply ingrained beliefs about hierarchy and fairness. The historical Buddha was a social activist, so there is no inherent contradiction between being Buddhist, compassionate, mindful and engaged. Some people think feminism has no place in Buddhism, because they associate it with something aggressive, but Karma Lekshe Tsomo defines feminism as believing that women are fully human, and that the continued discrimination is a human-rights issue. If gender plays no role, then why are nuns still ranked among the group with the worst health and education? Don’t Buddhists have a responsibility to include everyone equally? It runs deeply contrary to the essence of the Buddhist teachings to exclude women from equal access to teachings and resources. But we see it changing already. His Holiness the Karmapa has just announced that he will offer full ordination, and I’m sure other masters will follow suit. Offering full ordination in the Tibetan and Theravadan tradition is long overdue. As Karma Lekshe Tsomo, the cofounder of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, said, ‘In the end, this is like a great wave that cannot be stopped. The monks may as well ride it. Otherwise, they will go down on the wrong side of history.’”
~ Lora Tomas is a writer and indologist.