Soon after the Buddha’s enlightenment, many people, attracted to this serene, wise, and compassionate man and his teachings, sought to become his disciples. Some became lay followers, maintaining their lives as householders with a family, while others became monastics. The Order of Nuns began with Mahaprajapati, the Buddha’s aunt and stepmother who cared for him as a child. She, together with 500 women from the Shakya clan, shaved their heads and walked barefoot the long distance from Kapilavastu to Vaisali to request ordination.
At first the Buddha declined, but after the intercession of his close disciple Ananda, the Buddha confirmed women’s ability to attain liberation, and began the Order of Nuns. This existed and flourished for many centuries in India, and later spread throughout southern, southeast, central and east Asia. Buddhism entered the snowy lands of Tibet in the 7th century, and before long Tibetan women were becoming nuns.
What is the essence of the Buddhist path, which gives meaning and inspiration to the nuns’ lives as well as to our own? The Buddha’s teaching can be subsumed in the Four Noble Truths:
Our life is filled with unsatisfactory experiences;
These have causes: the ignorance, anger, and clinging attachment within our minds;
There exists a state free from these: nirvana or liberation; and
We can follow a path to eliminate these unsatisfactory circumstances and their causes and to attain the lasting peace of liberation.
In this way the Buddha explained our present situation as well as our potential, and clearly described a step-by-step path for transforming our minds and hearts. This is a practical approach that can be applied in daily life, not just in a temple or church. We first learn the teachings, then reflect on them to ascertain their meaning correctly, and integrate them into our mindstreams through meditation. In this way, we free ourselves from negative emotions and develop our good qualities, thus bringing about our own as well as others’ happiness.
Why would someone ordain as a Buddhist nun? Reasons vary from individual to individual, but in general, these women are committed to follow the Buddha’s path for developing the mind and transforming the heart. They voluntarily take ethical precepts to facilitate this process. These precepts include the avoidance of: taking life, stealing, sexual activity, lying, intoxicants, adorning the body, and seeking distraction through entertainment. Other precepts guide the nuns’ relationship with others in the monastic community and with lay people. The nuns’ primary interest is in transforming their own minds, and through this to contribute to society and to the welfare of others.
Monastics have traditionally played a special role in Buddhist societies. They devote their lives predominantly to the study, practice, and teaching of the Dharma, as well as to maintaining the monasteries, hermitages, temples, and Dharma centres. Throughout history, the responsibility for the practice and preservation of the Buddha’s teachings has lain with the monastics. Thus the monastics serve vital roles that need to be preserved in our modern societies, East and West.
Since the Buddha’s time, nuns have played an important, if largely unnoticed, part in keeping the Dharma alive. The Therigata, or Songs of the Elder Nuns, was spoken by nuns who studied and practised directly under the guidance of Shakyamuni Buddha. In it, they reveal their spiritual longing and achievements. Throughout the centuries and in all Buddhist societies, there have been nuns who studied, practised, and in some cases taught the Dharma.
Due to the structure of society, and to the nuns’ reticence to draw attention to themselves, many of their contributions have gone unnoticed. But in recent years, we see active and vibrant Buddhist nuns in the East and West. Some are scholars, some are meditators. Some work on translations of scriptures, others do social service work in hospital, prisons, and schools in war zones or in poor areas. The nuns’ contribution is a wonderful work in progress.