Friday, May 25, 2012

Bodhisattvas of Compassion

The term Bodhisattva refers to someone on the path to Awakening. The Mahayana has conceived them as having renounced the ultimate state out of pure compassion towards all beings, and can therefore refers to anyone en route. In non-Mahayana Buddhism, it usually refers either to Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, or to the historical Buddha Gautama prior to his enlightenment - either during the life in which he became enlightened or in one of the innumerable lives before that in which he was developing the requisite virtues for enlightenment, such as generosity. The stories of these lives are called the Jatakas, or 'birth stories', and they are a very frequent subject of Buddhist art.


Among the Bodhisattvas, it is Avalokitesvara who has the largest number of forms and is perhaps the most venerated and most popular Buddhist deity. His sex, originally masculine, is sometimes considered feminine in China and Japan, although this discrimination is unsupported by any canonical text. And was often considered in China and Japan as the 'mother of the human race' and, in this respect, worshipped in the form of a woman.

Avalokitesvara is known from very early in the development of the Mahayana doctrines and, until Buddhism disappeared from India, enjoyed great favour there. His cult passed from India to South-East Asia and Java, where it met with great success, and also in Nepal, Tibet (where he arrived with Buddhism and where King Srong-btsan Sgam-po, 519-650, was considered to be his incarnation), and in China, from where he went on to Korea and Japan. All these countries imagined him in different forms according to their own temperaments and spirituality.

The Taras

It was not until the adoption of the Yogachara system, taught by Asanga in the fourth century AD, that the feminine principle began to be venerated in Mahayana Buddhism. Around the sixth century, the goddess Tara was considered as a Sakti of Avalokitesvara (sometimes as his wife). The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (seventh century) claimed to have seen many statues of this deity in northern India. However, she was not accepted by followers of the Theravada, and her image is rarely to be found in Sri Lanka or in South-East Asia (except perhaps in Java, where a temple was dedicated to her in 779).

Many legends have sprung up around this goddess. According to one of them she was born in a beam of blue light emanating from one of the eyes of Avalokitesvara; another has her born from a lotus, floating in a tear on his face. It was believed in Tibet in the seventh century that Tara was reincarnated in every virtuous and pious woman: thus two of the wives of King Srong-btsan Sgam-po, Wencheng, who was Chinese, and a Nepalese daughter of Amsuvarman, came to be considered as incarnations of Tara. To differentiate between the two wives, the Tibetans created two distinctive Taras, white for the Chinese, with a full-blown lotus as her emblem, and green for the Nepalese, whose emblem is the blue (half-open) lotus. Each is believed to have been born from an eye of Avalokitesvara (open and half-closed). Hence they came to be considered as symbols of the day (full-blown lotus, eye open) and the night (half-open lotus, eye half-closed). But this couple soon multiplied, and 21 Taras are mentioned.

In China, this goddess was practically unknown, and was not at all common. In Japan, she was given the rank of Bodhisattva (Tarani Bosatsu), and she combines both aspects (white and green) of the Tibetan Tara. She is practically only found on mandalas or temple banners. She holds a pomegranate (symbol of prosperity) and a lotus. She is pale green.


Manjusri is a disciple and, with Samantabhadra, an acolyte of Sakyamuni Buddha in the groups of images called Shaka Sanzon in Japan, 'the three venerables of Sakyamuni'. 'He whose beauty is charming', the Bodhisattva 'of marvellous virtue and gentle majesty',' represents wisdom, intelligence and willpower.' His adoration confines divine wisdom, mastery of the Dharma, an infallible memory, mental perfection, eloquence. This Bodhisattva, known in India by the doctrines of the Theravada which identified him with the king of Gandharva Pancasikha, was originally known from many texts of the Mahayana. Although some texts such as the Lotus Sutra assign him a universe in the east called Vimala (Japanese Yuima).

Manjusri was the initiator and master of the Buddhas of past ages and will be that of the future Buddha, Maitreya. Manjusri is the father and the mother of the Bodhisattvas, and he is their spiritual friend. The Buddha himself describes Manjusri and praises him in the Manjusri-parinirvina-sutra. This Bodhisattva was consequently very often represented, in India and Tibet, in China and Japan, as well as Nepal, which tradition claims he founded on coming from China. His images appear only late in Central Asia and on a few Chinese stele, associated with Vimalakirti (Japanese Yuima Koji) in the sixth century.

His cult and images were introduced into Japan by Chinese monks who, during a voyage to Wutaishan, learned that Manjusri was reincarnated in the person of the Japanese monk Gyoki and went to Nara in 736. One of these monks, Bodhisena (Japanese Bodaisenna), succeeded Gyoki as director of the Buddhist community of the Todai-ji (Nara) in 751 or 752. In turn, another monk named Ennin travelled to China to Mount Wutai in the year 840, during a journey that lasted nine years from 838 to 847, and brought back scriptures and images of this Bodhisattva.


The name of this Bodhisattva means 'He who encompasses the earth'. According to the monk Eshin (Genshin, 942-1017), he is also the master of the six worlds of desire and of the six destinies of rebirth. When considered in particular as a Bodhisattva who consoles the beings in hell, he is identical to Yamaraja (Japanese Enma-o), the king of the Buddhist hells (Naraka, Japanese Jigoku). In India, Ksitigarbha, although known very early to the Mahayana sects (since the fourth century), does not appear to have enjoyed popular favour, and none of his representations can be found, either there or in South-East Asia. In China, on the contrary, he was fairly popular since the fifth century, after the translation of the Sutra of the Ten Cakras which lists his qualities.

Ksitigarbha, moved by compassion, is said - like all Bodhisattvas - to have made the wish to renounce the status of Buddha until the advent of Maitreya, in order to help the beings of the destinies of rebirth. In hell, his mission is to lighten the burdens caused by previous evil actions, to secure from the judges of hell an alleviation of the fate of the condemned, and to console them. Thus, in the popular mind, Ksitigarbha has become the Bodhisattva of hells par excellence.

His cult remains immensely popular in Japan, where it spread from the ninth century in the Tendai and Shingon sects. A popular custom made him the confessor to whom faults committed during the year were revealed, in the so-called 'confession of Jizo ceremony'

Monday, May 21, 2012

Meditation in Kadampa Buddhism

About Meditation

The purpose of meditation is to cultivate those states of mind that are conducive to peace and well-being, and to eradicate those that are not.

If we examine our life we will discover that most of our time and energy is devoted to mundane activities, such as seeking material and emotional security, enjoying sensory pleasures, or establishing a good reputation.

Although these things can make us happy for a short time, they are not able to provide the deep lasting contentment that we long for. Sooner or later our happiness turns into dissatisfaction, and we find ourselves engaged in the pursuit of more worldly pleasures.

Directly or indirectly, worldly pleasures cause us mental and physical suffering by stimulating attachment, jealousy, and frustration. Moreover, seeking to fulfill our own desires often bring us into conflict with others.

If true fulfillment cannot be found in worldly pleasures, then where can it be found? Happiness is a state of mind, therefore the real source of happiness lies in the mind, not in external circumstances.

If our mind is pure and peaceful we will be happy, regardless of our external conditions, but if it is impure and unpeaceful, we will never find happiness, no matter how much we try to change our external conditions.

The method to make our mind pure and peaceful is to train in meditation.

What is Meditation?

Meditation is a method for acquainting our mind with virtue.

The more familiar our mind is with virtue, the calmer and more peaceful it becomes. When our mind is peaceful we are free from worries and mental discomfort, and we experience true happiness.

If we train our mind to become peaceful we will be happy all the time, even in the most adverse conditions. But if our mind is not peaceful, even if we have the most pleasant external conditions we will not be happy. Therefore it is important to train our mind through meditation.

There are two types of meditation: analytical meditation and placement meditation. When we contemplate the meaning of a Dharma instruction that we have heard or read we are doing analytical meditation. By deeply contemplating the instruction, eventually we reach a conclusion or cause a specific virtuous state of mind to arise. This is the object of placement meditation.

Having found our object through analytical meditation, we then concentrate on it single-pointedly for as long as possible to become deeply acquainted with it. This single-pointed concentration is placement meditation. Often, analytical meditation is called simply ‘contemplation’, and placement meditation simply ‘meditation’.

Placement meditation depends upon contemplation, and contemplation depends upon listening to or reading Dharma instructions.

Breathing Meditation

The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid.

This can be accomplished by practicing a simple breathing meditation.

We choose a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position. We can sit in the traditional cross-legged posture or in any other position that is comfortable. If we wish, we can sit in a chair. The most important thing is to keep our back straight to prevent our mind from becoming sluggish or sleepy.

We sit with our eyes partially closed and turn our attention to our breathing. We breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control our breath, and we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.

At first, our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but we should resist this and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath.

If we discover that our mind has wandered and is following our thoughts, we should immediately return it to the breath. We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.

The Benefits of Meditation

If we practice patiently in the way explained in the last section, gradually our distracting thoughts will subside and we will experience a sense of inner peace and relaxation.

Our mind will feel lucid and spacious and we will feel refreshed. When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear.

In a similar way, when the otherwise incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through concentrating on the breath, our mind becomes unusually lucid and clear. We should stay with this state of mental calm for a while.

Even though breathing meditation is only a preliminary stage of meditation, it can be quite powerful. We can see from this practice that it is possible to experience inner peace and contentment just by controlling the mind, without having to depend at all upon external conditions.

When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides and our mind becomes still, a deep happiness and contentment naturally arises from within. This feeling of contentment and well-being helps us to cope with the busyness and difficulties of daily life.

So much of the stress and tension we normally experience comes from our mind, and many of the problems we experience, including ill health, are caused or aggravated by this stress. Just by doing breathing meditation for ten or fifteen minutes each day, we will be able to reduce this stress.

We will experience a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will fall away. Difficult situations will become easier to deal with, we will naturally feel warm and well disposed towards other people, and our relationships with others will gradually improve.

We should train in this preliminary meditation until we gain some experience of it. However, if we want to attain permanent, unchanging inner peace, and if we want to become completely free from problems and suffering, we need to advance beyond simple breathing meditation to more practical forms of meditation, such as the cycle of twenty-one Lamrim meditations explained in The New Meditation Handbook by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.

When we do these meditations, we begin by calming the mind with breathing meditation, and then we proceed to the stages of analytical and placement meditation according to the specific instructions for each meditation.

The Objects of Meditation

In general, any virtuous object can be used as an object of meditation.

If we discover that by acquainting our mind with a particular object our mind becomes more peaceful and virtuous, this indicates that for us that object is virtuous. If the opposite happens, for us it is a non-virtuous object. Many objects are neutral and have no particular positive or negative effect on our mind.

There are many different virtuous objects of meditation, but the most meaningful the objects of the twenty-one meditations, from meditation on relying upon a Spiritual Guide to meditation on emptiness, the ultimate nature of phenomena. Explanations of these can be found in the The New Meditation Handbook.

By relying upon a qualified Spiritual Guide we open the door to practicing Dharma. Through the blessings of our Spiritual Guide we generate faith and confidence in our practice, and easily attain all the realizations of the stages of the path. For these reasons we need to meditate on relying upon a Spiritual Guide.

We need to meditate on our precious human life to realize that we now have a special opportunity to practice Dharma. If we appreciate the great potential of this life we shall not waste it by engaging in meaningless activities.

We need to meditate on death and impermanence to overcome procrastination, and to ensure that our Dharma practice is pure by overcoming our preoccupation with worldly concerns. If we practice Dharma purely it is not very difficult to attain realizations.

By meditating on the danger of lower rebirth, taking refuge sincerely, and avoiding non-virtue and practicing virtue, we protect ourself from taking lower rebirth and ensure that life after life we shall obtain a precious human rebirth endowed with all the conditions conducive to the practice of Dharma.

We need to meditate on the sufferings of humans and gods so that we develop a spontaneous wish to attain permanent liberation, or nirvana. This wish, known as ‘renunciation’, strongly encourages us to complete the practice of the spiritual paths, which are the actual methods for attaining full liberation.

We need to meditate on love, compassion, and bodhichitta so that we can overcome our self-cherishing and develop and maintain a good heart towards all living beings.

With this good heart we need to meditate on tranquil abiding and superior seeing so that we can eradicate our ignorance and finally become a Buddha by abandoning the two types of obstruction

Friday, May 18, 2012

Kadampa Buddhism

Kadampa Buddhism is a Mahayana Buddhist school founded by the great Indian Buddhist Master Atisha (AD 982-1054).

In the word, ‘Kadampa’, ‘Ka’ refers to Buddha’s teachings, and ‘dam’ to Atisha’s special Lamrim instructions. Kadampas, then, are practitioners who regard Buddha’s teachings as personal instructions and put them into practice by following the instructions of Lamrim.

By integrating their understanding of all Buddha’s teachings into their practice of Lamrim, and by integrating their experience of Lamrim into their everyday lives, Kadampas use Buddha’s teachings as practical methods for transforming daily activities into the path to enlightenment.

The great Kadampa Teachers

After Atisha, the Kadampa lineage was passed down through a succession of great Kadampa Teachers including Dromtönpa, Geshe Potowa, Geshe Sharawa, and Geshe Chekhawa.

These precious Teachers were not only great scholars but also spiritual practitioners of immense purity and sincerity.

They placed particular emphasis on the practice of Training the Mind (Lojong) by which all our daily life experiences, and especially all our problems, suffering, and difficulties, can be transformed into the spiritual path.

The New Kadampas

The Kadampa lineage passed from generation to generation until the fourteenth century when it reached the great Buddhist Master Je Tsongkhapa.

Je Tsongkhapa clarified all the teachings of Kadam Dharma and made them very accessible to the people of that time.

In particular, he showed how to combine Lamrim, and Lojong with Mahamudra Tantra in a unified daily practice.

Just as the union of study and practice was a hallmark of the early Kadampas, so the union of Sutra and Tantra was to become a hallmark of the New Kadampas, as the followers of Je Tsongkhapa became known.

Modern Kadampa Buddhism

After Je Tsongkhapa, the New Kadampa lineage flourished for hundreds of years, down to the present day.

In recent years, it has been promoted widely throughout the world by the contemporary Buddhist Master, Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.

By founding the New Kadampa Tradition, the International Kadampa Buddhist Union, Geshe Kelsang has created a truly global infrastructure to preserve and promote Kadampa Buddhism for many generations to come.


The great Indian Buddhist Master Atisha (982-1054 AD) was responsible for reintroducing pure Buddhism into Tibet.

Although Buddhism had been introduced into Tibet some two hundred years earlier by Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita, Buddhist practice in the country had largely been destroyed during the anti-Buddhist purges of the Tibetan king, Lang Darma (circa 836 AD), a follower of Bön, the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet.

Invited by Jangchub Ö, a ruler of Ngari in western Tibet, Atisha was asked to present a Dharma that everybody could follow and that would show how all the paths of Sutra and Tantra could be practiced together.

Read Advice from Atisha’s Heart

In response, Atisha wrote Lamp for the Path, the original Lamrim text that served as the basis for all subsequent Lamrim instructions. The revival of pure Buddhist practice in Tibet at this time was largely due to Atisha.

Je Tsongkhapa

Je Tsongkhapa, whose ordained name was Losang Dragpa, was a great 14th century Tibetan Buddhist Master who promoted and developed the Kadampa Buddhism that Atisha had introduced three centuries earlier.

His appearance in Tibet had been predicted by Buddha himself.

Je Tsongkhapa patiently taught the Tibetans everything they needed for their spiritual development, from the initial step of entering into a spiritual practice through to the ultimate attainment of Buddhahood.

This was a golden age in Tibet, and thousands of Tibetans were inspired by Je Tsongkhapa’s immaculate example of pure moral discipline, compassionate way of life, and profound, liberating wisdom.

His followers became known as the ‘New Kadampas’, and to this day Kadampa Buddhists worldwide study his teachings and strive to emulate his pure example.

A common prayer among Kadampa Buddhists is:

May I meet the doctrine of Conqueror Losang Dragpa,
Who has a pure practice of stainless moral discipline,
The courageous practice of the extensive deeds of a Bodhisattva,
And the yogas of the two stages to supreme bliss and emptiness.

The special qualities of Je Tsongkhapa

In Root Tantra of Manjushri Buddha Shakyamuni made a prediction about how Manjushri would later emanate as Je Tsongkhapa:

After I pass away
And my pure doctrine is absent,
You will appear as an ordinary being,
Performing the deeds of a Buddha
And establishing the Joyful Land, the great Protector,
In the Land of the Snows.

This verse reveals the special qualities of Je Tsongkhapa. The third line explains that although he was an enlightened being, a manifestation of the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri, Je Tsongkhapa did not reveal himself to be a special being but always appeared in the aspect of an ordinary practitioner. In particular he never made a public display of his miracle powers or clairvoyance, and he encouraged his disciples to follow his example by not revealing any special powers they might have attained.

Instead of revealing miracle powers, Je Tsongkhapa mainly worked to establish pure Buddhadharma throughout Tibet. By giving teachings and showing a good example, he led many beings to gain pure, authentic realizations of Sutra and Tantra. This is the meaning of the fourth line of the verse.

The phrase ‘Joyful Land’ in the fifth line is the name of Buddha Maitreya’s Pure Land, known as ‘Tushita’ in Sanskrit or ‘Ganden’ in Tibetan, which is where Je Tsongkhapa went after he passed away. During his life Je Tsongkhapa established a great monastery in Tibet called ‘Ganden Monastery’, and he spread throughout Tibet a pure doctrine that became known as the ‘Ganden doctrine’.

This doctrine is a special, pure Buddhadharma that comes from Manjushri’s wisdom. It is called ‘the great Protector’ because it protects all living beings from the ocean of samsaric suffering. All of this indicates that Je Tsongkhapa is a manifestation of Buddha Maitreya, who is the Protector of the hundreds of Deities of the Joyful Land. These days, the tradition of Je Tsongkhapa is known as the ‘Gelug’, or ‘Virtuous Tradition’, and his followers are known as ‘Gelugpas’; but the original name of ‘Ganden’ came from Buddha Shakyamuni. This is the meaning of the fifth line.

As Buddha had predicted, Je Tsongkhapa appeared in Tibet, the Land of the Snows, where he lived from 1357 to 1419. When he was born, a drop of his mother’s blood fell to the ground, and later a white sandal tree with a hundred thousand leaves grew at that spot. On each of the leaves, there appeared an image of Buddha Sengei Ngaro, who is the same mental continuum as Buddha Manjushri. This indicates that the child was a manifestation of Manjushri.

Later, the third Dalai Lama, Sönam Gyatso, said that this precious tree was an object of offerings and respect, and he moved it to a nearby monastery where he placed it inside a silver stupa with many precious jewels and made extensive offerings to it. This monastery became known as ‘Kumbum Monastery’, or ‘The Monastery of a Hundred Thousand Images’. Eventually other similar trees grew around the stupa and their leaves also bore special images. On some there appeared the letters of Manjushri’s mantra, AH RA PA TSA NA DHI, and on others the seed-letter of Manjushri, the letter DHI. These leaves were regarded as very precious, and when they fell in the autumn people would gather them and grind them into powder. Through tasting this powder many people have been able to cure diseases and increase their wisdom.

Je Tsongkhapa showed a perfect example of how to build the foundation for the spiritual path, how to progress on that path, and how to complete it. First he studied the entire Dharma of Sutra and Tantra by relying sincerely upon his Spiritual Guides, and then he put all this knowledge into practice and demonstrated the attainment of all the realizations from relying upon the Spiritual Guide up to the Union of No More Learning, or Buddhahood.

Since then, thousands of practitioners have attained the ultimate happiness of Buddhahood within one life by following Je Tsongkhapa’s example and sincerely practicing his teachings. Even today, faithful practitioners who follow Je Tsongkhapa’s pure Dharma can accomplish these results.

If, instead of giving teachings and setting a pure example, Je Tsongkhapa had mainly demonstrated his own good qualities by displaying miracle powers and other forms of clairvoyance, we would have received no benefit from his actions. What we need is not displays of miracle powers but a clear example of how to enter an unmistaken spiritual path, how to practice that path comfortably and smoothly, and how to complete it successfully. This is the actual method for solving our daily problems.

Since Je Tsongkhapa provided us with just such an example, we should recognize his immense kindness and develop unchanging faith and respect for him.

Je Gendundrub, the first Dalai Lama, wrote a special praise to Je Tsongkhapa called Song of the Eastern Snow Mountain, or Shargangrima in Tibetan. In this song, he says to Je Tsongkhapa:

For the fortunate people of Tibet, the Land of the Snows, your kindness, O Protector, is inconceivable.
Especially for myself, Gendundrub, an indolent one,
The fact that my mind is directed towards Dharma
Is due solely to your kindness, O Venerable Father and Sons.

From now until I attain enlightenment
I shall seek no refuge other than you.
O Venerable Father and Sons
Please care for me with your compassion.

Although I cannot repay your kindness, O Protector,
I pray that, with my mind free from the influence of attachment and hatred,
I may strive to maintain your doctrine and cause it to flourish
Without ever giving up this endeavor.

The Guru yoga of Je Tsongkhapa

There are two principal ways to practice the Guru yoga of Je Tsongkhapa: according to the sadhana Heart Jewel, and according to the sadhana Offering to the Spiritual Guide

With the first, we practice the Guru yoga of Je Tsongkhapa according to the Segyu lineage. We meditate on our root Guru in the aspect of Je Tsongkhapa – the embodiment of Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Vajrapani, offer the seven limbs and the mandala offering, make requests with the Migtsema prayer, and then engage in the stages of the practice of profound meditations.

Through practicing sincerely in this way, we can pacify all our negative karma and obstacles and increase our merit, life span, and Dharma realizations.

In particular, because Je Tsongkhapa is at once an emanation of Avalokiteshvara (the embodiment of all Buddhas’ compassion), Manjushri (the embodiment of all Buddhas’ wisdom), and Vajrapani (the embodiment of all Buddhas’ power), we can easily increase our realizations of compassion, wisdom, and spiritual power.

Of these, it is especially important to increase our wisdom because wisdom is the antidote to ignorance, the root of all our suffering. As Buddha says in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, those who lack wisdom are like blind people who continually experience problems and suffering because they cannot see.

The best method for increasing our wisdom, and thereby protecting ourself from suffering, is to practice the Guru yoga of Je Tsongkhapa, because Je Tsongkhapa is a manifestation of the wisdom of all the Buddhas.

On the basis of pacifying our negativity and obstacles and increasing our life span, merit, compassion, wisdom, and spiritual power, if we rely upon this practice we will easily gain all the realizations of Sutra and Tantra and eventually attain the Union of No More Learning, or Buddhahood.

Because followers of Je Tsongkhapa have a special connection with him, all these beneficial results of entering into Je Tsongkhapa’s doctrine can be achieved with great ease by practicing this Guru yoga.

Mahasiddha Menkhangpa said:

The unmistaken Dharma is Lamrim, Lojong, and Mahamudra.

Here, ‘Mahamudra’ refers to Vajrayana Mahamudra, which contains the practices of both generation stage and completion stage of Secret Mantra. The instruction on these three Dharmas – Lamrim (the stages of the path), Lojong (training the mind), and Mahamudra – is the heart of Je Tsongkhapa’s doctrine and the very essence of Buddhadharma.

To gain the realizations of these three Dharmas, we must receive into our mind the powerful blessings of Je Tsongkhapa by sincerely engaging in the practice of Heart Jewel

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Women, Buddhism and the Absolute and Relative Truth by Lama Tsultrim Allione

When I think about women and Buddhism, the first thing that always comes to mind is the story of Tara’s vow. This story expresses our situation so very clearly and applies equally well to both ancient and modern times. It is a story that originated when Mahayana was integrating with tantra, ultimately forming what became Vajrayana in India. It is emblematic of a wave of stories that followed about powerful women who valued themselves as women within Buddhism. Many of the stories from that era in India (around 700–800 CE) tell us what was happening both sociologically in the culture, and developmentally in Vajrayana. During this period, for the first time Buddhism had women teaching men. It was also the dawn of female buddhas and the feminine wisdom principle, which began with Prajnaparamita, the “Mother of All the Buddhas,” in the Mahayana period.

The story tells us that Tara was a princess named Wisdom Moon, who was very devoted to the dharma and had a deep meditation practice. When she was close to enlightenment, raising the intention to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, a monk approached her and said what a pity it was that she was in the body of a woman, because she would have to come back as a man before she could become enlightened. The princess answered back brilliantly, demonstrating her understanding of emptiness and absolute truth, saying, “Here there is no man; there is no woman, no self, no person, and no consciousness. Labeling ‘male’ or ‘female’ is hollow. Oh, how worldly fools delude themselves.”

She went on to make the following vow: “Those who wish to attain supreme enlightenment in a man’s body are many, but those who wish to serve the aims of beings in a woman’s body are few indeed; therefore may I, until this world is emptied out, work for the benefit of sentient beings in a woman’s body.”

From that time onward, the princess dedicated herself to realizing complete enlightenment. Once she accomplished that goal, she came to be known as Tara, the Liberator. I like to say that Tara is the first “Women’s Libber” and that Green Tara is the spiritual leader of the Green Party, guardian of the forest, fast acting and compassionate, with one foot in the world and one foot in meditation; a place where many of us find ourselves.

As a practitioner of Buddhism, I don’t think about myself in terms of gender. When I am in my retreat cabin meditating I try to cut through such concepts and rest in the true condition of unborn and unceasing luminous emptiness, the ground of being. However, I have continued to be committed to the reemergence of the sacred feminine in the Buddhist tradition. I don’t see any conflict or dissonance in these two views. This commitment has manifested at Tara Mandala, my retreat center in southern Colorado, where we have built a three-story mandala temple dedicated to the twenty-one Taras, all various aspects of the enlightened feminine. The interior of the temple is home to life-size golden statues of these Taras circling the ground level, similar to the ancient goddess temples of India.

Having come from a family of accomplished women who were respected and valued equally to men, I never felt that there were certain things a woman couldn’t or shouldn’t do. So when I began studying with the Tibetans in 1967, I had no particular awareness of gender prejudices. After my ordination by His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa in Bodhgaya in January 1970, I set out on my life as a Buddhist nun. Because of the lack of available translations, I had only a general idea of the vows I had taken, and lived blissfully unaware of the ingrained inequalities for several years.

I had been ordained as a sramanerika (getsulma in Tibetan), or novice, with just thirty-six vows, and didn’t learn until later that the Buddha had given extra rules of discipline to fully ordained women. According to some Vinaya traditions there are 311 vows for fully ordained women bhiskunis, or gelongma, compared with 227 vows for men who become bhikshus. Many of the extra vows have to do with nuns’ subordination to monks.

According to stories in the Vinaya, Gautama Buddha refused to admit women to the monastic order several times before he finally agreed to do so at the persistent request of his stepmother, Mahaprajapati, and the strong intervention of his cousin Ananda on her behalf. Mahaprajapati was not just any woman asking to become a nun. She was his own mother’s sister, and had nursed and raised the Buddha from the moment of his mother’s death shortly after he was born. When he opened the sangha to women, it is said that the Buddha also made it more difficult for them to be ordained and made them subordinate to all monks. Supposedly, he also predicted that admitting women to the sangha would shorten the life of the sangha by five hundred years. However, it’s not known whether these stories are historically accurate or whether, as some Buddhist scholars suggest, they were written somewhat later by androcentric and patriarchal monks.

To the credit of my lamas in my early days as a nun, I never felt any misogynist tendencies and had full confidence that I would have complete access to the teachings whenever I was ready for the next step. My first awakening to sexism in Buddhism came when I went to attend a three-month series of empowerments in India given by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in Tashi Jong near Dharamsala in 1973. When Ani Jinpa, a Dutch nun, and I were looking for seating, we were told that we had to sit behind all the monks, including the recently ordained, six-year-old squirming little monks who could not yet read. I was surprised and a little disappointed in my adopted religion. For three months, we sat way at the back of the temple, squeezed between the child monks and the constantly chatting laypeople. It got me thinking.

That same year, I decided to disrobe—not because of the sexism I saw in Buddhism, but because I could see no future for myself as a nun. I was the only Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition in America, which was where I was trying to live and study with Chögyam Trungpa. At one point, I asked Trungpa Rinpoche for a text on the feminine principle in Buddhism, and he gave me a big Tibetan volume on Prajnaparamita. I never managed to do anything with this text because I was soon to become a mother of three.

I really became interested in looking at the stories of women in Buddhism when I lost a child in the spring of 1980. She was the twin of my son Costanzo and succumbed to sudden infant death syndrome when she was two months old. After Chiara’s death, I felt a deep need for the stories of women in my tradition. I needed to know their lives. The biographies of men weren’t helping me.

I couldn’t find any of stories of women, and in the few references to women in The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa I read things like, “Because of my sinful karma, I was given this inferior female body.” I didn’t believe that.

In 1981, I traveled to India and Nepal looking for the biographies of great women practitioners from Tibet. This research led to my first book, Women of Wisdom. While writing the book, I journeyed through India and Nepal asking for stories of enlightened women. After I got a blank stare from one monk when I made this request, I further explained what I was looking for and he said, “Oh now I understand. You are not looking for women’s stories, you mean dakinis’ biographies.” I then realized that whenever a woman became enlightened, it was assumed that she had to have been a special dakini (female embodiment of wisdom) and not an ordinary woman. An ordinary woman would never get enlightened. In fact, the Tibetan word for woman means “lower birth.”

The stories that I finally found gave me strength and inspiration, and the research awakened me to a broader awareness of women and women’s issues around the world. The rebalancing of genders currently under way may be the greatest achievement of this century. It has been very moving to me to watch this movement going forward in various forms all over the planet. In some countries, old forms are being revolutionized, but in others we can see resulting reactionary repression.

The rights of women, their freedom, safety, and protection, are essential to the survival of the human species. How can any of us thrive if the voices of half the population are not heard and valued? These are the voices of women, who have historically spoken overwhelmingly on the side of nonviolence, peace, and protection of the earth. And although many countries have put into place national policies for women’s rights and protection that are consistent with steps taken at the international level, it is obvious that there are still obstacles to the elimination of discrimination and violence against women and to achieving gender equality. Recent statistics show that two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women, and downward trends have deepened during the recent global economic and social crisis.

However, in recent years there has been a movement toward gender equality within Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has been speaking more and more about the importance of having women in government leadership positions in order for peace to be possible on the earth. The Seventeenth Karmapa has promised to do what he can to reinstate the full ordination of women in Vajrayana Buddhism. In the Theravada tradition, full ordination has returned.

At a recent conference with the Dalai Lama for Western teachers of Buddhism, women teachers filled more than half the room. As we look around the world, we can now see a greater presence of women in leadership positions in Buddhism than ever before, but there is still a long way to go.

On July 22 of this year, I suddenly lost my husband of twenty-two years, David Petit. He had a special death with auspicious signs, but it was a shock for him to pass away at fifty-four with no warning. In my grief, I wondered if I could write this piece, but in thinking about it I realized it was important to express the deep gratitude and appreciation I feel for the masculine. David was an embodiment of a powerful masculine force that actualized everything at Tara Mandala over the last seventeen years—from the first yurts and tents, to our community building, the residence hall, and finally the beautiful three-story mandala Tara Temple. He also stood by me through thick and thin, through the challenges of starting a center and through attacks on me for being “too feminist,” and therefore “not understanding non-duality.” He supported me in my stand against sexual exploitation of women by male teachers, and protected the women who came to Tara Mandala.

In the wake of his passing I am acutely aware of the role that the positive masculine plays in the balancing of our world and how important deeply respectful partnership is in establishing Buddhism in the West. This is true not only between partners in a couple, but in our relationships with friends, families, teachers, students, and within the sangha. I feel it is important to acknowledge and value the great men who are actively engaged in bringing wholeness and equality to the Buddhist world, as well as to honor the many women who have struggled and sacrificed to this end.

The absolute truth of the emptiness of gender and the relative truth of a real historical misogynist attitude in Buddhism lay side by side in Tara’s story. Her final vow to always return as a woman and to reach enlightenment as a woman shows both her understanding of absolute reality and the relative need for women to be valued and treated equally in Buddhism.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Women in Buddhism, Part 1 - Prajapati, the First Buddhist Nun

By Rev. Patti Nakai

If anyone wanted to present Buddhism as a viciously sexist religion, they could easily do so by quoting out of context passages from numerous sutras or from more recent texts such as Shinran's wasan (poems) or the by-laws of the Shinshu Otani-ha (Higashi Honganji's denomination) which denies female clergy the same status as male priests. But I believe the essential spirit of Buddhism absolutely includes all beings, male and female, in its vision of enlightenment. If I did not believe in that then I would not want to be a part of this religious tradition. In this intermittent series, I hope to make it clear that women have always been involved in Buddhist history and that their role has been very crucial even if often overlooked.

The first Buddhist nun is said to be Prajapati, Shakamuni Buddha's aunt who had raised him after the death of his mother Maya. Instead of letting his dear stepmother join his Sangha when she asked to become one of his disciples, Shakamuni's response was a declaration of the mental inferiority of women, saying they lacked the capacity to understand and practice the teachings of non-attachment to self.

The BCA Dharma School textbook, Long Ago in India, glosses over this harsh refusal with the argument of "a woman's place is in the home and she can be a good Buddhist there," the typical statement heard in the Japanese cultural context. However, in the U.S., the American followers of Tibetan Buddhism have been at the forefront of dealing with women's issues and their textbook presentation of Buddha's life for young people does not shy away from quoting Shakamuni's denunciation of women.

They then go on to explain why they think Shakamuni spoke that way to his own aunt. From the time he was a boy, he was taught that women were only objects, like domesticated animals trained to breed, nurture and entertain men. From his stepmother to his wife, to all the dancing girls and servants of the palace, Shakamuni as a young prince viewed women only as creatures who lived for the rewards of pleasing men. In the Tibetan American book on Buddha's life, Shakamuni is not blamed for his sexist attitude but is recognized as someone whose cultural conditioning allowed for no other view.

Prajapati is reluctantly allowed into the Sangha after Buddha's cousin Ananda says, "Give women a chance; we cannot say for sure that they will fail unless they have a chance to study and follow the Dharma." Although Ananda had the same cultural conditioning as his cousin, here he speaks from his awareness of impermanence, that because of continual change, the world in each moment is new and we cannot judge the present based on the conceptions of the past. One concrete instance of impermanence which shakes up Shakamuni's view of women as pets/slaves of men is the death of his father. Prajapati now stands before him stripped of her former identity as mother and wife, no longer having a man for her life to revolve around. (As most people know, the ancient Indian custom was to throw the widow on her husband's funeral pyre since her life without a man was considered useless.)

It is my feeling that Prajapati was the person who fostered Shakamuni's interest in religion. Anyone reading the life of Buddha has to wonder why the young prince becomes so resolved to be a religious seeker when his father gave him a purely materialistic upbringing. Most ministers will say Shakamuni's spiritual sensitivity came about because of his mother's death, but Maya died when he was only a week old, too young to have much of a bond to her. Although the king surely grieved over the loss of his wife, it was not long before he had the perfect replacement for Maya - her younger sister Prajapati, called in to be his new consort and the nurturer of his son.

If anyone was greatly impacted by Maya's death, it had to be Prajapati. Because of her sister's sudden death, she had to give up whatever plans and dreams she had for herself and was expected to live up to the whole kingdom's expectation to be another Maya. The experience of impermanence- that Life does not go according to our own wishes - was clearly felt by Prajapati and to learn from it and somehow go on living, she must have had to seek spiritual guidance from the religious traditions of the time.

The king probably had no use for such spiritual guidance except for gaining good luck in battle and fortune-telling, but for Prajapati, she needed to seek out something to make her disrupted life meaningful. If this view of Prajapati is true, it could explain why she was the first to ask the Buddha to become a disciple immediately after hearing his teachings, and persisted in her request even after his brusque refusal.

As for Shakamuni, he later came to appreciate more deeply the many elements that led him to his awakening, saying there were many Buddhas before him and that their legacy made his awakening possible. This legacy could not have come to him only during his six years of ascetic practice, but there must have been some prior exposure to the religious influences of his time. In his acknowledgment of this legacy, Shakamuni must have realized that the first woman he reluctantly let into the Sangha was actually his first teacher.

Obviously, Prajapati as the first nun, and the other women of the palace who joined the Sangha along with her, succeeded in breaking down Shakamuni's cultural conditioning and enabled him to see women as equal to men in their ability to grasp and practice the teachings. Shakamuni's sexist view had to have been completely eliminated by the time of the famous sutra stories of his encounters with women such as Kisa Gotami (in the tale of the mustard seed) and Queen vaidehi (Meditation Sutra). In those stories, he would have failed to relate to them if he had held any prejudices against them as women.

In Part Two, I discuss the Negative Depictions and Positive Contributions of Women in Theravada Buddhism.

Notes for Women in Buddhism, Part One.

Although I took the time to rewrite Part Four of this series for publication in the bulletin of the Honolulu Betsuin (Nishi Honganji) in 2002, I realize that the other three parts need revisions as well. Until I rewrite these parts, please note the following suggestions I received:

1) In April 2007 I received an e-mail from Katharine Buenger (who identified herself as a university student). She pointed out that the practice of throwing widows on the husband’s funeral pyre was not such a widespread or ancient custom in India. She writes that the practice known as “sati” was “actually derived from a story within Hinduism about the Goddess Sati who internally combusts because she cannot bear the humiliation of her husband The term ‘sati’ can also mean ‘chaste woman’ and refer to the widow herself.” I do not remember where I read about this practice so it is possible that it was not a reliable source about Indian culture. But the point I wanted to make was there was an attitude in the older Indian culture that women who no longer had a man to serve were considered a burden.

2) In May 2003 I had a telephone discussion with Dimitri Bakhroushin, an active member of the New York Buddhist Church. He cited passages in the Pali canon which suggested that Shakyamuni was hesitant to accept his own stepmother as the first nun because of political concerns (charges of nepotism, her role as his parent gave her some authority and certainly psychological leverage over him, etc.). I have been trying to find that Tibetan Buddhist book written for young Americans which described Shakyamuni overcoming his culturally conditioned sexism. I had encountered the book during my studies at Otani University, but I did not note the exact title and author. If anyone comes across it, please let me know.

-Rev. Patti Nakai (Rev. Nakai can be contacted through the Living Dharma Website)

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Just to Be Alive is Enough By Blanche Hartman

Another article on Women in Buddhism

There is no greater gift than to be grateful for our lives, says Zen teacher Blanche Hartman, and gratitude leads naturally to generosity, because we want to share this gift with others.

There are two related practices that guide my life these days: cultivating gratitude and cultivating generosity. Generosity, dana paramita, is the first of the perfections of the heart of a bodhisattva. It is deeply supported by the experience of gratitude.

Gratitude as an experience, and not just a sentiment, came into my life most vividly during a vacation in Connecticut sixteen years ago. I had gone with my niece to an exhibition of vintage automobiles, an old hobby of mine. At one point I was having some chest pain and she said, “Aunt Blanche, you look horrible, I’m going to call an ambulance.”

Her prompt action, and the skill of paramedics, doctors, and nurses, made it possible for me to go home ten days later. As I was walking away from the hospital with my husband, I thought, “Wow! I’m alive! I could be dead. The rest of my life is just a free gift!” After a couple more steps I thought, “Gee, it always has been a free gift, from the beginning.” I was flooded with gratitude just to be alive, and understood what Suzuki Roshi meant when he once said, “Just to be alive is enough.” Even though there may be difficulties and disappointments, and sometimes real pain and hardship, I really do like being alive.

This was one of those moments of practice that gave rise to spontaneous gratitude. It was not at all like that when I came close to dying twenty years earlier, before I ever heard of Zen or meditation practice. At that time, my primary response was fear—terror actually—at realizing my own mortality. Up until then I had known that everyone dies eventually, but it was impersonal. Now I knew that I, personally, was going to die and that it could happen at any moment. I understood first-hand the teaching “Death is certain. The time of death is uncertain.”

The great ancestor Nagarjuna said, “To see into impermanence is bodhichitta [the altruistic aspiration to awaken for the benefit of all beings].” As a result of that experience I began a frantic search to understand how you live a life that you know is going to end. That search finally led me to Suzuki Roshi and practice. It is clear to me that my dharma practice in the years between my first and second brushes with death caused the dramatic change in my response. So you can understand why I feel that one of the greatest gifts of practice is gratitude.

But I need to be careful not to suggest that anyone should practice expecting some particular result. Suzuki Roshi often cautioned: “No gaining idea! No goal-seeking mind!” He said, “The most important point in our practice is to have right or perfect effort. Right effort directed in the right direction is necessary. If your effort is headed in the wrong direction, especially if you are not aware of this, it is deluded effort. Our effort in our practice should be directed from achievement to non-achievement.…When you are involved in some dualistic practice, it means your practice is not pure. We do not mean to polish something, trying to make some impure thing pure. By purity we just mean things as they are.”

All the teachers I know have emphasized that we practice for the sake of practice—just to express and actualize our intrinsic buddhanature for the benefit of all beings. There is nothing we need to get that is not already right here, right now, in this very body and mind as it is.

The Heart Sutra says there is “no attainment because there is nothing to attain.” Sawaki Kodo Roshi said, “Zazen is good for nothing. And until you get it through your thick skull that it’s good for nothing, it’s really good for nothing!” In my first zazen instruction, Katagiri Dainin Roshi said, “We sit to settle the self on the self and let the flower of our life force bloom,” again suggesting that everything we need is right here.

To seek for something other than “just this” implies that something is missing, that we are not complete somehow. The first time I heard Suzuki Roshi speak, he said, “You are perfect just as you are.” I thought, “He doesn’t know me. I’m new here.” But again and again he would keep pointing in that direction, saying “You have everything you need,” “You are already complete,” “Just to be alive is enough.” I finally had to assume that I was not the sole exception to these assertions, but I was still dubious. And as I continued to practice and to talk with other students of the buddhadharma, I found that many people share the conditioning that leads us to think that there’s something wrong with us. If we could only get, do or be something more, then we would be all right.

The Zen teacher Cheri Huber also addressed this common source of distress with her book entitled No Matter What You’ve Been Taught to Believe, There’s Nothing Wrong with You. I found the book very helpful and have recommended it to many people, including my daughter, who has recommended it to many of her friends. For me, coming to accept that there is nothing wrong with me has been a very important part of growing up. (I understand that Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said, “Our mantra should be, ‘OM grow up svaha!’”) I have had a lot of help in this from practicing with the three treasures: my teachers, the dharma, and my friends in the sangha, including a psychotherapist.

It’s so easy for us to get the idea that there’s something wrong with us. And it’s so hard to let go of that and just appreciate this one life, as it is, as a gift. My first spontaneous experience of gratitude came more than thirty years ago as I was preparing to enter Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery. I was sitting tangaryo, a practice in which new monastics sit continuously (with brief breaks) for a number of days (five at Tassajara) to settle themselves and clarify for themselves and others that they are ready to immerse themselves in monastic practice.

I had had to wait several years before I could go to Tassajara because I still had teenage children at home and I also needed to work. So I was really glad to finally be there, but it was also very difficult. I had sat weeklong sesshins before, but in tangaryo we didn’t have walking meditation between periods of zazen; we just sat all day. And it was hot, and there were flies, and our knees hurt, and so on. On about the fourth day, I became more aware of what was going on around me. I heard the sounds of the students working outside. I became aware of the cooks preparing food for us, and the servers serving us, and I began to feel grateful that they were all working so that I could sit! Then I began to feel grateful that Suzuki Roshi had come to this country to teach us and establish the monastery so that I could sit! And then, like a line of dominoes falling, my gratitude went racing back through the whole lineage, from Suzuki Roshi to the Buddha—if any of them hadn’t kept this practice alive, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to sit today. So instead of being miserable, hot, hurting, and tired of flies, my experience was overwhelming gratitude for everyone who had made it possible for me to practice the buddhadharma.

In fact, not only is life a gift, and practice a gift, everything we have, without exception, has come to us through the kindness of others. Years ago Tara Tulku Rinpoche, a wonderful Vajrayana teacher, visited us at Green Gulch Farm, where I then lived. He taught us a traditional meditation to cultivate gratitude. He asked us to think of everything that we thought was ours and consider how it came to us. Our food, clothing, houses, books, tools, toys, health: anything we can think of comes to us through the kindness of others. Even something we have made with our own hands depends on the tools and materials we used to make it. And we, through the activities of our life, are also offering gifts to others. This dance of offering and receiving is going on continually. Gratitude and generosity generate each other.

For me, this gift of gratitude has been a great delight, so naturally I wish it for everyone. When the Buddha made the first turning of the wheel of dharma he spoke to his friends with whom he had practiced asceticism before he accepted the bowl of rice and milk and sat down under the Bodhi Tree. The first thing he said was, “Friends, there is dukkha [suffering].” What better antidote to suffering can there be than gratitude? And with this experience of gratitude there is a natural response—wanting to give something back, to share with others this gift of life and the opportunity to practice. How can we do this?

The Zen teacher Kobun Chino Roshi, who came here from Japan as a young monk to help Suzuki Roshi start the monastery at Tassajara, once said, “You don’t use the precepts for accomplishing your own personality, or fulfilling your dream of your highest image. You don’t use the precepts that way. The precepts are the reflected light-world of one precept, which is Buddha’s mind itself, which is the presence of Buddha. Zazen is the first formulation of the accomplishing of Buddha existing.…The more you sense the rareness and value of your own life, the more you realize that how you use it, how you manifest it, is all your responsibility. We face such a big task, so naturally such a person sits down for a while. It’s not an intended action; it’s a natural action.” How shall we use this life, how manifest it so as to share this gift?

Dogen Zenji, the founder of the Soto school, said of zazen, “Put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward. Body and mind of themselves will drop away and your original face will manifest.” He also said, “To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be awakened by everything. And this awakening continues endlessly.” This waking up is the aspiration of bodhichitta. If we really want to benefit beings, we must wake up, see reality as it actually is. Then we will know how to benefit beings.

Going back to what I mentioned in the beginning, in addition to assuring us that we are perfect as we are, Suzuki Roshi also said, “There’s always room for improvement.” He said, “Zen is making your best effort on each moment…forever.” And the question arose in me, “What is it to make effort with no gaining idea? What kind of effort is that?” In his poem “Zazenshin,” Dogen Zenji said, “Realization is effort without desire.” That was a real puzzle to me because as far as I could recall, my effort had always been directed toward accomplishing some goal, or being good, or at least looking good. This question became my koan. I could not put it down. I have wrestled with it for years. This koan has served me well and I offer it to you.

There are teachings in the abhidharma, the basic Buddhist description of mind, about right effort: to relinquish unskillful mind states that have arisen, not to give rise to unskillful mind states that have not yet arisen, to cultivate skillful mind states that have not yet arisen, and to maintain skillful mind states that have arisen. But that didn’t satisfy me as an answer to my koan. There seemed to be something more that I needed to understand about making constant effort while accepting and embracing just this, as-it-is.

One spring at Tassajara I walked to the zendo along the same path every day. One day I noticed a few green shoots pushing their way up through the soil. Every day there were more and they were higher. And one day there were some buds. And then one day there were suddenly many golden daffodils! And my koan broke open. Here was effort without desire right in front of me all the time! Just letting the flower of the life force bloom right here, right now, wholeheartedly and with nothing held back—giving ourselves completely to whatever arises right in front of us moment after moment.

Someone once asked Suzuki Roshi, “Roshi, what’s the most important thing?” and he answered, “To find out what’s the most important thing.”

I’d like to share with you a poem by Mary Oliver called “Summer Day.”

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

What is it you plan to do with this wild and precious life that has been given to you?

I think this question of how we live our life, how we actually live this life—not what we think about it, not what we say about it, but how we actually live it—may be the most important thing. Dogen Zenji said, “To expound the dharma with this body is foremost. Its virtue returns to the ocean of reality. It is unfathomable; we just accept it with respect and gratitude.”

How can we expound the truth of existence—the interdependence, interpenetration, and interbeing of all existence—with this body, in how we live our lives day by day, with all the beings with whom we share our lives?

Zenkei Blanche Hartman, a student of Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, and Katagiri Dainin Roshi, was abbess of San Francisco Zen Center. Since her retirement she has continued to teach there as a senior dharma teacher.

Just to Be Alive Is Enough, Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Shambhala Sun, July 2005.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Status of Women in Buddhism by Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera


Discrimination against women is a feature common in all societies. Whether in Africa, America, Asia or Europe, the prejudices and obstacles that women have had to encounter and surmount seem almost identical. The peculiar stigma attached to women all over the world is based on religious bias. “Woman” is depicted as a temptress and is warned against in almost all religions of the world. Woman's basic stigma therefore originates in religion.

According to certain religious mythological concepts, man was introduced as the son of God, but woman never found a similar standing as the daughter of God. Amongst the soul-believers, some held the notion that a soul exists only in man and not in woman. Those who claimed that woman too had a soul would not give credence to the idea that her soul could find a place in heaven after death. Such were the strange beliefs amongst certain religious societies.

Women have also been regarded as the source of all the sins of the world and have been blamed for the misfortunes of men in this world and the next. There was also the belief that as women, no salvation could be gained - they had to be reincarnated as men before they were able to gain their salvation.

Certain fanatical religious cults have also prohibited women from reading the religious scriptures. The punishment for doing so was to have their tongues cut out. They were also discouraged from entering places of worship. If they were at all allowed to participate in religious practices, such participation was confined to their own homes, by attending to household religious ceremonies. Such hindrances and obstructions in the matter of moral and spiritual upliftment of women still exist in varying degrees in certain parts of the world, even though many barriers have been removed.

In contrast to such hindrances and bigoted religious practices, Buddhism can certainly claim to have the least discriminatory attitudes against women.

There is not the slightest doubt that the Buddha was the first religious teacher who gave women equal and unfettered opportunities in the field of spiritual development. Although he had pointed out on several occasions the natural tendencies and weakness of women, he had also given due credit to their abilities and capabilities. He truly paved the way for women to lead a full religious life. They were able to develop and purify their minds and realize the bliss of Nibbana just as men were. The testimonies of the Theris (Nuns) in the days of the Buddha speak amply to this fact.

The Buddha opened the gates for the full participation of women in the field of religion by making them eligible for admission to what was known as the Bhikkhuni Sangha - the Order of Nuns – that truly opened to women new avenues of culture and social service and ample opportunities for public life. This brought to women recognition of their importance to society, and greatly enhanced their social status.


The social attitude towards women in pre-Buddhist days can be traced from the early Vedic literature, such as the Rigveda. There is evidence indicating the honor and respect which women received in their homes. In the realm of religion, too, they had access to the highest knowledge of the Absolute or Brahma. However, such a liberal attitude towards women changed with the course of time, under the influence and dominance of the priestly caste with their priestcrafts, animal sacrifices, and other ritualistic practices. New interpretations were given to the scriptures. Women came to be considered as greatly inferior to men - both physically and mentally.

A woman was looked down upon as a mere possession or a thing. Her place was the home, under the complete whims and fancies of her husband. She not only had to perform all the domestic chores, but also had to bring up a large family. Some of the priestly caste Brahmins married and lived with their wives, yet regarded food cooked by women as impure and unfit to eat. A myth was built up - that all women were regarded as sinful and the only way to keep them out of mischief was to keep them endlessly occupied with the task of motherhood and domestic duties.

If a married woman had no children or failed to produce any male offspring, she might be superceded by a second or third wife or even turned out of the house; for there was the strong belief that there must be a male child for the continuance of family line and the performance of the 'rites of the ancestors'. The traditional belief was that only a son could carry out such rituals, which were thought to be very necessary for bringing peace and security to the father and grandfather after their death. Otherwise, they might return as ghosts to harass the family. Uncertain were the lives of married women. No less uncertainty awaited the unmarried ones. As marriage was considered a holy sacrament, a young girl who did not marry was badly criticized and despised by society.

In the field of religious practices, the position once enjoyed by women was denied to them. A woman was believed unable to go to heaven through her own merits. She could not worship by herself, and it was believed that she could only reach heaven through unquestioning obedience to her husband, even if he happened to be a wicked person. The food left over by her husband was often the food for the woman.

It was in the midst of such extreme social discrimination and degrading attitudes towards women that the Buddha made his appearance in India. His teachings on the real nature of life and death - about karma and samsaric wanderings, gave rise to considerable changes in the social attitudes towards women in his days.

According to what the Buddha taught about the Law of Karma, one is responsible for one's own action and its consequence. The well-being of a father or grandfather does not depend upon the action of the son or grandson. They were responsible for their own actions. Such enlightened teachings helped to correct the views of many people and naturally reduced the anxiety of women who were unable to produce sons to perform the 'rites of the ancestors'.

Theri Sanghamitta arrived to Anuradhapura with 500 of her followers and the Bo sapling from the Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi in Buddhagaya to establish Bhikkhuni Sasana in Sri Lanka.
In the early Buddhist period, an unmarried girl could go along, unabused, contented and adequately occupied in caring for parents and younger brothers and sisters. She might even become the owner of great possessions and rich fields; as did Subha, the daughter of a goldsmith, during the time of the Buddha. But when the Dhamma was taught to her by Mahapajapati, Subha realized the nature of all fleeting pleasures and that 'silver and gold lead neither to peace nor to enlightenment', with the result that she entered the Order of Buddhist Nuns. This act was a great boon to unmarried women.

The teachings of the Buddha had done a great deal to extinguish many superstitious beliefs and meaningless rites and rituals, including animal sacrifices, from the minds of many people. When the true nature of life and death and the natural phenomena governing the universe were revealed to them, wisdom and understanding arose. This in turn helped to arrest and correct the prevailing social injustices and prejudices that were rampant against women in the days of the Buddha, thus enabling women to lead their own way of life.


Despite the fact that the Buddha elevated the status of women, he was practical in his observations and advice given from time to time in that he realized the social and physiological differences that existed between men and women. These were depicted in the Anguttara Nikaya and Samyutta Nikaya. It was clearly mentioned that a man's duty is his unending quest for knowledge, the improvement and stabilization of his skill and craftsmanship, and dedication to his work and ability to find the wherewithal for the maintenance and sustenance of his family. On the other hand it was stated, as a matter of fact, that it was the woman's duty to look after the home, and to look after her husband.

The Anguttara Nikaya contained some valuable advice which the Buddha gave to young girls prior to their marriage. Realizing that there were bound to be difficulties with the new in-laws, the girls were enjoined to give every respect to their mothers-in-law and fathers-in-law, serving them lovingly as they would their own parents. They were requested to honor and respect their husband's relatives and friends, thus creating a congenial and happy atmosphere in their new homes. They were also advised to study and understand their husband's nature, ascertain their activities, character and temperament, and to be useful and co-operative at all times in their new homes. They should be polite, kind and watchful in their relationship with the servants and should safe-guard their husband's earnings and see to it that all household expenditures were properly regularized. Such advice given by the Buddha more than twenty-five centuries ago, is still valuable today.

The handicaps and drawbacks under which women had to undergo in life were also clearly indicated. The suffering and agony to be borne by a woman in leaving her family after her marriage, and the difficulties and problems she had to encounter in trying to accommodate herself in a new environment, were the trials and tribulations she had to bear. In addition to these problems, women were also subjected to physiological pains and sufferings during their menstrual periods, pregnancy and child-birth. These are natural phenomena depicting the differential situations and circumstances prevailing between men and women.

Although in certain sections of the Tripitaka some caustic comments were made on the wiles and behavior of women, the Buddha, in the Samyutta Nikaya, did bring forth many redeeming features: under certain circumstances, women are considered more discerning and wise than men and women are also considered capable of attaining perfection or sainthood after treading the noble Eightfold path.

The Buddha's attitude towards women can also be seen when the news of the birth of a daughter was brought to his friend, King Kosala. The King was displeased at the news as he expected a son, but the Buddha, unlike any other religious teacher, paid a glowing tribute to women and mentioned certain characteristics that adorn a woman in the following words:

"Some women are indeed better (than men). Bring her up, O Lord of men. There are women who are wise, virtuous, who have high regard for mothers-in-law, and who are chaste. To such a noble wife may be born a valiant son, a Lord of Realms, who will rule a kingdom."

In revealing the nature of women, the Buddha had pointed out not only their weaknesses, but also their abilities and potential. Even though some of his statements may appear rather unpleasant, one will find, through careful observation, that what the Buddha said about women in days gone by generally still holds as good advice today. Although there exist in most countries more enlightened and fairer attitudes than in the past, and educational and independent career opportunities are open to women, women still bear unpleasant experiences: the powers they possess, discrimination they undergo, and fears and jealousies of a rival still prevail.


In advising women about their role in married life, the Buddha appreciated that the peace and harmony of a home rested largely on women's shoulders. His advice was realistic and practical when he quoted a good number of day-to-day characteristics which a woman should or should not emulate. On diverse occasions, the Buddha counseled that a wife:

(a) should not harbor evil thoughts against her husband;

(b) should not be cruel, harsh or domineering;

(c) should not be a spendthrift but should be economical and live within her means;

(d) should zealously guard and save her husband's property and hard-earned earnings;

(e) should always be virtuous and chaste in mind and action;

(f) should be faithful and harbor no thought of any adulterous acts;

(g) should be refined in speech and polite in action;

(h) should be kind, industrious and hardworking;

(i) should be thoughtful and compassionate towards her husband and her attitude should equate that of a mother loving and protecting her son;

(j) should be modest and respectful;

(k) should be cool, calm and understanding, serving not only as a wife but also as a friend and adviser to her husband when the need arises.

In the days of the Buddha, other religious teachers also spoke about the duties and obligations of a wife towards her husband, particularly stressing the duty of wives in bearing off-spring for their husbands, rendering faithful service, and providing conjugal happiness and heavenly bliss. This view is also shared by Confucianism. However, although the duties of a wife towards the husband were laid down in the Confucian code of discipline, it did not stress the duties and obligations of the husband towards the wife. The teachings of the Buddha did not have such bias towards the husbands. In the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha clearly mentioned the duties of a husband towards the wife and vice versa.

A husband should be faithful, courteous and not despising. It is the husband's duty to hand over authority to his wife and from time to time, and to provide her with adornments.

Other useful advice was given to women on different occasions and under different circumstances.


For the vain and beauty conscious, the Buddha taught the lesson of impermanence. Khema, the beautiful consort of King Bimbisara, was at first reluctant to see the Buddha as she had heard that the Buddha used to refer to external beauty in rather disparaging terms.

One day she paid a casual visit to the monastery merely to enjoy the scenery of the place. Gradually she was attracted to the hall where the Buddha was preaching. The Buddha, through his psychic powers, read her thoughts, and created a vision of a young lady standing in front of her. Khema was admiring her beauty when the Buddha transformed the created image from youth to middle age and subsequently to old age, till it finally fell on the ground with broken teeth, gray hair and wrinkled skin. This transformation caused Khema to realize the vanity of external beauty and to appreciate the fleeting nature of life. She pondered: "Has such a body come to be wrecked like that? Then so will my body also." With this, realization dawned upon her. She subsequently attained Arahatship, and with the King's consent, she entered the Order of Bhikkhuni.


To women who were unduly emotional and grief-striken on the loss of their beloved ones, the Buddha spoke on the inevitability of death, as enunciated in the Four Noble Truths, and quoted various parables to drive in the point.

To Visakha, a deeply emotional and affectionate grandmother who lost her granddaughter, the Buddha consoled her as follows:

"From affection springs grief,
from affection springs fear,
for one who is wholly free from affection,
there is no grief, much less fear."

On another occasion, when Kisagotami who had lost her only infant son approached the Buddha to bring back her son to life, she was requested to bring some mustard seed from a home where no death had taken place. The lady could find the mustard seed but she could not find a family where death had not previously occurred; hence realization came to her that death did not afflict her child alone but was a common phenomena to all living beings.

Patacara was another tragic case. She had lost her two children, her husband, her parents and her brother under very tragic circumstances. She was mad with grief and was running about in the streets. Upon meeting the Buddha, she was consoled as follows:

"There are no sons for one's protection, neither father nor even kinsmen for one who is overcome by death. No protection is to be found among kinsmen.

Realizing this fact, let the virtuous and wise person swiftly clear the way that leads to Nibbana."

Hearing the Buddha's consoling words, and appreciating the nature of life, she attained the first stage of sainthood and entered the Order of Nuns.


The establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sangha - the Order of Nuns, in the 5th year of the Buddha's ministry, really paved the way for full religious freedom for women in the days of the Buddha. It was a splendid success. There arose many eminent nuns who shone brilliantly in the study and practice of the Dhamma. In the eyes of the world, Buddhism was raised to a very high level. The Psalms of the Sisters (Therigatha) containing 77 verses by individual nuns is one of the prides of Buddhist literature.

The Buddha did not place any restrictions on the nuns in the matter of teaching and preaching of the Dhamma. The Bhikkhuni Order produced a remarkable number of brilliant preachers and exponents of the Dhamma e.g. Sukha, Patacara, Khema, Dhammadinna and Maha Pajapati (the foster mother of the Buddha). Buddhism never shared the Brahmin's view that a son was essential for the father's passage to heaven. Daughters became quite as good as sons and marriage was no longer a compulsory necessity. Women under Buddhism had the liberty to lead an independent life and go about their own business. The Buddha by granting women an active share in the religious life, also helped to raise their status in secular life as well.

However the admission of women into the Order was a step too advanced for the period and became short-lived. Whenever an innovation or improvement was in advance of the thinking and development of a people during a particular era, the people were unable to adapt themselves to the improved conditions and tended to regress back to the society that they were used to. They failed to master the situation. Hostile propaganda by the Brahmins, who found their caste system undermined and privileges giving way, was also a factor that caused the decline of the Order.

In Sri Lanka, the Order of Nuns flourished till 1017 A.C. in the reign of King Mahinda IV. It then disappeared and was not revived again. But the Order of Nuns was introduced into China by Sinhalese nuns, and still exists there as well as in Japan today. However, in the Mahayana tradition they occupy a subordinate place, and are by no means on par with the monks.


With the advent of the modern era in the 19th and 20th centuies, a far cry from the days of the Buddha, women's emancipation and quest for freedom and equality achieved tremendous strides, particularly in the West. This was the result of modem trends and modern education for women in all seats of higher learning.

Lead by Susan B. Anthony, American woman’s rights pioneers unfurled the flag of equality for women in the year 1848 -just slightly over 130 years ago. Since then, the movement and struggle, with wider objectives, has forged ahead all over the world under the inspired leadership of many capable and leading pioneer women and women's organizations. These leaders believed that women had a role to play in patriotic fellowship with their men-folk in contributing to the building of a better world through creating a better society and country.

Since 1848, the world has witnessed innumerable popular organized movements for equal educational opportunities, equal political rights and economic equality for women. In the West, the status of women was enhanced by the conditions generated by the industrial revolution, humanitarian movements and women's movement for equality. In Asia and other countries which were not so industrially advanced, the change was brought about by reformers with a strong religious background.

During the last fifty to sixty years, the process of increasing women's participation in the economic, social and political life of their countries has been moving forward steadily. The success achieved by women in the twentieth century can only be described as phenomenal. Many women have achieved success in their various fields of endeavor - in social science, in business, in economics and in the political field. In some countries, women had even succeeded in capturing the top-most political appointments - as Prime Ministers of their lands - although ironically enough, in certain countries, women have yet to be given the franchise - the right to vote!

International action to raise the status of women began in a small way with the defunct League of Nations, after the first World War. Subsequently the United Nations Charter went further to grant the principles of equality and freedom to all women. The Commission on the status of women, an organ of the United Nations, probed the question of discrimination based on sex and deliberated issues such as the political rights of women, equal pay for equal work, the status of women in common law, the nationality of married women, educational and economic opportunities for women, and technical assistance and participation by women.

Though much had been accomplished through women's suffrage and international organizations such as those sponsored by the United Nations in relation to greater women's participation in the social, economic and political fields, it is pertinent to observe that real freedom for women is yet to be achieved.

Real freedom is freedom from all forms of bondage. It can be achieved only through proper spiritual development and purification of one's own mind - purging and cleansing oneself from all taints of greed, hatred and delusion. No amount of public debates, demonstrations and universal charters could bring true freedom - except through one's own diligence and heedfulness by the regular practice of meditation as taught by the Buddha.

For promoting the cause of women, the Buddha can be considered the first emancipator of women and promoter of a democratic way of life. It is to the eternal credit of the Buddha-Dhamma that women were not despised and looked down on but were given equal status with men in their spiritual endeavors to gain wisdom and Nibbana.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Buddhist Women in India and Pre-Colonial Sri Lanka by Lorna DeWaraja

[This article was originally published in the Buddhist Women Across Cultures edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Delhi, Sri Satguru Publications, 2000]

How should the women’s nature hinder us?
Whose hearts are firmly set, who ever move
With growing knowledge onward in the Path?
What can that signify to one in whom
Insight doth truly comprehend the Norm?[1]

These words were uttered twenty-five centuries ago by a Buddhist nun named Soma, when Mara, the "Evil One," Sneered and jeered her while she was mediating: "How could you women with your ‘two-finger wisdom’ ever hope to attain a higher mental state which even the sages find hard to reach?" There was a popular notion in India that, although women cook rice daily throughout their lives, they can never learn how long it takes for the rice to cook; they need to take some grains in a spoon and press them with two fingers to test whether it is done. With her dignified retort to Mara’s abusive words, Soma challenged the notion of women’s inherent inferiority and their incapacity to attain higher mental or spiritual states. Here we have an example of a woman who defied the notion of sexual inequality 2,500 years before the, women’s liberation movement appeared in the West.

Sri Lanka attracted international attention in 1960 when Sirimavo Bandaranaike, a woman, was elected the country’s first woman prime minister. Sri Lankans, however, did not regard this as outrageous. It was no revolutionary deviation from tradition for a woman to rise to a position of importance and responsibility and no violation of social cultural norms for a woman to step into the male-dominated world of politics.

Of course, it cannot be argued that in Buddhist societies the position of women was equal to that of men, for the myth of male superiority is universal. Nevertheless, it can be demonstrated that women in Buddhist societies were relatively free from the extreme forms of discrimination and harassment that were characteristic of other major Asian cultures. In the present work I will examine the fundamental tenets of Buddhism to see whether there is a fundamental difference in attitudes toward men and women. Then I will discuss how Buddhist ideology influenced the position and status of women in India and Sri Lanka before the impact of the West was felt.

Examining the position of women in pre-Buddhist India on the basis of evidence in the earliest literature of the Indo-Aryans, the .Rgveda, it is clear that women held an honorable place in early Indian society. Women had access to the highest knowledge and could participate in all religious ceremonies. There were also a few hymns composed by women. Later, when the priestly Brahmin caste began to dominate society, it is apparent that religion lost its spontaneity and became a complex system of rituals. At this point, a downward trend in the position of women began.

The most relentless of Brahmin law-givers was Manu, considered the founder of social and moral order. From the outset, Manu deprived women of their religious rights and access to the spiritual life. As with people born into the lower castes, women were prohibited from reading the sacred texts, and could neither worship nor perform sacrifices on their own. A woman could not attain heaven through any merit of her own, but only through obedience to her husband. She was taught that a husband, even one devoid of good qualities, should be worshipped incessantly as a god.[2] Despite this humiliating subordination of women in the religious domain, there was always in India a parallel line of thought that glorified motherhood and idealized the concept of the feminine. In actual practice, however, Manu’s Code of Laws adversely influenced social attitudes toward women, especially in the higher rungs of society.

It is against this background that we must view the emergence of Buddhism in northern India in the sixth century B.C.E. There are records of long conversations the Buddha had with his female disciples. The devout benefactress Visaakhaa frequented the monastery decked out in all her finery. Accompanied by a maidservant, she attended to the needs of the celibate monks. The Buddha's liberal attitude toward women has had a great impact on the behavior of both men and women in Buddhist societies. This is not to suggest that the Buddha inaugurated a campaign for the liberation of Indian womanhood, but he did create a minor stir by speaking out against prevailing dogma and superstition. He condemned the caste structure dominated by Brahmins and denounced excessive ritual and sacrifice. Denying the existence of a creator God, he emphasized emancipation through individual effort.

The Buddhist doctrine of salvation through an individual’s own efforts presupposes the spiritual equality of all beings, male and female. This assertion of women’s spiritual equality, explicitly enunciated in the texts has had a significant impact on social structures and how women are viewed in the world. Women and men alike are able to attain the Buddhist goal by following the prescribed path; no external assistance in the form of a priestly intermediary or veneration of a husband is necessary. In domestic life in ancient India, religious observances and sacrifices were performed jointly by husband and wife. In Buddhism, however, all religious activities, whether meditation or worship, are acts of self-discipline created by individuals, independent of one's partner or outside assistance.

In patriarchal societies, the desire for male offspring for the continuation of the patrilineage is very strong. And in Indian society, the importance attached to ritual led to an even stronger desire to beget sons, for only a son could perform the funeral rites and thus ensure the future happiness of the deceased. Indeed, a father was believed to achieve immortality through a son's intercession. This custom was so widespread that a wife without sons could be legally superseded by a second or even a third wife, or even be turned out of the house.[3] By contrast, a Buddhist funeral ceremony is a very simple rite that can be performed by the widow, the daughter, or anyone else. Future happiness does not depend on funeral rites, but on an individual's actions while living

The birth of a daughter was a cause for lamentation in society at that time, but the Buddha did not concur with this view. It is a well known that when King Pasenadi of Kosala came grieving that his queen Mallika had given birth to a daughter, the Buddha said: "A female offspring/ 0 king, may prove even nobler than a male."[4] Even today, the birth of girl children may be mourned. A report prepared to mark South Asia's Year of the Girl Child says that, although girls are born biologically stronger, three hundred thousand more girls than boys die each year.[5] Many are aborted after sex detection tests. A study conducted in 1984 mentions that 7,999 of 8,000 aborted fetuses tested at a Bombay clinic were female. Although it is rampant in India today, the custom of female infanticide seems to have been extremely rare in Buddhist times.

In Buddhism, unlike in Christianity and Hinduism, marriage is not a sacrament. It is a purely secular contract and Buddhist monks do not participate in it. In Sri Lankan, Thai, and Burmese society, there is much ceremony and merrymaking connected with weddings, but these are not of a religious nature. Nevertheless, in the Sigaalovaada Sutta the Buddha gives advice of a very practical nature to a young layman on how spouses should treat one another. The marital union is approached in a spirit of warm fellowship and is not raised to an exalted spiritual level. These instructions can be summarized as follows: Husbands should respect their wives and comply as far as possible with their requests. They should not commit adultery. They should give their wives full charge of the home and supply them with fine clothes and jewelry, as far as their means permit. Wives should be thorough in their duties, gentle and kind to the whole household, chaste, careful in housekeeping duties, and should carry out their work with skill and enthusiasm.

The significant point is that the Buddha’s injunctions are applicable to both parties. The marital relationship is a reciprocal one with mutual rights and obligations, which was a momentous departure from ideas prevailing at his time. For instance, Manu says, "Offspring, the due performance of religious rites, faithful service, highest conjugal happiness and heavenly bliss for one’s ancestors and oneself depend on one’s wife alone."[6] Similarly, Confucian codes detailed the duties of son to father, wife to husband, and daughter-in-law to mother-in-law, but never vice versa.[7] Wives had only duties and obligations, while husbands had only rights and privileges. In the Buddha’s injunctions, by contrast, domestic duties and relationships were reciprocal, whether between husband and wife, parent and child, or master and servant. Theoretically, therefore, a Buddhist marriage is a contract between equals, even if social practice does not necessarily conform to the ideal.

European authors describing Buddhist societies have commented favorably on the position of women. For instance, a British visitor in the late eighteenth century says, "The Cingalese women are not merely the slaves and mistresses but in many respects the companions and friends of their husbands….The Cingalese neither keep their women in confinement nor impose on them any humiliating constraints."[8] Commenting on the situation in Burma in 1878, Lieutenant General Albert Fytche, wrote that "woman holds among them a position of perfect freedom and independence. She is with them not a mere slave of passion, but has equal rights and is the recognized and duly honored helpmate of man, and in fact bears a more prominent share in the transactions of the more ordinary affairs of life than is the case perhaps with any other people either eastern or western."[9] These and other references by European writers to women in me Buddhist societies of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet make it clear that, long before the impact of Westernization was felt, women held an honorable place within the institution of marriage.

Marriage and family are basic to all societies and the position of women in a given society is reflected in the status she holds within these institutions. Marriage contracts, in particular - whether a woman has the same rights as her husband to dissolve the marriage bond and to remarry - are primary indicators of women’s rights. In many Asian cultures, a woman is irrevocably bound by the chains of matrimony, whereas a man can dissolve the contract with ease. In Sri Lankan Buddhist society, however, marriages receive no religious sanction and Sinhala law provides for the dissolution of marriage contracts and the remarriage of both partners. This is indicated as early as 1769 in a document presenting the orthodox and official view on the subject at the time. The Dutch, who were ruling the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka, wished to codify the laws and customs of the island. The Dutch Governor Iman Willem Faick (1765-83) sent a questionnaire to the eminent Buddhist monks in Kandy and recorded their answers in a document called the Lakraja lo sirita.[10] According to this document, both husband and wife are allowed to initiate action for dissolving a marriage contract by proving the improper conduct of a spouse before a court of law. After divorce, both husband and wife were free to remarry and the wife was treated very liberally. There are records of the remarriage of many divorced women, among the royalty, nobility, and common folk. Robert Knox, a British sailor who was shipwrecked and spent nineteen years in the Kandyan kingdom, from 1660 to 1679, left a fascinating account of the socioeconomic conditions of the time. With regard to marriage customs, he writes, "But if they chance to mislike one another and part asunder… then she is fit for another man, being as they account never the worse for wearing"[11]

In ancient India a widow was expected to lead a life of strict celibacy and severe austerity upon the demise of her husband, for she was thought to be bound to him beyond death. Furthermore, she lost her social and religious status and was considered a most unfortunate person. In Buddhism, by contrast, death is considered a natural and inevitable end for all beings. As a result, a woman suffers no moral degradation on account of widowhood, nor is her social status altered in any way. In Sri Lankan society, a widow does not have to proclaim her widowhood in any tangible way, such as relinquishing her ornaments, shaving her head, or practicing self-mortification, Robert Knox observes, "These women are of a very strong courageous spirit, taking nothing very much to heart, mourning more for fashion than affection, never overwhelmed neither with grief or love. And when their husbands are dead, all they care is where to get others, which they cannot long be without."[12] The remarriage of widows was prevalent even in the royal family, with no stigma attached. As one example, when Vimala Dharma Suriya I (1594-1605) of Kandy died, his successor Senarat (1605-1635) married his widow.

In many societies, wives are regarded as the personal property of their husbands. The custom of slaying, sacrificing, or burying a woman alive with her deceased husband’s other possessions, has been found in lands as far removed as Africa, America, and India. The best known example is the sati ritual, self-immolation of high-caste Hindu widows, a custom unknown in the .Rgveda. Although the custom was never widespread, isolated instances continue in India even today, and it is questionable whether all cases are voluntary. The sati ritual is unknown in Sri Lanka or any other Buddhist society.

The social freedom enjoyed by women in Buddhist societies has evoked comment from many Western observers. Although women were not equal in status, a complete lack of segregation of the sexes has distinguished Buddhist societies from those of the Middle East, the Far East, and the Indian subcontinent, where segregation has often lead to the seclusion and confinement of women behind walls and veils. In contradistinction to the Confucian code, which sets forth detailed rules on etiquette between women and men, early Buddhist literature describes the free intermingling of the sexes. Even celibate monks and nuns mingled freely with the rest of society.

The free social intercourse between men and women in Sri Lanka in the seventeenth century surprised Robert Knox: "The men are not jealous of their wives for the greatest ladies of the land will frequently talk and discourse with any men they please although their husbands be in presence." In 1928, Sir Charles Bell, British political representative in Tibet, Bhutan, and Sikkim, wrote about Tibetan women: "They are not kept in seclusion as are Indian women. Accustomed to mix with the other sex throughout their lives they are at ease with men and can hold their own as well as any women in the world." He continues, "And the solid fact remains that in Buddhist countries women hold a remarkably good position, Burma, Ceylon and Tibet exhibit the same picture."

The Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha, or Order of Buddhist Nuns

There are certain sections of the Paali canon that are devoted entirely to nuns. For instance, the Theriigaaathaa, or Psalms of the Sisters, consisting entirely of verses attributed to seventy-three women who became spiritually realized theriis (nun elders), is unique in any literature. There is also the Apadana, or biographies in verse of forty nuns who were the Buddha’s contemporaries. During the life of the Buddha, his aunt and foster mother, Mahaapajaapatii, was the leader of a movement clamoring for the admission of women to the Sa"ngha. When the Buddha showed reluctance to allow this, Mahaapajaapatii and hundreds of other women shaved their heads, donned the yellow robe like the monks, walked barefoot to the monastery where the Buddha lived, and rallied outside. This constitutes the first time in recorded history that women marched in procession demanding equal rights.

AAnanda, the Buddha’s faithful disciple, seeing these aristocratic women with swollen, bleeding feet, pleaded on their behalf. He approached the Buddha, asking whether women were as capable as men in leading a life of contemplation and attaining the goal of final emancipation, or nibbaana. The Buddha's reply was affirmative. If so, AAnanda argued, then it is proper that women be allowed to leave the house-hold life, join the Sa"ngha, and strive toward their salvation. Though the Buddha finally consented to the admission of women to the order, it was on rather humiliating terms. The price of admission was their unequivocal acceptance of eight rules (a.t.tha garudhamma), all of which upheld the superiority of the monks.

The first rule is that, even if she has been ordained for a century, a bhikkhunii, or fully ordained nun, must rise up from her seat, greet respectfully, and salute a monk who had been ordained even that very day. The implications of these rules are perfectly compatible with the assumptions of other religions, namely, that all men, by virtue of their maleness, are spiritually superior to all women. However, it has been argued that these discriminatory rules were intended, in the context of the sixth century B.C.E., to maintain women’s status in society within the Sa"ngha and protect them from becoming completely dislocated from traditional mores and behavior, In all probability, the real reason for the Buddha’s reluctance to found an order of nuns was his desire to retain the approval of the laity. No religious or political leader, however broad his vision, can succeed if he forges far ahead of the masses, completely ignoring public opinion. Though not entirely without precedent (since the first order of nuns had already been established by the Jainas, a sect founded by the Buddha’s contemporary, Mahaaviira), the presence of single, independent women following religious careers of their own was still a very daring innovation.

Once the doors were flung open, however, there was an immediate impact, for women of all strata of society flocked to the cloister, where they could follow a culturally accepted lifestyle free from irksome masculine dominance. From many verses in the Theriigaathaa, it is clear how much the nuns relished their newly found independence, released from the shackles of patriarchal society and relieved from unpleasant domestic drudgery. For instance. Sister Mutta exulted, saying:

"0 free indeed’ 0 gloriously free am I,
Free from three crooked things:
From quern, from mortar, from my crooked lord!
Ay, but I am free from rebirth and death
And all that dragged me back is hurled away."

The Order of Nuns in Sri Lanka

The order of nuns begun by Mahaapajaapatii was introduced to Sri Lanka soon after the introduction of Buddhism. According to the Sri Lankan chronicle, the Mahaava.msa, the famous Emperor A"soka of India sent his daughter, the nun Sanghamitta, to Sri Lanka in the third century B.C.E. At the express request of the king of Sri Lanka Devanampiya Tissa (250-210 B.C.E.), whose kinswoman Anula wished to enter the order together with many women of the palace, Sanghamitta founded the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha.

As is clear from literary and archaeological evidence, women were the most enthusiastic supporters of the new faith from its very inception. The first to attain spiritual fulfillment were also women. A large number of inscriptions dating from the third to the first century B.C.E., written in the early Brahmi script, testify to the patronage extended by women to Buddhism during the early stages of its spread in Sri Lanka. Paranavitana writing in 1970 and basing his conclusion on evidence from the inscriptions he examined, says that the names of 91 male lay devotees (upaasaka) and 105 female lay devotees (upaasikaa) have been preserved. However, there are only ten bkikkhuniis or nuns among them, as opposed to nearly three hundred bhikkhus, or monks.

Compared with an abundance of architectural remains from the monks’ monasteries at ancient sites in Sri Lanka, there are few remains that can be identified as nunneries. This evidence indicates that nuns were not as numerous as monks. Nevertheless, it can be proven that there were learned, active, and adventurous women among them. The Diipava.msa, written in the forth century C.E., is the first redaction in Paali verse of the historical and ecclesiastical literature found in different monasteries in Sri Lanka in slightly varying recensions. While the author of the Mahaava.msa is known to be a monk named Mahaanaama, the author of the Diipava,msa, which predates it, is unknown. Chapter 18 of the DipoiwriSfl highlights the activities of the theriis, or nun elders, who were the spiritual descendants of Mahaapajaapatii.

It is clear from the Diipava.msa account that soon after its inception the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha spread throughout the island. The order consisted of women of all ages and from all levels of society, and at least those whose names are mentioned were well versed in the scriptures and imparted their knowledge to others. There was a strong tradition of learning and teaching among the nuns, and their forte was the study and exposition of the Vinaya, or rules of discipline.

In chapter 18 of the Diipava.msa, in five places the nuns are described as learned in religious history. The numerous references to theriis found in the Diipava.msa have led scholars to believe that the work was written by nuns. The Mahaava.msa, which was written by a monk over a century later, elaborates and expands on the information given in the Diipava.msa. Other than the arrival of Sanghamitta, however, there is little information about nuns. It is suspected that this may have been an attempt on the part of Mahaanaama to soft-pedal the achievements of women.

The nineteenth-century antiquarian Hugh Nevill draws attention to the "unique consequence given to nuns" in the Diipava.msa and feels that it affords a clue as to the text’s authorship. Malalasekere supports the view that this chronicle was the work of the community of nuns and R. A. L. H. Gunawardana concurs, based on the attitude adopted by the Diipava.msa toward the past history of the Sa"ngha. If this is the case, Gunawardana concludes, "It would appear that nuns not only excelled in their study of the Buddhist canon but were also among the pioneers in historiography in the island." He adds, "The emphasis laid in the chronicle on the intellectual accomplishments of nuns probably represents an attempt to counter the tendency among some monks to underestimate their capabilities."

Sri Lankan nuns seem to have emulated their founder Sanghamitta when they led delegations to foreign lands to spread the faith and establish the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha. The Chinese work Pi-chiu-ni-chuan, or The Biographies of Nuns, written in the sixth century, mentions that in the years 429 and 432 C.E. two groups of nuns arrived in China from Sinhala in a foreign merchant vessel belonging to a person named Nandi. They were housed in a nunnery in the Sung capital, learned the Chinese language, and ordained three hundred Chinese nuns. Although this event was considered important enough to be mentioned in Chinese histories, the Sri Lankan records are strangely silent about the achievements of these courageous women who braved a hazardous voyage across the seas to spread the order of nuns.

Another renowned nun who ventured abroad was the Sinhala nun Candramaali, a scholar of the Tantric sect. Un-honored and unsung in her motherland, she undertook the rigorous journey across the Himalayas to Tibet in the eleventh century. From the Tibetan and Mongolian versions of the Tripi.taka, we learn that Candramaali translated Buddhist Tantric texts in collaboration with a Tibetan monk named Ye Ses. It is likely that she is the author of a text that bears her name, the "Srii Candramaalaa-tantraajaa.

Surveying the position of women in India in pre-Vedic times, it is apparent that women enjoyed religious freedoms that became curtailed under Brahmin dominance. Subsequently, with the spread of Buddhism, there is evidence of a positive correlation between Buddhist tenets of spiritual equality and social freedoms for women, as evident in marriage and funeral customs. Although a preference for male offspring in Buddhist societies is evident, sons are not indispensable at funerals and extreme forms of discrimination are not found. Women had equal rights in religious practice and could practice the life of a renunciant as a member of the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha.

Likewise in precolonial Sri Lanka, whether as wives, workers, widows, spinsters, or nuns, women were respected members of society and performed duties other than childbearing. They participated in the main economic activity—paddy culture—and were preeminent in religious activities, a feature that is still evident today. Nuns not only led lives of seclusion, but as evident in various texts in the Paali canon, also made significant contributions as scholars. They excelled as teaches of religious doctrine and religious history and, as missionaries, undertook long voyages over land and sea to spread their faith. Despite the loss of the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha, this tradition of independence has continued for more than two thousand years, allowing women to play important roles in religion and government. In recent times, also, it has helped Sri Lankan women face the challenges of modernization without a violent disjunction from cultural norms.


[1] C. A. F. Rhys Davids, The Psalms of the Sisters (London: Paali Text Society, 1980), p. 45.

[2] Laws of Manu. trans. Georg Buhler, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 25 (Oxford, 1866), IX.10.

[3] Ibid., IX. 81.

[4] Quoted by I.B. Homer in Women in Early Buddhist Literature, wheel Publication no. 30 (Colombo, 1961), pp. 8-9.

[5] Government of India, The Lesser Child: The Girl in India, 1990.

[6] Laws of Manu, IX.28.

[7] The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Confucianism, trans. James Legge, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 28 (Oxford, 1879), p. 431.

[8] L. D. Campbell, The Miscellaneous Works of Hugh Boyd, with an Account of His Life and Writings (London, 1800), pp. 54-6. In 1782, Boyd was sent as an envoy to the Kandyan court by the British governor at Madras.

[9] Lt. General Albert Fytche, Burma Past and Present, vol. 2 (London,1878).

[10] Bishop Edmund Fieris, ed. and trans., Lakraja lo Sirita (Colombo; Ceylon Historic Manuscripts Commission, 1769), pp. 10-11. An English translation appears in an appendix to Anthony Bertolacci’s A View of the Agricultural, Commercial and Financial Interests of Sri Lanka (London, 1817).

[11] Robert Knox, A Historical Relation of Ceylon (Dehiwala: Tisara Frakasakaya, 1966), p. 149.

[12] Ibid.