Monday, July 9, 2012

Buddhism, Women, and the Culture of Awakening

Women and The Culture of Awakening

The Buddha did not just teach Dharma- the theory and practice of Awakening-or establish a sangha- a community of awakened disciples and specialized renunciant community- the Buddha established a parisad- a culture of awakening (see Pasadika Sutta DN 29). When the Buddha spoke of the culture of awakening he intended to establish, he spoke of it as having four parts- bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, upasakas and upasikas, ie. monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. It’s important to understand that when teachers spoke in ancient India- as in ancient Greece or Israel- they usually used the male pronoun to refer to “everyone”. The fact the Buddha did not do this- that every time he discusses the make-up of his culture of awakening he specifically mentions both men and women in both monastic and lay roles- is of great importance. The Buddha emphatically states that if any of these groups are missing from the culture of awakening it is incomplete, and his gift to the world would not last long. Further the Buddha said that creating a fourfold culture of awakening was not an innovation of his but was a distinctive feature of the teachings of all Buddhas past and future. In other words, establishing a fourfold culture of awakening is an inherent part of the very definition of “Buddha”. A Buddha establishes a culture of awakening, that is his gift to the world (sasanam). This culture must be, on all levels, inclusive of both men and women for it to fulfill the Buddha’s compassionate intention.

This position of the Buddha’s has been at times overlooked or, worse, covered up and hidden by those who aspired to make men as dominant in the culture of awakening as they were outside of it, or who believed, against the Buddha’s explicit statements to the contrary, that women were incapable of the higher levels of spiritual practice. One story in the Canon is a culprit in this regard: the story in the Vinaya of the fonding of the Nuns order. It presents the Buddha as having established it grudgingly and warning of the grave dangers associated with it. Recently several scholars have critically examined this narrative and different rescensions of it in the surviving Vinayas of differing schools. The consensus is that it is a late, polemical addition to the Vinaya. 

Recently Ven Analayo, a Theravadin monk-scholar, after examining the different rescensions of the story and other evidence from the canon, proposed a reconstruction of what was likely to have really happened in the founding of the nuns sangha: I retell the story below based on Analayo’s research. For more details on why the garudhammas (rules subjugating bhikkhunis) cannot date from the foundation of the bhikkhuni sangha by the Buddha:

The Story

Thus have I heard: At one time the Buddha was dwelling in Kapilavatthu, in the Nigrodha park, in the territory of his own clan, the Shakyas. At that time his foster mother Mahapajapati Gotami, visited the Buddha. After bowing to him with her head at his feet she sat down and asked him if women could attain the four stages of awakening as men could. The Buddha affirmed that they could, as he had on other occasions. Mahapajapati then made a bold request which would be the first step in completing the Buddha’s vision for his culture of awakening. She requested that women be allowed to go forward as homeless wanderers like men were, leaving behind home and family and living a contemplative life in the jungles and forests.

Gotami must have been very disappointed with the Buddha’s answer. The Buddha told her not to make that request. “Shave your head like the bhikkhus, wear ochre robes, and live at home as a celibate renunciant.”, he told her according to one version of the story. Home was a more protected environment. The jungle was a dangerous place for women wandererers. The Jains would also come to accept women as homeless sadhus in their community. In their rules of discipline, the famously nonviolent Jains state that whenever women stay in an overnight dwelling without lockable doors they are to station their stoutest member by the entrance with a big stick to fend off intruders with sexual assault on their minds. The women of the jungle were not protected by association with the male holders of power- and were therefore easy prey for predators.

Mahapajapati returned home and did as the Buddha asked. A few weeks later she returned again to where he was dwelling for the rains retreat, this time with shaven head and ochre robes as the Buddha had suggested, and repeated her request, but was again turned away. Mahapajapati returned home and began to gather around her like-minded women, who she instructed to shave their hair and don monastic robes like hers.

After the end of the rains retreat when the Buddha once again took to the road Gotami followed with her band of holy women. They caught up to the sangha in Nadika (or perhaps Vesali). The Buddha, seeing the number of women who had taken up the renunciant life with Gotami and braved the hardships of the road, was put at ease about their readiness to enter the homeless life and complete the parisad. The women had shown that despite mostly being ladies of the Shakyan royal court, they could handle the rigours of the homeless life, and that they now had enough numbers to assure eachothers safety. This time the Buddha granted Gotami`s request.

The Buddha`s decision was not without risk and controversy. Early records show that some of the monks worried that the laity upon whom they depended for their survival would lose faith in the holiness of a sangha that included women. Some laypeople distrusted supposed renunciant communities which were inclusive of women, suspecting the community of licentiousness and perversity. Some monks believed that admitting women would corrupt the purity of the community and shorten the lifespan of the Buddha`s teachings in the world. The Buddha must have known of these fears, yet he acted to create a community of female monastics anyway.  

Before the Buddha’s passing away he famously refused to appoint a succesor or to freeze the Sangha in the form he created, disavowing any sense of ownership of the parisad or the monastic sangha. Since the Buddha’s time the men of the parisad have had a mixed track record with regards to maintaining the Buddha’s inclusivity of women and affirmation of their potential. Within a few centuries of the Buddha’s death the female monastics had been put under eight “grave decrees” subjugating them to the Bhikkhu sangha, and their inclusion within the community of the homeless was seen as a danger to the Buddhist mission which needed to be guarded against and kept under male monastic control. A sutta was composed stating that although women could attain arahantship, they could not be samma-sambuddhas, or awakened religious founders- they could not be creators of a culture of awakening- a future goal some practitioners aspired to (to be reborn at a time when the Dhamma had disappeared and rediscover and re-establish it). This was solely a male perogative. This strange assertion, largely dealing with the realm of theory- since Buddhism had been founded on earth at that time, as now, there will be no need for another samma-sambuddha until it dies out again- this assertion seems to serve no purpose but revenge.

More reassuringly, some great Buddhist masters did not fail to attain a Buddha’s vision of women’s potential and rights. Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, wrote that those monks who refuse to pay homage to a nun even if she has aquired the Dharma “do not understand the dharma” and “are like animals far removed from the Buddhas and ancestors”. “What is there about a male intrinsically to esteem?”, he asked. “The female is no different from the male, so both female and male aquire the dharma without distinction.” Furthermore he argued, “If you detest women because they are objects of sexual desire, should you not also detest men, who are likewise objects of sexual desire?”

Bankei Kotaku (1622-1693), the great Rinzai Zen master, was once asked by a woman disciple how she could attain realization, obstructed as she was by her female body. Bankei replied:  "I can tell you something about this matter of women's Buddha Mind. I understand that women feel very distressed hearing it said that they can't become Buddhas. But it simply isn't so! How is there any difference between men and women? Men are the Buddha Body, and women are the Buddha Body too.” (Haskell, Peter. Unborn Zen)

In our time some Mahayana lineages have preserved the lineage of bhikkhunis and some haven't, or never even received it, as in the case of Tibet. In the Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese worlds there are full female monastics. In the Theravadin world the lineage was lost, and since the rules stipulate that only a bhikkuni can ordain a bhikkuni, there had been no movements to re-instate it until recently, when a number of women who wanted to be bhikkunis and bhikkus who support them conspired to restart the lineage by having Mahayana bhikshunis ordain them. This move has proven to be controversial, but is coming to be more and more accepted. A number of major Buddhist teachers support the principle, including HH the Dalai Lama, HH the Karmapa, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Bhikkhu Bodhi. The new Bhikkunis have gained significant support in the West and in Sri Lanka and India, and so far less so in Burma and Thailand. 

Most recently a renegade bhikkhu in the western Thai Forest Sangha, Ajahn Brahmavamso, broke with his fellows, who had created an interim type of Nun (shiladhara) in their monasteries and were awaiting the go ahead from the Thai Hierarchy to ordain full bhikkunis. His fellows included Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Sucitto and Ajahn Passano. He ordained some bhikkunis, but unfortunately his behaviour around the incident, which was apparently both hostile and deceptive to his former monastic comrades, as well as sensationalistic, has probably set back the general acceptance of ordaining bhikkunis in Thailand by a few more years. Nevertheless the over-all historical movement is clear, and it is only a matter of time before there are full bhikkunis throughout the Theravadin world again. Then there will be the issue of new rules for our day and age to sort out......

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