The lady legend | Daily News


Establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sasana

The lady legend

The Buddha’s initial dismissal of the arrangements for a Bhikkhuni Sasana came in for much criticism from certain feminists and the ilk. They put forth the natural question: is a woman not entitled to final liberation? This position, however, shows the sheer ignorance on the part of the doubting Thomases. The Buddha’s dismissal was directed only at installing a Bhikkhuni Order. The Master’s audience was free of gender discrimination. For instance, his audience included the ladies, one-time close companions in his life: Maya the Great, Pajapathi and Yasodhara.

Prajapati, for that matter, was not alone. She had the support of 500 wives of princes. They all shaved their heads, wore yellow robes, and met monk Ananda. Only following monk Ananda’s continuous request did the Buddha accept the Bhikkhuni Sasana on a Binara Poya. Pajapathi became the first nun in the Buddhist order, albeit on eight conditions:

The monk shall be given priority in respect and deference over the nun.

The nun shall spend rain retreat away from the monks.

The nun shall seek consent from monks about Uposatha and teaching of Dhamma.

Upon violating a rule, the nun shall be punished before the community of both nuns and monks.

The nun shall confess any wrongdoing before the community of nuns and monks.

The nun shall be ordained before a gathering of nuns and monks.

The nun shall not treat a monk badly.

The nun shall not teach a monk.

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

Harmony disrupted

The Buddha consistently affirmed the capacity of the ‘fairer sex’ to achieve final liberation. On the flip side, however, the Buddha foresaw complications if an Order is established for ladies. If the monk order has the life span of 10,000 years, the Buddha went on to highlight, it will shrink down to 5000 years with the joining in of the females. He likened the Bhikkhuni participation as a house full of women exposed vulnerable to attackers of varied types. It will disrupt the harmony, essential for spiritual growth.

Suddhodana’s death left no reason for Pajapathi to remain laity. The lady had already attained the first stage of Buddhist sainthood, Sotapann, well before a Nun Order was established. She had enough spiritual grounds to approach the Buddha to initiate the Nun Order. The Blessed One visited Kapilavatthu to settle a conflict between Sakyans and Kolyans on obtaining water from River Rohini. The Buddha delivered a short yet powerful Dhamma talk, which is now known as Kalahavivada Sutta. The talk inspired 500 men to leave their household princely life. Their wives were left alone. Gothami had the support of this troop. The validity of Gothami’s ordination became an issue because certain nuns did not like to become nuns under her. The Buddha intervened and declared the validity of Gothami’s bhikkhuni status.

Gothami once made an elegant-looking robe for the Buddha with some signature material. The Buddha refused to accept it alone and recommended it should be offered to the entire order. Gothami was disconcerted, but then she realised it was to her own benefit – to accrue more merits.

No more re-becoming

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

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

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

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

Buddha! Hero! Praise be to you!
You foremost among all beings!
You who have released me from pain,
And so many other beings too.
All suffering has been understood.
The source of craving has withered.
Cessation has been touched by me
On the noble eight-fold path.
I’ve been mother and son before;
And father, brother — grandmother too.
Not understanding what was real,
I flowed-on without finding [peace].
But now I’ve seen the Blessed One!
This is my last compounded form.
The on-flowing of birth has expired.
There’s no more re-becoming now.

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

In terms of discipline too, the Buddha seems to have taken a firmer hold on the Bhikkhunis by making 311 rules for Bhikkhunis, in contrast of 227 for Bhikkhus.

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