Daughters of the Buddha

The role of women in early Buddhism: a realist approach to gender issues,

written by Davide Puglisi, Buddhist Realists’ Global Movement-Milan (Italy)

The Buddha was the founder of the women’s liberation movement. The Buddha was the first to ordain women, hitherto subjected to the Brahmins. The Buddha’s message is Compassion and wisdom, heart and mind. The Buddha is the personification of great compassion and great wisdom. This is the realistic way. The Buddha Dharma is like the clouds that send rain on all men regardless of country, race or religion. The Dharma has no boundaries, it is in all times and in all places. The truth is simple, it is men who have complicated it. “

Rev. Dr. Sumana Siri

Historical context

In order to understand the attitude of the Buddha towards women, it is of crucial importance to understand the historical-cultural context in which the founder of Buddhism lived and preached; according to venerable Piyadassi Thera,
“When Buddha Siddhartha Gautama appeared in India 2600 years ago, women were relegated to a subservient and abject social position. In that historical period, in the rest of the civilized world, which stretched from China to Greece, the status of women was vile and degrading. Today, it is universally recognized that the Buddha, as the founder of a religion that has spread far and wide in the world, proposed one of the most magnificent and monumental philosophies in the history of thought. But the equally important role played by the Buddha as a social reformer and cultural revolutionary is often forgotten by historians of Buddhism. Among the changes caused in the social fabric of his time are the annihilation of the pernicious caste system and the emancipation of women “. [1]

As pointed out by the venerable Piyadassi, Gautama Buddha was known to have had quite a liberal positions for his time, so much so that he was pointed out by his opponents as a “destroyer of traditions”; in one occasion, when King Pasenadi of Kosala went to complain that the queen consort had given birth to a female heir, the Buddha reprimanded him, (not without a dose of sarcasm!) by telling him:

“In fact, some women are better than men, O Sovereign of the People, when she is wise and virtuous ..”.

-Mallikāsutta, Samyutta Nikāya, 3.16

Moreover, as a wise and balanced person that he was, the Buddha recognized the fundamental equality between men and women, without however denying the differences between the two genders; in a sutta from the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha lists a series of characteristics that differentiate women from men:

“There are five forms of suffering to which a woman is specifically subjected, to which a man is not subject: first of all, a woman, when still young, goes to live with her husband’s family and to abandon her family; moreover, she is subject to menstruation, pregnancy, the pains of childbirth and having to serve her husband. These are the five forms of suffering to which a woman is specifically subjected .. “

Āveṇikadukkhasutta, Samyutta Nikaya 37.3

elsewhere in the pāli canon, we read:

“There are these five typical powers of a woman. Which five? Beauty, wealth, parentage, children and ethical behavior. These are the five powers of a woman. A housewife endowed with these five powers keeps her husband under her own dominion” .
-SN 37.27

With regard to these peculiar characteristics of the female gender ponited out by the Buddha, it is important to understand that these are cultural and sociological elements that do not concern the spiritual and religious sphere; therefore, despite the differences that existed (and still partially exist) from the social, biological and psychological standpoint between men and women, from a pure Dharmic perpective, the enlightened mind does not conceive of any gender discrimination; as stated by the nun Soma in the Sutta that bears her name:

“What does it matter to be a woman,
if the mind is well concentrated,
knowledge flows smoothly,
and rightly one sees the Dhamma in depth;
Whoever you think:
‘I am a woman’,
or ‘I am a man’,
or ‘whatever else’,
he is suitable for the [misleading] discourses of Māra “

Establishing the Nun’s Order

Regarding the role of women within the spiritual community he founded, the Buddha was the first leader in human history to sanction the de facto equality between men and women, explicitly stating that the latter have the same ability of the former to walk the buddhist path up to the final fruit of liberation:

Then the venerable Ānanda spoke thus to the Blessed One: “Lord, it is feasible that a woman who has left the house to follow the Dhamma and the discipline taught by the Tathāgata, can realize the ‘entry into the stream’, ‘the state of one who returns once ‘, the state’ of no return ‘and the state of arahant’? “

«Certainly Ānanda. this is possible .. “

-Vinayapiṭaka, Cūḷavagga, Bhikkhunikkhandhaka, 1. Mahāpajāpatigotamīvatthu

This powerful statement paved the way for the establishment of the Female monastic Order (Bhikkhuni Sangha), albeit among many organizational and practical difficulties; such difficulties prompted the Buddha and his closests assistant monks to formulate a set of ad hoc norms, known as “The Eight Important Rules,” aimed at making the larger community of devotees and lay supporters swallow the bitter morsel.

Daughters of the Buddha

Among the main disciples of the Buddha we find: Pajapati Gotami, the maternal aunt of the Buddha and the first woman to receive monastic ordination; Ambapali, a wealthy courtesan who later entered the order; Kisa Gotami, a relative of the Buddha from mother side, protagonist of the well-known discourse on the sesame grain; the young Rajjumala, a slave from the village of Gaya, committed to suicide, saved in extremis by the compassionate words of the Buddha; the nuns Soma and Dhammadinnā; Punnika the outcast and Patacara, a woman who lost her whole family to unfortunate events, to whom the Buddha offered support and shelter; Visakha the benefactress of Savatthi, financier of the order; Queen Mallika of Kosala who was protagonist in a number of sutras and Baddhakaccana (Yasodhara), the then wife of Prince Siddharta.

In the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha himself had praised his female disciples, both nuns and laywomen, highlighting the peculiarities of each of them:

“Monks, of my nun disciples, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī is the most venerable. Khemā for high wisdom. Uppalavaṇṇā for psychic powers. Paṭācārā in maintaining monastic discipline. Dhammadinnā in the exposition of the Dhamma. Nanda is prominent in the development of the levels of meditation [jhana]. Soṇā for constant application. Sakulā for clairvoyance. Bhaddā Kuṇḍalakesā for instant realization of the Dhamma. Bhaddā Kāpilānī in remembering previous births. Bhaddakaccānā for great wisdom. Kisāgotamī for wearing rough clothes. Siṅgālakamātā for liberation through trust ”.

“Monks, of my lay disciples, the first to take the three refuges was Sujātā Seniyadhītā. Visākhā Migāramātā is prominent among the donors. Khujjuttarā is the one I learned the most. Sāmāvatī for the development of loving kindness. Uttarānandamātā for the development of the meditation stages. Suppavāsā Koliyadhītā among those who give refined things. Suppiyā, the lay devotee, for assistance to the sick. Kātiyānī, for the faith born of knowledge. Nakulamātā, the mother of the family, for reliability. Kāḷī kuraragharikā, the lay devotee, whose confidence in her is based on what she has heard ”.

The Buddha’s openness towards women is admirably expressed in the following dialogue between a pupil of his named Punnikaā, a former servant and aspiring nun, and a Brahmin engaged in ritual ablutions; (note the lashing and anything but subordinate tone with which Punnika addresses the Brahmin):

[Punnika:] “I am a water carrier, cold, and in carrying the water I am afraid of the beating of the mistress, so that she lives tormented by her words and by her anger. But you, Brahmin, what are you afraid of, while carrying the water, trembling and cold? “ .

[The Brahmin:] “Punnika, you certainly know, that you are asking the one who has good kamma and has transcended evil. Anyone, young or old, with bad kamma, is freed from bad kamma through ablutions.”

[Punnika:] “Who teaches this, ignorant of the ignorant – ‘Do we get rid, through water ablutions, of bad kamma?’ If so, they will be reborn in the celestial worlds: frogs, turtles, snakes, crocodiles and all creatures that they live in the water. Butchers, fishermen, hunters, thieves, murderers, could, with water ablutions, free themselves from bad kamma. If these rivers take away the bad kamma performed in the past, they will also take away the merits, and therefore we will be completely left to ourselves. Whatever your fear, when carrying water, do not abandon yourself. Don’t let the cold hit you. ‘

[The Brahman:] “I was following a sad path, good woman, and you brought me back to the noble one. I give you this robe for ablutions with water “.

[Punnika:] “Keep it. I do not need. If you are afraid of pain, if you do not like pain, then do not do any bad kamma, whether in secret or in public. But if you do bad kamma, you will not be free from pain when you leave this life. If you are afraid of pain, if you don’t like pain, take refuge in the Awakened, take refuge in the Dhamma and Sangha. Respect the precepts: which will lead you to liberation.

[The Brahmin:] “I take refuge in the Awakened, in the Dhamma and in the Sangha. I will respect the precepts that will lead me to liberation. Before, I was a descendant of Brama, now I’m really a Brahman. I possess the triple knowledge, perfect in knowledge, free and pure”.

Therīgāthā 12.1


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