Buddhist Nuns - History - The First Ordination

The First Ordination

According to the available canon, Buddha was initially quite reluctant to ordain women into the Sangha. His stepmother and aunt, Mahaprajapati Gotami, made repeated requests on behalf of herself and five hundred other ladies of the court. These women had only known lives of comfort. Eventually, his attendant and half-brother Ananda (Mahaprajapati Gotami's son) relayed a final request, which was granted—but only on condition that the women accept eight garudhammas, or eight heavy rules. The Buddha is quoted by Thannisaro Bhikkhu as saying: Ananda, if Mahaprajapati Gotami accepts eight vows of respect, that will be her full ordination (upasampada). Modern scholars have shown that this story abounds in textual problems, and cannot possibly be a factual account.

According to the scriptural accounts, the reason the Buddha gave for his actions was that admission of women to the sangha would weaken it and shorten its lifetime to 500 years. This prophecy occurs only once in the Canon and is the only prophecy involving time in the Canon.

Some modern Buddhist scholars explain the Buddha's reluctance by noting that these women (many who were mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, cousins of many of the bhikkhus) might be subjected to rape, assault, sexual harassment and being termed "prostitutes and thieves", which in fact, did later occur as recorded in the Vinaya. One example as told in the Vinaya in which a Brahmin calling the bhikkhunis "strumpets" (i.e., prostitutes), tries to set fire to the bhikkhunis' dwelling:

Then that Brahmin . . . spread it about, saying:
These shaven headed strumpets are not true recluses. How can they
let a pot fall on my head? I will set fire to their dwelling,
Ă“ and having taken up a fire brand, he entered the dwelling.

In Young Chung noticed that society as recorded in the Vinaya always criticized the bhikkhunis more harshly using "shaven headed strumpets or whores", whereas the bhikkhus were simply called "shaven headed". This harsher treatment (which also included rape and assault) of bhikkhunis by society required greater protection. Within these social conditions, Gautama Buddha opened up new horizons for women by founding the bhikkhuni sangha. This social and spiritual advancement for women was ahead of the times and, therefore, drew many objections from men, including bhikkhus. He was probably well aware of the controversy that would be caused by the harassment of his female disciples."

Early Buddhism did not have monasteries and it was a requirement of the bhikkhus and early bhikkhunis to spend a lot of time in the forests alone, but due to the consequent rape and assault of some of the bhikkhunis by outsiders recorded in the Vinaya-- Buddha eventually forbade women from wandering in forests away from society. Bhikkhunis eventually resided in more fixed residences near populated areas than the bhikkhus.

According to some modern Buddhist apologists, most of the rules (including the more controversial 8 Garudhammas) of the Bhikkhuni Vinaya are more for the protection of the bhikkhunis by association with the more senior Sangha of the male bhikkhus and thus the homage for protection and teaching the newer Bhikkhuni Sangha and not "sexual discrimination". Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh writes, "Nuns at the time of the Buddha had equal rights and an equal share in everything. In one case, eight robes were offered to both sanghas at a place where there was only one nun and four monks. The Buddha divided the robes in half, giving four to the nun and four to the monks, because the robes were for both sanghas and had to be divided equally however many were in each group. Because the nuns tended to receive fewer invitations to lay-people's homes, the Buddha had all offerings brought to the monastery and equally divided between the two sanghas. He protected the nuns and was fair to both parties. They are subordinate in the sense of being younger sisters and elder brothers, not in the sense of being masters and slaves." The Vinaya does not allow for any power-based relationship between the monks and nuns.

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