When Ananda approached the Buddha and spoke on behalf of Mahapajapati, he asked why Buddha was reluctant to allow women into the sangha. Ananda asked, “Is it because women do not experience the same potential as men to become enlightened?”
Buddha replied in the negative. “Women have equal ability as men to become enlightened”
However, in some Asian countries, it's believed that only men are able to find enlightenment. For these women, their only hope is to practice Buddhism diligently and be born in a male body for their next lifetime.
Words of Advice Given To Laywomen
This advice has been given to laywomen in the Buddhist writings, Anguttara Nikaya:
· Be capable at one’s work.
· Work with diligence and skill.
· Handle domestic help skillfully (when relevant) and always treat them reasonably.
· Perform household chores with efficiency.
· Be gracious to one’s in-laws and friends.
· Be faithful to one’s husband; guard and invest family earnings.
· Discharge tasks lovingly and conscientiously.
· Practice the 5 precepts and practice moral discipline.
· Practice generosity (cultivate a mind free from stinginess or avarice; delight in charity, giving and sharing).
· Seek out wisdom and recognize that nothing at all is ever permanent.
The Bhikkuni Sangha
A bhikkuni is an a Buddhist nun who is ordained.
The first bhikkuni order began with Mahapajapati and her band of 500 women of noble birth.
When the Emperor Ashoka sent his son to Sri Lanka as a Buddhist Missionary, 200 years later, he learned about a princess who shared an interest in joining the sangha. To make this happen though, both bhikkus and bhikkunis were needed. In addition to this, a minimum of five bhikkunis, who would make up the foundation for the order, was also necessary. The Emperor Ashoka’s daughter, a devoted Buddhist nun, was sent to Sri Lanka (at her own insistence), to create the sangha there. When Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitta arrived in Sri Lanka, hundreds of other women joined as well. That was a major step forward for Buddhist Women, marking the establishment of the first Bhikkuni Sangha outside of India.
The Bhikkuni order in Sri Lanka flourished until the country was attacked in 1017. War has been the largest downfall of many other Bhikkuni orders all throughout the planet. For more than 1000 yrs., the Bhikkuni lineage has remained broken throughout countries such as Tibet, Thailand and various Asian countries. In 2007, Buddhist leaders of every tradition met in Germany at the International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role within the Sangha to re-establish the bhikkuni ordination. The Dalai Lama gave his total support and the delegates unanimously voted to re-establish the Bhikkuni ordination. However, many of the details are still being worked out. The Dalai Lama said that if Buddha were present, he would likely agree, but since he is not, he (the Dalai Lama) can’t act as Buddha.
So where does that leave Buddhist women of today? Throughout the majority of of the world, bhikkunis are still subservient to bhikkus. Nobody can say if Buddha intended for women to be treated as inferior or if the stories were merely woven out of whole cloth by the people wanting to remain in power, but they are treated as genuine, regardless. Those people who seek power will find it where they can, so Buddha’s real intentions may never be known, regarding the subjugation of women. That is especially relevant in patriarchal countries such as Thailand, in which there is no bhikkuni ordination, and where women who had been ordained in Sri Lanka are not acknowledged as bhikkunis by the Thai sangha.
Tricia Stirling has written this course for the Universal Life Church Seminary. This is an excerpt of one lesson (of 30) from the Master of Buddhist Studies Course offered through the Universal Life Church Seminary. We have many courses available and each one carries with it an earned degree.
Amy is the President of the Universal Life Church Seminary and author of multiple books and courses on ceremonies and various spiritual belief systems.