Mar Ngok Summer Teachings Day 8
“Ananda was handsome in appearance and naturally gentle. These characteristics made him attractive to many people, especially women.”
Speaking on the third topic of early Buddhism, His Holiness Karmapa focused on Ananda and his attitude toward women, quoting a sutra from his in-depth research.
In the “Sutra of the Buddha’s Skillful Means in Repaying Kindness” (Mahopāya-kauśalya-buddha-pratyupakāraka-sūtra), a Mahayana sutra translated into Chinese during the Han dynasty, it says:
Ananda was the condition for women to enter the Buddha’s teaching. Gautamī, (King Suddodhana’s second wife, also known as Mahāprajāpatī or Prajāpatī), in the future, bhikshunis, laywomen, and women should always think of Ananda and pray to him one-pointedly. Venerate and respect him, call him by name, and continually be grateful to him. Or else do not forget him in the six times day and night; remember him. Gautamī, instruct the bhikshunis and women thus: ask the teacher Ananda for protection. Any woman who wants happiness, auspiciousness, and to achieve the result, should always put on new clean clothes on the eighth day of the second month of spring and eighth day of the second month of fall, swear one-pointedly to follow the eight rules for one day, and be continually diligent and make offerings. Ananda will protect her miraculously, and her wishes will be fulfilled.
To illustrate further the significance of Ananda’s position, the Karmapa produced a thangkha of an early Indian Avalokiteshvara with Ananda standing beneath one hand, which he had requested one of his friends to paint for the Arya Kshema nuns’ teaching. In the Tengyur, he explained, there was also a reference to a 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara ritual. During this ritual, at the point where the practitioner requests the siddhis, Avalokiteshvara emanates as Ananda. The Karmapa added that he had partly completed a “Ritual for the Nun’s Dharma to Flourish”, to practice during the second month of spring and autumn. The thangkha reinforces the fact that the Buddha told the nuns they should pay homage to Ananda, said the Karmapa, and how Mahāprajāpatī had said that Ananda would be their protector and help them fullfil their wishes.
As recorded in the Vinaya scriptures, it was Ananda who supported and encouraged the formation of the bhikshuni sangha. Without Ananda, there would have been only a threefold Buddhist community.
How Ananda Supported the Ordination of Women
The Karmapa recounted the event according to the Tibetan Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition from the “Finer Points of the Vinaya” (Vinayakṣudrakavastu). It tells how Mahāprajāpatī arrived with five hundred Shakya women while the Buddha was staying at Banyan Park in Kapilavastu. His Holiness commented that the Theravadan account adds that this was the Buddha’s second visit to Kapilavastu and followed the death of his father King Śuddhodana.
After they had prostrated and sat down, the Buddha taught the dharma to encourage and inspire them and then sat in silence. At that moment, Prajāpatī made her first request. “If women have the opportunity to achieve the four results of the spiritual way, then please allow women to go forth, become bhikshunis, and practice chaste conduct in the Buddhist sangha.”
“Gautamī,” replied the Buddha, “wear the white clothes of a householder as you do now, and practice chaste conduct for the rest of your life. This will bring you long-lasting benefit and happiness.” In other words, he said, continue to be a lay householder. Prajāpatī made the request three times, but the Buddha spoke as he had before and did not allow them to go forth and become bhiksunis.
The second request was made when the Buddha was in the area of Nādikā. Prajāpatī and the same five hundred Shakya women shaved their own heads, donned dharma robes, and followed the Buddha there. If a woman shaved her head, it meant her husband had died, the Karmapa explained.
When Prajāpatī finally sat in his presence, she looked exhausted and the dust from her journey completely covered her body. Again the Buddha spoke words of encouragement; then sat in silence as before. Prajāpatī seized the opportunity once again to ask him to allow women to go forth and become bhikshunis. The Buddha repeated his previous reply: it was alright for them to shave their heads, wear dharma robes, and practice chaste conduct, but he did not allow them to become bhikshunis.
How Ananda Interceded and the Buddha Accepted
After the Buddha had rejected her request for a sixth time, Prajnapati sat in a corner outside his door, crying her eyes out. When Ananda saw her, he immediately asked, “Why are you sitting here crying?”
“The Buddha has not allowed women to be ordained as bhikshunis,” she replied.
Ananda decided to intercede. “You wait here. I will go in to ask the Buddha.”
Ananda phrased the question skillfully: (though the question appears only in the Chinese translation, not the Tibetan)
“Bhagavan, if women go forth, in the dharma vinaya and are fully-ordained as bhikshunis, and practice chaste conduct stably, will they attain the four results of the spiritual way? Or will they not?”
“They will,” replied the Bhagavan.
“If that is so,” Ananda requested, “please allow women to go forth. The Buddha replied, “Do not request that women go forth and be ordained as bhikshunis. If women go forth into the dharma vinaya, it will not remain a long time.” He gave 3 different analogies:
- Bandits will plunder a house where there are many women and few men.
- When hailstones fall torrentially on a field of bountiful sālu rice, the sālu rice is ruined, and unusable.
- When a bountiful sugarcane field is infected with rust, the sugarcane becomes unusable and is wasted.
Ananda, similarly, if women go forth, this dharma vinaya will not remain a long time, the Buddha warned.
The Social Context of the Eight Heavy Dharmas
The position of women in Indian society at the time of the Buddha was at an extremely low point. In order to interact skillfully with the social structure, the Buddha had to assert the prominence of the male sangha, the bhikshus. The rules of the eight heavy dharmas were the conditions he put into place for going forth, described with analogies. As said in the “Finer Points of the Vinaya”:
Just as the farmer builds a stable dam in the irrigation canal below which the water does not overflow and then directs the water to the fields so that it is all full, likewise in order to prevent that from happening, I will make the eight heavy dharmas. Women should train in them their entire lives. The eight precepts are:
1. When bhikshunis take the sojong vows every two weeks they must request permission from the bhikshus and invite a bhikshu to read the Prātimokṣa Sutra.
2. Bhikshunis should not hold the rains retreat in a place where there are no bhikshus. The exception is if there are bhikshus who do not practice the vinaya discipline, then they need not ask because the bhikshus themselves are not observing it.
3. At the end of the rains retreat bhikshunis must do the Pravadana ritual with the dual sangha present. During the ceremony they have to recall and admit all their offences during the retreat.
4. To receive full ordination, bhikshunis have to take it from the bhikshus.
5. If there is a new bhikshu all the bhikshunis have to be respectful and prostrate to him.
6. Bhikshunis are not allowed to disparage bhikshus
7. Nor are they to discuss the offences that bhikshus have done.
8. If a bhikshuni breaks one of the heavy dharmas, she must undergo penance with both sanghas for a fortnight.
If the bhikshunis take these, it is alright for them to go forth, the Buddha concluded.
Ananda rejoiced, prostrated at the Buddha’s feet, and then immediately went to see Prajāpati. “The Buddha has agreed to allow women to go forth and take full ordination, but in order to prevent any negative effect from women going forth and the relations between sanghas to go well, the Buddha has made the eight heavy dharmas. Women must keep them for the rest of their lives and be assiduous about them,” he said. He explained each of the eight heavy dharmas and said, “If you can truly keep them and be careful of them, you may go forth and be fully ordained.”
Prajapati was delighted. “As long as we live,” Prajāpatī said, “we women will train in these eight heavy dharmas. Just as when someone gives girls wreaths of blue utpala and champaka flowers, they are delighted, take them with both hands, and place them on their heads. In the same way, I promise with my body, speech, and mind.”
Thus Prajāpatī accepted the eight heavy dharmas, went forth, and was fully ordained, thus becoming the first bhikshuni in the fourfold community “Other women should go forth and be fully ordained in stages,” the Buddha said. That means that first they go for refuge and are given the five lay precepts. They train in the precepts gradually and then are given bhikshuni ordination.”
After Mahāprajāpatī and the five hundred Shakya women had accepted the eight heavy dharmas and been fully ordained, many women followed her example, so that the number of bhikshunis increased greatly.
According to the Vibhajyavādin and Sarvāstivādin schools, the Buddha made the rules of the eight heavy dharmas and said that they are the basic rules for nuns. However, there is another view. According to the Mahāsāṃgika vinaya, nuns need to observe the eight heavy dharmas, but they are not fundamental rules or important precepts.
The modern Chinese master Yin Shun even questions whether the Buddha made these rules at all. The Buddha made all his rules based on an incident, he argues. He did not make rules without an incident occurring first. The origin for these rules are certainly very early, he agrees, and they could be from the time of the Buddha. When we examine the disputes between Mahākāśyapa and Ananda regarding women going forth, it seems plausible that the eight heavy dharmas may have been made by elder bhikshus with rigid traditional views, he concludes.
Background to the Reasons for the Eight Heavy Dharmas
On one occasion, the elderly bhikshunis came to Prajāpatī and said, “It has been a long time since we bhikshunis went forth, but it has not been long since those other new bhikshus went forth and were fully ordained. They prostrate to each other according to seniority.”
When Ananda repeated her words, the Bhagavan said:
Ananda, do not speak such words.
Before women had gone forth, when devout brahmins and householders met bhikshus, they would bring fine food and give it to them uninterruptedly.
Moreover, the brahmins and householders would take clean white fabric, folded in layers, spread it out in lanes, and say, ‘Kind bhikshus, please walk on this folded fabric. This will bring us benefit and happiness for a long time.’
Furthermore, the brahmins and householders would spread their hair on the ground and say, ‘Bhikshus, please walk on this hair. This will bring us benefit and happiness for a long time.’
Ananda, if women had not gone forth in the dharma vinaya, the splendor of my disciples like the moon and sun could not be occluded by those with great light, not to mention corpse-like extremists. My teachings would have remained stainless and undiminished for a full thousand years. Because they have gone forth, five hundred years will be subtracted.
This is not to be taken literally but refers to a social issue. As women were looked down upon in Indian society, if they suddenly had to be venerated, it would shake up the prevailing social structure. They would say that the women had pride even if they didn’t. In that case, the society wouldn’t give alms to the Buddhist community, including the bhikshus. As their livelihood was dependent on being socially acceptable in order to receive alms, there was a danger of starvation.
“For this reason, Ananda, I instructed that even if a bhikshuni has been fully ordained for a hundred years, she must pay respect, join her palms, welcome, stand up, and prostrate to newly ordained bhikshus,” he said adamantly. In ancient India during the period of the Rigveda, (1500–1000 BCE), there was equality between the sexes, to the extent that there were many female authors of the Rigveda. Monogamy was the common status for women. Then, sometime during the time of the Yajurveda (1000–500 BCE), women’s status deteriorated, and they were considered untrustworthy, more prone to afflictions. However, even during that period women were allowed to perform sacrifices alongside their husbands.
Then during the period of the sutras (500–250 BCE), women’s situation became even worse. In the “Dharma-sutra”, it is taught that women belong to men. They had no autonomy. When little, they must obey their father, and once they had become a bride, they must obey their husband. When they were old, they must obey their sons. Not only were they unworthy of living independently, it was actually decided that one man may have several wives. Brahmins could have up to three, Kshatriyas up to two, and Shudras on down, no more than one. As the status of the high castes improved, women’s status deteriorated.
When we read the Buddhist scriptures, we can see what the status of women was during the time of the Buddha. For example, when Kalandaka’s son Sudatta went forth and become a bhikshu, he had recently married, but his wife had borne no children. His mother realized that if there were no sons, all their household wealth would be seized by the king. She advised her son to father a child with his bride and there would be no fault in doing so. Thirteen years after the Buddha’s enlightenment that particular incident set a precedent for the rule regarding unchaste conduct, the first heavy dharma. The origin derives from the custom that if there was no son in a family, the king would seize all.
There are similar stories in the Vinaya about queens or nuns with children. One is about the bhikshuni Guptā who went forth before her husband died. To avoid the appropriation of her wealth she got together with her husband’s friend Udāyin (who later became a bhikshu). He did the needful and she became pregnant.
To make matters worse, the major Indian religions and schools of that time had no custom of women going forth; some schools asserted that women were not to be offered refuge. The sexist view that men were superior and women inferior was totally accepted.
Thus there were many such internal and external reasons to create the eight heavy dharmas. The practical aspect also played a part. The sangha lived off food given as alms, but women are not as physically strong as men and have other specific physical needs. In addition, they would have to live a wandering lifestyle, so it was necessary to determine how they could avoid danger and difficulties. Then there was the matter of the bhikshunis’ education for the elders to decide. Many situations made it essential to put into practice the eight heavy dharmas.
Social Inhibitions Women Had to Overcome to Receive Teachings
According to a story in the “Chapters on Monastic Discipline” (Vinaya Vastu), when the Buddha had gone to his homeland of Kapilavastu and was teaching at the Banyan Tree park, the Shakyans went repeatedly to see him and listen to his teachings. Among them was Śhākya Mahānāman. After he heard the Buddha teach dharma, he would go home and exclaim, “Oh Wow! the Buddha! Oh Wow! the dharma! Oh Wow! the sangha! The Buddha’s coming has been fruitful for me!”
“What happened?” his wife asked.
“Right now the Bhagavan is teaching the dharma to hundreds of people, and because of hearing it, many hundreds of living beings have developed superior realization of the true nature,” he replied.
“The Buddha coming is only fruitful for you,” she replied. “It’s not for us. The Buddha appeared in the world for men’s sake, not for us women.” She wished to go but felt embarrassed to listen when King Śuddhodana was there with many Shakyans.
Śhākya Mahānāman went to speak to Mahāprajāpatī, who spoke to the King. Then he informed many Shakya women who all went to Mahāprajāpatī “We’ve heard how the Buddha is teaching many people the dharma. We also want to hear the dharma. So would it be okay if the King went in the morning and we went in the afternoon?”
In the end after much to-ing and fro-ing with intercessions by Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī, the King allowed them to come for teachings in the morning as requested; and Mahāprajāpatī led five hundred Shakya women to Banyan Tree Park to see and hear the Buddha. We can understand a bit about women’s situation at that time from this story. It was not easy for women to get a seat at the table. That is how it was.
The Buddha allowed everyone without distinction of high or low caste to practice the dharma, and he allowed women to go forth and become bhikshunis. Indian society at that time, was filled with narrow-minded people who clung hard to old ways of thinking. Even though we are now in the twenty-first century, the Karmapa commented, the difficulties and problems of caste and sexism in India remain. There are a few people who still say that those views have permeated the blood of Indian people and there is no way to eliminate them. In the light of that perspective, it becomes clear that Buddha Shakyamuni was compassionate, loving, kind, and broad-minded. When the Buddha is called the “charioteer who tames beings,” this probably refers to how he was able to change the direction of those customs.
The Reason Why the Buddha Did Not Easily Allow Women to Go Forth
There are several explanations. In the “Explanation of the Finer Points of the Vinaya” by Master *Śīlapālita, (translated into Tibetan in the 11th century by the translator Bhikshu Geway Lodrö), it says:
Do not all tathagatas have a fourfold community? Why did the Bhagavan allow women to go forth only with difficulty? Regarding this, it was in order to produce world-weariness in Mahāprajāpatī and the five hundred Shakya women as well as in other women. This is because they would think, “If we were not so lowly, why would it be so difficult to go forth in the Buddha’s teachings, which are common to all sentient beings? This makes us feel regret, but instead of feeling regret, we must not let this result of going forth, that we gained through such great difficulties, be meaningless.” They would engage better in the accumulations for the path, and therefore the Bhagavan not allowing them three times, taught them that it is meaningful.
When the Buddha did not immediately agree, it was not meant to prohibit women from going forth, but to delay it a bit in order to emphasize that it is not easy and that if they were not careful there was some danger from social issues. To guard the sangha from these dangers, the Buddha established the eight heavy dharmas.
The most important point is whether women can achieve results or not and the Buddha accepted that they could from the beginning.
That leaves a question mark over the Buddha’s statement that the teachings would have endured over a thousand years, but because of women going forth their lifespan would be reduced by five hundred years; a contradiction which scholars have been attempting to realign with the facts. It is a fact that the true dharma has remained for over two thousand years. Several explanations are offered in the 103rd fascicle of the “Great Exposition of Abhidharma”. To put the quote into context, the first five-hundred-year period had passed; it was the latter five-hundred-year period, and the teachings still had not disappeared. No wonder then that scholars tried to make sense of the Bhagavan’s words.
The Buddha said to Ananda, “If women do not go forth in the dharma vinaya I have taught, my true dharma will remain one thousand or more years. Women going forth will decrease the true dharma by five hundred years.” If the true dharma is still to remain one thousand years, why would the Bhagavan have said this? To respond: This was said with stable liberation in mind. If women had not gone forth, liberation would have been stable for a thousand years, but now in the latter five hundred years, only discipline, listening, and samadhi are stable and liberation is not. All of this is the fault of women going forth.
Others say, “This was said with the intent of not practicing the eight respectful dharmas. It is thus: if women went forth and did not practice the eight respectful dharmas, the Buddha’s true dharma would be shortened by five hundred years. But because the Buddha had them practice the eight respectful dharmas, the true dharma will remain in the world for the complete thousand years.
The first suggests that the ordination of women destabilized the power of liberation of the Buddhadharma. The second suggests that the practice of the eight heavy dharmas had prevented its deterioration.
How Ananda Transformed Passion into Dharma
Opposition within the Sangha
It would seem that during the Buddha’s lifetime, there certainly must have been opposition in the Buddhist sangha to the rights of women to become bhikshunis; and for this, Ananda was blamed.
A bhikshuni called Sthūlanandā disliked Mahākāśyapa so greatly that she once threw a brick into a cesspit when he walked by splashing his robes in excrement. “Sister, this is not your fault,” said Mahākāśyapa. “It is because Ananda made it so that ill-behaved women could go forth in the dharma vinaya, be fully ordained, and become bhikshus.”
This incident made the Buddha add a new rule: that bhikshunis may not make bhikshus dirty or unclean. If they make a bhikshu dirty or unclean, it is an offense.
Another time she spat in his face for no reason at all. Mahakasyapa replied in the same way, that it was all Ananda’s fault for allowing women to go forth. When this incident was brought to the Buddha’s attention, he said, “Sthūlanandā is not a mendicant. She is not a bhikshuni.
Prostitutes act as Sthūlanandā does, but bhikshunis do not. Therefore, in the future, bhikshunis may not spit on bhikshus. If they do, it is an offense.”
Restoring Peace in the Royal Palace: Ananda’s Skillful Means
The queens of King Prasenajit all wished to receive dharma teachings, but because they were queens, they were kept in the palace like birds in a cage and had no opportunity to go to the monastery to hear the Buddha teach.
They asked the king to allow them to have a bhikshu to represent the Buddha and teach the dharma. The king asked, “Which bhikshu should we send for?” Ananda, who was known as the “Treasurer of the Buddha” (Pali: dhamma-bhaṇḍāgārika), was the chosen one and from then on, he would go at a certain time and teach them.
But one day, someone stole a small, priceless jewel from the king’s crown, and all the buildings and grounds in the palace were searched. The whole palace was in an uproar. The queens were all flustered, so when it came time for the teaching, they were unable to focus their minds. Ananda realized this and asked them the reason why. They explained and Ananda, out of his compassion, worked out a plan, which he presented to the king. He was so skillful he gathered all the suspects and suggested that they quietly return the tiny gem.
He had a tent set up in one part of the palace and placed a vase filled with water in it. He had each of the suspects go in alone and unobserved, and the person who had actually stolen the gem put it into the vase and left. Through Ananda’s plan, the gem was recovered and the thief escaped punishment. Everything in the palace became as peaceful as it had been before. Because of this incident, Ananda became even more well-known and the renown of the Buddhist sangha also increased.