Uposatha Day 12/7/2012

A new essay:

What Did the Buddha Think of Women?

Buddhism is widely know throughout the world as a religion of peace and kindness. Unfortunately it is  less known as a religion of equal regard for both genders. And in fact many Buddhists throughout the world are taught that women because of their characteristic karmic dispositions are incapable of awakening or of becoming a buddha, at least without first being reborn as a man. Furthermore few women have gone down in Asian history as teachers, yogis and thinkers; the great Indian scholar-monks were all exactly that, monks, and the ordination and transmission lineages tracked in East Asia list one man after another.  The Theravada tradition managed completely to have misplaced its order of fully ordained nuns and the Tibetan never had one, leaving a decidedly lopsided Sangha throughout much of Asia and very limited opportunities for women to receive the support and respect that nourishes the highest aspirations of the Buddhist Sangha.

Moreover the Buddha himself has been commonly implicated in this bias. For instance, although he created a twofold Sangha of monks and nuns, he is said to have done so reluctantly and he clearly did create a degree of dependency of the latter order on the former. He is also reported to have said,

… in whatever religion women are ordained, that religion will not last long. As families that have more women than men are easily destroyed by robbers, as a plentiful rice-field once infested by rice worms will not long remain, as a sugarcane field invaded by red rust will not long remain, even so the True Dharma will not last long.

Nonetheless, that the Buddha would harbor the slightest bit of ill-will toward women flies in the face of the complete awakening of the Buddha, which entails that he was utterly pure of thought, kind and well disposed to a fault, completely without defilement or bias of any sort, toward any living being you may spot. It is true that the authenticity of many of the passages that have been attributed in this regard to the Buddha in the early scriptures has in fact been questioned in modern scholarship. Nonetheless even if we accept these scholarly arguments we can indulge no more than a provisional sigh of relief, for we must then attribute these passages to very early disciples of the Buddha, to monks with the respect and authority needed to shape the already widely disseminated early scriptures, probably to arahants. What gives?

Find out Here!

4 Responses to “Uposatha Day 12/7/2012”

  1. Mahendra Says:

    Namaste Bhante,

    Hope you are doing very well. Very nice article on Gender Equality. The “Design‐a‐Monk®” is funny – I hope you have copyrighted it! A few points of discussion:

    (1) The Indian society before Lord Buddha was open and had gender equality as bears out by the Vedic and Upanishadic stories. However, by the time of the Lord Buddha, it had started fossilizing and Lord Buddha’s singularly unique contribution was in restoring equality to women.

    (2) As far as caste goes, that is a much later word, and of Portuguese origin. The Indian word is Varna and again, in the beginnings of the Indian society, Varnas were defined by occupation and not birth. By the time of Lord, it was getting fossilized to birth (as borne out by numerous Suttas) and at every opportunity, Lord Buddha jolted the concept of birth superiority.

    (3) Also, various Indian Samana schools (Jains included) already had nuns orders as well as becoming a nun was an acceptable way of life, but it was Lord Buddha who put the Monks and Nuns orders together and set rules for their well-being and growth. Well-known examples of women ascetics/nuns would be Bhadda Kapilani, Bhadda Kundalakesi, Sundari the wanderer, etc.

    (4) “The Buddha created a parallel nuns order about five years after the start of the monk’s order.” vs. the Garudhamma section. As far as founding of the Nuns order goes, it appears that there are many historical anachronisms such as Venerable Ananda became Lord’s attendant when Lord was 55 years old (i.e. Monk Sangha was 20 years old) so if Bhikkhuni Sangha was found 5 years after enlightenment, Ven Ananda couldn’t have been Lord’s attendant (AN 8.51 and notes).

    (5) Laws of Manu are much later, as late as 200 CE and apply to Hinduism rather than the Brahmanism of Lord Budhas’ time. In Lord’s time, the stratification of Indian society in Varnas defined by birth had started but there was still the flexibility for people to move from one Varna to another, by means of changing their occupation. Also, the later “Brahmin as the superior Varna” had not yet become a universal fact, as exemplified by several suttas where Lord states that Kshatriyas are superior to Brahmins.

    I think all societies and all generations think that theirs’ is the Golden period – everything before was Barbaric and unenlightened, everything after would be just Glitter. The thing to remember, as you mention very early on, is that as a fully-enlightened Buddha, Lord couldn’t have acted with malice towards anyone, women included.

    • bhikkhucintita Says:


      Thanks for providing these details. Two points bear follow-up. (1) Do you know anything about how the Jain nuns were regarded in the Buddha’s day? If you have a reverence that would be useful. I have not been able to find much. (2) I cannot find a consistent date for the Laws of Manu. I’ve found 500 BC in one place and 1500 BC in another. Do you have a reference for the much later date? I know things are hard to date in India, including when the Buddha lived.


  2. Mahendra Says:

    Namaste Bhante,

    There is not much information available on the Jain history because it appears that many (or almost all) of their religious texts were lost and finally written down fully in 460 CE. Svetambara Jains believe that the 19th Tirthankar Mallinath was a woman (!) and of the 11 leaders of the Jain Sangha appointed by Mahavira , one was a woman (more at http://www.jainworld.com/jainbooks/explain/e2.htm). Also, the History of Indian Literature by Winternitz has a good section on Jainism, if memory serves correctly (all my books are in storage).

    As to Manu, it is similarly very difficult. Manu is Smriti so later than Shruti (Vedas, Upanishads, Aranyakas) and therefore after Lord Buddha since it is believed only 6 Upanishads may have existed in Lord’s time – there are no references to Upanishads in Nikayas. Nikayas only refer to the 3 Vedas so no four Vedas either. So either we have to move back Lord Buddha’s birth and parinibbana or move forward the other Vedic literature. Manu also seems more in favor of hereditary stratification of society in Varnas and less in favor of cross-Varna movement. Those who think it was finalized in 200 CE include “Keay, John (2000), India: A History”, and probably Romila Thapar (indirectly so) while “Hopkins, Thomas J. (1971), The Hindu Religious Tradition, Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company” proposes finalization between 200 BCE and 100 CE. Again, Winternitz (The History of Indian Literature) has a good section on this. Given the complexity, it could be any date but based on the contents, I think it appears to be more a result of the Indian society trying to enforce norms in absence of a central authority to enforce them (thus after the end of the Mauryan empire). So I think and of course, it could all be wrong!

    By the way Bhante, I have received the Myanmar visa so I am off to Burma sometime in January! I will call you up before then to get a few pointers. With deep respects and metta.

    • bhikkhucintita Says:


      You were certainly the person to ask these questions. I may check out some of your references. I am beginning to see that knowing about other traditions tells us a lot about what was going on in early Buddhism.


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