Mahāpajāpatī and the Order of Nuns

After the death of Suddhodana, the Buddha’s father, the Buddha returned to Kapilavatthu.  At this time, Mahāpajāpatī, the Buddha’s stepmother, approached him with a question that was found to be unwelcome and irksome. Mahāpajāpatī asked if women too could take up the homeless life and follow the Dharma proclaimed by the Enlightened One.  The Buddha refused.  Twice more asked, and the Buddha twice more refused.  Dejected, Mahāpajāpatī returned to Kapilavatthu while the Buddha went on his way.

Mahāpajāpatī did not rest.  She cut her hair, put on yellow robes, and along with a few Sakiya women followed the Buddha on his journey.  These women set out to see the Buddha, to implore him once again to formally accept them as wandering mendicants along with the other monks in the Buddha’s Sangha.  Having arrived at Vesāli, they met Ānanda.  The case for the order of nuns would be made again.

This time it was Ānanda who pleaded on their behalf.  After relaying to the Buddha Mahāpajāpatī’s request, the Buddha again refused.  Then Ānanda asked the Buddha if women were also capable of attaining perfection?  The Buddha replied that it was so.  Ānanda then asked if it would not be good for women to take up the homeless life since they were capable of attaining perfection and Mahāpajāpatī, as the Buddha’s stepmother, had done a great service to him?  This time the Buddha agreed on the condition that Mahāpajāpatī and the other women who were accepted into the Sangha follow eight additional precepts.  Agreeing to this condition, Mahāpajāpatī was ordained as the first nun in the Buddha’s Sangha.  Her courage to follow the Buddha on his path and Ānanda’s skillful means and compassionate heart resulted in the foundation of the order of nuns. (CV 10.1.1-4; Schumann pp. 115-16)

This is just the first post of others regarding this subject.  Many questions are raised by the way this series of interactions transpired.  It is wonderful and marvelous that women, alongside men, were permitted into the Buddha’s Sangha so early in its development – roughly 5 years after the Buddha’s enlightenment.  Mahāpajāpatī’s courage and determination in the face of the Buddha’s initial refusals is inspiring to me here and now, as I am sure it has been inspiring to many throughout the many years following her ordination.  But the Buddha’s many refusals and the addition of eight more precepts for the nuns is curious.  After recognizing their equality in the Dharma, why treat women in the Sangha unequally?

Investigating this part of the Buddha’s life gives us greater insight into this complicated character who serves as the founding model of an enlightened human being.  As I have said in previous posts, the key part for me is that the Buddha was a human being and, despite his enlightenment, subject to the frailties of being human.  This in no way detracts from his enlightenment, but complicates our picture of him.

May we explore this complicated picture together with ease, wisdom, and compassionate understanding!

(Note: Citations such as ‘CV’ refer to the abbreviations for Pāli Canon texts found at the beginning of Schumann’s book.)

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