The difficulties faced by females in forming the Bhikkhuni (Nuns) order.
Low female status in ancient times
The status of female more than 2500 years ago was very low. The birth of a female was not celebrated. They do not receive any education and was said to only have “two finger wisdom” as they only knew how to cook rice. They were not allowed to learn the Vedas, as they had no need for religious learning.
Females are to be guarded. Her father protects her in childhood, her husband protects her in youth, and her sons protect her in old age. A woman is never fit for independence. Women have to be guarded, as they are believed to be prone to sexual misconduct. A woman is looked upon as something evil that enticed innocent males into a snare of misery.
Even though their husbands were unfaithful, they would have still to serve them like gods. Female was confined to the household life, and many had to put up with the drudgery and hard work of domestic chores. Females had a great deal of physical suffering -menstrual cramps, pains of delivery and the diseases of the female reproductive organs. Females with low dowry were often physically mistreated by their husbands and in laws.
Because of female low status, they are not respected at all by any. If there were to become bhikkhunis they may not be able to receive any requisites for survival by the lay people.
Buddha’s view on women
Buddha did consider the dangers of attraction of a female as woman can provide the full satisfaction of the 5 sense bases.
Buddha advised Venerable Ananda on how to behave towards female: 1. Don’t look at them. 2. If you have to look, don’t talk. 3. If you have to talk, make sure that your mindfulness is present all the time.
Buddha had said that, “Whatever beautiful things there are in the world, they are not, in themselves, lustful things. It is the greedy thoughts of man, which makes them lustful (sankapparago). SN. I.22
Buddha showed respect in the following:
1. Woman has a dignified and important role to play in society. Mothers should be respected by their children as well as by their husbands.
2. Advice to man on their responsibilities to his wife in the Sigalovada Sutta, reflects Buddha’s respect for woman as a wife in the household and society. The relationship between husband and wife is bilateral and reciprocal.
3. Advice to woman on “How to be a good wife.” A good wife is considered a devi (goddess).
4. There is no double standards of chastity for husband and wife. Both male and female are advised to observe the fundamental 5 precepts, which include abstinence from sexual misconduct. Sigalovada sutta was advised that husband and wife have to be faithful to one another.
5. Males are not permitted to have sexual relationships with women who are protected by mother, father, mother and father, brother, sister or relatives, who have a husband, who are protected by law, who are bethrothed. (Saleyyake & Sevitabbasevitabba Suttas in Majjhima Nikaya)
6. Woman is capable of realizing the different stages of sainthood.
The first female lay disciples (upasika) were Yasa’s mother and former wife. After returning to Kapilavatthu, Buddha preached to his father and stepmother, his father was established in the second stage of sainthood, while his stepmother was established in the first stage of sainthood. It was only in the 5th year of Buddha’s ministry, Mahapajapati Gotami (his stepmother) requested for entry into the Sangha at Nigrodha Park at Kapilavattu.
Mahapajapati Gotami (Buddha's step mother) was refused thrice, “Alan, Gotami.” (Enough, Gotami). When Buddha proceeded to Versales and settled down at Kutagara sala, Mahapajapati Gotami with large company of Sakyan ladies shaved their heads and donned yellow garments, made their way to Versales. Dust-stained and feet swollen, they were a pitiable sight as they sat at the entrance of the Kutagara Hall. Venerable Ananda saw their sad faces and decided to request on her behalf but was turned down.
Venerable Ananda asked Buddha whether a female could attain the different stages of sainthood. Buddha was affirmative. Buddha finally agreed to accept Mahapajapati Gotami into the Sangha provided that she was able to accept 8 strict conditions (atthagaruda dhamma). Cullavagga Pali:
1. A nun, who is ordained even for a century, must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, do proper homage to a monk ordained but one day. 2. A nun must not spend the rain retreat in a residence where there are no monks. 3. Every fortnightly, a nun must request from the monks, the Observance Day and formal confessional meetings. 4. After the rainy retreat, a nun must invite both orders and confess to any offences. 5. A nun, on committing an offence must undergo disciplinary action before both orders. 6. A novice has to be trained for 2 years before she could seek higher ordination from both orders. 7. A monk must not be abused or reviled in any way by a nun. 8. Admonition (reprimanding) of monks by nuns is forbidden. Admonition of nuns by monks is not forbidden.
Ananda reported to Mahapajapati Gotami,“If you accept the 8 conditions, it will be your higher ordination.” Mahapajapati Gotami and the 500 Sakyan ladies accepted and the Bhikkuni order began then.
Buddha’s initial reluctance to accept female into the order is for practical reasons of: 1. Social patriarchal environment 2. Problem of accommodation as it is not so safe for the women to live in the wild. 3. Problem of protection against men and beasts in the wild.
He laid down rules to ensure healthy continuation of the monastic institution rather than to assert spiritual dominance of monks over nuns. Buddha wanted at the formative period of the nun order to thrive on the guidance, supervision and protection of the monks’ order. Monks were more long-standing and experienced in guiding the newly established order of nuns. Because of this reason, the monks were entrusted with the task of conferring higher ordination on nuns and nuns were instructed to discipline themselves in the precepts.
Nuns were taught in stages on the procedures of fortnightly patimokkha recital, formal confessional meetings, procedures to be followed in disciplinary acts and settling of disputes.
Nuns were given authority of conferring higher ordination on nuns, but Buddha did not revoke the original permission given to monks to confer higher ordination on nuns and this remain in force up to this day. In accepting females into the order, he promoted the cause of rights for female for emancipation. Just as the great ocean has one taste of salt, doctrine and discipline have the taste of emancipation (free from salavery) for both male and female. He had no doubt that females could attain emancipation, as Theri Soma so succinctly (concisely) responded to Mara’s assessment of female wisdom to be 2 fingers deep, “When one’s mind is well concentrated and wisdom never fails. Does the fact of our being women make any difference?”
Society remained so steep in male chauvinism that Buddha had to ask Mahapajapati Gotami to display her powers before she passed away: “ O Gotami, perform a miracle in order to dispel the wrong views of those foolish men who are in doubt with regard to the spiritual potential of women.”