A Progressive Response
[By Dr. David N. Snyder]
The first thing we must remember is that the Buddha‘s teachings were oral for several hundred
years before being written down. They were memorized by monks who met at several council
meetings before the words were written down. Anyone who has taken even a very beginning
communication class in school or college knows how easily words can get distorted over a very
short amount of time. This is why fundamentalism is so wrong, because often the words and
letters that are so adhered to are not even the real words of their religious founder, guru, rabbi, or
teacher. People who follow the general principles of their religions and avoid rote memorization
and rattling off of key verses to suit their customs are doing a much better service to their
religions and tend to be more tolerant and accepting of others, including adherents of other
It is quite possible that the Buddha never had any reluctance to accept women into an Order of
monastics. The Buddha broke away from virtually every type of Hindu belief at the time and was
well ahead of his time in his insistence on social reforms.
In one instance before his death, the Buddha remarked that, ―I will not take final Nibbana till I
have nuns and female disciples who are accomplished, till I have laymen and laywomen
followers who are accomplished. Digha Nikaya 16.3.8 In this passage, the Buddha states the
importance of having men and women accomplished in the Dhamma and specifically mentions
nuns. This is repeated at other places including, Anguttara Nikaya 8.70.
Radhika Abeysekera is a scholar and author and has written the following:
―The Buddha did not give the reason for His initial refusal to Maha Pajapati. All the Buddhas
of the past had had the order of the nuns. The Gotama Buddha would have seen this and
realized that the female order was a part of every Buddha‘s retinue. As such, some speculate that
He was testing Pajapati's determination and resolution, as the holy life for women, especially
women of royal birth, would be difficult and entail many hardships. Some speculate that the
initial refusal was also because of the society and its treatment of women at that time, and the
Buddha's fear for the safety of the female order. In general, it is felt that the initial refusal was to strengthen the determination and resolve of the noble ladies and to prepare them better for the
hardships they would have to face. (Abeysekera, 2000)
I think it makes sense. If all of the previous Buddhas had bhikkhuni Orders, there would be no
reason to deny this to his dispensation. It could have just been a test.
One of the Buddha‘s first teachings were against the caste system. He gave the famous saying
against caste, that ―birth does not make one a Brahmin in the fifth week after his
enlightenment. In Bodh Gaya, India where the Buddha attained enlightenment there is a large
sign commemorating this saying at the Maha Bodhi temple complex. This quote is significant
because birth does not make you a higher person than another. In the same way as we are born
male or female, it is not this birth, this gender which makes us higher or lower. It is our deeds in
words, thoughts, and actions which make us higher or lower.
There was a palace that burned down during the Buddha‘s time. About 500 lay women perished
in the blaze. Monks asked the Buddha what the destiny would be for those women and the
Buddha stated that all 500 were either stream-entrants, once-returners, non-returners, or arahants
(the four stages of enlightenment, including full enlightenment arahants). (Khuddaka Nikaya,
The Buddha was asked in so many words, ―is there even one woman nun who is fully
enlightened. The Buddha responded, ―There are not only one hundred . . . or five hundred, but
far more bhikkhunis, my disciples, who by realizing for themselves with direct knowledge here
and now enter upon and abide in the deliverance of mind and deliverance by wisdom . . . Sutta
73 Majjhima Nikaya and also in other suttas too.
In the Samyutta Nikaya, Bhikkhunisamyutta there are several reports of how well the nuns do
against temptations from Mara (an evil deva or negative mental states, depending upon your
interpretation). In Samyutta Nikaya 5.1 Mara asks a nun, ―There is no escape in the world, So
what will you do with seclusion? Enjoy the delights of sensual pleasure: Don't be remorseful
The bhikkhuni (nun) responds, ―There is an escape in the world which I have closely touched
with wisdom. O Evil One, kinsman of the negligent, You do not know that state. Sensual
pleasures are like swords and stakes; the aggregates like their chopping block. What you call
sensual delight has become for me nondelight.
In another part, Mara asks ―Are you on the lookout for a man? And again the bhikkhuni
rebukes Mara and Mara leaves disappointed.
Once a king listened to a Dhamma talk by the bhikkhuni Khema and she gave a most excellent
talk on nibbana and the king was impressed. Then the king asked the same questions to the
Buddha and received the same response that he heard from the nun. The king remarked, ―It is
wonderful, venerable sir! It is amazing, venerable sir! How the meaning and the phrasing of
both teacher and disciple coincide and agree with each other and do not diverge, that is, in
regard to the chief matter. On one occasion, venerable sir, I approached the bhikkhuni Khema
and asked her about this matter. The reverend lady explained this matter to me in exactly the
same terms and phrases that the Blessed One used. Samyutta Nikaya 44.1
Venerable bhikkhuni Khema became an arahant (enlightened) along with many other nuns,
during the time of the Buddha. Before ordaining, venerable bhikkhuni Dhammadinna was the
wife of a merchant. She and her husband became Buddhists and she decided to ordain as a
bhikkhuni. Shortly thereafter she became enlightened. Her husband progressed well, but to the
stage of non-returner, which is not yet enlightened. She surpassed her husband, which became
one of many examples of where women exceeded either their husbands or their teachers in
spiritual progress, once again showing the gender equality in the teachings of the Buddha.
The bhikkhu (monk) Nagasenda is famous for his teaching of no-self using the analogy of the
parts of the chariot (see chapter 7). Nagasena developed this excellent teaching from the wise
words of Venerable Vajjira, a bhikkhuni who lived during the time of the Buddha. She once
remarked, ―Just as, with an assemblage of parts, the word chariot is used, so when the
aggregates exist, there is the convention of being. Samyutta Nikaya 5.554
Sujata is the woman who offered food (rice cooked in milk) to the Buddha when he was
performing his ascetic practices (long fasts) before enlightenment. The Buddha was near death as
this was before he realized and practiced the middle way. Later after enlightenment, a heavy
storm came and a large cobra snake protected the Buddha. It is interesting to note that in the
Judeo-Christian bible the Fall of man is blamed on a woman and a snake, but in Buddhism the
world is saved (by helping the Buddha from death) by a woman and a snake. Sujata would later
become a bhikkhuni.
Theravadins and all other Buddhists agree that any woman has the capacity for full
enlightenment. There are three types of buddhas or enlightened ones. One is a buddha who
teaches others; another is a silent buddha who attains enlightenment but does not teach, but
presumably can still send his or her ―rays‖ of metta - loving kindness to the world. The third type
of buddha is a samma-sam-buddha, which is a special buddha which comes around only once
every 5,000 to 15,000 years to teach the Dhamma when the Dhamma has died out from the
world. This ―savior type of buddha is who the Buddha was. The next ―savior‖ buddha is
foretold by the Mahayana tradition to come in 5,000 years after his death, or roughly the year
4517 (not for another 2,500 years), named Maitreya. In the Theravada school, there is no set
date, since circumstances change, but it still nevertheless, is bound to occur one day.
In all three types of buddha, there is full liberation and nibbana. One does not need to be a
samma-sam-buddha to attain enlightenment or nibbana. Thus, full liberation is open to women.
However, there are fundamentalist Buddhists who contend that only a man can become a
samma-sam-buddha. The issue is mostly meaningless, since we already have a Buddha for our
time and well over 99% of us will not attain to any of the three types of buddha, let alone the
samma-sam-buddha title. But it still makes a point that only men can have this title and this is
still a subtle form of sexism which can be used to discriminate in other ways.
The famous Theravada teacher Dipa Ma, was sitting quietly in her room one day while her
teacher and another teacher were talking. Her teacher remarked that only a man can become a
buddha (samma-sam-buddha). Dipa Ma immediately rose from her silence and exclaimed, ―I can
do anything a man can do!‖ The guests erupted with laughter and agreement. Dipa Ma was an
amazing woman who mastered all the jhanas and taught vipassana from her humble small home
in India. (Schmidt, 2005)
What is the origin of this idea that only a man can become a samma-sam-buddha? It all stems
from the 32 marks of a great man. There are a few suttas which mention the 32 marks of a great
man and how the Buddha possesses these marks. If you see the list of these so-called great
marks, you will see that they are truly mythological and completely legendary; certainly nothing
to be taken seriously or to justify sexism.
Some of the items on this list of 32 marks of a great man include a lion‘s chest, a jaw like a lion,
a tongue that is so long that it can reach the forehead and both ear holes, 40 teeth, and a penis
encased in a sheath. Because the list is that of a great ―man‖ and includes the penis encased in a
sheath, it obviously excludes women. But anyone with a little common sense can see these
mythological claims are designed to elevate the status of religious leaders by making them sound
super human. It helps to convert the uneducated masses, but does nothing to shed more light on
the wonderful teachings of the man who became a buddha.
The origin of the 32 marks of a great man has nothing to do with Buddhism. This is a pre-
Buddhistic concept. This is proven by the fact that Asita, the seer who came to see the baby
Buddha just after birth predicted that the Buddha will either become a great king and ruler or a
great religious man. This seer named Asita, checked the baby Buddha and found the 32 marks of
a great man present on Buddha. This was before the Buddha‘s enlightenment, before Buddhism,
and before the Buddha‘s first teachings. (Sutta Nipata 3.11, Khuddaka Nikaya) This is also
shown to be true in the Brahmayu Sutta:
―The Brahmin Brahmayu, was in his 120th year. He was an expert in the Three Vedas, he knew
the Brahmanical authorities, with their invocations, liturgy and word-analysis and he was fully
versed in the Marks of the Great Man. Majjhima Nikaya 91
The fact that Brahmayu was very old and a follower of the ancient Hindu tradition of
Brahmanism, shows that the idea of the Great Marks was around long before Buddha.
In one discourse, the Buddha refutes ideas of beauty, such as the 32 marks as being anything
important. The Brahmin, Sonadanda asks the Buddha about different marks of beauty, such as
appearance, well-born birth, being handsome, and asks if one or more were omitted, if it
mattered. One by one the Buddha omits each of these mundane items and states that what
matters is wisdom, morality, and concentration, not these marks. Digha Nikaya 4.6-23
I see no logic in saying that only men can become a samma-sam-buddha. The Buddha was quite
clear that women have the capacity to become fully enlightened and many nuns were certified to
have done so during the Buddha‘s time. Nibbana and enlightenment are not any different for any
of the three types of buddha. Therefore, any woman can become any of the three types of
At the very least we could conclude that only a man could be a samma-sam-buddha during times
when societies are male dominated and not egalitarian. During these times, a female samma
sam-buddha would probably not be accepted by the masses, just for being a woman. In a
matriarchal society or in an egalitarian society a woman could be accepted as a teacher of the
masses, a re-discoverer of the Dhamma and therefore, a samma-sam-buddha.
A fully enlightened person is simply ―awake which is what the term Buddha means. The
Buddha was beyond his physical form and therefore, beyond gender. This is demonstrated in
―Could Your Reverence be a god (deva)?
―No Brahamin, I could not be god
―Could Your Reverence be a devil (yakka)?
―No Brahamin, I could not be a devil
―Could Your Reverence be a spirit (Gandhabba)?
―No Brahamin, I could not be a spirit.
―Could Your Reverence be a human being (Manussa)?
―No Brahamin, I could not be a human being.
―Then who could Your Reverence be?
―Brahamin, what ever tendencies there be due to the presence of which, a person may be
identified as a god, devil, spirit or human being, all that has been uprooted in me, cut off not to
arise again, like a palm tree stump.
―Therefore Brahmin, call me an Awakened One (Buddha).
Anguttara Nikaya 4.36
This is further shown in the following about who a wise person is, according to the Buddha:
―A wise person is characterized by his/her actions. It is through the activities of one's life that
one's discernment shines. A person endowed with three things is to be recognized as a wise
person. Which three? Good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, good mental conduct. A person
endowed with these three things is to be recognized as a wise person.‖ Anguttara Nikaya 3.2 It
is by deeds that one is wise, not by gender or race or caste.
In regard to the bhikkhuni line, this was finally revived in Sarnath, India in 1996. Progressive
Theravada monks ordained the first women as fully ordained Theravada nuns with saffron robes.
The Mahayana bhikkhuni line never died out, just the Theravada one. Therefore, women have
received the double ordination with Mahayana nuns and Theravada monks present. Many
Mahayana nuns had both a Theravada and Mahayana ordination so that line never really died
out, just the exclusively Theravada bhikkhuni line. So leave it to the fundamentalists to once
again say that the ordinations are invalid, just because there were no exclusively Theravada nuns
present. Since that time hundreds, to nearly thousands of women have been ordained as full
bhikkhunis. They have been most readily accepted in Western nations, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan.
The most resistance against the full ordinations has come from the traditions and monks from
Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand.
Ayya Khema was a German born fully ordained nun who wrote many bestselling books and was
a master of the Dhamma and the jhanas. She opened many monasteries and temples in Asia and
Europe. Ven. Dr. Dhammananda (C. Kabilsingh) and Ven. Dr. Kusuma are fully ordained
bhikkhunis, both with a Ph.D. and are continuing in Sri Lanka and Thailand where Ayya Khema
left off and have written on the subject of women‘s status. They state that the 8 heavy rules
cannot be taken seriously. There are verses in the suttas where the Buddha pointed out some bad
monks to some nuns. The Buddha told the nuns not to respect these bad monks. In one passage,
the Buddha proclaims that years as a monk alone does not grant one respect, that respect must be
earned (Anguttara Nikaya 7.39). The first nuns did not have nuns present to ordain them. The
first nuns did not have senior nuns to seek full ordination to after a probationary period (no. 6 of
the 8 heavy rules). Also, there are suttas where the Buddha deliberately remains silent while nuns
are giving a Dhamma talk. After the Dhamma talk, the Buddha exclaims that he could not have
said it any better. Here is an example, where the Buddha praises the enlightened nun, Ven.
―The bhikkhuni Dhammadina is wise, Visakha, the bhikkhuni Dhammadina has great wisdom. If
you had asked me the meaning of this, I would have explained it to you in the same way that the
bhikkhuni Dhammadina has explained it. Such is its meaning and you should remember it.
Majjhima Nikaya 44.31
A layperson asked the Buddha once how is there the preservation of truth. The Buddha explains
that it is good to find a worthy teacher, such as a monk, but stated that the monk must be
investigated and examined before you place your trust and confidence in him. He must be
examined in regard to any states of mind that might be based on greed, hate, or delusion. Only
after he ―has investigated him and seen that he is purified from these states does he visit him,
pay respect to him. Majjhima Nikaya 95. 16-20
All of the above points run contrary to the 8 heavy rules and would not be allowed by the 8
heavy rules, which all shows that these rules were added much later. They were added later to
justify sexism, to keep nuns in an inferior position.
―Birth does not make one a Brahmin. The Buddha is also saying ―gender does not make one a
Brahmin, or a monk, or a holy person‖ because one is born male or female. It is our deeds in
words, actions, and thoughts which make you a Brahmin, a monk worthy of respect, or a holy
Another criticism is that the Buddha is said to have remarked that the teachings (Buddhism)
would only last 500 years because he agreed to ordain women. This passage is mentioned in the
rules for the monks in the Vinaya and is not mentioned in any other place. The Buddhist
scriptures, the Tipitaka were oral teachings memorized for hundreds of years before being
committed to writing in the first century BCE. All of the major and important teachings are
repeated throughout many of the books of the Pali Canon. There are very few teachings that are
only mentioned once. The fact that this reported 500 years statement is only mentioned once,
already raises some questions.
If we are not satisfied that this may have been added later and not a saying of the Buddha, there
is still another non-misogynistic possibility, by considering the context and degree of sexism in
India during the time of Buddha still through today. One must remember the social context at
the time of the Buddha. He lived in a very sexist society. The Buddha always presented his
teachings in the context of his audience and what they were ready for. If he was speaking to a
group of people who were attracted to the devotional aspects of religion, he would adjust his talk
accordingly. Once a group of people were complaining that he does not make any miracles,
perform any healings, or any other supernatural powers. The Buddha had those abilities, but did
not want to flaunt it and wanted his religion to be focused on his teachings and the meditation
practice. But he understood the context of his audience and there at that time did make his body
appear to be many, although it is one. He ―multiplied‖ his body some one thousand fold. On
another occasion he is said to have walked across the Ganges river without sinking in, basically
walking on water, just like Jesus, only over 500 years earlier.
Once when visiting the Kalamas, who were very intelligent, he gave one of his best discourses
where he blasted the authorities of gurus, scriptures, and tradition:
―Do not believe in something because it is reported. Do not believe in something because it has
been practiced by generations or becomes a tradition or part of a culture. Do not believe in
something because a scripture says it is so. Do not believe in something believing a god has
inspired it. Do not believe in something a teacher tells you to. Do not believe in something
because the authorities say it is so. Do not believe in hearsay, rumor, speculative opinion, public
opinion, or mere acceptance to logic and inference alone. Help yourself, accept as completely
true only that which is praised by the wise and which you test for yourself and know to be good
for yourself and others. Anguttara Nikaya 3.65 Kalama Sutta
Consider the context of the situation of women during the time of the Buddha:
Women were not allowed to leave the home. They were to stay inside and could only go to the
marketplace or another public place if they were in the presence of their husband, or if no
husband, then their brother or father. Women, especially high caste women do not work outside
the home at all. Education is discouraged, especially higher education for women. When a
woman‘s husband comes home from work she is to greet him with respect and place her hand at
his feet. If a woman wanted to divorce her husband, she could only do so after proving a total of
7 bad character flaws. If she cannot prove all 7, then she cannot get her divorce. She may only
marry a member of her caste and her family must pay a dowry to the husband‘s family. A
woman cannot become a sadhu (contemplative) while she is married or is still menstruating.
Women cannot become priests at all in the Hindu religion.
The above situation of women during the time of Buddha sounds pretty bad, right? Actually, that
is the status of women in India TODAY! In urban areas, the situation has improved a little, but in
rural areas this is how women are treated in 21st century India. I recently came back from a
Buddhist pilgrimage in India and witnessed this myself. We can just imagine how much even
worse it may have been during the time of Buddha, over 2,500 years ago!
The Buddha did not make any rule that women need to wait until they stop menstruating before
becoming nuns. This concept that a woman is unclean because she menstruates is common in
many religions but is notably absent in Buddhism. Menstruation is a natural procedure and there
would be no men in this world were it not for women‘s ability to have monthly cycles and
Considering the context and degree of sexism in India during the time of Buddha still through
today, it is no wonder that the Buddha may have actually said those things about being reluctant
and that his religion would only last 500 years. This does not mean that he was opposed to an
Order of nuns, as several places in the Buddhist teachings show that gender does not matter and
the whole reluctance incident appears to have been just a test (Abeysekera, 2000). If we look at
history, the Buddha was correct. Back then there were no airplanes, fax machines, internet, etc.
People defined their world in terms of their 500 mile radius. Buddhism did die out from its home
country of India and it started to die out right at about 500 years after the death - parinibbana of
Buddha. A famous Hindi king took back control of India and wanted the caste system back since
he was a member of a high caste. He brought the caste system back and then there was the
acceptance of Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu. Suddenly there was no more reason for
Buddhism among the Indians. They abandoned Buddhism, but fortunately, the teachings did
survive in Sri Lanka and other Southeast Asian nations and then the Mahayana spread to Tibet,
China, and the rest of Asia.
Since the Buddha always considered the context of his audience and what they were ready for it
is highly probably that he wanted to gradually phase out the sexist policies, as the people were
ready for it. There is already evidence that this is what he did with his teachings on nonviolence
toward animals and the environment, by gradually phasing out the consumption of meat, which
of course causes the killing of animals.
A lay person asked the Buddha, ―Venerable sir, doesn‘t the Blessed One dwell compassionate
towards all living beings? The Buddha responded, Yes, headman, the Tathagata dwells
compassionate towards all living beings. The headman responds, Then why is it, venerable sir,
that the Blessed One teaches the Dhamma thoroughly to some, yet no so thoroughly to others?‖
Samyutta Nikaya 42.7 And then the Buddha explains that he teaches to different groups of
people based upon their abilities, intelligence, and wisdom.
―The Blessed One did not lay down a rule of training for disciples at the wrong time, but when
the proper time came he laid down a rule of training for disciples, not to be transgressed as long
as they lived. Vinaya, Suttavibhanga and Milindapanha 6.2
This issue is not confined to the Theravada tradition and exists in the other traditions too. For
example, there has never been a female Dalai Lama, all of the Zen patriarchs were male, and in
the Pure Land school, it is believed that Amitabha is male and the inhabitants of the Pure Land
are all male.
In the suttas it states that some of the higher heavenly realms are inhabited by males only. This
makes no sense since these same heavenly realms have inhabitants who are not of the ―sensual
sphere. They do not delight in the senses and do not pro-create. Therefore, common sense will
tell us that the inhabitants would be gender neutral or neuter. But if we look more carefully at
the scriptures we see that the use of the term male is more in the generic sense. Since the nonreturners
have eradicated all attachments to sense desires, there is no pro-creation and no sex
organs. (Abhidhamma, Vibhanga) Therefore, the male term must be a generic use for meaning
something like ―person or ―being.
The Buddha appropriately advised us not to accept things just because they say so in a scripture.
He knew that the teachings would get changed to meet certain customs of society. At the least
we can say that a woman has not been a samma-sam-buddha or if you follow Tibetan/Vajrayana
Buddhism, a Dalai Lama, because the customs and culture of the people are not ready for it.
When society becomes more egalitarian, we can expect to see more female leaders in many
roles, including the religious ones. Change, impermanence, is acceptable in Buddhism. The
Buddha regularly adapted and changed his code of conduct for monks and nuns as the situation
required it (Vinaya).
In the Maha-parinibbana sutta, of the Digha Nikaya (sutta 16), the Buddha states that the monks
and nuns may abolish the minor rules as they see fit: ―After I am gone, the sangha — if it wants
— may abolish the lesser and minor training rules. Once again, the Buddha in his wisdom
recognizes that there will most likely be a need for revisions in certain rules as society is more
ready for egalitarian type conditions. Considering the historical and logical problems already
shown in the eight heavy rules, these are the first that must be let go. In addition, any other rules
that might suggest inequality should be let go and those women who have fully ordained should
be fully accepted by all Buddhists as there have been ordinations with monks and nuns present
and they need not all be from one tradition at the start of the reinstatement. This is keeping in
line with the Buddha‘s intentions for an Order of monks and an Order of nuns.
In the Buddhist Vinaya there is a rule that monks and nuns cannot receive full ordination until
the age of 20, prior to that time they are novice monks and nuns. But the Buddhist scriptures
clearly show that at least one monk, such as Sopaka, received full ordination at the age of 7
(Khuddaka Nikaya, Theragatha 486). This is because he was quite advanced and attained
enlightenment, but more importantly shows that many of the Vinaya rules were developed later,
as the time and context called for the changes to the rules.
In the Buddha‘s teachings, he uses the words ―he and ―man to refer to all mankind, men and
women, just as we typically do in common usage. But the following appears especially
appropriate toward speaking to men, which is where the greatest opposition to fully ordained
―A true man is not a stickler for rules, but is a true man for giving up greed, hatred, and
delusion. Majjhima Nikaya 113
Today we live in the 21st century and there is certainly no need to continue the antiquated sexist
policies. As shown above, the sexist policies run contrary to the spirit and intent of the Buddha‘s
universal and wonderful wisdom. For Theravada Buddhism to continue being the orthodox, not
fundamentalist school of Buddhism, it needs to fully embrace the progressive messages of the
Buddha for the 21st century and beyond:
1. Social engagement, more work in the areas of charities to the homeless and other causes, such
2. Full equal rights for women, no exceptions, continue with full ordinations of qualified women
as bhikkhunis, and full acceptance of their ordinations by the male monks.
3. More concern for the environment and leanings toward vegetarianism. Vegetarianism may not
be the goal, but it does provide a light and a direction. (Thich Nhat Hanh)
There are already progressive Theravada groups that are following the Buddha‘s message with
the above three points, including:
Bhavana Society, led by Ven. Dr. Gunaratana in West Virginia. He has ordained many women as
Dharma Vijaya, led by Ven. Dr. Piyananda in Los Angeles, has also ordained many women.
S. N. Goenka, the most famous lay Theravada Buddhist has 10 day retreat programs throughout
the world. His assistant teachers are both male and female.
Maha Upasika Bongkot, a woman, leader of the international retreat center in Sravasti, India has
100 men and women, all 8 precept and equal, all vegetarian and all work on the premises for the
Dhamma and social engagement.
IMS and Spirit Rock, in the USA are lay led Theravada retreat centers with male and female
senior teachers, vegetarian meals, social engagement.
*************to be continued**********