Maha Pajapati and the First Nuns

The Beginning of Barriers?

Statues at Leshan, China
A woman contemplates statues at Oriental Buddha Park (Dongfang Fodu Gongyuan), Leshan, Sichuan, China. Krzysztof Dydynski / Getty Images

The historical Buddha's most famous statement on women came about when his stepmother and aunt, Maha Pajapati Gotami, asked to join the sangha and become a nun. According to the Pali Vinaya, the Buddha initially refused her request. Eventually, he relented, but in so doing, the scipture says, he made conditions and a prediction that remain controversial to this day.

Here is the story:​ Pajapati was the sister of the Buddha,s mother, Maya, who had died a few days after his birth.

Maya and Pajapati were both married to his father, King Suddhodana, and after Maya,s death Pajapati nursed and raised her sister,s son.

After his enlightenment, Pajapati approached her stepson and asked to be received into the sangha. The Buddha said no. Still determined, Pajapati and 500 women followers cut off their hair, dressed themselves in patched monk,s robes, and set out on foot to follow the traveling Buddha.

When Pajapati and her followers caught up to the Buddha, they were exhausted. Ananda, the Buddha,s cousin and most devoted attendant, found Pajapati in tears, dirty, her feet swollen. "Lady, why are you crying like this?" he asked.

She replied to Ananda that she wished to enter the Sangha and receive ordination, but the Buddha had refused her. Ananda promised to speak to the Buddha on her behalf.

The Buddha's Prediction

Ananda sat at the Buddha,s side and argued on behalf of the ordination of women.

The Buddha continued to refuse the request. Finally, Ananda asked if there was any reason women could not realize enlightenment and enter Nirvana as well as men.

The Buddha admitted there was no reason a woman could not be enlightened. "Women, Ananda, having gone forth are able to realize the fruit of stream-attainment or the fruit of once-returning or the fruit of non-returning or arahantship," he said.

Ananda had made his point, and the Buddha relented. Pajapati and her 500 followers would be the first Buddhist nuns. But he predicted that allowing women into the Sangha would cause his teachings to survive only half as long -- 500 years instead of a 1,000.

Unequal Rules

Further, according to the canonical texts, before the Buddha allowed Pajapati into the Sangha, she had to agree to eight Garudhammas, or grave rules, not required of men. These are:

  • A Bhikkuni (nun) even if she was in the Order for 100 years must respect a Bhikkhu (monk) even of a day,s standing.
  • A Bhikkuni must reside within 6 hours of traveling distance from the monastery where Bhikkhus reside for advice.
  • On Observance days a Bhikkhuni should consult the Bhikkhus.
  • A Bhikkhuni must spend rainy season retreats under the orders of both Bhikhus and Bhikkhunis.
  • A Bhikkhuni must live her life by both the orders.
  • A Bhikkhuni must on two years obtain the higher ordination (Upasampatha) by both Orders.
  • A Bhikkhuni cannot scold a Bhikkhu.
  • A Bhikkhuni cannot advise a Bhikkhu.

Nuns also have more rules to follow than monks. The Pali Vinaya-pitaka lists about 250 rules for monks and 348 rules for nuns.

But Did This Happen?

Today, historical scholars doubt that this story actually took place.

For one thing, at the time the first nuns were ordained, Ananada would still have been a child, not a monk. Second, this story does not appear in some other versions of the Vinaya.

We have no way to know for sure, but it is speculated that some later (male) editor inserted the story and placed the blame for allowing the ordination of women on Ananda. The Garudhammas probably were a later insertion, also.

Historical Buddha, Misogynist?

What if the story is true? The Rev. Patti Nakai of the Buddhist Temple of Chicago tells the story of the Buddha's stepmother and aunt, Prajapati. According to the Rev. Nakai, when Pajapati asked to join the Sangha and become a disciple, "Shakamuni's response was a declaration of the mental inferiority of women, saying they lacked the capacity to understand and practice the teachings of non-attachment to self." This is a version of the story I haven't found elsewhere.

The Rev. Nakai goes on to argue that the historical Buddha was, after all, a man of his time, and would have been conditioned to see women as inferior. However, Pajapati and the other nuns succeeded in breaking down the Buddha's misunderstanding.

"Shakyamuni's sexist view had to have been completely eliminated by the time of the famous sutra stories of his encounters with women such as Kisa Gotami (in the tale of the mustard seed) and Queen Vaidehi (Meditation Sutra)," the Rev. Nakai writes. "In those stories, he would have failed to relate to them if he had held any prejudices against them as women."

Concern for the Sangha?

Many have argued that the Buddha was concerned that the rest of society, which supported the Sangha, would not approve of the ordination of nuns. However, ordaining female disciples was a not revolutionary step. The Jains and other religions of the time also ordained women.

It is argued the Buddha might have simply been protective of women, who faced great personal risk in a paternalistic culture when they were not under the protection of a father or husband.

Consequences

Whatever their intention, the rules for nuns have been used to keep nuns in a subservient position. When the orders of nuns died out in India and Sri Lanka centuries ago, conservatives used the rules calling for nuns to be present at nuns' ordination to prevent the institution of new orders. Attempts to begin nuns orders in Tibet and Thailand, where there had been no nuns before, met with enormous resistance.

In recent years, the ordination problem has been solved by allowing properly authorized nuns from other parts of Asia to travel to ordination ceremonies. In America, several co-ed monastic orders have sprung up in which men and women take the same vows and live under the same rules.

And whatever his intentions, the Buddha was certainly wrong about one thing - his prediction about the survival of the teachings. It's been 25 centuries, and the teachings are still with us.