Sunday, August 31, 2014


Buddhism and Women

I am happy to meet you once again at the Multi-Faith Centre of the University of Queensland. The topic I have been given to discuss today is “Buddhism and Women.” 

When following a tradition of Buddhist teachings more will have to be left unsaid than said. Because the subject of women is large; and the contents of the Pali Cannon in which this topic is based are vast. It is not possible to consider all these issues in a talk of this length. However only a few comments can be made on each of the following topics.  

The woman’s role during the Ministry of the Buddha was seen in four different stages. First as a mother, as a house minister/wife (Gruha-niya - is a Sanskrit word; there is no exact word in English and the closest found is, house minister and it is not house wife). As an Upasika (female lay follower) and as a female renouncer as a Bhikkhuni.

First, I would briefly talk about the culture at the time in which Buddhism appeared. Next I will talk about the attitude of the Buddha to the women’s role at different phases, How the Buddha placed each women’s role in their designated status, the prominence each role had given in the Buddhist society and show a few examples of some of the famous female figures from the past who had contributed enormously to the history of Buddhism and also point out some research on current issues related to the female monastics.

Attitude towards Women at the time of the Buddha

The main Indian religion during the Buddha’s time was designated as “Brahmanism” and was distinguished as Hinduism as a post Buddhist development.  The position of woman under Hinduism was well described in the Manusmrti which is a work of the Dhama Sastra literature of India. The “Laws of the Manu”(V, 147 -8) G. Buchler SBE. Vol. XIV, describes the duties of woman as follows:

 “By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house. In childhood a female must be subject to her father. In youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent.”
“No sacrifice, no vow, no fast must be performed by woman (apart from their husbands). If a wife obeys her husband, she will for that (reason alone) be exalted in heaven” (Ch.V.v.155).
Both Parsva Natha of Jainism and Gautama the Buddha, as non-Brahmanic protestant leaders, opened their doors with strict admissions of women to their monastic communities. Theri Gatha (Psalms of the Sisters) alone provides evidence to show that hundreds and hundreds of women found solace in Buddhism and preferred their spiritual pursuits under the Buddha.

"Satta Deva Manussanam"


    The Buddha proclaimed a message that was universal to all human beings. One of the Nine Classic titles given to the Buddha is “Satta Devamanussanam” or the leader of gods and humans, a one who could lead all beings. The Buddha’s teaching was designed to the happiness of humanity of all beings, without exception from one’s cast, creed, race, age, distance they lived, disability or gender. The Buddha taught Dhamma to both men and women equally. He also gave talks to the householders and their wives. The Buddha unhesitatingly accepted that women are capable of realizing the Truth, just as men. The highest achievement of Buddhism, the supreme enlightenment is available to both men and women.

During the Buddhist epoch there was a change in the attitudes towards women. The traditional structure and functions of society undoubtedly underwent some alterations. Ms.I.B. Horner, describes in “Woman Under Primitive Buddhism.” that “Women came to enjoy more equality and greater respect and authority than ever. Their position in their activities in domestic, social and religious began to improve.” The Anguttara Nikaya,(11.57) shows that as a result of the freedom, the women set to have fine examples in conduct and intelligence. Women no longer became intolerable and degradable. Women were well acknowledged at last to be capable of working as a constructive force in the society of the day. 

The Buddha addressed the Vajjis, (a rulling clan in Veshali) and taught them the Seven Downfalls of a Man (Saptha Aparihana Dhamma). He then advised the Vajjis to respect and honour young girls and women and to place them well in society and not to keep them under men’s custody.
In a society which considered that male children to be more desirable than female ones (San.Nik,2) The Buddha had a different view.When Queen Mallika had given birth to a daughter. The Buddha's advice to the King Pasenadi of Kosala, was “that a girl may prove even a better offspring than a boy,” this clearly shows that Buddhism does not consider the birth of a daughter as a
cause for worry and despair.

Buddhist Woman as a Mother

As for the Buddhist, mother is the highest symbol of respect in the home. The Buddha himself set the first example by paying the highest respect to his foster mother when Mahaprajapathi Theri passed away by taking part in the funeral procession. This was the first time that the Buddha participated in a funeral. 

Motherhood in Early Buddhism could also be valued actively in its own right. Queen Mahamaya, the mother of the Buddha, and Queen Prajapathigotami who was his foster mother, Yasodhara, the wife of the Prince Sidhartha are regarded as most valued and respected mother- roles in the history of Buddhism.  

Buddhist teachings value family as the most important human association for the formation and socialisation of the infant. The image of the mother as the embodiment of compassion is used a lot. The woman as the mother had always commanded such veneration and gratitude, and her position was unassailable. Women were almost invariably mentioned and listed first in the early Indian literature - Sanskrit, Pali and Jain.

Sigalovada Sutta, in Deega Nikaya, deals with the code of conduct for the laity. There are five duties parents are to perform towards their children and vice versa. No other leader than the Buddha used highest words to elicit the qualities of the parents. 

Brahma Vihara



The Buddha declared; “Brahmati Matapitaro- Pubbacariyatiruccare.” “The parents are Brahma- God and also our teachers.”

Brahma is believed to have four noble qualities as in the Brahama Viharas, (Brahma Vihara Sutta AN.10.208). They are also called the Four Divine Abodes, namely; loving kindness (metta), Compassion (karuna), Appreciative joy (Mudita), and Equanimity (upakka). Parents maintain these four qualities towards their children throughout all the different events of life, from the moment of conception onwards.
In the Sigalowada Sutta in the Diga Nikaya, Buddha advised his followers to widen these feelings and to apply them all. 
Similar qualities are elaborated In the Mangala Sutta, which shows, “Matapitu Upattanam etam mangala muttaman:” that helping and supporting the parents is one of the great thirty eight blessings. The Buddha often used the phrase, “Mata mittan sake gare.” to give a prominent place in the family, recognise the mother as a close friend.
In another place Buddha described parents as, “the main life supporters, protectors, feeders and teach you how to enter into the world. “ Bahukara Bhikkhawe matapitaro puttanan apadaka posaka imassa lokassa dassetara.”

One reason for honouring the motherhood in Buddhism is that there are five kinds or suffering unique to women. (Majjima Nikaya.2). Avenika Dukka Sutta in Matugama Sanyutta describes these as:  Menstruation, pregnancy, child birth, leaving her own family to live with her husband and in-laws and to wait upon a man.
The Buddha explains in the Pasyaha Sutta, (S.N) that a birth of a child would support a mother to get out of the male dominance in her home and move forward in the society.

 Buddhist Woman As a Wife and a House Minister (Gruhaniya)

The influence of Buddhism on the place of woman in society as a whole in Sri Lanka is demonstrated in both the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa. Hugh Boyd visiting the Kandyan court 1784 remarked “The Sihalese woman are not merely The slaves and mistresses but in many companions and friends of husbands. The Sinhalese neither keep their women in confinement nor impose on them humiliating restraints,” Similar records are available on the position of women in Burma, Thailand and Tibet where women participate freely as equals in economic, social and religious activities of the community.

In Buddha’s words, “A virtuous wife was considered to be one who led the good life. A good lay woman endowed with religious devotion, moral virtue and liberality as well as wisdom and learning, and is given to charity makes success of her life in this very existence.” (SN.IV.120)

The Sigalovada Sutta in the Digha Nikaya, the Pali canon describes the respect that one is expected to give to one's spouse. In five ways should a wife as the western direction be respected by a husband: by honouring, not disrespecting, being faithful, sharing authority, and by giving gifts.
And, the wife so respected, reciprocates with compassion in five ways: by being well-organized, being kindly disposed to the in-laws and household workers, being faithful, looking after the household goods, and being skilful and diligent in all duties.

 In the statement of, “Issariya vossaggana,” the Buddha meant to hand over the household administration or leadership to the wife. The Uggaha Sutta (AN.33) explains more details about the ideal relationship of the husband and wife in order to keep domestic peace and harmony.

Sanwasa Sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha announces four types of marriages and how a husband and wife should keep their relationships and marriage ties together. The best tie of a relationship stated is when the husband and the wife live according to the virtues of a god (Deva) and goddess. The Buddha reassures Nakulamata and Nakulapita that if both the husband and the wife expresses the longing to be together not only here and now but in a future state also, both of them should be in the same level in regard to their belief, their ethical conduct, their generosity and wisdom (A ii,6If). In these respects therefore a woman may be the equal of a man (I.B. Horner, “WOMEN”, 1982).

(SN.4.4.5 Maha.Va.7, Mallika Sutta), Queen Mallika (King Kosala’s wife) asks the Buddha why some women are beautiful, others plain, some rich, others poor. The Buddha explains that if a woman be ill tempered and irritable, jealous and slow to give alms, such a one becomes poor and of ill favour, wherever she may happen to be born. A woman, however, who never becomes angry or agitated even under great provocation, and is generous, such a one becomes beautiful famous and rich. (Anguttara Nikaya, N4.)

Queen Mallika declares her determination for the future, to be gentle in temper, never revengeful or harbouring a grudge, but always amiable and generous.

There were high expectations in the role of a wife. In the list given in the Anguttara Nikaya, (7;59) the Buddha describes seven wives when advising the daughter-in-law of the Anatapindika, Sujata, who had been a difficult woman at that time. The Buddha asked which kind of wife she falls into, and it is said that Sujata changed her attitudes from then on. The wives are described as: The first three types are destined for unhappiness which are the Destructive-wife, thievish-wife and domineering wife, while the last four, as they are imbued with long term self-control, are destined to be happy. The latter wives are characterised as care takers (motherly-wife as she would be for her son), companions (friend-wife, companion wife) and submissive (sister-wife and slave-wife, like a maid wife, as she would be for her older brother).The Buddha endorsed a variety of types of wives within marriage and emphasized the higher virtues, values and conduct that was expected by them in order to keep husband and wife in place.

If all goes well, then the wife is called the “comrade supreme” (S.N), and a number of devoted couples are mentioned in the Pali Canon, such as Queen Mallika and King Pasnadi, Nakulamata and Nakulapita, and Dhammadinna and Visaka (I.B.Horner, “Women in Early Buddhist Literature”). 

Nakulamata and Nakulapita were considered by the Buddha to be the most eminent among his lay-disciples or their close companionship with one another (A.N). And they were matched in their faith in their teaching, their self-control, and affectionate way in which they spoke to one another (A.N).

In the family both husbands and wives are expected to share equal responsibility and discharge their duties with equal dedication. The husband is admonished to consider the wife a friend, a companion, a partner. In family matters the wife was expected to be a substitute for the husband when the husband happened to be indisposed. In fact, a wife was expected even to acquaint herself with the trade, business or industries in which the husband engaged, so that she would be in a position to manage his affairs in his absence and shows the fact that in the Buddhist society the wife administered the role as the house minister.

However, since the ideal of early Buddhism is renunciation. It can be seen from examples such as the story of Nanda, Buddha’s step brother, his wife Janapada Kalyāni that striving for the bliss of Nirvana is valued above love and marriage. Despite having married her just that day, encouraged by his cousin, Buddha, Nanda left his wife to become a Bhikkhu in the order of Sanga. In stories like this from the Pali Canon shows that, Nirvana is generally perceived above love.

Buddhist Women as Upasikas (Female lay followers)


The Anguttara Nikaya,(5.175) describes the five qualities of a Buddhist lay-follower:
A lay-follower (upasaka/upasika) who has five qualities is a jewel of a lay-follower, is like a lotus. What are these five qualities? He/She has faith; is virtuous; is not superstitious; believes in action (kamma) and does not believe in luck or omen; does not seek outside (of the Order). 

 Upasakas and Upasikas, are also called sravakas and sravikas - are householders and other laypersons who take refuge in the Three jewels (the Buddha, the teachings, and the sanga community) and practice the Five Precepts.

Ten Virtues of the Lay-follower

He/she shares the joys and sorrows of the Order; places the Dhamma first;
enjoys giving according to ones ability. If one sees a decline in the Dispensation of the Teaching of the Buddha, one strives for its strong growth;
has right views, disregarding belief in superstitions and omens; will not accept any other teacher, not even for the sake of one’s life;
guards ones deeds and words;
loves and cherishes peace and concord;
is not envious or jealous;
does not live a Buddhist life by way of deception or hypocrisy;
has gone for refuge to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha.

Women are often the main upholders and supporters of a religion. Women are known as the pillars of strength to Buddhism. This was certainly so with Buddhism when it was widely spreading and up to today, women are more prevalent in all activities in Buddhist temples. The first woman to become lay-disciples by the formula of the holy triad was the mother and the former wife of Yassa.
Visaka Upasika, an intelligent pious woman became the Buddha’s great benefactress, supported the Buddha and the Sanga in great many ways. A model female lay devotee, endowed with unwavering confidence in the Triple Gem. She was securely settled in the fruit of stream-entry at the age of seven.

Visaka, Cullasubadda, Queen Mallika, Samawathi, Kujjuttaa, Matikamata, Uttara, Sujata, Suppawasa, Suppiya, katiyanan, Nakulamata, Kali were some of eminent female lay disciples who were placed as great upasikas and were well praised by the Buddha. Just as Buddha had great sravikas as eminent nuns he had eminent upasiks in his ministry.

However the attitude of the Buddha to the role of woman was an enlightened one.  And therefore, Velu Kantaki Nandamata and Kujjuttara who had reached higher fruits in the path were the most eminent Upasikas the Buddha showed as the role models for the lay followers.

The Dhammapada Atuwa denotes that Samawati, Kujjuttara, Matika Mata and Uttara were some of the highly praised women for their wisdom by the Buddha. 

There is nothing in the Dhamma that says that there is a male/female based on Silaya/virtues. Terigata Attakata  denotes (5:19)( “Naso sabbesu tanesu-puriso hoti pandito -Ettipi pandito hoti- tatta tatta vicaccana.”) that the gender is not a barrier for the attainment of Wisdom and that the knowledge of the woman is as far equal than a man.

The Bhikkhuni Soma appeared to have grasped the principal that Dhamma was neutral with respect to the gender of the follower. She fires back at a challenge, when Mara (a demon) tells her that as a woman, with only her two- finger length wisdom (dvangulapanna), she could never get to the true sainthood.
She bravely tells, “What does it matter our being man or woman, when our minds are perfectly under our command? Our wisdom and judgement are wholly mature and the Truth of the Norm (Dhamma), we clearly see”(Thig.v.61).
The Women in the Bhikkhuni Sanga

The establishment of the Bhikkhuni order is considered as something revolutionary in the religious history. The Buddha called all members of humanity from all walks of life to come together to form a new order. He advocated that all females and males look alike and shave the head, go for alms and wear the robes and wear no different adornments. This was what had to be followed by everyone, declaring that a member of either gender is equally capable of achieving the highest spiritual attainments.

The Buddha gave similar positions to both genders of the outstanding achievers in the Sanga community naming them, the Agga Maha Shravaka and Shravika. 

The Buddha concedes to Ven. Ananda that woman, having taken to the life of pabbajja (ordination) in Buddhism, are capable of attaining the higher fruits of religious life as far as Atahantship (AN). These considerations would have weighted heavy in the mind of the Buddha. But in the interests of the collective good of the institution of Brahmacariya, which was the core of the religion, woman had to make certain sacrifices, surrendering at times to their legitimate rights. This was evident from the Eight Conditions under which the Buddha granted them permission to enter the order.

Swarna De Silva, (“A place for Women in Buddhism” 1994) made a comment, stating that, “whatever be the explanation the rules lack reciprocity between males and females, and would not suit the present age. On his deathbed the Buddha gave permission to revise the less important rules of the Vinaya. The extinction of the Order of Bhikkhunis must mean that this question has to remain an academic one. Whether this contributed to the extinction of the Bhikkhuni Order we shall never know.” 

The Eight Great Conditions

1.    Bhikkhus were always to have precedence over Bhikkhunis in matters of salutation, etc. irrespective of any other consideration.
2.   Bhikkhunis could not observe the annual retreat (vassa) in a district where there were no Bhikkhus.
3.    Bhikkhus had to set the dates for Bhikkhuni Uposatha ceremonies.
4.   Confessing  transgressions by Bhikkhnis had to done before the assembly of both Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis.
5.    Certain judicial processes in case of Bhikkhunis had to be undertaken by both the Sanghas.
6.    Upasampadâ initiation of Bhikkhunis should be given by the Bhikkhu sangha as well.
7.     A Bhikkhuni should never abuse a Bhikkhu.
8.     Bhikkhus can officially admonish Bhikkhunis, but not vice versa.

The eight revered conditions have been the focus of much debate between scholars and between practitioners because of its conditions association with the subordination of nuns to monks in Buddhism. Many scholars and practitioners argue that the impact of the subordination meant that women would never be leaders in the life of the whole community or have any decisive voice in what they say.

Bhikku Analayo states (Journal of Buddhist Ethics,”Vo20,2013). “The eight
garudhammas also differ from all other rules in the Vinaya in that they are not laid down in response to something that has happened. Instead, they are pronounced in advance. In sum, the eight principles to be respected are not rules per se; instead, they are recommendations. "

Kawanami (‘bhikkhuni”237) quotes that the eight garudhamma rules were only instructions given by the Buddha. Bhikkhuni Kusuma centres on the possibility that the observance of the Garu Dhamma was intended for Mahaprajapati Gotami alone for her virtue of her having ordained by the Buddha.  She further argues  that conditions did not conform to contexts that generally gave rise to vinaya regulations (Inaccurancies.8). She further argues that the Conditions were unknown at the time of the first establishment of the Bhihhkuni Sanga in Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century. 

B.C.E. Wijayaratna, (Buddhist Nuns, 2010) explains that the Conditions appear to reflect the historical and social contexts of gender expectations. He affirms that the conditions were established in order “to protect the community of Nuns.”

The case doesn’t end there. The Buddha had mentioned to Ven. Ananda, “if women had not gone forth in this doctrine and discipline, the pure doctrine would last for a thousand years, but since they have gone forth, it will only last for five hundred years.” Could this be the real words of the Buddha? This expression can be interpreted in several ways. Some scholars think that this is an expression of regret by the Buddha; others see it as an attitude foreign to the Buddha’s thought and that misogynist monks added it to the text.

From the doctrinal point of view, a Buddha cannot feel regret. The mental states of hindrances such as regret about the past, and being worried about the future, etc., does not arise in a Buddha. The Buddha would have simply wanted to say that if the Nuns did not act correctly, the duration of his teaching would last only half as long. The community of Nuns was created by the Buddha under difficult conditions as such the organisation had to be carefully protected by future generations. In this dialog finally the Buddha states to Ven. Ananda that he gave the eight important conditions to avoid this curtailing of the duration of the religious life (Vin11256; A IV272-77).

The Impact of Garudhamma

Many Theravadi Buddhist leaders believe that the Garudhammas were installed to keep the distance from both groups in the clergy. The Buddha repeatedly advised the bhikkhus explaining that it is a common norm for both men and woman to be always attracted to the physical appearance of each other (“Bondage/Sanyogana Sutta,” AN 7.48). The subordinate role to the monks could help both monastics to look at each other in a more respectful and conscientious manner and Garudhammas could have designed to avoid obstacles to the life of renunciation as any form of affection is an obstacle to the path of liberation.

In the Pahankanuwa Dhamma Talks, a renowned, well learned senior monk, from Sri Lanka, Ven. Katukurunde Gnanananda Himi says, “every clash / problem among human beings is originated from misinterpretation of the language. People just grab the words, but do not sense or take the real meaning. So we argue, fight; misunderstandings arrive and eventually end up in a war. Wrong thinking and speech becomes the most powerful weapons.”

The First Female Ordination

The first female request for ordination came from Queen Ysodhara. When the Buddha first visited kapilavastu (his home town) on behalf of the invitation of his relatives. Yasodhara expressed her desire to join the order. The Buddha disapproved her request by remaining silent. It is stated that from the day Yasodhara came to know about Prince Sidhartha’s renunciation, she had followed Buddha’s way of life by wearing yellow robes and having one meal a day, by lying on low couches and giving up garlands and scents.

Even after having had The Eight Conditions imposed upon Prajapathigotami, she became the gateway for the spread of nuns in Buddhism. Theri Mahapajapatigotami proved to the world that women also had the same or equal capabilities as men to attain enlightenment, the highest known position in Buddhism. This goes to show that Mahapajapati Theri broke that cycle, and paved the way for women to be seen as leaders, along with equality.
The Buddha constantly reminded us: “as long as the sasana consisting of Bhikkhu, Bhikkuni, Upasaka, Upasika persist, the Dhamma will remain.” We need to constantly remind ourselves of this.
Resuscitating the Bhikkhuni Order

The dominant opinion amongst the Sanga in Theravada countries is that there is no possibility to resuscitating the Bhikkhuni Order. The validity of the dual ordination carried out at the Bodhgaya concerns uncertainty whether the Bhikkhuni lineage has been passed on without interruption in China and whether the Mahayana Bhikkhunis can represent as Therawada Bhikkunis as their tradition and practice differ from the Theravada tradition. 

Bhikkhu Analayao, (The Revival of the Bhikkhuni Order and the Decline of the Sasana, Vo.20,2013) points out that 
"However, the same uncertainty applies equally to the Bhikkhu lineages in South and Southeast Asia, since it is in principal impossible to provide positive proof that the transmission has always been passed on in an unbroken manner” (Journal of Buddhist Ethics). Kieffer-Pulz (“Presuppositions,” ‘Journal of Buddhist Ethics,’ 219) argues that it is difficult and if not impossible, for any of the excising traditions to authenticate both points.” 

Ven. Ajhan Bramawanso Maha Thero, (Gender Equality and the empowerment of Women in Theravada Buddhism) argues that at first the Lord Buddha gave the bhikkhus authority to ordain bhikkhunis. Later, the Buddha gave authority for bhikkhunis to be ordained by a dual ordination ceremony; first in a Sangha of bhikkhunis and then in a Sangha of bhikkhus. However, in contrast with the history of the bhikkhu ordination, where one finds that whenever a new ordination is allowed by the Lord Buddha then the previous method is immediately abolished, the original ordination of bhikkhunis by bhikkhus was not abolished by the Lord Buddha. It is a general principle of Theravada Buddhism “Not to abolish what has been authorized by the Buddha” (one of the seven causes for the longevity of the Buddhist religion – Anguttara Sevens, 23). This, then, is a strong argument for the legitimacy of ordination of bhikkhunis by bhikkhus alone.”

Can Sexism Produce Karma?

Then there is another argument based on the norm of male supremacy endemic to Buddhism, the Karma of sexism is healthy and strong in certain Countries, such as Sri Lanka, Burma. Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Only some communities in Sri Lanka ordain women. Elsewhere in South East, ordination of woman is illegal. Nuns in Southeast Asian countries are neglected and ill-served by their tradition. Many do not get prerequisites to survive, because of their inferiority law status. This has led them to use money to attend to their requisites, which is against the monastic discipline.

We cannot generalise that all Theravada monks are against supporting female renounces. At present there are very compassionate and progressive monks and Nayaka Theros to be found amongst the Therawada tradition. 

Ten Precepts Sil Mathas (Ten Precepts Nuns)

It is worthwhile to mention that there is a considerable number of Sri Lankan, Ten Precepts Sil Mathas who have kept their tradition for the last one hundred years. There are well educated, experienced and disciplined nuns with more than twenty five – fifty years in ordination who give meditation instructions and attend to Buddhist teachings in certain centres.  There are clashes between both groups, when junior Bhikkhunis try to show that they are superior to them or vice versa. 

(Sri Lankan Sil Matas)

 Sayale Dipankara from Burma
Bhikkhu Analayo, (Journal of Buddhist Ethics,2013) points out an important issue, regarding Dasasil Matas, stating that, "a substantial number prefer to remain in their present setting. One problem is that their whole social relationship network with other nuns is based on the principal of seniority, which on taking bhikkhuni ordination will have to be restructured according to seniority in high ordination.” 
According to Anguttara Nnikaya, the Buddha expected his Sanga community to be “competent, have self-confidence, be well learned, be upholders of the Dhamma, practitioners of the Dhamma, be followers of the Dhamma, and illuminate the community.”(AN4.7, D.N 33,) 

Whether they be Bhikkunis or Sil Matas, there is an urgent necessity to educate
and support the female renounces who are already in the order, who wishes to enter the order to leave the worldly life. The need of a recognition and involvement of the Senior Buddhist authorities, the government bodies and the wider community is very vital in promoting peace and harmony. This could enhance the inferiority status of the women and foster self-esteem among those female followers that could speed up their spiritual development and attainments. 

They should be provided with opportunities to take leadership roles that would benefit the wider society at large, without being desperate, keeping in subordinate conditions or in inferior situations. When these conditions are supported, and met, more educated, visionary, and enlightened nuns could be visioned in the female Sanga Community. 


His Holiness the Dalai Lama contributes greatly to the empowering of women. He speaks at the Lions Club of Dharamsala, in India, claiming that “Education alone is not sufficient. Educating only the Brain is not enough. Education of warm-heartedness is important. Women should take an active role in the peacemaking. Empowerment of women is very important. I give my full support.  I always feel for other people.” 
“21st Century is a century for dialog. Proper way to build peace is we must make an effort to solve peace through meaningful dialog and paying respect to others interests. In order to promote dialog, great will and self-confidence is important.  We must make an effort to strengthen compassion. When we act with real compassion for all beings, honest, transparent and truthful real dialogue brings peaceful solutions among human beings. The Empowerment of women is a peaceful solution for the 21st century. Women can play an important role in promoting peace. The 21st Century should be the Century of peace.”

At present, there is ample opportunity for the women to be engaged in the Buddhist practice as upasikas. The enlightenment can come within upasikas as well and there are no restrictions to it if one is ambitious. 

However, renunciation allows one to get away from the worldly life to enjoy the freedom and speed up the attainments to reach high goals in the spiritual path. When a female follower attains the fruit of Arhat-ship, she automatically becomes a Theri or Bhikkhuni (for e.g. When the lay disciples Bahiya Druchiriya & Santati the Minister became Arahants and passed away, the Buddha announced them as Bhikkhu, Samana or Brahmana. One is called Sanga when anyone in the four fold sanga attains the Noble Eight Fold Path irrespective of the gender.

The Community of Nuns of the Old

The Community of nuns of the old, continued to prosper for many centuries. The Anguttara-Nikaya) records a list of famous nuns who were fully awakened Buddhist nuns and leading female disciples. They were well known and profound in different domains thus assisted the ministry of the Buddha in the illumination of the Dhamma: for example, Mahapajapati Theri, the chief of the Bhikkhuni order, broke the cycle, and paved the way for women to be seen as leaders, along with equality. Khema and Uppalwanna Theris became the two chief Nuns of the Buddha. Theri Khema was the foremost among the nuns who possessed great wisdom and Therie Uppalawanna became the highest Bikkuni amongst all, who perform Miracles using the astral body. 

Theri Bhaddakaccayana (Yasodhara) was foremost among the nuns who attained supernormal knowledge, Theri Patacara was foremost among the other nuns with regard to knowledge on the code of discipline and Theri Nanda was foremost among the nuns who developed their mind. Theri Sona was foremost in right effort, Baddakapilanai Theri was foremost in the ability to recollect past lives. Theri Sigalakamata was among the ones foremost in faith. Theri Kisagotmi was foremost among the ones who had the ability to wear rough robes. 

Altogether there were more than two-hundred and fifty  famous Buddhist Nuns including famous nuns such as, Mutta, Punna, Tissa, Dheera, Mitta and Bhadra Theries from the past.

Theri Khema, Theri Kanjangala, Theri Vajita, Theri Sukka, Theri Dhammadinna, were well known for their ability to preach. Many of these nuns attained Arahatship with the Four Analytical knowledge and endowed with wisdom. Theri Suppa, ordained under Theri Dhammadinna, was an eminent Bhikkhuni, endowed with wisdom and supper normal powers (W. M Kodikara, 92) because of her special ability to preach, many followers became delighted and interested in listening to her Dhamma preaching, which had made them to enter the order.

Bhikkhuni Dhammadinna was one such Bhikkhuni the Buddha praised with high regards for her Knowledge of Dhamma. She was placed as foremost in preaching the Dhamma among the others. 

 A higher praise was given to Yasodhara Devi for her fidelity to the Buddha 
by protection, faithfulness and devotion shown in her previous births and her stories are illustrated detailed in “Pujavaliya” (Garland of Offerings).


From Yasodharapadana;

"May all the forest fruits for you turn sweeter!
May men surrounded you as the bees a flower
May the sun its scorching rays for you make dimmer
And league on league, may heavenly halls appear."
 (Yasodharapadana & Pujavaliya, Kuddhaka Nikaya/ Apadana- translated by Ranjini Obeysekera) 

These Bhukkhunis appeared to have spent their entire lives for the welfare and happiness of the people surrounded in the communities they lived. 

 Bhikkhuni Lineage in Srii Lanka

According to Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa, during the reign of King Asoka, in the 3rd BC, Arahat Sangamitta Theri with a group of Bhikkhunis brought the Bhukkhuni ordination lineage from India to Sri Lanka and established the Bhikkhuni order. Dipavamsa states, “Theri Sangamitta was learned and wise and was endowed with her six (supernatural) faculties. Prince Aritta, together with the five hundred high born illustrious virgins at the royal court (companions who surrounded Anula), were free from passion and stead- fast, all received the Pabbajja Ordination and all these persons attained Arahatship and full perfection in the Doctrine of Jina.”

 The Buddhist female leaders like Vihamahadevi, Somadevi, Sugaladevi, Ahelepola Kumarihami appeared in Sri Lanka because of her great sacrifice, unflagging devotion, unassuming courage she gave for the moral, intellectual and spiritual upliftment for the wellbeing and happiness of the people and the women-fold of Sri Lanka.  

Arahat Theri Sangamitta was a true spiritual successor of Prajapathi Gothami, Baddhakaccana (Yasodhara), Dhammadinna, and thousands of other Arahat Theris as such, the community of nuns of the old, continued to prosper for many centuries.




It took well over five hundred years and appears to have disappeared at some time around the 11th century due to political disruptions and various invasions.

Entire monastic community in India and Sri Lanka had disappeared. Only the 
Bhikkhku order was re-established from Burma.

Even though the Bhikkhuni lineage disappeared due to political and social infractions, the Bhikhku lineage survived.

In Sri Lanka, during the 1st Century The Theravada Leading Bhikkhus preserved the Dhamma Discoursed by the Buddha, and scripted them on “Ola Leaves” which was previously been preserved by memory.
This important event decided the future of the Therawada Buddhism. As Buddhists we owe them our deepest gratitude. 


To conclude this program, let us look at each role nominated to the woman by the Buddha. 
Each woman’s role during the ministry of the Buddha was seen as a mother, a wife /a house minister, as Upasika and a Bhikkhiuni. These roles were well discussed and documented. The Buddha gave the highest embodiment of respect to the mother. Then he placed the wife in the leader-ship role and requested her to develop the Buddhist virtues by recognising that, those values and virtues persisted in a mother, has the potential to change the home environment to a virtuous family life. 

For example, Buddha’s great eminent female lay followers, like Visaka and Cullasubadra, married husbands from other religious traditions. They were both convinced by Visaka and Cullasubadra’s behaviour and moral conduct that led their families and later both husbands to become pious Buddhists. Later Visaka was called Migaramata (meaning, Migara the father-in-law’s mother). Queen Mallika was another female disciple who encouraged and supported her husband King Kosala, to live by the virtues.

The Buddha placed the roles of mother and father as “Brahma” who believed to have four noble qualities.

As for the Upasika or female lay follower, the Buddha emphasised that Dhamma was neutral with respect to gender and that the best role-model of woman was an enlightened one.

The role of each woman in society, placed by the Buddha, is an admirable one. No such human being has given such a place for women-fold in the human history. Hence the title given to the Buddha “Satta Deva Manussanam” - the leader of the all human beings was well rehearsed in the discussion.

Regarding the Bhikkhunis and Sil mathas, there is freedom for one to choose the path. However, in the present day, the respect for women expected by the Buddha seems to have disappeared. The values and the respect that reciprocals each other as human beings are also appear to be declining.

The position of the Bhikkhuni Sanga, such as the approval of a higher order remains unresolved and unsupported, and as such the decision remains with the Senior Maha Sanga. If such consideration is granted through kindness and compassion, it could resolve human rights in the modern day we live and could positively support to the elimination of the inferiority low status of the female monastics.
For the past 2600 years we have been reading, writing and appreciating the works of the Nuns who lived in the past. In a country like Sri Lanka, where so many enlightened beings flourished, the Bhikkhuni order declined. This is enough to show our negligence that is coming from our communities. 

Empowering and improving the conditions of the female sanga communities was felt important to improve their inferior, subordinate low status. We have not heard of a recently enlightened nun other than “Mae Chee Kaew” from Thailand. But the stories of the bhikkhus have been many. Whether this debate should take another2500 years, is not known.

The doctrine of the Buddhist teachings immersed through meditation activities are important conditions towards the attainment of the fruits of the path.  Merely teaching the Piriven System of Education does not seem to pave the way to enlightenment. Once those supportive conditions are met, in future, we will see skilled and disciplined, educated and cultured, visionary and enlightened female monastics who will live by the teachings of the Buddha and be an excellent example for generations to come. Undoubtedly such a group will be a beacon of inspiration for other females to follow the Path of the Buddha, as the Buddha envisaged. Then we can see visioned and enlightened female monastics who can contribute to the society and to the history of the 21st century.

To conclude, let this Dhamma propagation be a tribute to my Dhamma teachers and lay supporters who diligently inspired and reinforced me to develop the path to Nirwana.
Let this be a tribute to the thousands of bhikkhus, bhikkhunis and nuns, of the past and the lay male and female disciples of the Buddha who sacrificed so much to hand this tradition down, from 2600 years ago. I hope that the exploring the poems composed by the Arahat  Bhikkhunis or enlightened Buddhist nuns of old, would spring much inspirations to the contemporary Buddhists.
 The Canonical texts reflect the role women played in the conceptualisation of Buddhism, as such, Buddhism dignifies them by recording and remembering their spiritual achievements. 
I Finally I wish you all be well, happy and peaceful. May the teachings of the Buddha guide you and bless you with peace that lead to Nirvana!  

I also would like to acknowledge and pass merit of the good thoughts and deeds we generated to day to all our listeners,to the organisation, The Buddhist Association of the University of Queensland, to the organisation of the Multi faith Centre, the President, Jacob Wu and the secreaty Jacqueline Roggers and to all our students for organising and making this event a success and to Thushari Tilakaratna for assisting me in organising the slide presentation.

May you all be well, happy and peaceful. May the teachings of the Buddha guide you and bless you with peace that lead to Nirvana!  

   Presented by Ven. N. Sudhamma
  (MEd, Queensland University of Technology,  Australia)


1.   Bhikkhu Nanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi, (200), Anguttara Nikaya, Wisdom Publications, Boston.
2.   Bhikkhu Analayo, (2013) The Revival of the Bhikkhuni Order and the Decline of the Sasana”, “Journal of Buddhist Ethics” Vo20,.
3.   Bhikkhuni Kusuma, (2004) “Inaccuracies in Buddhist Women’s History” New York of New York.
4.   Maurice Walshe,(1995) “Digha Nikaya,”, Wisdom Publications, Boston.
5.   Edited by George Turnour, “Mahavamsa”, The Free Encyclopaedia, The Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka –
6.   Herman Oldenberg, “Dipavamsa”, An Ancient Buddhist Historical Record, Harvard College Library.
7.   I.B. Horner, (1961), “Women in Early Buddhist Literature” The wheel Publication, NO 30.
8.   I.B. Horner, (1982), “Women, ”The wheel Publication.
9.   Kawanami, Hiroko, (1987):  “The Bhikkhuni” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies” 10:1 (7-32. Cheng, Wei-yi).
10.   Kieffer-Pulz, (2013) “Presuppositions” Journal of Buddhist Ethics.
11. Bhikkhu Nanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi “Majjima Nikaya,”  Wisdom Publications, Boston
12. Mohan Wiyayaratna, (2010) “Buddhist Nuns” Buddhist Publication Society Kandy, Sri lanka.
13. Nanamoli Bhikkhu and Bodhi Bhikkhu,  (2000). Majjima Nikaya.
      1st ed. Boston: Wisdom Publications, Boston.

14.Bhikkhu Bodhi (Translated) “Sanutta Nikaya,” Wisdom Publications, Boston
15. Susan Elbaum Jootla, “Inspiration from the Enlightened Nuns” Wheel Publication No 349/350, 1988.
16. Swarna de Silva,(1994) “The Place for Women in Buddhism, BSQ Tracts  on Buddhism”, No7,
17. The Laws of the Manu (V.147, 8) Translated by Buhler SBE. Vol.X1V
18. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, (1997) “The Bondage”, “Sanyogana Sutta” 
19. Ven. Ajhan Bamavanso Thro, “Gender Equality and the empowerment of Women in Theravada Buddhism and MDg 3:”
20.Walshe, M. (1995). Herman Oldenberg, “Dipavamsa”, An Ancient Buddhist Historical Record, Harvard College Library
  21. Watsala. M. Kodikra, (2000) “Bauddha Kantawakage Samaja Karya Baraya” (Sinhala), S. Godage Brothers,


  1. Women were given equal opportunity to become Bikkunies by the Lord Buddha about 2600 years ago. There were hundreds of bikkunies who could attain the Arahantship. It is a well known fact that Women come first in understanding the first Noble Truth, the truth of suffering and then realise the second Noble Truth, the truth of the cause to suffering. This realisation takes them in the path to the Nirwana. This phenomena is very obvious in every spiritual activity with the highest participation or the majority being women. However, the recognition for women and the opportunity to become a Bikkuni has disappeared from the Buddhasaasana. It seems, like many other things, the Bikkuni Saasanaya also has been subjected to change by cultural influence. This has become a blockage to the virtuous women in attaining enlightenment without the Bikkuni Saasana and recognition. Buddha said there are five sufferings faced by women. The sixth suffering to women could be this barrier nowadays, which was not there during the Lord Buddha's time.

  2. Yes, a good comment Thushara, However as the Buddha expressed we should not hold gender as a barrier to attain Nirvana. Both men and women are equally good at gaining attainments and liberation. Women are more even faster and ambitious.

  3. Please can I get contact number