Monday, August 5, 2013

Going Beyond Gender Ambiguity in Theravada Forest Tradition

by Tathālokā Bhikkhunī

In the past decade a modern revival of the ancient tradition of full ordination
 for women into the Buddhist monastic community, or sangha,
has unfurled in South and Southeast Asia as well as in the West.
Image courtesy of www.Dhammadharini.net.

Entering into the world of the Therīgāthā, we find a world in which women's voices are radically honest with regards to the sufferings and joys that they faced both in lay life and monastic life. The joys of the senses and of relationship, as well as the sufferings of abuse, the death of loved ones, even the suffering of Buddhist practice and apparent non-progress on the Path before their final enlightenment, is all related in the ancient therīs' enlightenment verses with fresh forthrightness and honesty. It is a kind of "no holds barred" text in terms of the gritty and glorious realities of these ancient monastic womens’ lives.

One notable feature of this text in relationship to the issue of painful gender ambiguity within monastic life is that there is not a breath or a sign or trace of it.

The women of the Therīgāthā recognize gender discrimination, not dissimilar in many ways to what we find in modern life, in their greater society—but not in monastic life. There is only one notable exception to this: that is when the women are approached, as they regularly are, both before and after their enlightenment, by Māra the Evil One.

Māra is regularly portrayed as making gender-derogatory statements in the Therīgāthā and the Bhikkhunī Sayutta, such as seems to be intended to undermine the confidence of the woman involved or to test her enlightenment. In the therīs' enlightenment verses, such statements by Māra are always triumphantly balanced by the bhikkhunī therī's declaration of seeing through and transcending any of the perceived gender limitations in the ideas and culture of her society. And, when the Buddha appears in the therīs' gāthās (verses), he is invariably the supporter and advocate, or the confirmer of the therī in the rightness of her victory.

Even subtle ambiguities, such as later restrictions in the Vinaya on the number of women who can be ordained and trained at one time (which have led to inferences of supportiveness as well as to inferences of suppression of the bhikkhunī saṅgha by the Buddha) appear nowhere in the Therīgāthā.

An Abundance of Fully Enlightened Women

The Venerable Patācārā Therī, affirmed by the Buddha as his foremost disciple in monastic discipline in the Aguttara Nikāya, appears in the Therīgāthā with a following of 500 enlightened students who sing praises in gratitude for her teaching. She would have had to live a 1,000 years to ordain so many of them according to the modern Pāli text Vinaya. However, we understand that she was not a rogue monastic in this regard, but rather we know and remember her as the Buddha's foremost bhikkhunī disciple in monastic discipline, praised and commended by him on par with her bhikkhu peer, the Venerable Vinaya expert Upāli Thera, another of the foremost disciples of the Buddha.

Not only is there Patācārā with so many students, the former queen Anojā had an enormous following, as did the Venerable Mahā Pajāpatī Gotamī Therī whose large following the Buddha himself directed to be ordained. And beyond all others, the Buddha's former wife and mother of his son, the Venerable Therī Yasodharā Rāhulamātā, is recorded in the Therī Apadāna as having a following of thousands of bhikkhunīs.

Nibbinditvāna samsāre, pabbajim anagāriyam;
Sahassaparivārena, pabbajitvā akiñcanā.

Disillusioned with samsāra,
I went forth from home life into homelessness;
Surrounded by a retinue of a thousand,
I was untroubled after my going forth [into monastic life].

Yasodharā, Therī Apadāna 402 (6)

If we look at the “Bhikkhunī Sayutta” chapter within the collected texts of the Sayutta Nikāya, we find a picture of the ancient therīs abiding in the solitude of the wilderness, their words of Dhamma well spoken—the only voice of discrimination in the present, other than their memories of their past lay lives, coming in every single case from Māra the Evil One.

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi writes of this collection:

"These poems of the [bhikkhunīs] of old still speak to us today through their sheer simplicity and uncompromising honesty. They need no ornamentation or artifice to convey their message but startle us with the clarity of unadorned truth. . . . The last two suttas are philosophical masterpieces, compressing into a few tight stanzas insights of enormous depth and wide implications. Full appreciation of their richness and power would require extensive acquaintance with the whole corpus of early Buddhist texts, . . ."

In the Bhikkhunī Sayutta, once again, as with the Therīgathā, we do not find a single word indicative of the ambiguity that seems to have crept into or to have been deliberately inserted into later strata of Buddhist Dhamma and Vinaya. Despite uncompromising honesty in relating the pain of gender discrimination in the outside world of their then-contemporary Indian society, in the rigors of forest ascetical life and in the overcoming of the defilements and hindrances in their own hearts and minds, the bhikkhunī therīs do not once mention even the slightest bit of painful ambiguity with regards to the Buddha, the bhikkhu saṅgha, or their status as women within the Buddha's monastic community.

Ambiguity's End

Endmaker, you too are ended.

Kisā Gotamī Therī to Māra
Bhikkhunī Sayutta, i, 128

I would like to put forward a suggestion for those who love, honor, and revere this ancient way and its practice, and believe it still has a place in inspiring the practice of laypersons and monastics. Namely, that this vision of a world within Buddhism without gender discrimination in its monastic heart is contained in what is affirmed as the oldest strata of the Theravāda Buddhist teaching—a strata in which discrimination belongs to the sphere of Māra and those deluded in the lay world. Reading these texts, the ambiguity for women in monastic life is a thing of the past or of the future, but not of the present. This is a present in which the hallmarks of simplicity, honesty, and an utterly unambiguous clarity are embodied in living the Dhamma as women disciples of the Buddha in the monastic life.

This is utterly unsurprising for a Dhamma and Discipline in which the Buddha says he is unsurpassed: rightly remembered and rightly praised for a holy life that is completely purified and completely fulfilled in both its essence and its conventions.

For this characteristic, according to the Buddha's teaching, I rightly praise the Buddha.
For this characteristic, according to the Buddha's teaching, I rightly praise the Dhamma and Discipline.
For this characteristic, according to the Buddha's teaching, I rightly praise the Saṅgha.

Ayyā Tathālokā Bhikkhunī Therī

Ayyā Tathālokā Bhikkhunī is an American-born member of the Buddhist Monastic Saṇgha with a background in Zen and Theravāda Buddhism. Venerable Tathālokā began her journey into monastic life nearly twenty-five years ago, and in 1997 was granted higher ordination by a multi-ethnic gathering in Southern California of the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhunī Saṅghas. In 2005 she co-founded the North American Bhikkhunī Association and the Dhammadharini Support Foundation. She is recipient of the 2006 Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award, and a presenting scholar at the 2007 International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Saṅgha.
Following in the late Ayya Khemā's footsteps, Ayyā Tathālokā became the second Western woman in Theravāda Buddhism to be appointed bhikkhunī preceptor, serving in the going forth, training, and full ordination of women in Australia, the USA, and Thailand. In 2009 she served as preceptor for the historically significant bhikkhunī ordinations in Perth, Australia. She participated as preceptor in the bhikkhunī ordination ceremonies in Northern California at Aranya Bodhi Hermitage in 2010, Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin in 2011, and the American Buddhist Seminary Temple in Sacramento in 2012.

Inspired by the Forest Traditions in Buddhism, for the past five years she has been involved in developing a rustic, green, off-the-grid women's monastic retreat on the Sonoma coast named Aranya Bodhi: Awakening Forest Hermitage. She also writes on the history of women and Buddhism and Buddhist women's monastic discipline—two of her special areas of interest and research—in addition to teaching liberating Dhamma and meditation.

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