Showing posts with label Ordination. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ordination. Show all posts

15 January 2010

Triratna Buddhist Order

On the 6th of January I received an email from the founder of our Order, Sangharakshita, [1] explaining that he was changing the name of the Order from the Western Buddhist Order to the Triratna Buddhist Order.

There were a number of factors behind this momentous decision. It was increasingly anachronistic to call us 'Western' when about a quarter of the order live in India, and we have groups and centres in Eastern Europe and other places which might not think of themselves as 'Western': Turkey for instance! When we started off in 1968 'Western' was quite appropriate, but now we are a global order. In India we had even more problems because the Order there was called Trailokya Bauddha Mahāsaṅgha (the Great Buddhist Order of the Triple-World). Having two different names for the Order was always problematic as we only have one ordination, and was a bit confusing at times - I noticed this at the Order Convention in India for instance. Also the word trailokya was not understood outside Buddhist circles in India - I doubt whether many westerners knew what it meant either. It seemed that we really needed a single name for the whole Order and that it was one that would be widely comprehensible.

The Order itself has been aware of these problems for many years - Viśvapāṇi wrote about it in 1995 for instance: Finding a Name for the FWBO (interestingly he suggested Triratna Buddhist Order way back then!) However because we aim to operate by consensus, and this was a difficult issue to find a consensus on, the discussion bogged down. We did almost change the name of the Order to 'Buddhayāna' about ten years ago until it was pointed out that there was already a Buddhist group with this name. Towards the end of 2009 some members of the Order in India asked Sangharakshita to step in and make a decision for us as the founder of the Order because they felt the situation in India was urgent. And that is what he did. Now that he has made the change, my sense is that most people are happy to put this issue behind us and look to the future.

So now there is just one name for the Order, though it will, of course, be translated into various languages - for instance in Hindi it will be Triratna Bauddha Mahāsaṅgha. Triratna is usually translated as 'three jewels' (more on this shortly). It solves the problem with trailokya in India as it is the same in Hindi, and is also reasonably well know in the Buddhist world. Also because Triratna is Sanskrit, that part will be the same all over the world - it will be the part of the name that is not translated and therefore universal.

I can immediately see the appeal of the name. As an Order we emphasise going for refuge to the three jewels above any particular beliefs or practices. The three jewels are, of course, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These represent the ideal of enlightenment, the foundations on which enlightenment is attained, and the guides and companions on the path. [2] On our kesa, or symbolic robe, [3] we have an emblem of three jewels on a lotus, wreathed in flames which symbolise transformation (see accompanying image).

Triratna (Pāli tiratana) is a type of compound known as dvigu (literally 'two-cow') where the stem form of the number is affixed to the item being counted. This avoids having to work out the appropriate inflection for the number, though the inflection of the compound must reflect the number (Sanskrit retains a dual number as well as singular and plural). So 'tri-' just means three - both the Sanskrit and English words are some of the least changed from their Indo-European roots. [4] Ratna probably stems from a verbal root √rā 'to give'. A ratna was originally a 'precious gift'. In some Pāli texts there are lists of seven ratana: suvaṇṇa, rajata, muttā, maṇi, veḷuriya, vajira, and pavāla - that is: gold, silver, pearls, crystal, lapis lazuli, diamond, and coral. Other precious substances such as ruby, beryl, and cat's eye were also known, and maṇi can be used as a general term for a gem-stone. It's clear from this list that 'jewels' is only a part of what ratna refers to. The three jewels, then, can be thought of as 'the three precious gifts', which appeals to me very much!

We formalise our relationship to these precious gifts by reciting the ancient Pāli formula:

buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi
dhammaṃ saraṇaṇ gacchāmi

saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi

I go to the Buddha who is a refuge
I go to the Dhamma which is a refuge
I go to the Sangha which is refuge

Note that the verb is √gam (stem gaccha), and the conjugation is 1st person singular present indicative - 'I go' or 'I am going' (not 'I take'). Going for refuge is an individual act of will, it can't be done for you, and the refuges can't be 'given' to you, except perhaps by a Buddha. The standard translation is 'I go to the Buddha for refuge', but because both buddha and saraṇa are in the same case (accusative) it would be usual to read one as an attribute of the other as I have done here. Saṅgha is also in the singular - our refuge is the ārya-saṅgha as a whole, not any individual member of it.

With the name Triratna Buddhist Order we are saying three things. First, that we are an order, i.e. an ordained collective who share spiritual ideals and disciplines. [5] Second, that we are Buddhists - we go for refuge to the three jewels. We broadly share our values and methods with other Buddhists, and see our selves as belonging to that broad and sometimes contradictory range of traditions stemming from the Buddha. Third, that we identify more with the three precious gifts themselves than with any sectarian expression of Buddhism - i.e. with any particular lineage, philosophy, practice, or national and/or cultural expression of Buddhism. The three precious gifts themselves are the most important things to us.

Personally I hope that we do not slip into our old habit of using initials for our name. The name reminds us of who we are and what we are about, and using an acronym hides that. Also because the name is translated the initials are different in different countries. In his 1995 article Viśvapāṇi (somewhat prophetically) suggested we refer to ourselves as 'Triratna Buddhists', and I hope that this might catch on. Another thing about acronyms is that they suggest haste - we are in a hurry to say the name and move on, so we abbreviate it, thereby rendering it meaningless like some mere marketing slogan, rather than an expression of our highest ideals and values. It would be more consistent with our vision to linger over names, and revel in long descriptive names. This is one of the advantages to having awkward sounding Sanskrit names for Order Members - one has to slow down, to linger over them, to explain, to practice patience and contentment. Attention to pronunciation also encourages mindfulness. So let us be the Triratna Buddhist Order, not the TBO, please!

As far as I am aware nothing except the name of the Order has changed. The ordination itself remains the same, and no one need be re-ordained. We call our ordination a (or 'the') Dharmacārī/Dharmacāriṇī Ordination. [6] Dharmacārin is an adjective - 'he who walks the path'. Perhaps we will come to think of ourselves as Triratna Dharmacārins. In Sanskrit I think this would be a single compound triratnadharmacārin 'a walker of the path of the three precious gifts'. Though it is grammatically masculine, gender is not predicated on natural gender in Pāli and Sanskrit - saṅgha, for instance, is also grammatically masculine.

Lastly, but not leastly, I must mention that the Order has an auxiliary movement historically called the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, or sometimes simply 'The Friends' or 'The Movement'. Sangharakshita originally expressed a wish that we change the name of The Friends to '...of the Triratna Buddhist Order'. Then as a result of a suggestion from some Centre Chairs he opted for Triratna Buddhist Community. Each centre of The Friends is legally and organisationally autonomous so they needed to decide for themselves how to respond to this. The suggestion has been taken up and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order will officially become the Triratna Buddhist Community on Buddha Day, 28 May 2010. Personally I could see a time when our centre names also reflect the change - the Cambridge Triratna Buddhist Centre for instance.

I written a blog post about the relationship between the Triratna Order and Community, how each functions and some of the main institutions of each: Triratna Buddhist Order and Community.

(This post has been edited several times, most recently on 7 July 2010)

  1. The Anglicised Sanskrit spelling of Sangharakshita's name is firmly established (though he got it in Pāli). A more accurate spelling would be Saṅgharakṣita i.e सङ्घरक्षित, though Saṃgharakṣita would also be acceptable. The name means 'protected by the saṅgha' (rakṣita being a past-participle from √rakṣ 'to protect').
  2. We do not go for refuge to the Bhikkhu Saṅgha and I would argue that to do so is a mistake. It's clear in Pāli texts that the Saṅgha Refuge is the Ariya-saṅgha, i.e. those people who have already attained the fruits of stream entry whether or not they are ordained - the focus is on practice rather than lifestyle!
  3. kesa (Japanese) 'a robe'. Our kesa is modelled on those worn in Zen schools and is a strip of cloth worn over the neck. The word comes (via Chinese chia-sha) from kaṣāya 'red/orange/yellow' which referred to the robes Buddhist bhikṣus wore - the colour came not from expensive saffron, but from dirt, and was to make the white cloth not worth stealing! The Sanskrit word for robe is cīvara. Order members wear a white kesa, unless they have taken the brahmacarya precept when they wear a gold kesa.
  4. There is a tendency for English speakers to pronounce 'tri' as 'chri'. The 't' is a true dental, pronounced with the tip of the tongue on the tip of the teeth; the 'r' is tapped (the motion is very like pronouncing 'l' but the tongue makes contact after the vocalisation has started). Opinions vary on the quality of the vowel. my suggestion is to pronounce it like 'tree' (but again not chree) - but not as long. The next syllable 'ra' is stressed so don't emphasise the 'tri'.
  5. I've written at some length about the word 'order' and why the Triratna Buddhist Order is an order, and the ceremony by which we join it is an ordination. See my essay - Ordination : A Contested Term.
  6. Dharmacārin is the stem form, though in the Order we still regularly use the nominative singular- Dharmacārī and Dharmacāriṇī. The stem is in fact masculine or neuter in gender rather than genderless as I have previously suggested.

Other Resources

namapada : a guide to names in the Triratna Buddhist OrderNāmapada. A guide to Sanskrit and Pali names used in the Triratna Buddhist Order. Definitions and etymologies for almost 500 words and affixes. Background on the Sanskrit and Pali languages and relevant points of grammar and morphology.

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

main image: the
Triratna emblem from a Triratnadharmacārin's kesa.

18 September 2009

Ordination : a contested term.

Anagarika Dharmapala - Buddhist reformer
Anagārika Dharmapala
Recently I was involved in an online discussion on the subject of ordination. It revolved around the use of the word ordination by the Western Buddhist Order. The main contention was that the word 'ordained' should be restricted to bhikkhus (for the sake of brevity I'll use the masculine and Pāli [1]) . So what I propose to do is work through the various relevant terms and then see what conclusions can be drawn.

'Bhikkhu' is used like a title these days but was originally an adjective descriptive of a lifestyle. Literally it means 'beggar' or someone who lives off alms - a very low status, not to say ritually polluted, occupation in both ancient and modern India. [2] In the Buddha's day this meant going from door to door with a bowl collecting leftovers, but in modern times there are a variety of approaches -for example Tibetan monks often buy food and cook for themselves; while in some Theravāda monasteries lay people bring food to the bhikkhus and feed them in situ. Some bhikkhus maintain the practice of going out for alms, but this is highly formalised and there is no risk involved.

The Buddha originally made someone a bhikkhu simply by saying to them: 'ehi' - come! (second person imperative of √i 'to go' with ā- prefix signifying motion towards). However this was soon formalised into a two stage process. First a person became a sāmaṇera - this word derives from samaṇa (√śram) meaning a wanderer and implying a religious ascetic. The ceremony, also sometimes called an ordination, in Pāli is sāmaṇera-pabbajjā. Pabbajjā (from pa + √vraj 'to proceed') means 'going forth' and refers to the act of leaving home to become a paribbājjaka 'someone who wanders around'. A 'vagrant' in today's language. PED refers to the pabbajjā ceremony as an 'ordination'. Going forth was a distinct and important phase of religious life as can be seen in the Buddha's biography where the episode is highly elaborated. It was becoming a vagrant that was the really radical step - because in doing so one gave up the comforts of home, and the protection and support of one's family. For later Buddhists it meant taking on the sāmaṇera precepts [3], dressing in white robes, shaving one's head, and living a cenobitical lifestyle. In English this is sometimes referred to as being a 'novice' monk.

The second phase, which often follows immediately afterwards these days, is the upasampadā, usually referred to in English as the 'higher ordination' and a bhikkhu will often refer to themselves as 'fully ordained'. This word means 'taking upon oneself' and in this context it means taking upon oneself the patimokkha precepts or restraints. The original metaphor underlying this word 'patimokkha', according to Prof. Gombrich, is a medical one indicating a purgative that could return a person to health [4], meaning in this case ethical 'health' or purity. Because the Vinaya did not reach its final form for some time after the Buddha, it exists in several distinct recensions with greatly varying number of rules. Theravādins observe 227 for instance, while those who follow a Sarvastivādin Vinaya (some Tibetan monks) observe 250 rules. Most of the rules are relatively minor and infringing them is taken quite lightly. Many are of no ethical significance at all and are specific to cultural mores in the Ganges valley more than 2000 years ago, often being developed after complaints about the bhikkhus from the laity. However conservatism and formalism has resulted in the retention of rules even when they are apparently meaningless. It is akin to the rules of conduct in parts of the old testament in that respect. Many of the rules were instituted simply to distinguish bhikkhus from samaṇas of other sects, or brāhmaṇas or lay people etc., that is they are more about identity. The qualifiers 'higher' and 'fully' point to the overlooked fact that the sāmaṇera-pabbajjā is also seen as an ordination.

The traditionalists argue that on receiving the upasampadā, a sāmaṇera has been accepted into the bhikkhu-saṅgha. Translating into English we might say something like: at his ordination the novice has been ordained into the order of monks. It has been argued that 'ordination', 'ordain, and 'order' are the specific province of the bhikkhu and should not be used any other way in a Buddhist context. The main point seemed to be that it was important to distinguish bhikkhus from other lifestyles, although it was not clear why we should do so, though it's an ancient concern as it occurs in the Pāli canon. Apart from the traditional reference to the sāmaṇera ordination, my argument against this is threefold: firstly that the word admits many other uses; secondly, that it is conventionally used differently by Buddhists anyway; and thirdly, that in seeking to appropriate the term Buddhists are propagating an elitism which is out of touch with reality. So let's begin by looking at what the English terms mean. [5]

'Order' in the sense of "a group of person living under a religious rule" dates from the 13th century. This and the other words we are considering derive from the Latin ordo meaning 'row, rank, series, arrangement', originally 'a row of threads in a loom'. Hence we can 'put things in order'. Clearly order in our sense referred to Christian monastics who typically adopted an ordered and regular lifestyle, spelled out in their rule, which not only laid down moral rules but also dictated what prayer and services were said and when. This began to happen as early as the 4th century CE. We can see that different orders of monastics took on very different rules, but that the term 'order' still applied because they all had in common conformance to a rule.

The verb 'ordain' meaning "to appoint or admit to the ministry of the Church" also dates from the 13th century. Many dictionaries (including Collins) describe 'ordain' in this context as the "conferring of Holy orders". This refers to the fact that the Roman Catholic church considered ordination a sacrament. Protestant churches, on the whole, do not consider ordination a sacrament though they still use 'ordain' to refer to conferring the office of minister or priest. Positions within an order, such as bishop or cardinal, were not sacramental, but only offices and titles. One is not ordained a bishop, one is promoted. Also novice Christian monks are not ordained at all in contrast to the sāmaṇera.

Ordination is simply the ceremony by which one is accepted into an order, most typically a religious order. The rule and denomination of the order were not relevant to the use of the term 'ordain'. A Pentecostal minister or a Catholic priest are both ordained. The key part of ordination is being accepted into an order and following a religious rule. Bhikkhus do conform to this usage, and although it's not clear who first used 'ordination' to translate upasampadā it does work. However bhikkhu ordination is a special case of ordination rather than an epitome, or acme. So let's turn to the use in a more specifically Buddhist context.

Ordination also serves for Buddhists following other lifestyles who commit themselves to a 'rule'. Particularly in the English speaking Buddhist world the use of the term ordination is commonplace. For example,  an American acquaintance,  Al, describes himself as "an ordained Zen Priest" (his lineage is in fact Korean). Priest, by the way, comes from a Latin word presbyter meaning 'elder'. The Japanese move away from upasampadā ordinations probably stems from the Tendai School whose founder Saichō formally abandoned the Vinaya in favour of a Bodhisattva Ordination in 822 CE. (Note that even in settings where the Vinaya ordination is the standard, this taking of the bodhisattva precepts is still referred to as an ordination.) Saichō met a great deal of opposition from the Buddhist establishment of the day, but he had the Emperor on his side precisely because the Buddhist establishment were wealthy and interfered in politics. In the WBO also we refer to having been ordained into an order. At our ordination ceremony we undertake to follow our set of ten precepts (traditionally known as dasakusaladhammā or dasakusalakammapathā), and an additional four 'acceptance vows' [6] which constitute the 'rule' by which we all vow to live. So the WBO order/ordination certainly fit the English usage, as well as the Japanese Buddhist precedent.

Note here there is a distinction between joining an order and becoming a Buddhist generally. Even though all Buddhists undertake to keep precepts, ordination, as defined in the WBO, requires that the practice of the precepts, including repairing breaches, be thorough-going and effective. One has to be not only willing, but demonstrably able, to take on the precepts for life.

So given that the English usage is pretty straight-forward and there are numerous Buddhist precedents in the present and dating back almost 1200 years: why the continued insistence that only bhikkhus can claim to be ordained? My answer to this is privilege.

Bhikkhus are outwardly marked in many ways: shaved head, robes, and dietary habits for instance. These external signs of ordination amount to lifestyle choices. One can be outwardly a bhikkhu and inwardly a lay person (see e.g. Dhammapada, Chp 19). Sangharakshita abandoned the monk/lay divide because on the one hand he met so many Theravādin bhikkhus who did not practice Buddhism, and on the other hand he met many Tibetan lay lamas who very much did. Sangharakshita was also influenced by the example of Anagārika Dharmapala (pictured above) who he refers to as a man of "towering moral and spiritual grandeur". [7] Dharmapala was also critical of established traditions and adopted the invented title Anagārika to indicate a committed Buddhist who was neither monk nor lay. It became clear that being a monk was important when it came to the practice of the Dharma, what was important was commitment and application.

Lay people give the clergy donations in order to create merit and the higher the social status of the recipient the greater the merit. So laypeople have played along with the superstition and we are being asked to perpetuate it in the west. The generosity of laypeople has in some places led to the accumulation of wealth and often political influence, not to say political control. The irony here is heavy. The initial idea of becoming a sāmaṇera was to leave behind concerns with property and power: nowadays monasteries are often centres of both. I've seen more than one news story of monks fighting pitched battles for the control of a monastery.

One of the traditional roles of monks was to teach. However monks have in many cases become intermediaries between the people and liberation rather than facilitators. Monks are seen as necessary for the 'administering' of the refuges and precepts for instance; or they perform religious activities such as pujas on behalf of spectators (I've been invited to watch a senior lama perform a puja for instance); or as officiants at what are essentially secular ceremonial occasions, such as weddings. Monks are in fact operating as priests in the pejorative sense of that word.

Monks, especially as preservers of texts, became arbiters of orthodoxy, i.e. correct opinions. And the correct opinion is that monks deserve a special status because of their role in society. From the point of view of Western social mores, this appears to be corrupt. We preserve texts through mass printing and often look to secular scholars for translations and exegesis precisely because they apply the methods of higher criticism. Often times the tradition demonstrably does not understand its own texts. In Pāli for example, Buddhaghosa was at times confused by the text and fudged the commentary; where there is a difficult reading in a Pāli text it is often simply left out of the Chinese translation.

Traditional Buddhism often preserves the social mores and superstitions of one or other ancient Asian culture. One of which is the high social status of bhikkhus. As English speaking Westerners we are in a position to decide how relevant that culture is, but the arbiters of this are often the same men who benefit from the privileged status, the bhikkhus. I'm not keen to abandon my cultural heritage, especially the values and achievements of The Enlightenment. Traditional Buddhism with its feudal hierarchies and institutionalised privilege seems to point back to pre-Enlightenment values. One glaring area of disparity is that traditional Buddhism is distinctly anti-women.

I'm critical of the system: there are many reasons to support monks, but none to worship them or automatically treat them as superior human beings. On the other hand I've met or know of bhikkhus I respect and see no reason to take the other extreme and automatically treat bhikkhus with disrespect. As I wrote in How to Spot an Arahant, it takes time to evaluate the spiritual maturity of anyone even if they have all the trappings. In the mean time we have precepts to live up to.

To sum up (this overly long post) I've looked at how the word ordination is used in context and shown that bhikkhus have no special claim on that term. I've shown that within Buddhism there are precedents for using the term in other ways dating back to Saichō in 822 CE. These seem reasonably clear. But still the very idea that someone who was not a bhikkhu might call themselves 'ordained' seemed to cause some people considerable distress. I speculate that the reason for this is that the system of renunciate bhikkhus having left behind the world, has been replaced by an elite who preserve privilege that sometimes translates into power. They have historically controlled orthodoxy in ways that benefit them as a group. The term for this is "provider capture".

Experience suggests I am either preaching to the converted or the intractable on this issue. My colleagues on the one hand, and other Buddhists on the other. The history of Buddhism is one of change, development, reform and even syncretism. Indeed our credo, if we have one, is "everything changes". This slogan was first enunciated by one of the greatest anti-establishment thinkers of all time, who systematically demolished every system he came across. There is an obvious tension between the inevitability of change, the uncertainty this leaves us with, the imperative to adapt to Western culture; and the powerful desire for unchanging traditions and institutions and the certainty (and I argue privilege and power) they represent. So we are faced with social and religious conservatism from a group which loudly proclaims that everything changes. Perhaps our credo must be modified to exclude certain institutions? Or perhaps it is time to acknowledge the anachronism and move on. I'm voting with my feet.


  1. Pāli: masc. bhikkhu, fem. bhikkunī; Sanskrit: bhikṣu, bhikṣuṇī. A feature of traditional Buddhism is a decidedly anti-woman streak, though there is now a revival of bhikṣuṇī ordinations. For my views of women's ordinations see Women and Buddhist Ordination.
  2. Anyone who doubts this might like to read the account of what Sāriputta's mother thought of his going forth in Nyanaponika and Hecker. Great Disciples of the Buddha, p.34; or consider the story of the Buddha leaving home in the version found in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta (MN 21), Bhikkhu Thanissaro translates:
    "So, at a later time, while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life — and while my parents, unwilling, were crying with tears streaming down their faces — I shaved off my hair & beard, put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness".
  3. The 10 precepts are abstaining from: harming living beings; taking the not given; sexual intercourse; lying; liquor and intoxicants; eating after noon; dancing, singing, and musical performances; using garlands, unguents, or ornaments; sitting and sleeping on a high or broad bed; handling gold and silver.
  4. Gombrich, Richard. “Pātimokkha: Purgative,” in Studies in Buddhism and culture in honour of Professor Dr. Egaku Mayeda on his sixty-fifth birthday, edited by The Editorial Committee of the Felicitation Volume for Professor Dr. Egaku Mayeda. Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin, 31-38, 1991. I made use of this research in my paper on the phrase yathādhamma patikaroti: "Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?" Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Vol 15. I'm grateful to Prof Gombrich for sending me a copy of his (hard to find) paper.
  5. I will use Princeton University's WordNet for convenience, and the online etymological dictionary.
  6. The four acceptance vows are: "With loyalty to my teachers I accept this ordination/ In harmony with friends and brethren I accept this ordination/ For the benefit of all beings I accept this ordination/ For the sake of enlightenment I accept this ordination".
  7. Sangharakshita. A Flame in the Darkness : the Life and Sayings of Anagārika Dharmapala. Tiratna Grantha Mala, 1980. This book is largely based on editorials written by Sangharakshita for the Mahābodhi Society Journal in the 1950's. Dharmapala's movement was subsequently labelled "Protestant Buddhism" by Gananath Obeyesekere. Ironically Dharmapala took the upasampadā shortly before his death in 1933.

Extra Notes

June 2015
I've noticed that some monks refer to themselves as "Bhante" (the third person vocative of the honorific pronoun). Bhante is what lay people call monks. It's kind of ridiculous for a monk to refer to themselves this way. Certainly it's bad Pāḷi grammar to use it as a title. 

01 January 2007

Women and Buddhist Ordination

Women in India - photo by DhammaratiIn the last couple of months I attended a series of lectures by Professor Richard Gombrich. These were very stimulating lectures and gave rise to many interesting discussions subsequently with the friends who also attended them. I have several raves to write as a result.

What I want to write about today is women. Specifically I want to take a bit of a look at the Buddhist ordination of women. I practice in a tradition, if it can be called that, in which men and women receive ordination on an equal basis - no extra rules or precepts for women, no extra conditions. It is an explicit acknowledgement that men and women are equally capable of going for refuge to the three jewels. Now in our spiritual community it is sometimes said that despite the equivalence of the ordinations, women have not always been treated as equals. Indeed one of our senior order members wrote a book which dwelt on the traditional Buddhist view that women are spiritually inferior, and sought to justify that view - which is not a line of argument I wish to pursue!

Professor Gombrich was exploring the origins and greatness of the Buddha's ideas and mentioned the case I'm about to explore in passing in an early lecture. Women, so the story goes, were admitted into the Buddhist Order reluctantly and then only with special pleading from Ananda on behalf of the Buddha's aunt Mahāpajapati. The admission of women, it says in the 10th chapter of the Cullavagga book of the vinaya, would be contingent on a number of conditions: they must accept a number of extra rules; have a status lower than the lowest male bhikkhu; and show all bhikkhus respect. Even so the admission of women to the Sangha is said to have shortened the lifespan of the Dharma!*

This is, or should be, fairly familiar ground to students of Buddhism. It does not sit well with us westerners though, especially in this post-modern, post-feminist era. We accept in theory, if not always in practice, that men and women are equal. I think this has been a serious sticking point for many women and not a few men approaching the Dharma! So I was intrigued when Professor Gombrich drew my attention to the verses of Bhaddā Kundalakesa in the Therigatha (107-111). These verses, he says, show that the idea that the Buddha was reluctant to admit women to the order was a later falsification. I will mostly use the translations of K. R. Norman because although C.A.F. Rhys Davids includes portions of the commentaries in hers, Norman's is more clear - fortunately both are printed together in my copy**.

Bhadda was a Jain ascetic, who was drawn to the Buddha after losing a debate with Sariputta. The verses begin:
With hair cut off, wearing dust, formerly I wandered, having only one robe... (107)
This much is enough to identify her as a Jain - dust is a primary Jain metaphor for karma, and clearly she is a wandering ascetic very similar in description to other samaṇas in the the Canon. One of the arguments offered for the Buddha's reluctance to ordain women was that it might have created a dangerous precedent at a time when only men were ascetics. Not so according to this text - there were women Jain ascetics. The commentary suggests that her hair was not so much cut, as pulled out by the roots.

Verse 110 begins:
Having bent the knee, having paid homage to him, I stood with cupped hands face to face with him (110a)
The key second half of the verse runs in Pali:
ehi bhadde'ti maṃ avaca, sā me āsūpasampadā (110b)
Which I translate as
Come Bhadda, he said to me; that was my ordination.
Now this is very interesting indeed. Bhadda goes to see the Buddha, and on the spot he confers on her the higher ordination!

I want to point out a few salient features of this passage. Firstly the formula "ehi bhikkhu" (= "come bhikkhu") is usually considered to place a text very early, before the whole rigmarole of lower and higher ordinations, or even formal vinaya rules came into being. In the beginning the Buddha would just say to you "come", and that was it, you were a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni. I've taken the trouble to include the Pali because the word for ordination in the text is a variant of upasampadā which stands to the higher or full ordination - this by the way, is what it means when someone refers to themselves as a "fully ordained Buddhist monk or nun".

By the time that the story of Mahāpajapati things were a lot more complex. Ascetics from other traditions had a two year stand down period before they could take the lower ordination. They then had to make satisfactory progress as a samanera, or novice monk, before being granted the higher ordination. And as I have already pointed out women had a series of additional rules imposed upon them.

So the instant higher ordination of Bhadda is remarkable in several ways: it is clearly early, there is no hesitation, and there are no extra rules or conditions, and the Dharma is not cut short by 500 years! This story is apparently a one off, but often a one off can be very telling, especially in this case since the Canon has been edited to conform to orthodox Theravada belief at the time it was written down. Bhadda it seems slipped through the net! Having looked at the text, and knowing a bit about the background I find myself agreeing with Professor Gombrich that the whole set up for women with it's low status and extra rules is a late addition, and probably reflects the prejudice of a time after the Buddha.

* Ute Husken. 2000. The Legend of the Establishment of the Buddhist Order of Nuns in the Theravada Vinaya-Pitaka. Journal of the Pali Text Society. (Vol XXVI, pp.43-69).
** C.A.F Rhys Davids and K.R. Norman. 1997.
Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns : Theriigaathaa. (Oxford : Pali Text Society).

see also Bhadda Kundalakesa at Access to Insight

image: dhammarati