Western Buddhist Review

Finding Out More About Early Buddhist Women

Posted by dhivan thomas jones on Wed, 28 December, 2016 - 12:52
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dhivan thomas jones

With this post we present another fine review by Sarah Clelland of a recent work of scholarship on women monastics in early Buddhism.

Alice Collett, Lives of Early Buddhist Nuns: Biographies as History, Oxford University Press, India, 2016

Review by Sarah Clelland

In Lives of Early Buddhist Nuns Alice Collett, now lecturer at Nālanda University in India, explores changing attitudes to women in Buddhism through the stories of six early nuns: Dhammadinnā, Khemā, Kisāgotamī, Paṭācārā, Bhaddā Kuṇḍalakesā and Uppalavaṇṇā. In the first half of the book, Collett considers the nuns one by one and compares the sources about their lives. She tracks down mentions of the nuns in the Pali canon, the Chinese āgamas, and also in Sanskrit and Tibetan texts. The most detailed information comes from three Pāli sources: the Therīgāthā, the Apadāna and the commentaries on the Therīgāthā. These three texts were composed at different times and in different cultures, and often present different viewpoints to each other.

The Therīgāthā – poems attributed to enlightened nuns – mostly belongs to the early canonical period (perhaps 4th–2nd c. BCE). (I reviewed a recent translation for WBR). The nuns also appear in other suttas from the early canon. The Apadāna – biographies of previous births of monks and nuns – belongs to the late canonical period (perhaps 2nd c. BCE – 1st c. CE). The commentaries, such as those on the Therīgāthā which contain the backstories of the nuns, belong to the post-canonical period (probably around 4th–6th c. CE). So these three main sources are as widely separated in time (and perhaps culture) as Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, and Robinson Crusoe. It’s quite mind boggling. Collett questions the tendency to conflate the three sources. Instead she looks at what they can tell us about the changing perception of religious women over time.

In the second half of the book, Collett looks at specific themes: womens’ roles in society as teachers, wives and wanderers, and how female beauty and female character were seen at the time. She looks beyond Buddhist texts to bring in evidence from archaeology, epigraphy, works of art and texts of other contemporary religions. She shows, for example, that at the time of the earlier texts, being a courtesan (ganikā) was a respected and lucrative profession, but in the later texts it was seen as a source of shame and the result of bad kamma.

Another fascinating example is about women as teachers and pupils.  According to textual tradition, the Buddha ordained the first women on condition that they take on eight extra rules (the garudhammas). The third of these rules covers teaching: every two weeks, a monk advisor would teach the nuns. This role was to be rotated around the monks. But why would this be necessary? Were there no female teachers? Could women not simply take a monk as a teacher? Female teachers such as Dhammadinnā and Khemā are of course mentioned many times in the Pāli texts, but we might wonder what happened after the time of the Buddha. Were later women so uneducated and restricted that they must rely on the fortnightly teaching of the monk advisor?

Alice Collett demonstrates that this was not the case. She looks at inscriptional evidence found at Sāñcī, Mathurā and Amarāvatī, sites of Buddhist devotion. Devout lay Buddhists often donated statues or pillars to a stupa, and had it inscribed. For example, ‘The pillar is the gift of Mulā, female pupil of Gaḍā’. ‘Gaḍā’ is a woman’s name, so we know this is a female teacher. Collett finds many such examples from the period  200 BCE – 200 CE. She also finds inscriptions showing that nuns could be direct pupils of monks. This is particularly interesting, because inscriptions (unlike the texts) can (sometimes) be reliably linked to a time, a place and an individual woman.

I found that, after the detailed examination of all the texts and their uncertainties, I felt more informed about Buddhist women in general, but was beginning to feel that everything was so uncertain that we could be sure of nothing. One of the attractions of the stories of the nuns is that it puts a human face on the path to insight. But if every detail of their biographies is so uncertain, how much of a true representation could it be, I wondered? The afterword by Martin Seeger, a contemporary scholar of Thai Buddhism, currently a lecturer at the University of Leeds, was an interesting counterpoint to this. He tells the story of a twentieth century Thai Buddhist woman, Khunying Yai Damrongthammasan. Here is a real practitioner whose existence and biography are verifiable, and whose story in many ways resembles those of the early nuns. It was an inspiring afterword to a rather dry book.

Alice Collett says the work is aimed at ‘the student, general reader, and/or Buddhist practitioner’ (p. xxx), but it’s not a terribly easy book to sit down and read cover to cover. The painstaking detail that makes it a valuable work of scholarship and social history also makes it difficult for the more casual reader to stay interested or see the bigger picture. I recommend dipping in and out to find out more about a particular nun or theme that interests you.

Sarah Clelland is a mitra of the Triratna Buddhist Community and lives in Ely, near Cambridge, UK.

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Mrigendra Pratap's picture

Thank you for sharing this information.