Western Buddhist Review

What was it like for early Buddhist women?

On Sat, 1 October, 2016 - 13:30
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

Here, Dharmacārinī Vajratārā reviews a collection of scholarly essays exploring how it was for women in early Buddhism – at a time before feminism when nevertheless women were taken seriously as dharma practitioners.

Women in Early Indian Buddhism: Comparative Textual Studies

essays by various scholars, edited and introduced by Alice Collett

Oxford University Press, USA, 2014, 274pp., hback and ebook

Reviewed by Vajratārā

What were the attitudes towards women in early Indian Buddhism? Does textual analysis of early Buddhist texts corroborate the idea that early Buddhists saw women as ‘viperous enticers of men, seeking to drag them back, unwilling, from the true path’? Is the relegation of women to a lower status that makes it problematic for them to progress in the hierarchy of many Buddhist schools today a legacy of early Indian Buddhism? Are modern attitudes to women in Buddhism a tribute to the legacy of the past, or are they a reflection of current attitudes in society? These are the questions Alice Collett addresses by editing this collection of scholarly essays, hoping to clear up, or at least start a debate about, misapprehensions of women in early Indian Buddhism. To do this, she uses a broad selection of textual evidence from different times and different areas.  

Each of the essays are clear and engaging, written by a variety of scholars, including the well-known Bhikkhu Anālayo. What emerges from the collection is a complex story of Buddhism establishing itself throughout the Indian subcontinent and further afield, taking on the prevailing attitudes in society to women’s virtue, to marriage and to female renunciation. Thus, in Gandhāran manuscripts a picture emerges of women capable of attaining the fruits of the Dharma and acting as prominent supporters of the monastic community. Amy Paris Langenberg goes into the only surviving complete nun’s vinayas (rules for monastic life) in Indic languages, showing how the vinaya attempted both to create an acceptable public identity for the nuns – selecting behaviours and roles appropriate for virtuous women – and to exclude those deemed unmonastic. Karen Muldoon-Hules details how the use of Brahmanical marriage rites brought with them laws and customs that played a significant role in the lives of north Indian women, and were an obstacle to renunciation. She re-tells women’s stories from the sanskrit Avadānas to illustrate her point, stories that are sometimes tragic and sometimes funny, including marriage ceremonies of female renunciants whose groom is the Buddha. Jonathan S.Walters gives an account of the stories of women in the Pali Apadānas, exploring accounts of a number of woman’s spiritual journeys over lifetimes, with marriage playing an important role in that story. He suggests that it was perhaps women themselves who wrote their own stories in the Apadānas. One of the most interesting and revealing stories is that of the Buddha’s wife, Yashodharā, and it is this story he pays most attention to. Anālayo shows how in the Bhikkhunī-saṃyutta the nuns are presented in a more favourable light in defeating Māra than their male counterparts. Alice Colett writes a more detailed analysis of the Pāli Vinaya showing a portrayal of men as instigators of sexual misconduct. Women are more often warned against men’s sometimes dangerous and deceiving sexuality.

Through examining these different aspects of women in early Buddhism, an impression is gained of women being taken seriously as Buddhist practitioners in their own right. True, sometimes it seems they have to assert their position, writing their own stories to balance up the men’s, as in the Pāli Apādanas. However, the stories are there, right from the early days, and are considered important enough to be passed down through the generations. This is also clear from the fact that women were given the power to ordain women from the very beginning, something rare in any religious tradition. They were certainly not relegated to being simply obstacles to men’s progress.

Perhaps it is the last essay that makes this the most clear. Ranjini Obeyesekere contrasts the women’s stories in Buddhaghosa’s commentary on the Dhammapada (which he translated from an earlier Sihala text) with a 13th century translation into Sihala, the Saddharmartanāvaliya. One might assume that the later text was more sympathetic to women practitioners, when in fact the opposite is the case. It is the later text that contains the most critical attitude to women. She gives a fascinating account of how textual stories can impact on the lives of actual, modern women, using the example of women in Sri Lanka. She shows how attitudes towards women have gone from women clearly playing an important role in Buddhism in the early texts, to a society in which women are playing less of a role in public life and living a more restricted lifestyle than they did at the time of the Buddha.

What stands out throughout the volume are the stories themselves. From the vinayas through the canonical discourses, poetry, apadānas and avadānas to commentarial sources, the stories are of women living a Buddhist life in all circumstances – queens, nuns, prostitutes, mothers, aristocratic women and servants. Not only is Women in Early Indian Buddhism interesting from the point of view of an in-depth analysis of women in early Buddhism, it is an engaging and informative glimpse into the benefits of thorough textual analysis. At times this is challenging. Ingo Strauch discusses Van Hinuber’s assertion that the early Buddhist texts offer compelling evidence that there was no nun’s Order at the time of the Buddha. At times it is uncertain. Alice Collett delves into the mystery of who Nandā in the Therīgāthā was, and whether there were in fact two Nandās. What comes across is the richness of early Buddhist texts and how much more there is to be discovered through new translations and interpretations. 

As a Buddhist reading scholarly essays I noticed an occasional implicit assumption that the stories themselves were consciously written or edited to present a social message at the time. Could it be that they were simply telling the entertaining stories of inspiring women, which, like all stories, reflect the attitudes and values at the time they were written?  As with all scholarly texts it is useful to question the scholar’s hypothesis and whether they are using the material to fit their case or vice versa. A feminist agenda, while representing a popular view, may not be justified in early Buddhist textual analysis. So we find Walters asserting that Yashodharā was in someways the actual agent of the Buddha’s Buddhahood, something that Collett picks up on in her introduction. This is justified by the fact that she gives flowers to the Buddha as the ascetic Sumedha which he then offers to the Buddha Dīpānkara. However, it is clear from the story he was already there to worship Dīpānkara and the fact that he worships Dīpānkara with Yashodharā’s flowers is a somewhat secondary feature. What the material does show is that Yashodharā’s and the Buddha’s stories are interconnected and mutually supportive of each other. He also discerns what he calls a ‘feminist edge’ in the nun’s biographies in the apadānas. Though persuasively arguing that the women’s stories were added later in some response to the men’s stories, I don’t know that you can apply a feminist criterion, with all its implied meaning, to a people for whom that word had no meaning at all.

In a time when Buddhist opinion is given freely and sometimes inaccurately through social media and popular books, it is refreshing to have a number of considered voices collected together using analysis of different sources. It is worth taking the time to explore in some depth what early Buddhism actually looked like. Taken together they show a picture of a vibrant Buddhist world in which women played an important role, perhaps struggling with similar issues to us as they seek to establish Buddhism in new, sometimes opposing, cultures. As related by Timothy Lenz, the response in the Gandhāran avadānas to a member of King Aśoka’s harem gaining the ‘dharma eye’ is, ‘In those cases in which a woman wavers, one awakened to a perfect state of knowledge remains unwavering. The expansion should be known.’ Assuming that ‘expansion’ means ‘the perfect state of knowledge’, Collett and the contributors to Women in Early Indian Buddhism have, through their translations and analysis made known women’s expansion, speaking in different languages and from very different cultures to our own, but with a relevance that can still be felt.

Vajratara lives and works at Tiratanaloka retreat centre in Wales where she is closely involved in the ordination process for women. She is also Chair of the India Dhamma Trust, a charity that raises money for Dhamma work in India.

Alice Collett has also written a study of early Buddhist women entitled, Lives of Early Buddhist Nuns: Biographies as History, which we hope to review soon.

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Ratnaprabha's picture

Hi, typos: para 4 “One might the case.”

Para 5: criteria for criterion.

Metta, Ratnaprabha

Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture

Thanks Ratnaprabha, I’ve corrected the mistakes now. It’s always problematic being one’s own proof-reader!

padmadrishti's picture

How strange not to mention that Alice Collett is ordained in Triratna with the name of Dharmacharini Manishini. Or have I missed that?


Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture

Hi Padmadrishti. You’re right, it might seem strange. But as far as we are aware, Alice Collett is presently not active as an Order member, so we did not presume to mention her Order name (Munishini); rather we reviewed her scholarly work on its merits.