Women in the Buddha’s Time

The traditional narrative of the Buddha’s life has gained popularity by walking through Siddhārtha Gautama’s difficult and humble transformation as a prince to a monk who attains enlightenment. Many approaches to the Buddha’s narrative however fail to consider Siddhārtha’s relationships with women in his family. These familial ties, which are deeply couched in South Asian culture, have indubitably shaped Siddhārtha journey to enlightenment. His journey, doctrinally what seems to be an individual journey separated from society, is intimately connected with the women of his family. More specifically, the Buddha’s ties with his foster-mother Mahāpajāpati, birth-mother Māya, and wife Yasodharā introduce a nuanced ambivalence towards women in the narrative. The Buddha is ultimately tied down to his cultural traditions and misogynistic view of women, yet these women are positive forces in the narrative who profoundly motivate him on his journey to enlightenment.

The Buddha’s relationship to Mahāpajāpati and his reluctance to create an order of nuns demonstrate how the Buddha was unable to drop his disdain for women even after enlightenment. In the version of the Mahāpajāpati/ordination story found in the Cullavagga section of the Pāli Vinaya of the Theravada school, Mahāpajāpati is claimed to have asked Siddhārtha “if women were allowed to go forth from the home to the homeless life under the doctrine and discipline proclaimed by the Tathāgata.” At the time, Mahāpajāpati had been widowed after the death of King Suddhodana and is asking the Buddha if women were able to be ordained. The Buddha dismisses her question and advises her not to set her mind on women being able to ordain themselves. During this time period, Buddhism was tempered with misogyny, which follows the Buddha’s comparison of women’s entrance into the Sangha as mildew attacking a field of rice and disease attacking a field of sugarcane. Ohnuma, a scholar of Buddhist traditions of South Asia, interprets that the establishment of the order of nuns was in fact not based on women’s spiritual capabilities, spiritual equality with men, or inherent right to pursue equivalent spiritual goals. Ānanda, one of the ten principal disciples of the Gautama Buddha, had to present Mahāpajāpati’s request to become ordained with two additional, separate arguments to convince the Buddha to establish an order of nuns. Firstly, that women are able spiritually capable of realizing all four fruits [Stream-Entering, Once-Returning, Non-Returning, and Arhatship]. Secondly, that “Mahāpajāpati Gautami was very helpful to the Blessed one – serving as his aunt, foster-mother, caregiver, and giver of milk, who breastfed the Blessed One after his mother had died.” Only then does the Buddha concede to allow women to renounce the world. Ohnuma supposes that through the Buddha’s interaction with Ānanda here, the establishment of an order of nuns was in fact based solely on the Buddha’s sense of responsibility to his mother. This theme of a son’s debt to his mother is a keystone part of Indian culture during this time period. Despite the Buddha being someone who renounced the world and all social ties, the tie to his mother could not be broken.

So what does this mean for Buddhists today? Does this elicit uncertainty for women practicing Buddhism? Maybe the Buddha did not believe that women could not attain enlightenment, both spiritually or socially. After all, the Buddha did concede to the creation of an order of nuns on the condition that bhikkhunis abide under eight strict rules, the Eight Garudhammas, which would subordinate them under male monks. The Buddha initially resisted creating an order of nuns, but then felt compelled to ordain his foster mother because she took care of him during his childhood. The Buddha struggled with an ambivalence towards how he should treat women. While the Buddha was unable to let go of his culture’s misogynistic views by establishing the order of female nuns to be lower to that of male monks, Mahāpajāpati significantly motivated that very decision to extend his reach of the dharma to women.

The fragmentary Bhikṣuṇī-Karmavācanā manuscript preserved in Sanskrit and deriving from the Mūlasarvāstivāda school offers a version of the Mahāpajāpati/ordination story that elaborates on the theme of the Buddha’s debt toward his mother. When Mahāpajāpati first asks the Buddha to allow women to be ordained, the Buddha answers that just Gautami alone should be permitted to be ordained, not that all women could be ordained. It was only after Ānanda’s intervention did the Buddha finally agree to allow women in general to renounce and ordain themselves. Why did the Buddha first decide that only Mahāpajāpati could be allowed to ordain? Did he not believe in the spiritual capabilities of women? Again Ohnuma hypothesizes that this is deeply intertwined with the theme of a son’s debt to his mother. The Buddha felt compelled to make an exception for his foster mother who raised and took care of him from birth. This is a significant event that should be considered in the Buddha’s narrative, as it represents his persistent ties to his mother in spite of the ideology of detachment.

Now let us explore the tensions Siddhārtha faced in his relationship with his wife Yasodharā. In traditional Buddhist narratives, Siddhārtha immediately abandons his family and renounces himself after witnessing the four sights: old age, sickness, death, and an ascetic. In an alternative tradition found in the Discipline [Vinaya] of the Mūlasarvāstivādins and corroborative sources, the Siddhārtha returns home to make love to his wife before leaving. In this version, Rāhula, Siddhārtha’s and Yasodharā’s son, has not yet been born. The Vinaya stated “that the prince Śākyamuni (another name for Siddhārtha Gautama) was ‘not a man’ and that he wandered forth without ‘paying attention’ to … his wives, and thinking ‘let me now “pay attention” to Yasodharā,’ he did so, and Yasodharā became pregnant.” Instead of turning away from the sensual pleasures of sex and abandoning his social, familial ties, Siddhārtha felt the need to fulfill his finally duties as a man and a prince, by engendering a son. This sense of a male duty is also reflected today in Buddhist ordination traditions. A prerequisite for ordination to the monkhood is that candidates cannot be “lacking in maleness.” By worrying about having a son, it is likely that Siddhārtha was in fact unsettled about his identity both as a prince and as a man. At the cathartic time of the bodhisattva’s great departure, he was in fact still grounded by this cultural sense of duty. Furthermore, Siddhārtha promises Yasodharā that he would take her along with him beside her in bed the night before he embarks on his journey to enlightenment. The Buddha abandons her the next day, so many interpret this as a promise to take his wife along him not physically, but spiritually on the path to Nibbāna. With this in mind, Yasodharā represents a positive role played by women in the narrative – she pushes the Buddha to attain some sort of wisdom and enlightenment when he leaves her and Rāhula behind to begin his spiritual journey in the forest. The Buddha’s drive to becoming a samma sambuddha 1 was motivated not only by his will and effort in practice but also by his final promise he made to his wife Yasodharā.

In addition, the relationship the Buddha has with both his mothers Mahāpajāpati and Māya, his birth mother creates a significant tension the Buddha experiences after his enlightenment. There is an uneven dichotomy between Māya and Mahāpajāpati. Māya is the virtuous, good mother who fulfilled her function by giving birth in a clean, pleasant manner (Siddhartha was born through her side rather than through the vagina, which is deemed culturally impure), then dies 7 days after. By dying right after giving birth, Māya does not leave any lingering debt to her son Siddhartha. As opposed to Mahāpajāpati, who is characterized as problematic in the sense that she lingers with the Buddha by nourishing and taking care of him. With this in mind, let us revisit the Mahāpajāpati/ordination story we have analyzed before. After asking permission from the Buddha (with the help of Ānanda), Mahāpajāpati becomes a leader of the order of the nuns. Many of the women she leads seem to “have been former members of the Buddha’s harem who were abandoned by him when he renounced the world or women whose husbands had left them to be ordained as buddhist monks – in other words, similarly leftover” women. Furthermore, this theme of being left behind is especially apparent when Mahāpajāpati, and a group of five hundred bhikkhuni, followed the Buddha several hundred miles by foot after the Buddha refused to ordain the women. Even this acceptance of ordination is conditional on women subjugating themselves to male monks under the Eight Garudhammas. This opposes starkly with the Buddha’s interactions with Māya, the “good” mother. In the Dhammapada, it is told that the Buddha went up to the heavens to preach the Abhidharma Pitaka to Māya (who has been reborn there as a deity). In some versions of the Dhammapada, Māya lovingly “breastfeeds [the] Buddha at the very same time as he lovingly teachers her the dharma.” This interaction with Māya is depicted in a wholly positive manner, whereas the Buddha’s interactions with Mahāpajāpati was somewhat dismissive, or what Ohnuma describes Mahāpajāpati as being “leftover.” It is also significant that the Buddha went up to the realm of the deities to teach the Abhidharma, which is said to be a higher and more concentrated form of the Buddhist dharma. On the other end of the scale, Mahāpajāpati is given an inferior order of nuns. The difference between how the Buddha treats Mahāpajāpati and Māya lies in the cultural importance of birth mothers and how their sons are indebted to them for life. Siddhārtha was reluctant to ordain his foster mother but put in great efforts to teach his birth mother the dharma.

Again however, in spite of the cultural misogyny at the time, the Buddha’s special treatment towards Māya highlights an ambivalence towards women. In spite of the ideology of detachment, even the Buddha was unable to renounce his ties to his birth mother in his journey to enlightenment.

Throughout the narrative, the duty as a husband/man and the debt to mother themes clearly motivate the Buddha’s interactions with others spreading the dharma and with the women in his family. These should not be left out in narrative because they indeed shed light on significant aspects of the Buddha’s enlightenment. That the Buddha could not let go of his familial ties, relationships which carry symbolic weight in South and Southeast Asian cultures. So what does this mean? This stresses the importance of narratives over doctrines, as they expose the social complexities of religion and allow us to understand religious traditions to their deepest contexts. In addition, the ideology of detachment is nuanced as the family never disappears from the Buddha’s life. Finally, this can cause people to reconsider their views on the journey of the Buddha and raises questions especially for women who want to practice Buddhism.


1 An enlightened being that is referred to as Buddha, one who has reached nibbāna on his own efforts and is able to teach it skillfully to others. Opposed to paccekabuddha, an enlightened being who is unable to teach the Dhamma.

References

Ohnuma, Reiko. Debt to the Mother: Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74.4. 2006

Strong, John S. The Buddha: A Short Biography. Oxford: Oneworld, 2001.

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Staying in a Zen Temple: Sesshin 接心

The last 3 days at Fumonken have without a doubt been the most intense and hardest thing I have experienced in my life. Every month, there is a period (usually 1-7 days) of intensive meditation (zazen) called Sesshin 接心, which translates to touching the heart-mind. This is quite a beautiful phrase, but experiencing it is a whole different world. I asked Eh-san (who has been living at the temple for 2 years now) how Sesshin is, and he described that “it was hell,” then chuckled a little after. Haha, man was I in for a treat. Below is the schedule of a day of Sesshin:

Sesshin Schedule
04:00 : Wake up, little toilet, morning sutras. Zazen
07:00 : Breakfast. Cleaning.
08:30 : Tea time
09:45 : Temple job
10:30 : Zazen
12:00 : Lunch, get some restseiza
13:30 : Temple job
15:00 : Tea time, bath time
17:30 : evening sutras, Zazen
20:30 : Dinner
21:00 : Zazen
23:00 : All lights off.

 

The chunks of zazen time were broken up into 30 minute sessions each, with a 3-5 minute of a standing meditation break in between each one. Also, we would have 15 minutes of kihin (walking zen) after every 2 sessions. The sutras and mealtimes were also fairly challenging because we had to sit in seiza the whole time. I think by the time we had our 5th zazen session, my knees already felt like breaking and I felt as if there was an acupuncture needle stuck in the nerve of my hip being rotated
acupuncture-big
around. However, the worst part was realizing that it was only the 5th out of 18 sessions, and that it was only the first day. I remember that when we had a 15 minute break for brushing our teeth at night, I just went into my room and collapsed onto the floor, too sore to crawl under my mosquito net, just lying there with an impending reminder  that I only had 10 minutes left.  For sure, there were times when I wished that I had never come to the temple, but that was when persisting was the most important. It was as if the pain and distractions grew exponentially, and if I didn’t keep up my practice, I would just drown in my sensations and thoughts and not get anything out of it. The stakes literally increased every minute, but there was no way that I was going to give up, not this time. I think that meditation is my ultimate challenge, I need the determination to withstand the temptations to fidget, move, complain; and I didn’t want to be somebody who couldn’t sit without moving for more than 15 minutes forever.

 

Training only begins when it gets hard.

 

For the first time in my life though, I experienced a type of samādhi, a state of complete serenity, tranquility, and concentration. It is said that there are 66 moments of time in a snap of a finger, and I felt that I could experience every 66 of those moments. Yet it wasn’t only just concentration, I also withheld my sati. It was like having a very strong concentration on one thing, and a very strong awareness of my surroundings. Samādhi and sati, each two wings of a bird. The pain was still there, but it didn’t matter anymore. It is quite hard to put in words, and as Venerable Yifa put it: meditation is not something you understand, but something you realize.

At the end of it, I learned and experienced a lot during this Sesshin. I definitely got something out of it, but the process was hell – I told myself that I never wanted to do anything like this ever again. But these challenges of determination are sort of addicting. I have to admit that during Sesshin, I had a tint of excitement coursing through my blood (albeit it wasn’t going to my legs as I was losing feeling 🙂 ). I’m not sure if I would recommend this to everybody, but I think you should try everything at least twice. Training only begins when it gets hard, so I guess the only thing to do now is to go back and face it again!

Buddhism: Religion, Philosophy, or Spirituality?

When I visited New York a couple of months ago, a student at Columbia University asked me this question: Would you consider Buddhism a religion or philosophy? I don’t remember what I said, but I do recall it being a half-baked answer skirting on the edges of classifying Buddhism as a philosophy. After all, many young people in the West do consider Buddhism as a doctrine about cause and effect, seeing most rituals and chants as moot. I grew up in a Buddhist household, attended temple rituals and ceremonies, yet still found myself doubting that Buddhism should be considered a religion. For me, religion was connected with worshipping god(s), like Christianity or Islam. But in Buddhism, there was no god to praise or worship. I’m sure that many would agree that Buddhism is in fact a way of life.

However, my view has come to change on this during my stay here at a monastic program (Woodenfish) in the Longquan Monastery in Shanxi, China. Let’s begin with the term spirituality.

I think it’s a fairly modern concept, and most people I know would rather be aligned as spiritual rather than a radical religious. Karl-Stéphan Bouthillette, a professor at Woodenfish, opened his lecture about spirituality that spirituality had an attitude of “whatever.” It puts the individual at the center of the universe, makes people selfish and unhappy. It allows people to cherrypick whatever you like, but the dangerous part is that it can lead to dismissing what we don’t yet understand or what challenges us. If we are trying to learn, we need to relinquish our authority. For example, if we are learning how to make a chair, we would go to somebody who already knows how to make a chair. If we want to learn how to meditate, we should go to a monastery where they have established practices to teach meditation. This motivation behind cherrypicking in spirituality also translates over to the fractious nature of religions institutions and political parties. There is a loss of commitment to something greater, especially something that challenges us. And being our own authority can put a lot of stress on ourself to make the perfect decisions among a sea of options.

Philosophy, from Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, literally translates to “love of wisdom.” And refers to the study of things like knowledge, existence, what we should or should not do, language, reason, etc. And from my experience of studying philosophy in college, has a categorical/classifying nature that can seem cold.

Religion, from Latin religio, means “that which binds us together.” As opposed to philosophy, religion feels more warm and human, dealing with things like love, death, passion, birth, etc. And religion can ben seen as having 7 dimensions.

7 Dimensions of Religion

1. Practical and Ritual – In Buddhism, rituals are seen not as an end in itself. Sacrifices, baptism, etc.

2. Experiential and Emotional – Meditative jhanas, metta (loving kindness), desire to convert others

3. Narrative and Mythic – Religions have rich, emotional narratives or myths. While myths are generally looked down upon in the present because of their lack of proof, these stories motivate us to strive for things greater than us. They give us hope.

4. Doctrinal and Philosophical – I believe this is where many people would put Buddhism into, but Buddhism is much more than just a philosophy.

5. Ethical and Legal – 5 Precepts, 10 Commandments, etc.

6. Social and Institutional – monasteries, interactions between laymen and monks/nuns, interactions between people and priests.

7. Material – artwork, clothing, bowls.

And having these 7 dimensions implies that there are many different ways we can enter into religion. For me, my entrance into Buddhism came from the experiential and philosophical dimensions.

For me, this added a lot more depth to religion. Religions are in fact deeply rooted in history and culture. There are also many recurring themes among religions, for example, how the mythological monomyth (hero’s journey) is apparent in many religious narratives. Studying Buddhism academically in the Woodenfish program has been very interesting and challenging, making myself ask questions that I would have never asked myself before, which I will answer in future posts.

What if the Buddha never existed? Does it even matter?

What would be the advantage and disadvantage of believing in the narrative?

Preparing to Learn: Emptying Your Cup

There was a foreigner who visited a Zen Master to study with the master. The foreigner was a scholar with an extensive background in Buddhist Studies and came prepared to have big debates regarding Zen. After making the customary bows, he began to talk about his extensive doctrinal background and rambled on and on about the many sutras he had studied.

The master listened patiently and then began to make tea. When it was ready, the master poured the tea into the scholar’s cup until it began to overflow and run all over the floor. The scholar saw what was happening and shouted, “Stop! Stop! The cup is full; you can’t get anymore in.”

The master stopped pouring and said: “You are like this cup, you are full of ideas about the Buddha’s Way. How can you ask for a taste of my tea if your cup is already full? I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.”

While this story shares a simple message, I feel that many of us get too caught up with arguing and being correct rather than having humility and being ready to learn. The quintessential image of a college classroom that comes to mind is centered on politically and intellectually charged individuals arguing left and right about what is true and what is not. However, while engaging in such a dialectic is certainly beneficial, it is hard to believe that we know everything, especially as young first years in college. We should consider our education in such a way, whenever we walk into a classroom or engage in conversations seeking for advice.

Sticking to what we already know is easy, but growing and cultivating knowledge requires emptying our cup of ego.

Zen: Dealing With Pain

The first obstacle most people face when meditating is pain, well at least it is for me. But I never thought I would be able to overcome it from the sound of water droplets. The water fountain was full from the morning rain, and throughout our evening zazen we could hear water dropping from the bamboo pipe to the basin.

sam-shih-fumonken-fountain
The fountain (on the left)

Drip, drip, drip.

My knees are killing me, I’m starting to lose feeling in my feet.

Drip, drip, drip.

I need to shift my legs, I can’t stand the pain anymore.

Drip, drip, drip.

I’m listening to the water, and I realize that I’m not thinking too much about the water like I am with my pain. It’s as if the water is passing by me through time. I hear it – then when it stops, I let it go.

Drip, drip, drip.

Wait, why don’t I treat my pain like this? My pain is just like the water, I feel it, then let it go. Almost instantly (and kind of scarily), my obsession with the pain dropped. It’s like when you are sitting at a cafe and you hear other people chatting around you. You don’t dramatize the chatter, you just hear it and accept it as a part of the background. The biggest thing for me was not making such a big deal out of the pain – before I would be complaining about how long I’ve been sitting, plotting how to move my legs as silently as possible. However, I just needed to treat the pain like the drops of water I was hearing.

It was also at this time that I realized I’ve been doing meditation incorrectly all my life. I’ve grown up with Vipassana meditation, and one of the major things we learn to do while meditating was to mentally note the sensations in out bodies.

Hearing, hearing, smelling, smelling, pain, pain.

But now, I believe I’ve been thinking about noting pain incorrectly. I’ve heard teachers tell me that as you noted the pain, it would eventually go away. So then I started to think of the noting as a way to ease the pain. I would be noting “pain, pain, pain…” ultimately hoping that the pain would go away. I started to get frustrated if the pain didn’t go away, was I meditating correctly? The purpose of noting is to detach yourself from the sensations that are arising.

Think about why it is so easy to just accept the dripping of water and the chatter in a cafe: they are easy to pass by because they are not a part of you, you don’t own them. So to do the same for pain, you can not think that you own the pain. The pain is not part of yourself, and thinking about it as cafe chatter really helps. And ultimately, we’ll want to detach from our bodies and leave behind our notions of the “self” (anattā, Pali).