Freedom is a profound sense of happiness that all sentient beings like to experience. But sadly, not everyone has the luxury of experiencing equal freedom. Hence the call for political, economic, and social equality of the sexes has become louder than ever as women struggle for an equal place in the society with their male counterparts. Driven by the overwhelming desire to win over equal rights and recognition, they fight hard against sexist oppression. Although women may have been successful in achieving some of their goals, they are a far cry from achieving true freedom and liberation.
In the 6th century B.C. when the Buddha was born, the Brahmins dominated Indian society. Brahmins made women dependent first on their fathers and after marriage on their husbands making them submit to men for their entire life. This submission began as a child under the guardianship of her parents, wherefrom the age of seven or eight, she had to help with the household chores.
Then she had to show her compliance and obedience as a perfect wife by serving her husband. She was to always rise before him and go to bed after him and perform all duties of the house. Then came the submission to her son when she reached old age. In this male-dominated society, a woman’s place was the home. Just like a caged bird, she led a life confined to the walls of the house. There seemed to be no hope of redeeming themselves from the plight of their oppression and discrimination.
However, amid all the pain and suffering that engulfed the world, hope for a better tomorrow arose with the birth of a special being. Not only did he give hope for women, he gave hope for all living beings mired in the suffering of birth and death. The manifestation of this remarkable being, the Tathāgata, the Perfectly Enlightened Buddha is rare in the world. Having discovered for himself the perfect path to freedom and liberation, with boundless compassion he showed it to others as well.
After listening to his sublime teachings, many clansmen went forth from the household life to homelessness in seeking refuge in the Buddha’s dispensation. Many of Buddha’s kin went forth and joined the order of monks, the Sangha. After the passing away of King Suddhodana, Buddha’s father, who attained Arahantship, the thought arose in Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, Buddha’s maternal aunt, to renounce the household life. Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī had once before asked the Blessed One for admission to his Order and had not won his consent. In the palace, she ambled in deep contemplation trying to figure out a different approach in convincing the Buddha to grant permission for women to ordain.
This time, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī along with a substantial number of Sākyan ladies resolved to cut off their hair and donned themselves in yellow robes. Many of these Sākyan ladies were extremely delicate, beautiful and in the bloom of youth. With great determination, they walked from Kapilavatthu to Vesāli and arrived at the great hall with the peaked roof. Covered with dust and their feet swollen, they stood outside the entrance, dejected, pitiful and tearful. After their exhausting journey, these fragile Sākyan princesses looked like wilted lotuses.
Deeply moved by their miserable state, Venerable Ānanda approached the Blessed One and repeatedly requested him to grant permission for women to go forth in the Buddha’s Dispensation. Yielding to the requests of Venerable Ānanda, the Blessed One proclaimed if Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī accepts the eight principles of respect (aṭṭha garudhamma) that was to be their full ordination.
The Buddha outlined the following eight principles of respect, which should be honored, respected, esteemed, and revered, and should not be transgressed for life:
1. “A bhikkhunī who has been ordained for a hundred years should pay homage to a bhikkhu who has been ordained that same day, should rise up for him, reverentially salute him, and behave courteously toward him.”
2. “A bhikkhunī should not enter upon the rains in a place where there are no bhikkhus.”
3. “Every half-month a bhikkhunī should ask the Saṅgha of Bhikkhus about two things: about the day of the uposatha, and about coming for the exhortation.”
4. “When a bhikkhunī has observed the rains, she should invite correction before both Sanghas regarding three things: regarding anything seen, heard, or suspected.”
5. “A bhikkhunī who has broken any of the rules of respect should observe a half-month’s penalty period before both Sanghas.”
6. “A probationer who has completed two years of training in the six principles should seek full-ordination from both Sanghas.”
7. “A bhikkhunī must in no way insult or revile a bhikkhu.”
8. “From today on, Ānanda, bhikkhunīs are prohibited from admonishing bhikkhus, but bhikkhus are not prohibited from admonishing bhikkhunīs.”
(Gotamī Sutta, AN 8.51 – Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
When Venerable Ānanda mentioned these rules to Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, with utmost respect and gratitude, she readily agreed to abide by these rules for life.
Thus, there came to be the ordination of women in the Buddha’s Dispensation and the establishment of the Bhikkhunī Sangha. By doing so, the Buddha elevated the status of women in the Indian society from that of condemned and derogated to the rank of a noble lady worthy of respect and veneration by even the most prestigious and powerful, even the King. After the establishment of Bhikkhunī Sangha many women throughout the country from all hierarchies of the society ordained as bhikkunis. The Order of Nuns paved the path to all women who desired deliverance from suffering.
Buddha’s wisdom and compassion reached the very depths of the unspoken suffering and turmoil that burned the hearts of these ladies. His beautiful teachings brought them consolation, guidance, inspiration, joy, and the freedom they so earnestly sought. They realized the truth of life by developing their wisdom and experienced freedom from the endless suffering brought about by the cycle of aging and death. Today we live in a world of perpetual destruction and our only hope for freedom and security lies in our refuge in the Triple Gem. Hence, it is not too far of a stretch to mention that the real freedom a woman earnestly seeks and desires lies within the sublime teachings of the Buddha, the Perfectly Self-Enlightened One.
Written by a Venerable Nun Of
Mahamevnawa Anagārika Nun’s Monastery