The story of the founding of the Order of Bhikkhunis (Nuns) can be found in Anguttara Nikaya 8.51 as well as in the Vinaya's Cullavagga X.1. The basic story is as follows:
[Mahapajapati Gotami three time requests that the Buddha establish an Order of Nuns - and is rejected three times. Afterwards, the Buddha leaves Kapilavatthu and goes to Vesali.] ...
Then Mahapajapati Gotami, having had her hair cut off, having donned ochre robes, set out for Vesali together with a large number of Sakyan women. After wandering in stages, she arrived at Vesali and went to the Gabled Hall in the Great Wood. Then she stood there outside the porch, her feet swollen, her limbs covered with dust, sad and unhappy, crying, her face in tears. Ven. Ananda saw her standing there ... and so asked her, "Why, Gotami, why are you standing here ... your face in tears?"
"Because, venerable sir, the Blessed One does not allow women's Going-forth from the home life into homelessness in the doctrine and discipline made known by the Tathagata."
"In that case, Gotami, stay right here for a moment while I ask the Blessed One to allow women's Going-forth from the home life into homelessness in the doctrine and discipline made known by the Tathagata."
... [Ananda three time requests that the Buddha establish an Order of Nuns - and is rejected three times.] ...
Ananda then said to the Blessed One, "Venerable sir, if a woman were to go forth from the home life into homelessness in the doctrine and discipline made known by the Tathagata, would she be able to realize the fruit of stream-entry, once-returning, non-returning, or arahantship?"
"Yes, Ananda, she would..."
"In that case, venerable sir, Mahapajapati Gotami has been of great service to the Blessed One. She was the Blessed One's aunt, foster mother, nurse, giver of milk. When the Blessed One's mother passed away, she gave him milk. It would be good if women might obtain the Going-forth from the home life into homelessness in the doctrine and discipline made known by the Tathagata."
"Ananda, if Mahapajapati Gotami accepts eight rules of respect, that will be her full Acceptance."
In my essay The Authenticity of the Suttas of the Pali Canon, I point out that not everything in the Pali Suttas can be taken literally. There are things in this vast collection that defy plausibility: there is mythology as well as suttas that serve sectarian purposes. Is the story of the founding of the Bhikkhuni Order plausible?
The founding of the Bhikkhuni Order is said to have taken place a few months after the fifth rains retreat - when the Buddha would have been about 40 years old. Ananda at that time would have been probably a teenager - at most. We can get a good estimate of his age from SN 16.11, which takes place after the Buddha's death at the age of 80. In this sutta Mahakassapa calls Ananda a "youngster" and Ananda replies by pointing out the grey hairs on his head. The combination of "youngster" and "grey hairs" would indicate Ananda was probably between 40 and 60. Since he had been the Buddha's attendant for the previous 25 years, that would make him unlikely to be as young as 40 - more likely he was in his 50s. That would make him a teenager when he intervened and enabled the founding of the Bhikkhuni Order! It seems very implausible to me that a teenager - someone about the same age as the Buddha's son Rahula - would have enough influence over the Buddha to get him to change his mind about something he had rejected three times on multiple occasions.
Furthermore this story appears in the Anguttra Nikaya - a collection that contains a large number of suttas whose real purpose is to maintain order in the early monastic sangha. The subjective feel of reading these many suttas is that as the monastic sangha grew and began to prosper in the years after the Buddha's death, more and more central authority had to be established and suttas were generated to try to control things.
And still furthermore, this sutta appears in the Book of Eights. Taken as a whole, the higher the number for a book in the Anguttra Nikaya, the less authentic it feels. Starting in the Book of Sixes, two lists are often strung together to get the "right" number for a sutta. And the Eightfold Path is never mentioned in the Book of Eights - a curious omission.
These last two points concerning the Anguttra Nikaya are of course subjective and circumstantial evidence - but along with the disconnect concerning Ananda's age/influence, they do point to the story of the founding of the Bhikkhuni Order as we have it today as not being authentic.
But wait: the story also appears in the Cullavagga of the Vinaya - the Lesser Book. Well, we do have multiple Vinayas from several of the early schools of Buddhism; see this article by Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni for a more detailed look at these Vinayas, as well as considerable other evidence to question the authencity of
In conclusion, the evidence for any authentic canonical suppression of women is quite suspect; it more likely reflects the patriarchal position of ancient India where women were chattel (property). And it certainly is quite different from the Buddha's attitude towards women in many parts of the Pali Canon - see for example Samyutta Nikaya Book 37. Whatever the case, two points are indisputable:
The Authenticity of the Suttas of the Pali Canon
The Recent Controversy Regarding the Full Ordination of Women in Theravadan Buddhism
On the Apparent Non-historicity of the Eight Garudhammas Story by Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni (contains far more research on the topic)
Gender Discrimination in the Pali Canon A Letter from Ven Bhikkhu Analayo to Ven Ayya Tathaaloka
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