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A Wreath of Blue Lotus

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 153: A Wreath of Blue Lotus - Edited Version

Because there is really only one Going for Refuge, there can really only be one kind of `ordination'. But ordination may take place in a number of ways. Historically speaking, as we can see from the Pali scriptures, it could take place when the Buddha, upon meeting and communicating with someone, saw that the person was ready to go for Refuge, ready to commit himself. On such an occasion, the Buddha would simply say, `Come, O monk! (Ehi bhikhkave!) Lead the spiritual life (brahmachariya) for the destruction of suffering.' And the person was ordained. It could be as simple as that. Similarly, we find that ordination could take place when someone, deeply impressed by the Buddha's teaching, repeated the formula: `To the Buddha for Refuge I go. To the Dhamma for Refuge I go. To the Sangha for Refuge I go,'-and the Buddha accepted that. Otherwise, the ordination could take place when the individual concerned was `accepted' by an assembly of five or ten monks. However, the episode with which we shall be concerned here centres upon a rather unusual-in fact a quite unique-form of ordination.

At one time the Buddha was staying among the Shakyas of Kapilavastu in a park known as the Banyan Park. The Shakyans were the people among whom the Buddha was born, and among whom he grew up.

Kapilavastu was their capital. After the Buddha's Enlightenment many Shakyans became his followers; in particular, many young Shakyan men left home and became `monks' under his guidance. Among these was of course Ananda, the Buddha's constant companion in his later years.

While the Buddha was staying at Kapilavastu many people came to see him-including friends and relations he had known before. Among these came Mahaprajapati, the Buddha's maternal aunt and foster-mother.

(The Buddha's own mother, Mayadevi, had died when he was only a few days old, and it was Mahaprajapati who had brought him up.) On this occasion Mahaprajapati came with an unusual-even unprecedented-request. This was nothing less than that women should be permitted to go forth from home into the homeless life under the Dhamma Vinaya set forth by the Buddha. She wanted to be ordained.

The Buddha's response was a categorical refusal. There was no beating about the bush: he just said no.

Three times Mahaprajapati made her request and three times the Buddha refused. In fact he asked her not even to wish for such a thing, and, in the end, she just had to go away unsatisfied. The translation of the Pali text tells us, moreover, that she went away `sad, sorrowful, tearful, and wailing'.

The second half of the episode takes place some time later. We are not told exactly when it takes place, but it is clear that the Buddha has left Kapilavastu. He has been wandering from place to place and has now come to Vaisali and is staying in the Mahavana, the `great grove', or `great forest', at the `Hall of the Peaked Gable'. Meanwhile, Mahaprajapati has not been idle. She has not accepted the Buddha's refusal to allow women to be ordained and proceeds to get her hair cut off, dons saffron robes, and sets off for Vaisali with a number of Shakyan women. She is clearly a very determined lady; she won't take no for an answer, even from the Buddha.

Eventually she arrives at the Hall of the Peaked Gable and takes her stand outside the porch. Her feet are of course swollen and dust begrimed after the long journey, and we are told that she is sad, sorrowful, weeping and wailing.

Sooner or later Ananda finds her. He knows her, of course, because he is also a kinsman of the Buddha and therefore her kinsman too. He asks her what she wants and why she is so upset, and she replies that she is upset because the Buddha will not permit women to Go Forth from home into the homeless life.

Ananda is a very sympathetic soul. He feels sorry for Mahaprajapati and does his best to help. He goes immediately to see the Buddha, saying that Mahaprajapati has come all the way from Kapilavastu and is now standing outside the porch weeping and wailing. He also suggests, out of the kindness of his heart, that the Buddha should grant her request.

But the Buddha refuses Ananda's request just as categorically as he had refused Mahaprajapati's, and asks him not to wish for any such thing. Three times Ananda makes his request, and three times the Buddha refuses. However, Ananda does not give up. After all, he knows the Buddha very well, and so argues with him, saying, `Suppose women were to Go Forth from home into the homeless life under the Dhamma Vinaya set forth by the Tathagata, would they be capable of attaining the fruits of Stream Entry, or the Fruit of Once Returning, or the Fruit of Never Returning, or the Fruit of Arahantship?' When the Buddha admits that women are so capable, Ananda seizes his opportunity. He reminds the Buddha that Mahaprajapati was of great service to the Buddha when he was an infant; on the death of his mother she actually suckled him. It would therefore be a good thing, he says, if women were permitted to Go Forth from home into the homeless life. The Buddha is unable to resist this argument, and grants Mahaprajapati's request.

He grants it, however, on certain conditions. He tells Ananda that if Mahaprajapati will undertake to keep eight important rules, then that will be reckoned as full ordination. The rules are as follows: A sister, even if she be an hundred years in the robes, shall salute, shall rise up before, shall bow down before, shall perform all duties of respect unto a brother-even if that brother have only just taken the robes.

Let this rule never be broken, but be honoured, esteemed, reverenced, and observed as long as life doth last.

Secondly, a sister shall not spend the rainy season in a district where there is no brother residing. Let this rule never be broken....

Thirdly, at the half month let a sister await two things from the Order of Brethren, namely the appointing of the Sabbath [this is the translator's rather strange word for the uposatha] and the coming of a brother to preach the sermon. Let this rule never be broken....

Fourthly, at the end of keeping the rainy season let a sister, in presence of both Orders, of Brethren and of Sisters, invite enquiry in respect of three things, namely, of things seen, heard, and suspected. Let this rule never be broken....

Fifthly, a sister guilty of serious wrong-doing shall do penance for the half-month to both Orders. Let this rule never be broken....

Sixthly, when a sister has passed two seasons in the practice of the Six Rules she may ask for full orders from both Orders. Let this rule never be broken....

Seventhly, a sister shall not in any case abuse or censure a brother. Let this rule never be broken....

Eighthly, henceforth is forbidden the right of a sister to have speech among brethren, but not forbidden is the speaking of brethren unto sisters. Let this rule never be broken, but be honoured, esteemed, reverenced, and observed as long as life doth last.<Vinaya Pitaka, ii, 10, quoted in Some Sayings of the Buddha, pp. 121-2> On hearing this reply, Ananda goes to Mahaprajapati and tells her what the Buddha has said. This is her response: `Just as, lord Ananda, a woman or a man, youthful, of tender age, fond of self-adornment, having washed the head and having gotten a wreath of blue lotus or of jasmine or of scented-creeper flowers, should take it with both hands and place it atop of the head,-even so do I, lord Ananda, take upon me these Eight Important Rules, never to be broken so long as life doth last.'<Ibid p.123> Ananda now returns to the Buddha and tells him that Mahaprajapati has accepted the eight rules and is therefore now fully ordained.

This, then, is the episode with which we are concerned. This is our wreath of blue lotus. Clearly, it provides us with a good deal of material for reflection. I am going to concentrate on just one important part: the eight important rules. Why did they take the particular form that they did? And what are we to make of Mahaprajapati's response to them? Before looking at the rules, however, we must briefly examine Mahaprajapati's behaviour after the Buddha's initial refusal. As we have seen, she gets her hair cut off, dons the saffron robes, and sets off for Vaisali with a number of Shakyan women. Finally, she stands outside the porch of the Hall of the Peaked Gable. In doing all this, she seems to be trying to force the Buddha's hand. We might even say that she is trying to present the Buddha with a fait accompli. After all, she has left home, shaved her head, and donned the saffron robes. She is in effect now a nun, so the Buddha might as well accept the situation, might as well permit her to do what she has in fact already done.

Now the fait accompli is a very interesting phenomenon. Essentially, a fait accompli consists in creating a situation in which the other person is, in effect, deprived of their power of choice or decision. I say in effect because they are not literally deprived of it; nevertheless, a situation is created in which they can exercise that power only at the cost of a great deal of trouble and even a great deal of unpleasantness. The fait accompli involves an element of what we may describe as emotional blackmail, and is thus a form of coercion. This of course means that it is a form of violence, and is hence completely out of place in the spiritual life. If you present someone with a fait accompli you are not treating them as an individual. But this is what Mahaprajapati did: she tried to force the Buddha's hand. Her desire to Go Forth was no doubt sincere but, in this connection, she did not treat the Buddha with very much respect.

We are also told that she stood outside the porch `sad, sorrowful, weeping and wailing'. One ...

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