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A Wreath of Blue Lotus

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by Sangharakshita

... can perhaps understand her being sad and sorrowful, but what about the weeping and wailing? It would seem that she was trying to get her way in a rather childish fashion. We can contrast this with Ananda's attitude. Ananda argued with the Buddha. He prepared his ground and gave reasons as to why women should be permitted to Go Forth-with the result that the Buddha was unable to resist his request; he was unable to resist reason, unable to resist argument.

This part of the episode is surely of some significance. The fait accompli in fact failed-as it always does in the long run. Emotional blackmail fails, attempted coercion fails. On the other hand, reason suffused with sympathy succeeds. Mahaprajapati herself failed to gain her point, but Ananda gained it for her.

It is now time that we moved on to the eight important rules themselves. Why did they take the particular form they did? Perhaps the first thing that strikes us about them is that they are quite severe, even quite harsh. We cannot quite help feeling that the Buddha is perhaps being rather unfair towards Mahaprajapati-though he no doubt knew her better than we do. Indeed, the Buddha seems to be being quite unjust to women in general.

The eight important rules would certainly make the blood of a modern feminist boil with rage, and they might even make some men a little uneasy. Let's go into the matter a little.

If we look at these rules, it is rather obvious that their main function is to subordinate the order of nuns to the order of monks, to make the bhikkhunis completely dependent on the bhikkhus. The bhikkhunis, the nuns, are to be kept in a state of perpetual pupilage. What could have been the reason for this? One scholar has suggested that Mahaprajapati's request created an `organizational problem' for the Buddha (it seems that even the Buddha had organizational problems!). By this time the order of monks had been in existence for about twenty years. Organizationally speaking, the Buddha was faced with three alternatives. He could admit women to the existing order of monks, thus creating a single unified order, he could create an entirely separate and independent order for women, or he could subordinate the order of nuns to the order of monks.

The first of these options was clearly out of the question. Both monks and nuns were expected to lead lives of celibacy and this would presumably have been rather difficult if they were living together as members of a single unified order. The second alternative was out of the question too. The Buddha could hardly be the head of two quite separate, independent, orders. In any case, he was-externally at least-a man, and a man could hardly be the head of an order of nuns. If it was really to be separate and independent, that order of nuns would have to be headed by a woman. That left only the third alternative, that of subordinating the order of nuns to the order of monks. This, according to the scholar, is the alternative that the Buddha adopted.

This explanation is certainly of interest. There may even be some truth in it. But it does not really suffice to explain the specific form in which the eight important rules were presented. Something more than organizational convenience seems to have been involved. Perhaps it would help if we tried to understand what it was that the rules were intended to prevent. To do this, however, we have to look at rules in general.

If we look at the Vinaya-Pitaka, or `The Book of the Discipline', we find that it contains many rules, of many different kinds. There are rules for monks, and rules for nuns. According to the Theravada tradition, there are, altogether, two-hundred-and-twenty-seven rules for monks, and three-hundred-and-eleven rules for nuns. How did these rules come to be laid down? It is certain that the Buddha did not draw them all up in advance. He did not sit down under his Bodhi tree and think, `What sort of Sangha would I like to have? And what sort of rules should it observe? How should it be constituted?' The Buddha laid down rules in response to unskilful behaviour on the part of a member, or members, of the Sangha. So long as there was no unskilful behaviour there were no rules; the Buddha was not interested in laying down rules for their own sake. He was interested simply in the moral and spiritual development of the individual, and laid down rules only when `forced' to do so.

These eight important rules, however, were laid down in advance of any offence actually committed by Mahaprajapati. But the same principle does perhaps apply.

The effect of these rules is to subordinate the order of nuns to the order of monks. It is to make the bhikkhunis completely dependent, organizationally speaking, on the bhikkhus. So what kind of unskilful behaviour are the eight rules meant to prevent? To what kind of possible offences do they refer? Clearly they are meant to prevent the nuns claiming equality with, or superiority over, monks. That is to say, they are meant to prevent women claiming equality with, or superiority over, men. In other words, we could say that they are meant to prevent an irruption of feminism into the order.

To say this does not mean that the Buddha did not believe in equal rights for women in the ordinary social sense. It does not mean that he did not believe that a woman could be spiritually superior to a man. After all, he had told Ananda quite categorically that women were capable of attaining the fruits of Stream Entry and so on, and, presumably, a woman who was a Stream Entrant was spiritually superior to a man who was still a worldling. So what the Buddha wanted to do, it seems, was to prevent women from Going Forth for the wrong reasons, that is, for social rather than for purely spiritual reasons.

There are indications that this sort of thing did sometimes happen afterwards, despite the Buddha's precautions. A woman might seek ordination because she wanted to be free from her husband, or because she was a widow and wanted to be more highly respected-which as a nun she would be-or because her parents were unable or unwilling to find her a husband. The same sort of thing can happen even in modern times.

I received my shramanera ordination from U Chandramani Mahathera at Kusinara. U Chandramani-fortunately for me-was very generous with his ordinations. Amongst others, he ordained a large number of women. He did not ordain them as shramaneris, since that was no longer possible, but as anagarikas. Eventually he ordained so many women that he was begged to stop by his bhikkhu disciples.

The women whom he had ordained were mostly Nepalese and, as I knew from my personal contact with them, they wanted ordination mainly for social reasons. They wanted to enjoy the same rights as men, and saw ordination as a means of achieving this end. In most cases they were not really interested in the spiritual life at all.

This seems to have been the sort of situation that the Buddha wanted to prevent, and this is why he set forth the eight important rules. He was trying to make quite sure that Mahaprajapati wanted to Go Forth for purely spiritual reasons, that she really wanted to go for Refuge, really wanted to gain Enlightenment.

We can take things even further than this. We have seen that Mahaprajapati tried to present the Buddha with a fait accompli. And we have seen that she tried to get her own way in a rather childish fashion. In Mahaprajapati, there was a strong element of what William Blake called the `Female Will'. In fact, from a certain point of view, she was almost an embodiment of that Female Will. The Buddha saw that before Mahaprajapati could truly Go Forth the Female Will had to annihilated-and the eight important rules were intended to do just that. At this point I should perhaps say a few words about what Blake meant by the Female Will.

According to Blake, in the `unfallen Individual', reason and emotion, `masculine' and `feminine', are united. The feminine `portion' of the fundamentally bisexual Individual is called the `Emanation'. With the Fall of Man-to summarize rather rapidly-Reason and Emotion are divided: the Emanation is divided from the Individual and takes the Female form, and Man is left as what Blake calls a `Dark Spectre'.

Worse still, the Emanation acquires a will of her own and this `Female Will' acts in opposition to her consort. As S. Foster Damon puts it, `The Emanation's self-centred pride seeks dominion over the male.

She is jealous of all his activities, and seeks to stop them by denying her husband his freedom.... She is even jealous of her husband's labours, which take his attention from her; so she prevents his working.'<S.

Foster Damon, A Blake Dictionary, London 1979, p.121> It is this kind of spirit, it seems, that the Buddha wanted to prevent from entering the Sangha, he wanted to curb the Female Will, and this is why he set forth the eight important rules.

How then does Mahaprajapati receive the rules? She says: `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.' From these words it is clear that Mahaprajapati accepts the eight important rules in a completely positive spirit. She passes the test-if it is a test-and the Female Will is annihilated in her. She really did want to Go Forth, really did want to gain Enlightenment. And gain Enlightenment she eventually did.

In the Therigatha, or the `Verses of the Elder Nuns', there are some very interesting verses attributed to Mahaprajapati after her attainment of Enlightenment: `(157)Buddha, ...

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