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Is it true that the Buddha didn't allow women in the Sangha? If this is true then why is that?

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Interesting, this is the first question answered in this month's Buddhism.SE Book-of-the-Month Women in Buddhism - Questions & Answers.

It was the right time for Maha Pajapati (the Buddha's step mother) to consider following the teaching and the practice of the Buddha seriously. But when she approached and asked for permission the Buddha simply said, “Please do not ask so.” The Tripitaka, which is the most important primary source, did not provide any reason for not allowing women to join the Order.

Maha Pajapati and 500 other women shaved their heads, donned yellow robes, and walked to where the Buddha was. Ananda went to the Buddha on their behalf to ask for their permission to join the sangha, but the Buddha's response was "“Ananda, please do not ask so.”.

Some of the considerations and concerns that might have been present include the fact that:

According to Indian social mores, to lead a religious life is not the path for women. ibid

There may also have been practical concerns as these women had lived in comfort before and the reality of living a reclusive life outdoors might be difficult. The current sangha did not have enough teachers who would have been suitable to teach this large group of women. There could have been criticism that having women join the sangha was breaking up families. These may have been some of the reasons behind the Buddha's hesitation to allow women to join the sangha.

When Ananda asked the Buddha if women were capable of attaining spiritual enlightenment; the Buddha's answer was yes. The book notes:

We have to mark this statement, as this is the first time in the history of religion that a religious leader declared openly that men and women are equal on spiritual grounds. Previously in the Hindu context, the Vedas, the most sacred religious texts, were available only to men. Buddhism has transcended race, nation, caste and gender differences to declare that the highest spiritual achievement transcends obstacles or discrimination of gender. With this important reason, the Buddha allowed women to join his Order. ibid

So while women weren't allowed to join the sangha immediately, eventually they were.

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    Thank you for this answer. This is a very important part of Buddhism. – Lanka Jun 30 '15 at 15:44
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    And of course we have to assume his omniscience is correct and he knew things about cultural evolution we didn't.. After Ananada insisted several times, Gautama Buddha finally capitulated and allowed women... he also said "Because of this fine thing you have done Ananada, Buddhism will last 500 years less.." – Ahmed Jun 30 '15 at 15:50
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    This also shows that the Buddha was not rigid in handling such sensitive matters. He was willing to consider requests of the community. It's a sign of a true leader. Another example is when king Suddhodana requested not to ordain kids without the parents' consent. – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 2 '15 at 7:33
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    @Ahmed, the full text is "In spite of this, the Exalted One declared that because of the founding of the Order of Nuns the dispensation would last only five hundred instead of a thousand years.[30]" Source: accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/hecker/wheel273.html#section-5 However the footnote [30] is very significant. tbc... – Robin111 Jul 8 '15 at 17:44
  • "In the Vinaya (monk's discipline) the Buddha is represented as saying this, but such a prophecy involving time is found only here. There is not other mention anywhere in the whole of the Vinaya (discipline) and the Suttas (discourses). This makes it suspect as an intrusion. The Commentaries, as well as many other later Buddhist writings; have much to say about the decline of the Buddha's Dispensation in five-hundred-year periods, but none of this is the word of the Buddha and only represents the view of later teachers." accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/hecker/wheel273.html#fn-30 – Robin111 Jul 8 '15 at 17:45
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As far as I can tell, the Buddha didn't really offer clear reasons for his reluctance to ordain women, yet being the Buddha, he must have given it a lot of consideration. He didn't think women were less capable, this much he makes clear, but he must have had his reasons.

“Lord Buddha, can women attain enlightenment?” The Buddha said to him, “Ananda, yes of course they can.” He said, “If they can, why don’t you allow them to join the Sangha, learning and practicing directly, especially your foster mother who looked after you when you were young.” In fact, the Buddha at first denied Gotami the chance to ordain so as to make them sure that this is what they wanted to do.

source: Female monks in Buddhism, Bhikkhuni Dhammcaro

There are obvious practical reasons one can guess,

  • safety of the women in the forests,
  • safety of the monks and nuns from temptations, mental pollutants and false accusations,
  • safety of the order from corruption and schisms over the issue,
  • safety of the laity.

The Buddha makes clear in the vinaya that he would like to make the true Dharma last as long as possible this time round, unlike previous times when some Buddhas didn't regulate the order. This may have also played on his mind.

After the disappearance of these Buddhas, the Blessed Ones, and their immediate disciples (buddhanubuddha), those last disciples of various names, of various clans, of various births, who had gone forth from various families, the holy life too disappeared. It is as if, Sāriputta, various flowers lying loose on a piece of wood are scattered about and blown about by the wind. (V 3:8)

There are some statements attributed to the Buddha that the admission of women in the order would shorten the lifespan of the Dhamma. However, this isn't universally accepted as having been said by the Buddha. Anyway, the dharma is now 2500 years old, so it hasn't come to pass.

If, Ananda, women had not obtained the going forth, the holy life, Ananda, would have lasted long, the True Teaching would have endured for a thousand years. But, Ananda, since women have gone forth, the holy life now would not last, the True Dharma would endure only for 500 years. 10 (Vinaya Cullavagga 10.1.6/V 2:255; A 4:278; Miln 4.1.55-61)

source: Dharma ending age, Piya Tan

Finally, we must learn to accept what has come to pass. Neither can we ever truly understand the responsibilities and complexities the Buddha had to balance to spread the dharma, nor can we rely on historical accounts to be accurate. There are historians (Williams, Liz 2000 'A Whisper in the Silence: Nuns before Maha-paja-patı-?' Buddhist Studies Review) who have spent time trying to conjecture that there were nuns before Mahapajapati Gotami, which is well and good for a historian, but a waste of time for a practitioner.

At one time the Blessed One was staying at Kosambii in Simsapaa Grove. Then the Blessed One, taking a few Simsapaa leaves in his hand, said to the monks: "What do you think, monks? Which are the more numerous, the few leaves I have here in my hand, or those up in the trees of the grove?"

"Lord, the Blessed One is holding only a few leaves: those up in the trees are far more numerous."

"In the same way, monks, there are many more things that I have found out, but not revealed to you. What I have revealed to you is only a little. And why, monks, have I not revealed it?

"Because, monks, it is not related to the goal, it is not fundamental to the holy life, does not conduce to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, tranquillity, higher knowledge, enlightenment or Nibbaana. That is why I have not revealed it.

source: Simsappa Sutta

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    "The commentary on the Abhidhamma text, Dhammasaṅgaṇī, says that when the First Buddhist Council convened by Ven. Mahā-Kassapa rehearsed the Pāḷi Canon, this made it possible for the Sāsana to endure for five thousand years. " , as opposed to the 500 years resulting from the creation of the Bhikkhuni order – Ryan Jul 1 '15 at 1:44
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I don't know what its reason is for saying this, but this footnote says,

It seems that the Buddha did not absolutely refuse Maha-Pajapati Gotami, but perhaps wished to test her determination. It would have been a very difficult thing for aristocratic ladies in those days to do — to become nuns and live a hard life in the forest, subsisting on almsfood. Ladies then had no experience in looking after themselves or organizing anything, as their social scope under Brahmanism was very much restricted.

Note that alhough it's true to say (i.e. it agrees with the suttas to say) that the Buddha "didn't originally allow", it's not true to say that "he didn't allow",

Ananda saw the Buddha's step-mother with swollen feet, covered with dust, eyes full of tears at the gate of the monastery of Vesali. When he asked her compassionately for the reason of her sorrow, she replied that the Master had three times rejected her request for the establishment of an order of nuns.

Thereupon Ananda rephrased his request [...] Ananda here brought two arguments to bear. [...] In response to these arguments the Buddha agreed to the establishment of an order of nuns, provided certain cautions and rules were followed.

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I think it's important to understand that the Buddha was very much a product of his culture. It's a bit silly to judge him by current social mores and standards. Initially, the Buddha believed that women were too important to the household to allow for their ordination. I'm fairly sure that there were other reasons as well - not the least of which was the danger women might face wandering alone around ancient India, the sexual "threat" they might be to other monks, etc.

There are a couple of quotes from the Vinaya cited in these to articles if you care to read more -

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Some people "blame" Ven.Ananda for initiating the Bhikkhuni Sasana. However, if the Buddha did not want to establish the Bhikkhuni Sasana, no matter how much anyone pleaded he would have said no. Yet the Buddha did establish it, not Ven. Ananda, although Ven. Ananda was essential for this.

Ven. Ananda absorbed the brunt of this drastic social change the Buddha created. Ven. Ananda deflected the criticism from the Buddha; He voiced the valid reasons why women should be allowed to be ordained, instead of the Buddha having to voice them by his own initiative. Imagine had the Buddha initiated the Bhikkhuni order unprompted like he did the Bhikkhu order? Ven. Ananda was the catalyst in an event, that I think was going to happen anyway.

Finding out why the Buddha was initially hesitant to establish the Bhikkhuni order is academic now. Anyone who intentionally discourages women or hinders them thinking that Bhikkhuni are bad for the sasana in my opinion goes against the Buddha. What matters is how can we collectively as the four fold sasana attain a sure footing on the path.

Whether the path will last in the future or not depends not on whether women are allowed to be ordained or not, but whether men and women strive to learn the dhamma, ponder upon it, memorize it, practice it themselves and teach others.

"For the Blessed One, O Lord, spoke these words to me: 'I shall not come to my final passing away, Evil One, until my Bhikkhunis have come to be true disciples — wise, well disciplined, apt and learned, preservers of the Dhamma, living according to the Dhamma, abiding by the appropriate conduct, and having learned the Master's word, are able to expound it, preach it, proclaim it, establish it, reveal it, explain it in detail, and make it clear; until, when adverse opinions arise, they shall be able to refute them thoroughly and well, and to preach this convincing and liberating Dhamma.' -- Mahaparinibbana Sutta DN 16

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The Buddha reluctantly allowed women to join only after Ananda begged him to because he knew that allowing women in would cause the dhamma to disappear more quickly, resulting in fewer arahants.

"If, Ananda, women had not received permission to go out from the household life and enter the homeless state, under the doctrine and discipline proclaimed by the Tathagata(Buddha), then would the pure dhamma, Ananda, have lasted long, the good law would have stood fast for a thousand years. But since, Ananda, women have now received that permission, the pure Dhamma(path), Ananda, will not now last so long, the good law will now stand fast for only five hundred years." - Chulavagga 10.1

We see that what The Buddha predicted seems to be true, the pure dhamma does not exist today, it only existed for around five hundred years.

The earliest Buddhist scriptures (both Theravada and Mahayana) date to around 500 years after the death of The Buddha matching into the prediction.

They were written down based on oral traditions and memory.

You can clearly see that exact details are missing in the scriptures, as if something very important was lost.

What survived now in modern times are vague teachings that only certain beings would be able to comprehend and understand in a useful way, not exact precise instructions.

The Buddha's original teachings are lost!

[EDIT]

Many look at this as misogynistic but I don't think so.

It is not that women cannot achieve arahantship (equal to the Buddha) it is that ordaining women and allowing women in causes the pure dhamma to disappear more quickly.

The Buddha said:

"Dhammadinna the nun is wise, Visakha, a woman of great discernment. If you had asked me those things, I would have answered you in the same way she did. That is the meaning of those things. That is how you should remember it." - Culavedalla Sutta, MN 44

It is clear that women can achieve arahantship equal to the Buddha and other male arahants, the question is why did The Buddha not want to have nuns until Ananda begged him to?

I think I know why:

"Furthermore, in the course of the future there will be monks who will live in close association with nuns, female probationers, and female novices. As they interact with nuns, female probationers, and female novices, they can be expected either to lead the holy life dissatisfied or to fall into one of the grosser offenses, leaving the training, returning to a lower way of life.

"This, monks, is the fourth future danger, unarisen at present, that will arise in the future. Be alert to it and, being alert, work to get rid of it." - AN 5.80, Anagata-bhayani Sutta

Of course it will be harder to achieve arahantship when you have men and women integrated together or living closely side-by-side.

Because of human nature whenever men and women are integrated there will always be sex and issues caused by the desire for sex pleasure.

Ananda, a non-arahant, hadn't seen these dangers, out of compassion he thought there was no harm.

If The Buddha hadn't allowed women in, the dhamma would've lasted longer, obviously.

The Buddha also says:

“Monks, I do not know of any touch that takes hold of a man’s mind like the touch of a woman. A woman’s touch, monks, takes hold of a man’s mind like no other touch.”

...

“Monks, I do not know of any touch that takes hold of a woman’s mind like the touch of a man. A man’s touch, monks, takes hold of a woman’s mind like no other touch.” - AN 1.1 Rūpādivaggo

Many look at this as statements against women but I look at it as just stating the facts about human nature.

[/EDIT]

Ananda was also the same one who refused to ask The Buddha to stay on Earth for an entire world-period:

  1. And the Blessed One said: "Whosoever, Ananda, has developed, practiced, employed, strengthened, maintained, scrutinized, and brought to perfection the four constituents of iddhi power could, if he so desired, remain throughout a world-period or until the end of it. The Tathagata, Ananda, has done so. Therefore the Tathagata could, if he so desired, remain throughout a world-period or until the end of it."

  2. But the Venerable Ananda was unable to grasp the plain suggestion, the significant prompting, given by the Blessed One. As though his mind was influenced by Mara, he did not beseech the Blessed One: "May the Blessed One remain, O Lord!. May the Happy One remain, O Lord, throughout the world-period, for the welfare and happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, well being, and happiness of gods and men!"

  3. And when for a second and a third time the Blessed One repeated his words, the Venerable Ananda remained silent.

  4. Then the Blessed One said to the Venerable Ananda: "Go now, Ananda, and do as seems fit to you."

...

  1. "Then, Ananda, the fault is yours. Herein have you failed, inasmuch as you were unable to grasp the plain suggestion, the significant prompting given by the Tathagata, and you did not then entreat the Tathagata to remain. For if you had done so, Ananda, twice the Tathagata might have declined, but the third time he would have consented. Therefore, Ananda, the fault is yours; herein have you failed. - Maha-parinibbana Sutta, DN 16

If it wasn't for Ananda The Buddha would still be alive today on Earth!

  • FYI there's an opposing opinion here which suggests that the story of Pajpati is, itself, a later (and mysogynistic) addition. – ChrisW Apr 2 '16 at 15:33
  • I am not sure if that is accurate. What are the conflicting stories in the Vinaya? It is clear that first there were monks only, then nuns afterwards. I don't think it is misogynistic, how is it? – MischievousSage Apr 3 '16 at 18:44

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