Abstract: The Acceptance of Women in Early Buddhism

by Gisela Krey

My subject is the status of women / nuns in early Buddhism.
I would like to put forward some arguments in order to show that women followers and the order of nuns were not only accepted but even held in high esteem in early Buddhism.

My method is philological, based on texts of the Pâli Canon. For this purpose I shall first deal with some results of research recently published by Liz Williams in two articles on the foundation of the bikkhun.îsangha during the Buddha’s lifetime and on the Buddha’s prediction of the decline of the Dhamma 1 after the foundation of the order of nuns as mentioned in canonical texts. I shall refer to various Pâli texts (e.g. the Mahâparinibbâna Sutta, the Dakkhin.âvibhanga Sutta, the Therîgâthâ with Dhammapâla’s commentary etc.) which are not in agreement with the account of the foundation of the bhikkhun.îsangha that has come down to us in the Theravâda Vinaya (Cullavagga X). These sources seem to bear out a tradition of ordained women before the account of Mahâpajâpatî’s ordination and the subordination of the nuns to the order of monks. On the basis of the above sources different factors can be adduced to explain the decline or non-decline of the Dhamma without special reference to women.

Besides, some of Williams’ arguments can be enhanced by referring to further canonical passages. To support Williams’ findings, some reasons will be given based on recent research 2 as to why the account of the foundation of the nuns’ order should be dated later.

Finally  by quoting and analyzing additional  sources,  especially the Cûl.avedalla Sutta (MN 44), in which the bhikkhun.î Dhammadinnâ teaches the Dhamma to her former husband and is praised by the Buddha, I want to give an example of the high esteem in which women / nuns were actually held  in early Buddhism.

1. Whisper in the Silence: Nuns before Mahâpajâpati, in: Buddhist Studies Review 17,2 (2000), pp. 167-173 and Red Rust, Robbers and Rice Field: Women’s Part in the Precipitation of the Decline of the Dhamma, in: BSR 19,1 (2002), pp. 41-47.
2. I refer to Yuichi Kajiyama, Alan Sponberg and Ute Hüsken, who all argue for a relatively late date of the Pâli version of this story.