Women in early Buddhism

How do we reconcile statements like the Buddha's advice to Ananda to "guard against the wiles and guiles of woman, that being 'whose intelligence can be held by two fingers and for whom falsehood is like the truth, and truth is like falsehood.'"(Digha, 11, p. 141.), with the accomplishments of and high regard for women like Pajapati, Dhammadinna, Mallika, Khema, Yashodhara and so on?

Horner, in Women Under Primitive Buddhism, suggests the intrusion of the bias of the early codifiers and commentators.

Also, what are we to make of the eight weighty rules?
Was this a compromise reflecting the particular weakness of the male members of the sangha in that they might revolt if women were given equal status?
How does this align with the belief that so many of these were Arahants?

Is this again the intrusion of the bias of the early codifiers and commentators?

Clearly women were better off under Buddhism than traditional Brahmanism and it may not be appropriate to judge from today's perspective.
But these kinds of comments and restrictions do not seem very enlightened, free from attachment, aversion and ignorance, free from the false view of self, so it is difficult for me to put them in the mouth of the Buddha.

Woman in Early Buddhism

I would like to share a very good book I recently read.

Women under primitive Buddhism : laywomen and almswomen by IB Horner.

This is one of the best books to answer your question. A link for a softcopy is also available.


Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture


I referred to this IB Horner text in my recent paper on Women in Buddhism.
The book is available from our library here if you don't have a scribd account.

If you've not seen, there is also a talk she gave shared on Access to Insight link here.

If you've not read Sallie Tisdale's Women of the Way (available from Amazon here in the states), I highly recommend it as well.

It reflects her perspective as a modern Zen practitioner and is full of thought-provoking perspective as well as a survey of great women from the history of Buddhism.


Christopher Anthony Leibow's picture


I appreciate the way that Alan Sponberg looks at the issue in Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism as a tension between doctrine and cultural norms. He also makes an interesting point that the story of the founding of the Bhikkuni is probably less a historical account than it is a mythological account as to explain to the wider society why there was an order of nuns at all.

It is also interesting to note during the life of the Buddha there were many notable women with important contributions to the dhamma with a more equitable position. After the death of the Buddha and with the move to a more institutionalized monastic order, issues of authority became more an issue. Women could possibly threaten the integrity of the order, especially as the monasteries became more socially accepted The presence of nuns with even implied authority over men could have threatened at least the growing acceptance of the order.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī


You may want to take a look at this parallel yet contrasting story from the Therī-apadāna.
Here Gotami has asked the Buddha's permission to enter into nirvana. He asks her to first demonstrate her powers to remove all doubts from those belittling the capabilities of women.

Gotamī bowed to the lord then leaped into the sky. Permitted by the
Buddha, she displayed her special powers. She was alone, then she
was cloned; cloned, then alone. She would appear, then disappear; she
walked through walls and through the sky. She went about unstuck
on earth and also sank down in it; she walked on water as on land,
without breaking the surface. Cross-legged, she flew like a bird across
the surface of the sky.

Download the full article by Rachelle Scott here.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture


Christopher - thanks.

I found a link to a PDF of the paper you referenced here.

I did my paper for History of Indian Buddhism on women in early Buddhism, so this will be interesting to review.

I got started on this path with Sallie Tisdale's Women of the Way, which is more modern and Zen leaning in its focus (which aligns with her practice), but provided some references to the early discourses and the origins of the Bhikkhuni Order that I found so compelling, I had to dig in further.

With regard to the historicity of the account of the acceptance of women into the sangha, I tend to take issue with any story that suggests that a fully self-awakened being would have cause to hesitate in any decision. The perfection, Right View and the Realization of Paticca-samuppada would seem to disallow that from being a possibility.

I also found interesting in one of the texts I was reading that there was a full blown women's order among the Jaina community at the time of the Buddha, so against that contemporary example, the existence of the Bhikkhuni Order at that time is easy to accept, though I can imagine it may have been more difficult to justify later, as it sounds like Sponberg suggests.

commonplace dilemma in religion

Professor of Buddhist and comparative philosophy, Loy also analyzes the Theravada Buddhist Pali canon. Unwelcome stances -such as the status of women or conservatism- are considered as interpolations and perversions of the Buddha's thought on the part of scribes with vested interests, for the Buddha was a true revolutionary1. Some even dispense with the notion of karma altogether.
Of course, the Pali -or Christian, Sikh, Confucian...- canon might be but a patchwork of loosely interconnected traditions claiming what they all state to be direct, but which is in all cases a rough one, filiation from a supreme sage that sources claim died at some point between the III and XI century BCE. This loose agglomeration of oral traditions was then put in writing and subjected to scribal interpolations, and various rows of authentication. At this point, what could be considered 'true'? What resonates best with who's telling the story, of course.

Stephen Batchelor, a former Buddhist monk who wishes to do away with the doctrines of rebirth and karma in favor of vanilla prescriptions to “live the good life now”: the socially binding and spiritually uplifting -yet empty- rituals of Confucianism; or the rituals that positive psychologists urge one to engage in so that one may feel more adjusted.

In Buddhism, also, there is the question whether women can reach the supreme illumination as such. Some traditions seem to deny it, requiring a masculine form, while other schools affirm gender is not important1. So does Jesus in the Gospel Of Thomas:
Simon Peter said to Him, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life." Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven." (The Gospel Of Thomas2 no date: n.114).
Then the bhikkhuni Soma, having understood, "This is Mara the Evil One," replied to him in verses:"What does womanhood matter at all When the mind is concentrated well, When knowledge flows on steadily As one sees correctly into Dhamma. One to whom it might occur, 'I'm a woman' or 'I'm a man' Or 'I'm anything at all' – Is fit for Mara to address."Then Mara the Evil One, realizing, "The bhikkhuni Soma knows me," sad and disappointed, disappeared right there. (Buddhist Soma Sutta3).
The Christian martyr Perpetua of Carthage recounts a dream, in which -prior to her sacrifice (203 CE)- she was stripped naked, and had thus become a man. Mythical medieval female Saint Wilgefortis4 in order to preserve her virginity ends up as the androgynous figure of a bearded woman subjected to crucifixion.

Contention arises in Christian doctrine about the fact some accounts seem to indicate women mourned/worshiped Jesus' dead body first, and first saw him after his resurrection. At the first Buddhist council1, Ananda (the Buddha's closest disciple) was reproached for having allowed women to worship first Gautama Buddha's dead body.