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.

bhantekirti2019's picture

Women in Early Buddhism

While we cannot reconcile the statements of the Buddha on women, there is truth in it to some extents. We have seen examples of women who tried to damage the image of the Buddha especially in front of royal members, monastics and lay devotees. Cincimanawika and Sundari are two women who listened to other religious sects and tried to accuse the Buddha for the wrongdoings that he had never done. It is because of their "two-fingered wisdom", other religious sects were successful in encouraging them to do such unwholesome actions. Magandiya, a woman who thought she is the most beautiful in the town, was rejected by the Buddha when her father ask him to marry her. She couldn't accept his rejection and develop hatred towards the Buddha. Whenever he entered, she instigated people to insult the Buddha.

The usage of the words "guard against the wiles and guiles of woman" are not really discriminative because Buddha has gone beyond the discriminatory nature. We, as ordinary beings, take his words through our perception.

Women in early Buddhism

In the Therigatha, there are many painful yet inspiring poems relating to the women's struggles and how aspects of Dhamma paved the pathway to full liberation. Journey towards attainment is never easy and women those days have to take extra steps before they could walk on the pathway - from Mahapajapati's insistent requests to Buddha that eventually was given a green light with the help of Ananda that came with condition that the Bhikkhunis must abide by Eight Great condistions; for other nuns, it was mandatory for them to seek permission from their parents or husbands.

Theri Sumedha, in her very long poem detailed out her plead with parents and fiance to go forth and even threatened to fast to death before she gained the permission. Another example is Theri Dhamma whose husband refused to set her free. She was admitted to the Order only at old age after her husband died. Both became Enlightened Nuns.

In the Connected Discourses on Women: Avenika Sutta (SN 37.3), Buddha addressed that there are five kinds of sufferings unique to women not shared by men. Theri Kisa Gotami is a very popular example on how women who naturally tend to get more emotionally attached to their offspring managed to put sorrow to good use when her infant son died. The "exclusive" experience of the suffering was made a condition for them to let go and be freed from suffering after they comprehended the omnipresence of death.

Probably because of the distinguished struggles the women had to through in order to renounce and given the capacity of "intelligence can be held by two fingers", the women fought hard and turned their pain into powerful drive gearing towards "path leading to cessation of suffering". Thus, the accomplishments of Mahapajapti, Khema and the list goes on - they managed to brave through and sang their independence joy.


"There are five special (āvenika) woes which a woman has to undergo as distinct from a man:

at a tender age she goes to her husband's family,

leaving her relations;

she is subject to menses;

to pregnancy;

to labour at child-birth;

and she has to wait upon a man."

"intelligence can be held by two fingers"= the intelligence to cook rice, apparently, whose consistency was measured with two fingers


Alejandro Cardeinte's picture

Why did Buddha hesitated to allow women to join the Order?

I have read a portion of the book "WOMEN UNDER PRIMITIVE BUDDHISM" by IB. HORNER and it says there that "Gotama never hinted that woman had not the same chance as man or was in any way unfitted by her nature to attain nirvana. The Way of Salvation was not closed to women." I was just wondering why did Gotama hesitated to allow women to join the Order? Was it a strong cultural thing in India?


Why was the Buddha a bit reluctant in accepting women in the Sangha Communities? Could it be that the Buddha was trying to prioritize the safety of the women at that time? By joining the Sangha Communities, the bhikkhunis might need to travel for alms alone or in small team. Meditate alone or in small team. If it was alone, the Buddha might foresee some trouble the bhikkhunis might encounter on the way. It seems the best way to keep the women safe from harm was to put them under the protection of the men in their family, as it used to be.
I am sure there is an obvious reason other than what was stated in the Buddhist text. After all, the Buddha did mention (in Kālāma Sutta) that we should ask questions when we are in doubt, and to not simply believe anything that is said even though it has been said again and again.

buddha on women

In the KOSALA SAMYUTTA SUTTA, Gautama Buddha comforts King Pasenadi who was disappointed at the birth of a baby girl:

A woman child, o lord of men, may prove
Even a better offspring than a male.
For she may grow up wise and virtuous
Her husband’s mother reverencing, true wife.
The boy that she may bear do great deeds,
And rule great realms, yea, such a son
Of noble wife becomes his country’s guide

Buddha never had a negative opinion of women, apparently.


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.


Sergio Leon Candia's picture

I think the suggestion of

I think the suggestion of bias by later commentators or editors is very possible.
Texts are conditioned therefore subject to change.
Also in the book of eight of the anguttara we find the foremost female disciples. remarkable that there is only a female foremost meditator!

I think by the time of asoka, there was already a lot of corruption regarding the teachings. Hindu beliefs also might have influenced this. in the book of manu we can find many sexist statements.

best wishes

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.