Thanks so much, Ayya Vimalañāṇī, for your essay. It is so important to hear the voices of those with a different perspective. If it weren’t for this sort of essay, I would be in the dark about what it is like to be a bhikkhunī. We all need education.
I take your point that the “circles that place a lot of emphasis on the early texts” can sometimes be unreasonably conservative and oppressive, thereby perpetuating gender discrimination. It seems to me that the emphasis on early texts is often too rigid, even bordering on fundamentalism. What we need instead, it seems to me, is a reasonable conservatism that sticks to the word of the Buddha, while recognising that parts of the Canon are later additions. One could perhaps argue that the conservatives are not conservative enough: instead of sticking to the word of the Buddha, they hold on to all sorts texts that were never spoken by the Master. Open-minded inquiry will uncover, as it already does, that even the earliest texts, especially the Vinaya Piṭaka, are chronologically layered documents. It is by trying to pry apart these various strata that I think a solution to gender discrimination may eventually be found. Let me give an example.
Together with many others, I have long concluded that the garudhammas and other minor rules in the Vibhaṅga are not binding on monastics. This is clear from at least two perspectives. First, most of these rules were laid down after the time of the Buddha, as can be seen from comparative studies. Second, these rules were never meant to be adhered to as absolutes, as can be gathered from the formulation of the sekhiya rules, which are offences only if breached out of disrespect. If one has reasonable grounds not to keep these rules, there is no offence.
But I think we can go much further than this. Many of the rules that are the most discriminatory against the bhikkhunīs are found in the pācittiya section (“rules entailing confession”) of the Bhikkhunī-vibhaṅga. Here are some instances of such rules:
- If a nun abuses or reviles a monk, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 52: on the face of it this rule is not unreasonable, except that there is no equivalent rule for the monks.)
- If a nun spends the rainy-season residence in a monastery without monks, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 56)
- If a nun who has completed the rainy-season residence does not invite correction from both Sanghas in regard to three things—what has been seen, what has been heard, and what has been suspected—she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 57)
- If a nun does not go to the instruction or take part in a formal meeting of the community, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 58)
- Every half-month a nun should seek two things from the Sangha of monks: asking it about the observance day and going to it for the instruction. If she goes beyond a half-month, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 59)
- If a nun gives the full admission to a trainee nun who has not been given permission by her parents or her husband, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 80)
- If a nun gives full admission every year, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 82)
- If a nun gives the full admission to two women in one year, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 83)
- If a nun sits down on a seat in front of a monk without asking permission, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 94: again, this rule is not entirely unreasonable, but once again there is no equivalent rule for the monks.)
- If a nun asks a question of a monk who has not given permission, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 95: ditto.)
What can we do about this? My rather radical suggestion would be to disregard the pācittiya rules that apply specifically to the bhikkhunīs.
In truth, this is not as radical as it may seem. The Buddha gave one injunction and one allowance that specifically speak to this. Both are found in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (DN16):
As long as the mendicants don’t make new decrees or abolish existing decrees, but undertake and follow the training rules as they have been decreed, they can expect growth, not decline.
If it wishes, after my passing the Saṅgha may abolish the lesser and minor training rules.
The first of these makes it clear that laying down new rules tends to be detrimental to the Dhamma. We should try to distinguish between rules laid down by the Buddha and those laid down by others, creating a solid basis for deciding which parts of the Vinaya are authentic. It is well known that the pācittiya rules for bhikkhunīs (some of which are quoted above) vary considerably from school to school, suggesting that many of them, perhaps most, where laid down in the sectarian period. This in turn suggests that keeping these rules may be detrimental to the well-being of Buddhism, and they should, as is implied by the Buddha’s injunction above, be disregarded.
The second of these, the allowance, seems to contradict the first one, for how can one not “abolish existing decrees” and at the same time be allowed to “abolish the lesser and minor training rules”. It is certainly true that the first of the above is the predominant sentiment in the suttas. The attitude expressed in the second quote is pretty much exclusive to DN16. Yet I think it would be wrong to regard the second one as somehow inauthentic. It is precisely because it is so unexpected, and because it goes against the normal view of the suttas, that the second quote actually carries a lot of weight. This is in accordance with the text-critical principle of lectio difficilior potior, that is, that the more unusual reading is to be preferred. In other words, if a reading has withstood the harmonising forces that tend to affect such ancient texts, then it is likely to be authentic.
Still, we need to explain how such apparently opposing ideas could have come from one and the same person. In fact, I do not think we should be very surprised by this. Life is messy and what is appropriate to say on one occasion may contradict what is appropriate on another. To reconcile these ideas all we have to do is to regard the allowance given in the second quote as forming part of the decrees mentioned in the first quote. That is, we should practice what the Buddha has laid down, without changing it, unless he has said we may change it. No-one apart from the Buddha has the authority to say such a thing.
If we grant that this allowance is real, we need to decide what are “the lesser and minor training rules”. This may seem like an impossible task, since even the participants of the first joint recitation (saṅgīti) supposedly where unable to decide on this. The reality, however, is that we have solid pointers to decide. The monastic rules are divided between heavy and light rules (garukāpatti and lahukāpatti), with the lesser and minor rules clearly belonging to the latter. Moreover, the phrase ending the section on pācittiya rules in the Bhikkhu-vibhaṅga is khuddakaṃ niṭṭhitaṃ, “the minor section is finished”. The equivalent in the Bhikkhunī-vibhaṅga is khuddakaṃ samattaṃ, which essentially means the same thing. The idea that the monks at the first saṅgīti were unable to decide on what were the minor rules may be a rhetorical devise used to justify keeping all the rules. It seems doubtful to me that this reflects an actual historical situation.
Putting these two arguments together - that there should be no rules other than those from the Buddha, and that minor rules may be abolished - we can make a strong case that the pācittiya rules of the bhikkhunīs should not be allowed to stand, at least not in their present form. The question is how they should be reformed. Without presuming that I have all the answers, I would like to make a few suggestions with the hope of stimulating a creative discussion. Here are a few options, as I see it:
- The rules that the bhikkhunīs do not share with the monks are inoperative, except the pārājikas and saṅghādisesas.
- The rules that the bhikkhunīs do not share with the monks are inoperative, except the pārājikas, the saṅghādisesas, and those rules that are shared among most early schools of Buddhism.
- The rules that the bhikkhunīs do not share with the monks are inoperative, except the pārājikas, the saṅghādisesas, and those rules that concern morality as defined in the commentaries. (The commentary makes the distinction between rules that are loka-vajja and paṇṇatti-vajja, “faults of morality” and “faults by convention”.)
Personally I like option 1. It is clean break with a discriminatory tradition, yet reasonable.
Of course, even this quite radical proposal would probably not be enough to create a level playing field between the bhikkhus and the bhikkhunīs. Still, it would be a significant step in the right direction.