The buddha and the bhikkhuni order

this is a response to an old (closed) post i recently read by venerable @vimalanyani.

there was a part of her post that struck me with such sorrow:

When a woman takes bhikkhuni ordination, a part of her also feels that way. But there are so many doubts: How could the Buddha, an awakened being, treat women as second class, when he clearly stated that both men and women are equally capable of attaining awakening? Are these practices really the Buddha’s instruction, or are we doing something contrary to dhamma? And if this is contrary to dhamma, how can a serious practitioner participate in this in good conscience? How can a modern women, who enjoys equality in lay life, join a misogynistic order? How can she voluntarily subject herself to such treatment? Why create this much suffering for herself? Is she really doing the right thing?

Her mind is filled with questions and her joy is greatly dampened. There’s no inspiration to carry her dhamma practice forward. On the contrary, she is constantly torn between wanting to practice as the Buddha taught, and not wanting to be part of and enabling a discriminatory system. Rather than this being a path of freedom, it is a path of bondage for her. The day she ordains, she becomes an inferior human being.

it is saddening to me that a bhikkhuni should feel this way. i don’t believe the buddha intended this, and the below is an attempt to provide an alternate point of view that may hopefully ameliorate this dimming of the joy that bhikkhunis should enjoy, and are entitled to.

i don’t believe the buddha was by any means misogynistic. he was quite clear that the dhamma is for all humans and devas, male and female alike. he taught the dhamma to men and women. there was no restriction on the attainment of enlightenment by men or women.

he was explicit in stating that women can be the equal of men. when king pasenadi was upset that he had had a daughter instead of a son he reportedly told him: “some women are better than men” according to their wisdom and virtue (SN: 3.16), and we likely all personally know of women like this who outshine every man and woman in their vicinity on this account. indeed, if the buddha’s teaching that we are endlessly reborn in all states, then he himself would have been born as a woman many times in previous lifetimes, prior to becoming a bodhisattva.

the buddha encouraged both men and women to go beyond their characteristics of sex (AN: 7:48), and i believe that it’s this infatuation for male or female characteristics that make us be born as one or the other (though i can’t recall the sutta reference for this).

at the time of the creation of the bhikkhuni order, we know that women were practicing in their family homes and i believe they were attaining enlightenment as well (i recall an account where a female layperson attains enlightenment, and realises through her attained psychic powers, that the male monastics that are spending the vassa in her village are not enlightened, and further are lacking some nutrients , so she cooks them some food, and they attain enlightenment as a result of her efforts - i think this is the story on one of the nuns in the therigatha but i could be wrong …).

if we take this as the backdrop of the garudhammas, then we must start from the position that the buddha was not being misogynistic in this regard, and consider alternative explanations.

the first clear consideration the buddha had in creating the bhikkhuni order was the safety of the nuns. we know from the suttas that female ascetics were subject to all kinds of abuses from males, and after the creation of the order, the buddha’s bhikkhuni’s were no exception to that (for example, subha in KN: Thig 4, and i believe some other nuns were raped). thus, we can surmise that at least some of the garudhammas were instituted for the safety and wellbeing of nuns.

the others are not so easy to explain away, but i believe there is an explanation.

the first relevant consideration is the purpose of the monastic order. the purpose of the monastic order certainly wasn’t intrinsically to practice to attain enlightenment - the buddha is explicit about stating that male and female laypeople should take the foremost male and female lay practitioners as their role models, and not the foremost monastic disciples as their example (SN: 17.23 and 17.24). in any case, once stream entry is obtained, much of the urgency for practice can evaporate, as the guarantee of eventual enlightenment is there in the background.

so if it wasn’t intrinsically for the practice to attain enlightenment, what is the purpose of the monastic order?

i believe it was (and is) the preservation of the dhamma (through learning and practice). this was a project that was determined from the early presence of ananda as the guardian of the dhamma with his eidetic memory, able to pass the dhamma on for recitation to his fellow monastics immediately following the buddha’s death.

how is this relevant to the garudhammas? well, the first thing that seems clear is that the buddha did not intend to create two independent orders. rather, he seems to have initially intended a single order with men and women within in.

it’s of note that the male monastic order has precedence rules of hierarchy that are based explicitly on the order of ordination. thus, the buddha’s barber, being ordained immediately prior to the buddha’s princely cousins, ensured that the ruling princes would thereafter have to pay respect to their (lower caste) elder.

if we see the garudhammas in this light, then they may not necessarily be about the female-ness of the ordinees, but simply about the sequence in which their orders were created. if this were the case, then it would have been a similar set of secondary rules for any other group (be they white males from king milinda’s greece, or space aliens). that is, the garudhammas may not (all) be about the gendered characteristics of their group, but about the temporal sequence of ordination.

why would the buddha do such a thing?

i trained as a project manager, and i remember that there was some statistic that said that when one adds new members to a team after the project is up and running, the project actually loses momentum, not gains. much of this is because of the time and resources required to upskill the new team members, and the increased management overhead created - anyone who’s ever managed staff knows the truth of this. it’s possible that this is what the buddha was referring to when he reportedly said that the creation of the bhikkhuni order would result in the earlier disappearance of the dhamma. again, it’s not due to the gendered characteristics of the group members, but simply the natural result of bringing on a whole new team to an already running project.

one other possible insight from project management regarding the garudhammas. apparently the research suggests that when one brings in a whole new team to a project, the best way to do so is to make the new team completely subservient to the old team - no matter how much better the new team members may be, or how poorly the old team is performing. to do otherwise is to invite chaos. we know the buddha was the master in his understanding of human relationships, and there’s evidence (noted above) that he understood the importance of seniority in setting up the male monastic order. considering the above, i find it more compelling that this notion of seniority was underlying the buddha’s approach and thinking, rather than any concern about the intrinsic gender of the individuals.

in this sense, the position of the bhikkhunis today is not dissimilar to the buddha’s own princely sakyan cousins who ordained after upali.

i hope this provides an alternative view to any misogynistic interpretation of the buddha’s actions and words.

you who have ordained, male and female, have undertaken the most noble of activities, and you have every right to take pride in that (as far as the buddha’s words will support - “eating the country’s almsfood in vain” and all that …). in contributing to this project of the preservation of the dhamma, you are doing something that we can really only support you in, but you have our support, and our gratitude. be proud of what you have undertaken, and please do so knowing that the buddha would want you to become more than just a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni. he would want and expect you to become part of the ariya sangha.

the corollary of the above means that the buddha intended for male monastics to take care of and protect female monastics.

that, to me, seems clear from some of the garudhammas, and the implication is that if bhikkhunis do not feel taken care of and protected, then bhikkhus are not doing what the buddha expected of them. i believe the buddha says somewhere for bhikkhus to treat their fellow monastics as their family. nuns are your sisters, mothers, and daughters, just as for nuns, monks are their brothers, fathers, and sons.

on the above arguments then, just as out here in layperson-land, misogyny has no place within the monastic order either - this wasn’t the buddha’s intention in the garudhammas. if older monks have developed an incorrect view of entrenched sexism, then perhaps (hopefully) that will change as newer younger monks (such as those whose comments i read here) take more senior positions, and as those older monks are provided with education on alternate views. i hope the above is helpful in offering a different perspective.

Soṇa, when any ascetics and brahmins, on the basis of form—which is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change—regard themselves thus: ‘I am superior,’ or ‘I am equal,’ or ‘I am inferior,’ what is that due to apart from not seeing things as they really are?

Soṇa, when any ascetics and brahmins do not, on the basis of form—which is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change—regard themselves thus: ‘I am superior,’ or ‘I am equal,’ or ‘I am inferior,’ what is that due to apart from seeing things as they really are?

Therefore, Soṇa, any kind of form whatsoever, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, all form should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’

SN: 22.49

my apologies for any offence in the above or any ignorance on my part on any issues associated with the above.

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In the past, even the most kind hearted threads on Bhikkhuni Ordination have derailed. To try to prevent this, I put the thread on slow mode and offer the following reminder from the FAQ:


Thank you - I’m happy of no one replies but my hope is that any Bhikkhuni who reads the above can definitively put out of their mind any thought that the Buddha may have had any lesser thought to their order or ordination. Rather, it’s the same principles of priority that exist within the male monastic order at an individual level, just bigger at the organisational level.

In my opinion, anyone who doubts the value of Bhikkhunis has failed to grasp the essence of what the Buddha taught.

Ven. Ananda advised the Buddha to establish a Bhikkhuni order. For women this was a very good advice. Nevertheless, Ananda considered “women are foolish”:

“Be indulgent, Venerable Kassapa! Women are foolish” (Khamatha bhante Kassapa. Bālo mātugāmo). SN 16.10 (= SA 1143, ASA 118).

However, the Chinese versions (SA 1143, ASA 118) do not record the same. The two Chinese versions have Ananda describing just the woman in question as foolish, while the Pali version (SN 16.10) has him responding to Ven. kassapa with “women are foolish”.

See pp. 303-4, “A comparison of the Pali and Chinese versions of the Kassapa Samyutta, a collection of early Buddhist discourses on the Venerable Kasyapa”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 27, issue 2 (2017), pp. 295-311. By Choong Mun-keat.

I like to support the Chinese versions.

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I think you may be incorrect in your interpretation of this phrase attributed to Ananda:

Bālo mātugāmo SN 16.10

Whilst Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation is:

Women are foolish.

Bhikkhu Sujato’s is:

The woman’s a fool.

I believe Bhikkhu Sujato’s is correct as, as far as my limited Pali goes, balo is a masculine singular noun rather than a feminine plural adjective. If you have read the referring sutta, you must realise that this phrase reflects back on the single individual nun Thullatissā who abused the arahant Kassapa. In other words, the Pali is clear and correct, but I suspect (with all respect) that Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation isn’t.

It’s certainly not that Ananda thought women are foolish.

In any case, such a thing was never said by the Buddha, which was the focus of my post.

Further, if the count of times that the word ‘fool’ is applied by the Buddha to either men or women is the criteria, to my knowledge, men are clearly the more foolish. Various male monastics and laypeople are repeatedly referred to a fools or foolish by the Buddha throughout the suttas.

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Could you give the sources of the suttas? Thanks.

The epithet of fool or foolish is the Buddha’s preferred way of rebuking someone who has committed a wrong act. It’s pretty much right through the monk’s rules:

Why is there a need to compare?


If you look at the Sutta or Vinaya, Buddha only said to one who has entered the order/Sangha or one who take refuge, but misrepresented his teaching.

Rarely, he said the words (foolish) to outsider who doesn’t have any interest in his teaching. In fact, he will not say something in conflict with the world. Buddha and other ariya(s) will live in harmony with the world, because of perfected precepts.

If you look at the words that are translated, actually these words can also be translated as:

  • moghapurisa = Mogha (moha) + Purisa = a person who don’t understand (i.e. empty of knowledge about teaching or ignorant person) → most vinaya
  • bala = a young/ child (a person who is still learning, may not understood yet) → SN 47.8

But I guess to simplify in english, most translator just said as a Foolish, which can be too strong for an outsider to chew nowadays. :slight_smile:

But try to understand from a teacher perspective, when someone that has entered the order/sangha. But he/she do something that misrepresent the teaching. How would the teacher (Buddha) feel about the incident? Would he be grumpy and concern? Would he be not concern how other who might be on fences to get in or look at him as a the best teacher?

As Buddha is called:


Unsurpassable trainer of personality
Teacher of Gods and Humans

full context of that quote is here:

Further, if the count of times that the word ‘fool’ is applied by the Buddha to either men or women is the criteria, to my knowledge, men are clearly the more foolish. Various male monastics and laypeople are repeatedly referred to a fools or foolish by the Buddha throughout the suttas.

no need to compare at all, but the poster seems to have been under the misapprehension that the message of the suttas is “women are foolish”. while that’s undoubtedly true for some beings who are currently female, it’s also true for other beings who are currently male, and it will undoubtedly change.

this modern infatuation with gender is not what the buddha advocated.

i am male. unless i attain stream entry, it’s certain that i will be female in some future life. i am female. without enlightenment, it’s certain i will be male soon enough.

those who were male before are now female, those who are male now will be female in the future. it’s bizarre that we attach so much to an identity that is so fleeting.

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See note 43: Cf. Bodhi (2000), p. 802, note 289:

Khamatha bhante Kassapa bālo mātugāmo. I have translated this sentence with complete fidelity to the text, aware that some readers might find the rendering provocative. One consultant told me, “You’ve just lost half your readership”, and suggested bālo mātugāmo as “she is a foolish woman.” To my mind, this would distort the meaning of the Pāli in subservience to current views of gender. I do not see how the sentence could be construed in any other way than I have rendered it. I leave it to the reader to decide whether Ānanda himself could actually have made such a statement or whether it was put into his mouth by the compilers of the canon”.


I am no Pali expert. You may be correct on the translation.

However, the omission / addition of the definite article (‘the’) makes a huge difference even to your translation:

‘Women are foolish’

is very different to

‘The women are foolish’

Committing yourself to the former is likely to lose you friends, but, more importantly, is out of keeping with the context of the sutta. That translation unfairly suggests that Ananda thought less of women as a group. That’s clearly not the case from his story - he was well respected by the female followers of the Buddha because he was an advocate for them.

The sutta you’ve referred to here is in the context of an insult by the nun Thullananda to the arahant Maha Kassapa - I believe that Thullananda was so devoted to Ananda that she spoke against Kassapa. The context for either translation then, is that the phrase refers to either both nuns involved in the incident (Bodhi translation) or the single nun Thullananda (Sujato translation).

But an interpretation of ‘All women are foolish’ is a corruption of the suttas words and context, and I think, unfairly maligns Ananda.

I strongly suggest that the interpretation of ‘(All) women are foolish’ is incorrect. At this time, I believe Ananda was now an arahant, and the Buddha had passed away. It would be very very very unlike Ananda to say something that the Buddha had not (and there is no record of the Buddha ever having said such a thing in the suttas Ananda recorded).

I hope this helps. Best wishes to you.

I agree with the consultant’s suggestion and find Bhikkhu Bodhi’s statement a surprising admission. It seems that despite translating the whole of the Samyutta and Anguttara Nikāyas, the venerable has failed to notice the difference in patterns of usage between mātugāma and itthī.

In brief:

  1. Both mātugāma and itthi are used to denote either particular women or women in general.

  2. When they denote particular women, there is no discernible difference between them.

  3. When they denote women in general, mātugāma is used when the speakers are indicating distinctions within the class, and itthi when they are making categorical statements about the whole of the class. For example, in statements that women who behave in such and such ways make good wives or women with such and such qualities will go to heaven, while those with the contrary qualities will go to hell, mātugāma is consistently the term used. On the other hand, generalisations about women’s minds being obsessed with the sight, sound, smell, etc., of men, or women being like black snakes or having “mere two-fingered wisdom”, are consistently expressed with itthī or itthiyo.

For Ānanda’s statement to mean what Bhikkhu Bodhi takes it to mean, we should expect it to read bālā itthiyo, not bālo mātugāmo.


Are both terms (itthiyo, mātugāmo) referring to singular (woman, one female individual) or plural (women)?

In the case of itthī, the form itthī can be both nominative singular and plural, while the form itthiyo is unambiguously plural. Both forms are to be found in the texts.

In the case of mātugāma, we meet with both the singular mātugāmo and the plural mātugāmā. However, though mātugāmo has a singular inflection, sometimes it conveys a plural meaning, as in such English expressions as “womenfolk” or “womankind”. I would guess that this is the reason for Bhikkhu Bodhi translating in the way he has, even though it’s at odds with the usual pattern of usage of this term, i e., its non-use for making generalisations about the entire class.

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So, one should not expect it to read bālā itthiyo , not bālo mātugāmo.

So, the reading can be “womenfolk/womankind” for making generalisations about the entire class.

We should expect it to read bālā itthiyo or bālā itthī if it is to carry the meaning found in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation.

No. In those cases where mātugāmo (and other singular forms) are used in the sense of “womenfolk”, the word is usually the object of the sentence, not the subject, and nothing in particular is being predicated of women’s character. For example:

Kathaṃ mayaṃ, bhante, mātugāme paṭipajjāmā ti?

“How, bhante, are we to behave with regard to womenfolk?”

we’re fortunate to have the dhamma as a backdrop to the suttas, that we can use to discern the correct interpretation when we are ever uncertain.

for example:

ananda was at the very least a stream enterer at this point.

if we accept the buddha’s words on stream entry, then we must accept that he did not lie.

we know that the statement “all women are foolish” is false.

hence, we know that that translation is incorrect.

Just imagine a scenario:

Instead of having said “Foolish are women”, Ven. Ananda said: “Protective nature are of women” to bring up sympathy for the nun.

Would that scenario makes normal unenlightened persons like us happy now and end the debate on the translation which angers half the readership?


(Tiny footnote: However, in the eye of the awakened, protective maybe very well just another name for ignorance or foolishness)

i don’t think this changes anything.

if we accept that stream enterers abide by right speech, then stating “all women are x” or “all men are y” would not be something such beings would say unless it was not technically a lie.

in this case, “all women are of a protective nature” is a false speech - clearly not all women are protective, just as they are not all foolish, just as all men are not protective or foolish either.

i can’t see a noble being speaking such foolishness, especially one who has spent a lifetime associating with the buddha.