What did the Buddha say to the bhikṣuṇīs?

(No, that title is not the beginning of a joke.)

But apparently “not very much,” or at least not singling them out as such. Today I was adding some terms and phrases to my translation program, and I added one for, “The Bhagavān said to to the bhikṣus” (世尊告諸比丘).

Then I thought that I should be careful, because bhikṣuṇī 比丘尼 is just one more character than bhikṣu 比丘 in Chinese, which introduces the possibility of it translating the equivalent phrase for bhikṣuṇīs incorrectly! This all is just a theoretical concern, though, unless that phrase actually exists for bhikṣuṇīs. I checked how many times it appears in CBETA… Zero!

So I searched for a few other phrases, and calculated how many lines contain them in the CBETA canon. Keep in mind there are possibly other forms, but these are some of the ones that would be the most common, I think.

The Buddha said to the bhikṣus…
佛告諸比丘 = 1658
佛告諸苾芻 = 385

The Bhagavān said to the bhikṣus…
世尊告諸比丘 = 1432
世尊告諸苾芻 = 81

The Buddha said to the bhikṣuṇīs…
佛告諸比丘尼 = 8
佛告諸苾芻尼 = 11

The Bhagavān said to the bhikṣuṇīs…
世尊告諸比丘尼 = 0
世尊告諸苾芻尼 = 0

Mind you, this is searching the CBETA standard canon that includes all the āgamas, sūtras, vinayas, abhidharmas, treatises, commentaries, etc. Now specifically for the āgamas:

  1. SA (T 99): Only three sūtras address the bhikṣuṇīs with this phrase “said to the bhikṣuṇīs” (告諸比丘尼). In SA 276, Nanda (難陀) addresses them several times. In SA 615, Ānanda (阿難) addresses them once. In SA 556, the Buddha (佛) addresses them once. Altogether, only three of the 1300+ discourses have anything “said to the bhikṣuṇīs.”
  2. SA (T 100): nothing “said to the bhikṣuṇīs” (告諸比丘尼).
  3. MA (T 26): nothing “said to the bhikṣuṇīs” (告諸比丘尼).
  4. DA (T 1): nothing “said to the bhikṣuṇīs” (告諸比丘尼).
  5. EA (T 125): one thing “said to the bhikṣuṇīs” (告諸比丘尼), and only by Mahāprajāpatī (大愛道), another bhikṣuṇī. Notably, though, she circumambulates the Buddha and Ānanda, first paying her respects before she addresses the bhikṣuṇī assembly. This occurs in EA 52.1, in the Mahāprajāpatī Parinirvāṇa (大愛道般涅槃) section of the EA.

Pretty strange results here. A few possibilities I will throw out:

  1. Maybe the stock phrases are used in different ways for the genders. That is to say, maybe “bhikṣu” was a somewhat gender-neutral term. I think there has already been some discussion about this.
  2. Maybe the bhikṣuṇīs were in some way not viewed as being originally part of the Buddhist community during the time of the Buddha, and were only marginally accepted within the canon as a result.
  3. Maybe there was simply a traditional prejudice against them, and so in the texts only a few bhikṣus address them, or they are addressed by other bhikṣuṇīs. Indian Buddhist texts sometimes show prejudice towards women, which probably just reflects their status in an ancient patriarchal society.

Others more familiar with the EBT’s will no doubt be able to provide more insight.


Hmmm… I’m wondering what the Buddha say to the bhiksuni in SA 556, because as far as I know, in the Pali canon there is no single discourse directly spoken by the Buddha to the bhikkhunis…

The Buddha said to the bhikṣuṇīs, “Okay, okay, I’ll talk to you. But just this once…”

Seriously, though, it appears to just be a fairly normal discourse on the 無相心三昧, which I think is the animitta-ceto-samādhi. The bhikṣuṇīs first talk to the Buddha about it, and then talk to Ānanda about it.

I didn’t realize there was such a sharp divide in representation within the canon…

1 Like

In Chinese it is not uncommon to use only the male gender when addressing an audience of both male and female.

Thank you for your information, I can’t read Chinese although I’m from Chinese background family :slight_smile:

Yes, I think Pali canon are more discriminating to women than Chinese canon. There are several discourses in Chinese canon which the Buddha said “Monks and nuns…” instead of “Monks…” (eg. MA 98 [parallel of Satipatthana Sutta] and MA 69 [no Pali parallel]), but there is no such discourse found in Pali Canon. Cmiiw…

I think it is probably a combination of factors. Certainly your point (1) is correct. There are clear examples in the Pali canon of the Buddha speaking to a group, but addressing only the most senior person. For example, in MN 31 the Buddha is speaking to the three monks Anuruddha, Nandiya, and Kimbila, but he is addressing them using the plural form of Anuruddha, Anuruddhā. If this was standard practice, it seems likely he would address only the bhikkhus, even if the audience was mixed, perhaps including bhikkhunīs and lay people.

I also think it is likely the Buddha would have given more discourses to the bhikkhus, since the Bhikkhu-sangha was established first, and presumably was larger. It is quite possible that the Buddha did not very often address the Bhikkhunī-sangha on its own.

Lastly, I am sure prejudice against women may have played a role in how the suttas were edited. As pointed out by Seniya, the Chinese version of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is addressed to both monks and nuns, whereas the Pali version is only addressed to the monks. There may be many reason for this difference, but it is quite possible that the Pali version has been “normalised” by editors.


At the bhikkhuni Congress in, umm, when was it? 2008? Anyway, Oskar von Hinuber’s paper pointed this out, although he dealt solely with the Pali texts. If I recall, Analayo had a response to it somewhere.

But anyway, these are remarkable figures, and certainly worth reflecting on.

That could be Theories on the Foundation of the Nuns’ Order – A Critical Evaluation:

I checked both of them out just now and I believe you’re right.

On another note, please forgive if this is stupidly obvious/outrageously wrong.

Is the potential editing out of Buddha’s interaction with nuns (if that is indeed what happened) possibly an attempt to make him ‘look better’ in the eyes of the redactors? I have recollections of biographies of monks who were lauded for ‘never having spoken a word of Dhamma to a woman in their lives’ and maybe this is an extrapolation of the ‘six vaacaa’ rule? Is this the kind of thing that could happen in the editing?

(Edit) also, what do we know about those who first wrote down the Pali Canon? Was it entirely bhikkhus writing from their oral tradition, did bhikkhunis chip in the parts relevant to them, say the Therigatha or Bhikkhunivibhanga, or we just don’t know? Just curious.


Yes, this is the infamous Ven. Bakkula of the eponymous sutta, MN 124. Ven. Analayo has written about this too, see here and here. (It is astonishing how much the good Ven. Analayo has contributed to early Buddhist studies!:slight_smile:) I don’t think this has anything to do with the monks’ rule on speaking to women (bhikkhu pācittiya 7), since speaking to a woman is perfectly fine if another man is present. This has more to do with some sort of excessive ascetic ideal, and perhaps misogyny.

I doubt bhikkhunīs would have been involved. The precedent from the first communal recitation (the first council) is that this was done by the bhikkhus. But remember that the redaction of the suttas did not start when they were written down. The main redaction would have happened long before then, when the suttas were being optimised for oral transmission. Once the suttas had been written down, it seems likely that the editing was much reduced.


Thank you!!! :anjal:

Surely the bhikkhunis must have been involved, even if not directly at the councils. The monks must have learned this material from somewhere: where else?

The suttas regularly say that the recitation and preservation of texts is the province of all 4 assemblies. As I showed with the bhikkhuni patimokkha, this is very likely to have been an authentic text that was passed down by the bhikkhunis outside the official councils. Further, the background story for the Itivuttaka explicitly says that the monks learned texts from lay women. And in the later inscriptions, the bhikkhunis are mentioned as being learned in the texts about as often as bhikkhus are.

So canon, commentaries, archaeology, and inferred evidence all suggest that the bhikkhunis were involved in the transmission to some degree.

The only exception to this, really, is the accounts of the councils themselves. Since they are explicitly framed as Vinaya procedures, obviously the nuns are not present. But of course, the accounts of the councils represent just one take on events. I don’t have any problem with the idea that they are based on real events, but we know that many of the details are late. And no matter what happened at the councils, they leave much that is untold, including the extent to which transmission happened outside the councils, including in the bhikkhuni communities. The councils present the idea that the texts are unified, whereas the reality is that the texts have both similarities and differences—including the accounts of the councils themselves. So clearly there was much about the transmission that cannot be ascribed to the councils, which of course is just common sense.

This is an absolutely normal, if not universal, aspect of history. Whether by accident or design, women are left out. The fact of such bias means that we should take any mentions of the involvement of women seriously and not dismiss it. What mentions there are are likely to be small remnants of a much greater contribution.

I think our own Mahasangiti text is a good example of this. Everyone knows that the Sixth Council was presided over by Mahasi Sayadaw, with hundreds of monks in attendance. But the editing and preparation of the Mahasangiti was headed by a mae chi. No-one knows her, I don’t even know her name, and she’s not mentioned anywhere in the documentation so far as I know. But I was at their HQ, and she was pointed out to me as the head of the scholarly side.

So I’m very proud of the fact that we have a nun in our core team at SC (yay @vimala!), and some of our textual work is by nuns (Ayyas Dhammadinna and Uppalavanna, and others). I think the fact that nuns are contributing is just the normal continuation of how things have been; the difference is that now their work is recognized.


In fact, it may be the case that bhikṣu was used as a gender neutral term in addressing gender-mixed audiences and a male form when addressing a monk or a male-only audience. There are two examples of this form of address in the contemporary Russian language.

  1. In the pre-1917 Russia a frequent form of address to a gender-mixed audience used to be gospoda, roughly corresponding to the German Herrschaften or Polisch państwo. All of these terms could be very roughly translated into English as gentry. At the same time, unlike in Polish or German, gospoda also literally meant lords, gentlemen, a meaning that has come pre-dominant in the post-Soviet Russia under the influence of the English ladies and gentlemen, so that now a mixed audience is always addressed in formal situations as damy i gospoda ‘ladies and gentlemen’.

  2. The job titles referring to gender-mixed populations or audiences are always used in their male forms even if there is a corresponding female form. So, when addressing teachers in a formal situations, one says Dorogiye uchitel’a! ‘Dear (male) teachers!’, not Dorogiye uchiteln’nitsy! even if his or her audience is exclusively female. The use of female forms for the vast majority of job titles or some social positions is perceived either as wildly ungrammatical or overly colloquial, to the point that a lady may take offence in someone referring to her with a female form of address even in a relatively informal situation. E.g., if you use the colloquial female form for doctor (doktorša, dokoriha) when speaking to a female doctor, you may be sure she will be offended.

While the latter example with doctor is almost certainly not analagous to the Ancient Hindic situation, the use of male forms when addressing the gender-mixed audiences with at least one man in there may well have been the case back then and requires some research (or has already been researched). The rendering of these ‘neutral male’ terms in English or any other language is a very difficult topic: for my Russian sensibilites the direct translation as ‘monk’ would be the most natural alternative, for native speakers ‘monastics’ can be the pereferrable variant.

1 Like

I was wrong about this, there is a Pali sutta in which the Buddha addressed to the bhikkhunis, that is SN 55.11 which discussed about four limbs of a stream-enterer.