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Mahaprajapati’s Daughters – Lions Roar

If there’s a mom of Buddhism, it’s Mahaprajapati, says Andrea Miller. In girls dharma lecturers all through the ages, we see a continuation of her energy and practicality, her knowledge and compassion.

Mahaprajapati was Siddhartha’s aunt and loving stepmother. She was additionally deeply realized—an arhat, revered dharma instructor, and the primary Buddhist nun.
Painting by Anna Oneglia /

I used to be fifteen when my pal’s dad stumped me with a riddle: “A man and his son get into a terrible car crash. The father is killed instantly, but the son is rushed to hospital where the surgeon says, ‘I can’t treat the boy. He’s my son.’ How is this possible?”

Being a younger feminist, I believed I let womankind down when I didn’t guess that the surgeon was the boy’s mom. Now, so a few years later, I see it’s no particular person’s fault or failing for getting it incorrect. Patriarchal society has created such deep-rooted biases that they poison the views of just about everybody, even these of us who fervently imagine in gender equality.

The dharma is about clearly seeing the true nature of actuality, so it’s tempting to assume Buddhism is untouched by sexism. Yet if we cooked up a riddle about “a Buddhist master” or “a great Buddhist teacher,” I think most of us, in our thoughts’s eye, would see a person in that seat.

There is, nonetheless, an extended historical past of nice girls lecturers from the times of the Buddha all the best way to the current. Sifting by means of the data, I see that a lot of them had been outstanding not simply due to the profundity of their teachings and the dedication of their follow, but in addition as a result of they’re the dharma equal of Ginger Rogers doing every thing Fred Astaire did, solely backward and in heels. In different phrases, feminine dharma lecturers have needed to overcome challenges and prejudices that their male counterparts haven’t. It’s taken true grit from the so-referred to as softer intercourse to grow to be a instructor, not to mention a fantastic instructor.

To have a good time girls lecturers over the lengthy arc of Buddhist historical past, I wish to maintain ten of them and their accomplishments as much as the sunshine.

Some 2,600 years in the past within the foothills of the Himalayas, there was Mahaprajapati, Siddhartha’s aunt. Both she and her sister Mahamaya married the identical king. When Mahamaya died shortly after giving delivery, Mahaprajapati nourished Siddhartha together with her personal milk and raised him as her personal cherished son.

Time handed. Siddhartha grew to be a person, grew to become the Buddha, and established a neighborhood of monks. The undeniable fact that it was all male didn’t deter Mahaprajapati. After training as a laywoman for 5 years, she went to the Buddha and requested to affix his sangha as a nun. By extension, she was asking him to welcome girls on the whole.

The Buddha mentioned no. She requested once more, and once more he mentioned no. But Mahaprajapati was nothing if not dogged. Disregarding the Buddha’s refusal, she impressed 5 hundred different girls to likewise set their sights on ordination and, as in the event that they had been already ordained, they shaved their heads and placed on robes. Then she led the ladies, barefoot, strolling greater than 2 hundred miles to the monastery the place the Buddha was staying, and so they parked themselves outdoors, weeping.

I want I might say this was sufficient to persuade the Buddha to just accept them, however an additional step was apparently required: the monk Ananda—a person—needed to champion their trigger and remind the Buddha that ladies are as able to realization as males. Finally relenting, the Buddha mentioned girls might ordain so long as they accepted eight guidelines relegating them to a place inferior to that of monks.

The Buddha’s reluctance and guidelines go away a bitter style in my mouth. Of course, as a person, I might determine her ordination story doesn’t matter; I might let it go. But this wouldn’t change the truth that, to at the present time, the story has very actual penalties within the lives of Buddhist nuns (or would-be Buddhist nuns). In many elements of the Buddhist world, it’s a pretext for not offering feminine monastics with the identical alternatives or standing as their male counterparts. I additionally suspect the inferior standing of nuns has repercussions for lay girls. After all, when girls with robes are devalued, girls with out them are certainly perceived as decrease nonetheless.

In any case, Mahaprajapati took the provide of ordination on situation as a win. She shortly attained arhatship and have become a beloved preceptor of girls, a revered dharma instructor, and a choose in disputes on equal footing with male judges.

Mahaprajapati labored throughout the bounds of what was attainable, and he or she pushed these bounds after which pushed them additional. She isn’t solely the founding father of the Buddhist bhikkhuni lineage, but in addition a task mannequin for all the ladies Buddhist lecturers and practitioners who have to resourcefully discover a method to get by on this world, which isn’t all the time simply. In the millennia of girls Buddhist lecturers, we will see echoes of Mahaprajapati’s fortitude and practicality, her knowledge and compassion.

Although the eighth-century feminine buddha Yeshe Tsogyal could also be extra legendary than historic, she’s nonetheless an inspiration to girls within the Tibetan custom. Image of bigger mural at Samye Monastery / through

Many girls dharma lecturers are remembered solely in fragments, for instance, Prajnatara. The twenty-seventh “patriarch” of Indian Buddhism in line with the Zen custom, she’s all however misplaced to the mists of time. It isn’t even clear if she was a lady. In Chinese texts, gender is ambiguous, assumed from context, so many individuals have jumped to the conclusion that, because the instructor of the celebrated Bodhidharma, Prajnatara was a person. Yet proof, together with data within the Korean lineage, signifies in any other case.

Although the dates we have now for Liu Tiemo’s life are solely approximate—780 to 859—somebody way back noticed match to notice her bodily look. (Apparently, she was nothing to have a look at.) But when it got here to dharma debate, Chan instructor Liu Tiemo was such a pressure to be reckoned with that she was nicknamed “the Iron Grindstone.” Her instructing type was described, with admiration, as “precipitously awesome and dangerous.”

Some girls Buddhists are primarily acknowledged for his or her relationship to a male instructor, and but they’re, in their very own proper, extremely realized. The eighth-century Tibetan Yeshe Tsogyal, as an illustration, is usually recognized as a consort of Tantric grasp Padmasambhava and transcriber of his teachings. Legend has it that she was pressured to marry towards her will and that, whereas training meditation alone within the mountains, she endured rape, scorn, and hunger. But Yeshe Tsogyal overcame each impediment and achieved full enlightenment, equal to that of Padmasambhava. These phrases are attributed to her: “I see nothing to fear in inner space.”

Also from the Tibetan custom is Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. Born in England in 1943, she labored as a librarian till, in 1964, she’d saved sufficient cash to sail to India in hopes of pursing the Buddhist path. On her twenty-first birthday, she met her guru, the eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche, and shortly requested to grow to be a nun.

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo was one of many first Westerners to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monastic. She’s a former president of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women.
Photo by Sarah Lee

But there was an issue. In the Tibetan custom, full ordination doesn’t exist for ladies; they’ll solely grow to be novices. The eight heavy guidelines that the Buddha is alleged to have imposed on nuns stipulated, amongst different issues, that the ordination of a lady have to be carried out by monks and nuns collectively. Some thousand years in the past the lineage of absolutely ordained nuns, bhikkhunis, died out within the Theravada custom, whereas within the Vajrayana it was by no means established.

In this fashion, girls have been shut out of full ordination with a catch-22. Without a quorum of nuns, no lady will be ordained; as a result of no girls are being ordained, there’s no quorum of nuns. Only in East Asian Mahayana orders do nuns obtain full ordination, so Tenzin Palmo ordained at Miu Fat temple in Hong Kong.

Later, she lived alone in a collapse northern India for twelve years. Tenzin Palmo grew her personal potatoes and turnips; slept and meditated upright in a meditation field; and as soon as, after a blizzard, was so trapped by ice that she thought she’d certainly die. For the primary 9 years within the cave, she often had guests and took quick journeys away. For the final three years, she noticed a strict solitary retreat.

Both Tenzin Palmo and Ta Tao Fa Tzu of Thailand are recognized for working tirelessly to present girls the chance to ordain and have interaction in deep follow.

In 1908, Ta Tao Fa Tzu was born Lamai Kabilsingh, and her father felt such disappointment in having one other woman that he deserted the household. Growing up, she had an curiosity in literature. Eventually, this flowered into her changing into a novelist, journalist, and founding father of a Buddhist journal. She was additionally a college instructor and the primary Thai lady to be a talented swordfighter. In 1932, she biked to Singapore with a gaggle of boy scouts—a feat that took twenty-9 days.

After a medical scare, Kabilsingh devoted herself to studying meditation, and shortly she was acknowledged as being certified to show others.

Since it’s unlawful for ladies in Thailand to ordain as full bhikkhunis and even novices, an alternate has developed. That is, they’ll grow to be maechis, girls who put on white robes however are neither monastics nor laypeople. They could reside at a temple, however—in contrast to monks—they’re anticipated to offer for themselves and are largely handled as temple workers, anticipated to prepare dinner, clear, promote incense.

Kabilsingh had no intention of changing into a maechi; she wished to be a bhikkhuni. Although no native monk was keen to ordain her, she did handle to seek out one who agreed to do a maechi ceremony despite the fact that she was upfront about her plan to not put on white afterward however relatively pale yellow. Let’s simply say that the newly “ordained” Kabilsingh bought herself observed in her new garb, and it wasn’t lengthy earlier than the Council of Elders was assembly to find out if that exact shade of yellow was too blasphemously near monastic saffron. Largely thanks to at least one sympathetic monk, the inquisition was finally dropped at an finish.

After Kabilsingh based a monastery and established a neighborhood of like-minded girls, she found that formal ordination was attainable for her—in Taiwan. Her preceptor could be from the Mahayana custom, not her personal Theravada. But this may do. So, receiving the identify Ta Tao Fa Tzu, she grew to become the primary recognized Thai lady to ever ordain as a Buddhist monastic.

Ta Tao Fa Tzu’s daughter, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, was nonetheless a baby when the household house was remodeled right into a small nunnery. Though she took non permanent ordination at age 13, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh nonetheless grew as much as have a vibrant lay life. She earned her grasp’s in faith from a Canadian college, then in India she earned her PhD in Buddhism. She bought married, raised three boys, and have become a Thai tv character.

One day in 1999, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh was digital camera-prepared in make-up and classy garments when she regarded within the mirror and thought, “How long do I have to do this?” At that second she dedicated herself to changing into a monastic.
To circumvent the legislation prohibiting the ordination of girls in Thailand, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh went to Sri Lanka. The Theravada island nation had not too long ago revived its bhikkhuni lineage, so this gave Chatsumarn Kabilsingh the chance to be the primary Thai lady to ordain inside her personal custom, the Theravada. Now, going by the identify Dhammanda Bhikkhuni, she’s abbess of Songdhammakalyani, the monastery based by her mom.

Other Thai girls have discovered a approach ahead on the trail as lay practitioners, for instance, Kee Nanayon. Born in 1901, she was an avid meditator even in her youth and was largely self-taught. In 1945, she and her aunt and uncle established a retreat for themselves in an previous, deserted monastic dwelling, surrounded by forest. Receiving virtually no outdoors assist, they needed to be frugal. They collected wild bamboo shoots and fruit for his or her meals; patched and re-patched their garments; and shared their cave with throngs of bats.

Other seekers joined them, and a thriving girls’s follow neighborhood grew with Kee Nanayon discovering herself within the position of instructor. “Knowing is a fabrication,” she taught. “Not knowing is a fabrication. When we examine them internally we see that both arise and pass away. Even the truths we know in this way don’t stay long. They always turn into not knowing.”

Dipa Ma was born in 1911 in what’s now Bangladesh. After getting married at age twelve to a person twice her age, she endured fertility points, shedding two infants. Then her husband died, and he or she was left alone to lift their solely dwelling youngster. Sadly, she was so devasted by grief that she might barely perform. Her physician advisable meditation.

Advancing quickly together with her follow, Dipa Ma quickly had such deep powers of focus that she didn’t really feel it when a canine bit her. She contemplated leaving her daughter in a neighbor’s care and spending the remainder of her days at a meditation heart. Ultimately, nonetheless, she opted to mix household life and follow.

In time, Dipa Ma had lots of of scholars. There was a day by day stream of tourists to her modest house, and he or she profoundly influenced the American Vipassana neighborhood, as she taught Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein.

“Being a wife, being a mother—these were my first teachers,” mentioned this patron saint of owners. “Make all circumstances your teachers.”

Finally, allow us to flip our consideration to the Taiwanese scholar and monastic Chao-hwei Shih. A loyal animal rights advocate, she was instrumental within the passage of a Taiwanese wildlife conservation act and in getting each horse playing and a merciless type of fishing banned in Taiwan. “Buddha could not bear to see sentient beings suffer,” she as soon as remarked.

In 2012 Chao-hwei Shih bought the world’s consideration when she officiated a marriage for 2 girls in strapless white robes; it was Taiwan’s first similar-intercourse Buddhist marriage ceremony. At that point, homosexual marriage was prohibited throughout Asia, so this wasn’t a authorized ceremony, however Chao-hwei Shih hoped to spark a dialog about LGBTQI+ rights. Seven years later, Taiwan grew to become the primary nation in Asia to legalize homosexual marriage, and {couples} are nonetheless sending her thank-you notes and marriage ceremony cookies.

In 2012, Chao-hwei Shih officiated the primary LGBTQ+ Buddhist marriage ceremony in Taiwan. She mentioned, “In Buddhism, desire is not a sin.”
Photo by Pichi Chuang / Reuters

An outspoken feminist activist, Chao-hwei Shih as soon as led a gaggle of female and male monastics and lay practitioners to make a daring assertion about girls’s rights at a televised Buddhist convention in Taipei. With the cameras on them, they took a duplicate of these eight heavy guidelines the Buddha supposedly gave to Mahaprajapati so way back—those making nuns subservient to monks—and so they ripped them up.

Mahaprajapati and the Buddha lived way back and left no written data of their very own, so is her ordination story traditionally correct? Contemporary students have put forth proof suggesting it isn’t. They say that somebody, someplace alongside the road, tweaked the story or fabricated it entire material. Not consistent with the buddhadharma, it’s a misogynistic delusion.

I’m wondering generally simply how a lot the usual myths of what it means to be a lady have made me doubt myself and my skills, how a lot they are going to make my daughter doubt herself and her skills. And I’m wondering, too, about you and your daughters—about all girls.

Representation issues, even within the realm of spirituality. If we’re conscious of completed Buddhist girls, certainly we’ll be extra assured in our capacity to progress on the trail. It’s painful to bear witness to the misogynistic threads that emerge within the biographies of girls lecturers, but it surely’s extra painful to not know their tales in any respect. They’ve solid a path for us. They’ve confirmed it’s a path that ladies can observe.


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