Binara Poya, Women Power & Therigatha


Today is Binara Pura Pasalosvaka Poya day the 2557th year, since the passing away of Sakyamuni Siddhartha Gauthama Buddha. It was on a full moon day like today that Lord Buddha consented to admit women in to the Buddhist Order on the fourth appeal made by his stepmother Maha Prajapati Gotami.

A damaged and fading frescoe of Buddhist Priests pay homage to Lord Buddha. Telwatte Purana Thotagamuva Rajamaha Viharaya. Telwatte. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

A damaged and fading frescoe of Lord Buddha and the future Buddhas, who are seeking “Niyatha vivarana (prediction of future Buddhahood). Telwatte Purana Thotagamuva Rajamaha Viharaya. Telwatte. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

According to Premasiri Epasinghe, writing in the Island newspaper in 2010, Buddha turned down the request thrice. Then the women, 500 of them banded together under Maha Prajapati Gotami, shaved their heads, wore yellow robes and made another appeal via Venerable Ananda Thera – the “Dharmabandagarika” (Keeper of the Dharma). That was good activism and good sense to seek the support of Ven. Ananda who was, Buddha’s cousin. son of Amitodana, the brother of Buddha’s father Suddodana.

According to the scriptures and stated by both Epasinhe and Walter Wijenayake writing in today’s Island “the Buddha gave womenfolk permission to enter the order subject to observances of eight chief precepts (ashta garu dharma). They are:

1. A Bhikkhuni has to worship a day old higher ordained Bhikkhu even if she was 100 years old in higher ordination. She should get up from her seat and show her due respects to the Bhikkhus who observe the major precepts.2. A Bhikkuni should not observe the rainy season precepts in an area where there are no Bhikkhus.

3. Every fortnight a Bhikkuni has to request for ‘Pohoya kamma’ from the Bhikkus. She has to know the time she should obtain advice from the Bhikkhus.

4. When a Bhikkuni concludes her rainy seasonal precepts observation, she has to do it in front of both Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis.

5. A Bhikkhuni who has committed a major mistake should confess it in the presence of both Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis.

6. A Bhikkhuni has to undergo two years as a special trainee and then become a higher ordained Bhikkhuni in presence of both Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis.

7. A Bhikkhuni should not scold a Bhikkhu under any circumstance.

8. A Bhikkhuni should not advise Bhikkhus, however, Bhikkhus should advise Bhikkhunis.”

Both writers point out as many have done before, that Buddha gave equal status to women. Reading these ashta guru dharma, I wonder whether Bhikkunis are on par with Bhikkus. To my understanding of these 8 rules Bhikkunis are not. I feel the rules do not giving any credit to a woman of being able to follow the path laid out independently. Some of these rules seem to be justified as no. 2, when you think that most of the 500 women might have lived very sheltered lives. In any case, the admittance of women into the Sangha community was a gigantic step forward and recognition as being suitable to lead the hard life as Bhikkuni.

Part of the statues that are at the entrance to the  shrine room at the Pulinathararamaya Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Part of the statues that are at the entrance to the shrine room at the Pulinathararamaya Photograph© Chulie de Silva

However, in Buddhism if a woman aspires to be a Buddha, the first step is to do enough “ping” –good karma- so she will be born a man. Then the real door opens for the long samsara journey, and she now a he, can ask for niyatha vivarana (prediction of future Buddhahood).

Goddess with many hands. Welle Devale. Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Goddess with many hands. Welle Devale. Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

In the Hindu Pantheon of Gods there are many absolutely gorgeous female Gods– Saraswathi, Lakshmi, Pattini, Durga, Kali , etc but in all their temples found within Buddhist temples, its male priests who perform rites.Women are not even allowed into the inner sanctums of these temples, unless they are accompanied by a well known male. Why Buddhists need these temples and follow these rites is another debate.

A Priest blesses a little girl at Welle Devale. Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

A Priest blesses a little girl at Welle Devale. Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Musing on all these on this poya day, I went searching for the Terigatha and found the Teragatha translations too.

 The Bhikkuni order is credited with the Therigatha, which are translated as Verses of the Elder Nuns (Pāli: theri elder (feminine) + gatha verse), a collection of short delightful poems supposedly recited by early members of the community of Buddhist priests — the Sangha — in India around 600 BC.

In the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, the Therigatha is classified as part of the Khuddaka Nikaya, the collection of short books in the Sutta Pitaka. It consists of 73 poems, organized into 16 chapters. It is the earliest known collection of women’s literature.

This poem from  Chapter 1: The Single Verses (excerpt) translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, is a honest and clear expression.

I.11 — Mutta {v. 11}   

So freed! So thoroughly freed am I! —
from three crooked things set free:
from mortar, pestle,
& crooked old husband.

Having uprooted the craving
that leads to becoming,
I’m set free from aging & death.

So in the final analysis it is Buddha’s teachings and one’s mind that is important. A verse in the Theragathas  -i.e the bhikkus’ verses says it all.

Vappa (Thag 1.61) {Thag 61}   

One who sees
sees who sees,
sees who doesn’t.

One who doesn’t see
doesn’t
see who sees
or who doesn’t

The Bhikkuni order went into decline in Sri Lanka and was virtually none existent for nine centuries or so. However, there now exists in Sri Lanka a functional bhikkuni sangha holding regular patimokkha (the twice monthly recitation of the precepts) and properly supported by bhikkus. Read more on the Contemporary Bhikkuni Ordination in Sri Lanka by Bhikkuini Sobhana.

Verses reproduced here with consent as per citation below:

“Therigatha: Verses of the Elder Nuns”, & “Theragatha: Verses of the Elder Monks”,edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight, 23 April 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/index.html . Retrieved on 19 September 2013.

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