Gotamī Home PageFirst Discourse
What follows is a translation of three discourses that follow each other in the Book of the Eights of the Aṅguttaranikāya (8.51-3). The first concerns the establishment of the Community of nuns; This discourse is parallel to the opening story of the Bhikkhunīkkhandhaka of the Vinaya, (Cullavagga, 10), Cv 10.01 the second the qualities required by a monk to be fit to teach the nuns; and the third the discourse that led to Ven. Gotamī’s liberation.
The first discourse, that on the establishment of the Community of nuns, is one of the most controversial matters in the Canon. There are a number of issues concerning the discourse when taken alone, but when taken with the commentary it becomes even more contentious, as instead of easing the problems, the commentary multiplies them.
The basic story outlined in the discourse is this: The Buddha’s step-mother and aunt, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī approached the Buddha and requested ordination three times. She was turned down. Some time later, having shaved her head and donned monastic robes, together with five hundred other Sakiyan women, she again approached the Buddha with the request, and is again turned down.
Ven. Ānanda saw her crying and asked what the problem was, she explained and Ven. Ānanda suggested that he should speak to the Buddha, which he subsequently did. He also was turned down. But then he tried another approach, and asked whether women can attain liberation, to which the Buddha readily agreed. He then reminded the Buddha how kind Gotamī had been to him, and made the request yet again.
This time the Buddha agreed, providing Gotamī agreed to eight serious rules. These were related to her by Ven. Ānanda, and she agreed to them and the Buddha announced that that constituted her higher ordination, and so the order of nuns was established.
That is an outline of the story in the discourse, and the first problem that emerges is right at the beginning. The discourse opens with two simple sentences: At one time the Fortunate One was dwelling amongst the Sakiyans, near to Kapilavatthu, in Nigrodha’s Monastery. Then Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī approached the Fortunate One...
A natural reading of this would give the impression that they are connected: the Fortunate One was in Kapilavatthu, and Gotamī approaches him. The commentary however, first states that the Fortunate One was in Kapilavatthu refers to the first journey back to Kapilavatthu, which took place in the first year after the Awakening, but that Gotamī approaches him took place four years later, after the death of her husband the King.
It is difficult to understand why it should have been stated in such a way. One reason might be that the commentator is trying to reconcile different traditions in his sources. It may be that there were different ideas about the timing of Gotamī’s request that had come down, and the commentator had the difficulty of reconciling them. A second possibility is that the story contains a remembrance of a different sequence of events, some of which have fallen out from the textual sources in the Pāḷi.
Ven. Analayo, See Ven. Analayo: Mahāpajāpatī’s Going Forth in the Madhyama-āgama, Journal for Buddhist Ethics, Vol 18, 2011. 02 after examining all the extant versions of this passage, has suggested a reconstruction whereby Gotamī first requested ordination, and was eventually told to shave her hair, wear monastic-style robes and take up the celibate life – but in her home, and not as a homeless wanderer. Then later when the King died, she again decided to approach the Buddha to request full ordination, equivalent to the monk’s, which was eventually given.
If this was so it would explain why the commentary remembers the events opening on the first journey back, but still places the other part of the story four years later. We could then understand that in the years in between Gotamī would have been living a monastic-style of life in the home, which was more secure, and also less demanding.
It would also explain why, when Ven. Ānanda first enters the story and meets with Gotamī, he remarks on her appearance asking: Why are you, Gotamī, with swollen feet, and dust on your limbs, pained and depressed, crying, with tears on your face, standing outside the doorway? but says nothing at all about her having a shaved head and wearing monastic-type robes, which must have been much more striking that the condition of her feet had it been novel.
* * *
The second problem that arises in the discourse is the question of the eight serious rules. There has probably been more ink spilt discussing this issue that any other in regard to the nuns’ ordination, but without reviewing all the work that has been done, it is safe to say that the rules as they stand are certainly anachronistic, and couldn’t have been promulgated at the beginning of the foundation of the Community.
This is shown by numbers of them being found in the confession (pācittiya) rules of the nuns’ Pātimokkha, along with different establishment stories, which would not have been necessary had the rules already been in place.
The only rule which doesn’t have an analogue in the Bhikkhunī Pātimokkha is the first, which insists that a senior nun should show respect to any monk, even one ordained that day.
In the Vinaya See Cv 10, just after the foundation story parallel to the first discourse here. 03 (but not in this collection) there is another story of Ven Gotamī approaching the Buddha and asking that the monks and the nuns pay respect according to seniority, something which the Buddha does not allow. Of course, if Gotamī had already agreed to this rule at the outset as an integral part of her ordination, then there would be no reason at all to go and request the Buddha on the matter.
* * *
The sixth of the eight serious rules ordains that before seeking higher ordination a nun should train in six rules for two years. The nuns who accompanied Ven. Gotamī however, do not seem to have done so, and although the sikkhamāna training is mentioned in rules and formal lists in the Vinaya, it never seems to occur in any other context, not even in the commentarial stories about the nuns’ careers.
These six rules could quite easily have been the rules that the Queen had been given while still living in a home environment. They are the five lay precepts (no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and alcohol), with the third redefined as strict celibacy, plus the rule about eating after midday.
Another supporting factor for this is that, according to tradition, the Bodhisatta’s wife, Rāhulamātā (a.k.a. Yasodharā), had lived a life very much along these lines after the Bodhisatta renounced the world and went off to seek Awakening, so the idea of a Royal Lady living a renunciate life at home was already established in the household.
In any case it is really impossible that this rule was in force from the beginning as we find cases of nuns who were pregnant recorded in the Bhikkhunī Vinaya, something that could not have happened of course if they were maintaining strict celibacy for two years prior to their higher ordination.
* * *
A final issue which requires notice is that the Buddha, according to the discourse as recorded here, is supposed to have said that giving ordination to the nuns would seriously affect the life of the Dispensation, effectively cutting it in half, from one thousand years to only five hundred.
It is questionable in the extreme that the Buddha would have done anything that would see to the halving of the life of the Dispensation, and elsewhere it is clear that a strong presence of nuns was one of the factors leading to the increase in the length of the Sāsana.
But also, as is obvious to anyone, the prediction has not come true, and if the record was rightly attributed to the Buddha, then he was wrong in making it. This, of course, is not impossible, but it surely goes against all that the tradition holds dear.
The commentator, who collated the material around one thousand years after the Buddha’s passing, was also aware of the discrepancy between the recorded prediction and the reality he could see around him, with the Buddhasāsana flourishing throughout India and spreading all over Asia.
His solution to the problem is not at all convincing, and requires us to reinterpret what was actually said to mean something quite different. The Buddha, as reported here, says: the Good Dhamma would have endured for a thousand years ... (but it) ... will now (after the establishment of the Community of nuns) endure for (only) five hundred years.
The commentary, at a place rather remote from where this plain statement is made, says: One thousand years, this was said in regard to those who have attained destruction of the pollutants together with the analytic knowledges, but a further thousand years beyond that for those who have attained destruction of the pollutants through dry insight, a thousand years in regard to those who are Non-Returners ... Once-Returners ... Stream Enterers, thus the Good Dhamma of penetration (to Awakening) will endure for five thousand years (in all). Then there will be only the Dhamma of learning ... But the signs of the disappearance of learning will last for a long time.
That makes for quite a large adjustment against the plain sense of the text, and seems to be made on the settled idea in the tradition that the Dispensation would last for 5,000 years. We are now about half way through that time span, and presumably should start expecting the decline to start imminently, although it actually appears to be a stronger point now that it was during many hundreds of years of stagnation.
* * *
The second discourse in this group concerns the qualities that are required for a monk to be appointed as one who advises the nuns. This discourse is a lot less problematic, but it does reflect on the previous discourse some more, as one of the eight serious rules is that the nuns should seek advice from the monks before holding the Uposatha ceremony twice a month. Yet another anachronism, as the Vinaya records the gradual development of the Pātimokkha recital amongst the nuns. 04
One of the qualifications for a monk to be appointed to this position is stated to be that the monk should have twenty years since his higher ordination. Obviously this was not possible when these serious rules were laid down, which, according to tradition happened after the fifth Rains retreat, at which point the most senior monk would have been fifteen years short of meeting the qualification.
The qualities enumerated seem quite reasonable: the monk should be virtuous, learned, understand both sets of Pātimokkha rules, be a clear speaker, able to inspire the nuns, and is dear and pleasing to them. He should not be guilty of a Saṅghādisesa offence and should have, as mentioned, twenty years seniority.
All of these qualities would seem to be aimed at protecting and indeed being of benefit to the nuns, making sure that the monk giving the instruction is virtuous, learned and experienced.
* * *
The third discourse is recorded in the commentary as having led to Ven. Gotamī’s liberation. The discourse is quite general in nature, just stating basically that she should bear in mind that the true teaching leads to dispassion, unfettering, decrease (of rebirths), little desire, contentment, solitude, energy and ease in support.
All of these things are indeed characteristic of the Teaching of the Lord Buddha, but it is hard to see how stating the general principles in themselves would lead to liberation. Of course knowing them in more detail and acting upon them might do so.
The teaching here contrasts however with another teaching in the Aṅguttara Commentary on the Elder Nandaka, who was named by the Buddha as the foremost of his monk disciples in teaching the nuns. In the commentary on that placement it says that after he had taught what became known as the Nandakovādasuttaṁ (MN 146), all the nuns, which would have included Ven. Gotamī, attained liberation.
I previously noted, in my translation of that text that this does not agree with the text itself, which states only that the nuns attained at least a level of Stream Entry. So it seems that the commentary itself here is also in disagreement with what it has stated elsewhere.
I am very grateful to Ayyā Tathālokā Bhikkhunī, who reviewed this work a couple of times, made a number of corrections, and who informed my understanding of the background and meaning of the text in many places. A number of her comments have been worked into the notes and Introduction.
I also owe a great debt to Dr. Junko Matsumura, who has excellent knowledge of both Canonical and Commentarial Pāḷi, and reviewed the work and made a number of corrections and improvements to the translation.
Without the help of these two generous scholars the work would have been much poorer, but I am responsible, of course, for any mistakes or shortcomings that remain.
It what follows the repetition (peyyāla) text in either is marked up in italics: the latter is not written in the manuscripts or the printed editions of the texts and has to be inferred either from sections that occur earlier in the text, or earlier in the compiliation of texts, and occasionally from an earlier book in the series of texts.
It seems to me, however, that a recitor (bhāṇaka) would have used the written text as simply an aide-de-memoir, and would have filled in the text during recital. But besides this when presenting texts extracted from their original collection, it is clearly better practice to fill in the text, and to then mark it so that its status is indicated.
Gotamī Home PageFirst Discourse
last updated: December 2014