Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī and Wheel-Turning Day

Today, July 15, is the day celebrated by Tibetan Buddhists as the anniversary of the very first teaching by Buddha. The act of teaching the Dharma is known as "turning the wheel," evoking the image of an action that involves some initial effort, but then continues on through a momentum of its own to have real effects long afterwards.

Tenzin Dapel, Tenzin Nangpel and Karma Lodro Drolma spent the day together in Dharamsala as usual, but revised their usual daily schedule to include special prayers in the morning, a double study session, and an additional session to rejoice and dedicate in the evening.

Meanwhile, the day finds me, Damcho, still in Hamburg, wondering how Bhikṣuṇī Jampa Tsedroen (Dr. Carola Roloff) managed to get me to commit to writing a collection of brief summaries of the life stories of some of the more important bhikṣuṇīs over the centuries. The collection will be short, no more than 50 pages, and will be translated into Tibetan and published as a bilingual edition, aimed mainly for circulation among Tibetan communities in India and Nepal. I made an auspicious start on the project today, and given how many other commitments await me once I leave Germany on July 23, I hope to finish before I fly out. As a small sign that indeed the wheel set in motion by the Buddha 2,500 years ago continues to turn productively on its axis, moving my heart and mind here many miles and centuries from the place it all began, I offer my own tiny contribution to the ongoing movement of that wheel... in the form of the first set of lifestories I have summarized, that of the very first Buddhist nun, Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī.

It is taken from accounts in the Mūlasarvāstivādavinaya, the vinaya followed by Tibetan Buddhists today, and therefore by our monastic community, and is based on the text I am currently translated for an upcoming collection of those stories, to be published by Wisdom Publications. Ironically, the classical Tibetan from which I am translating the canonical tales is too difficult and distanced from most Tibetan speakers, so extracting the stories directly is not a viable option, since the aim is to help increase general social awareness of the presence and place of bhikṣuṇīs throughout Buddhist history.

The Life of Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī

Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī occupies a special place in Buddhist history, as both the first bhikṣuṇī and the aunt who raised Lord Buddha from birth. The many stories about Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī in the Buddhist canon also reveal that she held leadership roles throughout her life, and was particularly committed to making the Dharma fully available to women.

The very first time that women in Buddha’s hometown of Kapilavastu were able to attend Buddha’s teaching was made possible through Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī’s efforts. As described in the Vinayavastu (Derge volume Ga), a leading male citizen of the town of Kapilavastu came home enthusiastically proclaiming to his wife how fruitful the Buddha’s teachings are. The wife tells him, “It is true that the arising of a Buddha is fruitful for you, but only for men, not for women.”

She has drawn this conclusion because only men have been attending the Buddha’s teachings in the morning and afternoon both, and according to the social mores of that time, it is highly inappropriate for women to attend the same public assemblies as men. She suggests that if men would go in the morning and let women go in the afternoon, then perhaps Buddha’s presence in the world could truly be fruitful for all. He promises to arrange something but is uncomfortable asking the king for a favor for his wife. Since he knows that the king of Kapilavastu, Buddha’s father Śuddhodana, always listens to the queen’s advice, he decides to hand the matter over to the queen, namely Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī.

Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī explains to the king that women are occupied all morning with household duties, but instructs the king how to proceed, and, the vinaya tells us that “as was the practice of King Śuddhodana, when Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī was giving orders he remained standing, with his body stiff as a rod, and the king did not sit down until Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī had finished giving her orders.” The next day ... click here to continue reading.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hierarchy and Gender Talk Online

Hamburg University has made the talk Damcho gave on Hierarchy and Gender in Buddhist Monasticism available online. The talk was attended by members of the university's Buddhist studies department, as well as some members of the largest local Dharma community, Tibetische Zentrum, and was followed by a lively discussion period in which the possibility of changing the hierarchical structures for today's world was raised. If you have the interest, you can listen to the talk here or go straight to the mp3 file here.

And thanks very much to Tyler Dewar for asking for an mp3 of the talk. Without his comment, we might not have learned that the talks are all uploaded afterwards.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Hierarchy and Gender in Buddhist Monasticism

In the unlikely event that any of you are in Hamburg on July 13, you are welcome to attend a talk that one of our nuns (Lhundup Damcho) will be giving at Hamburg University, entitled "Hierarchy and Gender in Buddhist Monasticism."

Here is the abstract for the talk:

The nature of Buddhist social organizations has been a topic of great debate and often of grave misunderstanding. Focusing on Buddhist responses to caste, many observers have found cause to celebrate Buddhism as promoting an egalitarian social order. However, even a cursory examination of Buddhist monasticism makes it clear that hierarchy itself is not discarded outright as an ordering principle. This talk draws on narratives from the Mūlasarvāstivādavinaya (MSV) that depict the life of the early Buddhist order, to explore the ways hierarchy is deployed within Buddhist monasticism, as a means of organizing social institutions but also as an integral part of personal training. Since gender is the single most important determinant of location within Buddhist monastic hierarchies—literally dividing Buddhist monastics into two distinct orders—this paper most directly addresses the hierarchical relation between men and women, or monks and nuns.

To that end, this talk will first describe the particular constructions of gender displayed in the MSV’s narratives. What we note is that Buddhist monasticism’s interventions in prevailing constructions of female gender benefited women greatly, yet mainstream constructions repeatedly re-inscribed themselves on Buddhist nuns’ lives and institutions. This talk will then explore moments of parity between the male and female monastic orders, along with the hierarchy that generally prevails between them. Finally, it will argue that the hierarchical relationship between the monks and nuns’ orders depicted in these stories is characterized not by unidirectional dominance of one over the other, but by asymmetrical reciprocity, with each encouraged to offer different forms of care to the other. The talk will conclude with some observations as to the implications of these care-taking responsibilities for the current debates on bhikṣuṇī ordination within the Mūlasarvāstivāda monastic code that is followed by Tibetan Buddhists.

For more details, see this pdf or the department's website.