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.

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