inspiration: Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī 

begging bowl and robesMahāprajāpatī 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 had leadership roles throughout her life, and was particularly committed to making the Dharma fully available to women.

The following is a brief summary of narratives about Mahāprajāpatī Gautamīfound in the Mūlasarvāstivādavinaya, the vinaya followed by Tibetan Buddhists today, and therefore by our monastic community. The summary is based on the collection of stories about nuns that one of our community's nuns, Lhundup Damcho, is currently translating for an upcoming book from Wisdom Publications.

Gaining Access to the Dharma for 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 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, the men of Kapilavastu go in the morning, and in the afternoon, women go for the first time ever, to hear the Dharma directly from the Lord.

founding the nuns' order

Over the years, Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī and the other women of Kapilavastu have the opportunity to hear more teachings from Buddha. In time, she and many other Śākya women develop a wish to devote their lives fully to practicing the Dharma. During one of Buddha’s later visits to Kapilavastu, Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī takes the lead in requesting permission for a bhikṣuṇī order, a monastic order for women. 

Initially, Buddha tells her it would be to her benefit to practice privately at home, as a layperson. After Buddha leaves Kapilavastu, after living her life as a great queen in the same palace where Buddha was raised, Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī and 500 of her female companions shave their heads, put on patched garments and walk on foot through the hot villages of northern India. Covered with dust but undeterred, they finally catch up with Buddha near Śrāvastī, thereby proving their determination and their ability to put up with the same hardships faced by the bhikṣus of that day. Three times, she repeats her request on behalf of those with her and of all women everywhere. 

Buddha refuses, even though directly after his enlightenment, when Māra had arrived in Bodhgaya to try to convince Buddha to pass into parinirvana without teaching, Buddha had told Māra that he would not do so until he had a bhikṣuṇī order capable of refuting opponents to the Buddhist view. Nevertheless, Lord Buddha continues to test his powerful stepmother’s commitment to a bhikṣuṇī order, and encourages her to shave her head and wear robes but stay on her own. Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī is not willing to accept special permission only for herself. Keeping in mind the wellbeing of all women, she continues to request that women be allowed to walk the monastic path that leads so effectively to liberation, living openly as a bhikṣuṇī sangha. 

Although her petition had earlier met with no success, dauntless, she repeats it again, three times. Three times, Buddha makes his strong-willed aunt endure yet another refusal of her request. Standing before the Buddha with her companions at her back, each time she fails to receive the desired response, she calmly repeats her request. Since we are told that Lord Buddha sacrificed his head, limbs and life for three great countless eons for the sake of the sentient beings, it is inconceivable that he would agree to anything that would harm the Dharma or sentient beings, no matter how much social pressure was placed on him. Nevertheless, there are some who later took this event as indication that Buddha did not wish to have a bhikṣuṇī order. 

In the end, with the support of Ānanda, the Buddha granted his permission to form a bhikṣuṇī order and thus gave women equal access to the spiritual path that leads to liberation and lasting happiness. With that act, Buddha ensured that his teachings can be fully fruitful for women as well as men.

educating the public

At the time of the formation of the bhikṣuṇī order in India, the only life options open to women were to stay at home as housewives, or to become courtesans or beggars. When Buddha made the new role of bhikṣuṇī open to women, this brought about great chance in society. The lay community needed some time and re-education to recognize that the women in robes who come begging at their door are also objects of veneration and offerings, like monks, and were not simply beggars or disreputable women. As the leading figure in the bhikṣuṇī order, Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī repeatedly stepped in to clarify for lay community what it meant to be a bhikṣuṇī. 

In one such instance, when Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī is out on almsrounds, she is asked to clean the woman’s house in exchange for alms. She responds firmly, saying that if she did not work as a domestic servant even for Śuddhodana, why would she do so after she has become a nun? Further, Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī says the laywoman, to ask a monastic endowed with ethical discipline to act as one’s servant creates the seed to be reborn as a slave. As usual, after Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī has reinforced the boundaries distinguishing ordained from lay roles, Buddha steps in to formalize that boundary, creating a rule that makes it clear for all that bhikṣuṇīs do not engage in domestic service.

The vinaya indicates that it was Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī’s daily practice to go to prostrate at Lord Buddha’s feet and receive teachings from him. After an exceptionally long and full life of intensive Dharma practice as a leading member of the bhikṣuṇī order that she had helped found, Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī one day reflects that it would be best to pass away while the Buddha is still alive and the sangha is still in harmony. At the point when she decides it is time to pass into parinirvana, according to the Kṣudrakavastu, Derge Tha, Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī is 120 years old. She goes to request the Buddha’s permission to pass voluntarily into parinirvana. Buddha remains silent. After she has asked three times, Lord Buddha, whom she had raised as a child and served as an adult in heading his bhikṣuṇī order, responds: “Gautamī, are you requesting parinirvana?”

She answers, “Sugata, I am asking for parinirvana.” We can hear the tenderness and wisdom in Buddha’s reply: “Gautami, if you are requesting parinirvana, since all compounded phenomena are of that nature, what can I say?”

Having thus received Buddha’s permission, Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī spends seven days giving teaching after teaching to the bhikṣuṇī order, and to the circle of lay male and female disciples (upāsakas and upāsikās), and many of those present gain spiritual realizations during these teachings.

Seated in a large field surrounded by her vast number of disciples. Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī enters meditative absorption and her psychic powers become evident to all, as her body  emanates rainbow light rays and various other miraculous displays. At the moment of her parinirvana, the vinaya describes a great earthquake, meteors, “and the sound of celestial music resounding in the sky above.”

The earthquake is perceived by all, and when the most highly attained bhikṣus realize that it has been caused by Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī’s passing into parinirvana, they determine that they must make efforts to go to worship her body. The bhikṣus come from their meditation places in the mountains and villages, and Lord Buddha too comes to her residence. Likewise King Prasenajit, the great sponsor Anāthapiṇḍada and all the leading citizens of Śrāvastī come bearing fragrant wood for her funeral pyre. Her bier is lifted by Venerables Nanda, Aniruddha, Ānanda and Rahula, and carried with great honors to its cremation spot. Lord Buddha too also took hold of it with his right hand, supporting this exceptional bhikṣuṇī right to the very end. 

Historical sources for this account: Sanskrit manuscript of Bhikṣuṇīkarmavacana kept in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and Gilgit Manuscript of the Sanghabhedavastu as published by R Gnoli. Tibetan sources on the life of Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī are found in the vinaya section of the Kagyur, especially Vinayavastu Derge Ga,  Bhikṣuvibhaṅga Derge Cha, Bhikṣuṇīvibhaṅga Derge Ta and Kṣudrakavastu Derge volumes Tha and Da.

Since this story will be translated into modern Tibetan and published in a small bilingual book on bhikṣuṇīs, 
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“All beings throughout the reaches of space 
must have happiness, be free from suffering,
and quickly attain unsurpassable, perfect and complete awakening.

For that purpose, until buddhahood, I will employ
my body, speech and mind in virtue.
Until death, I will employ
my body, speech and mind in virtue.
From today until this time tomorrow, I will employ
my body, speech and mind in virtue.”

- From our morning prayers