Prajapati, the First Buddhist Nun
By Rev. Patti Nakai
Part One: Prajapati, the First Buddhist Nun
If anyone wanted to present Buddhism as a viciously sexist religion, they could easily do so by quoting out of context passages from numerous sutras or from more recent texts such as Shinran's wasan (poems) or the by-laws of the Shinshu Otani-ha (Higashi Honganji's denomination) which denies female clergy the same status as male priests. But I believe the essential spirit of Buddhism absolutely includes all beings, male and female, in its vision of enlightenment. If I did not believe in that then I would not want to be a part of this religious tradition. In this intermittent series, I hope to make it clear that women have always been involved in Buddhist history and that their role has been very crucial even if often overlooked.
The first Buddhist nun is said to be Prajapati, Shakamuni Buddha's aunt who had raised him after the death of his mother Maya. Instead of letting his dear stepmother join his Sangha when she asked to become one of his disciples, Shakamuni's response was a declaration of the mental inferiority of women, saying they lacked the capacity to understand and practice the teachings of non-attachment to self. The BCA Dharma School textbook, Long Ago in India, glosses over this harsh refusal with the argument of "a woman's place is in the home and she can be a good Buddhist there," the typical statement heard in the Japanese cultural context. However, in the U.S., the American followers of Tibetan Buddhism have been at the forefront of dealing with women's issues and their textbook presentation of Buddha's life for young people does not shy away from quoting Shakamuni's denunciation of women. They then go on to explain why they think Shakamuni spoke that way to his own aunt. From the time he was a boy, he was taught that women were only objects, like domesticated animals trained to breed, nurture and entertain men. From his stepmother to his wife, to all the dancing girls and servants of the palace, Shakamuni as a young prince viewed women only as creatures who lived for the rewards of pleasing men. In the Tibetan American book on Buddha's life, Shakamuni is not blamed for his sexist attitude but is recognized as someone whose cultural conditioning allowed for no other view.
Prajapati is reluctantly allowed into the Sangha after Buddha's cousin Ananda says, "Give women a chance; we cannot say for sure that they will fail unless they have a chance to study and follow the Dharma." Although Ananda had the same cultural conditioning as his cousin, here he speaks from his awareness of impermanence, that because of continual change, the world in each moment is new and we cannot judge the present based on the conceptions of the past. One concrete instance of impermanence which shakes up Shakamuni's view of women as pets/slaves of men is the death of his father. Prajapati now stands before him stripped of her former identity as mother and wife, no longer having a man for her life to revolve around. (As most people know, the ancient Indian custom was to throw the widow on her husband's funeral pyre since her life without a man was considered useless.)
It is my feeling that Prajapati was the person who fostered Shakamuni's interest in religion. Anyone reading the life of Buddha has to wonder why the young prince becomes so resolved to be a religious seeker when his father gave him a purely materialistic upbringing. Most ministers will say Shakamuni's spiritual sensitivity came about because of his mother's death, but Maya died when he was only a week old, too young to have much of a bond to her. Although the king surely grieved over the loss of his wife, it was not long before he had the perfect replacement for Maya - her younger sister Prajapati, called in to be his new consort and the nurturer of his son.
If anyone was greatly impacted by Maya's death, it had to be Prajapati. Because of her sister's sudden death, she had to give up whatever plans and dreams she had for herself and was expected to live up to the whole kingdom's expectation to be another Maya. The experience of impermanence- that Life does not go according to our own wishes - was clearly felt by Prajapati and to learn from it and somehow go on living, she must have had to seek spiritual guidance from the religious traditions of the time. The king probably had no use for such spiritual guidance except for gaining good luck in battle and fortune-telling, but for Prajapati, she needed to seek out something to make her disrupted life meaningful. If this view of Prajapati is true, it could explain why she was the first to ask the Buddha to become a disciple immediately after hearing his teachings, and persisted in her request even after his brusque refusal.
As for Shakamuni, he later came to appreciate more deeply the many elements that led him to his awakening, saying there were many Buddhas before him and that their legacy made his awakening possible. This legacy could not have come to him only during his six years of ascetic practice, but there must have been some prior exposure to the religious influences of his time. In his acknowledgment of this legacy, Shakamuni must have realized that the first woman he reluctantly let into the Sangha was actually his first teacher.
Obviously, Prajapati as the first nun, and the other women of the palace who joined the Sangha along with her, succeeded in breaking down Shakamuni's cultural conditioning and enabled him to see women as equal to men in their ability to grasp and practice the teachings. Shakamuni's sexist view had to have been completely eliminated by the time of the famous sutra stories of his encounters with women such as Kisa Gotami (in the tale of the mustard seed) and Queen vaidehi (Meditation Sutra). In those stories, he would have failed to relate to them if he had held any prejudices against them as women.
In Part Two, I discuss the Negative Depictions and Positive Contributions of Women in Theravada Buddhism.
Notes for Women in Buddhism, Part One
Although I took the time to rewrite Part Four of this series for publication in the bulletin of the Honolulu Betsuin (Nishi Honganji) in 2002, I realize that the other three parts need revisions as well. Until I rewrite these parts, please note the following suggestions I received:
1) In April 2007 I received an e-mail from Katharine Buenger (who identified herself as a university student). She pointed out that the practice of throwing widows on the husband’s funeral pyre was not such a widespread or ancient custom in India. She writes that the practice known as “sati” was “actually derived from a story within Hinduism about the Goddess Sati who internally combusts because she cannot bear the humiliation of her husband. The term ‘sati’ can also mean ‘chaste woman’ and refer to the widow herself.” I do not remember where I read about this practice so it is possible that it was not a reliable source about Indian culture. But the point I wanted to make was there was an attitude in the older Indian culture that women who no longer had a man to serve were considered a burden.
2) In May 2003 I had a telephone discussion with Dimitri Bakhroushin, an active member of the New York Buddhist Church. He cited passages in the Pali canon which suggested that Shakyamuni was hesitant to accept his own stepmother as the first nun because of political concerns (charges of nepotism, her role as his parent gave her some authority and certainly psychological leverage over him, etc.). I have been trying to find that Tibetan Buddhist book written for young Americans which described Shakyamuni overcoming his culturally conditioned sexism. I had encountered the book during my studies at Otani University, but I did not note the exact title and author. If anyone comes across it, please let me know.
-Rev. Patti Nakai (Rev. Nakai can be contacted through the Living Dharma Website)