10 More Buddhist Women You Should Know

Last week, Rev. Zesho Susan O’Connell, Vice President of the San Francisco Zen Center, posted a list of 10 Buddhist Women Every Person Should Know. She began with Mahapajapati (the Buddha’s stepmother and first female Buddhist monastic), and then skips up to the 20th century and over to Western women. All of those mentioned are worth reading about and indeed should be known, not only as examples of great Buddhist women, but as simply wonderful people.

I thought a bit more could be said though, and a few more women could be added to the list. For starters, going back to Mahapajapati. True, she was the first Buddhist nun – thus establishing the longest surviving female ordination lineage. Moreso, she was a very tough woman, an exceptionally devoted stepmother, wife, and finally an amazingly courageous practitioner. We are told that she won ‘stream entry’ even as a lay follower.  When she led 500 women to seek ordination from the Buddha, he refused (*see below) and went off to the next town, but she and the others followed him. Having cut their hair and donning yellow robes and injured feet, they again requested ordination. This time Ananda interceded and the request was granted.

Soon after, Mahapajapati became fully awakened, putting her on par with the religious achievement of any man. And the Buddha deemed her to be foremost of those who had experience (rattaññūnam) (A.i.24). Her teachings drew numerous other women into the monastic life and eventual awakening as well – read more about Mahapajapati here.

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For more on the early nuns, it’s always fun to read the Therigatha, or sayings of the elder sisters. For a beautiful translation of many of these verses, along with thoughtful historical and feminist discussion, see Susan Murcott’s First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening – (this link takes you to the new edition, with a lovely introduction by Diana Winston).

DianaWinston-Headshot-091 via http://www.fullypresentthebook.com/authorsSpeaking of Diana Winston – and bouncing to the 20th/21st century for a moment – here is another Buddhist woman you should know about. Having lived as a Buddhist nun in Burma for a year, Diana returned to lay life and currently is the Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), and a teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. She is the author of Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens and co-author of Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness, with Susan Smalley. She has published many articles on mindfulness, Buddhism, and society and a number of her dharma talks can be heard/downloaded here, and some other articles of hers can be read at KillingtheBuddha.

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Going back to the Therigatha, I have long been fond of #11, the poem by the nun Mutta, rendered as follows by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

So freed! So thoroughly freed am I! —
from three crooked things set free:
from mortar, pestle,
& crooked old husband.
Having uprooted the craving that leads to becoming,
I’m set free from aging & death.

Sumuttā sādhu muttāmhi tīhi khujjehi muttiyā,
Usukkhalena musalena patinā khujjakena ca,
Muttāmhi jātimaraṇā bhavanetti samūhatāti.

Itthaṃ sudaṃ muttā therī gāthaṃ abhāsitthā’ti.

Muttātherīgāthā.

Murcott, in her discussion of this poem, suggests that muttiyā could better be rendered as “freed by means of.” The word is the present passive of mutta: freed or released. Thus the three instruments of her oppression turn out to be the very factors of her awakening. And indeed, the three things: Usukkhalena musalena and patinā khujjakena are all in the instrumental, which in English we would render ‘by’ or ‘with’ or ‘by means of’ – and not in the ablative, usually rendered with ‘from’.

So Mutta, who was born into a poorer Brahman family and married off to a crooked older man, turns the grounds of her suffering into the instruments of her liberation.

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A third Buddhist woman worth knowing, and the last from my end (I’ll be counting on you to add seven more in the comments and/or by way of posts at your own blogs) is Venerable Yifa. Ven Yifa is a virtual powerhouse of contemporary dharma - A Taiwanese Buddhist nun with over thirty years of practice, trained as a lawyer, with a Ph.D from Yale. What can I tell you about Ven Yifa? Well, I’ll start by mentioning three of her most recent books: Discernment: Educating the Mind and Spirit, Authenticity: Clearing the Junk: A Buddhist Perspective, and The Tender Heart: A Buddhist Response to Suffering. She has been a pioneer in interfaith monastic dialogue, outspoken advocate of Theravadin Buddhist nuns, and leader in bringing young Westerners to both Taiwan and China to experience the culture and Buddhist practices their on the ground. (n.b. both programs are still taking applications for this summer, due April 15.) I’ve traveled with her in both programs and highly recommend them. If you’re not up for traveling half-way around the world, at least have a look at her books and a couple videos:

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Please add more in the comments and/or links to blogs or other useful websites.

* The Buddha’s refusal may seem a bit perplexing at first. If women could – and eventually would – attain the same spiritual attainments as men in Buddhism, why refuse them their own order? The answer given to me early in my studies, which I still see as quite plausible, is that while the Buddha certainly went ‘against the stream’ of his society, he still knew better than to rock the boat too much (there was a saying around that time that he who raises his head up too much should have it chopped off – that is: follow your duty if you know what’s good for you). The fact that he was a bit conservative at first, but later gave in, suggests more his flexibility and humility as a teacher and less so any kind of misogyny. The fact that his female order continued, and preserved the teachings of these women in societies hostile to women likewise suggests at least  a touch of an enlightened attitude toward women.

  • http://minddeep.blogspot.com Marguerite Manteau-Rao

    Two years ago, I put together a list of ’20 Great Living Women Buddhist Teachers in America’. Here is the link: http://minddeep.blogspot.com/2010/07/20-great-living-women-buddhist-teachers.html.

    To which I would like to add Ayya Khema, no longer living, but certainly one of most wonderful teachers of 2oth century!

    • Justin Whitaker

      Excellent! This is great; exactly what I was hoping for. I'd love to see a list with Ayya Khema on it as well. And who else? Lama Shenpen Hookham of England, Cheng Yen of Taiwan... Perhaps we could encourage authors/writers/reader from different countries to suggest great women from their own nations...

  • John Emmer

    I heard Amma Thanasanti Bhikkuni speak at Against the Stream in Santa Monica a few times and was really impressed: She also works for/with Awakening Truth, a 501c to “support a Bhikkhuni training monastery for Buddhist nuns” She has quite a story about her own experience on the path to becoming a Bhikkuni.

  • http://primejunta.blogspot.com/ Petteri Sulonen

    Re Mahapajapati and her ordination—it’s also possible that the story has been mythologized and the current version is a later addition, reflecting the prejudices of the monks assembling the Canon more than anything the historical Buddha said or did. In fact, Jayarava dug up an apparently earlier passage from the Pali Canon where the Buddha ordains a Jain woman, named Bhadda, with none of the fuss associated with Mahapajapati. Linky: http://jayarava.blogspot.com/2007/01/women-and-ordination.html

  • Tom Woodbury

    I know some teachers who will decline an invitation to teach 2X before accepting the third time, an old tradition that is intended to demonstrate the preciousness of the dharma and induce appropriate perseverance in the adept. Even if the Buddha did decline at first, who are we to say he did not know full well that women needed to be accepted into the sangha, but was simply making a point? I find the very idea that the Buddha, after his awakening, was somehow misogynist to be laughably arrogant, as if one of us 2500 years after the fact could possibly know what was in the Buddha’s mind!

  • indian native buddhist

    There is no Brahmins in India at the time of Buddha. The term was used after establishing Hinduism after eradicating Buddhism in India.
    Buddhism was destroyed by Hindus, they slaughtered Buddhist monks, captured to Buddhist shrines and turned it into Hindu temples, altered Buddhist texts. Aryans were invaders who came to India and later established their supremacy over native people through vicious means. The Aryans were so vicious and so cruel to native Indians, and Buddha wanted to free his people from the foreign invaders.
    Buddha was successful in overthrowing Aryan supremacy in India through his teaching to his own people. Later the Maurya Emperor Asoka established Buddhism all over India and sent missionaries to other Asian countries. During the reign of Maurya’s, Aryans(Hindus) lost their whole grip in Indian society, as Buddhism was dominant. Emperor Asoka even banned yaga’s (animal sacrifice conducted by Aryans (Hindus) ). The vindictive Aryan were waiting for resurgence in India met their aim when they succeeded in killing Brahadradha, the grandson of Emperor Asoka, and establishing the Sunga (HIndu) dynasty. Brihadradha married an Aryan women, the daughter of Pushyamitra Sunga, as he was pulled in by her beauty. It was a great mistake he has done, and that was a trap by Aryans, using a women to destroy an enemy. Pushyamitra, who later became the army chief, killed Brahadradha while he was sleeping, and this was aided by his own Aryan wife who opened the door before her father to kill her husband. She also killed her two children ,by giving poisoned food, in order to destroy the clan completely as the children were born to the Mauryan king.
    Pushyamitra, on killling Brihadradha, declared himself as the King and established Sunga dynasty. During Sunga dynasty Buddhist were persecuted, eventually the religion became extinct in its own birth place. Aryans gradually shaped Hinduism in the form a religion, established varna (caste) system placing Brahmins the top layer. The native Indians were considered as lower caste or lower status people. Aryans came to India thrice and the earliest group came to India who formed a base, were given prominence. They are called Brahmins.
    The term Brahmins were in use only after the establishment of Hinduism in India. Aryans infiltrated into Buddhism even during the time of Asoka’s son Mahindra. (Asoka did not permitted this). In order to destroy Buddhism, the infiltrated Aryans altered Buddhist text and divided Buddhism into Mahayana and Hinayana. The word ‘Hina’ in Sanskrit means ‘inferior’ as it was followed by native Indians. Hindus(formerly Aryans) altered Buddhist knowledge and practices and spread it into other Asian nations in the name Mahayana Buddhism, thus destroying the original Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism is not true Buddhism, it is the Hinduised form of Buddhism.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thank you for this detailed response. I’d love to see some sources on this as it doesn’t mesh well with what I’ve read about Indian history (aside from certain features such as there being Mauryan and Sunga dynasties). For instance the terms ‘aryan’ and ‘brahmin’ occur countless times in the Pali texts – so they were either common in the Buddha’s time, or inserted by way of a massive and well-covered up conspiracy much later.

      • indian native buddhist

        Definitely, the website indiannativebuddhism.org will be having such information. It is under construction and will be available soon.

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