Shortly after the Buddha's first sermon, a wealthy young man from Varanasi by the name of Yaças joined the small group formed by the Awakened One and his first five monks, and also embraced the religious life. His mother and his wife, who had been looking for him desperately, found him at the Buddha's side and asked him to be instructed, thus becoming the first upâsaka, or lay women. For many years, this pious lay path remained the only one open to women, leaving them just the hope, through donations made to monks and other merit-generating activities, of being reborn one day in the male condition. Only then would the monastic career be accessible to them and thereby liberation. But a major step was to be taken many years later.
The young prince Siddhartha had been brought up, after the untimely death of his mother Queen Mâya, by his maternal aunt Mahâprajâpati Gautami. After her widowhood, the latter aspired to push her spiritual search further by embracing religious life. She is not alone in this case. Some time before, a serious conflict had indeed opposed the Shâkya clan and that of the Koliya, and many women, who had remained widowed after deadly battles, were concerned about their salvation.
There has been much speculation, without however finding an answer, about the reasons that justified the Buddha's long hesitation: concern for "what will people say" in a very conservative society dominated by other religious beliefs, or economic concerns?
Thanks to a stay of the Buddha in his native town of Kapilavastu, Mahâprajâpatî came to find him to obtain his permission to return, according to the established expression, “in this doctrine and in this discipline”. She receives a refusal. Three times, she returns to the charge. Three times, it's the same negative answer. Mahaprajapati is deeply saddened by this, but her determination remains unwavering.
Imitated by others women – 500 say some texts -, she shaves her head and adopts the ocher-coloured clothing that characterizes the state of renunciation. And decides to follow the Buddha from afar, during his many wanderings.
Ananda's kindness and skill
During a stopover in Vaiçâlî, the Buddha's closest disciple, Ananda, known for his great kindness, noticed the group of women and spoke with them. Touched by their approach, he decides to mediate with the Buddha. Without more success. He then comes up with the idea of formulating his request more skilfully, and he asks his question in other terms:
“Blessed can women, once entering the familyless state, attain the state of entering the stream, the state of those who return only once, the state of those who do not return and the state of arhat? This time, the answer is yes.
Ananda hastens to follow up: “Well, O Blessed One, allow Mahaprajapati Gautami to enter into religious life, into this doctrine and this discipline. She was the Blessed's maternal aunt, she was the Blessed's foster mother. »
Caught in this subtle “trap” justified by laudable intentions, the Buddha finally agrees to open monastic life to women. However, this authorization is accompanied by conditions: they must agree to submit to particularly drastic disciplinary rules, and in greater numbers than those imposed on members of the male community. Nuns, even the most senior in their condition, should show the greatest respect to monks, even if they are barely ordained. Moreover, a female community can only be set up with the agreement and under the authority of a community of monks. Finally, a nun, whatever her level of knowledge, cannot teach the doctrine to the monks. However, Mahaprajapati received these rules with joy and the order of Buddhist nuns thus made its entry into history.
There has been much speculation, without however finding an answer, about the reasons that justified the Buddha's long hesitation: concern for "what will people say" in a very conservative society dominated by other religious beliefs, or economic concerns, the donations of the laity hardly allowing the monks to survive in certain regions, how to envisage maintaining a double monastic community. After the disappearance of the Buddha, the intercession of Ananda will be strongly reproached to him by the most rigorous monks.
Be that as it may, the nuns thus found themselves placed in a position of complete dependence vis-à-vis the monks. This situation, within societies still very marked by male domination, will not fail to influence the attitude of lay people who, in many countries, remain convinced, even today, that donations to nuns do not generate the same merits as the gifts made to the monks. The vagaries of history having led to the disappearance of the tradition of major ordination for women in many countries of the Theravada tradition, the restoration of a female order in its own right constitutes one of the challenges of modern Buddhism.