Gender Discrimination in the Pali Canon

published with the generous permission of Ven Analayo

Gender Discrimination in the Pali Canon

A Letter from Ven Bhikkhu Analayo to Ven Ayya Tathaaloka


Dear venerable Ayyā Tathālokā,

you asked me to briefly report on my ongoing research on the theme of gender discrimination in the Pāli canon, so here is what I can offer off-hand, topics that I will be examining in more detail in the near future.

By way of foreword, allow me to propose that in approaching the scriptures of the Pāli canon for guidance and orientation, we need to be aware of the fact that this material is the final product of a prolonged period of oral transmission and thus may not always fully reflect the original.1 The possibility cannot a priori be excluded that views, which were not part of the original delivery of a discourse or a rule, could have influenced the canonical material as we have it now. This does not mean that the Pāli canon can no longer provide guidance and orientation. But it does mean that during the centuries of oral transmission, material that at first perhaps arouse in the form of a commentary (where the reciters would have felt free to express personal opinions) could have become part of what now is considered canonical.2

Practically speaking, this means that instead of taking isolated passages on their own as invariably true, what is required is an awareness of the overall thrust of the canonical scriptures on a particular theme. Here an important criterion is consistency. Given that according to the discourses the Buddha himself presented consistency as a criterion of truth,3 it would be reasonable to expect that the Buddha was coherent in his views. Furthermore, in order to evaluate single passages a comparative study of the same material transmitted by other early Buddhist schools can provide important perspectives, i.e. in particular the Vinayas and Āgamas preserved in Chinese and other languages.

In the case of the attitude towards women, we find contradictory positions and thus a lack of consistency in the Pāli canon. One example is the account of the foundation of the order of nuns.4 According to the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta, soon after his awakening the Buddha proclaimed that he would not pass away until he had nun disciples who are wise and learned.5 From this it would follow that right from the outset he wanted to have an order of nuns. This impression is further supported by a closer perusal of the Pāli canon, which shows recurrent references to the importance of having four assemblies of disciples (monks, nuns, male and female lay followers) and to the significant contribution made by nuns to the prosperity and success of the Buddha's dispensation. These passages stand in contrast to the impression created by the account of the foundation of the order of nuns, which reads as if the Buddha did not want to allow women to go forth.6 A comparative study of this account in the different Vinayas, mainly extant in Chinese, shows clear signs of later addition and thus makes it probable that it does not accurately reflect the Buddha's attitude.

Another example would be a pair of discourses in the Aguttara-nikāya that compare women to black snakes, as both are dirty, smelly and betray friends etc.7 Would it be reasonable and coherent for an awakened teacher to make such derogatory remarks about women, a teacher who according to other discourses had numbers of nun disciples that had reached full awakening and thus total freedom from any defilement,8 who according to the same Aguttara-nikāya proclaimed various nuns and lay women as outstanding in qualities like deep concentration and profound wisdom,9 and who apparently placed such trust in women that in a twin regulation found in all Vinayas he sanctioned acting on a trustworthy laywoman's report about a monk's breach of the rules?10 The comparison of women to snakes recurs in two parallel versions: one in the Tibetan Vinaya, where a similar remark is headed by the qualification "some", i.e. "some women are ...",11 and another in a late text in Uighur, where this remark is not made by the Buddha, but rather by some Sakyan youths.12

These two cases may already suffice for the time being to alert us to the possibility that gender discrimination in the Pāli canon may well be the result of later developments. Regarding the overall attitude towards nuns in early Buddhism, I think it stands beyond doubt that an order of nuns was in existence, and from that I would conclude that the Buddha approved of its existence.13 To this we may add a range of passages that express a very positive attitude towards nuns and value their important contributions to the Dhamma.

Now quite probably the Buddha adjusted to prevalent customs in ancient India – in wider society as well as in parallel traditions like the Jain order, which appears to already have had an order of nuns – by placing nuns in second position vis-à-vis monks. However, such positioning would have been dictated by circumstance, not being an expression of a principle endorsement of gender discrimination. In fact, I would hold that a discriminating attitude towards women in principle is incompatible with the freedom from defilement incumbent on reaching full awakening, where any prejudice based on caste, social standing, race or gender has been left behind.14

In sum, it would seem to me that

  1. Individual passages reflecting a misogynist attitude among the canonical sources need to be approached with circumspection, comparing them with the general thrust of the Dhamma and Vinaya, and ideally studying them in the light of extant parallels.

  2. Regulations that express gender discrimination probably reflect the ancient Indian situation and would thus in principle be open to revision in a different setting, when Buddhism begins to flourish in a different environment and culture. Such revision is not against Dhamma and Vinaya, so it seems to me, but would rather express the pragmatic principle of adjusting to circumstances that is such a recurrent feature in the formation of rules as documented throughout the Vinaya. In the end, tradition – which I personally highly value – only stands a chance to survive if it is able to adjust to changing circumstances without loss of what is essential. This can come about if our appraisal of the situation is based on a clear awareness of what causes dukkha – for ourselves or others – and what leads to freedom from dukkha.

Bhikkhu Anālayo

1 This uncertainty is reflected in M 76 at M I 520,6, according to which what has been transmitted orally may be well remembered or not, it could be correct, but it could also be wrong, sussutam pi hoti dussutam pi hoti, tathā pi hoti aññathā pi hoti. A more detailed study of the oral transmission of the Pāli canonical scriptures could be found in a triad of articles on this topic, in which I survey oral characteristics of the Pāli discourses in general, offer a case study, and turn to the working mechanism of memory that explains how changes could have happened, see

2 I have gathered some material in support of the suggestion that what originally was a commentary eventually became part of the canonical material in a paper on "The Influence of Commentarial Exegesis on the Transmission of Āgama Literature", forthcoming in Proceedings of the Workshop on Translating Buddhist Chinese, K. Meisig (ed.), Wies.baden: Harrassowitz.

3 This is the principle enshrined in the mahāpadesas, DN 16 at DN II 123,30 and AN 4.180 at AN II 167,31; and also in the recurrent reference in debate situations to the need for consistency, e.g. MN 56 at MN I 377,10: "your earlier [statements] do not fit with your later [statements], nor do your later [statements] fit with your earlier [statements]," na kho te sandhīyati purimena vā pacchimaṃ, pacchimena vā purimaṃ.

4 A more detailed examination is forthcoming in the proceedings of the Hamburg conference 2007, which should be coming out in the very near future with Wisdom Publications.

5 DN 16 at DN II 105,8: na ... parinibbāyissāmi yāva me bhikkhuniyo na sāvikā bha.vis.santi viyattā vi.nītā vis.āradā bahussutā.

6 AN 8.51 at AN IV 274 and Vin II 256, a more detailed study of this account is one of my ongoing research projects, .

7 AN 5.229 at AN III 260,24: asuci, duggandho ... mittadubbhī; see also the following discourse AN 5.230.

8 According to MN 73 at MN I 490,24, the Buddha could count on over five-hundred arahant nuns among his disciples.

9 AN 1.14 at AN I 24-26.

10 These are the two aniyata rules, for a study of the Pāli version see Thanissaro 1994/2007: The Buddhist Monastic Code I, California, pp. 185ff.

11 Derge edition of the ’dul ba, da 134b3, reading bud me kha cig la, "some women"; a passage discussed by Damchö 2009: 302 in her phd on gender in the (Mūla-)sarvāstivāda Vinaya, see

12 The Maitrisimit attributes such a statement to a group of Sakyan youths that were still under the influence of defilements, see Geng, Shimin 1988: Das Zusammentreffen mit Maitreya, Die ersten fünf Kapitel der Ha.mi-Version der Maitrisimit, Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, p. 178,.

13 For a critique of the in my view untenable hypothesis that the order of nuns could have been founded after the Buddha's demise see

14 Here I think it is quite significant that outright machism in the discourses is associated with Māra, the impersonation of defilements, see SN 5.2 at SN I 129,14.