Superiority Conceit in Buddhist Traditions

I. Buddhist Androcentrism

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Buddhist Androcentrism


IN THIS CHAPTER I explore the impact of the conceit of androcentrism in the Buddhist traditions, leading to various forms of discrimination against women. Out of the different manifestations of superiority conceit that I have selected for study in this book, this is perhaps the one with the most detrimental repercussions for the Buddhist traditions as a whole. Just think of it: the potential of half of the Buddhist population is being stifled by obstructing women from taking leadership roles. This is such a waste of human resources and a cause of much unnecessary pain.

I begin with the problem of women being denied full participation in the monastic life and thereby the traditional avenue toward leadership positions. Such denial is an issue in particular in the Theravāda traditions, where a lineage of fully ordained women existed in the past and was subsequently lost. Its recent revival has created considerable controversies. In the Mahāyāna traditions of East Asia such a lineage has continued to exist until today and in the Himalayan traditions it never came into being, although this might change in the future.

In order to enable a proper appreciation of androcentric and at times even misogynistic attitudes toward women, in what follows I need to cover legal aspects of the question of full ordination in some detail. Although the first part of the present chapter thereby comes with a particular emphasis on the question of allowing women entry into the monastic order of the Theravāda traditions, certain attitudes taken up for study are, unfortunately, quite pervasive in all Buddhist traditions.

Another manifestation of androcentric conceit takes the form of assuming that the higher echelons of the path to awakening are the sole 6reserve of males, a tendency evident in relation to the path of the bodhisattva who aims to become a Buddha in the future. Such notions can be quite pervasive in different Buddhist traditions, whose exegetical traditions tend to presume that at an advanced point in the progress to Buddhahood the acquisition of a male body is an indispensable requirement.

In relation to both of these trajectories, my overall concern is to try to explain how certain historical conditions and developments have led to androcentrism, if not misogyny, in the hope that an understanding of the situation will provide the necessary foundation for a much-needed change.


My presentation in the following pages can at times be somewhat dense, as I try to bring together and summarize complex developments and circumstances. As an easy way of introducing my topic, however, I begin here with a short story. This concerns a female disciple of a famous meditation teacher from Myanmar (Burma). Due to the unavailability of full ordination as a bhikkhunī, a fully ordained female monastic, she had taken the only ordination available to her in Myanmar, which involves observing eight or ten precepts and wearing a type of robes that differs visibly from those worn by fully ordained monastics. Such eight- or ten-precept nuns are found in different Theravāda countries, where they occupy an ambiguous position between the lay and the monastic world.

The nun of my story was running a meditation center on behalf of her teacher and had organized a retreat that he was going to lead. The teacher had come with a following of other bhikkhus, fully ordained male monastics, and everyone was very pleased that her organization and hard work had made things work smoothly for all participants.

According to the code of rules for monastics, the Vinaya, monastics are not permitted to help themselves to food on their own. In a traditional setting, the food will often be ceremoniously offered first to the most senior bhikkhu, who in this case was her teacher. The other bhikkhus then stand in a row behind the teacher and each in turn takes from the food. In 7this setting, the nun was the last to approach the table, due to her inferior hierarchical standing.

The food offered will usually involve a large amount of rice together with dishes with various curries and some sweets and fruits. When standing in the row, the practice is to keep an eye on how many monastics are behind oneself in order to make sure that one does not take too much of a particular food lest those at the end of the row no longer receive any of it.

Time and again during the retreat, the bhikkhus emptied all the dishes, and by the time the nun approached the table where the food was laid out, only rice was left. To use her own words, when she related this experience to me: “I only had my tears to go along with the plain rice.”

The teacher and the bhikkhus were very appreciative of the nun; they had no intention to make her suffer in any way. But they simply did not perceive her as a monastic. Her in-between status made her appear as a lay person in the eyes of the bhikkhus. They failed to notice that someone else was behind them who also needed to be considered when they took food. The privilege of hierarchy prevented them from becoming aware of the impact of their actions.

Within the framework of the traditional form of relationship the nun had with her teacher, this was not something she could bring up explicitly with him or his bhikkhus. In an Asian setting, to do so would have been perceived as an inappropriate type of criticism and even an open challenge. As a monastic, it was also not appropriate for her to approach the lay donors and ask for additional food. In this way, even though she was the one who had organized the retreat and made everything go smoothly for the teacher and his following of bhikkhus as well as the other participants, much against her own wishes she was on a plain rice diet. The situation she experienced reflects the inequity resulting from her status as a nun who, in the eyes of tradition, is not really a full monastic but at the same time also no longer belongs to the laity.

The above episode is in line with various forms of daily discrimination toward women who have renounced lay life in Theravāda countries (Anālayo 2017i: 291–96). The main problem remains their ambiguous position between the lay and the monastic world. This in-between status 8can find reflection, for example, in the type of dress worn. The nuns of Myanmar often wear pinkish colored robes, a color never worn by bhikkhus, and the nuns of Thailand wear only white, similar to lay people on observance days. Nuns in both countries usually do not officiate at public ceremonies or preach in public. Whereas nuns in Sri Lanka take ten precepts, in Thailand they usually only take eight, another similarity to the practice of lay people on an observance day. The Thai government denies the nuns the right to vote, in line with the custom that monastics do not vote, but at the same time does not concede them the benefit of free travel on public transport, a privilege accorded to bhikkhus.

Not all nuns in Theravāda countries perceive their situation as discriminatory and some can at times be rather suspicious of feminist agendas, often perceived as foreign intrusions into a traditional religious world (Anālayo 2017g: 350–53). Nonetheless, they are certainly disadvantaged. A male wishing to go forth and live a monastic life can count on vastly superior opportunities, resources, and support, compared to a female wanting to do the same.

In view of this inequality, what are its historic roots? To what extent is such relegation of women to a second-class status in line with the viewpoint the canonical sources attribute to the historical Buddha?

In an attempt to explore how far androcentric forms of conceit are in conformity with or in opposition to the way the texts present the Buddha’s own attitude, in what follows I first survey the historical and legal background to the question of bhikkhunī ordination in the Theravāda tradition. Then I will turn to the account of how the Buddha founded the order of bhikkhunīs.


From its homeland in India, the Buddhist monastic tradition was transmitted to Sri Lanka some two centuries after the time of the Buddha. According to the account given in a Sri Lankan chronicle, the arahant son of the Indian king Asoka, the bhikkhu Mahinda, had successfully converted the royal family of Sri Lanka (Anālayo 2018a: 202–10). When he was requested to grant the going forth to become a bhikkhunī to the 9queen and a group of her female followers, Mahinda refused. According to his explanation, in the way this is recorded in the Sri Lankan chronicle, he first needed to have bhikkhunīs come from India in order to collaborate with him and other bhikkhus in giving ordination to female candidates.

As a basic principle of monastic law, granting ordination requires a group of already-ordained monastics. For the ordination to be valid, these monastics need to perform the actual ordination in accordance with the stipulations made in the relevant legal text, the Vinaya. Buddhist monastic traditions are based on the execution of legal acts in communal harmony and nobody is invested with the power to issue new laws. Only the Buddha had the authority to pronounce rules and regulations, which remain binding for subsequent generations of monastics. These parameters need to be kept in mind when evaluating the granting of full ordination to women.

In the case of Sri Lanka, a group of bhikkhunīs headed by Mahinda’s sister, the bhikkhunī Saṅghamittā, came from India to Sri Lanka to ordain the queen and her followers and thereby transmit the bhikkhunī ordination lineage. At some time in the early eleventh century, during a period of warfare and political turmoil, the order of bhikkhunīs in Sri Lanka disappeared. Several centuries earlier, the same had happened in India.

At a still earlier time, however, in the early fifth century, bhikkhunīs from Sri Lanka travelled to China and participated in ordinations there (Anālayo 2018b: 125–27). Due to the absence of a group of bhikkhus ordained in the same Vinaya tradition, what took place at that time in China could not have been a full transmission of Theravāda bhikkhunī ordination. For a full transmission, a collaboration of bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs ordained according to the same monastic code would have been required.

In the eighth century the Vinaya of a Buddhist tradition known as Dharmaguptaka was imposed by imperial decree on all monastics in China. This is the Vinaya still followed today in countries like China, Korea, and Vietnam. Its code of rules for monastics differs from the Theravāda Vinaya; regulations on how to conduct ordination also vary in several respects. This in turn means that someone ordained in one of these 10two Vinaya traditions cannot grant ordination that will be recognized as legally valid by all members of the other tradition. This holds regardless of whether the candidate is male or female.

Returning to Sri Lanka, when in the early eleventh century the order of bhikkhunīs came to an end, to the best of our knowledge in other parts of the world there were no bhikkhunīs, ordained according to Theravāda law, who could have been brought to Sri Lanka to grant ordination. Since then, the option of taking full ordination has no longer been available to women in Theravāda countries. This explains the coming into existence of traditions of nuns who take only eight or ten precepts instead of following a full monastic code of rules and who wear robes that differ from those worn by bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs.

In recent times, however, several attempts at reviving the Theravāda order of bhikkhunīs have taken place in Thailand and Sri Lanka. Following ordinations held in 1998 in India and Sri Lanka, the order of bhikkhunīs has been steadily growing in Sri Lanka and also taken root in Thailand. The first group of Sri Lankan candidates received ordination twice, once in a ceremony that involved the collaboration of Chinese monastics ordained according to the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, and again in another ceremony carried out by Theravāda bhikkhus on their own. This double ordination has strengthened the appeal to legal validity of the revival of the Theravāda order of bhikkhunīs and has empowered its subsequent growth.


A proper appreciation of the revival of bhikkhunī ordination requires awareness of the legal complexities involved. The question is not merely one of patriarchal resistance to allowing women their rightful place, although such attitudes can at times play a role. Here, it can be helpful to distinguish between those concerned with proper adherence to the procedures of the Vinaya and those who are in principle opposed to the revival of bhikkhunī ordination for a range of reasons.

By way of premise, the right of a religious tradition to maintain its cus11toms and observances needs to be given due recognition. The Theravāda traditions of South and Southeast Asia have been deeply influenced by the perceived need to protect themselves against Western colonial domination and more recently against the disintegrating forces of secularism, similarly seen as driven predominantly by the West. In view of this historical precedent, reviving a bhikkhunī order in ways that openly conflict with basic Theravāda legal principles can easily be seen as the shadow of past colonial arrogance and the continuation of the disintegrating influences of secularization that threaten to destroy local religious practices and observances.

Theravāda bhikkhus who are concerned with a strict interpretation and implementation of their Vinaya will not recognize the ordination of a bhikkhu done in ways that openly conflict with their understanding of the parameters of a valid ordination. These require the proper demarcation of the space for the ordination ritual, the adoption of the Pāli language for the ordination formula, and the congregation of a certain number of validly ordained bhikkhus to confer the ordination, just to mention some key aspects. An ordination that involves monastics who are ordained according to a different Vinaya, for example, has little chance of being recognized.

For this reason, if a Theravāda ordination is performed in collaboration with monastics ordained according to the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, it is unreasonable to expect that this will be considered valid from a Theravāda legal viewpoint. Reservations against such an ordination need to be seen for what they are, namely objections to certain procedures that would be raised regardless of whether those ordained in this way are males or females.


The involvement of monastics ordained according to the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya is not the only possible way to proceed for reviving the extinct Theravāda bhikkhunī order. A close perusal of the Pāli Vinaya shows that it is in principle possible for bhikkhus to ordain women on their own 12when no order of bhikkhunīs is in existence to collaborate with them in granting ordination to female candidates (Anālayo 2018a). This solution requires a brief look at the history of bhikkhunī ordination as described in the Theravāda Vinaya.

The first relevant promulgation by the Buddha takes the form of eight weighty principles, garudhamma (translated by Bodhi 2012: 1190). According to the narrative setting, the Buddha made the acceptance of these eight weighty principles the way of granting ordination to his foster mother, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī. Although the authenticity of these weighty principles has at times been doubted, this impression is not confirmed by a comparative study (Anālayo 2016b: 95–116). Instead, the basic idea that the Buddha made some such foundational stipulations appears to be as historical as other aspects found in common among the different Vinaya accounts of the establishment of the order of bhikkhunīs.

According to the Theravāda Vinaya, one of these weighty principles stipulates that a woman who wishes to receive full ordination should go through a training period and receive ordination from both orders, the order of bhikkhus and the order of bhikkhunīs. The depiction in the Theravāda Vinaya of the Buddha asking Mahāpajāpatī to accept this particular weighty principle involves a double bind. In order to become a bhikkhunī herself, she had to agree to a procedure for ordaining other female candidates that at that time was impossible to put into practice. Forming an order of bhikkhunīs to collaborate with an order of bhikkhus to grant ordination to female candidates requires the existence of other bhikkhunīs who could join Mahāpajāpatī to constitute such an order. As a single bhikkhunī, she could not form an order and thereby was unable to fulfill the stipulation made in the weighty principle. The way this weighty principle is formulated in the Theravāda Vinaya actually prevented the granting of ordination to her five hundred followers, who also wanted to go forth.

It seems fairly implausible that the Vinaya account here depicts the Buddha as having just overlooked the obvious consequences of his own promulgation. Instead, from an emic perspective the ensuing dilemma is 13probably best read as conveying something done on purpose, in the sense of creating a situation that permits additional legislation.

Predictably in fact, the Vinaya continues with the report that Mahāpajāpatī asked how to proceed in regard to her followers. In response, the Buddha is on record as promulgating a rule that bhikkhus can give ordination to women on their own. This authorization, relevant to a situation when no bhikkhunī order is in existence, has never been explicitly revoked and can therefore be relied on in the current situation to revive the order of bhikkhunīs (Anālayo 2018a: 184–200).

The legal situation that emerges from the Theravāda Vinaya provides the background required for appreciating events in Sri Lanka. Mahinda’s refusal to ordain the queen of Sri Lanka and her followers is understandable, since at that time there were bhikkhunīs in existence in India who could be brought to Sri Lanka for granting ordination. Given the precedent set by Mahinda, however, it seems fairly probable that in later times, when the order of bhikkhunīs had disappeared, the bhikkhus would have assumed that it is in principle impossible for them to ordain bhikkhunīs on their own. The words of the arahant Mahinda, renowned for his central role in the spread of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, must have been held in deep respect and would simply have been followed. Any consultation of the Vinaya would have had that viewpoint as its starting point and led to the assumption that the permission for bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs on their own was no longer valid, as to grant such an ordination requires the collaboration of both orders.

This would explain why traditional Theravāda bhikkhus throughout the centuries appear to have been living with the sincere belief that it is not possible to revive an order of bhikkhunīs, once it has become defunct. From such a viewpoint, it is in principle impossible for bhikkhus to do so on their own, and it can also not be done in collaboration with bhikkhunīs who follow a different Vinaya. In particular the latter option, due to the perceived need to protect traditional Theravāda customs and observances, has invested the whole issue with a considerable emotional charge. As a result, Theravāda bhikkhunīs still lack official recognition and are subject to various forms of discrimination, even though the revival of their order is in principle a legally valid option.



An opposition of traditional Theravāda bhikkhus to what they perceive as a violation of the basic principles of their monastic code needs to be differentiated from other motivations. In fact, those who are not under the influence of such motivations often show themselves open to evaluating seriously the above-mentioned legal solution. This solution requires reconsidering the relevant part of the Vinaya on its own, setting aside the traditional perspective that has been influencing the matter for centuries, in order to appreciate that the permission for bhikkhus to ordain female candidates without the collaboration of an order of bhikkhunīs is a valid option for reviving such an order.

A willingness to allow for a shift of perspective, as long as it remains within the legal parameters of Theravāda law, will not be an option for those who are in principle committed to keeping women out of the monastic order and thus in a subordinate position. Here a wholesale rejection of the validity of bhikkhunī ordination appears as the only acceptable position. Such attitudes can conveniently be illustrated by turning to attempts by Bhikkhu Ṭhānissaro to refute the legality of a revival of bhikkhunī ordination. Elsewhere I have replied to the main points adduced (Anālayo 2015c, 2017h, 2018c, and 2019l: 61–67), hence in what follows I concentrate on the type of attitude that can inform such a dismissal of the revival of the bhikkhunī order.

A Buddhist society should ideally be based on the smooth collaboration of four types of members, who are male or female and lay or monastic. Since in the Theravāda traditions women do not have access to full ordination, they are not able to realize their full potential in contributing to such collaboration among the four assemblies. Such collaboration could be compared to the four legs of a noble elephant, each leg representing one of the four assemblies. On adopting this comparison, the situation in the current Theravāda traditions is similar to the elephant having one leg crippled (Anālayo 2014a: 16). The elephant can still walk, but only with difficulty. Similarly, a Buddhist tradition that lacks an order of bhikkhunīs and has only three of the four assemblies continues only with difficulty. The crippled leg, reflecting the ambiguous position of Theravāda 15nuns in between the monastic and the lay world, can be restored to full functionality by reviving bhikkhunī ordination. In reply to this illustration, Ṭhānissaro (2015: 23) presents the following reinterpretation of the simile:

the analogy is inaccurate. A more accurate analogy would be this: The religion is like an elephant with a severed leg. A doctor wants to reattach the leg, even though it has long been dead, and his tools for doing so are contaminated. If the operation goes forward, it will hasten the elephant’s death.

The change of the crippled leg into a severed one implies a wholesale dismissal of eight- and ten-precept nuns as something dead that no longer has a living connection to the Buddha’s dispensation. The reinterpretation also entails that granting women the place the Buddha originally accorded to them involves a lethal contamination. Its ultimate result will be to hasten the end of the whole tradition, corresponding to the death of the elephant.

The stark impression created in this way suggests the influence of deep-seated anxieties and apprehensions. It can safely be assumed that resistance to the revival of bhikkhunī ordination is in this case not merely based on legal considerations. More appears to be at stake.

Associating women with contamination can be particularly prominent in the Theravāda tradition of Thailand, due to the influence of local menstruation taboos. According to Thai custom, a bhikkhu is expected to avoid receiving anything given by a woman directly and instead should put out a piece of cloth on which the offering is to be placed. Departure from such behavior will likely be seen by others as a sign of the bad morality of the bhikkhu in question. In the northeast of Thailand, menstruation phobia goes so far as to result in prohibiting women from entry at any time into the monastic buildings in which the bhikkhus periodically congregate to carry out legal acts (Anālayo 2017i: 160–61). An example is the signboard shown in figure 1.

Besides reflecting a cultural conditioning in Thai Theravāda Buddhism, in a way the signboard also enshrines the basic attitude evident in the reinterpretation of the elephant analogy, in that the institution of Buddhist monasticism becomes a place that is in principle forbidden for women.



Figure 1. Signboard at the entrance to the uposatha hall, Wat Phra That Sri Chomtong, Chiang Mai.

The impression such attitudes can evoke in those denied the right to take full ordination can be illustrated by the following reflections by the former nun Thanissara (2015: 67):

Basically, as they would say in the British army, we weren’t up to muster. This was a men’s club, and they would make the rules, and those rules would always keep us as women in an ambivalent, disempowered, and dependent state. At any cost, those rules would defend against the amorphous, rolling tides of the feminine, which destabilized men and left them feeling vulnerable and out of control.


In his writings against the legality of bhikkhunī ordination, Ṭhānissaro (2018: 50) arrives at the verdict that “for the long life of the Dhamma and Vinaya, we will have to leave the Trojan horse outside.” The image of 17the Trojan horse here represents the revival of bhikkhunī ordination. The perceived need to protect the long life of the Dhamma and Vinaya points to the influence of the prediction of decline that, according to the Pāli Vinaya account, the Buddha gave after he had granted ordination to his foster mother and thereby taken the decisive step in founding an order of bhikkhunīs.

This prediction states that, due to the coming into existence of bhikkhunīs, the lifetime of the Buddha’s dispensation has been halved: it will endure only five hundred years instead of a thousand. Here is the actual formulation from the Theravāda Vinaya, in which the term “Tathāgata” stands for the Buddha (Anālayo 2016b: 233):

Since women have gone forth from home to homelessness in the teaching and discipline made known by the Tathāgata, now the holy life will not endure long, the right teaching will now remain [only] for five hundred years.

This contrasts to a duration of a thousand years if women had not received the going forth, hence my supplementation of “only” in the translation. Needless to say, with a history of some two thousand five hundred years, the Buddhist traditions have outlived both time periods mentioned in this prediction.

According to Ṭhānissaro (2018: 28), however, the prediction attributed to the Buddha “was actually quite prescient, in that it was approximately 500 years after his death that the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras first appeared.” This claim equates the Perfection of Wisdom texts with a decline of the Dharma. As the comment by Bhikkhu Ṭhānissaro illustrates, facing clear evidence that the predicted decline did not come to pass will prompt a need to devise alternative explanations. The Pāli commentarial tradition attempts to achieve this by reinterpreting the reference to five hundred years to mean five thousand years (Nattier 1991: 56–58 and Endo 2004). The implausibility of the commentarial suggestion may have motivated Bhikkhu Ṭhānissaro to refer to the Perfection of Wisdom texts as an alternative strategy, putting the blame on scriptures other Buddhist traditions consider sacred.


Would it not be more reasonable to set this prediction of decline aside as something that evidently has not come true? What is it that invests this particular passage with such strong influence among a sizeable number of male Buddhist monastics, an influence not confined to members of the Theravāda traditions?


The challenge of understanding why the prediction of decline continues to have such a powerful influence goes beyond the mere fact that it has turned out not to be true. If the institution of an order of bhikkhunīs really had such detrimental consequences, it is difficult to understand why the Buddha took such a step in the first place.

The Pāli Vinaya reports that the Buddha’s attendant Ānanda intervened on behalf of Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī’s quest for ordination, reminding the Buddha of his debt of gratitude to her. She had suckled him after his mother had passed away, soon after his birth. A Pāli discourse reports the same argument made by Ānanda on another occasion, when Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī wanted to offer the Buddha a robe (translated by Ñāṇamoli 1995/2005: 1102). On that occasion the Buddha refused to accept the robe, even after this argument was made. This makes it hardly conceivable that the same argument was sufficiently strong to make him change his mind regarding the founding of an order of bhikkhunīs. In fact, the Buddha had already settled that debt of gratitude by giving her teachings that led her to stream entry, the first of the four levels of awakening.

Not only does Ānanda’s reminder of the debt of gratitude not explain why the Buddha would take a step that presumably results in dramatically shortening the lifespan of his teaching. It is even more perplexing that in the Pāli Vinaya account the Buddha only mentions these devastating consequences when it is too late. He first stipulates the acceptance of the weighty principles as the way for Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī to become a bhikkhunī. After she has accepted and Ānanda returns to report this, the Buddha replies with the prediction of decline. At this point, nothing can be 19done any more to prevent the predicted decline. This stands in contrast to other passages describing future decline of the teachings, which regularly come with explicit indications of the type of practice and conduct that will prevent that decline (Anālayo 2019g: 131).

In addition to such narrative inconsistencies, the very idea that the institution of an order of bhikkhunīs is detrimental to the Buddhist dispensation flies in the face of a range of other passages in Pāli discourses (Anālayo 2018a: 28–52). These indicate that the Buddha had made a firm resolution not to pass away until he had competent disciples in each of the four assemblies (translated by Walshe 1987: 246, Bodhi 2000: 1724, Bodhi 2012: 1214, and Ireland 1990: 87). One of these four is the assembly of bhikkhunīs, the other three are the assemblies of bhikkhus, male 20lay followers, and female lay followers. Without enabling women to go forth and become bhikkhunīs, this aspiration of the Buddha could not have been fulfilled. It would have been impossible for him to have competent bhikkhunī disciples without first allowing an order of bhikkhunīs to come into existence.

Another discourse relates the completeness of the Buddha’s teaching to the accomplishment reached by each of the four assemblies of disciples, including bhikkhunīs who are senior, of middle standing, and recently ordained (translated by Walshe 1987: 431). How could such completeness ever have been reached without first granting women the opportunity to become bhikkhunīs?

Still another relevant passage concerns auspicious bodily marks of the Buddha, which already at his birth served as portents of various endowments and qualities to be expected of him, once he had become a Buddha. One of these is a wheel mark on the soles of his feet, which portends his being surrounded by many disciples, including bhikkhunīs (translated by Walshe 1987: 444). From the perspective of this passage, it was impossible for the Buddha not to start an order of bhikkhunīs at some point in his career.

Several passages more directly relate to future decline (translated by Bodhi 2000: 681 and Bodhi 2012: 818, 904, and 1058). Such a decline can be prevented through appropriate conduct by bhikkhus, bhikkhunīs, male lay followers, and female lay followers. Here the bhikkhunīs, provided they adopt the required conduct, contribute to preventing decline rather than causing it.

Considering this large number of textual references standing in direct contrast to the prediction of decline, together with the narrative inconsistencies it creates in the Pāli Vinaya, and the fact that it never came to pass, the success of this prediction in influencing attitudes among some male monastics must be occurring on an irrational level. Its appeal is not because it can lay a claim to being reasonable or an authentic record of the Buddha’s attitude. Instead, its appeal appears to be due to a resonance on the level of unconscious attitudes and assumptions. For this reason, it tends to be picked out of all relevant passages as the only relevant one, ignoring those that are dissonant with it.


The prediction of decline, found in the Pāli Vinaya, can also be examined with the help of a comparative study of its different versions. Since such study is of considerable relevance for this and subsequent chapters, here I briefly sketch the basic methodological principles involved. The discourses and Vinaya extant in Pāli are the final products of centuries of oral transmission of texts believed to have been spoken originally by the Buddha and his disciples. These orally transmitted texts eventually reached Sri Lanka and were committed to writing about four centuries after the time when the Buddha must have lived.

Other Buddhist traditions in India similarly preserved their records of the Buddha’s teachings and these were eventually also written down. With the disappearance of Buddhism from India, much of the material from these other Buddhist traditions was lost. Fortunately, by that time collections of discourses and Vinayas had been brought to China and translated into Chinese; a few discourses and the Vinaya of one tradition also reached Tibet and were translated into Tibetan. In addition to these translations, relevant material has also been preserved in manuscripts that primarily come from Central Asia.


Recourse to parallels to the Pāli discourses and Vinaya makes it possible to compare different versions of a particular text and to rectify transmission errors. It enables identifying the “early Buddhist” perspective on a particular matter, corresponding roughly to the period from the fifth to the third century before the Common Era.

Of significance for the present topic is the Vinaya account of the first saṅgīti, a term that stands for a “communal recitation” (less adequately translated as “council;” see Tilakaratna 2000). This was according to the traditional account held by senior bhikkhus soon after the Buddha’s passing away. Comparative study of the relevant passage in different Vinayas makes it in my view probable that the prediction of decline emerged during the oral transmission of accounts of this communal recitation (Anālayo 2016b: 159–77 and 2019l: 75n87).

Concerns regarding how to ensure the survival of the Buddhist tradition, after the passing away of its founder, would naturally have led to shoring up institutional identity in such a way that public opinion could be won over and continuous support be ensured. In view of the subordinate position of women in mainstream ancient Indian societ

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