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The Gathering, A Story of the First Buddhist Women

Vanessa Sasson

December 10, 2023 

Helen: What was your initial inspiration to do this as a story?


Vanessa: The inspiration started with the last book on Yasodhara that tells the story of her life. She was the wife of the Buddha. She has other names in the literature, but her most common name is Yasodhara.   I wrote her story after doing a lot of research. I enjoyed it so much, that I think I want to keep telling the stories.


I find that there's something in Academia, we're very well trained,  it does a lot of good to the mind to be trained academically. But there's a distance, you know, you step back and stare at your subject. You assess it from afar. When I did that last book, the idea was to not be so far away, I wanted to get much closer to my material. I kept feeling like I was a dance critic, but I never danced. That was the feeling that I had as a scholar, that I would sit there with my pen and watch other people dance, and I thought, oh, I want to get on the stage. But I had all kinds of reasons why I did it the way I did, but that was a big part of it is that I just wanted to come in close. I wanted to participate. I wanted to feel the stories and not stare at them.  I wanted to climb in.


Helen: Your story takes us back to that time . .  back to the women, their lives and their surrounds. It's quite remarkable the way you recreate that. What were your sources, how do you do your research?


Vanessa: That's a good question. The research is something I've been doing for 20 years, because I've been involved in early Buddhist stories for 25 years, since I started my PhD. I've been reading the early stories of the Buddha's life, of the early Buddhist women, like I’ve just been reading Buddhist stories, I just wasn't telling them, I was studying them. So I've been involved in this research for a very long time, most of the story is built on Pali sources. Wherever I could use other sources I did, but most of the research is coming out of the Pali Vinaya, and the Therigatha. Those were the two major resources for this book.  I kind of follow the two of them and use the two in relationship.


Helen: Perhaps you could tell us a little more about the Therigatha,  the poems, which I think was one of your main sources.


Vanessa: That was my baby.  If you haven't heard of the Therigatha, if you haven't read it, please correct that immediately. I really, really recommend that you all buy a copy of some translation.  There's a whole bunch of translations  out there. The one that I use is by Charles Hallisey, who's a professor at Harvard. It's very beautiful, very accessible. I really recommend it. The Therigatha is a beautiful collection;,it’s what we think may be the oldest collection of women's voices in the world. We have very few early texts that we think are in women's voices. Just to give you a parallel, in the Hebrew Bible, I think there's one set of verses that scholars are almost unanimous, may have actually been women's verses. That's in the book of Exodus with Miriam, where she sings a song, and we think it may actually be a woman's voice. But that's just a few lines. Other than that, like here, and there, we get a few lines. But basically, we don't have literature that we think women produced. Most of the ancient sources that we have, at this point, we're pretty sure produced by men, for men. There's probably exceptions that we haven't caught yet, but there'll be little tidbits here and there. What we have with the Therigatha is a collection of 73 poems that most scholars at this point are willing to concede were probably produced by a collection of women. This is about 2000 years old..It's an entire book filled with women's voices. Each poem is written by a different woman. So there's a couple of poems where it's the same woman telling two different poems. Basically, you have about 70, women's voices. They tell you their stories. It's so beautiful. They tell you stories of their loss or their experiences of suffering, or what it's like to be married, or just women's realities, of being prostitutes, of being courtesans or being homeless, and you feel like you're really hearing women, it sounds like women.  They tell you details of their lives that you thought, these are women's lives. What's so beautiful about these poems is they're all different. They have all these different circumstances. So you're getting to know a whole collection of women who probably existed about 2000 years ago. They're all different. At the end of every poem, they tell you, I studied the tradition, or I listened to the Buddha's words, or some kind of ‘I did the path and now I'm free’. It's so unapologetic, so beautifully uncompromising. They don't say, the monks told me they think I'm making progress. You don't get anything like that, you don't get the Buddha says, I'm on my way, the men don't need to confirm them. They write their poems, they tell you about their lives. And at the end of each poem, they say, and now I'm free.  So these are stories of women's accomplishments, which we don't get in the literature, either, like world literature. We really  think that this collection of poetry may be the oldest collection of women's voices on Earth, that we have recorded. Women spoke before 2000 years ago, but this is one that was preserved, and it's preserved by a male institution, right, which is also quite remarkable. This literature has been preserved and protected and passed on and held by the Buddhist community for 2000 years. I think just on that merit alone, it's worth it, to look at it and to hold it and to think these are women ancestors, this is their voices.


Helen: And so the men passed on these poems orally?


Vanessa: We think so. We don't know.  We don't know how we ended up with this. We also have the Theragatha, which is poems of the first monks. This was literature that was out there. But there's a woman's book - that's really quite remarkable. It was preserved by the tradition. The tradition is a male institution. there's no way around that. And yet, they kept the Therigatha. So for 2000 years, it's been passed down, and we have it, it's written, and the tradition still holds. It's considered to be part of the early Pali canon. It's a very, very special book. It's been getting a lot more attention in the last decade. There's a bunch of translations available;  you can look at different ones and get to know it and listen to the sounds of it. That collection, we think, represents some of the earliest Buddhist nuns that Buddhism produced, right. This is where you get the poem of Patacara, and this is where you get the poem of Mahapajapati and where you get the poem of Vimala and Kisa Gotami. Like all these characters, these women characters, that we hear their stories, their voices are in the Therigatha. So that book became my very precious resource. And I thought, it's these women that I want to talk to in my book, these are the women whose stories I want to engage with and get to know.


Helen: They are so very diverse women. You mentioned Vimala who is a prostitute, but also you've got members of the royal family, walking together.


Vanessa: This is the thing that's interesting.  I've gotten so used to my book now and I've been living in it and in my imagination for such a long time that I forget, sometimes the Therigatha is a collection of poems that we think is these first Buddhist nuns and so there's a really good chance that a lot of these women did walk together to ask for ordination. But we don't know who those women were. What you get from the Vinaya is, the other really important story. I'm just wondering, how many of you know the story of the first ordination. For those of you who don't know, the Vinaya is a collection of texts about seven volumes long in the Pali edition, that gives us our monastic rules. The rules  the monks and nuns have to follow. It's an amazing collection, it's really a lot of fun. It's a little bit wacky at times, everything is stories, right? So the tradition will tell you a story of something that a monk or a nun did. And then the Buddha will say, Oh, you shouldn't do that. As a result of the story, he establishes a rule.  So it's very long, because you get all these stories embedded with the rules so that you have the rules and the backstories that go with them. Some of them are completely nonsensical, wild,  you're like, that didn't happen! Did the early monks really do stuff like that? We don't know. But so it's it goes back and forth between rules and stories. At one point in the middle of the Vinaya, you get the story of the women, we get the stories being told and presumably by male monastics who are telling us how the women got ordained. What they tell us is Mahapajapati Gotami was the Queen, and the woman who raised the Buddha. At one point in her life, she decides to walk out of the palace. Her husband is dead, her son has become the Buddha, there's no one really left in the palace. She's fulfilled all of her responsibilities. There's no point in her sitting on the throne anymore. She's a widow at this point, she decides I'm  going to choose a life of renunciation. I'm going to go ask the Buddha, if I can do what he did, if I can do the same thing. This sounds pretty fine and not such a big deal, except that she is asking for something pretty radical if you pay attention to it. What's radical is that the Buddha was teaching lay people, men and women were in fact practicing the tradition, so she could have practiced the tradition sitting in her palace and been fine. That's not what she wants. She wants more. She wants to shave her head. She wants renunciation. She wants monasticism, so she's not just asking, can you teach me a few teachings while I wash the dishes? She said, I want the whole thing. That's what she's going to ask for. So she's already making a very bold move. She steps out of the palace and the text tells us the 500 Sakyan women showed up to walk with her. Who are these women? We have no idea. It's just this kind of stable, 500 women. So it's a narrative device that the Vinaya uses all the time, they just give you these chunks of human beings and so 200 Over here, 5000 over there. They just throw these numbers at you, and you don't know, is it real? Who knows what they're doing? But we get 500 women walk behind her and she leads this giant pack of women to go ask the Buddha for ordination. Right? How did they find out that she was going to do this? We don't know. Was there like a big gossip vine? Was this prepared for weeks? Or did it just, we don't know. Right? It just tells us 500 women walk behind her. And so this massive group of women walk behind her so she's now the leader, so she's like the female Buddha almost right. She's like this woman leading the women. And they walk to Bamboo Grove, which is a grove just outside Kapilvastu, where the Buddha was residing, because he had come to visit the city where he was from, to ask him, can women join the order? She's not asking, can you teach me meditation. She's not saying could you teach me the noble truth, she's not asking but basically she wants to join the Sangha. That's the radical move she's making. So she goes, and she makes her request on behalf of these, this conglomerate of 500 women that we don't know who they are. So that's where the Therigatha became my companion as I thought, Oh, those 500 women come  from the Therigatha.  So I used the characters from the Therigatha to fill that community, because I don't know who those 500 women are. They go, and then they ask, could we join the order? He does something very strange that no one understands and everybody's had theories about for the last 2000 years, he says something very evasive. There's different versions of it, depending on the Vinaya that you read, but it all  ends up being evasive. He says something to the effect of, best if you don't ask the question. He doesn't say yes. He doesn't say No, he just says, don't ask me this question. She asks a second time. He says the same thing a second time. She asks a third time.   The third time is usually the charm, right? The third time is when you know it's either a yes or no. The third time he says according to the Vinaya, it's best if you don't ask the question. So he leaves her kind of stranded,  because she's left home. This is  what's radical, that she has left home with 500 women under her care, which I can assume, as a woman who's been a queen all her life, that she has some sense of responsibility, and knows how to lead. But now she's carrying these 500 women.  She has nowhere to go with them. Which is paradoxical because she's chosen a life of religious homelessness, where you've given up safety of the world. But it's not how renunciation works, is that you give it up to then be embraced by a different kind of home. It's not a complete home. Very few people can live this kind of radical homeless life where you just stand there all by yourself in the wind. You choose a life of homelessness, to enter a different kind of home. Renunciation still includes a home even though it doesn't sound, that’s the paradox of monasticism. You need to go somewhere so that you can be safe so that you can practice, so you have the conditions to serve you. She's left her home, hoping that he will receive her and to give her a new home. He doesn't. He knows he hasn't given her that. She knows and he knows, most of us as readers don't understand what has just happened. But they know she can't join. She can't go back home. You can't shave your head and then in the first five minutes, go, oh, this was tricky. I think I'll go back. You're not allowed to do that. Right? I mean, you can give up the robes but not in the first five minutes. Traditionally you're not supposed to give back. Right? So she can't give back the robes. She can't give up renunciation just because it got tough. Now she's really stuck. She has all these women that she's holding, that are standing behind her. So she's nowhere. That's what the Buddha's answer has done - put her nowhere. It's a really, really difficult story. It's a story that women have been wrestling with that monasticism generally has been wrestling with, since we started telling the story, is what does it mean? Why did he do that? Why does he not want women around? Or he wants them, but nobody else wants them. Like, why couldn't he have embraced them, like if he can't do it, who can in this time, it's a really difficult moment in Buddhist history. And then he leaves, it just goes off to his next town, and the women are just kind of stranded there with nowhere to go. So that's the story that I've been carrying around for the last 20 years that I've gotten to know very well through Sakyadhita, all the years of going to Sakyadhita conferences and engaging with women who are monastics and seeing all the different ways in which they are wrestling with some of the very real limitations of monastic life for women. And listening to their stories and their experiences and how they read this story, how they interpret the story, and there's so much variety, there's not one way to understand this story. So he goes, and then she does something radical again. And I think we have not appreciated her radicalness enough. And I'm only I think, even after finishing writing this book, and starting to give talks, I'm even more aware of how radical she was. And I think I would have made her even more powerful in the book. But it's like something I'm growing into understanding is she goes for a fourth quest. Right? So he says, Don't ask this question he leaves. And she just follows him to the next town with these 500 women behind her. And she basically asks a fourth time, that's four.


But it's supposed to stop at three, but she didn't. And I'll bet you, the more I get to know her in my head, the more I think that if he'd said no in Vaishali, she would have just followed him to the next town and asked the fifth, I don't think she was done. Because she knew that this needed to happen, right? This is my imagination that I'm reading into her. But the story tells us that she goes again. So he goes to Vaishali, and she shows up with all the women in Vaishali stands there, waits for him to notice her, which is really a kind of amazing thing, so she arrives with all these women, according to the Vinaya, and she just stands there. And she waits for the men to notice them. She didn't say anything, she doesn't yell, she doesn't wave her arms. She just stands there and waits until they notice that the women have come. And they notice. So then Ananda shows up, this is all in the Vinaya. And he says, basically, what are you doing here? And he notices that she's got tears on her face. This is in the text, that her robes are covered in dust, and that she has a shaved head. And the question is, when did she shave her head? Because when she arrived the first time in Bamboo Grove, nobody described her. The text doesn't tell us she has a shaved head. It doesn't tell us she didn't. It didn't say anything about her appearance. But now all of a sudden, she has a very striking appearance. And the text tells us she has a shaved head. And so that anomaly has bugged a bunch of us, who've been studying these texts and just go, was her head shaved before? Or was it not? We don't know. But all of a sudden, the text tells us her head is shaved, which could be read as, and this is all a question of interpretation, because we can't know what these texts were intending. I'm just giving what the text says and then what I've done with it. But it seems to me that she shaved her head in between. So after he says sort of No, three times, she must have shaved her head. But he didn't give her permission to do that. But you didn't tell her she wasn't allowed to either. He left her in the grey zone. And I think that gave her an opportunity to say fine, I'm in the grey zone I'm shaving my head. But that's a very tricky thing to say. Because then you have one of the most important women characters of the tradition, almost defying the Buddha, which is a tricky thing to suggest. Right? But we have a shaved headed woman now. So the tradition says, Ananda says, well, let me go talk to the Buddha. Then you get this very important scene in Buddhist history where Ananda goes to see the Buddha, and he says, the women are here. And the Buddha says yes. And he says, can they be ordained? And the Buddha says it's the same answer as before. And he says, But how can you say that when the woman who raised you, the woman who took care of you all her life is waiting and so there's almost a guilt question there.  Then he asked the Buddha can women achieve awakening, but actually he asked that question first. First, he says, can women achieve awakening and the Buddha says yes, and then he says, How can you leave her there? And so the Buddha finally says, Okay, I will give the women ordination, but it will be on condition. And then you get what has been for many people, the most controversial part of the story,  what is called the garudhammas. And the gammas are eight rules that ostensibly put women in a situation where they are always inferior to the monks in terms of their hierarchy. So the first rule is that if a man has been ordained a day, and a woman has been ordained 100 years, she must bow to him. And this has been quite devastating. And so for most of buddhist history, every monastic community has had to figure out what to do with these rules. So some communities have eliminated them, some communities pretend they're not there, but then they show up only in formal occasions. Other communities are very strict about them. Everybody does something different with these rules. But the thing is, at the end of the day, every monastic community, male and female has to figure out what they will do with these rules. You have to make a decision as a community, how you hold these rules. And so this has been the story that I've been thinking about for the last 20 years. This is the story that is at the heart of Sakyadhita or part of it, this question of monastic equality or not equality? And how do we live with these stories in the 21st century? What do we do with the story? And what do we do with the Buddha who doesn't seem to want women around? How do you live with that? What do we do with that story? Because that flies in the face of what we want to think of him, right? So that's the story that I wrote, and to people, this group of women walking with Mahapajapati I use the women of the Therigatha to fill that community. And so those are the sources that I used.


Helen: And after that, how many of the women were able to go on and practice and perhaps gain enlightenment?


Vanessa: Well, we don't know. The Vinaya tells us, there's 500 women, the Therigatha gives us 70ish women. Whether any of these numbers are real or not, I mean, unlikely. But presumably some stayed and I'm assuming some left. I can't imagine every woman who heard those  garudhammas was like, great. I'm up for this I think women have always been thinking creatures and have always had discernment and have always seen the glass ceiling, and I don't think all of them have always accepted it. So I am assuming some women stayed and some women left just like today, some women stay, and some women leave. I think it's the same I think not that much difference has happened in the last 2000 years. And that's what's a little bit shocking is that I feel like we're still having the same conversation that I feel like I was I'm looking at when I read the Vinaya, right. One of the most amazing things that happens in the Vinaya, is that Mahapajarti  gets delivered these eight rules - basically it's one after another telling her you will be at the back of the bus. So monks can instruct nuns, nuns cannot instruct monks. Monks can receive confession from nuns, but nuns cannot receive confession for months. It's one rule after another of  - you will always be inferior. She says, okay, right away, which to me seems a bit weird because I think she would have conferred with nuns. But anyway, she accepts. And then the second she's ordained, she tells Ananda, do me a favour, go ask the Buddha, if we could change the first rule. She wants an amendment. It is the first thing she does as an ordained woman is ask for an amendment to the first garudhamma. That move, to me Is evidence She sees the glass ceiling, she doesn't like it, She accepts her reality, she tries to fight it. I mean, this is a full, intelligent woman who's dealing in samsara, like everyone else. And I can't imagine we are the first generation of women to see the boundaries. And I think she saw them. And I think she was strategic. This is all my interpretation. But looking at that line, I see a woman who says, Okay, I'll accept it, because that's what I have to do. And then the second she's in the door, okay, we need to work on this. Which seems to me as old as time and as familiar as ever.


Helen: You skipped over quite a bit of story.


Vanessa: Yes, so I didn't tell you this, I was giving you the Vinaya, and I was giving you the Therigatha. So then I have to make a book out of that. So then I chose women from the Therigatha that I would follow to help me tell the story - the three women that I focus on.  I didn't focus on  Yasodhara who  already had her book, so she's had her time. She's in this book, but she’s there like a side character. Mahapajapati I could not do, it felt like trespassing. It was like telling the story from the Buddhist perspective, I thought I just can't do that, she's too much of a queen in my imagination. So I was not prepared to use her as my primary narrator. So I had to choose characters that I could live with and that I could work through. So my main character, someone who's actually not very well known,  that's Vimala. She's a very, very minor character in the Therigatha, she gets one poem. She's not in the Apadana. She doesn't get much commentary, and she's kind of fabulous and a pain in the ass. I think, given what I saw in her in her poem, I was like, oh, yeah, this one. So she was the one that I chose to be my main character. And so it's through her lived experiences that she's reckoning with these questions and following the women. So I used her.


Helen: She was a prostitute.


Vanessa: She's a prostitute and she's terrible, she talks in her poem of like, how she stands at the door, with like, her parts showing beckoning men like come to my boudoir. I just think she's like such audacious, difficult character. So I thought, yeah, I can work with that. And she becomes free. And I think yeah, that's right. So I can go with her. She became my person. Then Patacara I knew I was going to spend time with her because she's been a big part of my imagination for as long as I've known about Buddhism. And so she has a very, very sad story. I'm sure most of you have heard her story. Patacara is a woman who runs off with a servant and runs away from her fabulous family that has lots of money,  eloping, she's one of the only women in Therigatha who chooses her husband. So she chooses not amazingly, but she chooses, makes these decisions, so a very strong character when you think of that.  They elope and  run away and they have children. When she has her second child, she decides she wants to go home because she misses her parents. So she goes to go back home and she's pregnant. She has a little child. And there's a storm and so the husband says, Okay, let's just wait the storm out, wait at the foot of the tree. I'll go get some wood and I'll make a shelter for you. And so she's sitting at the foot of the tree, her husband leaves, and the storm is getting worse and worse, and he doesn't come back. And so she's alone, pregnant with her baby in her arms, and she goes into labour, which is so devastating. I mean, this story just kills me. And so she goes into labour alone at night with her other child gives birth under the tree, huddling under the storm doesn't know where her husband is. The next morning, she gets up, no food, no water, newborn bleeding, and like walks to find him and finds him dead, he'd been bitten by a snake. So then, she tries to cross the river to go back to Sarvati, which is where she's from. So she's with her newborn child and her five year old or whatever he was. And the river that she was supposed to walk through has now swelled. And so now it's a rushing river because of the storm.  So she has one child and a newborn. So she tells her five year old or whatever he is like he's old enough to stand on his own. She says you wait here, and I’ll crossed with a newborn. And so she wades into the river with the newborn at her breasts and makes it to the other side and she deposits her newborn on a big stone. She leaves it there. She's like, Okay, I did it. She turns around, and she starts to wade back through the river. When she's halfway through, she sees a giant eagle swooping over her head. And the eagle lowers itself down and grabs the newborn in its beak, or in its claws or whatever. And she starts to scream, and she's waving her arms, and she's screaming. Her son thinks she's calling him, the son thinks it's time to go. So he wades into the water, and the water just sweeps the child away. And so in the span of a few hours, she loses her husband, and then her two children. So then, there’s nothing for her to do so she just wades back out, she's lost both her children, she's probably still bleeding and she wanders back to her hometown. And as she's arriving in Sarvati she sees smoke. And this man is coming out of the village and she says, what's with the smoke. And he says, oh, with a big storm last night, they caused the fire in her home, and killed her parents. And so she lost her two children and her parents and her husband all in one day. And then she goes mad with grief. And so then she tears her clothes, and she has no one left in the world. And for a long time, when I first engaged with this story, there's like a lot of stories like this in Buddhism that are so extreme that you think that can't happen, right? Or I don't know how to engage with a story like that. I don't know what to do with that, I live, you know, knock on wood in a safe little world here in Montreal, and I can't understand what that means. And then, years ago, I came across a story of a woman who was in Thailand during the tsunami. And she lost her two children, her two sons and her husband and her parents all in one with the tsunami. And I remember reading that and thinking, Oh, this can happen. But it's like there's certain things it's like the river swelling, like there's certain things that somehow my imagination gets stuck on. And then some moment in time makes me think no, no, these stories are telling. These are real stories. Right now we're seeing wars all over the world where this is probably happened to a whole bunch of other families, where the entire families just gone. Right? We know this is happening everywhere right now. So the stories become more important to me, the older I get,  the more I realize that the suffering is real. It's not just little bits of suffering, there are big bits of suffering. So I wanted to be with her. I couldn't have her my primary character because I know I don't know that kind of suffering. But I wanted to get close to her. She was another character that I brought into this story. But I didn't bring her too close, because I have to respect what I can know and what I know I don't know.  I think if you write about an experience that you don't know, you'll not respect it. So these are some of the characters that I had to bring in.


Helen: And the other thing that struck me was it just wasn't a couple of days, it was hundreds of kilometers, I think.


Vanessa: Yeah, so I measured it. I can't remember I think it was like 400 kilometers, which I thought, Oh, I could do that in X amount of time, I was like I can do this in like a week. And then I thought except that they don't have sneakers and they have elderly, and they have villages where people will stop and ask them questions. And so I turned it into about three weeks. I thought was a probably a fair amount of time for them, so they walk to Vaishali.


Helen: How important is that they go as a group?


Vanessa: I think that's everything. I think it changes everything. I  don't know what this group was right? This the Vinaya says 500 Sakyan ladies if I don't know what to do with that. The Therigatha gives us 73 poems of 70 odd very different women. If this collection of this poetry read presents that all that first group of women, then you are talking about women who are queens, and princesses and prostitutes and courtesans and homeless widows, and everything in between, all standing together. And presumably, I imagine eating in the forest from the same plates and cooking together and taking care of each other and speaking different languages and coming from different countries that probably were at war with each other. I mean, everybody was at war all the time, just like today. They were all at war all the time. So everything you read from ancient Buddhist literature is, you know, I mean, everybody's at war all the time. And so these women are coming from these communities that were presumably at war with each other. So it's like Russian and Ukrainian women walking together and Palestinian and Israeli women walking together, like this is a whole other experience that has nothing to do with the geopolitics of that day. And I find that right now, as I think of everybody being so divided, I find that just kind of this precious little thing of these women who just walked together, and they said, we want something together, and they did it together. And then they became free together. That's what I think the Therigatha is saying.


Helen: Going back, these women were considered as property. So they had or as you write, they had brothel owners and husbands and mothers chasing them, not wanting them to go on the walk. That was really very difficult for them to begin.


Vanessa: When I tried to imagine what life was like for a woman in ancient India, using my historical sources, I do think a lot of women would have had a very difficult time getting away and managing this. This is a disturbance of the social hierarchy. It's still a disturbance if you become a monastic today,  like, we disturb in all kinds of ways, our lifestyles, our choices, we're constantly disturbing, but we have a lot more eclectic, potential today. But I do imagine that if a group of women decide I'm leaving you, and I'm walking through the forest, I'm out of here, that's a disturbance. And so I imagined that that probably disturbed a lot of people. So I'm imagining this, right, you have to understand that I created a world in my head that then I wrote, based on a lot of research, but I don't know if I'm right. But I imagine this is how it happened. But that's the trick of creative writing; you start to believe your own craft. But I can't imagine it any other way. How can women walk out the door, leave their husbands, leave their brothels, and it not really threaten a lot of stakeholders. It had to have threatened the stakeholders. So I include that in the story, because to me, that makes sense. Is it how it happened? I don't know. But now I kind of believe that's how it happened.


Helen: That really comes across, then is it what are the lessons for Buddhist women today who not necessarily ordain or perhaps Venerable Chokyi can talk to that. But women who want to change their lives, who want to do more with their lives? Are there lessons from this story?


Vanessa: I'm sure everybody will take different lessons. I'm sure each of you have thoughts about that. I think there's value to seeing these women as courageous. I think it gives us kind of women teacher ancestors. I've had a lot of conversations over the years about these women, where some Buddhist practitioners will get very defensive, you know, oh, the Buddha, of course, he wanted women or, you know, the women would never have defied the Buddha or like, like some kind of defensiveness about the story that it can't be problematic.  I understand why people are doing that.  I think we have an advantage to seeing the problems in it. Because I think the problems in life are always there. If we can look at ancient stories and go, wow, they wrestled with this too. I think that gives us courage, to wrestle with our own reality and not put blinders on and go every monk I meet is like the embodiment of buddha, I feel like that's a real dangerous road to go down.  I think it serves to see the problems of the early sangha. Because then we're not alone in our current reality that these problems have always been there, and it's always been tough, and it's never been ideal. Right? The sangha happens in samsara. It doesn't happen in nirvana. Right that this is the sangha are samsaric.  I think if we can say that we have a lot more opportunity to be honest with our reality, and I think we could move a lot more forward than if we protect everything and go, no, no, everything's fine. There's a lot of problems in Buddhism, in Buddhist communities.  I think we have to have the courage to go, oh, here it is, again, these problems are probably 2000 years old. I think we do ourselves a service by doing that. And I think we do ourselves a disservice when we pretend everything has always been perfect, and everything is perfect today. I think that's a really dangerous road to travel. So I think it helps to see that the women were struggling with something. I'm sure the men were struggling with it too. Like what are the men do when the women show up like you're mad like, so that was also part of my story, is what are the monks do when all these women show up? And they're like, Hey, we're moving in. Like I imagine the monks going hold on a second, we set ourselves up, what are you doing? You're disturbing everything we came here to get away from you. And now you walked in. Right? Like, it's not easy. It's not supposed to be easy. It's messy. Buddhism is messy. Human history is messy. Everything's messy. And I don't think we serve ourselves well, when we pretend that Buddhism is idyllic. That's what I see in this.


Helen: I'd like to throw to Venerable Chokyi. How does it resonate with you being a monastic in a monastic community?


Ven Chokyi: Well, I've been nodding all the way through, so it totally does. I was thinking a few things at the very beginning, when you're talking about the seating arrangements, that, of course, we have strategies to do that. But I was recently in Indonesia, with his holiness, Thai Situ Rinpoche and I was warned, it was my first time being in a teaching live with him, and one of his nuns just warned me that sometimes he will put the nuns in front, you know, in the seating, so he didn't at this occasion, but sometimes he'll put the nuns in front and the monks just do not like it. I just thought it's great that he would, on invitation placed him in front because there was one nun who sat inappropriately with the monks. And it was like, that only happened for one session, you know, after that, she was like, down the back of the hall. Very interesting to see. So I think what you're saying is these issues are still alive. But it was such a radical time they didn't have the 20th century feminist framework. Well, they did. They had their own feminist framework, you know, it's been there forever, too. And so, just within, like, I'm part of FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayanist Tradition) and so our monastic community, IMI (International Mahayana Institute) and it is about also, what's the future for monasticism? What does that look like today and the fact that it looks like, is there a future? So I know in our tradition that questions being asked, so that it was one point, this is not a question, this is some comments. But also that I thinking about one text Shantideva’s Bodhisattvas Way of Life where when the Lamas have all been now educated, when you get to this point, the women are going to be challenging you. And so there are a couple of points there. One of them is in terms of monasticism, may there be the provisions for monks to go on retreat, and may women, the nuns stop quarrelling with each other. That's the two things that's the contrast. And what you're demonstrating is a great solidarity of these women coming together across caste across socio economic divides, political divides, language divides, cultural divides, where they should be warring with each other, but they're not. In this, I think that's a very, very powerful story. And thank you. I was interested in whether you use in your research, feminist methodologies, but I think the answer is yes. Because perhaps without saying, but so much of this is so relevant for us from a monastic, I mean, I could, there are many, many stories for monasticism today. And when you see like, of course, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo debating with the Dalai Lama and so we of course we all pay our respects to His Holiness and nobody dares peep. But Jetsunma really shows the way, if we have to interrogate, we have to have these debates. And a few years ago, she came around our centers in Australia and debated with all the Geshes and won the debate. And then she’d say, okay, that Geshe’s an open Geshe. He's okay. So, we need, it's really imperative. I found that in my years of ordination. Now, I feel like I'm getting more outspoken. And perhaps it's the time we live in, things need to be addressed and changed. So thank you.


Vanessa: I appreciate it a lot. And I know it's really hard to be outspoken. I actually had a question for you. You said something about the question of is there a future for monasticism?  I'm wondering if you would say something about that.


Ven Chokyi. We're looking at this and appreciate that this is within our organization. But the Dalai Lama has said he's very concerned about the future of monasticism. And it's really about, I think, the future of the Dharma, that we observe that there's less people wanting to study wanting to, I  think, well, would we get together 500 women, we wouldn't even get five. There's less people ordaining, less people staying ordained. And that  we see someone like Osel leaving the monastery, because that sense of being more effective as a lay person in this time. And so there's all those sorts of discussions going on, you know, is this the relevant way to be engaging. We've seen with Catholicism, the nuns, who are still nuns, but they're in the community, and they don't wear the equivalent of the robes or habits and they don't even wear that little cross anymore. So you don't even know. So they're within the community. And it seems to be that in a way, where we do stand out in community, people appreciate that, because even they don't know you're Buddhist, they know you represent something spiritual. So there is a place but how much? Yeah, that it's a question more, I think about what's relevant to reach, have maximum reach in the world today? Is it more secular? It is more secular?   People have a sense of spirituality, but not necessarily, they're very wary of religion.

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