The Seven Sisters and Female Past in Early Buddhism | International Bhikkhuni Day & Bhikkhuni Sangha Founding Anniversary

All dear friends of our Sangha,

This coming September full moon (the 18th or 19th) will mark the 2596th anniversary of the foundation of our newly-reemerging Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha.  This is a shared or co-anniversary with the fulfillment of the Buddha' intention in having a Fourfold Assembly or Fourfold Sangha, completed with the establishment of the bhikkhunis' fold of the Sangha.  Together, they form what is one of the oldest and multi-faceted intentional communities in the world.  

This year, the Alliance for Bhikkhunis, a group of friends that has been working dedicatedly in support of the re-emergence of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha, has chosen a date --September 21-- and a theme -- the Seven Sisters & Spiritual Companionship -- for activities in support of our Bhikkhuni Sangha and named it "International Bhikkhuni Day".  More soon at bhikkhuni.net.

As many of you may know, women's ordination is a hot topic these days, as reported on by the National Catholic Reporter just this past week, when people in Washington DC, Salt Lake City and around the country joined an interfaith fast for women's ordination: "Equal in Faith: Women Fast for Gender Justice". 

I feel fortunate that in one way Buddhism is much easier -- we have good records.  No one (or almost no one) argues whether the Buddha established a monastic community of fully ordained women in his life time.  No one argues whether the Buddha did or didn't have both monastic and lay women fully credited as among his foremost and leading disciples -- even if in some places they may have been forgotten.  And even if, in some places, their recorded number are more than the twenty-three as enumerated in the canonical Pali-text Numerical Discourses of the Anguttara Nikaya and Anguttara Commentary.

Of course, Buddhism exists within the world around it and the trends of this world, and has done so throughout its history -- so this doesn't mean there aren't or haven't been major challenges to this vision laid out by the Buddha.

I would like to share with you a little about the Seven Sisters theme i mentioned above here.  

Some of you may know of my studies of the Theri Apadana and my translations from it and writings on it such as "Lasting Inspiration".  The Theri Apadana or "Legendary Sacred Biographies of the Women Elders" is the younger sister of the more famous and fully translatedTherigatha -- the "Enlightenment Verses of the Women Elders".  Both are part of the Kuddhaka Nikaya, the fifth and last of the canonical collections or nikayas of the Pali-text Tipitaka. Together, they form a collection of the oldest recorded women's religious literature in the world.  

While the Therigatha speaks of their last lives, the Theri Apadana, as legendary sacred heros' biography, relates the gradual and sudden path of awakening of its women heroines over vast spans of time, almost as if in answer to the question -- "how did you get here?" and "how did you come to be how you are now?".  As well as the equally important question of "what can I learn from your path that will be of benefit to my own life and path?".  

The Theri Apadana's women's stories begin at the time of their first aspiration to awakening, often in the presence of a past Buddha, disciples of a Buddha, a Bodhi tree or reliquary shrine.  They end with the women's declaration of their complete awakening, often in the presence of the Buddha.  In the reaches of time between these two great events, their biographies look into their formative practices along the path, focusing on the special qualities, or dhammas, which supported and matured and enabled their path to awakening.  This is important to all of us.

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Of the forty women's sacred biographies in the Theri Apadana, the majority are of individuals.  There are also a significant number of collective biographies -- women who had strong association with one another and are often known by the leading woman who drew them together. Their association was so strong that they realized stages of awakening together during the same Dhamma teaching and/or declared their enlightenment to the Buddha together, causing their stories to be gathered into one collective voice.  

Of individuals, seven of the forty -- a full half of the Thirteen Foremost Bhikkhuni Disciples of the Buddha -- are linked in a story-cycle or story-circle of long-term spiritual friendship and companionship known as the stories of the "Seven Sisters".  These Seven Sisters, (earlier womb-sisters, but sangha sisters in their final lives), formed the backbone of the ancient women's sangha.  

They were the giants among Women Leaders of the Buddhist Reformation as early Western scholar of Buddhism Mabel Bode called them just as we were entering the 20th century.  

I particularly like their stories of courage and mutual dedication.  

They are each outstanding individuals, each in her own right, and each has her own story. And yet also they are inter-related, their lives intimately interwoven.  They are highly dedicated to one another in lives of shared suffering and joy. In mutual determination and mutual support. 

And finally, in their leadership of the early Sangha.  

Their stories are inspiring to me because they relate directly to my own experience of spiritual companionship today.  The heroines are both laywomen and monastics, and sometimes (as in the "sisters refrain") something in between. Their stories of companionship bridge the entirety of their time on the path in its many incarnations and many forms of being in their lives.

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In their last lives, after their full awakening, Khema and Uppalavanna became the two foremost leaders of the women's monastic community. Khema of Great Wisdom and Uppalavanna of Great Spiritual Power were praised by the Buddha as unexcelled among his women disciples in these leading qualities, as the Buddha himself said, "exemplars for all". 

Patacara was praised for her leading excellence in monastic discipline.  Bhadda Kundalakesi was first and foremost in speed to gain awakening.  Kisa-Gotami was pre-eminent in her practice of asceticism.  Dhammadinna was praised as foremost in dhamma teaching, the Buddha equated her words with his own, as buddha-vacana.  Visakha, the seventh, was elevated as the foremost woman benefactor of the Sangha and praised as first and foremost among all of the upasika disciples of the Buddha.  It is not hard to see how a gathering of enlightened women with these excellent qualities and strengths could be such an important part of establishing the early Sangha!

In their sacred biographies in the Pali-text, the world kalyana-sahayika (kah' lue-yah'-nah' suh-hah'-yee-kah') often appears.  It literally means "s/he who shares in beautiful togetherness".  It is this i have been translating here as "spiritual companionship", "spiritual association" and "sangha sisterhood".  

Some may recognize its closeness to kalyana-mitta or "spiritual friendship"-- literally "beautiful, kind and loving friendship".  The Buddha himself often spoke of himself as a such a spiritual friend, par excellence.  And so many of our ancient leading foremothers of the Sangha spoke of their relationships with one another and their partners over time who also awakened as just so -- whether in partnership or in association with one another.

Here with Dhammadharini --both our Dhammadharini Sangha and groups of friends, together with our support foundation and Board of Directors -- as well as in my now-and-then work with the Alliance for Bhikkhunis and Sakyadhita International, i see how such gathering in dedication makes such an enormous difference for our Sangha.  Thank you, friends of these associations!

I see how in our coming together in mutual dedication, we serve as mirrors for each other.  I see how we test and try each other, developing our mettle together, attuning and cultivating and sharpening our skills through meeting various challenges together.  I see how we love and care for one another, and give support when we are down and need to be held and carried by the flow of our companionship.  And over the years, i see how we awaken together and grow greatly together.  Whether we are monastics, or monastic with lay friends and sisters, or our lay sisters or lay friends together -- all of our lives touching and blessing one another.  Kalyana-sahayika -- companions on the path.

Mind sweeping over the past years, i reflect how enormous such companionship and beautiful association has been in my own path. It gives me both joy and happiness and also peacefulness to see this.  I would like to encourage each one of you to reflect so too.

And if you feel like writing about it, or recording a Youtube, or painting it out -- welcome to share -- in celebration of the great spiritual companionship of the great spiritual companionship of the past that built the boat and the bridges which have brought the Dhamma into our lives today, and in knowing that our own companionship furthers and carries it into the future -- for our next generation, and all who follow.  I would love to compile an album on "beautiful togetherness" on the path.  Please feel welcome to do this in celebration of this years' anniversary of our women's monastic community and the coming into being of our Fourfold Sangha.

Last and perhaps first to share among such emerging offerings,
I wish to share with you 
this one of scholarly bent ~

This new book, a fine offering of comparative scholarship and textual research, Women in Early Buddhism, due out from Oxford University Press this September -- just in time for this year's anniversary.  

Editor of the whole, Dr Alice Collett is also author of one chapter of this book, a development of her earlier article "Female Past in Early Buddhism: the Shared Narrative of the Seven Sisters in the Theri-Apadana". Ven Bhikkhu Analayo is also author of the chapter: "Outstanding Bhikkhunis in the Ekottarika-agama".  (The Ekottarika-agama is the other than Pali-languages rendition/s of the Pali-text Anguttara Nikaya mentioned as newly translated by Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi above.) And Jonathan Walters, known for his work "Voice from the Silence: the Buddha's Mother's Story" contributes a chapter as well, among others.

All for now,
wishing that all may happily enjoy the benefits and fruits of their labors,
all the phala (fruits) of kusala kamma,

Your path companion and sangha sister,
Ayya Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni, with my path sisters

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-- 
 amhakam digharattam hitaya sukhaya 
for our long term benefit and the happiness it gives us

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