Thailand's Rich and Ancient History of Women in Buddhism

Thailand has a rich and ancient history of women in Buddhism, from the 3rd century BCE, when Asokan-era arahant missionaries Sona and Uttara Thera came from India to the ancient land of Suvarnabhumi first sharing the Buddha's teaching, ordaining more than 3,000 noble men and 1,500 noble women as bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. This was the foundation of Buddhism in Thailand, where Buddhism is still very much alive and flourishing to this day, with more than 90% of the population being Buddhists of the Theravada School. Thailand also has many Chinese-Thai Mahayana Buddhists, and an old and recently reviving history of Vajrayana Buddhism. The ancient land of Survarnamubhumi or Suvannabhumi in the Pali-Buddhist language -- the Land of Gold -- used to include all of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and the South of Vietnam and China.

This blog showcases a little of the immense wealth of the rich heritage and history of Thailand's Buddhist women - and of all of the Thai people and culture - from ancient to modern times. We hope you enjoy your Women in Buddhism Tour here and during your stay in Thailand!

(If you enjoy this blog, please be sure to read the "Older Posts" - click link at the bottom of this page. Most more recent posts are focused around Bangkok and Ayutthaya. Older posts are mostly from further afield upcountry in Thailand's Northeast and Northwest.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Foremost Women Disciples of the Buddha Mural - Wat Pho - Bangkok

Wat Phra Chetupon Vimolmangalaram Rajwaramahaviharn
Vasa Vara Jetavana Vimalamangala Arama Raja Maha Vihara

The Foremost Women Disciples of the Buddha wall mural painting is behind the reclining Buddha image in the Hall of the Reclining Buddha at the famous Wat Pho in Bangkok. (You can see it behind the Buddha's head here.) The great wall mural is composed of a coordinated series of excellent paintings illustrating the life stories of the Thirteen Foremost Bhikkhuni Disciples of the Buddha -- the Etadagga Bhikkhuni Savaka -- and the Ten Foremost Laywomen Disciples of the Buddha -- Etadagga Upasika Savaka-- as recorded in the Tipitaka of the Pali Texts.

"Royal Visit". This part of the great wall mural shows a bhikkhuni monastery or "upassaya" (lit "refuge" or "sanctuary") with bhikkhunis inside and a bhikkhuni welcoming the queen who has come with her ladies in waiting bearing gifts.
This shows the days before European jackets and shirts became popular in tropical Asian countries! At that time male and female royalty would often wear vestiments of bands of jewels on their chests, while other folks might wear strips of cloth around their chests and one shoulder. The Thai people used short hair for both men and women then, like the ancient Kambojans. According to the decorations on the gateway, it looks like this monastery is depicted as one with royal patronage.

Photograph of the 'Borisat-si' - Fourfold Assembly of the Buddha wall mural behind the great reclining Buddha image in the Hall of the Reclining Buddha (Viharn Phranon) at Wat Pho (Ayutthayan Period Monastery Wat Bodharam) in Bangkok. Restored by King Rama III and his son Prince Laddawan.

The degree to which the existence of the Bhikkhuni Sangha is an integral requirement for the welfare of the Buddha Sasana and for its stability is highlighted in a teaching of the Buddha's in the Samyutta Nikaya. This teaching points out that for ensuring the healthy and long duration of the Dhamma and for preventing its disappearance, all four assemblies, including the bhikkhunis, should live with respect towards the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, the Discipline and the development of Samadhi. This passage thus treats the existence of bhikkhunis, and of all four assemblies practicing well, as an integral requirement for the welfare and stability of the Buddha Sasana

[SN 16.13 at SN II 225,8: bhikkhu bhikkhuniyo upasaka upasikayo satthari ... dhamme ... sa ghe ... sikkhaya ...samadhismi sagarava viharanti sappaissa. Ime kho ... pañca dhamma saddhammassa hitiya asammosaya anantaradhanaya sa vattanti.]

To learn more about the Fourfold Assemby of the Buddha aka the Fourfold Sangha see Dignity and Discipline pg 65 - click on the link here.

"The Foremost Teacher". The photo is of painting of the Buddha's bhikkhuni disciple Foremost in Dhamma Teaching - Arahant Theri Dhammadinna Bhikkhuni.

This part of the great mural painting shows the venerable Dhammadinna at her kuti privately and personally speaking with a laywoman. It is said that some women seem to learn better from women, and some from men; and this may vary during one's lifetime. The same holds true for men. It is very important for women to have shining examples, paragons of virtue and enlightened knowledge, together with the experiencial knowledge and compassion of having lived as a woman in this world. This is one of the great blessings and brilliances of the Fourfold Assembly of the Buddha; everyone has someone in their own category -- the category of life that they identify with -- to serve as an enlightened example and guide.

The Venerable Dhammadinna's teaching is uniquely distinguished amongst the bhikkhunis as praised by the Buddha as "Buddhavacana" or the "Buddha's Words". You can find her excellent teaching on the subject of the origin, cessation and the way leading to the cessation of sakkaya - self - personality or identity views in the Culavedalla Sutta, no 44 of the Majjhima Nikaya - the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: MN 44: Culavedalla Sutta:

‎"One should be eager, determinate, mind suffused with awareness.
One whose thought is not attached to sensual pleasures
is called 'she who goes upstream'."

This is the venerable Dhammadinna Theri's single gatha - her single verse of advice directed to her fellow women - that remains to us in the Therigatha (v12) to this day.

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