Against the Wind:
Differences and Similarities Between Buddhist Monks and Nuns
Established around 500 BCE by Siddhartha Gotama, known better as Buddha, Buddhism has since spread throughout the world, attracting individuals from all walks of life. Since its beginnings when Buddha reached enlightenment beneath a gopi tree after preparation that spanned countless lifetimes, Buddhism has influenced the lives of millions of individuals, causing many to renounce their normal lives and “go forth” as Buddhist monks and maechi nuns.
Photo: Staffan Scherz CC-2
This life of restraint and simplicity often reflects a disgust of the materialistic world and a desire for a holy life with the goal of eventually, through several lifetimes, reaching nirvana and escaping the suffering of samsara. However, this ability to “go forth” and renounce one’s normal life has not always been and is not necessarily equal for men and women.
The question of women even being able to “go forth” was first addressed by Buddha, who expressed initial reluctance to admit them as nuns. Though progress has been made over the years and women have been allowed to pursue a life of monastic discipline and restraint, differences still exist between the treatment of Buddhist monks and nuns.
Buddhism offers an equal escape and release for everyone. It does not discriminate against an individual based on their background. It is faith of personal development that centers its attention on the growth of the individual while promoting virtues and ideas about helping others.
When examining the story of Maechi Wabi’s “going forth” into the monastic life in comparison to that of Siddhartha Gotama’s, there are both several similarities and differences. The similarities in their stories relate to both having a revulsion for the normal life of a householder as well as an intense desire to attain moksha and liberation from samsara. The condition of Buddhism, gender, and socioeconomic factors encompass the three main areas of difference between the two.
These differences presented extra obstacles that Maechi Wabi as well as other Buddhist nuns have had to overcome in order to pursue the lifestyle of their choice. Though the question of equality between the two religions gender groups has often been addressed with the monks clearly emerging as the better treated, a gap still exists today between the two. After analyzing the similarities and differences between the “going forth” of Siddhartha Gotama and Maechi Wabi, it is clear that women wishing to become maechi nuns are often faced with more barriers and plagued with more issues that men wishing to become monks.
The similarities of the “going forth” of Maechi Wabi and that of Siddhartha Gotama are rooted in the basic principles and ideals of the Buddhist faith. The foundation of Buddhism centers on the idea that through several lifetimes of cultivating the virtues and beliefs of the religion one can escape the suffering of rebirth, or samsara. This escape is found through inner enlightenment when one is “awakened” as they reach moksha. Both Siddhartha Gotama and Maechi Wabi expressed a desire to attain this liberation from their suffering. They had a deep revulsion for the life of householders that resulted in unhappiness and inner pain. In a selection from the Pali Canon, Gotama states,
Here, Siddhartha Gotama expresses his unhappiness with the sensual objects of a householder’s life and his desire to obtain a truer, more worthwhile existence. Having been shielded from the ills of the world his entire life by his father, Gotama first realized the error in the lifestyle he was leading when he stepped outside the palace gates and saw the harsh reality of life. Maechi Wabi expressed a similar disgust for the life of a householder as a result of the trials and tribulations she was exposed to when caring for her sisters and brothers in her youth. She also developed an early disdain for men after her father’s departure left her mother to raise their entire family alone. This disdain mixed with confusion about her father’s decision to renounce his life and family.
As she states, “I wanted to go forth to find out why my father had thrown [his children] away. Why did he live this way? What feelings did he have living this way? I never knew his real feelings” (Brown, 18). This confusion and curiosity along with the suffering Maechi Wabi experienced while both working outside the home and caring for her siblings resulted in Wabi’s hatred of household life and her decision to “go forth.” Though she struggled with the obligation she felt toward her mother, she says, “…I just couldn’t live their anymore. I was hot all the time. I never had happiness. I kept thinking of when I’d go forth” (Brown, 21).
As a result of these issues, Maechi Wabi made her decision, similar to that of Siddhartha Gotama’s, to leave behind her family and embark on a spiritual journey as a world renouncer. Similar decisions have been made by countless individuals within the Buddhism each wishing to attain the seemingly unattainable, nirvana and liberation from the suffering of samsara. Both Siddhartha Gotama and Maechi Wabi wished to explore the inner realm of their soul and become “awakened.”
Though Siddhartha Gotama and Maechi Wabi had similar feelings about household life and the attainment of an existence outside the suffering of samsara, the condition of Buddhism at the time of each of their “going forths,” gender issues, and socioeconomic factors resulted in very different experiences for the two. When Gautama spontaneously “went forth” in search of enlightenment, no Buddhist faith existed. There was no sangha or monastic order for him to join. There were no rules or guidelines outlining, or even offering assistance, to how he might attain his goal of achieving moksha. He created the foundation of Buddhism through his own experiences when he “went forth” and then took the weight upon his shoulders of spreading this knowledge that he had obtained throughout the world to anyone who would listen.
Gautama’s journey toward enlightenment is obviously ideal. His “going forth” is extremely different to the situation of Maechi Wabi when she made her decision to leave behind her normal life. Buddhism had been established for thousands of years in Thailand. An institutional sangha existed for Buddhist monks and nuns to join in order to cultivate their virtues. The fear of the unknown was not a factor in her “going forth” since she was embarking upon a path that had already been trodden by many. However, it is hard to hold this comparison against Maechi Wabi and in favor of Siddhartha Gautama since her account is one of an actual individual. Where Gautama represents the ideal existence of a renouncer, Maechi Wabi embodies the characteristics of thousands of individuals who have gone forth in Gautama’s footsteps in search of nirvana and moksha.
Issues surrounding gender also resulted in very different experiences for the two when they each “went forth.” Throughout the history of Buddhism, discrimination toward women has existed often placing them in a subservient position to monks. As Brown states in The Journey of One Buddhist Nun,
As the quote says, deeply ingrained sexism in Thai society and the Buddhist hierarchy created difficulties for women wishing to “go forth.” A young Thai male is encouraged to “go forth” because it ensures him a free education past the high school level as well as a place to live. He is also guaranteed a position in an established hierarchy of monks. A male is revered and respected by society when he makes the decision to enter the monastic order. According to Brown, “Significantly fewer girls and women go forth than boys and men, and of those who do, most have little if any family support for and recognition of the event” (Brown, 25).
Women are not guaranteed an education if they go forth or a position within a hierarchy. Therefore, families feel it is a waste for women to go forth. To many, maechi nuns are viewed as poor women who have nothing better to do with their lives. In addition, fewer samnaks exist for women to enter. Many maechi are forced to live in male dominated temples and be subservient to the monks who live there. As a result of this lack of maechi presence, many in society have no idea what maechi are or that they are even nuns. Though their presence has grown in recent years and society has become more aware of them, they are still struggling to achieve equality and the advantages offered to monks.
After reading this quote, it is painfully obvious that it is easier for a man to go forth than a woman. The sexism that exists in Thai society and the Buddhist religion prevents many women from seeking a religious life in the monastic order. Though this did not affect the going forth of Gotama, it had a severe impact on the going forth of Maechi Wabi. Though she knew she wanted to go forth for years, her family did not support her nor did she have the necessary knowledge at hand to really explore and learn about the life of a maechi. The sexism of Thai society stifled her spiritual development for many years, and only through perseverance and courage was she able to overcome it. When examining the Buddhist faith, it is clear that issues of gender affect an individual’s ability to go forth. Though this tide of sexism seems to be subsiding through the work of crusading maechi, it still lingers today.
A third contrasting factor between the “going forth” of Siddhartha Gotama and Maechi Wabi is the socio-economic factors of each. When Gotama went forth and renounced his family and life as a householder, he walked away from a life of wealth and luxury. Born a prince, Gotama was showered with pleasant diversions by his father, King Shuddhodana, who feared a prediction by an astrologer that claimed his son would eventually become a wandering mendicant if he was exposed to the harsh reality of life. Gotama had every earthly pleasure at his fingertips during his early years. There was nothing he could not have that he wanted. As a prince and a male, he had every opportunity open to him. This is directly opposed to Maechi Wabi’s early life. Born into a poor family that lacked a constant father figure, Maechi Wabi had little, if any, of the pleasant diversions and opportunities available to Gotama. She received a short, basic education at which time she was forced to leave school in order to work and care for her siblings. As Brown recounts,
Maechi Wabi not only lacked early pleasures, but also was missing one of the most important aspects of any person’s life: happiness. She was terrified that she would be trapped in a lifestyle that she hated and that would offer her no growth as a person.
The socio-economic factor that affected Maechi Wabi the most, however, was opportunity, or the lack thereof. Where Gotama had the world at his fingertips and could venture anywhere and do anything, Maechi Wabi had nothing. This relates back to the sexism and gender issues of Thai society. Thai women, especially poor Thai women, have very little opportunities available to them. As Brown quotes of one scholar, “in a heterosexist society…most of women’s personal, social, political, professional, and economic relations are defined by the ideology that woman is for man” (Brown, 99).
In Thai society, the few opportunities open to women involve serving or working for men. Where a Thai boy can join the monastic order to receive a free education, education is almost non-existent for poor Thai girls. As a result, they are forced to work as prostitutes in the brothels of Thailand or work to serve their husband in hopes that he can help them out of their economic pit. With very few opportunities open to them, women are often cornered into existences they hate or do not want. For Maechi Wabi, “going forth” was a manner in which to seek spiritual enlightenment while also escaping the almost torture of life as a woman in Thai society.
It is true that the opportunities offered within the maechi community are still less than those offered to monks, but many individuals are working to change that. Schools, such as the Dhammacarini School, are being opened in order to offer opportunities to poor Thai girls and women as well as an education. However, equality for Thai men and women is far in the future. Though it may have been harder for Gotama to renounce his life of wealth and pleasure than for Maechi Wabi to renounce her life of poverty, it can also be argued that renouncing one’s life, no matter what the person’s stature, is hard no matter what. And, with the socio-economic factors surrounding Maechi Wabi and other women in Thai society, it is hard for them to achieve any other life than one of poverty to renounce to begin with.
After analyzing the information above and the experiences of the “going forth” of Siddhartha Gotama and Maechi Wabi, it is blatantly clear that women are plagued with more problems when attempting to “go forth” into the monastic order. However, the comparison of the two lives also allows one to understand Buddhism more. Though Siddhartha Gotama and Maechi Wabi’s stories and experiences have some similarity, they are on the whole very different. It is these differences, however, that allow one to truly understand Buddhism and its beauty and power in the world.
Buddhism crosses gender and socioeconomic lines. It is universal in its appeal and is relevant and important to people from all walks of life, rich or poor, man or woman. This is clearly seen in the comparison and contrast of Siddhartha Gotama and Maechi Wabi’s stories and experiences surrounding their “going forths.” Two individuals from drastically different backgrounds with different issues and factors surrounding them were both drawn toward the Buddhist faith and ideals.
Buddhism offers an equal escape and release for everyone. Unlike society, it does not discriminate against an individual based on their background. It is faith of personal development that centers its attention on the growth of the individual while promoting virtues and ideas about helping others. Where Thai society has blatant ingrained sexism within it, Buddhism levels the playing field. This is not to say that sexism does not exist in Buddhism; it does.
The hierarchy of the Buddhist religion is dominated by monks and will be for many years to come. However, it is the ideals and virtues of the religion itself that truly level the playing field for every individual regardless of their gender, race, creed, etc. It is a religion based on personal inner development and enlightenment. This foundation provides a deeper, purer equality than any other in the world. If one truly believes and honestly practices, no one can ever take their faith away from them. Though certain social, cultural, and economic factors may influence an individual or the outward appearance of a religion, the spirit and virtues of the religion can never be altered or influenced. They remain true no matter what.
In conclusion, the comparison of these two very different stories allows one to understand Buddhism and its ideals on a deeper level. It paints a portrait of faith not based on all powerful, omnipotent Gods, but based on the development of an individual’s heart and generosity. It also describes a faith that has the ability to transcend any boundaries and reach out to individuals from all walks of life who wish to explore their own spirituality and seek liberation.
Brown, Sid. The Journey of One Buddhist Nun: Even Against the Wind. New York: State University of New York Press, 2001.
Fieser, James and John Powers. Scriptures of the East. New York: Mcgraw-Hill, 1999.