Bhaddā was a true original. An ascetic, a philosopher, and a murderer, who became one of the best-loved of all the bhikkhunis. Here is a vivid re-imagining of her story: a Buddhist nun like you’ve never seen before.
Enchanting, powerful, horrific, beautiful, wise, deadly, compassionate, seductive. Women in Buddhist story and image are all these things and more. She takes the signs of the ancient goddess – the lotus, the sacred grove, the serpent, the sacrifice – and uses them in astonishing new ways. Her story is one of suffering and great trials, and through it all an unquenchable longing to be free. This beautifully illustrated work is as layered and subversive as mythology itself. Based directly on authentic Buddhist texts, and informed with insights from psychology and comparative mythology, it takes a fresh look at how Buddhist women have been depicted by men and how they have depicted themselves.
Devadatta is depicted as the archetypal villain in all Buddhist traditions. Reginald Ray has argued for a radical reassessment of Devadatta as a forest saint who was unfairly maligned in later monastic Buddhism. His work has been influential, but it relies on omissions and mistaken readings of the sources. Ray’s claim that ‘there is no overlap between the Mahāsaṅghika treatment [of Devadatta] and that of the five [Sthavira] schools’ is untrue. On the contrary, the manner in which Devadatta is depicted in the Mahāsaṅghika is broadly similar to the Sthavira accounts. Such differences as do exist are literary rather than doctrinal. The stories of Devadatta’s depravity became increasingly lurid in later Buddhism, but this is a normal feature of the mythologizing process, and has nothing to do with any antagonism against forest ascetics. In any case, the early sources are unanimous in condemning Devadatta as the instigator of the first schism in the Buddhist community.
While the abhidhamma is presented as being based on the Buddha’s ultimate discernment of ‘mind & matter’, in reality the classical Theravādin abhidhamma is a scholastic philosophy which is little understood, and which, if examined critically, is full of incoherencies. Within Buddhist tradition, however, the abhidhamma is perhaps more significant for its purely religious or mystical significance, rather than as a guide for practice or understanding.
The Buddha’s words exemplify peace, teach us peace, and lead to the ultimate peace of Nibbana. It is a sad thing that in the complexities and contradictions of Buddhist history, peace has sometimes been sacrificed on the altar of Buddhist nationalism. By asking the hard questions and accepting the answers fearlessly we can arrive at the essential, the true state of peace, for the sake of which all Buddhist ethics, meditation, and wisdom are taught.
It’s time. We need a new paradigm. For 2500 years Buddhism has been constantly changing, adapting, evolving; yet the myths of the schools insist that the Dhamma remains the same.
The depiction of women in Buddhist texts is deeply ambiguous. We are told that women can become fully awakened; and then in the next breath, that they will destroy Buddhism. This ambiguity is deeply revealing. Even though we traditionally see our texts as the products of pure awakened beings, the reality is far more complex, and hence, far more interesting.