Posts tagged ‘Kosambi’

Change or Starve: Cracking Patriarchal Buddhism ll Rev. Mary Coday Edwards

Change or Starve: Cracking Patriarchal Buddhism
By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA

In the days of the Buddha, in the Indian village of Kosambi, two Buddhist monks came to blows over a petty latrine infraction when one of the monks left water in the bathroom’s dipper. The dissension grew, with the law breaker being excommunicated—unfairly in his opinion, as well as in the opinion of his followers. Two factions formed around these monks, creating more discord.

Word of their animosity reached the Buddha, and he sent emissaries encouraging them to be united, and twice the emissaries reported back saying, “They refuse to be reconciled.”

The Buddha himself came to mediate, and was told by the two monks to mind his own business. The Buddha then left to go on retreat.

Due to the monks’ enmity, the spiritual needs of the community began to suffer.

Now, Buddhist traditions require the community to support the monastics through alms giving.

“This is ridiculous,” they decided. “We’re feeding these leaders for what reason?”

Halting the giving of alms, the community members told the two dissenting monks, “Change or starve.” And so the lay people accomplished what the Buddha couldn’t, and the monks resolved their differences (1).

A First Step: Full Ordination of Women

Buddhism’s foundation was built upon a political past of hierarchy, patriarchy, and authoritarianism. Buddhist theologian Rita M. Gross asks whether,

“… stripped of sexist privilege to men, patriarchal hierarchies, and androcentric interpretations of key texts and concepts, anything remains of the religion” (2).

In other words, can this religion be saved? Under this patriarchal veneer, do core truths exist that are fundamentally democratic and liberating for both men and women? Gross concludes there are, as does retired Vipassana Buddhist teacher Eric Kolvig (3), encapsulated through the Four Noble Truths (4).

Gross says that institutionalized and mandated full ordination of women is an obvious first step, granting women full participation in Buddhist institutions.

“Ordain them or starve!” said Vipassana Buddhist Teacher Eric Kolvig.

Kolvig told me the opening Kosambi story in connection with the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

“Monastics in the Theravada tradition depend for their survival entirely on support from laypeople,” he said. “The laypeople of Kosambi withdrew their support from the battling monastics and forced the antagonists to make peace.  It was the first recorded organized boycott in human history.

“The patriarchal establishment in Theravada monasticism today steadfastly refuses to grant women full ordination,” Kolvig continued.

“Because these contemporary monastics, like the ones in the Buddha’s time, depend entirely on support from laypeople in order to survive, we can be inspired by that boycott 2,500-plus years ago.  We laypeople today can withdraw our support from those who will not grant women full ordination, saying, ‘ordain them or starve!’”

Historical Precedents

Within the three Buddhist traditions of Zen, Tibetan, and Vipassana/Theravada, sub-groups exist which have in the past and continue to ordain bhikkhuni, but not necessarily granting full ordination. Elements of unfairness still remain across countries and within these three traditions. For example, women may have obligatory extra vows, called The Eight Garudharmas, subordinating them to the bhikkhus. In some countries, women end up neither bhikkhuni nor lay people, but somewhere in the middle. Not fully ordained, they are not entitled to the same recognition, status, or financial support as their bhikkhu brethren.

But within Buddhism, precedents exist justifying female ordination. Historians say that after Prince Siddhartha became the Buddha, he denied his aunt’s request, Mahapajapati Gotami—the woman who had raised him—for admission into his monastic community.

But Gotami persisted. Eventually the Buddha relented and ordained Gotami as a bhikkhuni (fully ordained Buddhist nun; male monastics are called bhikkhus), along with other women including his wife Yaśodharā. This order lasted for a thousand years, dying out through what Gross believes was institutionalized neglect as well as the discouragement of women from leaving their traditional, domestic roles behind for their own spiritual quest.

Bowing to Outdated Cultural Constructs?

Do Westerners want to give up their civil rights—legal rights guaranteed to them—such as the rights imparted to U.S. citizens through the U.S. Constitution, which include the basic right of freedom from discrimination based on certain personal characteristics, such as gender, race, or disability?

Do these same individuals want to live divided/dualistic lives, where in the political and economic spheres women can lead governments and corporations, but in their religious communities, they are subject to the whims of a male dictatorship? Where men keep half the world’s adult population as children, determining what’s “best” for them? Do we want to return to that oppression/suppression?

I left my Christian church years ago. I’d been in dialogue with the male pastors over their suppression of women’s rights when it dawned on me: “Hey! This is a volunteer organization—what am I doing? I don’t have to be a part of this.” I was a leader in my professional life, but in the church I was a child whose speech and conduct were directed by the male moral arbiters, who couldn’t—and wouldn’t—explain this dichotomy.  I withdrew my energy to direct it toward life-affirming endeavors vs. life-denying.

Ordain them or starve (5). It’s simple and powerful.


Notes & Sources:


2.) Buddhist theologian Rita M. Gross’, “Buddhism After Patriarchy,” in After Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of the World Religions, eds. Paula M. Cooey, William R. Eakin, and Jay B. McDonald; 1998; Orbis Books, New York. (This question could be asked of all the world’s major religions.)

3.) Personal interview with retired Vipassana Buddhist teacher Eric Kolvig, February 2018.

4.) Many Buddhist resources exist on line and in print explaining The Four Noble Truths.

5.) Change IS happening:;;


About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her People House “tribe” and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation

People House: a Center for Personal and Spiritual Growth