Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Bhikkhave and Bhikkhu as Gender-Inclusive Terminology in Early Buddhist Texts

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Bhikkhave and Bhikkhu as Gender-Inclusive Terminology in Early Buddhist Texts

Article excerpt


The terms bhikkhave and bhikkhu, and particularly their appearance in Pali Buddhist literature appear, on the surface, to be terminology that excludes women. The vocative address to monks (bhikkhave and its equivalents) that occurs so often in sutta literature appears to be indicating that the teachings being proffered are addressed exclusively to male monastics. Similarly, the use of the normative bhikkhu (and its equivalents), in expositions relating to the teaching, again appears to indicate that monks are the sole and only concern of those offering the teaching. However, in both cases, such an understanding of each term is problematic.

In this article, we discuss each of these terms, and look a little more closely at each, suggesting that in fact neither term should be considered to be exclusive language; that is to say, in neither case do the terms function as indicators that the address or the detail of the teaching is solely for monks. The term bhikkhave should be considered instead to be a form of--what we are calling--an idiomatic plural vocative; that is, a vocative that is intended to capture a broader audience than is implied by the actual term itself. Similarly, bhikkhu is intended as an umbrella nominative, to mean "monk or nun" and sometimes as well "laity" and should be read as generic. We first discuss the term bhikkhave, then bhikkhu, and following that we also include a note on the term arhanti.

1. Bhikkhave in Pali

The vocative address to monks appears in two ways in the Pali canon--bhikkhave and bhikkhavo, with bhikkhave being the most common form. (3) Past scholars, such as Bechert, developed theories in relation to the use of the two, i.e. why one form rather than another was used--but today, with our current understanding of oral and manuscript traditions, the most obvious reason for the two ways of declining the plural vocative is simply that the texts that comprise the Pali canon are layered texts that came into their extant form over time. (4)

The following is a typical example of how the vocative address appears, from the Samyutta-nikaya:

   Bhikkhus, whatever is not yours, abandon it. When you have
   abandoned it, that will lead to your welfare and happiness. And
   what is it, Bhikkhus, that is not yours? Bhikkhus, form is not
   yours: abandon it. When you have abandoned it, that will lead to
   your welfare and happiness ... (5)

This is how it appears in the majority of texts of the Pali canon, although not in the versified texts such as the Dhammapada, Theratherigatha and Sutta-nipata. This translation is Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation, but with all instances of the vocative reinstated. The term appears much more often than Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it. For example on the Ariyapariyesana-sutta of the Majjhima-nikaya, Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it only twelve times, whereas it appears in the sutta in the extant PTS Pali edition 121 times. Also, in the Sakka-samyutta of the Samyutta-nikaya, it appears 105 number of times in the PTS edition, but only sixty times in Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation.

If we compare these numbers with some parallel suttas from other traditions, some of the differences in number are striking. In the Sakka-samyutta parallel in the shorter Samyukta-agama, translated by Marcus Bingenheimer, the term appears only eight times, compared to 105 in the PTS edition. In the (first half of the) Ariyapariyesana-sutta parallel in the Chinese Madhyama-agama, translated by Analayo ("Brahma's"), the term appears only twice, compared to 121 times in the full PTS edition.

However, the differences are not always so great. In the Marasamyukta from the shorter Samyukta-agama, the term does not appear at all, and in the Pali only seventeen times, as many of the sections are just the Buddha and Mara in dialogue. Similarly, in other suttas in which the Buddha dialogues with just one or two people, or groups who are not his followers, there are no occurrences of the term in either the Pali or Chinese. …

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