Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Female Monastic Healing and Midwifery: A View from the Vinaya Tradition

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Female Monastic Healing and Midwifery: A View from the Vinaya Tradition

Article excerpt

The provision of community-based medical care, the building and running of medical clinics on monastery grounds, and large-scale fundraising for the construction of hospitals are features of the engaged Buddhism characteristic of post-colonial period Buddhist revivals in Asia. To give just one example, Buddhist organizations founded and run by Buddhist nuns in Taiwan typically interpret Buddhism in a social-activist vein. Influenced by an important reformist line of Chinese Buddhist thought called "Buddhism for the human realm" (renjian fojiao) (DeVido 93-101), organizations like the Ciji Compassion-Relief Foundation and the Luminary Buddhist Institute consider the relief of illness and promotion of health to be a part of their Buddhist mandate. The ordained women involved in these organizations are contemporary examples of what appears to be a longstanding propensity of female monastics to engage in health related activities. In fact, in some ways, their interpretation of Buddhist monastic ethics closely resembles that of the ancient nuns whose behavior is said to have prompted injunctions against monastics practicing medicine among the laity during the Buddha's time.

The monastic lawyers who formulated the various classical Indian Buddhist Vinaya collections actively promoted the care of the sick within monastery walls and treated illness as a topic of great importance and relevance for monks and nuns. In the Mahavihara Vinaya (usually called the Pali Vinaya), the Buddha clearly ordains that monks should nurse one another in sickness because they no longer have biological family to fulfill that function (Mahavagga 8.28; Horner 4.432; Kitagawa 11). (2) In his article, "Byo" ("Illness"), a classic study on Buddhist medicine, Paul Demieville draws our attention to an additional set of concerns qualifying the monastic practice of medicine. While noting the overall compatibility between the Buddhist ethic of compassion and the healing arts, as well as the fondness of Buddhist teachers for medical metaphors, Demieville remarks upon the cautious attitude of monastic lawyers with respect to monks and nuns practicing medicine among the laity (35-37). Indeed, the canonical sources discourage monks from making their medical skills generally available to the laity, with some carefully drawn exceptions. Gregory Schopen, for instance, points out a Vinaya passage concerning a "shaven-headed householder." This passage seems to describe an accepted practice in which ailing and presumably childless householders begin the process of becoming monks in order to receive monastic nursing. It is implied that, in exchange, they are to will their worldly possessions to the monastery ("Good Monk" 10-11). The scenario described by Schopen can be seen as a refinement of the more general rule forbidding the ordination of persons suffering from grave illness (Demieville 36). (3) The Samantapasadika, the most important commentary on the Mahavihara Vinaya, specifies a variety of laypeople to whom a monk may legally distribute medicines. These include: his mother, his father, their servants, domestic servants of the monastic community, his elder and younger brothers, his sisters, his various aunts and uncles, and children pledged to the monastery but not yet initiated. Even medical advice cannot be directly distributed to lay people who fall outside of these certain categories. (4)

Scholars of Buddhist medicine agree that monastics are mandated to heal and nurse one another but should provide medical care only to certain lay people and to others only indirectly. A closer examination of Vinaya sources shows that this ambivalence is gendered in interesting ways. The Vinaya lawyers regulated nuns's involvement in the healing arts and other types of service with special care, suggesting that nuns were more likely than monks to take up community work, especially the work of healing. Demieville notes, "in the treatises of monastic discipline, this interdiction [against providing medical care to the laity] seems to apply to nuns more than to monks" (36). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.