Separate but Equal: Property Rights and the Legal Independence of Buddhist Nuns and Monks in Early North India

By Schopen, Gregory | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 2008 | Go to article overview

Separate but Equal: Property Rights and the Legal Independence of Buddhist Nuns and Monks in Early North India


Schopen, Gregory, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


--for Patrick Olivelle, who has been in all but the conventional sense a dharmabhrair--

Virtually nothing is known about the relationships in early India between actual Buddhist male monasteries (viharas) and female nunneries (varsakas, upassayas) as institutions. (1) Certainly the enormous Buddhist monastic literature now contains provisions that would have rendered nuns ritually and hierarchically subservient to and dependent on monks, and this is especially the case in regard to the promulgation of the notorious eight gurudharmas, or "heavy rules of conduct," incumbent on nuns alone. (2) But even this particular piece of male craftsmanship did not address such issues as the administrative and legal relationships between monks and nuns, or vihara and varsaka. Indeed, in spite of the fact that any treatment of such issues would be of considerable interest not just for the study of the Indian Buddhist nun, but also for the history of women in early India, and for the study of Indian law, nothing yet seems to have been noted in the literature that would bear on these points. This situation alone would seem to justify simply presenting--in as economical a fashion as possible--a series of short texts from a Buddhist monastic code (vinaya) that does in fact directly address the property rights and legal independence and separation of nuns and nunneries and monks and monasteries. Such a presentation, moreover, is made even more suitable by the fact that these texts, while never as detailed as one might like, are so clear that they require little commentary.

The monastic code in question is the Mulasarvastivada-vinaya and it is itself enormous: its Tibetan translation, which appears to be complete, runs to thirteen volumes and the rough equivalent of eight thousand pages. It has been called "one of the masterpieces of Sanskrit literature," even though only a limited part of it has come down to us in that language, and it is indeed remarkably rich in story literature that ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous--it contains a good deal of humor and satire, much of it directed at certain kinds of monks and nuns, for example. (3) But as recent studies have begun to demonstrate, it is also rich in sophisticated legal texts and points of discussion. It has--again only as examples--detailed rules on the use of permanent endowments and written loan contracts; full discussions of the lay ownership of Buddhist monasteries; and what approaches a fully worked-out system of monastic inheritance law, which explicitly addresses the distinction and relationship between monastic and secular law. (4) This system is particularly germane because the texts to be presented here form a part of it.

As is the case with all Buddhist monastic codes that have come down to us, the form in which we have this Vinaya is relatively late--they all reflect a fully developed monasticism--although there is now a general consensus that the Mulasarvastivada-vinaya was very likely to have been redacted in the early centuries of the Common Era, and in a considerable number of specifics what is found in this code corresponds to what occurs in the Indian archaeological and inscriptional records of the same period--in this sense, at least, the contents of this code can often be independently dated to this time. (5) But, obviously, to be redacted at a certain point in time would necessarily require that a good deal of the material that was redacted was older and already current prior to the redactional event, and this too can sometimes be confirmed by the same sources--and some of it, of course, must be later. There is, unfortunately, no easy way to sort this out.

Attempts to determine the chronological relationships among the various parts of this huge Vinaya have yet to be undertaken, and there have already been some missteps, one of particular interest here since it involves the last section of this code, which is now called the Uttaragrantha, and it is from this section that the texts to be presented here come. …

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