Dhammadinna, the Introduction to the Therigatha, and Their Importance

In whom desire to reach the final rest

Is born suffusing all the mind of her,

Whose heart by lure of sense-desire no more

Is held – Bound Upstream:- so shall she be called.

Psalms Of The Sisters – Caroline Rhys Davids

In the work of the Therigatha, the collection of first hand poetry from the first ordained nuns (theri = nuns, gatha = song/story) is evidence of their teachings. This the only text dedicated to their teachings. This blog will be exploring many different nuns from text.

One of the greatest women teachers in this and in reference to other texts in the Cannon is Dhammadinna. Dhammadinna appears in both the Majjhima-nikaya and the Culavedalla-sutta. One of the reason she of her importance is that she is one of the first women, and in fact one of the first disciples to have been said to become an aharat, the highest form of spiritual accomplishment.

The story varies in each of these texts. In each she is asked questions from a man named Visakha. In texts he is her husband, or husband to be, in others possibly another female disciple. Such is the nature of texts that have been compiled at different times over long expanses and history. When her husband approached her after they had separated, wondering what she had learned after she had gone off to live in the vihara, (the monastery) she answered all of his questions thoroughly and without hesitation. For the complete teaching from the Majjihma Nikaya  go to this blog from James Ford.

Why is this Important?

What’s even more unique about the conversation between Dhammadinna and Visaka is that they are  teaching for the intended audience. So those of us listening or reading  that story are being taught by a women, teaching a man. Almost unheard of in 6th C BCE. Which indeed is a conscious choice of those compiling the original suttas. The mere thought that there was a women in this position was an indication that there were probably more like her.

Then in the same vein, as if there was any doubt, Visaka goes to the Buddha himself to tell him, and in doing so verifies that Dhammadinna’s answers were indeed correct. To which the Buddha replied that they indeed were. He celebrates Dhammadinna right there and then having the gift of dharmavocana, “the speech of the Dharma”, and in doing so says she has also achieved arahthood. She went on to teach both women and men, and was applauded for her mastery of the Dharma.

Suspicious Death of Dhammadinna

What happened to Theri Dhammadinna is not clear. In one sutta, she is killed by Devadatta, as she tries to stop him from entering into the vihar with dirty feet.

Is it possible what was behind this story of the murder of a nun was due to her power as an influential teacher? Was it dangerous for women to have any authority in the sangha in the early days of Buddhism? We cannot know for sure, but if there is any indication –  even today it is unsafe in many Buddhist communities for women to be strong leaders and teachers.

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