Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Religious Studies


Professor Graeme MacQueen


The story of the origins of women's ordination into the Buddhist monastic order (sangha) is pivotal to the study of Theravāda Buddhist female renunciation---textual, historical, and contemporary. The story is not, however, easy to understand. It reflects an irreducible ambivalence toward women's renunciation. Though the story acknowledges women's capacity to attain nibbana (liberation from the bonds of rebirth), it also attributes to women's presence in the order a halving of the lifetime of the "true dhamma" (saddhamma, the Buddha's teachings which propel individuals to realization of nibbāna), and presents the Buddha as requiring the formal subordination of the women's order to the men's in an attempt to minimize the damage their presence will bring. This thesis provides an interpretation of the story in its relationship to the Pali Vinaya (the monastic code of rules and regulations). I argue that the story is a literary construct which functions to legitimize the vision of an ideal Buddhist renunciant that pervades the Pali Vinaya. Throughout the Vinaya, women (even ordained women) symbolize the outside world beyond the boundaries. They are that from which monks need protection and against which the Vinaya conception of identity is formed. This thesis makes four contributions to the field of Buddhist studies. It is the first full-length study of the story of women's ordination. It is also the first study of the Pali Vinaya to consider seriously the impact of gender on its categories, assumptions, and overall structure. As such, the thesis acts as a corrective to scholarship on Buddhism which assumes that the story is an accurate reflection or women's role in an early period of Buddhism's development. Additionally, the thesis could provide the basis for a more nuanced investigation of the social history of Indian Buddhism that accommodates the constructed nature of the texts.

McMaster University Library

Files over 3MB may be slow to open. For best results, right-click and select "save as..."

Included in

Religion Commons