Cuyamaca College Buddhism Essay


Although Buddhism is able to change, adapt, and be adopted by other cultures and lifestyles, with all these changes, do you think that the original meaning of Buddhism taught by the Buddha himself can be lost or even die? Does the original meaning even matter if it loses its relevancy?Department of History, National University of Singapore
Localising the Universal: Women, Motherhood and the Appeal of Early Theravāda
Author(s): Barbara Watson Andaya
Source: Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Feb., 2002), pp. 1-30
Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of Department of History, National
University of Singapore
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Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 33 (1), pp 1-30 February 2002. Printed in the United Kingdom.
? 2002 The National University of Singapore
Localising the Universal: Women, Motherhood and
the Appeal of Early Therav?da Buddhism
Barbara Watson Andaya
This essay suggests that one reason for the success of Therav?da Buddhism in early
Southeast Asia was its appeal to women. The maternal metaphor, a prominent
theme in Buddhist texts, was both familiar and relevant to the lives of all females,
regardless of their social standing. Translated into a local environment, the
interaction between motherhood and merit-making provided new opportunities
for lay women to display their piety and strengthened their links with the
When the doyen of Southeast Asian studies, George C d?s (1886-1969), published
his Histoire ancienne des ?tats hindouis?s d’Extr?me-Orient more than fifty years ago, he
identified the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as a period marked by great changes in the
spiritual realm’. Among the most significant of these changes, C d?s maintained, was the
penetration of ‘Singhalese’ (i.e. Therav?da) Buddhism among cthe general
population…the most humble classes’ of what is now Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and
Myanmar.1 Although this perspective has been endorsed by all subsequent scholarship,
one overview has rightly noted that the manner in which Therav?da Buddhism
expanded and the precise reasons for its regional appeal are still unclear.2 At a general
level Richard Gombrich has referred to the ‘power and beauty’ of Therav?da Buddhist
thought, which he believes offered both a ‘coherent, universalistic ethic and a way to
Barbara Watson Andaya is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her mailing
address is Department of Asian Studies, University of Hawaii, 2444 Dole St., Honolulu HI 96822 USA.
Her e-mail address is
Acknowledgements: This essay grew out of an idea presented at a meeting in honour of the late Professor
O.W. Wolters held at the Australian National University in March 1999, and was developed with his
encouragement. Jan Nattier, Nancy Dowling, Michael Aung Thwin, Donald Swearer, Penny Van Esterik,
Elizabeth Guthrie, Alan Cole, Leonard Andaya, Chai Podhista, Liz Wilson, Ashley Thompson, Edwin
Zehner, Bruce Lockhart and Hiroko Kawanami read earlier versions and gave helpful corrections and
comments. H. Leedom Lefferts was particularly generous with advice, encouragement, and provision of
useful references. I thank all these scholars (as well as two anonymous readers) for the assistance they so
willingly gave me, but any errors or omissions are my responsibility.
1 G. C d?s, Histoire ancienne des ?tats hindouis?s d’Extr?me-Orient (Hanoi: Imprimerie d’Extr?me
Orient, 1944), pp. 280, 329; published in English as The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, ed. Walter F.
Vella, trans. Susan Brown Cowing (Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1968), pp. 218, 253.
2 J. G. de Casparis and I. W. Mabbett, ‘Religion and Popular Beliefs of Southeast Asia before 1500′, in
The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Vol. I: From Early Times to c. 1800, ed. Nicholas Tarling (Sydney:
Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 294.
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salvation from suffering’ and filled ‘an intellectual and religious gap’ in societies that had
‘no soteriology and no literate culture of their own’.3 Scholars of Southeast Asia, however,
have tended to place greater emphasis on the influential role of rulers, who were
obviously attracted by Therav?da conceptions of the cakkavatti (the universal monarch)
and the support this offered their own position. Royal patronage not only elevated the
status of Therav?da, but sustained the Sangha (the monkhood) and promoted its
influence among ordinary people.4
To some degree, of course, this historiographical preoccupation with the
relationship between kingship and Buddhism reflects the nature of the available sources.
Historians of early Southeast Asia have also become accustomed to thinking in terms of
cultural orders that enlarge the actions of rulers and thus give them ‘a disproportionate
historical effect’.5 Nonetheless, while this emphasis on royal policies and statecraft has
produced a corpus of extremely important research, it has also led to the conclusion that
religious involvement was largely an elite affair prior to the nineteenth century.6 As the
late O.W Wolters once remarked, the emergence of ‘the royal patron’ rather than ‘the
humble disciple’ as the main agent in the expansion of Therav?da Buddhism ‘is what one
would expect in the history of religion in Southeast Asia’.7
A recent article by David Wyatt approaches the ruler-ruled relationship in the
Therav?da environment of early Southeast Asia from a somewhat different standpoint.
Wyatt argues that from the eleventh century increased communication between Tai
kingdoms and Sri Lanka helped disseminate ideas of a revised world order and a moral
vision that could be shared by the entire community. In proposing that ‘thirteenth
century Buddhism may have acted as powerfully on followers as it did upon their
leaders,’ Wyatt stresses that most ‘ordinary men’ were participants in the monastic
experience and were increasingly exposed to the teachings of Buddhist texts. By
inference, however, this unprecedented ‘religious convergence’ would also have been
gender-inclusive, for ‘medieval Buddhism simultaneously boosted the individual’s
responsibility for his or her own salvation (through merit-making and religious self
awakening) and validated and strengthened the bonds that held society together’.8
Wyatt’s engaging hypothesis, while providing new openings for ‘the most humble
classes’ to be incorporated into studies of early Buddhist societies, should also give pause
to those interested in the history of gender (the practices and symbols by which societies
3 Richard F. Gombrich, Therav?da Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Columbo
(London and New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 151.
4 The literature on Southeast Asian Buddhism and kingship is extensive. For a general discussion, see
Donald K. Swearer, The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia (Albany: State University of New York Press,
1995), ch. 2.
5 Marshall Sahlins, ‘Other Times, Other Places: The Anthropology of History’, American Anthropologist,
85, 3 (September 1983): 517 – 20.
6 Juliane Schober comments on the neglect of popular religiosity in the literature of traditional
Southeast Asian Buddhist societies. See her ‘The Therav?da Buddhist Engagement with Modernity in
Southeast Asia: Whither the Social Paradigm of the Galactic Polity?’ Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
(henceforth JSEAS), 26, 2 (September 1995): 308, n 11.
7 O.W. Wolters, ‘The Khmer King at Basan (1371 – 3) and the Restoration of the Cambodian
Chronology During the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries’, Asia Major, 2, 1 (1966): 87.
8 David K. Wyatt, ‘Relics, Oaths and Politics in Thirteenth-Century Siam’,/S?AS, 32,1 (February 2001):
49 – 50, 62 – 3.
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construct the roles assigned to men and women).9 Since we cannot assume that the
aspirations and motivations attached to men necessarily apply to women, how should we
gloss ‘being female’ in a context where religious changes are helping to reshape the
cultural order?10 This issue is especially pertinent in regard to Therav?da, which is
considered relatively conservative in its textual assertion of male spiritual superiority,
and yet was highly successful in attracting female support. Any effort to explain this
apparent contradiction must recognise the risk in posing questions about human
motivation, particularly in a region where the sources for early history are so limited and
almost always the work of elite men. Methodologically, it would certainly be more
prudent to simply refrain from raising issues that have little possibility of resolution. But
one could also contend that in some cases a degree of boldness can serve a purpose by
presenting alternative if debatable lines of inquiry. Since the appropriation of outside
ideas is so often reflected in gender constructions, conjectures about representations of
femaleness and women’s responses to change may also be useful to the field because they
mesh with a multiplicity of different issues. To cite O. W. Wolters once more, ‘A gender
oriented study should do more than put women into history. It should also throw light
on the history – male as well as female – into which women are put.’11
Offered in the spirit of considered speculation rather than assertion, this essay
suggests that in early Southeast Asia beliefs about female spiritual inferiority were
countered by the public space Therav?da ritual permitted women as lay devotees
(up?sik?) and by the affirmation of their nurturing and maternal role. At once
transcultural and yet intensely local, the experience of mothering and of being mothered
is envisaged here as a mode by which new soteriological ideas were refracted through
profoundly familiar imageries. In the process Buddhism became a dynamic element in
the cultural production of attitudes both among and towards women across much of
mainland Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the increased social solidarity that Wyatt has
associated with the spread of Therav?da may also contain a gendered dimension.
Although historical sources point to the mothers of kings as the foremost exponents of
female piety and generosity, women of all classes could identify with the mothering role
these ‘royal patrons’ exemplified. While the ability of different societies to recognise the
familiar within the universal helps explain the acceptance of new systems of thought, it
may also supply another reason for Therav?da’s appeal to women and thus its success in
pre-modern Southeast Asia.
9 Shelly Errington, ‘Introduction’, in Power and Difference: Gender in Island Southeast Asia, ed. Jane
Monnig Atkinson and Shelly Errington (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 3; Aihwa Ong and
Michael G. Peletz, ‘Introduction’, in Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast
Asia, ed. Aihwa Ong and Michael G. Peletz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 9 – 10.
10 Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross, ‘Introduction’, in Unspoken Worlds: Women s Religious Lives in
Non-Western Cultures, ed. Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979),
p. xii.
11 O.W. Wolters, History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives (Ithaca, NY & Singapore:
Cornell University Southeast Asia Program/Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1999), p. 229.
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The position of women in Southeast Asian Buddhism
For over a century scholars working in Buddhist studies have debated the
implications of pronouncements on women found in early texts, with more recent
research drawing particular attention to the differing attitudes of individual nik?ya.12
However, the focus of these exchanges is on India and Sri Lanka, where the Buddhist
experience stretched back well over a millennium before Therav?da teachings began to
spread in Southeast Asia. The lack of attention to the Southeast Asian milieu may also be
attributed to the fact that feminist scholars have tended to concentrate on Mah?y?na and
Tantric Buddhism, generally considered more sympathetic to women’s religious
In the context of comparative Buddhism, the appeal of the Therav?da nik?ya in
early Southeast Asia represents something of a puzzle. Although the doctrinal
foundation may be non-discriminating, there is a general consensus that Therav?da
commentaries are particularly outspoken in denouncing female attachment to this world
and endorsing the view that to be born a woman rather than a man was evidence of ‘an
inadequate store of merit’.14 However, as demonstrated in the sometimes heated debates
among contemporary Buddhist women, the textual messages are often ambiguous, and
in Southeast Asia historical evidence testifies to the ways in which religious practice
adapted to the gender dynamics of local environments. In a region allegedly
characterised by ‘relatively high female autonomy’, women are commonly acknowledged
to be Therav?da’s principal supporters.15
12 Nik?ya originally connoted particular groups or collections of canonical texts or sutta. Though
‘school’ or ‘sect’ are commonly given as English equivalents, the term refers more broadly to a group of
monks who have subscribed to a specific interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings. Larger nik?ya like
Mah?y?na and Therav?da could themselves incorporate different nik?ya. For example, in the eleventh
century Therav?da Buddhism in Sri Lanka comprised three often rival nik?ya associated with each of the
largest monasteries, the Abhayagirivih?ra, the Jetavanavih?ra and the Mah?vih?ra, the latter being the
most important.
13 lonathan S. Walters, ‘A Voice from the Silence: The Buddha’s Mother’s Story’ (History of Religions, 33,
4 [1993 – 4]: 360 – 4) provides an overview of the debates on female status. See also Alan Sponberg,
‘Attitudes towards Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism’, in Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender, ed.
Jos? Ignacio Cabez?n (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), pp. 3 – 36.
14 Rita M. Gross, Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis and Reconstruction of Buddhism
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), pp. 4, 11; Miranda Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment:
Women in Tantric Buddhism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 68; Diana Y. Paul, Women in
Buddhism: Images of the Feminine in Mah?y?na Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985),
pp. xix, 5,6; C.J. Reynolds, ‘A Nineteenth-Century Thai Buddhist Defense of Polygamy and some Remarks
on the Social History of Women in Thailand’, in Proceedings of the Seventh IAHA Conference (Bangkok:
Chulalongkorn University, 1979), p. 929.
15 Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450 – 1680, Vol. 1: The Lands below the Winds
(New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 146; S. J. Tambiah, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults
in North-East Thailand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 98; Penny Van Esterik,
Materialising Thailand (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2000), p. 75. Issues surfacing in the debates over
women and Buddhism are apparent in the following studies: Khin Thitsa, Providence and Prostitution:
Image and Reality for Women in Buddhist Thailand (London: Change International Reports, 1980), pp. 16
– 18; Sukanya Hantrakul, ‘Prostitution in Thailand’, in Development and Displacement: Women in
Southeasat Asia, ed. Glen Chandler, Norma Sullivan and Jan Branson (Clayton, Vic: Monash University
Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, 1988), pp. 115 – 17; Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, Thai Women in Buddhism
(Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1991), pp. 22 – 35; Thanh-Dam Truong, Sex, Money and Morality:
Prostitution and Tourism in South-East Asia (London: Zed Books, 1990), pp. 131 – 57; and Gross, Buddhism
After Patriarchy.
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The position of female ascetics is emblematic of the discrepancy between text and
practice frequently resulting from the accommodation that typifies Therav?da
Buddhism in Southeast Asian societies. In broad terms, the disappearance of valid
ordination for nuns in the Therav?din tradition would seem to support the view that its
advent in Southeast Asia entailed a retraction of religious opportunities for women. It is
worth noting, for instance, that the Sarv?stiv?din nik?ya, said to be more liberal in its
attitude to women, evidently accepted both girls and boys as novices. Although popular
among the Pyu of ancient Burma, this school was eventually eclipsed by that of the
Therav?dins.16 Early Chinese visitors to Java, Cambodia and Vietnam also refer to
Mah?y?na Buddhist nuns, usually high-ranking women who operated in ways
reminiscent of China, Japan and Korea rather than of India, where nuns were more
subordinated to monks.17 Until the early eleventh century nuns were also found in
Therav?da, but around that time higher female ordination disappeared in the
monasteries of Sri Lanka.18 In late thirteenth-century Angkor, where Therav?da was well
established, a Chinese envoy categorically stated that he saw no nuns.19 The order of
ordained women (bhikkuni) was apparently never established in Thailand, and the
Buddhist ‘nuns’ mentioned by seventeenth-century French visitors to the Thai capital of
Ayutthaya were in fact ‘lay women in white’ or mae chii, usually old women whose main
function was serving the monks.20 Bhikkuni are certainly mentioned in early Burma, and
16 G.H. Luce, ‘The Ancient Pyu’, Journal of the Burma Research Society (henceforth JBRS), 27 (1937): 251.
See further, Michael Aung Thwin, Pagan. The Origins of Modern Burma (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i
Press, 1985), p. 17; Kalpna Upreti, ‘Position of Women as Reflected in Avad?na Sataka and its Ideological
Ramifications’, in Sarv?stiv?da and its Traditions, ed. Sanghasen Singh (Delhi: Delhi University Dept. of
Buddhist Studies, 1994), pp. 149 – 55. The Sarv?stiv?dins broke away from Therav?da in the mid-third
century BCE. An important contribution to our knowledge of Sarv?stiv?din influence is John S. Strong,
The Legend and Cult of Upagupta: Sanskrit Buddhism in North India and Southeast Asia (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1992).
17 For example, Rajnapatni, who succeeded as queen of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit in 1329
‘practised Buddhist meditation as a nun, venerable and shaven-headed’; Mpu Prapanca, De?awarnana
(N?garakrt?gama) by Mpu Prapa?ca, trans. Stuart Robson (Leiden: KILTV Press, 1995), pp. 26,47; Cuong
Tu Nguyen, Zen in Medieval Vietnam. A Study and Translation of the Thien Uyen Tap Anh (Honolulu:
Kuroda Institute/University of Hawai’i Press, 1997), pp. 197-8, 254; A Record of the Buddhist Religion as
Practised in India and the Malay Archipelago (A.D. 671 – 695) by I Tsing, trans. Takakasu Junjiro (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1896), p. 79; Laurence Palmer Briggs, The Ancient Khmer Empire (Philadelphia:
Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 1951), p. 50. For evidence regarding religious roles for
women in pre-Angkorian Cambodia, see Michael Vickery, Society, Economics and Politics in Pre-Angkor
Cambodia: The 7th-8th Centuries (Tokyo: Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies for UNESCO, 1998),
pp. 17 – 20. Paul, Women in Buddhism, comments on the contrasting position of nuns in India and China,
although in subsequent centuries the status of nuns in China declined (p. 80). For the way in which
Japanese nuns could acquire ‘a certain degree of power’, see Bernard Faure, Visions of Power: Imagining
Medieval Japanese Buddhism, trans. Phyllis Brooks (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 41.
18 Nuns in Sri Lanka had previously enjoyed royal patronage, and a number of nunneries had been
established. In the Mahavih?ra monastery they were in charge of rituals connected with nourishing the b?
tree, which symbolised the Buddha in Buddhist ritual. The decline of patronage may have been due to
opposition to female ordination among monks. R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, ‘Subtle Silk of Ferrous Firmness:
Buddhist Nuns in Ancient and Medieval Sri Lanka and their Role in the Propagation of Buddhism’, The
Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, 14, 1 – 2 (1988): 32 – 8, and Robe and Plough: Monasticism and
Economic Interest in Early Medieval Sri Lanka (Tucson: University of Arizona Press for the Association of
Asian Studies, 1979), pp. 37 – 9.
19 Chou Ta Kuan, Notes on the Customs of Cambodia, translated from the French of Paul Pelliot by
J. Gilman D’Arcy Paul (Bangkok: Social Science Association Press, 1967), p. 24.
20 Simon de la Loub?re, The Kingdom ofSiam, ed. David K. Wyatt (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University
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even in the fifteenth century well-born women still entered the Sangha and were
accorded honours similar to those of monks.21 At some period thereafter, however, full
ordination of women disappeared. During a visit to Burma in 1795, the British envoy
Michael Symes was told that Burmese nuns had once worn the yellow robes of the
bhikkuni, but that the order had been abolished in order to encourage population
Nonetheless, though the higher ordination of women eventually died away in the
Therav?da societies of mainland Southeast Asia as it had in Sri Lanka, pious lay nuns
who taught, meditated and performed ritual services continued to operate as fields of
merit. Their numbers often included older women of high rank, especially widows, who
are mentioned in chronicles from Ayutthaya as heads of religious foundations. Even in
the eighteenth century ‘the monastery of the white-robed nuns’ was sufficiently
prestigious to provide temporary accommodation for King Borommakot (1733 – 58)
while on a royal tour.23 A Sri Lankan monk who visited Burma in the late nineteenth
century was struck by the knowledge of lay nuns and the esteem with which they were
regarded.24 As a recent study has shown, similar attitudes towards female ascetics are
found in regional traditions in Thailand, and until the introduction of stricter controls
in the early twentieth century some provincial abbots were quite prepared to accept
women for full ordination.25
From the eleventh century, as Therav?da gathered strength, these kinds of
ambiguities in the religious position of women emerge as a consistent theme.
Inscriptions left by wealthy and highborn Southeast Asia Buddhist women who were
born into lives of privilege thus record the formulaic acceptance of a lower position in a
religiously based gender hierarchy. Since ‘the status of wife is inferior’, a urmese queen
in eleventh-century Pagan longs for the time when she will become ‘a man and a spirit
[ nat] ‘,26 while a pious queen mother in the Thai state of Sukhothai, founding a monastery
in 1399, hopes that she has acquired sufficient merit ‘to be reborn as a male’.27 In
Press, 1969), p. 113; Nicolas Gervaise, The Natural and Political History of the Kingdom of Siam, ed. and
trans. John Villiers (Bangkok: White Lotus, 1989), p. 163.
21 Pe Maung Tin, ‘Women in the Inscriptions of Pagan, JBRS, 25, 3 (1935): 151; Epigraphia Birmanica,
ed. CO. Blagden (Rangoon: Government Printing Press, 1934), vol. IV, part 1, pp. 58 – 9.
22 Michael Symes, An Account of an Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava in the Year 1795 (Edinburgh:
Constable and Co, 1827), vol. I, p. 249.
23 Richard Cushman, The Royal Chronicles of Ayutthaya, ed. David K. Wyatt (Bangkok: The Siam Society,
2000), pp. 305, 424. In 1791 a niece of Rama I was living as a nun in Tavoy; The Dynastic Chronicles
Bangkok Era. The First Reign, ed. and trans. Thadeus and Chadin Flood, vol. I (Tokyo: Centre for East
Asian Cultural Studies, 1978), pp. 178 – 82.
24 In Myanmar today girls still commonly become novices; on nuns in Myanmar see Hiroko Kawanami,
‘The Religious Standing of Burmese Buddhist Nuns (thil?-shin), The Ten Precepts and Religious Respect
Words’, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 13, 1 (1990): 17 – 39; Tessa
Bartholmeusz, Women under the B? Tree: Buddhist Nuns in Sri Lanka (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1994), pp. 37, 46, 80-1. For further discussions of lay nuns in contemporary Southeast Asia, see
Ingrid Jordt, ‘Bhikkhuni, Thilashin, Mae-Chii: Women who Renounce the World in Myanmar, Thailand
and the Classical Pali Buddhist Texts’, Crossroads, 4,1 (Fall 1988): 31-9; Swearer, The Buddhist World, pp.
152-6; Tomomi Ito, ‘Buddhist Women in Dhamma Practice in Contemporary Thailand: Movements
Regarding their Status as World Renunciates’, The Journal of Sophia Asian Studies, 17 (1999): 147 – 81.
25 Kamala Tiyavanich, Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand (Honolulu:
University of Hawai’i Press, 1997), pp. 280 – 6.
26 Quoted in Aung Thwin, Pagan, pp. 34, 41.
27 A.B. Griswold and Prasert na Nagara, ‘The Asok?r?ma inscription of 1399 A.D: Epigraphic and
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Cambodia another queen mother prays that the benefit she receives from her
meritorious acts ‘may achieve for her in a future life the greatest of all boons; to be born
as a great man at the time the Buddha will return’.28 The spiritual inequality of men and
women was also emphasised in religious commentaries. Although images of grotesque
women’s bodies are a continuing theme in post-Asokan Pali literature, B.J. Terwiel has
argued that the misogynist element in two important Therav?da texts in Southeast Asia
is actually stronger than the Indian or Sri Lankan versions on which they drew.29 The
Lokapa??atti, a Pali treatise on the nature of the world composed or compiled in Burma
around the eleventh century or later, and the better-known Traibh?mikath? by the
Sukhothai ruler Lu’Tai (c. 1347 – 74), both see women as ‘corrupted beings’ born into an
inferior state because they were consumed by material and sensual desires in their past
In explaining the appeal of Therav?da in early times, historians have not felt it
necessary to address the apparent contradiction between the touted ‘high status’ of
Southeast Asian women and their acceptance of a belief system that apparently condones
religious inequality. Anthropologists, however, have long been preoccupied with the
contrast between gender constructions in Therav?da commentaries and actual practices
in contemporary societies.31 While differing on some issues, most scholars agree that
ceremonies associated with Therav?da accord mothers a special place, and that positive
images of motherhood are fostered by images projected in village ‘texts’ – sermons, folk
operas, courting songs, agricultural rituals and myths.32 It is not just that the maternal
experience is valorised by popular religiosity; more to the point, it is a role that is
expected of and reached by the overwhelming majority of women. The mother-child
bond, most clearly manifested in a woman’s relationship with her son, also forms a direct
link with the Buddhist establishment. When a boy enters the monastery as a novice, the
Historical Studies, No. 2′, Journal of the Siam Society (henceforth JSS), 57, 1 (1969): 55.
28 Judith M. Jacob, ‘The Deliberate Use of Foreign Vocabulary by the Khmer: Changing Fashion,
Methods and Sources’, in Context, Meaning and Power in Southeast Asia, ed. Mark Hobart and Robert
Taylor (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 1986), p. 118.
29 Liz Wilson, Charming Cadavers: Horrific Figurations of the Feminine in Indian Buddhist Hagiographie
Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); B.J. Terwiel, ‘Rice Legends in Mainland Southeast
Asia’, in Contributions to Southeast Asian Ethnographies, 10 (1994): 20-1.
30 Frank Reynolds and Mani Reynolds, Three Worlds According to King Ruang (Berkeley: Asian
Humanities Press, 1982), p. 132. This work is attributed to the King Lu’Tai and is commonly dated to 1345,
although Michael Vickery argues that it was compiled later, during the Ayutthaya period; see his ‘Note on
the Date of the Traibh?mikatha, JSS, 52, 3 (1974): 275 – 84 and ‘On Traibh?mikatha, JSS, 79, 2 (1991): 24
– 36. The Lokapa??atti (mentioned in the Traibh?mikatha) is believed to have been written by
Saddhamaghosa of Thaton, possibly based on a Sanskrit original; John Strong dates the text to the eleventh
or twelfth century, Steven Collins to the fourteenth. See Strong, The Legend and Cult of Upagupta, p. 12;
Steven Collins, Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities: Utopias of the Pali Imaginaire (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1998), p. 321; and Reynolds, ‘A Nineteenth-Century Thai Buddhist Defense’, p. 930.
31 A summary of the extensive literature is in Swearer, The Buddhist World, pp. 152-4.
32 Charles Keyes, ‘Mother or Mistress but Never a Monk: Buddhist Notions of Female Gender in Rural
Thailand’, American Ethnologist, 11,2 (1984): 228 – 9; A.Thomas Kirsch, ‘Text and Context: Buddhist Sex
Roles/Culture of Gender Revisited’, American Ethnologist, 12, 2 (1985): 305, 309; Niels Mulder, Inside Thai
Society (Bangkok: Duang Kamol, 1992), p. 25; Jane R. Hanks, Maternity and its Rituals in Bang Chan
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 1963) and ‘Reflections on the Ontology of Rice’, in Culture in
History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, ed. Stanley Diamond (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960),
pp. 298 – 301; H. Leedom Lefferts, ‘Women’s Power and Therav?da Buddhism: A Paradox from Xieng
Khouang’, in Laos: Culture and Society, ed. Grant Evans (Chiangmai: Silkworm Books, 1999), pp. 214 – 25.
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merit accrues to his mother, and this rite of passage thus stands as a public
acknowledgement of the lifelong obligation he has incurred. Before his ordination,
chants proclaim the debt a Thai youth owes his mother, extolling her selflessness in
enduring the pain of childbirth and nurturing him thereafter and presenting his entry
into the monkhood (Sangha) as kha nom, the price of milk.33 In Burma a boy’s shin-byu
receives considerably more attention than his later ordination as a monk. Informants
told Melford Spiro that ‘among all types of da-na [gift-giving, generosity] … the shin-byu
is the noblest’, conferring the greatest amount of merit. Even so, a novice’s debt to his
mother remains so great that the shin-byu can repay her for the milk he drank from only
one of her breasts.34 In reminding the community that the Sanghds gain means a
mother’s deprivation, such practices render the maternal relationship and the debts it
encodes integral to the practice of Therav?da. The converse side, of course, is the
knowledge that even parental loss is temporary, since the Sangha in Southeast Asia has
long countenanced short-term ordination. Whereas in Sri Lanka a man who has left the
order is usually the target of criticism, in Southeast Asian societies even a former novice
is respected for his religious experience.35 This movement of men between the family and
the Sangha remains immensely significant in maintaining ongoing links between monks
and laity.
Anthropological research provides a useful departure point for the historical
exploration of gender in Southeast Asian Buddhism, since the heavy emotional weight
invested in the mother-son relationship obviously draws on a deep cultural underlay. In a
lecture given in London more than forty years ago, Paul Levy speculated that the public
lamentations of a Lao ordinand’s mother on the eve of his departure for the monastery
were ‘the remains of a very ancient ritual’ that had been incorporated into Buddhist
practice.36 More recently, Fran?ois Bizot has described certain Cambodian practices that
conceptualise a neophyte’s entry into the monastery as a return to the womb of the August
Mother, Mah?m?y? (the mother of the historical Buddha), which will enable him to be
symbolically reborn in a purified state. Manuscripts still housed in a number of Khmer vat
(temple-monastery), presumably reflecting much older beliefs, equate the monk’s waist
belt with the umbilical cord, the cloak with the caul and the robe itself with the placenta.37
An appreciation of these cultural underpinnings may provide a key to understanding why
Therav?da Buddhism was so readily accepted by Southeast Asian women.
33 Hanks, Maternity and its Rituals, p. 43. On ordination as payment to a mother for breast-feeding, see
Penny Van Esterik, ‘The Cultural Context of Breast-Feeding in Rural Thailand’, in Breastfeeding, Child Health
and Child Spacing, ed. V. Hull and M. Simpson (London: Croom Helms, 1985), p. 143, and idem., ‘Nurturance
and Reciprocity in Thai Studies’, in State Power and Culture in Thailand, ed. E. Paul Durrenberger (New Haven:
Yale Southeast Asia Studies Monograph, 1996), p. 27; Paul Levy, Buddhism: a ‘Mystery Religion? (London:
Athlone Press, 1957), p. 4. In Thailand the gifts given to a bride’s family at her wedding are also considered
‘payment for mother’s milk’; Susan Conway, Thai Textiles (London: British Museum Press, 1992), p. 46.
34 Melford Spiro, Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and its Burmese Vicissitudes (New York and
London: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 234.
35 Gehan Wijeyewardene, Place and Emotion in Northern Thai Ritual Behaviour (Bangkok: Pandora, 1986),
p. 115.
36 Levy, Buddhism: a ‘Mystery Religion’?, p. 14.
37 Ibid., p. 101; Fran?ois Bizot, ‘La grotte de la naissance’, Bulletin de V?cole Fran?aise d’Extr?me-Orient
(henceforth BEFEO), 67 ( 1980): 222 – 73, especially p. 246, and idem., Le Chemin de Lanka. Textes Bouddhiques
du Cambodge (Paris: ?cole Fran?aise d’Extr?me-Orient, 1992). It is relevant to note that Buddhism in
Cambodia was less influenced by Sri Lankan practices than was the case in Burma and Thailand.
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Women and Dana in early Therav?da Buddhism
From the late eleventh century the pace of Therav?da’s expansion in mainland
Southeast Asia quickened because of stronger shipping links between Sri Lanka and major
centres in modern Myanmar and Thailand. Consequently, religious exchanges also began
to expand.38 As a number of scholars have shown, the depth and nature of these
connections have important implications in any discussion of Southeast Asian responses
to Therav?da Buddhist teachings. One significant effect of improved communications was
the opportunity for an increasing number of Southeast Asian monks to study in Sri
Lankan monasteries. Here they were exposed to a more rigorous religious training which
required a knowledge of Sanskrit and more particularly Pali so that canonical texts could
be read in what was believed to be the original language.39 The rapid movement of
imported ideas into Southeast Asian societies has been seen by some as a regional
hallmark, and Wyatt’s recent study details the striking advance of Pali among Tai states,
where it was evidently being used in religious contexts by the first half of the twelfth
century.40 In the mid-fourteenth century Lu’ Tai’s Traibh?mikatha, composed in Thai,
includes an impressive list of over thirty texts in both Pali and Sanskrit that provided the
basis for its explanation of Buddhist cosmology.
While it is hard to overestimate the importance of Pali in providing access to
internationalised Therav?din scholarship, the linguistic environment of Sri Lankan
monasteries at this time was highly eclectic. Among scholars, fluency in six languages was
considered a highly desirable accomplishment,41 perhaps reflecting a new monastic
emphasis on the use of the vernacular as a means of conveying supralocal religious and
cosmological concepts. Though in keeping with wider trends in South and Southeast
Asia, this had particular relevance in Sri Lanka.42 Sinhalese certainly had a long literary
history, but the association between religion, language and identity was sharpened at the
end of the twelfth century as Buddhism was rebuilt after a long period of occupation by
the South Indian Cola dynasty. Reaching out to the laity was evidently part of a
rebuilding process that ultimately led to a much stronger sense of Sinhala identity,
encompassing ordinary people as well as rulers.43 As Charles Hallisey has shown, from
about 1000 CE a number of didactic works in Sinhalese were produced by Sri Lankan
monks for the guidance of lay people so that they could be more effectively integrated
into the Buddhist community. A specific message concerned the value of d?na
(generosity), foremost among Buddhism’s Ten Virtues, and the benefits resulting from
38 See, for example, W.M. Sirisena, Sri Lanka and South-East Asia: Political, Religious and Cultural
Relations from A.D. c. 1000 to c. 1500 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1978), especially chs. 3-4; Catherine Raymond,
‘?tude des relations religieuses entre le Sri Lanka et l’Arakan du xiie au xviiie si?cle: documentation
historique et ?vidences archa?ologiques’, Journal Asiatique, 292, 2 (1995):469 – 501; De Casparis and
Mabbett, ‘Religion and Popular Beliefs’, p. 295; Wyatt, ‘Relics, Oaths and Polities’, pp. 48 – 9.
39 For monastic education, see H.B.M. Ilangasinha, Buddhism in Medieval Sri Lanka (Delhi: Sri Satguru
Publications, 1992), pp. 133 – 61.
40 Wolters, History, Culture and Region, p. 46; Wyatt, ‘Relics, Oaths and Polities’, pp. 13, 47,49.
41 R.A.L.H. Gunawardena, ‘People of the Lion: Sinhala Consciousness in History and Historiography’, in
Ethnicity and Social Change in Sri Lanka: Papers Presented at a Seminar Organised by the Social Scientists
Association, December 1979 (Colombo: Social Scientists Association, 1984), p. 29.
42 Sheldon Pollock has postulated that during this period older ’empires’ in South and Southeast Asia
were devolving into ‘vernacular polities’ that tended to coincide with language or culture areas (‘The
Cosmopolitan Vernacular’, Journal of Asian Studies, 57, 1 [February 1998]: 31).
43 Gunawardena, ‘People of the Lion’, pp. 25 – 7.
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offering gifts such as food, drink, robes and flowers to the monastic order.44 This new
emphasis on d?na as an inseparable aspect of religious devotion {p?ja) and as a principal
means of making merit was important because it enabled ordinary people who had no
expertise in spiritual matters and were ignorant of text-based knowledge to become
participants in religious rituals. While any donation to the Sangha was a demonstration
of religious piety, the benefits of d?na were incremental, for the constant giving of even
humble gifts meant an accumulation of merit that could eventually lead to
enlightenment (nibb?na).
An intriguing aspect of this religious reformation in Sri Lanka was the identification
of women as a potential target, possibly reflecting a desire to promote the up?sik?, the
devout laywoman, in preference to nuns, the last reference to whom comes in the tenth
century. One Sinhala text notes that among the beneficiaries of stories which clarify
Buddhist teachings and which are ‘written in one’s own language’ are well-born women
who can now ‘read as they wish among themselves’.45 It is tempting to suggest that one
woman who may have been exposed to this new literature was the Sinhalese princess
Vatamsik?, who came to Pagan as a principal queen of Narapatisithu (1174-1211). But
the monks who arrived with her would certainly have acted as a vehicle for Sri Lankan
influence, and in Pagan this period saw the development of a separate nik?ya, the
S?halasangha, which was strongly oriented towards Sri Lanka.46 The promotion of such
links also involved high-ranking Southeast Asian women. The queen mother in
fourteenth-century Martaban, for example, endowed a monastery in Sri Lanka, where
her teacher received his religious training; a queen of Keng Tung in the Shan highlands
similarly acted as patron to a monastery whose abbot had been ordained in a reformed
Sri Lanka nik?ya? In light of the continuing Sri Lankan ties, an apparent reference to the
story of the compassionate monk Phra Malai in a 1201 CE inscription from Pagan merits
attention. Not only is the sutta of Phra Malai, which became one of Southeast Asia’s core
Buddhist texts, considered to have Sinhalese origins; in depicting d?na as the principal
means of merit-making, it emphasises the great rewards awaiting those who faithfully
perform their devotional obligations.48
The importance attached to d?na has particular relevance for explaining the
attraction which Buddhism held for women, for through the presentation of offerings
they could accrue merit which would not only make possible a higher rebirth, but even
improve their lot in this life.49 In Lu’Tai’s cosmology, the Traibh?mikatha, the idealised
44 Charles Hallisey, ‘Devotion in the Buddhist Literature of Medieval Sri Lanka (Ph.D. diss., University of
Chicago, 1988), vol. I, pp. 192-9. As Tambiah points out, there is little about the benefits of d?na in the
Pali canon (Buddhism and the Spirit Cults, p. 93).
45 Hallisey, ‘Devotion in the Buddhist Literature’, vol. I, pp. 192, 199.
46 G.H. Luce, Old Burma-Early Pagan (Locust Valley, NY: J. J. Augustine, 1969), vol. 1, pp. 125 – 7.
47 Sirisena, Sri Lanka and South-East Asia, pp. 74,94; A.B. Griswold and Prasert na Nagara, ‘The Epigraphy of
Mah?dharmar?j? I of Sukhodaya. Epigraphic and Historical Studies, No. 11, Part IF, JSS, 61,2 (1973): 93 – 4.
48 Bonnie Pacala Brereton, Thai Tellings of Phra Malai: Texts and Rituals Concerning a Popular Buddhist
Saint (Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University Program for Southeast Asian Studies, 1995), pp. 25 – 45,
especially pp. 38 – 9. Phra Malai visits hell, where the denizens of hell, hoping to be reborn in heaven, plead
for their relatives to make merit on their behalf. In T?vatimsa heaven, whence he also travels, Phra Malai
sees that heavenly beings are often ordinary people who have made merit through d?na.
49 CE. Godakumbura presents a twelfth-century text of stories of good men and women who had
performed meritorious deeds that would enable them to gain riches in this world, as well as higher rebirth;
see his ‘S?dhucaritodaya: An Unnoticed Pali Poem’, Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,
Centenary Volume 1845 – 1945, new series, 1 (1950): 95 – 103.
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women of Uttarakuru (the northern continent of the Human World), have acquired such
merit that they ‘never suffer any labour pains’ when giving birth.50 The supplications of
well-born women attest their belief in the benefits that will come to those who
conscientiously undertake meritorious acts. In donating lands and gardens to a temple,
a thirteenth-century Pagan queen thus prays that in future existences she might have
‘happiness, luxury and wealth, better than the average person. Should she be reborn as a
nat, T wish to have long life, to be free from illness, have a good appearance, melodic of
voice, good figure … whenever I am born, I wish to be fully equipped with d?na, precepts,
faith, wisdom, nobility … and not know a bit of misery.’51 In 1399 a queen mother of
Sukhothai similarly offers up her p?j?, expressing the hope that by plunging ‘into the
cool ocean of d?na she has ensured ‘no other will be my equal … in beauty, renown,
longevity or riches’ in any existence.52 And while the wealth of queens and princesses
meant they could become particularly generous donors, the examples of meritorious acts
cited in a Pali text from Burma – sweeping a religious compound, cleaning the area
around a cetiya (Buddhist reliquary monument), offering flowers, giving cloth to cover a
cetiya – could be incorporated comfortably into the daily round of the poorest village
woman.53 Although dating from the eighteenth century, a Thai version of the Phra Malai
story encapsulates the expectations and hopes behind the continuing cycle of female
merit-making. It explains that the beautifully robed and bejewelled women
accompanying the Metteyya, the Future Buddha, were reborn into this celestial state
because they had accumulated great stores of merit through their piety and through
making daily offerings of cloth, mats, food, fragrances, and flowers to the Buddha, the
Dhamma [Buddha’s teachings] and the Sangha.54
Therav?da thus entered Southeast Asia as ‘lay-friendly’, despite the monastic/lay
hierarchy emphasised in its teaching. Soteriological notions attached to the
accumulation of merit through gift-giving would have had profound resonances in
societies where offerings to supernatural beings had long been part of domestic rounds.
The remark that contemporary monasteries in northern Thailand seem ‘preoccupied’
with food should equally be considered in light of a cultural heritage where communal
feasting was a significant component in village life. In its teaching that a monk must
accept food cooked by any devotee, Buddhism stood as a dramatic departure from
Brahmanistic notions of ritual purity. Since women – often the relatives of the monks
themselves – assumed primary responsibility for food preparation, this type of merit
making became a distinctively female activity, and in the seventeenth century European
observers specifically commented on the fact that it was women who fed the monks.55
Because it was primarily through the d?na of devout up?sik? that monks were
provided with food and clothing, women had a special part to play in the lay- Sangha
50 Reynolds and Reynolds, Three Worlds, p. 131. The idea that childbirth can serve as a gauge of female
piety is also evident in the belief that a woman of inadequate merit is likely to experience a difficult labour
(Hanks, Maternity and Its Rituals, p. 61).
51 Aung Thwin, Pagan, p. 41.
52 Griswold and Prasert, ‘The Asok?r?ma Inscription’, p. 37.
53 C.E. Godakumbura, Visuddhajanavil?sinl n?ma Apad?natthakath? (London: Pali Text Society, 1954),
p. xviii.
54 Brereton, Thai Tellings, pp. 205 – 7.
55 Tambiah, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults, p. 64; Gervaise, Natural and Political History, pp. 136-7. The
comment on food is in Wijeyewardene, Place and Emotion, p. 36.
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interaction. We should therefore not be surprised to find that Lady Ming, a well-born
widow in fifteenth-century Sukhothai, gives particular emphasis to the donation of food
when listing the numerous acts of merit she has performed as a lay benefactor. In her
words, ‘Because of our zeal we prepared food in great abundance (to place) in front of
his lordship and all the monks, and we lifted up the food to present to them.’56
Furthermore, Lady Ming’s generosity could be placed in a continuum of religious
‘heroines’ who provided models of praiseworthy conduct and who were, like the
hagiography of medieval Christian Europe, a product of popular beliefs and practices as
much as of religious teachings. One such figure was Buddha’s wife, Yasodhar?, who
cooked the food which, as a Bodhisatta, he offered to the innumerable Buddhas who had
gone before him and which made possible his own Buddhahood.57 Another was Suj?t?,
the daughter of a village chief, who presented the fasting Buddha with a dish of rice and
milk, thus ending his period of extreme asceticism; she then became the first female lay
disciple.58 Her actions found a highly receptive audience, and it has been said that for
Buddhist laywomen generally the distribution of food to monks became ‘a supremely
pious act of d?na of which Suj?t? was a prime exemplar.59 In Southeast Asia the appeal
of the Suj?t? episode can be gauged in a variety of representations which range from
Borobodur reliefs to a fifteenth-century Mon inscription.60 An illustration in a Burmese
manuscript {parabaik) quite naturally depicts the offering of Thuzata (Suj?t?) as if it
occurred in Burma.61 The process of vernacular translation thus extended well beyond
the written text, and generations of cultural memory are caught up in a classical Burmese
poem in which a woman remarks, T am preparing a broth of rice and milk, and am going
to present it to the Buddha.’62
Similar comments could be made about merit-making and the donation of cloth in
Southeast Asia. Weaving in this region has been a female enterprise since its beginnings
around 2,500 years ago, and the gift of textiles was probably associated with life-cycle
rituals from very early times. During Buddhist ceremonies women could offer their d?na
in the form of cloth, cushions and pillows that had been produced by their own labour
and were in that sense an extension of themselves.63 The occasion could be mad^ even
56 A.B. Griswold and Prasert na Nagara, ‘Epigraphic and Historical Studies, No. 22; An Inscriptk a from
V?t Hin T?n, Sukhodaya’, JSS, 67, 1 (1979): 71 – 2.
57 Walters, ‘Voice from the Silence’, p. 370; on this subject, see Penny Van Esterik, ‘Feeding their Faith:
Recipe Knowledge among Thai Buddhist Women’, Food and Foodways, 1 (1986): 199.
58 Van Esterik, ‘Feeding their Faith’, p. 210; Zimmer, The Art of Indian Asia: Its Mythology and
Transformations (New York: Pantheon Books, 1960), p. 139.
59 Walters, ‘A Voice from the Silence’, p. 370.
60 A.G.B. Kempers, Ancient Indonesian Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959), Plate 85;
H.L. Shorto, A Dictionary of the Mon Inscriptions from the Sixth to the Sixteenth Centuries (Oxford
University Press, 1971), p. 198; Blagden, Epigraphia Birmanica, vol. 4, part 1, pp. 11 – 13; Swearer, Buddhist
World, pp. 29 – 30, describes the ritual re-enactments of the Suj?t? episode in contemporary Thailand; for
the same event in late nineteenth-century Burma, see Shway Yoe (James George Scott), The Burman. His
Life and Notions (reprint: New York: W.W Norton, 1963), pp. 334 – 7.
61 Patricia M. Herbert, The Life of the Buddha (London: The British Library, 1992), pp. 34 – 5; this
manuscript dates from the early nineteenth century.
62 Khing Mya Tchou, Les femmes de lettres birmanes (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1994), p. 47. See further Van
Esterik, ‘Nurturance and Reciprocity’, p. 24, and ‘Feeding their Faith’, pp. 197 – 215.
63 A donation of 400 pillows and robes, for example, is mentioned in one of Lu’Tai’s inscriptions
(Griswold and Prasert, ‘The Epigraphy of Mah?dharmar?j? I’, p. 158). On the Korat Plateau in
northeastern Thailand women still give pillows they have made themselves to people in a superior
position; offerings of pillows are thus made to the spirits and form an important aspect of merit-making
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more meritorious when a particularly generous or costly gift was recognised by recording
a donor’s name for posterity, like Mrs Kon who presented silk ‘to wrap sacred books’ and
Mrs Sen, who gave a canopy.64 Collective female responsibility for textile production
would also have been critical in the ‘maze of rituals’ that Wyatt believes were
strengthening social bonds in the early Buddhist world. A Sukhothai inscription from the
reign of Lu’Tai proudly documents the state welcome given a visiting monk, speaking of
‘veils of all colours’, draperies, and lengths of material that were laid across the road.65
Over six hundred years later such descriptions find echoes in a late nineteenth-century
account of an ordination ceremony in Laos, where the women knelt in a row, spreading
out their silken sashes on the path the monks would tread.66
Buddhist traditions associated with monks’ robes provide a very specific instance of
the way in which cloth production linked lay women with the Sangha and the
community. According to the Vinaya, the practice of women donating robes began when
Vis?kh?, the epitome of the up?sik?, learned that the Buddha’s male followers had no
spare robes. She requested permission to ‘bestow robes for the rainy season upon the
Sangha. The Buddha granted her request, and in so doing established the period for
monks to collect or accept what were known as kathina robes.67 Held at the end of the
rainy season, the kathin ceremony with which Vis?kh? was associated is mentioned in
Pagan and Sukhothai inscriptions and in the fourteenth-century Traibh?mikatha.68
Canonical sources endorse this ritual as a merit-making opportunity of great importance
to women, for in the words of one J?taka text ‘chief among women she/Who gives an
upper robe in charity/ She that gives pleasant things is sure to win/A home divine and
fair to enter in.’69 And indeed, Vis?kh? was herself rewarded for her generosity by the
respect of the community, and the birth of many healthy children and grandchildren.70
ceremonies (Gittinger and Lefferts, Textiles and the Tai Experience, pp. 19,51,96,103-4). The same theme
could be explored in Southeast Asia in relation to the ordinand’s alms bowl, which according to the Vinaya
should be of earthenware. Pottery in Southeast Asia was largely, although not completely, a female domain,
and it is possible that a mother or a mother-like relative produced a monk’s personal bowl. At the end of
the nineteenth century in Burma one observer noted that the ordinand was asked to identify the
accessories of ordination, the robes and bowl, as his own. In so doing he would have implicitly been
affirming links with his mother (Levy, Buddhism: a ‘Mystery Religion?, p. 19).
64 A.B. Griswold and Prasert na Nagara, ‘The Inscription of V?t Khem?. Epigraphic and Historical
Studies, No. 15’, JSS, 63, 1 (1975): 138.
65 See Barbara Watson Andaya, ‘Statecraft in the Reign of L? Tai of Sukhothai (ca. 1347 – 1374)’, in
Religion and Legitimation of Power in Thailand, Laos and Burma, ed. Bardwell L. Smith (Chambersburg,
PA: Anima Books, 1978), p. 14.
66 A. Raquez, Pages Laotiennes (Hanoi: F-H Schneider, 1902), p. 392 (cited in Levy, Buddhism: a ‘Mystery
Religion?, p. 36).
67 Isaline Blew Horner, Women under Primitive Buddhism: The Position ofLaywomen and Almswomen in
Early Buddhist Times (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975; reprint of 1930 edition), pp. 350 -LA
kathina is explained as a robe made for a Buddhist monk in the course of a single day and night (M.B.
Ariyapala, Society in Mediaeval Ceylon [Columbo and Kandy: de Silva, 1956], pp. 248 – 9).
68 Reynolds and Reynolds, Three Worlds, p. 237; Sommai Premchit and Amphay Dor?, The Lan Na
twelve-month traditions (Chiang Mai: So Sap Kan Phim, 1992), p. 171; Michael Aung Thwin, personal
communication (4 February 1999); Sila charuk Phokhun Ramkhamhaeng Maharat/The Inscription of King
Ramkamhaeng the Great (Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, 1984), p. 41.1 do not think the controversy
over the dating of this inscription affects my broad argument.
69 Horner, Women under Primitive Buddhism, p. 347, n 1. The J?takas tell the stories of the Buddha’s
former lives.
70 Ibid., p. 351 ; Nancy Auer Falk, ‘Exemplary Donors of the Pali Tradition’, in Ethics, Wealth and Salvation, ed.
Russell F. Sizemore and Donald K. Swearer (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990), pp. 131 – 3.
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Given her place in the popular imagination, it is hardly surprising to find that Vis?kh? is
among the women depicted on the famous murals of Wat Chetuphon in Thailand.71
Because the kathin ceremony came to signal the occasion when monks could return
to lay life, it assumed a particular significance in the lives of Buddhist women. In a poem
composed by a Burmese court lady, Ma Khwe (1781 – 1836), for instance, the festival of
the ‘monks taking robes’ was one of the most important seasonal rituals.72 Furthermore,
those most closely involved in the preparation of these offerings would have been a
young man’s close female relatives, particularly his mother. According to Burmese
legend, M?y?, the mother of the historical Buddha, stayed up all night to weave him a
robe on hearing he wished to become a mendicant.73 It is in this environment, indeed,
that we can identify female agency in the Southeast Asian localisation of imported
beliefs. For example, canonical references to the offering of cloth by the faithful for the
Sangha’s use, and the need for the robes to be finished for presentation at the kathin
ceremony, apparently provided the basis for community rituals found in medieval Sri
Lanka.74 In Southeast Asia it seems that the usual ceremony of donating yellow robes was
called Cula-kathin, but a more difficult and more meritorious form was known as the
Mah?-kathin.75 Surviving descriptions from Laos and Burma indicate that it had
developed a particularly local flavour which may have been inspired by such stories as
M?y?’s dedicated weaving for her son. The object was for a group of women working
together to spin, weave, dye, cut and sew the cloth in the span of a few days so that the
robes would be ready to be donated to the monks. It was popularly believed that the
common endeavour and group unity meant a magnification of the merit gained, which
then accrued to the individuals involved. The benefits were considerable; as local J?taka
stories reminded listeners, householders who offer kathina cloth will never be reborn
71 This monastery dates from the reign of Rama I (1782 – 1809) (K.I. Matics, Introduction to the Thai
Mural [Bangkok: White Lotus, 1992], p. 50). In a Cambodian text cited by Bizot it is Vis?kh? rather that
Suj?t? who presents food to the Buddha under the tree of enlightenment (Fran?ois Bizot, ‘La cons?cration
des statues et le culte des morts’, in Recherches nouvelles sur le Cambodge, ?tudes th?matiques, ed. Fran?ois
Bizot, vol. I (Paris: ?cole Fran?aise d’Extr?me-Orient, 1994), p. 110.
72 SJ. Tambiah, ‘The Ideology of Merit and the Social Correlates of Buddhism in a Thai Village’, in
Dialectic in Practical Religion, ed. E.R. Leach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), p. 75; Khing
Mya Tchou, Les femmes de lettres birmanes, p. 42.
73 Sylvia Fraser-Lu, Burmese Crafts. Past and Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 260.
Mainstream traditions say that M?y? died shortly after the Buddha’s birth. The links between
motherhood, cloth and Buddhism find a powerful symbolic statement in a Pali work, the
Pamsuk?l?nisamsam, which became popular in Southeast Asia and was typical of the extracanonical
?nisamsa genre (telling the advantage of doing good deeds). Originally associated with the Pamsuk?likas,
a group of ascetic monks prominent in Sri Lanka between the eighth and tenth centuries, the text recounts
the story of a merchant whose daughter died giving birth to a still-born baby. Washed, dried and dyed, the
first pam?uk?la, or robe of the ascetic Buddha, was in fact an expensive piece of cloth that had been
wrapped around the dead foetus and afterbirth. According to this text, ‘The pam?uk?la robe is the best. It
is while wearing it that the Buddhas have liberated all creatures…’ The Pamsuk?likas themselves were so
honoured that robes and clothing were distributed to their mothers by Sri Lankan rulers and other
notables; see Wilhelm Geiger, Culture of Ceylon in Mediaeval Times (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1960),
p. 202; Strong, The Legend and Cult, pp. 71 – 2; G. Martini, ‘Brapameuk?l?nisamsani, BEFEO, 60 (1973):
61,71; and Gunawardana, Robe and Plough, pp. 41 – 4, 168.
74 Geiger, Culture of Ceylon, p. 196.
75 Kenneth Wells, Thai Buddhism. Its Rites and Activities (Bangkok: Suriyabun Publishers, 1975; first
printed 1939), p. 108.
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into a low-ranking family, and will be assured of happiness, riches and fame.76
This discussion is not meant to imply that emphasis on displaying devotion through
d?na was a preserve of Therav?da. However, it is significant that the Therav?da centres
in Sri Lanka were encouraging p?j? through gift-giving at precisely the time when their
religious connections with Southeast Asia were growing stronger. The familiarity of
propitiating the supernatural linked highly local activities carried out in specific places
and at specific times to a much larger religious culture that emphasised not only
individual responsibility for performing d?na but the benefits it could impart. In the
words of a fifteenth-century inscription from the Shan kingdom of Keng Tung, ‘the
up?sik? Queen Sirid?gha … the capable lady who is named R?jam?t? (royal mother),
filled with faith, presented lands (to the monastery so as to earn) shares of merit.. .’77And
although the wealthy always enjoyed advantages in the display of d?na, all women,
regardless of social status, could become participants in the merit-making cycle.
The maternal metaphor in early Buddhism
While Therav?da’s emphasis on the value of gift-giving provided opportunities for
any woman to display her religious devotion, as mothers or future mothers individuals
could equally identify with the maternal/nurture metaphor which also emerges in
medieval Sri Lankan writings. This metaphor, of course, built on well-established
antecedents. The ccult of the mother’ was strongly entrenched in early India, and a
mother’s protective love had been held up by the Buddha as a kind of standard for the
monk’s feelings toward the entire universe.78 But while a mother’s loving kindness is
frequently invoked ‘as a paradigm for human relationships’ in Indian Buddhist
literature,79 the metaphor was especially evident in Sri Lankan texts, where the
association between the Buddha and an individual was conceptualised in very personal
terms. In the words of one well-known work, ‘One should go for refuge to the Buddha
saying, “I go for refuge to my immortal noble mother…”’80 It might even be said that
supportive relationships between child and parents, and especially between a son and his
mother, were depicted as essential for progression along the spiritual path. In Sinhalese
76 Apocryphal Birth-Stories (Pa??asa-Jataka), trans. LB. Horner and Padmanabh S. Jaini (London: The
Pali Text Society, 1985), pp. 170 – 80, 200 – 7; Sommai and Dor?, Lan Na Twelve-Month, p. 171; Fraser-Lu,
Burmese Crafts, p. 260; Gittinger and Lefferts, Textiles and the Tai Experience, pp. 102 – 3. A detailed
account of a similar ritual, the ‘Golden Web’ ceremony observed in 1941 among the Pai-i, a Tai-speaking
people along the Myanmar-Yunnan border, shows how a local celebration of female weaving skills could
be combined with communal merit-making (Tien Ju-K’ang, Religious Cults of the Pai-i along the Burma
Yunnan Border [Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 1986], pp. 48 – 52). For a description of the
kathin presentation in northeastern Thailand, see Tambiah, ‘The Ideology of Merit’, pp. 75 – 7, while
Swearer, Buddhist World, p. 23, describes a kathin ceremony he witnessed in a rural Northern Thai
monastery in more recent times.
77 A.B. Griswold and Prasert na Nagara, ‘Epigraphic and Historical Sources No. 19. An Inscription from
Keng Tung (1451 A.D.)’, JSS, 66, 1 (1978): 79.
78 Susan Murcott, The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha (Berkeley:
Parallax Press, 1991), pp. 76 – 7; Horner, Women under Primitive Buddhism, pp. 1 – 18. For a portrayal of
maternal behaviour in early Tamil poetry as the ideal for both men and women, see Paula Richman,
‘Gender and Persuasion: The Portrayal of Beauty, Anguish and Nurturance in an Account of a Tamil Nun’,
in Cabez?n ed., Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender, pp. 126 – 31.
79 Tessa Bartholomeusz, ‘The Female Mendicant in Buddhist Sri Lanka’, in Cabez?n ed., Buddhism,
Sexuality and Gender, p. 41; Wilson, Charming Cadavers, p. 29.
80 Hallisey, ‘Devotion in the Buddhist Literature of Medieval Sri Lanka’, vol. I, p. 117.
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traditions, for example, the story of the Buddha’s past existences commences ‘with a life
in which he formally begins his career as a Bodhisatta by receiving it as a blessing from
his mother’. A text composed around 1400 shows how the future Buddha ‘practised the
virtue of looking after his mother’, even saving her life when the two are shipwrecked at
sea. Still today, according to Gombrich, a common Sinhalese saying is Amm? gedara
Budun, ‘the mother is the Buddha of the home’.81
The mother-nurture theme that emerges in Buddhist writings, especially those from
Sri Lanka, may cast some light on the appeal of Therav?da in early Southeast Asia, where
the mother-child link was well established as a vehicle for religious symbolism. No
student of history will forget that Ta Prohm was dedicated to the mother of layavarman
VII (1178-C.1220 CE) who is venerated in the form of Prajn?p?ramit?, the mystic
mother of the Buddhas.82 Exploration of the ways in which the literary and visual
iconography of maternal care was manifested in different Buddhist contexts awaits
historical investigation.83 In the Southeast Asian context it is noteworthy that some of the
earliest reliefs found in Myanmar, possibly dating from as early as the sixth century CE,
depict the story of M?y? and the Buddha’s miraculous birth, an episode which has never
lost its appeal to lay followers. In a society where a king could assert that ‘all women who
are not old should have children,’84 gestation and parturition were infused with a highly
charged symbolism that could generate its own allusions. Indeed, the editors of a
Northern Thai chronicle written in Pali in the early fifteenth century have detected a
deliberate parallel between the story of the pregnant Queen Camadev?’s arrival in
Haripu?jaya, and the womb-like enshrinement there of a Buddha relic inside a cetiya.
When she later builds a forest temple and provides the monks with food and drink, she
becomes in sense a mother-surrogate as well as a merit-gaining donor.85
The mother-nurture theme in medieval Buddhist literature also merits attention
because monks from Southeast Asia who studied in Sri Lanka initiated the translation of
Pali and Sinhala texts, and themselves provided vernacular commentaries.86 As Sheldon
81 Richard Gombrich, ‘Feminine Elements in Sinhalese Buddhism’, Wiener Zeitschrift f?r die Kunde
S?dasiens, 16 (1972): 68, 78 – 9, 91 – 3.
82 Briggs, Ancient Khmer Empire, p. 222; Nandana Chutivongs, ‘The Iconography of Avalokitesvara in
Mainland South East Asia’ (Ph.D. diss., Leiden University, 1984), pp. 332 – 3.
83 For instance, between the seventh and thirteenth centuries a common topic in Chinese Buddhist
writings on family relationships is a son’s indebtedness to his mother because of her ‘kindnesses’,
particularly giving birth and breast-feeding. In seventeenth-century Vietnam images of a mother’s self
sacrifice and the obligations thus incurred by her children were used by early missionaries in their
explanations of a Christian’s duties. The notion that merit-making can save relatives from hell exemplified
in the Phra Malai legend also has parallels in the Chinese story of Mu Lian. However, a significant
difference is the Chinese view that motherhood is inseparable from sexuality and pollution, and that a son
has the obligation to redeem his deceased mother from hell, where she has been consigned as a result of
her own desires. Victor H. Mair, Tun-Huang Popular Narratives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1983), pp. 87 – 121; compare Alan Cole, Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1998), pp. 133,176 and 232, with writings by Alexandre de Rhodes cited in Peter C. Phan,
Mission and Catechisis: Alexander of Rhodes and Inculturation in Seventeenth-Century Vietnam (Maryknoll,
NY: Orvis Books, 1998), p. 220.
84 Reynolds and Reynolds, Three Worlds, p. 115.
85 Donald K. Swearer and Sommai Premchit, The Legend of Queen C?ma: Bodhiramsis C?madevtvamsa,
a Translation and Commentary (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), pp. 25, 79.
86 Mabel Haynes Bode, The Pali Literature of Burma (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1909), pp. 16 – 19;
C.E. Godakumbara, Catalogue of Cambodian and Burmese Pali Manuscripts (Copenhagen: The Royal
Library, 1983), p. 39; David K. Wyatt, Thailand: A Short History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982),
pp. 51, 58; Gunawardana, Robe and Plough, pp. 271-7.
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Pollock has shown us, thinking about audiences located in a different geocultural space
was intrinsic to this linguistic transmission and the choice of appropriate literary
languages.87 Comparison of works from Southeast Asia with their Pali and Sri Lankan
prototypes thus has the potential to reveal small but significant additions or deviations.
For example, the sixteenth-century Jinak?lam?Upakaranam (‘The Sheaf of Garlands of
the Epochs of the Conqueror’), written in northern Thailand, adapts Pali and Sinhalese
material to provide a verisimilitude that reflects important connections between the text
and its audience. As in a Sinhalese recounting, the Bodhisatta’s mother is directly
involved in his spiritual journey, for she is part of the ‘first arousing of thought’ which
leads him on the path to Buddhahood. However, in the Sinhala version the Bodhisatta is
depicted simply as a poor man who cares for his mother, but in ‘The Sheaf of Garlands’
he supports his mother by collecting firewood and leaves from the forest. His whole
purpose of going to ‘the Land of Gold’ (Suvannabhumi, often identified with lower
Myanmar) was to ensure that his mother would not be in want. The frequency with
which this theme occurs is summed up in one Thai text, which simply notes that it is
‘customary’ for a Bodhisatta to show gratitude towards his mother.88
Against the background of expanding vernacular usage, the fact that ‘The Sheaf of
Garlands’ was composed in Pali deserves comment. The choice of a language that could
reflect local inflections and pronunciation and yet remain accessible to scholars from
Pagan or Sukhothai or Luang Prabang suggests that the author was cognisant of the
linguistically diverse environment in which the itinerant monk operated. In the second
place, the use of Pali highlights the intermediary role of monks, whom C d?s saw as a
key factor in the popularisation of Buddhist doctrine.89 It was their linguistic skills that
provided a conduit for the elucidation of Buddhist teachings to a lay audience for whom
Pali was unfamiliar and who yet believed communication with the Buddha could best be
achieved ‘by addressing Him in His own language’.90 The monk-lay connection would
have been especially influential in the period under discussion, when Therav?da in Sri
Lanka was invoking the nurturing role of mothers as a religious metaphor, and when this
influence was extending into a Southeast Asian environment where motherhood had a
high place. There seems little doubt that monks were fully aware of their female listeners.
Inscriptions repeatedly affirm the presence of devout laywomen in communal ritual and
in Buddhist congregations; the story of Queen Camadev? of Haripu?jaya was
accordingly intended to ‘enlighten the mind and kindle the interest’ of women as well as
men.91 In 1720 a French missionary remarked that a group of Thai women listening to a
monk reading ‘a book of fables’ were so engrossed that they did not notice him enter the
monastery’s teaching hall, in contrast to their ‘less assiduous’ husbands who whiled away
the time outside. Indeed, the women may have had a vested interest in this recitation, for
87 Pollock, ‘Cosmopolitan Vernacular’, pp. 6, 9.
88 N.A. Jayawickrama, The Sheaf of Garlands of the Epochs of the Conqueror, being a translation of the
Jinak?lam?ltpakaranarh of Rata??a Thera of Thailand (London: Pali Text Society, 1978), pp. xix, 2-3;
Gombrich, ‘Feminine Elements’, p. 80; Brereton, Thai Tellings, pp. 32, 103; Jean Mulholland, Herbal
Medicine in Paediatrics: Translation of a Thai Book of Genesis (Canberra: ANU Faculty of Asian Studies
Monographs, 1989), p. 18. For local versions of this theme, see stories 3,19 and 23 of the locally composed
Pann?sa-J?taka in Horner and Jaini trans., Apocryphal Birth-Stories.
89 C d?s, Histoire ancienne, p. 329; Indianized States, p. 253.
90 Wyatt, ‘Relics, Oaths and Polities’, p. 13; Tambiah, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults, pp. 195 – 214.
91 Swearer and Sommai, Legend of Queen C?ma, p. 44; Brereton, Thai Tellings, p. xxi.
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according to the same source, villagers who sponsored readings by monks were also
involved in selecting the subject.92
It is likely that the most favoured presentations consisted of J?takas, stories of the
Buddha’s former lives, which have long been the foremost illustration of the Buddha’s
teaching and an index to appropriate action in this existence.93 Undoubtedly the most
popular of these was the Vessantara J?taka, which recounts the penultimate incarnation
of Gotama Buddha. The story of how Prince Vessantara gave away all his possessions,
including his wife and children, in his passage towards Buddhahood is at least as familiar
to Therav?da followers as the Buddha’s own biography, and sometimes more so. In
Southeast Asia its prevalence in the mental world of Therav?da Buddhists was intensified
because Vessantara-like figures recur in several of the Pa??asa-J?taka, locally composed
stories which had the same force and authority as canonical J?taka.94
Although one must be cautious in assuming that projections of religious ideals
necessarily bear directly on human behaviour, the rendering of beliefs through images,
whether written or visual, spoken or heard, lay at the core of the imaginaire of Southeast
Asian Buddhism. The murals, statues, banners and paintings that surrounded listening
audiences were intimately related to textual recitation and monastic exposition.95 Like the
physical presence of relics, the tangibility of text and depiction interacted with the
immediacy of sound to relocate Buddhist teachings, confirming their pertinence and
applicability through a cultural osmosis that blended ‘reality’ and ‘representation’.96 This
convergence of sense helped make stories like that of Vessantara so familiar that they
could be appreciated even when presented in a language other than the vernacular.
Listening to Pali, for instance, was extremely meritorious but the very likelihood that
textual recitations were often incomprehensible allowed audiences even greater rein to
localise, arrogate and at times enact their imagery.97 The inscription left by a leading
monk in Sukhothai in fact records that his own religious life had been inspired by that of
Prince Vessantara. In his eagerness to attain nibb?na, he too had given away his dearest
92 Alain Forest, Les missionaires fran?ais au Tonkin et au Siam (XVIIe-XVIIIe si?cles) (Paris: L’Harmattan,
1998), vol. 3, p. 285.
93 U Lu Pe Win demonstrates the continuing influence of the J?taka stories in ‘The J?takas in Burma’, in
Essays Offered to G.H. Luce by his Colleagues and Friends in Honour of his Seventy-fifth Birthday, ed. Ba
Shin, Jean Boisselier and A.B. Griswold (Ascona, Switzerland: Artibus Asiae, 1966), vol. II, pp. 94 – 108.
When the author’s own father died, he was instructed to study the Mah?janaka J?taka, which tells how the
Buddha in a previous life cared for his widowed mother. See also Pranee Wongthet, ‘The Jataka Stories and
Laopuan Worldview’, in Thai Folklore: Insights into Thai Culture, ed. Siraporn Nathalang (Bangkok:
Chulalongkorn University Press, 2000), pp. 47 – 62.
94 K.R. Norman, Pali Literature (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1983), pp. 177-8; Horner and Jaini
trans., Apocryphal Birth-Stories. The Pa??asa-J?taka appear to have been first written down in Chiang
Mai, from whence they were carried to Burma; the Khmer collection differs in arrangement and content
from the Burmese and Thai versions.
95 A report from Laos in 1930, for example, describes the recitation of the Vessantara J?taka which took
place in a temporary structure decorated with cloth paintings depicting scenes from the story (S. Karp?les,
‘Chronique: Laos’, BEFEO, 31 [1931]: 332).
96 Wyatt, ‘Relics, Oaths and Polities’, p. 35; Margaret Cone and Richard F. Gombrich, The Perfect
Generosity of Prince Vessantara: A Buddhist Epic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), pp. 415 – 18.
97 In 1865 King Mongkut commented on the fact that Thai monks could chant the Vessantara J?taka in
other styles ‘such as that of the Lao, Mon, Burmese and Khmer’ (quoted in Terry E. Miller, Traditional Lao
Music: Kaen Playing and Mawlum Singing in Northeast Thailand [Westport, CT/London: Greenwood
Press, 1985], p. 38).
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possessions, and had ‘adorned his wife and two daughters splendidly, putting gold
[bracelets] on their wrists and rings … and offered them as a gift to whoever came and
asked for them, because of his great [faith?]’.98
If we accept that individuals could appropriate all or parts of the imagined world
into their own ‘world system’, the Vessantara J?taka should be of particular relevance to
historians of gender. Although the theme is the importance of unqualified d?na, it is
firmly located within the family, and the translators of the oldest surviving Pali text are
probably right when they speculate that ‘women formed the great majority of most
audiences’.99 When the widow Lady Ming had her meritorious acts inscribed on stone, the
fact that she and her late husband had listened to a recitation of the Vessantara J?taka was
specifically mentioned, and an inscription of 1,536 notes that Mrs Sen commissioned a
copy.100 Such references may themselves contain a sub-text. In a region where families
could easily disintegrate through illness, death or capture in war, sorrow was part of the
human condition; a woman who lost a child, however, experienced a very particular
poignancy. The hope of recruiting supernatural assistance to ensure maternal and infant
well-being is suggested by the fact that the most common image found among Thailand’s
famed Sawankhalok miniatures, dating from between 1350 and 1500, is that of a woman
holding a child.101 It is thus not difficult to imagine that women would empathise with
the grief of Vessantara’s wife Maddi after her husband gives away their children to serve
an old Brahmin, and equally rejoice when they are restored to her. Like the R?m?yana in
India (and indeed, in Southeast Asia), the Vessantara J?taka came to occupy far more
than a literary space.102 It became ‘real’ and ‘alive’ because its symbolic trajectories were
propelled by the lives of ordinary people, and the popular appeal of what is commonly
termed the ‘Great J?taka is attested by the range and variety of its representations. In the
reliefs along the walls of Pagan’s eleventh-century Ananda temple, for example, we find
scenes such as Maddfs agonised search in the places where her children had played, her
distraught discovery of their toys, and the family’s joyful reunion.103
The message of the Buddha’s loving relationship with his family continued to
exercise a powerful hold on conceptions of ideal human relationships as Therav?da
98 A. B. Griswold and Prasert na Nagara, ‘King L?daiya of Sukhodaya and his Contemporaries.
Epigraphic and Historical Studies No. 10’, JSS, 60, 1 (1972): 118.
99 Cone and Gombrich, Perfect Generosity, p. xxi; G.H. Luce, ‘The J?takas at Pagan’, JBRS, 58, 2 (1975):
231-3. It was commonly believed that those who listen to the Vessantara J?taka would be reborn in the
time of the Metteyya, the Future Buddha. Collins draws parallels between the values of renunciation,
Buddhahood, seasonal fecundity and rebirth that provide a context for the recitation of the Vessantara
J?taka (Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities, pp. 43, 376).
100 Griswold and Prasert, ‘Inscription from V?t Hin Tan’, p. 72, and ‘Inscription of V?t Khem?’, p. 138.
101 Roxanna M. Brown, The Ceramics of South-East Asia: Their Dating and Identification (Kuala Lumpur:
Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 53, 260-1.
102 Pollock argues that in India the cult of R?ma can be traced to specific circumstances in the twelfth
century when Hindu kings saw in the R?ma-R?vana struggle a parallel to their own conflicts against the
Turks (Sheldon Pollock, ‘R?m?yana and Political Imagination in India’, Journal of Asian Studies, 52,3 [May
1993]: 263).
103 Epigraphia Birmanica, ed. Taw Sein Co and Charles Duroiselle (Rangoon: Government Printing
Office, 1921) vol. II, part 1, pp. 130 – 2; vol. II, part 2, plates 351 – 60, 377; Cone and Gombrich, Perfect
Generosity, p. xxi. The episode dealing with M?ddi’s lament may have assumed an independent status quite
early. An observer in nineteenth-century Burma commented that ‘men could be moved to tears’ by good
performances of this episode (C.J.F.S. Forbes, British Burma and its People, Being Sketches of Native
Manners Customs and Religion [London: John Murray, 1878], p. 150).
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Buddhism confirmed its dominant position in mainland Southeast Asia. A poem in Pali
written in Burma sometime in the fourteenth century links mother, father and teacher
with the Three Noble lewels (Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha): ‘To these Six with pure
faith/Respectfully having paid homage.’104 It is quite understandable that when one Mon
ruler planted a sacred b? tree he erected ‘a statue of the exalted mother of the Buddha’
and another of the Buddha’s father.105 In medieval China Alan Cole views the Buddhist
discussion of family matters as part of a sustained effort ‘dedicated toward locking the
family and the Buddhist monasteries into a symbolic relationship’.106 In this sense, both
the Buddhist state and Buddhist teachings in Southeast Asia were also deeply implicated
in the inculcation of ideas that underlay what European historians have seen as the
‘invention’ of the family.
In the traffic between the religious imaginary and the social realm, however, it was
the mother-child bond which received particular emphasis. According to early Thai
medical texts, even an unborn child was aware that much was owed to a mother’s
kindness, and that birth carried with it the inescapable duty to demonstrate gratitude.107
The motif of maternal protection and sacrifice is also evident in popular literature, like
the LilitPhra Lo, an epic Thai poem conventionally dated to the fourteenth century; here,
the hero says to his mother ‘Less than a wife is [sic] a hundred lovers,/ Less than a mother
a thousand wives./ Hard it is to give birth and rear a child,/ To you, dear mother, so much
is owed.’108 Seeking a simile which could describe destitution and vulnerability, the
Burmese court lady well known as a poet, Ma Khwe, summoned up the protective
maternal relationship: T am like a son separated from his mother, whom people
A mother’s selfless care incurred lifelong obligations, and to treat her with anything
other than the deepest respect was a sin of the greatest magnitude. Derived from the
Buddhist canon but relayed though vernacular story-telling, the tale of the robber
murderer Angulim?la provides a salutary warning. Had he carried out his plan to kill his
mother, he would have been condemned to an endless cycle of death and rebirth and was
only saved when the Buddha converted him before he could commit the act.110 In the
same vein, the Phra Malai legend specifically warns its audience that mistreatment of a
mother is tantamount to striking a monk. Those guilty will be reborn in hell, where they
will suffer the most terrible agonies.111 These warnings apply as much to the highborn as
104 Burmese Classical Poems, ed. and trans. Friedrich V. Lustig (Rangoon: U Khin Pe Gyi, 1966), p. 29.
105 Epigraphia Birmanica, ed. CO. Blagden (Rangoon: Government Printing Press, 1928), vol. Ill, part 2,
p. 278.
106 Cole, Mothers and Sons, p. vii.
107 Mulholland, Herbal Medicine, p. 18.
108 Women in Thai Literature (Bangkok: Office of the Prime Minister, 1992), p. 70. We obviously have no
figures for maternal mortality in early Southeast Asia. It is worth emphasising, however, that with every
pregnancy a woman faced the real possibility of death. In England around 1600 it has been estimated that
1 in every 100 births resulted in the mother’s death (Dr Merry Wiesner-Hanks, personal communication,
3 May 2000).
109 Khing Mya Tchou, Les femmes de lettres birmanes, p. 42.
110 Hallisey, ‘Devotion in the Buddhist Literature’, vol. I, p. 122; Strong, Legend and Cult, p. 241.
111 Brereton, Thai Tellings, p. 58. In a Cambodian legend, a prince who unknowingly commits incest with
his mother builds a st?pa as a means of expiating his sin; see Ashley Thompson, ‘Introductory Remarks
Between the Lines: Writing Histories of Middle Cambodia’, in Other Pasts: Women, Gender and History in
Early Modern Southeast Asia, ed. Barbara Watson Andaya (Honolulu: Center for Southeast Asian Studies,
University of Hawai’i, 2000), pp. 47 – 68.
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to a village man. In another episode from the legend of Queen Camadev?, a king ignores
the complaints of a woman whose son had rebuked her. She then appeals to the Earth
Mother, who causes the king’s city to be destroyed.112
The power of mother’s milk
Mention of the powerful Earth Goddess serves as a further reminder of the
contradictions inherent in representations of ‘femaleness’ in Southeast Asian
Buddhism.113 In this often ambiguous iconography, where even the womb could be
depicted as a place of foetal angst and discomfort,114 the most potent and unassailable
symbol of protectiveness and loving kindness was that of a woman nursing a baby at her
breast. While the offering of milk has a special place in Buddhist texts, where it is often
associated with a gender-neutral moral goodness,115 in practical terms it was the
quintessential symbol of motherhood. The kindness-milk-mother association would
also have been highly significant in a context where all babies were breast fed, sometimes
for several years. As Lu’Tai’s Traibh?mikatha puts it: cIt is normal for people in this world,
for the Bodhisattva, and for the animals, that once the newborn baby has left its mother’s
womb, her love causes the blood in her breasts to become milk, and to flow out from her
breasts so that the child can suck it and be nourished. This is characteristic of living
The imagery of maternal nurture could also be translated into powerful religious
parallels. One early Pali biography composed in India around the first or second century
BCE relates the life of Buddha’s aunt, Gotam? Mahapaj?pat?, who reared him after the
death of his natural mother, M?y?. In a study of this text, Jonathan Walters has suggested
that Gotam?, the founder of the Buddhist order of nuns, is presented both as Buddha’s
female counterpart and as his mother. Since she nurtured the Buddha’s physical body
112 Swearer and Sommai, Legend of Queen C?ma, p. 161.
113 Imported from India, where it was particularly evident during the Gupta period (fourth-sixth
centuries), the image of the Earth Goddess who witnessed Buddha’s enlightenment was localised in
Southeast Asian iconography. Here she was said to have defeated the evil forces of M?ra by wringing a
flood of water from her hair (itself emblematic of fertility), a motif which is unknown in India. Khmer
images have been dated to the later Angkor period, but the first known depiction in Southeast Asia is a
Pagan bronze from the eleventh or twelfth century; Donald M. Stadner, ‘Pagan Bronzes. Fresh
Observations’, in The Art of Burma, ed. Donald M. Stadner (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 1999), p. 63. For
Indian origins, see Janice Leoshko, ‘The Case of the Two Witnesses to the Buddha’s Enlightenment’, in A
Pot-Pourri of Indian Art, ed. Pratapaditya Pal (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 1988), pp. 39 – 52; and John
P. Ferguson, ‘The Great Goddess Today in Myanmar and Thailand: An Exploration of her Symbolic
Relevance to Monastic and Female Roles’, in Mother Worship: Theme and Variations, ed. James J. Preston
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), p. 286.1 am grateful to Elizabeth Guthrie, who is
working on the earth goddess, for information and helpful references.
114 Reynolds and Reynolds, Three Worlds, pp. 118 – 19; Mulholland, Herbal Medicine, p. 18.
115 In the Buddhist Utopia the suckling of children is quite separate from the possession of mammary
glands. According to the Traibh?mikatha cosmology the moral perfection of the inhabitants of the
northern continent, Uttarakuru, is such that babies can extract milk from sucking the fingers of passing
men and women. In other local texts such as ‘The Sheaf of Garlands’ and the Burmese ‘Glass Palace
Chronicle’, a holy man can similarly care for his children with milk that comes from his finger; Reynolds
and Reynolds, Three Worlds, p. 132; Collins, Nirvana and other Buddhist Felicities, p. 322; Jayawickrama,
Sheaf of Garlands, p. 98; Pe Maung Tin and G.H. Luce, The Glass Palace Chronicle (Rangoon: Rangoon
University Press, 1960), p. 5; Van Esterik, ‘Nurturance and Reciprocity’, p. 40.
116 Reynolds and Reynolds, Three Worlds, p. 122.
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with her breast milk she greets him as his mother, and a son s indebtedness is conveyed
in the final stanzas, when he praises Gotam?’s achievements while holding her corporeal
relics in his hands. However, the text provides an intriguing twist to the mother-child
imagery, for Gotam? in turn worships the Buddha as the equivalent of her own mother
because he has fed her with the milk of the Dhamma.117 In medieval Sri Lankan works the
message is even more emphatic: cthe Buddha is like a mother; the Dhamma is like
mother’s milk; the Sangha is like milk-drinking children’.118 Subsequent authors
developed the conception further. Like a mother, says one eighteenth-century text, the
Buddha gives his followers the draught of ambrosial milk, he carries them with the arm
of compassion, he holds them on the hip of kindness, he proffers the breast of his sweet
voice. It may happen that babies ‘hit their mother with hand and foot and scold and
abuse her, but the mother does not get at all angry but kisses and comforts [their] hands
and feet, and…gives them delicious sweet milk to drink, and thus consoles them … Thus
the jewel of the Buddha is like a mother to the inhabitants of the three worlds.’119 It may
well be possible to track more evidence of this Buddha-mother association in Southeast
Asia. For example, one of the figures on the base of the famed sixteenth-century Anoma
Buddha image in Mrauk-U, the ancient capital of Arakan, depicts a child nursing at its
mother’s breast as a reminder of the Buddha’s maternal-like compassion.120
Encoded in such metaphors was also a belief in the regenerative and healing power
of mother’s milk. The earliest extant Pali version of the Vessantara J?taka, which served
as the model for countless vernacular renditions in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia,
provides a graphic description:
And when Madd? saw the children in the distance and knew they were safe…she
sprinkled them with streams of milk from her breasts … The children rushed up to her,
and they too fell senseless on top of their mother. At that moment two streams of milk
flowed from her breasts into their mouths, and if they had not received so much relief,
the two children must have perished, their hearts parched.121
Notions of the restorative power of mother’s milk appear to have struck a responsive
chord in Southeast Asian societies. According to one scholar, this motif is absent in
Indian prototypes but is very evident in Thai and Lao versions of the Rama J?taka, still
regarded as a sacred text and often chanted by monks during the Buddhist Lent. In the
Lao text, the nine sons of Ravana’s wife Suddo are healed after suckling her breast; in the
117 Walters, ‘A Voice from the Silence’, pp. 370, 376; Wilson, Charming Cadavers, p. 31. Wilson sees this
comparison as in fact a devaluation of worldly motherhood and worldly nourishment.
118 Hallisey, ‘Devotion in the Buddhist Literature’, vol. II, p. 251; Gombrich, ‘Feminine Elements’, pp. 69 – 70.
119 Gombrich, ‘Feminine Elements’, pp. 74 – 7. It is worth remembering that the eighteenth century was
also a time of renewed Thai-Sri Lankan contacts.
120 This was pointed out to me during a visit to Mrauk-U in December 2000.
121 Cone and Gombrich, Perfect Generosity, p. 90. The lament of Bimb? (Yasodhar?, wife of the Buddha
to-be), following his renunciation of his princely life, was also a popular episode. A Northern Thai version
copied in the late eighteenth century stresses Bimb?’s love for her son R?hula, and her assurance that
following her husband’s departure ‘your mother who loves you so much will be as your father’. In other
words, her feeling for her son is so great that she can be like both parents to him. Donald K. Swearer,
‘Bimb?’s Lament’, in Buddhism in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1995), pp. 541-2.
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Thai version the wounded Indrajit is also restored after being fed mother’s milk.122 In the
same mode, a chronicle from northern Thailand describes how this source of
extraordinary vitality enables the twin sons of Queen Camadev?, though themselves still
babies, to attack and defeat the enemy.123 Early Thai medical texts even identified the four
types of wet-nurses whose breast milk is so infused with ‘medicinal properties’ that it is
like ‘the nectar of the gods’, enabling a child to resist disease. It is against such beliefs that
we should view reliefs on Pagan’s Ananda temple which depict the careful choice of sixty
four wet nurses for Vessantara.124
The conceptualisation of Buddhism as a nurturing religion where the faithful were
‘fed’ by the milk of the Dhamma would have been in complete accord with indigenous
Southeast Asian notions that children owe a life-long debt to the women who suckled
them. The belief that a real debt is owed is apparent in an inscription left by a Pagan ruler
who ‘suckled at the breast of mother U Pon San’ and accordingly gave lands, attendants
and cows to his wet-nurse ‘as the price of the milk I drank’.125 This reference serves as a
useful reminder that the wet-nurse herself is symbolic of generosity, most evident in the
devotion of the Buddha’s own foster mother, Gotam? Mah?paj?pati. The Sinhala versions
of Gotam?’s life make this explicit: ‘In this birth you were not born from my womb, but
I did the deeds of a mother for you with great love . . . [giving] the ordinary attention
paid to a child that all mothers of the world give to all children.’126 The thirteenth-century
author of the Sinhalese text Butsarana thus found it appropriate to compare the Buddha
with a wet-nurse ‘who saves her breast milk for the prince, though her own child cries’.127
Such images gave further support to the high position that wet-nurses already held in
Southeast Asian cultures. A foster mother stood in the same relationship to a son as a
birth mother, and while her milk could protect him from harm, her own character could
be directly transmitted to those she suckled. It is hardly surprising to find that Queen
C?madevfs story describes how a number are honoured in the palace, or that in Pegu in
1689 the most politically influential figure was the prince’s wet-nurse.128 The chanted
version of the Phra Malai, which must have incorporated many older oral traditions, sees
incest between men and their wet-nurses, as well as with their mothers, as a sign of the
disappearance of Buddhism.129
122 Sachchidanand Sahai, The Rama Jataka Tale in Laos: A Study in the Phra Lak Phra Lam (Delhi: B.R.
Publishing House, 1996), vol. I, p. 23, n 28; vol. II, p. 25.
123 Swearer and Sommai, Legend of Queen C?ma, pp. 12, 69. The story of the Bodhisatta who, as an
ascetic baby, refuses his mother’s milk because it defiles him and impedes his path to nibb?na presumably
reflects Indian influence (cited by Emmanuel Guillon, The Mons: A Civilisation of Southeast Asia, trans.
James V. Di Crocco [Bangkok: The Siam Society, 1999], p. 39).
124 Mulholland, Herbal Medicine, pp. 56 – 7; Taw Sein Co and Duroiselle, ed., Epigraphia Birmanica, vol.
II, part l,p. 101.
125 Pe Maung Tin, ‘Women in the Inscriptions’, pp. 149 – 59.
126 Hallisey, ‘Devotion in the Buddhist Literature’, vol. II, pp. 256, 300.
127 Ibid., vol. I, p. 256; Gombrich, ‘Feminine Elements’, pp. 69 – 70.
128 Swearer and Sommai, Legend of Queen C?ma, p. 127; Adrien Launay, Histoire de la Mission de Siam
1662 – 1811 (Paris: Charles Douniol and Retaux, 1920), p. 304. In the fourteenth century an inscription
left by the king of Sukhothai also recognises his foster mother (A.B. Griswold and Prasert na Nagara, ‘The
Inscription of V?t Jan Lorn. Epigraphic and Historical Studies No. 8’, JSS, 59, 1 [1971]: 206)…
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