I often think of Sanghamitta. I picture her on the deck of a ship, the sea heaving. She’s cradling a sapling from the Bodhi Tree, and she is not looking back.
Sanghamitta (282–203 BCE) was the daughter of Ashoka the Great, the Indian king whose massive empire stretched from present-day Afghanistan to Bangladesh. It’s often said that his patronage was so critical to the early spread of Buddhism that, without him, Buddhism would likely have died out. Yet it’s worth remembering he didn’t do this work alone.
If you’ve been nourished by the dharma, you’ve been nourished by generation after generation of women.
His daughter Sanghamitta was a Buddhist nun. Buddhist tradition dictates that a woman can only be ordained if there are both nuns and monks in attendance at the ceremony. So, when Sanghamitta learned that there were women in Sri Lanka who longed to live the monastic life, her heart went out to them—they were being denied ordination because there were no nuns in Sri Lanka to help ordain them.
Sanghamitta decided she wanted to go to Sri Lanka to help these women, but her royal father said no. The voyage was too dangerous, and in any case, he knew that if she went, he’d never see her again.
As I imagine it, Sanghamitta didn’t respond to Ashoka right away. She took a deep, mindful breath. Then she put her hand on his arm and reminded him of the importance of generosity. There’s no gift greater than the dharma, she said, and with that, Ashoka realized he should not hold her back.
Accompanied by ten other nuns, Sanghamitta set sail for Sri Lanka. When they finally made land, the sacred sapling she’d cradled on the ship was ceremoniously planted. Then she spent the rest of her life far from her homeland, sharing the dharma and building a strong community of women. The first Sri Lankan woman she helped ordain was a queen named Anula; hundreds more followed.
The Buddha taught that to be complete, a Buddhist sangha must be fourfold. It should have monastics, both male and female, and laypeople, both male and female. I appreciate Sanghamitta’s determination to uphold the fourfold sangha—to ensure that women were not excluded from the path.
Though the Buddha taught that women are as capable of realization as men, Buddhism is practiced by humans with all their human frailties and prejudices. So Buddhism—like every manmade institution I can think of—has been marred by sexism. In too many cases women practitioners and teachers have been forgotten, relegated to the kitchen, and denied education, ordination, and other opportunities. But despite these obstacles, there have always been women like Sanghamitta—women who have persevered with their practice, with their teaching.
Whether you identify as a woman or not, if you’ve been nourished by the dharma, you’ve been nourished by generation after generation of women. As you read the pages of this issue, I invite you to contemplate the women, living and dead, who inspire you on your path. I don’t doubt that many are “hidden figures.” But make no mistake—women hold up half the dharma sky.