Click on the title to download a pdf of Damcho’s doctoral dissertation. The text explores the stories of the lives of Buddha’s direct female disciples, as told in the vinaya, asking to what degree and in what ways Buddhist monasticism succeeds or fails to enable women to engage in the work of self-fashioning that is its overall ethical project. The dissertation was submitted to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in October 2009 as the final completion of Damcho’s PhD.

Readers of this website may be particularly interested in chapter five on Community, where the presentation of the original founding and development of the nuns’ order is discussed.This chapter looks at the evolution of Buddhist monasticism as a sustained effort to re-imagine and re-create social and personal identities for women, through the creation of an alternate social order in which such identities can be enacted. The monastic communities are by no means genderless, but rather seek to construct gender differently than is done outside the monastery. As the first nuns are asked to wash monks’ robes and care for lay family’s children, this chapter explores those numerous moments in which understandings of female gender that are operative outside the monastic community are re-inscribed on gender within that community. In many such moments, Buddha emerges as an authority protecting his female monastic wards from exploitation by monks and other men, while Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī takes the lead in clarifying for laywomen what the role of a nun is, and is not. More broadly, this chapter explores the vinaya’s gestures towards parity between the male and female monastic orders, as well as the hierarchical relationship that generally prevails between them. It especially notes the asymmetrical reciprocity Buddha proposes as a principle for ordering the relationship between the monks and nuns’ orders, as well as his numerous efforts to curb the potential for exploitative domination of nuns by monks.
“For the Sake of Women, Too”: Ethics and Gender in the Narratives of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya”  (Download pdf)


This dissertation explores the ethics that Buddha and his monastic followers practiced, as imagined in the narrative world of theMūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya (MSV). The MSV is a multi-volume canonical text that has governed various Indian and Tibetan Buddhist monastic communities for nearly two millennia, and it is also hailed as a masterpiece of Sanskrit literature. Through close readings of the MSV’s many narratives, this dissertation is principally concerned to understand in what ways and to what extent its ethics is gendered.

The MSV regulates historical monastic communities, often addressing those communities through narratives. The text thus demands reading practices that reflect its status as both authoritative and multivocal. Deploying such practices, we note that Buddha’s practice of ethics in the MSV is marked by an intense attentiveness to human particularity and difference. In the ethics of the MSV, many features combine to constitute a person: caste, family, gender and other markers of social location, their relationships with particular others, as well as individual disposition and karma. Within Buddhist monasticism, gender emerges as one of the single most important determinants of social location and personal identity, profoundly impacting what is and is not possible for persons at any given moment. Buddhist monasticism’s interventions in prevailing constructions of female gender benefited women greatly, even though those mainstream constructions repeatedly re-inscribed themselves on monastic women’s lives, bodies and institutions.

With its intense focus on the body as a site for ethical cultivation, Buddhist monasticism offers women an alternate model of female embodiment. When gender is institutionalized within monastic communities, we note moments of parity between the male and female monastic orders, along with the hierarchy that generally prevails between them. The hierarchical relationship between the monks and nuns’ orders is characterized by asymmetrical reciprocity, with each encouraged to offer different forms of care to the other.