Female Monastic Healing and Midwifery

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Female Monastic Healing and Midwifery: A View from the Vinaya Tradition

Amy Paris Langenberg
Eckerd College

Monastic lawyers who formulated the various classical Indian Buddhist Vinaya collections actively promoted the care of the sick within monastery walls and treated illness as a topic of great importance and relevance for monks and nuns, but also mandated that monastics should exercise caution with respect to practicing the healing arts and provide medical care to lay people only on a restricted basis. A closer examination of Vinaya sources shows that this ambivalence is gendered in interesting ways. The Vinaya lawyers regulated nuns’s involvement in the healing arts, and other types of service, with special care, suggesting that nuns were more likely than monks to take up community work, especially the work of healing. This study attempts to sort out the subtleties of Vinaya attitudes towards the public (as opposed to internal monastic) practice of medicine by nuns, suggesting that social constraints forced laywomen and nuns into relationships of collusion and mutual need and created a situation in which nuns were more likely than their male counterparts to engage in the healing arts. A female monastic ethic emphasizing reciprocity and mutual obligation made it doubly unlikely that Buddhist nuns would turn away from the medical needs of laywomen. Thus, a complex combination of factors accounts for the disproportionate focus on nuns in Vinaya prohibitions regarding the practice of the healing arts.

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