I have just been reading Anālayo’s recent article on ‘Karma and Female Birth’ in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics. This is an area that interests me, since it intersects with a puzzle about jātaka stories, namely why the Buddha-to-be is always male. I have argued (in my 2011 article for the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion: ‘In the Footsteps of the Buddha? Women and the Bodhisatta Path in Theravāda Buddhism’) that the idea that the Bodhisatta is always male probably developed out of a simple lack of interest in the karmic causes of sex-change. In Buddhist stories of past lives men remain men and women remain women, with no indication that such lack of variation is in any way karmicly or soteriologically significant. It is only later on, in commentarial materials, that the idea that female birth is restrictive and the result of bad karma rises in prominence.
In his article, Anālayo asks whether or not female birth is considered to be the result of bad karma in early Buddhist texts. He uses Chinese sources as well as Indic ones, and indeed the bulk of the article is taken up with presenting the multi-life stories of the nuns Bhaddā Kaccānā and Bhaddā Kapilāni from the Ekottarika-āgama. The latter story includes the revelation that the senior nun had been male in a past life, and had specifically aspired to become female. As Anālayo concludes, these stories suggest that female birth did not have negative connotations in the early Buddhist texts.
While I enjoyed Anālayo’s article, and am grateful as always for his wonderful efforts in making Chinese sources available to those of us unable to access them in the original, his examples are of course only one part of the complex picture of women’s roles and attainments within Buddhism. For a man to aspire to be reborn female and not then regret it is a rather rare occurrence in Buddhist literature, and the reverse is certainly more common both in literature and in life. Nonetheless it is great to see the picture being broadened to include these intriguing Ekottarika-āgama stories and the excellent female role models that they provide.