Theravada Buddhism
The Way of the Elders

The Origin of the Order of Nuns
Although the historical Buddha acknowledged that women were just as religiously capable as men, secondary books on Buddhism have tended to neglect their role and contributions to the religion. This was due to dominance of the religious tradition by monks, which was reflected in the masculine viewpoint of its literature with the exception of the Therigatha (Verses of the Elder Nuns). Furthermore, there was a preponderance of male scholars working on Buddhism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the West; they paid little attention to the role of women within the Buddhist tradition. (OBS, 109)
The venerable Ananda saw the Gotamid, Pajapati the Great, standing outside the porch of the gateway, her feet swollen, her limbs covered with dust, with tearful face and crying: seeing her, he spoke thus to the Gotamid, Pajapati the Great:
       “Why are you, Gotami, standing ... and crying?”
       “It is because, honored Ananda, the Lord does not allow the going forth of women from home into homelessness in the dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Truth-finder.”
       “Well now, Gotami, stay here a moment, until I have asked the Lord for the going forth of women from home into homelessness in the
in the dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Truth-finder.”
       “... Now, Lord, are women, having gone forth from home into homelessness in the dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Truth-finder, able to realize the fruit of stream-attainment or the fruit of once-returning or the fruit of non-returning or perfection?
       “Women, Ananda, having gone forth ... are able to realize ... perfection.”
       “If, Lord, women, having gone forth ... are able to realize ... perfection ... it were well, Lord, that women should obtain the going 
forth from home into homelessness in the dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Truth-finder.”
       “If, Ananda, the Gotamid, Pajapati the Great, accepts eight important rules, that may be ordination for her:
       “A nun who has been ordained (even) for a century must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, do proper homage to a monk ordained but that day. And this rule is to be honored, respected, revered, venerated, never to be transgressed during her life. ...
       “A monk must not be abused or reviled in any way by a nun. This rule too is to be honored ... during her life.
       “From today admonition of monks by nuns is forbidden, admonition of nuns by monks is not forbidden. ...
       “If, Ananda, women had not obtained the going 
forth from home into homelessness in the dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Truth-finder, the Brahma-faring, Ananda, would have lasted long, true dhamma would have endured for a thousand years. But since, Ananda, women have gone forth ... in the dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Truth-finder, now, Ananda, the Brahma-faring will not last long, true dhamma will endure only for five hundred years. ... (OBS, 110-112)

So, where are the nuns now?

 Three Councils & Three Baskets
The Buddha said that after his passing, his followers would be guided by the Dharma and the Vinaya. This meant being guided by the “teachings” of the Buddha and by the particular “discipline” of the monastic community. Therefore, at the time of the first three-month retreat after the passing of the Buddha, the First Council of Buddhism was held at Rajagrha to establish the authentic teachings and discipline. Chronicles of this “first recitation of the community” state that 500 arhats assembled to standardize an accepted oral record of what the Buddha said about both doctrine and moral and spiritual living. (BIBE, 65)
In what scholars consider an idealized version, it is said that the Venerable Mahakasyapa, who had called for the council, first questioned, the elder Upali about the rules of discipline taught by the Buddha. Upali is said to have stated when and under what circumstances the Buddha taught each of the rules for the monastic order. Then Mahakasyapa turned to Ananda and questioned him about the many discourses of the Buddha. As a result of this council, what was recited by the community was said to have been memorized, establishing an oral tradition that was passed down for several centuries before being committed to writing. This oral tradition was divided into two collections, or “Baskets” (Pitakas), that became the earliest form of Buddhist scripture. The collection of discourses of the Buddha make up the “Basket of Discourses,” Sutra (Pali: Sutta) Pitaka; the collection of the Buddha’s rules for the monastic community is known as the “Basket of Discipline,” Vinaya Pitaka.
       A third collection of canonical teachings concerning the Dharma, called the “Higher Teachings,” Abhidharma (Pali: Abhidhamma) Pitaka, was also said by tradition to have been recited by Ananda at the First Council. However, this collection is actually the result of centuries of philosophical systematization based on lists and summaries of topics for discussion that may well have originated with the Buddha and may have been recited at the First Council. ...
       Versions of the Tripitaka are preserved in the Pali language as well as in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan. The Pali canon is traditionally said to have been brought to Sri Lanka from northern India in the third century B.C.E., and was written down in the first century B.C.E. Scholars are skeptical that what we have today is the same as what was originally brought to Sri Lanka. What we do have today are a number of Pali texts divided into the three Pitakas. The earliest of these Pali texts include the four primary Nikayas (“Collections”) of the Buddha’s discourses (sutras), as well as the Vinaya texts. The Nikaya material as found in the Chinese Tripitaka is referred to as the Agamas (“Traditions”). (BIBE, 65-66)
About one hundred years after the Buddha’s death, a Second Council was held at Vaisali. The council was called because of a disagreement over certain rules in the Vinaya. However, problems did not end with this “second recitation” of the tradition. Scholars debate about what the points of dispute were that continued after the Second Council. Most recent scholarship suggests that there was continuing disagreement concerning the Vinaya rules. Doctrinal differences, many scholars claim, were not as important at that time, and differences in opinion about them would most likely not have led to schism. In any case, eventually there was a formal division in the Sangha. On one hand were the sthaviras (Pali: theras), or “elders”; on the other hand was the mahasanghika, or “great community.” The school of the elders is referred to as Sthaviravada (Pali: Theravada), meaning the “Way of the Elders.” (BIBE, 70)
The early tradition records that at about 250 B.C.E., King Asoka called for a Third Council to be held at Pataliputra to resolve another debate that had arisen among the Sthaviravadins. ... It is this form of early Buddhism that spread to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, where it has flourished to the present day. This sect of early Buddhism kept its Pali name for “The Way of the Elders” [i.e. Theravada] and has remained one of the major branches of Buddhism in the world. (BIBE, 70-1)
In 268 B.C.E., King Asoka inherited the Magadhan empire, which covered most of the Indian subcontinent, except for the far south. Some years later, it is said that he converted to Buddhism but was only a nominal follower. Then eight years into his reign, after the bloody conquest of Kalinga in the northeast of India, King Asoka began to appreciate the true implications of the Buddhist religion. The carnage and destruction of Kalinga filled him with remorse, and he began to take the Dharma of the Buddha seriously. ... Instead of conquering and ruling by physical force, he began to “conquer” and “rule” by the force of the Dharma. “Dharma-conquest” meant not only preaching Dharma in India but also sending proclaimers of the Dharma to other kingdoms. Some of King Asoka’s envoys were said to have been sent to the rulers of Syria, Egypt, and Macedonia to the west and Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia to the south. Tradition has it that around 250 B.C.E., he sent his own daughter and son — Sanghamitta and Mahinda — to Sri Lanka. They went as nun and monk and succeeded in converting the whole country to Buddhism.
“Dharma-rule,” for King Asoka, meant to govern in a way that protected and cared for his subjects and also elevated them morally and spiritually according to the Dharma. In fact, he believed that by providing for the physical needs of his subjects, he was laying a foundation for them to follow the moral and spiritual life taught by the Buddha. King Asoka became famous for his public works, which included providing wells and rest houses for travelers, hospitals for people and animals, care for orphans and the elderly, schools for children, and equal justice for all people. The supreme moral value he preached was ahimsa, or nonviolence, which he taught by example. He replaced his hunting trips with pilgrimages to Buddhist sites, made his large royal household vegetarian, banned animal sacrifices, and protected nonfood animals. Other values like generosity, mercy, truthfulness, respect for elders and teachers, and chastity were all virtues of the Vinaya that he tried to live himself and taught to his subjects. (BIBE, 71-73)

King Asoka had his edicts relating to the Dharma ... engraved on rocks and monolithic pillars around his kingdom ... [though his] activities on behalf of Buddhism did not mean that [he] failed to support other religions. In fact, he tended to the needs of Jain, Brahmin, and Ajivaka communities in his empire. He believed that all religions contribute to the righteousness of the people and should be respected in the spirit of religious toleration. His views were expressed in the following rock edict:
[King Asoka] honors members of all religious sects, whether ascetics or lay, by gifts and honors. But more important than gifts and honors is his support of the essential message of all sects. The essential message varies from sect to sect ... [so] one should keep in check praising one’s own sect and criticizing another’s sect. ... By doing so, one strengthens one’s own sect and helps others too. By doing otherwise, one harms one’s own sect, and does a disservice to the others. Whoever honors his own sect and disparages another’s, whether from blind loyalty or intending to show his sect in a more favorable light, does the greatest harm to his own sect. Concord is best, where each person listens to and respects the teachings of others. ... [T]he result is the progress of one’s own sect, and the illumination of the Dharma. (The Twelfth Rock Edict) (BIBE, 73-5)
In his support of Buddhism, King Asoka convened the Third Council to restore harmony to the Sangha. He is said by later legends to have opened the original ten stupas, and then to have distributed the relics of the Buddha to eighty-four thousand new stupas throughout India. In this way, he may have helped popularize devotion to the Buddha in stupa rituals. (BIBE, 73)
Avadanas and the Stupa Cult
Because the avadanas [texts that correlate virtuous deeds from past lives with their “fruits” in future lives] were originally associated with the stupa cult, they are among the earliest texts whose dating can be indicated by archaeological evidence. The Pali apadanas mention details of stupa architecture using a vocabulary found only in the inscriptions dating from the second century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. ... Like the jatakas [tales of the Buddha’s previous lives], avadanas aim at inspiring a sense of devotion toward the Buddha and his arhat disciples by relating stories from their previous lives, but with a different strategy. Instead of emphasizing the strength of character required by the path to Awakening, they stress the abundant rewards that come from doing service (adhikara) to a Buddha or his relics. ... In this version of the path, the most decisive religious acts are the services that a follower performs immediately on being impressed with the Buddha. The service may be a material gift (flowers, food, perfumed bricks for a stupa), the gift of a skill (plastering a new stupa, cleaning an old neglected one, ferrying a Buddha across a river), or an act of homage (praising a Buddha, taking the Triple Refuges in his presence, raising one’s hands in anjali over the heart). All of these services are seeds in that they inevitably bear fruit as nirvana aeons hence, and most of them guarantee a painless route through samsara along the way. ... As one scholar has noted, the avadanas promote Buddhism as a feel-good religion. Minimal effort is promised maximum rewards in terms of mundane and supramundane pleasures: a long, scenic joyride through samsara before going out in a blaze of glory. The rich can buy their way into nirvana; the poor can get there with a bow. ... Ancient sources — both written and engraved — show that early Buddhists regarded the stupa both as a symbol of the Buddha’s absence, inspiring samvega [i.e. the emotion that Siddhartha felt when he first encountered old age, sickness and death, which inspired in him a sense of urgency to attain nirvana], and as a residence of his presence, inspiring prasada [i.e. the feeling of spontaneous generosity that Siddhartha experienced when he encountered the forest sramana shortly after attaining nirvana]. ...
These statements on the nature of the presence felt in the relic, however, are overshadowed by explicit assertions focused on the power of that presence. ... The architectural details and inscriptions often found at the stupas help to articulate the type of power that early Buddhists sensed there, along with the personal benefits they hoped to gain by tapping into it. Circumambulation paths, stone railings, gates, and other architectural adornments associated with royalty surround the stupa, along with bas-reliefs depicting jataka tales or religious celebrations attended by human beings, devas, and nagas. Many of these adornments are marked with donative inscriptions, saying “Gift of so-and-so.” Occasionally the inscriptions have more to say, indicating that the donor was dedicating the merit of the gift to his or her deceased parents, to the recovery of a friend’s illness, or to his or her own attainment of nirvana. Sometimes the donors are individuals — lay or monastic — and sometimes whole villages, guilds of merchants, or royal families. (Buddhist Religions, 70-73)