What is a bhikkhuni?
A bhikkhuni is a fully ordained Buddhist nun. (Bhikkhunī is a Pali word, used by the Theravāda tradition in South Asia. Other traditions use the Sanskrit equivalent bhikṣuṇī, pronounced ‘bhik-shoo-nee’.)
Where did the bhikkhuni order come from?
The bhikkhuni order (‘Sangha’) was started by the Buddha himself. When women came to him seeking to live the renunciate life, the Buddha allowed them to go forth in his religion. At that time, the order of bhikkhus (Buddhist monks) already existed, so the Buddha adopted the code of discipline and way of community life from the bhikkhus and changed it as necessary.
What do we know about bhikkhunis in ancient times?
Most Buddhist texts are told from the bhikkhus’ point of view, so there is not a lot of information about bhikkhunis. But there are several works composed by or about the bhikkhunis in the time of the Buddha. The bhikkhuni Sangha is mentioned throughout the Buddhist disciplinary texts (Vinayas) of all schools. In later years, the inscriptions on Buddhist monuments mention bhikkhunis nearly as often as bhikkhus. They often played important roles, such as donors, scholars, and teachers.
What do bhikkhunis do?
The same things as the bhikkhus. That is, they meditate, study and teach the Dhamma, run monasteries, act as counsellors, participate in ritual and community activities, engage in social service, and so on.
How do bhikkhunis live?
The ancient texts show that the bhikkhunis’ life was oriented towards seclusion and meditation, but also had a strong community involvement. Each new bhikkhuni must study for several years under a qualified teacher until they are ready to be independent. Like the bhikkhus, the bhikkhunis live entirely on alms offerings, and may not use personal funds. They are supported by donors who supply food, medicines, dwelling, robes, and other needs.
Are there bhikkhunis in all traditions of Buddhism?
There is no simple answer to this question. In ancient times, the Buddhist community was unified, and the bhikkhunis simply formed one part of this earliest Buddhism. Later, as Buddhism diverged into different schools (which happened about 200-400 years after the Buddha), each school had its own bhikkhuni community. The bhikkhuni Sangha was introduced to Sri Lanka by Venerable Saṅghamittā, the daughter of King Aśoka, about 250 BCE. It flourished in Sri Lanka until around 1100 CE, a time of war and famine, and then disappeared. No-one knows exactly why this happened.
But the bhikkhuni lineage was taken from Sri Lanka to China in 443 CE. From there it spread through the East Asian area. Today bhikkhunis are found in China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.
The bhikkhuni lineage was never introduced into Tibet, but in modern times some women practising within the Tibetan tradition have taken bhikkhuni ordination from the East Asian Sangha. These bhikkhunis, such as Ven. Tenzin Palmo, Ven. Thubten Chodren, Ven. Lekshe Tsomo, and others, have gone on to become respected practitioners and teachers in world Buddhism.
In the Theravādin regions of South-east Asia there are occasional references to bhikkhunis through history, but no living bhikkhuni community has survived until today. Like those practising within the Tibetan tradition, women who wish to practice within the Theravāda tradition have taken bhikkhuni ordination from the East Asian bhikkhuni Sangha, sometimes together with Theravada bhikkhus. Today there are many hundreds of bhikkhunis living in Sri Lanka. In Thailand there are a few bhikkhunis, who are generally well accepted by the community, but are denied official support from the Sangha administration. In Cambodia, one of the Sangharajas (Leaders of the Sangha) is personally supporting a bhikkhuni community. Two years ago a Myanmar bhikkhuni was thrown in jail due to the objections of the monks. Suffering from post-traumatic stress, she subsequently disrobed. Hence there are no bhikkhunis in Myanmar.
Why do we need bhikkhuni ordination?
There are three essential reasons why bhikkhuni ordination is so important.
- The bhikkhuni ordination was designed by the Buddha himself to provide the ideal platform for women to seek full liberation. As bhikkhus, we are reminded every day of the Buddha’s consummate skill in understanding the needs of monastics, and establishing a way of training that is finely tuned to support the holy life. We feel nurtured and supported by the knowledge that we have fully entered into the Sangha, and are practising within the same community as the arahants of old.
- From the time of his Enlightenment to the time of his Parinibbana, the Buddha consistently stated that for his religion to be complete and successful, it must consist of the four-fold assembly: bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, laymen, and laywomen. Any other arrangement is imbalanced and incomplete. Without the bhikkhuni Sangha, Buddhism is deprived of a tremendously powerful spiritual component. In virtually all meditation retreats, the women far outnumber the men. Imagine the loss of spiritual leadership the Buddhist community has suffered by denying these sincere practitioners a role in leading the Buddhist community.
- If Buddhist institutions remain male-only, they will become increasingly marginalized in a world that accepts the equality of women. Rather than falling behind the rest of the world in our spiritual values, we should recognize that the principle of equality for all is based on the same ethical values that inform the heart of true Buddhism: universal loving-kindness and compassion.
Is it really true that women have bad kamma and can’t get enlightened?
Of course not. The Buddha emphatically stated that if when go forth they have exactly the same potential as men, and are fully capable of even the highest level of arahantship. The original Buddhist texts contain verses by enlightened bhikkhunis such as Venerable Uppalavaṇṇā, Venerable Khemā, and many others. In fact, this literature forms one of the oldest records of women’s spiritual accomplishments found anywhere in the world.
But can’t the women just be happy to have 10-precept ordination (as a sāmaṇerī)?
The sāmaṇerī ordination, as it is presented in the Vinaya, is for girls who were too immature to take on the full training. It was never meant for mature women. The Buddha established only one framework for mature renunciate women, and that is the bhikkhuni Sangha. Attempts to invent new ordination platforms will never gain the acceptance of the Buddhist community at large. The end result is a proliferation of incompatible models, which further weakens the already fragmented nuns’ community. In Buddhist nations, it is only within those countries that support bhikkhuni ordination that women have a leading and recognized role.
I’ve heard that Theravāda monks will never accept bhikkhunis. Is this true?
No. Some monks support, some oppose. In a conservative body like the Sangha, which is, after all, made up of human beings, there are many who would prefer to cling to what they know and are comfortable with. Sometimes it seems that Buddhist monks will tell you that everything is impermanent; yet they never want anything to change!
Part of the problem is that bhikkhus do not know very much about the position of bhikkhunis within original Buddhism. Sangha education is still largely based on traditional materials, and this tends to create a culture which values preservation rather than reformation.
But we can understand the process better when we reflect that similar situations are found in all the major world religions. In every religion, a vital message of freedom has become the basis for wealthy and powerful religious institutions. These are owned and run exclusively by men who believe they have a sacred right to inherit both the material property and the spiritual authority of those institutions. Whenever this is challenged, those who benefit from the old arrangement will resist change. Invariably, they produce a religious text which they claim provides an ancient, irrevocable mandate for their monopoly. Such arguments, however, are usually only persuasive to those who benefit from them, for a number of very good reasons:
- Any ancient text is subject to a number of different interpretations, and rarely is there an unambiguous case to support the male monopoly.
- The ancient texts were composed long ago in a limited historical and cultural context, and the authors could not have envisaged our present day social conditions.
- Refusing to support the religious aspirations of women because of legalistic details contradicts the luminous spiritual values of compassion and wisdom.
This explains the fact, which I have repeatedly heard from nuns living in Thailand, that they have not experienced opposition from the individual monks so much, but mainly with the Sangha administration. Opposition to bhikkhunis does not arise spontaneously from the ground up, as some sort of genetic predisposition. It must be strenuously maintained from the top down, as an ideological imposition.
But the Buddha tried to prevent the ordination of women!
This refers to the legend of the request by Mahāpajāpatī, the Buddha’s foster-mother, to gain ordination as the first nun. Modern scholars have shown that this story abounds in textual problems, and cannot possibly be a factual account. It is not sure exactly why it took shape in this form. But perhaps it originally stemmed from personal difficulties concerning Mahāpajāpatī, which were later taken to apply to the bhikkhunis as a whole.
So isn’t it the case that the Buddha said that if bhikkhunis were ordained, Buddhism would die out after 500 years?
This prophecy is part of the same legend, and the text depicts the Buddha making this prophecy after accepting Mahāpajāpatī as a bhikkhuni. Obviously, it’s been a lot more than 500 years since then, and Buddhism has not yet died out! Either this statement was not spoken by the Buddha, or else he made a serious mistake. But given that nowhere else does the Buddha claim to be able to predict the future in this way, it seems certain that this is not an authentic saying. Anyone who is familiar with ancient mythic texts would know that, invariably, prophecies are a disguised way of referring to their own time, and only on the surface do they refer to the future.
Sometimes you might hear that the Buddha predicted that the Bhikkhuni Sangha would die out after 500 years, and it is argued from this that the Buddha intended the bhikkhunis to disappear. This is incorrect. The supposed prophecy refers to Buddhism as a whole, not to the bhikkhunis, as anyone who takes the time to read the text would know. In fact, it is now 2500 years, and neither the Bhikkhuni Sangha nor Buddhism look like vanishing any time soon.
Didn’t the Buddha make all sorts of extra, difficult rules for the nuns?
It is true that the list of rules for nuns is longer that that for monks. But this is for many reasons. In some cases, the monks actually have the same rules, but they are just not included in the main list. In other cases, the number of rules is simply multiplied due to repetition. In such cases the practical effect of the rule is not changed. In other cases the rules address specific feminine issues, such as ensuring menstrual hygiene, or guaranteeing the safety of the nuns. But where there are genuine differences between the sets of rules, there is no hard and fast principle: in some cases the monks’ rules are stricter, and in some cases the nuns’ rules are stricter.
But the rules do subordinate the nuns to the monks, don’t they?
No. The Vinaya does not allow for any power-based relationship between the monks and nuns. In other words, no monk, not even the entire community of monks, has the right to order a bhikkhuni to do anything. In fact, there are many rules that protect the nuns, for example, by forbidding the monks to use nuns as domestic servants by having them wash or sew their robes for them.
The Buddha set up the relationships between the male and female Sangha based on mutual respect under the Vinaya. Bhikkhunis are included within the original ‘Dual Sangha’ as set up by the Buddha, and managed according to the ‘Dual Vinaya’ accepted among all schools. So, in the relationships between the male and female Sanghas, Vinaya is the guide. Each monk or nun must take the Dhamma & Vinaya as the final authority, not the statements of any individual monks.
There is a rule, however, that requires that the bhikkhunis bow to the monks. This is a matter of etiquette, not power. Many bhikkhunis sincerely respect this rule, as it honours the Bhikkhu Sangha, which was originally the senior community. However, the authenticity of this rule is doubted by modern scholars. In any case, the Buddha stated that this rule was laid down in accord with the customs of the time, so many people believe this should not apply today.
Anyway, the bhikkhunis are forbidden from teaching the bhikkhus, aren’t they?
No. This is a misunderstanding based on a mistranslation of one of the special rules for bhikkhunis. In fact, the rule forbids bhikkhunis from criticizing bhikkhus, which probably refers to making accusations about Vinaya matters. As far as teaching is concerned, there is no prohibition in Vinaya. How could there be? The Buddha always encouraged us to learn Dhamma whenever we can.
The bhikkhunis from the East Asian countries are Mahayana, so how can they give ordination to Theravada bhikkhunis? After all, a chicken can’t lay a duck egg!
This is an ideological position based on a series of misunderstandings. Ideas such as ‘Theravada’ and ‘Mahayana’ are not found in the Vinaya, they were invented by later generations. The actual historical situation is as follows.
Originally the Sangha lived as one, following a unified code of conduct (Vinaya) as prescribed by the Buddha. A few centuries after the Buddha’s Parinibbana, the unified community broke up, forming the ‘18 schools’ of Early Buddhism, one of which was the Theravada of Sri Lanka. (At this time, Mahayana had not yet appeared.) Each school inherited the original Vinaya and adapted it in minor details. But all Vinaya scholars who have studied the matter, whether lay or monastic, agree that the essential aspects of the Vinayas are compatible .
All bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are ordained under the ordination lineage and procedures of the Vinayas of these early schools. The East Asian traditions owe their lineage to the Dharmaguptaka school, while the Central Asian traditions stem from the Mūlasarvāstivāda. Hence from the Vinaya point of view, there is no such thing as a ‘Mahāyāna’ bhikkhu or bhikkhuni. ‘Mahāyāna’ is a set of texts, doctrines, beliefs, and practices, but it has never been an ordination lineage.
As we have seen, the ordination lineage of the bhikkhunis stems from Sri Lanka, so it is a part of the same broad community as the Theravāda. When this lineage was introduced into China, the Vinaya masters of China and Sri Lanka obviously decided that the ordination procedures of the schools were compatible. Hence the first Chinese bhikkhuni ordinations were conducted with Sri Lankan bhikkhunis using Dharmaguptaka rites.
Bhikkhuni ordinations in modern times simply reverse this ancient precedent: bhikkhunis from the East Asian tradition, together with Theravāda bhikkhus, perform the ordination for women wishing to practice within the Theravāda tradition.
Bhikkhuni ordination is just a Western feminist imposition on Buddhist culture!
This is one of the most bizarre objections to bhikkhuni ordination, and yet one hears it all the time. What we are doing is introducing an ancient Asian tradition into a western culture, and we are accused of importing modern Western values into traditional Asian culture!
As we have seen, bhikkhuni ordination is an intrinsic part of all Buddhism since the beginning. This lapsed during medieval times, as Buddhism slowly drifted away from its roots. In modern times, due to advances in communication and learning, those roots are being rediscovered and the value of the original teachings is increasingly recognized.
Of course, Western education and ideas have played a positive role in this process. But by far the strongest bhikkhuni movements are in Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. The Western Sangha, in Theravada at least, lags far behind Asia in accepting bhikkhunis.
And we must be careful how we use the word ‘feminist’. If we understand feminism to mean a compassionate understanding of the special kinds of suffering endured by women, and a positive effort to redress such suffering, then the Buddha was the first feminist.
If the case for bhikkhunis is as compelling as you say, why do even great meditation masters oppose bhikkhuni ordination?
This is a difficult question, one that I have struggled with for years. I find a key to understanding in some texts where the arahants are criticized by the Buddha. We read of the Buddha admonishing, say, Venerable Sāriputta, or Venerable Moggallāna, or other the great disciples, for their lack of understanding in matters relating to the organization and management of the Sangha, or its relations with the lay community. It seems that, while they have full understanding as to their own minds, even awakened beings can lack full insight into matters of social dynamics.
The Buddhist Sangha forms its own culture, with its own language, ideology, history, and forms. All those who enter this culture are immersed in these values. Such views, inherited in the early years of monastic life, will tend to remain and no amount of meditation will change them, until there is an active process of dialogue and questioning within the community. The very fact that meditation prowess is revered so highly makes it very difficult to challenge the opinions of the masters, even when those opinions relate to matters other than meditation, such as the history of ordination lineages.
This is not to say that meditation is useless in this context. It is only that meditation by itself cannot change our views. What it can do, however, is to enable us to be more open and reflective around our views. We will understand the conditioned and provisional nature of our opinions, and be much more accepting of other perspectives.
But you have to admit that if there are bhikkhunis in a monastery, there is a big danger that the passions will be aroused?
This is usually not a problem, for we have the Vinaya as our protection. This ensures that monks and nuns can never enter into a situation of intimacy. Monks and nuns live in separate monasteries, or else in the same monastery, but in separate quarters.
Of course, no protection is total, and it is inevitable that from time to time monks and nuns will fall in love and disrobe. But this happens all the time anyway. Monks fall in love with laywomen, nuns with laymen, monks with laymen, nuns with laywomen, and all the other lurid combinations best left unimagined. Experience shows that, in a committed monastic environment, the proportion of monks who disrobe to get together with a nun is minimal. In the very rare cases when it happens, we should simply wish them the best, and hope they can continue to thrive in the Dhamma.
To my mind, a far bigger problem is that, when entirely separated from nuns, monks may not learn to respect women as equal partners in the spiritual life. Monks are able to relate to women as a mother: the wonderful donors who bring food every day. We see women who are like a daughter: the enthusiastic girls and young women who come to learn and meditate. We treat women like a lover: the temptress, the danger to be feared and guarded against. But never can we relate to women as a sister: a friend as we grow together through life. I think this is very sad, and is our great loss.
Actually I was convinced about how wonderful the idea of bhikkhunis was as soon as I heard of their existence. I only asked those questions to stir you up!
Well, that’s good, I enjoy a good stirring. But make sure you also stir up any monks who don’t support bhikkhunis!