Bhikkhuni FAQ

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

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