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A bhikkhuni (Pāli) or bhikṣuṇī (Sanskrit) is a fully ordained female Buddhist monastic. Male monastics are called Bhikkhus. Both bhikkhunis and Bhikkhus live by the Vinaya. Bhikkhuni lineages enjoy a broad basis in Mahayana countries like Korea, Vietnam, China, and Taiwan.
According to Buddhist scriptures, the order of bhikkhunis was first created by the Buddha at the specific request of his foster-mother Mahapajapati Gotami, who became the first ordained bhikkhuni, relayed via his attendant Ananda (who also urged for the Buddha's acceptance of it). The bhikkhuni order spread to many countries.
Buddhism is unique among Indian Religions in that Buddha, as founder of a spiritual tradition, explicitly states in canonical literature that a woman is as capable of Nirvana (Enlightenment) as a man, and can fully attain all four stages of Enlightenment in the Dhamma and Vinaya of the Buddha SASANA. There is no equivalent, in other traditions, of the Therigatha or Apadanas which record the high levels of spiritual attainment by women.
In a similar vein, major canonical Mahayana sutras such as the Lotus Sutra, chapter 12, records 6000 bhikkhuni Arahants as receiving predictions of Bodhisatvahood and future Buddhahood by Sakyamuni Buddha. In Buddhism, women can openly aspire to and practice for the highest level of spiritual attainment.
The First Ordination
- See also:The Eight Garudhammas
According to the available canon, Buddha was initially quite reluctant to ordain women into The Sangha. His stepmother and aunt, Mahaprajapati Gotami, made repeated requests on behalf of herself and five hundred other ladies of the court. These women had only known lives of comfort. Eventually, his attendant and half-brother Ananda (Mahaprajapati Gotami's son) relayed a final request, which was granted—but only on condition that the women accept eight garudhammas, or eight heavy rules. The Buddha is quoted by Thannisaro Bhikkhu as saying: Ananda, if Mahaprajapati Gotami accepts eight vows of respect, that will be her full ordination (upasampada). Modern scholars have shown that this story abounds in textual problems, and cannot possibly be a factual account.
According to the scriptural accounts, the reason the Buddha gave for his actions was that admission of women to The Sangha would weaken it and shorten its lifetime to 500 years. This prophecy occurs only once in the Canon and is the only prophecy involving time in the Canon.
Some modern Buddhist scholars explain the Buddha's reluctance by noting that these women (many who were mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, cousins of many of the Bhikkhus) might be subjected to rape, assault, sexual harassment and being termed "prostitutes and thieves", which in fact, did later occur as recorded in the Vinaya. One example as told in the Vinaya in which a Brahmin calling the bhikkhunis "strumpets" (i.e., prostitutes), tries to set fire to the bhikkhunis' dwelling:
Then that Brahmin . . . spread it about, saying:
These shaven headed strumpets are not true recluses. How can they
let a pot fall on my head? I will set fire to their dwelling,
Ó and having taken up a fire brand, he entered the dwelling.
In Young Chung noticed that society as recorded in the Vinaya always criticized the bhikkhunis more harshly using "shaven headed strumpets or whores", whereas the Bhikkhus were simply called "shaven headed". This harsher treatment (which also included rape and assault) of bhikkhunis by society required greater protection. Within these social conditions, Gautama Buddha opened up new horizons for women by founding the bhikkhuni Sangha. This social and spiritual advancement for women was ahead of the times and, therefore, drew many objections from men, including Bhikkhus. He was probably well aware of the controversy that would be caused by the harassment of his female disciples."
Early Buddhism did not have monasteries and it was a requirement of the Bhikkhus and early bhikkhunis to spend a lot of time in the forests alone, but due to the consequent rape and assault of some of the bhikkhunis by outsiders recorded in the Vinaya-- Buddha eventually forbade women from wandering in forests away from society. Bhikkhunis eventually resided in more fixed residences near populated areas than the Bhikkhus.
According to some modern Buddhist apologists, most of the rules (including the more controversial 8 Garudhammas) of the Bhikkhuni Vinaya are more for the protection of the bhikkhunis by association with the more senior Sangha of the male Bhikkhus and thus the homage for protection and teaching the newer Bhikkhuni Sangha and not "sexual discrimination". Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh writes, "Nuns at the time of the Buddha had equal rights and an equal share in everything. In one case, eight robes were offered to both sanghas at a place where there was only one nun and four monks. The Buddha divided the robes in half, giving four to the nun and four to the monks, because the robes were for both sanghas and had to be divided equally however many were in each group. Because the nuns tended to receive fewer invitations to lay-people's homes, the Buddha had all offerings brought to the monastery and equally divided between the two sanghas. He protected the nuns and was fair to both parties. They are subordinate in the sense of being younger sisters and elder brothers, not in the sense of being masters and slaves." The Vinaya does not allow for any Power-based relationship between the monks and nuns.
- 1) A nun who has been ordained even for a hundred years must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, do proper homage to a Monk ordained but that day.
- clarification: The Vinaya recounts the story of six monks who lifted up their robes to show their thighs to the nuns. When the Buddha learned about this, he made an exception to that rule and told the nuns not to pay respect to these monks. A nun, then, does not have to bow to every Monk, but only to a Monk who is worthy of respect.
- Pajapati's later request: "I would ask one thing of the Blessed One, Ananda. It would be good if the Blessed One would allow making salutations, standing up in the presence of another, paying reverence and the proper performance of duties, to take place equally between both Bhikkhus and bhikkhunis according to seniority."
- 2) A nun must not spend the rains in a residence where there are no monks.
- 3) Every half month a nun should desire two things from the Order of Monks : the asking as to the date of the Observance uposatha day, and the coming for the exhortation bhikkhunovada .
- 4) After the rains a nun must 'invite' [ pavarana ] before both orders in respect of three matters, namely what was seen, what was heard, what was suspected.
- 5) A nun, offending against an important rule, must undergo manatta discipline for half a month before both orders.
- 6) When, as a probationer, she has trained in the six rules cha dhamma for two years, she should seek higher ordination from both orders.
- note contradiction: One of the gurudhamma mentions sikkhamanas, probationary nuns who train for two years in preparation to become bhikkhunis. It says that after a probationary nun has trained with a bhikkhuni for two years, that bhikkhuni preceptor has the responsibility to fully ordain her. However, when the Buddha ordained Mahapajapati, there were no probationary nuns. He ordained her directly as a bhikkhuni. So how do we explain that within the eight important rules, one of them states that before becoming a bhikkhuni, a woman must be a probationary nun? Edit: That's easy, in order for there to be seniority verses probationary, one must first have seniority. So Mahapajapati was ordained in order to set up the probationary system, and allow women to learn under another woman, rather than the men who may refuse to teach them or subject them to, as stated above, sexual harassment and other forms of assault that were stated above. "
- 7) A Monk must not be abused or reviled in any way by a nun.
- 8) From today, admonition of monks by nuns is forbidden. [ Book of the Discipline, V.354-55 ]
"Equality of Bhikṣunī and bhikṣu, men and women, can be inferred in
several of the rules groupings. The penalties for offenses against those
aniyata dharmas written only for Bhikṣus, for example, point up a landmark
of female-male equality. Here, in a gesture of trust in women most
unusual for the time, a trustworthy female lay follower can bring a charge
against a bhikṣu based only on her personal eyewitness testimony, in order
to force an investigation of that Bhikṣus conduct. Additionally, equal abilities
of men and women are presumed in the regulations for settlement of disciplinary
matters in the seven Adhikaraṇa Śamatha Dharmas, which are
exactly the same, in both numbers and contents, for both the Bhikṣu and the
- These eight qualities were: the teacher of nuns must be virtuous; second, have comprehensive knowledge of the Dhamma; third he must be well acquainted with the Vinaya, especially the rules for nuns; fourth, he must be a good speaker with a pleasant and fluent delivery, faultless in pronunciation, and intelligibly convey the meaning; fifth, he should be able to teach Dhamma to the nuns in an elevating, stimulating, and encouraging way; sixth, he must always be welcome to the nuns and liked by them—that is, they must be able to respect and esteem him not only when he praises them but especially when there is an occasion for reproach; seventh, he must never have committed sexual misconduct with a nun; eighth, he must have been a fully ordained Buddhist monk for at least 20 years (AN 8.52).
Some scholars argue that these 8 rules were added later since:
- 1) there is a discrepancy between the Pali bhikkhuni Vinaya
- 2) the fact that these same rules are treated only as a minor offense (requiring only confession as expiation) in the bhikkhuni Payantika Dharmas.
In Young Chung clarifies, "Hae-ju Chun, a Bhikṣunī and assistant professor at Tongguk University in Seoul, Korea, argues that six of the Eight Rules (#1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8) belong to the Bhikṣunī Pāyantika Dharmas, as they are the same as or similar to rules found there. We may compare the differences in the punishment for any offense of the Eight Rules with that for an offense of the pāyantika dharmas. Violation of any of the Eight Rules means that women cannot be ordained. The Eight Rules must be observed throughout the Bhikṣunīs lives. However, the pāyantika dharmas (#175, 145, 124 or 126, 141, 143, 142) require only confession, as there offenses of bhikunis are considered to be violations of minor rules. Based on the differences in the gravity of offenses between the Eight Rules and the pāyantika dharmas, she also asserts the probability that the Eight Rules might have been added later. The first of the Eight Rules does not appear in the Pāli Bhikṣunī Vinaya.
- Theriya tradition, which at some stage, seems to have accommodated the idea that the Buddha conceded the abrogation of the minor rules [D.II.14 & VIn.II.287].
Other scholars argue that questioning canonical sources is a slippery slope. Buddha's main concern was about the rest of society, which was the main supporter of The Sangha, and how they would view the ordination of women—something quite revolutionary at the time. There were many men who even after the apparent success of the Bhikkhuni Sangha, were opposed to its formation[Vin.II.289]. However, we have Buddha himself admit that the social factors were foremost in his mind when making these rules:
- the Theriya tradition attempts to make out that in the organization of the SASANA social considerations, as much as moral and ethical values, loomed large in the mind of the Master. In the Cullavagga he is reported as saying: ‘Not even the Titthiyas who propound imperfect doctrines sanction such homage of men towards women. How could the Tathagata do so?’
Ian Astley argues that under the conditions of society where there is such great discrimination and threat to women, Buddha could not be blamed for the steps he took in trying to secure The Sangha from negative public opinion:
- In those days (and this still applies to much of present Indian society) a woman who had left the life of the household would otherwise have been regarded more or less as a harlot and subjected to the appropriate harassment. By being formally associated with the monks, the nuns were able to enjoy the benefits of leaving the household life without incurring immediate harm. Whilst it is one thing to abhor, as any civilized person must do, the attitudes and behavior towards women which underlie the necessity for such protection, it is surely misplaced to criticize the Buddha and his community for adopting this particular policy.
Becoming a Bhikkhuni
The progression to ordination as a Bhikkhuni is taken in four steps. A lay person may take the five upāsikā (Pali and Sanskrit; masculine: Upāsaka; Tibetan dge snyan ma, pronounced genyenma, "approaching virtue") vows. The next step is to enter the pabbajja (Srt: pravrajya, Tib. rab byung pronounced rabjung), or monastic way of life, which includes wearing Monk's or nun's robes. After that, one can become a Samaneri (Pali; feminine: Samanera; Skt. śrāmaṇera/śrāmaṇeri, Tib. dge tshul/dge tshul ma, pronounced getshül/getshülma), or novice Monk/nun. The last and final step is to take all the vows of a bhikkhuni (Sanskrit: Bhikṣu/Bhikṣuṇī, Tib. dge long/dge long ma, pronounced Gelong/Gelongma) a "fully ordained nun."
The Fourteen Precepts of Thich Nhat Hanh
In Buddhist Order of Interbeing established in 1964, there are fourteen precepts to be observed by nuns and monks equally. They are written by Vietnamese Monk and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, giving words to what he felt carried the deepest teachings of the Buddha and would be appropriate for our time.
- In Plum Village, the Eight Observations of Respect that nuns have to observe towards Buddhist monks are not observed, as Nhat Hanh claims they were invented only to help the stepmother of the Buddha, and that one need only keep Nhat Hanh's 14 precepts properly. That's all. But of course he doesn't despise the traditional precepts. And I can accept them just to give joy to the monks who practice in the traditional way. If I can give them joy, I will have a chance to share my insights about women with them, and then they will be unblocked in their understanding.
The traditional appearance of Theravadan bhikkhunis is nearly identical to that of male monks, including a shaved head, shaved eyebrows and saffron robes. In some countries, nuns wear dark chocolate robes or sometimes the same colour as monks. White or pink robes are worn by Theravadan nuns who are not fully ordained. These nuns are known as Dasa sil mata in Sri Lanka, silashin in Myanmar (Burma), Mae ji in Thailand and Laos and siladharas (which originated at Amaravati Monastery, in the United Kingdom).
In the Theravada tradition, some scholars believe that the bhikkhuni lineage became extinct in the 11th to 13th centuries, and that no new bhikkhunis could be ordained since there were no bhikkhunis left to give ordination. For this reason, the leadership of the Theravada Bhikkhu Sangha in Burma and Thailand deem fully ordained bhikkhunis as "untrue." Based on the spread of the bhikkhuni lineage to countries like China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Japan and Sri Lanka, other scholars support ordination of Theravadan bhikkhunis.
Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, now known as Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, is a Thai scholar who took bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka and returned to Thailand, where bhikkhuni ordination is forbidden and can result in arrest or imprisonment for a woman. She is considered a pioneer by many in Thailand.
The first Theravadan bhikkhuni ordination in Australia was held in Perth, October 22, 2009, at Bodhinyana Monastery. Four nuns from Dhammasara Nun's Monastery, Venerable Ajahn Vayama (no longer there), and Venerables Nirodha, Seri and Hasapanna, were ordained as bhikkhunis by a Bhikkhuni Sangha and confirmed by a Bhikkhu Sangha, in full accordance with the Pali Vinaya.
In Indochina Theravada tradition, many women are allowed to ordain as mae jis . These women attempt to lead a life following the teachings of the Buddha. They observe 8–10 preceptst do not follow exactly the same codes as ordained Buddhist monks. They receive popular recognition for their role. But they are not granted official endorsement or the educational support offered to monks. Some cook while others practise and teach meditation .
Re-establishing Bhikkhuni Ordination
In July 2007 a meeting of Buddhist leaders and scholars of all traditions met at the International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in The Sangha, in Hamburg, Germany to work toward a worldwide consensus on the re-establishment of Bhikshuni ordination. 65 delegates, Bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, Vinaya masters and elders from traditional Buddhist countries and Western-trained Buddhologists attended. The Summary Report from the Congress states that All delegates "were in unanimous agreement that Mulasarvastivada Bhikshuni ordination should be re-established," and cites the Dalai Lama's full support of bhikkhuni ordination (already in 1987 H. H. XIVth Dalai Lama had demanded the re-establishment of full ordination for nuns in Tibet). The only transmission line of ordination that still exists is the Dharmagupta transmission line, which allows the ordination of nuns in China, Taiwan, Korea and Vietnam.
The aim of the congress has been rated by the organizers of utmost importance for equality and liberation of Buddhist women (nuns). "The re-establishment of nuns’ ordination in Tibet via H. H. XIVth Dalai Lama and the international monks and nuns sanghas will lead to further equality and liberation of Buddhist women. This is a congress of historical significance which will give women the possibility to teach Buddha’s doctrines worldwide."
To help establish the Bhikshuni Sangha (community of fully ordained nuns) where it does not currently exist has also been declared one of the objectives of Sakyadhita, as expressed at its founding meeting in 1987 in Bodhgaya, India.
In Part Four of Alexander Berzin's Summary Report: Day Three and Final Comments by His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama it is said: "But Buddha gave the basic rights equally to both Sangha groups. There is no point in discussing whether or not to revive the Bhikshuni ordination; the question is merely how to do so properly within the context of the Vinaya."
The Eight Garudhammas belong to the context of the Vinaya. Bhikkhuni Kusuma writes: "In the Pali, the eight garudhammas appear in the tenth khandhaka of the Cullavagga." However, they are to be found in the actual ordination process for Bhikkhunis.
The text is not allowed to be studied before ordination. "The traditional custom is that one is only allowed to study the Bhikshu or Bhikshuni vows after having taken them.", Bhikshuni Prof. Dr. Karma Lekshe Tsomo stated during congress while talking about Gender Equality and Human Rights: "It would be helpful if Tibetan nuns could study the Bhikshuni vows before the ordination is established. The traditional custom is that one is only allowed to study the Bhikshu or Bhikshuni vows after having taken them. Ven. Tenzin Palmo is quoted with saying: "To raise the status of Tibetan nuns, it is important not only to re-establish the Mulasarvastivada Bhikshuni ordination, but also for the new bhikshunis to ignore the eight gurudharmas that have regulated their lower status. These eight, after all, were formulated for the sole purpose of avoiding censure by the lay society. In the modern world, disallowing the re-establishment of the Mulasarvastivada Bhikshuni ordination and honoring these eight risk that very censure."
According to Summary Report as well as according to the other texts available from the congress there has not been a discussion on how and which of the eight gurudharmas discriminate against buddhist nuns and how this can be changed in detail in the process of re-establishing the Mulasarvastivada Bhikshuni ordination.
Discriminating against nuns
"American Tibetan Buddhist Monk Thubten Pende gave his views: "When I translated the texts concerning the ordination ceremony I got such a shock. It said that even the most senior nun had to sit behind the most novice Monk because, although her ordination was superior, the basis of that ordination, her body, was inferior. I thought, "There it is." I'd heard about this belief but I'd never found evidence of it. I had to recite this text at the ceremony. I was embarrassed to say it and ashamed of the institution I was representing. I wondered, "Why doesn't she get up and leave?" I would.' It is still unknown to which text he was referring.