Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha History by Ven Tathaaloka Theri
Written by Ven Tathaaloka Theri
It has often been said and often written that:
“the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha disappeared a thousand years ago when it became
clear that there were no more bhikkhunis available to ordain new bhikkhunis”
But is this true?
As someone who has done substantial study of the history of the Bhikkhuni Sangha (this was the subject of my graduate school work), I know what has been written to be commonly stated, but varying substantially from available historical records. The “ thousand years ago” refers to the history of Sri Lankan Mahavihara Theravada Buddhism only. There is no other national Bhikkhuni Sangha that died out a thousand years ago that our world history yet knows of.
The last known records of the ancient Indian Bhikkhuni Sangha are from the 14th century. The Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha of Thailand was largely but not entirely eradicated by political means with the foundation of the Cakri Dynasty and the Kingdom Ayutthaya in the 14th century (see “Glimmers of a Thai Bhikkhuni Sangha History”on page 28 of Mining for Gold attached).
The Burmese Bhikkhuni Sangha disappeared from historical records under currently unknown circumstances at the time of British occupation in the 19th century.
And the South China Theravada Sangha which included bhikkhunis did not disappear until well into the Cultural Revolution and subsequent Christian missionary aid activities quite recently.
The Sri Lankan records that relate the reestablishment of the Sri Lankan Bhikkhu Sangha (which was also eradicated at the same time the Sri Lankan Bhikkhuni Sangha was 1000 years ago) state awareness of bhikkhunis in Burma at that time, but of a different sect than the sect chosen for the reestablishment of the Sri Lankan Bhikkhu Sangha by agreement between the Sri Lankan king and king of Ayutthaya.
Thus, no reestablishment of the Bhikkhuni Sangha happened in Sri Lankan at that time due to secular political and sectarian reasons.
In the venerable Mahasi Sayadaw’s teacher the Jetuvana Sayadaw’s Vinaya-based proposal of reestablishment of the Burmese Bhikkhuni Sangha – only about 200 years after the last known records of the Burmese bhikkhunis, and less than half a century ago, he clearly mentions that Vinaya allows the reestablishment and the ordination of bhikkhunis by the Bhikkhu Sangha. Despite his excellent mastery of Vinaya and his eminence as a meditation teacher and spiritual master par-exellence, his proposal was not accepted by the Burmese Bhikkhu Sangha Council.
This however, was not to stop the revival of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha from happening, although first in the West, then in its homeland of India, and then returning once again to Sri Lanka and Thailand.