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Development of Bhikkhuni Sangha

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 SumanapalBhikkhu

            Gotama Buddha attained Enlightenment at the age of thirty fifth year.

Thereupon he preached his doctrines to the people for 45 years. So he had a long span of time for developing and elaborating his teaching.

He preached a Dharma which lends to the extinction of suffering. For the spread of this Dhamma he formed a Sangha.


            From the very beginning there were two classes of the Buddha's followers, the Bhikkhus or Mendicants and the Gahapatis or Householders – also called Uapasakas or lay-devotees.

The Sangha was simply a band or brotherhood of Buddha's more earnest followers.

They cultivated the virtue and knowledge of extinction of desire, leading to the attainment of Nibbana. At first the Sangha consisted exclusively of men.

The Buddha was totally reluctant to give permission of 'Pabbajja' to women1.

The foundation of the order of the Nuns was not spontaneous as was the foundation of the Bhikkhu Sangha.

He was not in favor of allowing women to lead a homeless life2.


            There is a controversy about the actual foundation of the Buddhist Order of Almswomen and its beginnings are obscure.

According to Apadana3 (Yasodhara prayed to Buddha three times for granting permission for the ordination of women, but was refused by him4. But in the VinayaPitaka5MahapajapatiGotami, the foster mother of Gotama, is represented as the person who requested for the formations of the Buddhist Order of Nuns.


            Mahapajapati Gotami, after the demise of Suddhodana, the father of Siddhartha, shaved her long curls and put on yellow roles. At that time, the blessed one was staying among the Sakyas in Kapilavatthu in the Nigrodharama.

And Mahapajapati went to the place where the Blessed One was and requested him to allow women to renounce their homes and enter the homeless state.

But the Buddha refused to give that permission.

This refusal saddened Mahapajapati and she went away weeping. Buddha then went to Vesali. Then Mahapajapati and her followers, most of them Sakyan ladies, cut off their hair and put on saffron – coloured robes as their symbol of a life of renunciation,followed the Buddha.


In due course they arrived at Vesali. It is surprising that these royal ladies traveled all the way from Kapilavatthu to Vesali on foot.

The Vinaya Pitaka6 states that when they reached the destination they were completely tired.

Their faces were sad and gloomy and tears stood in the eyes for perhaps they were doubtful if the Buddha would permit them or not. They stood outside under the entrance parch.

Then Ananda, one of the chief disciples of the Buddha, was shocked to see them in this doteful plight.



He was overwhelmed with compassion to see the pitiful sight of the royal ladies and deeply impressed by their zeal and determination. He went to the Buddha and pleaded with him on behalf of the ladies.

After repeated requests, the Buddha acceded to Ananda's proposal and opened the Order to women Dharmananda Kosambi doubted about the foundation of the Order of Nuns by the Buddha7 on condition that Mahapajapati should accept the Eight Chief Rules or 'Attagarudhamma'.

With great intensity to become nun Gotami accepted all these conditions laid down by the Buddha.

Then Venerable Ananda informed the Buddha that Mahāpajapati accepted the eight rules and thus she received Upasampada Ordination 8 along with her hundred companions.


Thus Ananda with Mahapajapati acted as the founder of Bhikkhuni Sangha. Mahapajapati was the first lady to fight for woman's right to monastic life and she was the first lady to receive the ordination.

At first the monks used to ordain nuns but afterwards the monks felt that women became disconcerted and perplexed with the question necessary for Upasampada.

So the rule was changed and women were ordained in their own Sangha by women only9.

The Eight Chief rules imposed on women before admission in the order were compulsory and never to be transgressed.

These rules gave subordinate position to women and presupposed the superiority of monks over nuns.

In spite of such subordinate position women accepted all these conditions because their yearning for knowledge and desire for emancipation were intensive. They wanted to open the way to liberty by all means.

Their desire for new life was very profound.

Then their attention was concentrated on fulfilling their determination and when their desire was fulfilled by accepting these conditions, they did not hesitate for a moment and accepted it.

After Mahapajapati and several other Sakya ladies received ordination, the order of Bhikkhunis was well established and multiplied in diverse villages, towns and country districts.

The eight garu-dhammas, laid down by the Buddha were:



(i) The first rule obliges the nuns to subordinate themselves to the Bhikkhus.

They could never be equal to their brother monks. If a nun is more experienced, aged, intelligent, and learned yet she must bow down to a monk even of superficial knowledge and less experience.

Her position was lower because she was a woman. Even in spiritual field she has no regard.

This rule illustrates the absolute reluctance of the Buddha towards women. This may be due to the age old tradition of superiority of male over female in India.

In Buddhism women’s are inferior to men in certain respect. Besides physical weakness women sex cannot make resolution for Buddhahood.

She must try to become male and then eligible for Buddhahood (Jatakatthavannana, introduction). Buddha was totally reluctant to give permission because he was very much anxious to maintain the purity of the Sangha.

It is universally proved that it is extremely difficult to lead pure and holy life while two opposite sexes come close together.

So it was necessary to make an artificial barrier between the two sexes and naturally the position of the new comer was lower.


(ii) A Nun is not to spend the rainy season in a district in which there is no Bhikkhu. This is a rule never to be transgressed. This rule proves the inferior position of nuns.

They have to depend upon Bhikkhus in all respects. They have no independent status.

They even cannot spend rainy season in a monastery where there is no resident monk. Buddha imposed the law, may be, due to some socio-religious factors that prevailed in India in those days. Perhaps the females were not so much progressive and they were not so safe to live alone.



(iii) The third rule compelled the nuns to see monks twice a month.

Although attendance of Uposatha ceremony is compulsory both for the monks and nuns, the nuns cannot fix their dates of the Uposatha.

The nuns have to ask the monks to fix the date of Uposatha. But the confession of offence is the same.



(iv) The Buddha proclaimed Pavarana ceremony for promoting the life of harmony among the members of the Sangha.

This law is most shameful and disgusting for nuns because though the nuns had to confer their guilt and private affairs in front of the monks, the monks did not confess their guilt in front of the nuns. So many of the nuns failed to observe the Pavarana ceremony.

The Pacittiya offense was inflicted upon those who failed to observe the Pavarana ceremony10 within limited time.

The Vinaya Pitaka11 mentions that later on the Buddha allowed the nuns to hold their Pavarana in their own Parivena.


(v) The nature of the infliction of Manatta is not very clear. Throughout the Vinaya Pitaka it is seen that with the growth of time and circumstances the disciplinary rules against the nuns have changed a great deal.

Later on, the Buddha allowed the nuns to hold the Pratimokkha recitation and the confession of faults especially among themselves.



(vi) This rule is very important to put a bar to incompetent women to enter into the Sangha. Although the community of nuns could ordain the female novice, they could not fully ordain them.

The ordinary entrants had to stay at novices for two years and train themselves in six rules without any break.

There is a difference between male and female novices in the matter of higher ordination.

The male novices have to observe ten percepts12 as against the six for the female novices. It is apparent throughout that women had fewer rights and duties than men.

But the rules of admission of Bhikkhunis are stricter in comparison to those of the Bhikkhus.

By imposing these rules and restrictions the Buddha tried to limit the entry of the unworthy women in the community of nuns.



(vii) In this rule the Bhikkhunis were clearly forbidden to rebuke monks.

Though Bhikkhus were never definitely told that their behaviour towards nuns must be polite but Buddha formulated many laws restricting the moral conduct of the monks. 'The Dhammapada13 records that the monks were strictly advised not utter harsh or slanderous words to anybody.


(viii) This is another rule which definitely recognizes the inferiority of women. She had no right to speak in front of men or admonish anybody. But the Bhikkhus had the right to admonish nuns.

It is true that some Theras, but not all, were generally famous for their exceptional moral conduct vast bearing and spiritual attainments, and the nuns generally prefer to hear sermons from them. Some of the nuns were also famous for vast learning and erudition.

So this rule is definitely an instance of the placing of women imposition of inferiority to the men. It also refused to allow them for becoming independent to manage their own Order and the ratify their own proceedings.



"The group of the eight disciplinary ordinances is to be regarded as the kernel of the Bhiksuni Vinaya.

They are the exclusive original property of the nuns' Disciplinary Code, in which their position in the Buddhist Order is determined, as well as their obligations and relations to the monks. The Bhiksuni-Pratimoksa-Vibhanga cannot claim such originality.

It is composed along the lines of the Bhiksu-Pratimoksa Vibhanga, which is the very prototype of it."

14However, we have learned that the eight 'Garu-Dhamma' have their corresponding readings in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan as well.

15This indicates that they belong to a common heritage of the Buddhist Order which reaches to ancient times even prior to division into Mahasanghika and Sthavira i.e. before C. 350 B.C., through their sequence is not in full concordance in the different schools. Eight schools has its own set of Patimokkha-Rules, the main body is that a set of original rules which every school shares.

More rules are formulated in addition to the original rules handed down from Buddha's time. Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh has given a valuable chart where the comparative numbers of rules in each section of the Bhikkhuni-Patimokkha in each school may be seen as follows:




                                            Th. Dh. Mhs. Msg. Sar. M Sar
Parajika 8 8 8 8 8 8
Samghadisesa 17 17 17 19 17 20
Nissaggiya-Pacittiya 30 30 30 30 30 33
Pacittiya 166 178 210 141 178 180
Patidesaniya 8 8 8 8 8 8
Sekhiya 75 100 100 77 106 90
Adhikarana-samatha 7 7 7 7 7 7
                                      ________________________________________________________________________
Total 311 348 380 290 354 346

            Two group of minor rules seem to differ greatly in all schools, namely 'Pacittiya' and 'Sekhiya' while the first three major groups of rules remain more or less unity.16 There is no Aniyata–Section like Bhikkhu-Patimokkha. Here arrangement of the schools follows according to chronological order.


            Theravada is successful in retaining the most complete form of Patimokkha and undoubtedly the oldest one.17As for the date of composition of the Theravada Patimokkhacodes for Bhikkhunis, we have to keep in mind the suggestion of B.C. Law.

He says that 'it is important to bear in mind that according to an ancient Buddhist tradition cited by Buddhaghosa, the Patimokkha codes as they are handed down to us are two among the Vinaya text which were not rehearsed in the first Buddhist council.18


The acknowledgement of inferiority of women prior to their admission into the Sangha had for reaching consequences in the life and history of the Buddhist Sangha.

With the great intensity to renounce the world Mahapajapati accepted all these conditions declared by the Buddha.

But later she and other nuns recognized that these conditions were extremely difficult to maintain in too.

So women revolted against it. Gotami approached the Buddha and requested him to amend the discrimination laws. She remained relentless and firm considering the gravity of the situation.


The Vinaya Pitaka having been considered to be the canonical authentic source, in the above cited admonition of the Buddha, the Bhikkhu Sangha told every authority to perform the ordination ceremony relating to the Bhikkhuni Sangha.

There lies unquestionable validity in the procedure.

The consideration of the physical nature and other associated habitual conditions of the Bhikkhuni Sangha might have compelled the Bhikkhu Sangha for drawing up the constitutional rules and the bye-laws for the introduction of the probationary periods of two days and the dual ordinations by the Bhikkhuni Sangha and the Bhikkhu Sangha.

But non observation of these additions and interpolations to the basic formula, under no circumstances, can be admitted to be corrupt and invalid.


The question why was Buddha unwilling to admit women into the Order' has given rise to controversy among Buddhist scholars. Buddha knew that the recluse life would never be in harmony with womanhood.



According to Comaraswamy' we must understand that the early Buddhist want of sympathy with women is not a unique phenomenon, but rather one that is typical of monastic sentiment all the world over19.

In this background the view of E. Course is, "women must be a source of perpetual danger to all celebrates asesties especially in hot climate"20. So at the outset it seems that the Buddha was unsympathetic towards women.

But Buddha was all enlightened.

Through his intuitive knowledge he knew men's inherent nature. He was all compassionate.

He preached his doctrine for the welfare and for liberation of being free from bondage and suffering of earthly existence.

He found that the formation of Bhikkhuni Sangha would be a great danger for the future existence of the life of pure holiness, because it would be impossible for the monks and nuns to lead a religious life due to the close contact of the opposite sex.

He was conscious of human weakness. Some monks and nuns would have earnest aspirations for spiritual life and certainly they would overcome the temptations that come in the way of leading the ascetic’s life.

So he decided to establish two separate Sanghas. Naturally by virtue of their position and physical ability men hold the superior position.

The nuns were left under the supervision of the male teachers who were selected from the learned Thera’s.

Therefore the relations between the monks and the nuns would be like the teachers and the Pupils.

As a rule teachers should have some rights and privileges in order to guide the pupils.



Buddhism was introduced to Ceylon in the middle of the third century B.C. under the Maurya Emperor Asoka.

At the time of the Buddha, Buddhism spread mainly within the limits of Madhyadesa and Pragdesa and Asoka was the first person to propagate Buddhism in distant countries21.

It is a historical fact that Buddhism was brought to Ceylon by Mahinda Thera, the son of Emperor Asoka of India. Asoka himself mentions in his Rock Edict XII about his son and daughter, Mahinda and Sanghamitta.




At the end of the Third Council which was inaugurated at Pataliputta in the reign of Asoka, Tissa the son of Moggali who was the President of the Council resolved that the law of Buddha should be communicate to foreign countries.

Among the Missionaries, Mahinda who carried Buddhism to Ceylon stands out as an undoubtedly historical figure.

Detailed information about his ministration and activities are found in the Dipavamsa, and the Mahavamsa the Chronicles of Ceylon.

The women of Ceylon did not lag behind. They became very zealous to the new religion.

It is mentioned22 that Anula, the concert of the sub King Mahanaga, the younger brother of king Devanampiyatissa and the ladies of the court wanted to take Pabbajja ordination and joint he order.

Theri Sanghamitta sister of Thera Mahinda and daughter of Emperor Asoka went to Sri Lanka with other nuns Theri Sanghamitta on her arrival initiated Anula and five hundred other women into the Order.

After her ordination Anula became an Arahat23 and she was the first woman Arahat in Ceylon. With the ordination of Anula and her followers, the order of female disciples was founded in Sri Lanka.



It is narrated that the queen Anula and her followers observing the Ten Precepts were given ordination and thus the lineage of Bhikkhuni ordination was consecrated.

During 4th or 5th Century A.D. the Bhikkhunis from Sri Lanka traveled to China and stated to have passed the lineage of the Bhikkhuni Sangha there.

It is the Theravada traditions which prevail in Sri Lanka.
It is also recorded that during Han dynasty (25-220 A.D.), that is during 1st and 2nd Century A.D. Buddhism traveled to China.

The Vinaya Texts which were translated during mid-3rd Century A.D. under the guidance of the Dharmagupta schools expressed no distinctive variations from that of the Pali canonical Vinaya Text.

Although existence of the Bhikkhuni or the Bhikkhuni Sangha in China during early centuries appeared to be very obscure.

According to 'The Biographies of Nuns' by the monk Paw Chiang of Liang dynasty (502-477 A.D.) had a clear mention that one Chung Ling-1 of P'eng Ch'en, born to be the daughter of the Governor in 287 A.D. having inspired by the Buddhistic thoughts had undergone through the Buddha's Doctrine Teachings under a learned monk Fa-shin.




In fact the basic tenets of Buddhism that the 'world is monetary' and 'full of sorrow' and 'non-soul', clearly struck women than men, who by their very nature felt deeply the pain of life and death.

These are beautifully illustrated in the story of Kisagotami and Patacara.
Complete dependence, in which the self will never functioned except obeying was gradually vanishing Dr. I.B. Horner claimed –

"Although their activities were confined within certain spheres – principally the domestic, social and religious-their position in general began to improve.

The exclusive supremacy of man began to give way before the increasing emancipation of woman.

This movement, if a development so nearly unorganized, unvoiced and unled, may be called movement, was fostered and accelerated by the innate intelligence of the women themselves, until it was acknowledged that they were what they were silently claiming to be – responsible, rational creatures with intelligence and with will power.24



The movement for total emancipation of liberation of woman which could be achieved following the dictates laid down by the Buddha did not reach its fruition.

It was certainly a great achievement for a woman when she was permitted to become a nun, for as a nun she could even attain Arhatship.

But no woman however could attain to Buddhahood without being born as man.25Buddha was well aware of the sentiment and incidence of injustice generated against the female in Indo-Aryan Society.

Therefore he could not encourage these nuns to reconsider the restriction imposed on them in the shape of "Atthagarudhamma' in future.26On the other hand, he ordered – 'Ananda, these Atthagarudhamma (i.e. the eightfold restriction) prescribed by myself for Bhikkhunis should never be transgressed throughout their life.27This position prevails even today.28


Notes and References:


1. Hastings J. Ed. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. 8, p. 799.
2. Vinaya Pitaka. Vol.II. Ed. Herman Oldenberg, London, Williams Norgate, 1880, p. 253.
3. Apadana, Vol.II, Theri Apadana, P.T.S. No. 30, p. 592.
4. BhikkhuShilabhadra, Buddhabani, Calcutta, Maha Bodhi Society 1959, p. 58.
5. VinayaPitaka., Vol.II, p. 253.
6. VinayaPitaka, Vol. II, Chap. X, p. 253.


7. Bhagaban Buddha, Bengali translation, by Chandradaya Bhattacharya of the original Marathi, New Delhi, Sahitya Academy, 1980, pp.145ff.

8. VinayaPitaka., Vol. II, p.255.
9. Cullavagga, x, 17.
10. VinayaPitaka, Vol. iv, Ed. H. Oldenberg, p.315.
11. VinayaPitaka , Vol. II, pp. 380ff.
12. Mahavagga, 1, 56.

13. The Dhammapada, tr. S. Radhakrishnan, Madras, Oxford University Press, 1950, verse 133, p.103.
14. Gustav Roth in Introduction of his “ Bhikshuni–Vinaya, p. 111-113.


15. In her Introduction of “The Bhikkhuni Patimokkha of the Six Schools”, Dr. Chatusuman kabil singh opines ‘I relalised the prime importance of the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha of the six schools which have been preserved in the Chinese Tripitaka. During King Asoka’s time 18schools were mentioned but the monastic rules of the rest are no more available, for this reason the monastic rules of six remaining schools became even more significant and valuable. They are almost the only accessible means to trace to the various communities of the bhikkhunis in the past history. Gustav Roth in Introduction of his “ BhikshuniVinaya, p. 1.

16. Ibid, p. 2, in the table, Th.=Theravada; Dh.=Dharmagupta; Mhs.=Mahisasaka; Msg.= Mahasanghika; Sar.=Sarvastivada; M.Sar.=Mulasarvastivada.


17. A History of Pali Literature, M. Winternitz, Vol-II, pp. 28ff.
18. Sumangalavilasini, pts. I, p. 17. History of Pali Literature, Vol-I, p.19.
19. Coomarswamy, Ananda Buddha and Gospel of Buddhism, London, George G. Harrap& Co, 1916, p.160.
20. Conze, E. Buddhism, Oxford, p.58.

21. Kern, H. Manual of Indian Buddhism, MotilalBanarasidas pub. Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1898, p.116.
22. Mahavamsa, Chap. xiv, 56-57; Dipavamsa, ed. Oldenberg, chap, xii, 82.
23. Mahavamsa, Ed. William Geiger, chap XIX, p.65.
24. Horner, I. B, Woman under primitive Buddhism, p. 2.
25. It is inconceivable that a woman can be either a Tathagata, AnguttaraNikaya, PTS, Part -1, p. 29.


26. Even the Bhikkhus could not accept their status raised by Buddha. Their attitude reflected in the charges brought against venerable Ananda in the first council, in the instance, Ananda permitted woman to salute the Holy-body of the Tathagata after the ‘Great-decease’ and the tears of the weeping woman that fell on the Holy-body made it impure (....Anandadukkham yam tvammatugamehibhagavatosarirampathamamvandapesi, tasamrodantinamBhagavatosariramassukenamakkhitam), and the second that the pleaded for the admission of woman into the Order (.......Ananda dukkatam yam tvam matugamassa Tathagatappabdite Dhamma vinaye pabbajja mussukamakasi,). This attitude of the monks who are believed to be most enlightened part of the society betrayed the prevailing social milieu. (Vinaya Cullavagga, Ch.XI, x, p.289) ; 2500 years of Buddhism, p.35.


27. “Ananda maya patigacceeva bhikkhuninam atthagarudhamma pannatta yava jivam anatikkamaniya’ti, Cullavagga,X, 6, I, p.256.
28. A Buddhist nuns (in Nepal) called the eight Guru-Dhamma a ‘sieve’ (sodhani) when Prof, Goustav Roth asked her about their meanings. (Bhiksuni-Vinaya, p.III.3).

Source

http://bodhinidhi.blogspot.com.au/2014/02/development-of-bhikkhuni-sangha_8.html