A Lotus at Dawn
Opening the Doors to the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha
By Ajahn Sujato
After an absence of more than 900 years, the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha (order of nuns) was revived in India with the ordination of several women in Sarnath. Today there are more than 300 bhikkhunis, primarily in Sri Lanka, the only traditional Theravada country that has welcomed this new phenomenon. Yet when the idea was first promoted in the early 1990’s there was much criticism and opposition. The opposition to the revival still persists as the Theravada school of Buddhism, within which this revival occurred, is commonly recognised as one which is strict, traditional and which places the highest importance on orthodoxy.The bhikkhuni Order has been revived
In 1996, history was created as the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha was officially revived after a lapse of about a millennium with the ordination of 11 women in Sarnath. This event was followed by another organised on a greater scale at Bodhgaya in 1998. At this event, novices from 23 countries (including India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the Congo, Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Denmark, Spain, Canada and the United States) congregated to receive instruction from the text of the Vinaya before taking the monastic precepts as bhikkhunis from a quorum of 15 nuns from Taiwan and monks from several countries. In the same year another 23 women were ordained in Sri Lanka and thus initiated the core of the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha.
It is no longer a question of whether the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha could be revived, but whether this movement would be given the recognition and respect it seeks. In the years to come, undoubtedly, this movement will find its ranks swelling with new recruits, not only in Sri Lanka and Thailand where it was recently introduced, but also in countries throughout the world as women of all nationalities import the lineage into their lands. If this sangha is given recognition and respect openly and generously, then the Theravada Buddhist community has a new limb. It would gain an additional body of dedicated people who, with fresh resolve and promise, can be expected to bring to this great tradition a new vigour and assist in spreading the Dhamma to new lands. If instead, they are rejected and shunned, then what we will have is a conflict that will never go away, a thorn, an embarrassment, and an unanswered question that will haunt and split the Theravada Buddhist community forever. Until my bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen, have come to be true disciples
Is there good reason for the revival of the bhikkhuni sangha? There seems little doubt from the scriptures that it was the Buddha’s intention that the bhikkhuni sangha should be established. At the request of his stepmother MahaPajapati Gotami and the intercession of Ven Ananda, the Buddha opened the doors of the holy life to women, thus providing them the best opportunities to win liberation. As the Buddha is enlightened, we can believe that it is impossible that he could make a mistake or be persuaded to any action he did not approve of.
Indeed, we read from the scriptures that the Buddha, on several occasions praised individual bhikkhunis and made it clear that the bhikkhuni sangha was an intergral part of his mission. There is the example from the Maha Parinibbana sutta, in which we see how the Buddha, who was then at Vesali, decided on the date of his Parinibbana or final passing away. Here, the Buddha was reminded of his words spoken to Mara soon after his enlightenment “I shall not come to my final passing away, Evil One, until my bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen, have come to be true disciples -- wise, well disciplined, apt and learned, preservers of the Dhamma, living according to the Dhamma, abiding by appropriate conduct and, having learned the Master's word, are able to expound it, preach it, proclaim it, establish it, reveal it, explain it in detail, and make it clear; until, when adverse opinions arise, they shall be able to refute them thoroughly and well, and to preach this convincing and liberating Dhamma.” This magnificent prophecy indicated that very early in the Buddha’s career he had already foreseen that his disciples would comprise these four important classes – bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen. When the Buddha came to be eighty years of age, he saw that this objective had been achieved and proclaimed that he will pass away at the end of three months.
Thus, opposition to the revival of the bhikkhuni sangha appears to be contrary to the intentions of the Buddha. Indeed it is a dark blemish on the Theravada tradition that it, cocooned in its orthodoxy, did not actively explore the re-establishment of the bhikkhuni sangha sooner, thereby crippling the spread of the Dhamma and depriving women of the opportunities of the ordained life for close to a thousand years. The problematic rule
The opposition issued several reasons why the bhikkhuni sangha cannot be revived. Most of them, in one way or another, centre around Theravada’s strict orthodoxy that once the bhikkhuni sangha became extinct 900 years ago, it became impossible to revive it. This springs from a rule made by the Buddha that a bhikkhuni could only be ordained by the procedure of first having a woman novice ordained under a quorum of other bhikkhunis and which is then seconded by a quorum of monks.
This rule, known as the dual-ordination procedure is described in the Cullavagga, of the Vinaya texts. The story goes that Pajapati Gotami, the step mother of the Buddha and her retinue of 500 women had travelled a long distance and now stopped at the gates of the monastery where the Buddha was residing. Ananda encountered them and learnt of their desire to be ordained as bhikkhunis. With the diplomacy of Ananda acting on behalf of the women the Buddha agreed to the ordination of the women and that Pajapati Gotami herself would be first to become a bhikkhuni if she were to accept eight rules for the bhikkhunis. This, she gladly did, one of the rules being “A bhikkhuni must arrange for ordination by both the assemblies of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis for a woman novice only after two years probationary training under her in the observance of six training practices”. Thus, the opposition today opines that there being no bhikkhunis, this rule cannot be complied with. Consequently, the bhikkhuni sangha cannot be legitimately revived.
Other reasons given in opposition to the bhikkhuni sanhga suggest that even if it was possible, the bhikkhuni life is too difficult for women who should thus be content with ordination into an improvised order such as those of eight or ten precept nuns.Why revive the bhikkhuni sangha – the holy life and twice the resources
I would like to suggest that the bhikkhuni sangha be nurtured and encouraged and explain how the obfuscations standing in its way could be overcome.
Some may question the wisdom of a woman who wishes to ordain as a bhikkhuni. Why should a woman subject herself to such rules as those imposed on a bhikkhuni? Why not become ten precept nuns where life is easier? The bhikkhuni life may not be suitable for every woman. This may make it all the more difficult to comprehend the motivations of one who chooses this lifestyle. But this is only because it is our own wisdom and understanding that is short. The Buddha has opened the holy life to all and it is those individuals with a greater wisdom who would respond, who would renounce worldly life and dedicate themselves to the quest of the monastic lifestyle. If a woman wishes to take on these training rules prescribed by no lesser being than the Buddha himself, then such a woman should be applauded and her awesome determination respected. Certainly a Buddhist should not look askance at her motivations. To suggest to her that she should forsake becoming a bhikkhuni in favour of a ten-precept nun is as ridiculous as suggesting to a monk that he should exchange his 227 Vinaya rules for the easier lifestyle of a five precept layman.
The monks have long been the vanguards of the Buddha’s dispensation, disseminating and teaching the Dhamma. Yet, all across Asia, for the last several decades, we have seen Buddhism eroded by Communism, materialism and the forays of Christianity. Indeed the only country where Buddhism does not appear to be under threat but may actually be flourishing is Taiwan. Strangely, it is the only nation where the nuns far outnumber the monks. Is this a mere co-incidence? I do not suggest that the country’s success in upholding Buddhism is the result of the sexual demographics of the monastics, but that the religion there has access to twice the amount of human resources. Indeed, whilst monks lead many of the largest Buddhist organizations in Taiwan, the administration is largely left to nuns who manage them with dedication and efficiency. Nuns are also at the forefront of several organisations involved in education and social work. The model of the ten precept nun is a failure
It could be argued that this hypothesis is incorrect as there are large numbers of eight and ten precept nuns in other countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka. These orders are modelled after the bhikkhuni sangha but take the minimum of precepts. To this, is replied that the eight and ten precept nuns in these countries actually evoke very little respect from society and hence have little influence on it. For example, the white clad maejis of Thailand and dasasils of Sri Lanka receive little support from the public. They have few temples or educational organizations to support them. And a significant segment of them serve little formal purpose other than as servants or helpers at the monasteries where they are given permission to stay. The nuns of Myanmar are in a slightly better position, but are still relegated to a much lower status than that of the monks. When introduced in western countries, these ten precept orders may find an equal status as prejudices have yet to step in and discriminatory practices are scorned. However in Buddhist Asia, it is a different situation. Although society here may accept these orders in their midst, it is also painfully aware that they are merely an improvisation. Whatever their designs, they are given little recognition and even less support. Consequently, they fail in their objectives of providing an effective holy life for women and as a benevolent influence on society.Is there reason for opposition?
The great advantages that bhikkhunis provide themselves and the Buddhist communities they live in is obvious. However, the opposition, including those who see these benefits, choose to deny the aspirations of the women with the claim of preserving orthodox tradition. To be clear, the opposition claims that the ordination of bhikkhunis breaks the rules of tradition. Logic and reason are strong points in Theravada practice. Yet, it must be the height of irony and a total perversion of logic that the opposition, in attempting to uphold the rules of tradition, would directly cause the same tradition’s extinction. Surely, the rules formulated by the Buddha were to protect his dispensation, not to obstruct or destroy it.How the bhikkhuni sangha could be revived
In any case, are the arguments that the Vinaya rules do not allow the revival of the bhikkhuni sangha unimpeachable? No. Although the opposition makes a good case against the revival of the bhikkhuni sangha on technical grounds, certainly, the monks who support the movement and were instrumental in the revival think that there is sufficient material in the Vinaya to arrive at a different conclusion.
The pertinent arguments for a differing interpretation of the rules regarding the ordination of bhikkhunis are as follows:
1. In the MahaParinibbana sutta, where it was described that the Buddha was preparing to pass way, he called his loyal attendant Ananda and advised that the Sangha was permitted to abolish the lesser and minor rules. With this final concession provided by the Buddha, it becomes possible for a quorum of monks to make the necessary amendments to the rules to revive the bhikkhuni sangha. If any monk believes that the rules pertaining to the ordination of bhikkhunis fall outside the category of lesser and minor rules he could be invited into the community of monks to justify his position.
2. As was mentioned earlier, the dual ordination rule was part of the eight rules accepted by Pajapati Gotami before the Buddha would ordain her and set up the bhikkhuni sangha. After this event, the Buddha told the monks about his instructions to Pajapati Gotami and gave the injunction “I permit you monks, to confer full ordination on bhikkhunis”. This may sound surprising but of course, we see that there were insufficient bhikkhunis to form the first quorum and also there were no women novices yet. Thus the Buddha had logically allowed the monks to confer full ordination on this first batch of women.
This injunction itself should be sufficient to provide adequate authority to monks today to confer ordination without the procedure of dual ordination at places and at times where a quorum of bhikkhunis and women novices do not yet exist. The injunction by the Buddha at the first institution of the bhikhuni sangha should be equally valid at this time as we are under the very same circumstances. In further support of this, we could use as an example the practice of English law today which includes that which is known as “common law”. This practice uses precedence of past decisions as a valid basis for decisions that could legitimately be applied today. Surely, there could be no greater precedence and authority than the decision of the Buddha.
3. However, even if the dual ordination procedure is insisted upon, this requirement could still be satisfied. We understand from historical records that the bhikkhuni sangha in Mahayana countries such as China and Korea is a direct descendent of the bhikkhuni sangha of Sri Lanka. These records indicate that in 429 C.E. and 432 C.E. two delegations of Sri Lankan bhikhunis, the latter group headed by the bhikkhuni Devasara reached China and conferred the dual ordinations for the Chinese nuns. Thus it is possible for Theravada bhikkhunis to receive back this continuous and unbroken lineage. The point that the Mahayana nuns have different religious beliefs is irrelevant as ordination is a matter of Vinaya and not beliefs. As a counter-argument, it could be reasoned that among Theravada monks, there is also a variety of religious beliefs but this does not affect their status as monks. Although there are other technical points for further opposition in this matter, none among them appears to be absolutely restrictive. Among the Theravada scholar monks who support this possibility were the late Ven Dr Walpola Rahula and the late Ven Dr K Sri Dhammananda who also attended the bhikkhuni ordination at BodhGaya in 1998.
4. Following from 3 above, even if the bhikkhuni who receives part of her ordination from the Mahayana sangha, is not recognized by her Theravada brethren, it appears there is nothing in the Vinaya rules she has undertaken to stop her from practicing Theravada Buddhism. She is able to dress, recite the suttas and do all her religious duties in the Theravada form as the Mahayana school of Buddhism recognizes Theravada as a valid subset of itself. So at the very least, the bhikkhuni sangha could be accepted as a Mahayana ordained body which practises Theravada Buddhism. Finally, what is the Dhamma Vinaya?
It is conceded that the proposed avenues above are not so clear that they can be readily agreed to without objections. Whichever side of the controversy one chooses to sit really rests on one’s inclinations. However, in attempting to see above the arguments, an all-important question we should ask ourselves is - what is the fundamental purpose of the Dhamma Vinaya? Is it all then just a legal code?
Buddhism is a beautiful, gentle religion that speaks to the heart of all who would listen. It opens our minds to wisdom and compassion and leads us away from the dark dogmas that shackle us to superstitious beliefs and harmful actions. How can we deny our sisters their choice of leading their lives as bhikkhunis; the right to fulfil their aspirations, maybe even their destinies? Do we have sufficient reason? Is it enough to merely say that we wish to uphold the rules of the tradition? Perhaps - if these rules are absolute and there is not the tiniest sliver of light between its sturdy doors. But as we can see, this is not the case. There exists an opportunity to make amends, to set upright what has long been left fallen, and to gift our sisters what the brothers have long enjoyed. The revived bhikkhuni sangha is a lotus at dawn. Whether it is greeted by the warm rays of our welcome, or broken by the storms of rejection are now the choices before the Theravada communities. May we all choose wisely.