Bhikkhu Bodhi On Bhikkhunī Ordination III

Editor’s Note: this is the final part in a three-part series in which Bhikkhu Bodhi looks at the issues involved in the revival of the Bhikkhunī ordination in the Theravāda tradition. It forms the third chapter and conclusion in his essay: The Revival of Bhikkhunī Ordination in the Theravāda Tradition. The whole booklet is now being prepared for reprint by the Support Network.

The extract is (c) Thea Mohr and Jampa Tsedroen, 2010. Reprinted from Dignity and Discipline: Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns, with permission from Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm Street, Somerville, MA 02144 USA.

Addressing the Legalist Challenge

Nevertheless, while there might be strong textual and ethical grounds favoring a revival of the Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha, such a step would not be possible unless the legal objections to such a movement can be addressed. The legalists object to resuscitating bhikkhunī ordination, not so much because of bias against women (though some might have such a bias), but because they see such a measure as a legal impossibility. To restore the Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha, the three challenges posed by Theravāda Vinaya legalists would have to be overcome. These are the challenges based on:

the problem of pabbajjā (novice ordination);
the problem of sikkhamānā ordination and training; and
the problem of upasampadā.
Before I deal with these problems individually, however, I first want to note that Theravāda jurisprudence often merges stipulations on legal issues that stem from the canonical Vinaya texts, the Aṭṭhakathās (commentaries), and the Ṭīkās (subcommentaries) with interpretations of these stipulations that have gained currency through centuries of tradition. I do not want to undervalue tradition, for it represents the accumulated legal expertise of generations of Vinaya specialists, and this expertise should certainly be respected and taken into account in determining how the Vinaya is to be applied to new situations. But we also must remember that tradition should not be placed on a par with the canonical Vinaya or even with the secondary authorities, the Aṭṭhakathās and Ṭīkās. These different sources should be assigned different weights of authority according to their different origins. When our understanding of the Vinaya is strongly grounded in tradition, however, without realizing it we may become entangled in a web of traditionalist assumptions that obstructs our ability to distinguish what derives from the canonical Vinaya from what is prescribed by tradition. Sometimes simply changing the assumptions can recast the principles of the Vinaya in a whole new light.

I will illustrate this point with an analogy from geometry. A straight line is drawn through a point. As this line is extended, the distance between its two ends widens. It is thus obvious that the two ends will never meet, and if anyone expresses doubts about this, I would almost question their rationality. But this is so only because I am thinking within the framework of traditional geometry, Euclidean geometry, which held sway over mathematics up until the twentieth century. When, however, we adopt the standpoint of spherical geometry, we can see that a line drawn through a particular point, if extended far enough, eventually encounters itself. Again, in traditional geometry we are taught that a triangle can have at most only one right angle and that the sum of the angles of a triangle must be 180°, and this can be proven with absolute rigor. But that is so only in Euclidean space. Give me a sphere, and we can define a triangle with three right angles whose angles make a sum of 270°. Thus, if I break away from my familiar assumptions, a whole new range of possibilities suddenly opens up to my understanding.

The same applies to our thinking about the Vinaya, and I write from personal experience. During my years in Sri Lanka, I shared the traditional conservative Theravādin view about the prospects for bhikkhunī ordination. This was because the monks that I consulted on this issue were Vinaya conservatives. Thinking the question of bhikkhunī ordination too abstruse for me to understand myself, I asked them about it and simply deferred to their judgment. When I finally decided to examine the canonical and commentarial sources on the subject, I did not find anything to disprove what they had said. They were quite learned in the Vinaya, and so I found that they had indeed been speaking about straight lines and triangles, not about bent lines and hexagons. But what I found was that they were framing their judgments against a background of traditionalist assumptions; they were locating their straight lines and triangles in a Vinaya-version of Euclidean space. And the question occurred to me:

Is it necessary to frame these lines and triangles in Euclidean space?
What happens if we transfer them to a Vinaya-version of curved space?
What happens if we detach the pronouncements of the Vinaya from the background of traditionalist premises and look at them using the Buddha’s original intention as a guide?
What happens if we acknowledge that the Vinaya Pit.aka, as it has come down to us, did not anticipate the division of the original Sangha into different schools with their own ordination lineages or the disappearance of the Bhikkhuni- Sangha in one particular school?
What happens if we acknowledge that it simply gives us no clear guidance about what should be done in such a situation?
What if we then try to guide ourselves by the question, ‘What would the Buddha want us to do in such a situation as we find ourselves in today?’
When we raise these questions, we can see that the procedures for bhikkhunī ordination laid down in the Vinaya Piṭaka were never intended to preclude the possibility of reviving a defunct Bhikkhunī Sangha. They were simply proposed as the norm for conducting an ordination when the Bhikkhunī Sangha already exists. When this understanding dawns, we then enter a new space, a new framework that can accommodate fresh possibilities unimagined within the web of traditionalist assumptions.

For conservative theory, the fundamental assumptions are:

i) that the dual- Sangha ordination was intended to apply under all circumstances and admits of no exceptions or modifications to accord with conditions;

ii) that the Theravāda is the only Buddhist school that preserves an authentic Vinaya tradition.

For those who favor revival of the Bhikkhunī Sangha, the fundamental starting point is the Buddha’s decision to create the Bhikkhunī Sangha. Although the Buddha may have hesitated to take this step and did so only after the intercession of Ānanda (according to the Cullavagga account), he eventually did establish an order of bhikkhunīs and gave this order his wholehearted support. The procedure of ordination was merely the legal mechanics to implement that decision. From this standpoint, to block the implementation of that decision because of a legal technicality is to hamper the fulfillment of the Buddha’s own intention. This is not to say that the proper way to implement his intention should violate the guidelines of the Vinaya. But within those broad guidelines the two assumptions of conservative legalism can be circumvented by holding either or both of the following:

i) that under exceptional circumstances the Bhikkhu Sangha is entitled to revert to a single-Sangha ordination of bhikkhunīs; and

ii) that to preserve the form of dual-Sangha ordination, the Theravāda Bhikkhu Sangha can collaborate with a Bhikkhunī Sangha from an East Asian country following the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya.

This approach to ordination may not satisfy the most rigorous demand of conservative Theravāda Vinaya legal theory, namely, that it be conducted by Theravāda bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs who have been ordained by Theravāda bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs in an unbroken lineage. But to make that impossible demand the uncompromising requirement for restoring the Bhikkhunī Sangha would seem unreasonably stringent. Admittedly, those who insist on the dual-ordination do so, not because they take some special delight in being stringent, but out of respect for what they see as the integrity of the Vinaya. However, the strictest interpretation of the Vinaya may not necessarily be the only one that is valid, and it may not necessarily be the one that best represents the intention of the Buddha in the modern world. In the view of many learned Theravāda monks, mainly Sri Lankan, adopting either of the above routes will culminate in a valid bhikkhunī ordination and at the same time will grant to women – half the Buddhist population – the chance to live the spiritual life as fully ordained bhikkhunīs.

I will now turn to the three hurdles posed at the beginning of this section – pabbajjā, the sikkhamānā training, and upasampadā – taking each individually. Since functional Bhikkhunī Sanghas already exist, these discussions are partly anachronistic, but I think it is still important to bring them up to address the concerns of the legalists. Hence I will be giving, not explanations of how a bhikkhunī ordination can be revived, but justifications for the procedures that have already been used to revive it. I will begin with the upasampadā, since this is the most critical step in the whole ordination process. I will then continue in reverse order through the sikkhamānā training back to pabbajjā.


In the Pāli Vinaya Piṭaka, upasampadā for bhikkhunīs is prescribed as a two-step process involving separate procedures performed first by a Bhikkhunī Sangha and then by a Bhikkhu Sangha. To restore the extinct Bhikkhunī Sangha two methods have been proposed. One is to allow Theravāda bhikkhus on their own to ordain women as bhikkhunīs until a Bhikkhunī Sangha becomes functional and can participate in dual- Sangha ordinations. This method draws upon the authorization that the Buddha originally gave to the bhikkhus to ordain women during the early history of the Bhikkhunī Sangha. Such a procedure must have held for some time before the dual- Sangha ordination was instituted, after which it was discontinued in favor of dual-Sangha ordination. However, because the Buddha’s permission to bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs was not actually abolished, advocates of this method contend that it can become operative once again during a period when a Bhikkhunī Sangha does not exist.

On this view, the original process by which the bhikkhus, on the Buddha’s command, created a Bhikkhunī Sangha serves as a viable model for reviving a defunct Bhikkhunī Sangha. The original allowance could be considered a legal precedent: just as, in the past, that allowance was accepted as a means of fulfilling the Buddha’s intention of creating a Bhikkhunī Sangha, so in the present that allowance could again be used to renew the bhikkhunī heritage after the original Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha disappeared.

The other route to re-establishing the Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha is to conduct the dual-Sangha ordination by bringing together Theravāda bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs from an East Asian country such as Taiwan. This method, the one generally preferred, could be combined with a single-Sangha ordination by Theravāda bhikkhus in two successive steps. This was the procedure used at the grand ordination ceremony at Bodhgaya in February 1998, held under the auspices of Fo Guang Shan, and it had certain advantages over either taken alone.

The grand ordination ceremony assembled bhikkhus from several traditions – Chinese Mahāyāna, Theravāda, and Tibetan – along with Taiwanese and Western bhikkhunīs to conduct the full dual-ordination in accordance with the Chinese tradition. The women who were ordained included Theravāda nuns from Sri Lanka and Nepal, as well as Western nuns following Tibetan Buddhism. One might think that this was a Mahāyāna rite which made the nuns Mahāyāna bhikkhunīs, but this would be a misunderstanding. While the Chinese monks and nuns were practitioners of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the monastic Vinaya tradition they observe is not a Mahāyāna Vinaya but one stemming from an early Buddhist school, the Dharmaguptakas, which belonged to the same broad Vibhajyavāda tradition to which the southern Theravāda school belongs. They were virtually the northwest Indian counterpart of the Theravāda, with a similar collection of suttas, an Abhidharma, and a Vinaya that largely corresponds to the Pāli Vinaya. 1 Thus the upasampadā ordination performed by the Chinese Sangha at Bodhgaya conferred on the candidates the bhikkhunī lineage of the Dharmaguptakas, so that in Vinaya terms they were now full-fledged bhikkhunīs inheriting the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya lineage. 2

However, the bhikkhunīs from Sri Lanka wanted to become heirs to the Theravāda Vinaya lineage and to be acceptable to the Theravāda bhikkhus of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan bhikkhus who sponsored their ordination, too, were apprehensive that if the nuns returned to Sri Lanka with only the Chinese ordination, their co-religionists would have considered their ordination to have been essentially a Mahāyānist one. To prevent this, shortly afterwards the newly ordained bhikkhunīs traveled to Sarnath, where they underwent another upasampadā conducted in Pāli under Theravāda bhikkhus from Sri Lanka. This ordination did not negate the earlier dual-ordination received from the Chinese Sangha, but gave it a new direction. While recognizing the validity of the upasampadā they received through the Chinese Sangha, the Sri Lankan bhikkhus effectively admitted them to the Theravāda Sangha and conferred on them permission to observe the Theravāda Vinaya and to participate in saṅghakammas, legal acts of the Sangha, with their brothers in the Sri Lankan Bhikkhu Sangha.

While dual-Sangha ordination should certainly prevail whenever conditions make it feasible, a case – admittedly, a weaker one – can also be made to justify ordination solely by a Sangha of Theravāda bhikkhus. Although we speak of “a Bhikkhu Sangha” and “a Bhikkhunī Sangha,” when a candidate applies for ordination, she actually applies simply to be admitted to the Sangha. This is why, during the earliest phase in the history of the Bhikkhunī Sangha, the Buddha could permit the bhikkhus to ordain women as bhikkhunīs. By giving women the upasampadā, what the bhikkhus do is admit them to the Sangha. It is then by reason of the fact that they are women that they become bhikkhunīs and thereby members of the Bhikkhunī Sangha.

According to the Cullavagga, preliminary ordination by bhikkhunīs was introduced because the candidate has to be questioned about various obstructions to ordination, among them issues relating to a woman’s sexual identity. When the bhikkhus asked women candidates these questions, they were too embarrassed to reply. To avert this impasse, the Buddha proposed that a preliminary ordination be held by the bhikkhunīs, who would first question the candidate about the obstructions, clear her, give her a first ordination, and then bring her to the Bhikkhu Sangha, where she would be ordained a second time by the bhikkhus. 3 In this arrangement, it is still the Bhikkhu Sangha that functions as the ultimate authority determining the validity of the ordination. The unifying factor behind most of the garudhammas is the granting of formal precedence in Sangha affairs to the bhikkhus, and we can thus infer that the point of the sixth garudhamma, the principle of respect that requires that a sikkhamānā obtain upasampadā from a dual-Sangha, is to ensure that she obtain it from the Bhikkhu Sangha.

We can therefore claim that there are grounds for interpreting this sixth principle to imply that under extraordinary conditions upasampadā by a Bhikkhu Sangha alone is valid. We can readily infer that under the exceptional circumstances when a Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha has vanished, Theravāda bhikkhus are entitled to take as a precedent the original case when there was no Bhikkhunī Sangha and revive the allowance that the Buddha gave to the bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs on their own. I have to emphasize that this is an interpretation of the Vinaya, a liberal interpretation, and it is far from compelling. But while Vinaya conservatives might have reservations about this way of interpreting the text, we would ask them to consider carefully whether their views are rooted in the text or in traditional interpretation. If our attitude is open and flexible, there seems no reason to deny that under these pressing conditions an upasampadā given by a Bhikkhu Sangha alone, being used for a purpose in harmony with the Buddha’s intention, is valid, able to elevate a woman to the stature of a bhikkhunī.

Further, if we pay close attention to the wording of the Vinaya passage concerned with bhikkhunī ordination, 4 we would notice that the text does not lock this rite into a fixed and immutable form sealed with inviolable imperatives: “You must do it in this way and never in any other way.” In fact, grammatically, the Pāli passage uses, not the imperious imperative, but the gentler gerundive or optative participle, “it should be done thus.” But grammar aside, the text is simply describing the normal and most natural way to conduct the ordination when all the normal requisite conditions are at hand. There is nothing in the text itself, or elsewhere in the Pāli Vinaya, that lays down a rule stating categorically that, should the Bhikkhunī Sangha become extinct, the bhikkhus are prohibited from falling back on the original allowance the Buddha gave them to ordain bhikkhunīs and confer upasampadā on their own to resuscitate the Bhikkhunī Sangha.

To me this seems to be the crucial point: Only if there were such a clear prohibition would we be entitled to say that the bhikkhus are overstepping the bounds of legitimacy by conducting such an ordination. In the absence of such a decree in the text of the Vinaya Piṭaka and its commentaries, the judgment that an ordination by bhikkhus is in violation of the Vinaya is only an interpretation. It may be at present the dominant interpretation; it may be an interpretation that has the weight of tradition behind it. But it remains an interpretation, and we can well question whether it is an interpretation that needs to stand unquestioned. I myself would question whether it is the interpretation that properly reflects how the Buddha himself would want his monks to act under the critical conditions of our own time, when gender equality looms large as an ideal in secular life and as a value people expect to be embodied in religious life. I would question whether it is an interpretation that we should uphold when doing so will “cause those without confidence not to gain confidence and those with confidence to vacillate.” 5 Perhaps, instead of just resigning ourselves to a worst-case scenario, i.e., the absolute loss of the Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha, we should assume that the Theravāda Bhikkhu Sangha has the right, even the obligation, to interpret the regulations governing bhikkhunī ordination with the flexibility and liberality needed to bring its sister Sangha back to life.

The Buddha himself did not regard the Vinaya as a system fixed immutably in stone, utterly resistant to interpretative adaptations. Before his passing, he taught the Sangha four principles to help deal with novel situations not already covered by the rules of discipline, situations the monks might meet after his parinibbāna. These are called the four mahāpadesā,6 “the four great guidelines,” namely:

“If something has not been rejected by me with the words ‘This is not allowed,’ if it accords with what has not been allowed and excludes what has been allowed, that is not allowed to you.
“If something has not been rejected by me with the words ‘This is not allowed,’ if it accords with what has been allowed and excludes what has not been allowed, that is allowed to you.
“If something has not been authorized by me with the words ‘This is allowed,’ if it accords with what has not been allowed and excludes what has been allowed, that is not allowed to you.
“If something has not been authorized by me with the words ‘This is allowed,’ if it accords with what has been allowed and excludes what has not been allowed, that is allowed to you.” 7
Applying these guidelines to the question whether the Sangha has the right to revive the Bhikkhunī Sangha in either of the two ways discussed (or their combination), we can see that such a step would “accord with what has been allowed” and would not exclude anything else that has been allowed. Thus this step could clearly gain the support of guidelines (2) and (4).

It might be surprising to learn that the revival of the Bhikkhunī Sangha was advocated over half a century ago by a distinguished authority in one of the most conservative bastions of Theravāda Buddhism, namely, Burma. The person I refer to is the original Mingun Jetavan Sayādaw, the meditation teacher of the famous Mahasi Sayādaw and Taungpulu Sayādaw. The Jetavan Sayādaw composed, in Pāli, a commentary to the Milindapañha in which he argues for a revival of the Bhikkhunī Sangha. I have translated this part of the commentary and include it as an appendix 8 to the present paper. Writing in the heartland of Theravāda conservatism in 1949, the Jetavan Sayādaw unflinchingly maintains that bhikkhus have the right to revive an extinct Bhikkhunī Sangha. He contends that the dual-Sangha ordination was intended to apply only when a Bhikkhunī Sangha exists and that the Buddha’s permission to the bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs regains validity at any period of Buddhist history when the Bhikkhunī Sangha becomes non-existent. I do not agree wholly with the Sayādaw’s argument, particularly with his contention that the Buddha had foreseen with his omniscience the future extinction of the Bhikkhunī Sangha and intended his permission to bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs as a remedy for this. I see this permission in its historical context as a measure designed to deal with an immediate problem arisen during the Buddha’s own time; but I also regard it as one that that we can employ as a legal precedent to solve our present problem. Nevertheless, I believe the Jetavan Sayādaw’s essay is a refreshing reminder that a current of thought sympathetic to the revival of the Bhikkhunī Sangha could flow through the Theravāda world even sixty years ago. Moreover, we can see from his essay that the idea that the Bhikkhunī Sangha can be revived was a hotly discussed topic of his time, and it is likely that a positive attitude towards the issue was shared by a sizeable section of the Burmese Sangha.

Now, however, that a Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha exists in Sri Lanka, the question of how to revive it is no longer relevant. Any woman who wants to be ordained as a bhikkhunī in the Theravāda tradition can go to Sri Lanka to receive full ordination there. Of course, she will first have to fulfill the preliminary requirements, and in my view it is important to restore the observance of the sikkhamānā training to the preliminary requirements for bhikkhunī ordination.


I next come to the sikkhamānā training. In the first section of this paper, I presented an argument sometimes posed by conservative Vinaya theorists. To recapitulate: Sikkhamānā training is a prerequisite for valid bhikkhunī ordination. Authorization to undertake this training, and confirmation that one has completed it, are both conferred by a Bhikkhunī Sangha. Without an existing Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha, this training cannot be given nor can one be confirmed as having completed it. Full ordination given to women who have not gone through these two steps is invalid. Hence there can be no valid Theravāda bhikkhunī ordination, and thus no revival of the Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha.

I want to look more closely at this issue, for if this contention is true, this would mean in effect that all the upasampadās given to all women in all Buddhist schools who have not undergone the sikkhamānā training are invalid. The question we are addressing is the following: Is bestowal of sikkhamānā status an absolutely necessary condition for valid upasampadā? Is the upasampadā conferred on a sāmaṇerī who has not gone through the formal sikkhamānā training valid or invalid, legal or illegal?

First, let us be clear that the Vinaya requires that a woman undertake the sikkhamānā training before undergoing upasampadā. To do so is one of the eight garudhammas. It is on this basis that the Vinaya legalists maintain that the upasampadā is valid only when given to a candidate who has trained as a sikkhamānā. Here, however, we are concerned, not with what is prescribed by the texts, but with a question of strict legality.

The “variant cases” sections attached to Bhikkhunī Pācittiyas 63 and 64 establish that upasampadā given to a woman who has not undergone the sikkhamānā training, though contrary to the intention of the Vinaya, is still valid. According to these rules, the preceptor receives a pācittiya offense for conducting the upasampadā, while the other participating bhikkhunīs receive dukkaṭa offenses, but the ordination itself remains valid and the candidate emerges a bhikkhunī. Bhikkhunī Pācittiya 63 states: “If a bhikkhunī should ordain a probationer who has not trained for two years in the six dhammas, she incurs a pācittiya.” 9 The “variant cases” section reads:

When the act is legal, she ordains her perceiving the act as legal: a pācittiya offense. When the act is legal, she ordains her while in doubt [about its legality]: a pācittiya offense. When the act is legal, she ordains her perceiving the act as illegal: a pācittiya offense. 10

According to this statement, the preceptor incurs a pācittiya if she gives the upasampadā to a candidate who has not trained in the six dhammas in three cases when the act is legal: she perceives it as legal, she is doubtful about its legality, and she perceives it as illegal. If, however, the act is illegal, she incurs only a dukkaṭa, even when she perceives it as legal. Interestingly, in describing these illegal cases, the text omits the word vuṭṭhāpeti, glossed by the word commentary as upasampādeti, “to fully ordain”; for in these cases, though the participants “go through the motions” of conferring full ordination, technically no act of ordination is performed.

Now since in the first three variants, the act is described as “legal” (dhammakamma), this implies that in the view of the compilers of the Vinaya, the upasampadā itself is valid and the candidate is legally ordained. Since the sixth garudhamma, as well as Bhikkhunī Pācittiya 63, are binding on the preceptor, she is penalized with a pācittiya for disobeying it; but disobedience, it seems, does not negate the validity of the upasampadā. We find the same set of variants for Bhikkhunī Pācittiya 64, which assigns a pācittiya to a bhikkhunī who gives the upasampadā to a sikkhamānā who has not received the authorization from a Sangha; the implications are similar. Admittedly, there is an internal tension here between (i) the stipulation that the candidate must have undergone the sikkhamānā training and have had this authorized by the Sangha before she is eligible to receive upasampadā, and (ii) the fact that the ordination can be considered a “legal act” (dhammakamma) when given to a candidate who has not met these requirements. But it seems that failure to undertake or complete the sikkhamānā training does not negate the validity of the upasampadā. It might be noted, by way of contrast, that Bhikkhunī Pācittiya 65, which assigns a pācittiya to a preceptor for ordaining a gihigatā, a formerly married girl, below twelve years of age, does not have the variants in terms of legal acts, etc., attached to it. In this case there can be no legal ordination, for the ordaining of a gihigatā below the age of twelve can never be legal. Similarly for Pācittiya 71, the parallel rule for ordination of a kumāribhūtā, i.e., a maiden, below the age of twenty. In this case, too, there are no variants expressed in terms of legal acts perceived as legal, as illegal, or doubted, for the ordination of a maiden below the age of twenty is always invalid.

I bring up these cases, because they show that the Vinaya did not regard as invalid an upasampadā ordination that failed to fully conform to the procedures laid down in the eight garudhammas and even within the body of the Suttavibhaṅga; that is, women who received full ordination without having undergone the sikkhamānā training were still regarded as validly ordained bhikkhunīs as long as their ordination conformed to the other decisive criteria. How this would have been possible under a traditional system of bhikkhunī training is difficult to imagine, but the theoretical possibility at least is envisaged. Rather than declaring the ordination null and void, the Suttavibhaṅga allows it to stand, while requiring that disciplinary offenses (āpatti) be assigned to the preceptor, the teacher, and the other bhikkhunīs who filled the quorum.

This example might be taken as an analogy for the case when upasampadā is given by a dual-ordination with bhikkhunīs from another school, followed by a single-Sangha ordination by a community of Theravāda bhikkhus. Although the procedure might not fulfill the highest standards of legal perfection, one could contend that because it does conform to basic templates of ordination prescribed in the texts, it should be admitted as valid.

Let us return to our main issue. Since the agreement to undertake the sikkhamānā training is given by a Sangha, in the absence of a Bhikkhunī Sangha, one would suppose that this task should fall to a Bhikkhu Sangha. This might seem odd, but in the Vinaya Piṭaka itself we find a passage which suggests that at a time when the canonical Vinaya was still in process of formation, departures from the standard practice of sikkhamānā appointment were recognized. In the Mahāvagga’s Vassūpanāyikakkhandhaka, the “Chapter on Entering the Rains Retreat,” there is a passage in which the Buddha is shown granting permission to a bhikkhu to leave his rains residence at the request of a sāmaṇerī who wishes “to undertake the training,” that is, to become a sikkhamānā. The passage reads thus:

“But here, bhikkhus, a sāmaṇerī desires to undertake the training. If she sends a messenger to the bhikkhus, saying: ‘I desire to undertake the training. Let the masters come; I want the masters to come,’ you should go, bhikkhus, for a matter that can be done in seven days even if not sent for, how much more so if sent for, thinking: ‘I will be zealous for her to undertake the training.’ You should return before seven days”. 11

The Samantapāsādikā – the Vinaya Commentary – comments on this amidst a long list of occasions when a bhikkhu can leave his rains residence, and thus it has to string them all together and touch each one briefly. Therefore, in commenting on this passage, it says rather tersely:

A bhikkhu can go visit a sāmaṇerī if he wants to give her the training rule (sikkhāpadaṃ dātukāmo). Together with the other reasons (i.e., she is ill, wants to disrobe, has a troubled conscience, or has adopted a wrong view), there are these five reasons [for which the bhikkhu can go visit her during the Rains]. 12

The commentary seems to be “normalizing” the passage by assigning the bhikkhu the task of re-administering to the sāmaṇerī her training rules, but the canonical text, in contrast, seems to be ascribing to him a key role in the transmission of the sikkhamānā training to a sāmaṇerī, a task normally assigned exclusively to the Bhikkhunī Sangha. Could we not see in this passage a subtle suggestion that under unusual circumstances the Bhikkhu Sangha can in fact give the sikkhamānā training to a female aspirant for upasampadā? It might be an elder bhikkhu eligible to give the “exhortation” (ovāda) to bhikkhunīs who would be considered fit to serve as preceptor for a sikkhamānā. Still, the best alternative would be for the aspiring sāmaṇerī to find a situation where she could receive authorization to train as a sikkhamānā from bhikkhunīs and actually train under their guidance for the full two-year period, until she is qualified to take full ordination.


Finally we come to the problem of pabbajjā. Conservatives maintain that only a bhikkhunī can give a woman aspirant pabbajjā, that is, can ordain her as a sāmaṇerī. However, we should note that there is no stipulation in the Vinaya explicitly prohibiting a bhikkhu from giving pabbajjā to a woman. Such a practice is certainly contrary to established precedent, but we have to be careful not to transform established precedent into inviolable law, which, it seems, is what has happened in the Theravāda tradition. When the Mahāvaṃsa has the Elder Mahinda declare to King Devānampiyatissa, “We are not permitted, your majesty, to give the pabbajjā to women,” we should remember that Mahinda is speaking under normal circumstances, when a Bhikkhunī Sangha exists. He therefore requests the king to invite his sister, Sanghamittā, to come to Sri Lanka to ordain the women of the court. His words should not be taken as binding under all circumstances. We should also remember that the Mahāvaṃsa is neither a canonical Vinaya text nor a Vinaya commentary; it is a partly mythical chronicle of Sri Lankan Buddhist history. Neither the canonical Vinaya nor any authoritative Vinaya commentary expressly prohibits a bhikkhu from giving pabbajjā to women. To do so would certainly be the less desirable alternative, but in the hypothetical situation when a Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha does not exist at all or exists only in remote regions, this would seem to be justification for a departure from normal procedure.

One last issue that must be faced, which I can only touch on, concerns the strategy of implementing a revival of the Bhikkhunī Sangha. In particular, we must deal with the question: “Should individual Sanghas begin ordaining women as bhikkhunīs independently or should they first attempt to gain recognition of bhikkhunī ordination from the higher authorities of the Sangha hierarchy?” This is an extremely delicate question which takes us into the heart of communal monastic life. It is also a partly dated question, since bhikkhunī ordinations have already started. But still, I think it is useful to reflect on this consideration to ensure that the Bhikkhunī Sangha will develop in healthy and harmonious integration with the Bhikkhu Sangha.

The very question raises other questions, almost unanswerable, about where exactly in the Theravāda monastic order authority begins and how far that authority extends. To try to settle the issue before us by obtaining a universal consensus among bhikkhus throughout the Theravāda world seems unfeasible, and it would also seem unfeasible to hold an international election among Theravāda bhikkhus. A council of prominent elders from the leading Theravāda countries would almost certainly represent the viewpoint that I have called conservative legalism, and they would again almost certainly decide that bhikkhunī ordination is unattainable. Since they are not an official authority, it would be an open question whether the entire Theravāda Sangha need be bound by their decree, especially if they reach a decision without giving proponents of bhikkhunī ordination a chance to present their view. In my opinion bhikkhus who belong to an extended community, such as a Nikāya or network of monasteries, should attempt to reach consensus on this issue within their community. It is only when serious, sincere, and prolonged attempts at persuasion prove futile that monks who favor restoring the Bhikkhunī Sangha should consider whether to hold bhikkhunī ordinations without such a consensus.

Although there might not be any such thing as a unified international Theravāda Sangha, it seems to me that each monk has an obligation to act in conscience as if there were such an entity; his decisions and deeds should be guided by the ideal of promoting the well-being and unity of an integral Sangha even if this Sangha is merely posited in thought. On this basis, I would then have to say that when one group of bhikkhus decides to confer bhikkhunī ordination without obtaining the consent of the leadership of the Sangha body to which they belong, or without obtaining a wide consensus among fellow bhikkhus in their fraternity, they risk creating a fissure within the Sangha. While they are certainly not maliciously causing a schism in the Sangha, they are still dividing the Sangha into two factions that hold irreconcilable views on the critically important question of whether persons of a particular type – namely, women who have undergone the upasampadā procedure – actually possess the status of a fully ordained monastic. And this is surely a very serious matter. In short, while in principle I believe there are legal grounds for re-introducing bhikkhunī ordination in the Theravāda tradition and strongly support a revival of the Bhikkhunī Sangha, I also feel that this should be done in a cautious way that will preserve the tenuous unity of the Sangha rather than divide it into two factions, a dominant faction that remains convinced the Bhikkhunī Sangha cannot be revived, and a smaller faction that acknowledges the existence of a Bhikkhunī Sangha. But this concern also has to be balanced against concern that an established monastic old guard committed to preserving the status quo will persistently block all proposals to revive a Bhikkhunī Sangha, thus frustrating all attempts at transformation. In such a case, I would hold, those committed to reviving the Bhikkhunī Sangha are entitled to obey the call of their own conscience rather than the orders of their monastic superiors. But in doing so they might also try to draw their monastic superiors into the process. In Sri Lanka, at least, the attitudes of the senior monks have changed dramatically over the past ten years. Thus supporters of bhikkhunī ordination might sit down with the leading elders of the Sangha and patiently try to bring them into this process in a way that will allow them to support it while at the same time enable them to preserve their dignity.

The disappearance of the Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha has presented us with a situation not explicitly addressed in the Vinaya and thus one for which there is no unambiguous remedy. When faced with such a contingency, naturally Vinaya authorities will hold different ideas about how to proceed, all claiming to accord with the purport of the Vinaya. As I see it, the Vinaya cannot be read in any fixed manner as either unconditionally permitting or forbidding a revival of the Bhikkhunī Sangha. It yields these conclusions only as a result of interpretation, and interpretation often reflects the attitudes of the interpreters and the framework of assumptions within which they operate as much as it does the actual words of the text they are interpreting.

Amidst the spectrum of opinions that might be voiced, the two main categories of interpretation are the conservative and the progressive. For conservatives, bhikkhunī status absolutely requires a dual-Sangha ordination with the participation of a Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha; hence, since no Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha exists, and for conservatives non-Theravādin bhikkhunīs cannot fill this role, the Theravāda bhikkhunī lineage is irreparably broken and can never be restored. For progressives, bhikkhunī ordination can be restored, either by permitting bhikkhunīs from an East Asian country to fulfill the role of the Bhikkhunī Sangha at a dual-Sangha ordination or by recognizing the right of bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs until a Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha becomes functional.

In my opinion, in deciding between the conservative and the progressive approaches to the bhikkhunī issue, the question that should be foremost in our minds is this: “What would the Buddha want his elder bhikkhu-disciples to do in such a situation, now, in the twenty-first century?” If he were to see us pondering this problem today, would he want us to apply the regulations governing ordination in a way that excludes women from the fully ordained renunciant life, so that we present to the world a religion in which men alone can lead the life of full renunciation? Or would he instead want us to apply the regulations of the Vinaya in a way that is kind, generous, and accommodating, thereby offering the world a religion that truly embodies principles of justice and non-discrimination?

The answers to these questions are not immediately given by any text or tradition, but I do not think we are left entirely to subjective opinion either. From the texts we can see how, in making major decisions, the Buddha displayed both compassion and disciplinary rigor; we can also see how, in defining the behavioral standards of his Sangha, he took account of the social and cultural expectations of his contemporaries. In working out a solution to our own problem, therefore, we have these two guidelines to follow. One is to be true to the spirit of the Dhamma – true to both the letter and the spirit, but above all to the spirit. The other is to be responsive to the social, intellectual, and cultural horizons of humanity in this particular period of history in which we live, this age in which we forge our own future destinies and the future destiny of Buddhism. Looked at in this light, the revival of a Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha can be seen as an intrinsic good that conforms to the innermost spirit of the Dhamma, helping to bring to fulfillment the Buddha’s own mission of opening “the doors to the Deathless” to all humankind, to women as well as to men. At the same time, viewed against the horizons of contemporary understanding, the existence of a Bhikkhunī Sangha can function as an instrumental good. It will allow women to make a meaningful and substantial contribution to Buddhism in many of the ways that monks do – as preachers, scholars, meditation teachers, educators, social advisors, and ritual leaders – and perhaps in certain ways that will be unique to female renunciants, for example, as counselors and guides to women lay followers. A Bhikkhunī Sangha will also win for Buddhism the respect of high-minded people in the world, who regard the absence of gender discrimination as the mark of a truly worthy religion in harmony with the noble trends of present-day civilization.

End Notes

1 See Ann Heirman, “Can We Trace the Early Dharmaguptakas?” T’oung Pao 88 (Leiden: Brill, 2002).

2 In the course of the Chinese transmission of the Dharmaguptaka ordination lineage, the bhikkhunī ordination has often been conferred solely by a Bhikkhu Sangha rather than by a dual-Sangha, which could open the ordination to a strict Theravādin objection that valid transmission has been broken. The account of bhikkhunī upasampadā in the Vinaya texts of the Dharmaguptakas, as preserved in Chinese (at T 22, 925a26-b17; 1067a28-c2), does describe it as a dual-Sangha ordination, very much as in the Pāli Vinaya. Vinaya masters in the Chinese tradition have explicitly discussed this problem. An early Vinaya master from Kashmir, Guṇavarman, who in the fifth century presided over the ordination of Chinese bhikkhunīs by a Bhikkhu Sangha alone, expressed the opinion: “As the bhikṣuṇī ordination is finalized by the bhikṣu saṅgha, even if the ‘basic dharma’ (i.e., the ordination taken from the bhikṣuṇī saṅgha) is not conferred, the bhikṣuṇī ordination still results in pure vows, just as in the case of Mahāprajāpatī.” And Tao-Hsuan (Dao-xuan), the seventh century patriarch of the Chinese Dharmaguptaka school, wrote: “Even if a bhikṣuṇī ordination is transmitted directly from a bhikṣu saṅgha without first conferring the ‘basic dharma,’ it is still valid, as nowhere in the Vinaya indicates otherwise. However, the precept masters commit an offence.” Both quotations are from Heng Ching Shih, “Lineage and Transmission: Integrating the Chinese and Tibetan Orders of Buddhist Nuns” (Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal, no. 13.2, May 2000), pp. 523, 524. These opinions suggest that, from the internal perspective of this school (or at least according to several important Vinaya commentators) ordination solely by the Bhikkhu Sangha, though not in full conformity with the prescribed procedure, is still valid. If this fault were considered serious enough to invalidate ordination through a lineage of Chinese bhikkhunīs, ordination could still be sought from Vietnamese bhikkhunīs, who have preserved the dual ordination through the centuries.

3 See Vin II 271.

4 Vin II 272-74.

5 See above, p. 33.

6 Samantapāsādika I 231.

7 See page 38, footnote.

8 See page 53.

9 Vin IV 319: Yā pana bhikkhunī dve vassāni chasu dhammesu asikkhitasikkhaṃ sikkhamānaṃ vuṭṭhāpeyya pācittiyaṃ.

10 Vin IV 320: Dhammakamme dhammakammasaññā vuṭṭhāpeti āpatti pācittiyassa. Dhammakamme vematikā vuṭṭhāpeti āpatti pācittiyassa. Dhammakamme adhammakammasaññā vuṭṭhāpeti āpatti pācittiyassa. !/footnote10!

11 Vin I 147: Idha pana, bhikkhave, sāmaṇerī sikkhaṃ samādiyitukāmā hoti. Sā ce bhikkhūnaṃ santike dūtaṃ pahiṇeyya “ahanhi sikkhaṃ samādiyitukāmā, āgacchantu ayyā, icchāmi ayyānaṃ āgatan”ti, gantabbaṃ, bhikkhave, sattāhakaraṇīyena, appahitepi, pageva pahite – “sikkhāsamādānaṃ ussukkaṃ karissāmī”ti. Sattāhaṃ sannivatto kātabboti. !/footnote11!

12 Sp V 1069. !/footnote12!

Friday May 20, 2022
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