Dear friend interested in Theravadan Buddhist monastic life,
Venerable Ayya Tathaaloka, Theri.
Venerable Ayya Tathaaloka, Theri.
This page is written with deep appreciation for your aspiration, and the goodness that can come in its fulfilment. It should answer some common questions related to how your aspiration might unfold and what conditions should be met for bhikkhuni ordination.
These are fundamentally the same for men and women, according to Vinaya, which the monastics of Dhammadharini (our community here) are sincere about practicing and keeping. The conditions for men are listed here in: Buddhist Monastic Code II, Chapter 14, Ordination. You might also like to read: Going Forth and Going Forth: A Call to Buddhist Monkhood
Women have a few additional requirements for ordination that men do not. According to the foundation stories contained within the explication of our monastic discipline, these requirements were called for by the Buddhist women’s monastic community for its own welfare during the Buddha’s lifetime, according to the circumstances that these early Buddhist women encountered. They are practical, mostly stemming from compassion for children and women’s special role as mothers and in giving birth. They include:
that she not be pregnant
that she not be nursing
that if she has a child who depends upon her, that other care be arranged for the child or children
Other than this, most important is that the aspirant be basically mentally and physically capacitated, not incapacitated. Also that she be free from debt and other forms of social/societal and familial obligation/duty/service.
As for how your aspiration might unfold: again, according to Vinaya, the process is virtually the same for men and women. The first three stages may vary a little from monastery to monastery, and might vary more from tradition to tradition.
Other than probationary novice, the latter stages are very much the same everywhere in Buddhist monastic life.
Every monastery has a slightly different mood and mode of monastic life. Some are in the city or suburbs, some deep in the forest or desert. Some are large, some very small. You may see what you feel is right for you, what you feel called to. Sometimes that evolves and changes over time.
If you are interested in monastic life and have further questions after reading here, please do contact us at our Dhammadharini Vihara or Aranya Bodhi Hermitage, or contact one of the bhikkhuni monasteries linked to below.
Step 1: Finding a suitable place to train and ordain
Normally, a man or women would come to stay at a monastery where they think they would like to train. Sometimes they visit several monasteries to find where seems best. Most monasteries allow someone to stay to see if they feel well there initially for one week or two weeks. Here at the Bodhi House and Aranya Bodhi Hermitage, we allow two weeks.
Step 2: Aspirant – the pre-postulancy stage
If one feels inspired to stay and enter into the training at a particularly monastery, they should make their aspiration known to the teacher, abbot or abbess there. If it is agreeable to the teacher and/or the monastic community, the aspirant is welcomed to return. Upon their return they undertake the eight precepts (if they hadn’t already) as a pre-postulant, normally with an as yet unshaven head, wearing all white or black and white clothing. The pre-postulant’s eight precepts are the same as the layperson’s five precepts plus three additional renunciate precepts, as well as the significant change in the 3rd precept from no sexual misconduct, to brahmacarya or no sexual conduct whatsoever.
Step 3: Anagarika/candidate – the postulancy stage
After staying for some time as a pre-postulant (the time may vary from a few hours, to 2 weeks to 2 or 3 months), if both the aspirant and the teacher and/or the monastic community feel amiable about going ahead, the aspirant may request ordination as an anagarika. Anagarikaa means homeless one due to their having left home life, sought refuge and being accepted as postulants in the monastery. In English we can anagarikas at this stage postulants, aspirants or candidates. Anagarikā (with a long “a” at the end) is the female form, anagarika the male form. The anagarika has a shaven head, wears white robes and keeps the 8 precepts. The anagarika period is normally around a year. Sometimes it can be shorter, or as long as several years, depending on individual circumstances.
As a postulant, one is still officially a lay person, and as such still able to use money, hold property and finances and support oneself. Although normally lodging and food are shared by the monastic community with anagarikas at a monastery, special health care needs, travel (not related to the training) or other such expenses, are normally still covered by the anagarika herself.
Most nuns in Burma and Thailand, for whom novice and full ordination has not been available for some time, live as anagarikas for short term or long term monastic retreats with the eight “uposatha” precepts. Thai, Lao and Cambodian angarikas may be called maechees and donchees. In Burma the anagarikas may wear light-pink, peach or dark-brown colored robes and are called sayalay or thilashin or silashin. There are anagarikas in Sri Lanka who are called anagarikas, as well as those called dasa-sila-matas. Recommended reading for those considering novice ordination: Buddhist Monastic Code II: Chapter 24, Novices
Step 3: Samaneri – the novice stage
A samaneri is a novice female samana, or a samana-in-training. A samana is a monastic recluse. Samaneri is the female trainee form of the word, samenera is the male trainee form.
After an average of a year as an anagarika, with the approval of her teacher, an anagarika may request the samaneri pabbaja, the “going forth” as a novice into the monastic life. If an aspirant for novice ordination is under the legal age of adulthood (or age 20), she must have the permission of her parents or guardians in order to receive the going forth as a novice.
Novices undertake the ten novice precepts, which include 8 precepts plus the additional precept of not handling or keeping money. In most forest monasteries, novices also no longer drive cars. The novice precepts and training are exactly the same for male and female novice trainees.
In addition to the going forth, a novice also takes “dependancy” upon the elder Sangha member who will be her acarya – her personal teacher, mentor and guide through the ordination process. In a place where bhikkhunis are not available, bhikkhus are both permitted and enjoined by the Vinaya to give both the novice and probationary novice ordination to qualified women
Step 4: Sikkhamana – the probationary novice (optional/variable)
In the currently (at least in the West!) very rare event that a woman has married very young, or become a novice as a young girl, she may be qualified to be ordained as a sikkhamana [Sanskrit: siksamana, shikshamana, siksamanini] from age 10 or age 18 respectively. For a child bride, having proven her maturity and responsibility by completing 2 years of the sikkhamana training, she may be fully ordained as a bhikkhuni even before age 20. The Vinaya normally considers age 20 to be the age of adulthood, at which time one may, if having met all requisite conditions, request full ordination, the bhikkhuni upasampada, from the monastic community. It is noteworthy that, in some Korean, Chinese, Tibetan and Thai tradition monastic communities, women currently receive and complete the sikkhamana ordination and training for two years before fully ordaining as bhikkhunis, no matter what their age. Recommended reading for those considering novice ordination: The Bhikkhus’ Rules: A Guide for Laypeople
Step 5: Bhikkhuni – the higher ordination (full monastic ordination)
A bhikkhuni is literally an almswoman or female alms mendicant. Bhikkhuni is the feminine form of bhikkhu.
In Thailand and Burma, bhikkhunis [Sanskrit: bhiksuni, bhikshuni] are known as phra pu-ying or rahan-ma (female monks), while in Sri Lankan and most places where Christian monasticism has had strong influence, as fully ordained nuns. In the case of bhikkhunis, this is a difference of word use only and varies from place to place as the language use is not yet completely established in our Western context. Bhikkhunis have the same livelihood and most all of the rights and responsibilities as bhikkhus in Buddhism.
After having completed the appropriate agreed-upon period of samaneri and/or sikkhamana training, with the recommendation of her teacher, a novice may request the bhikkhuni upasampada, the full or higher ordination, from both the Bhikkhuni and Bhikkhu Sanghas. The novice must have the permission of their husband to be fully ordained if she is still legally married.
The novice is fully ordained with the proposal of a bhikkhuni teacher preceptor – pavattini or a bhikkhu preceptor, also known as an upajjhaya. She is accepted as a full member of the Buddhist monastic Sangha by the Sangha itself, not by any individual, thus at least five members of both the men’s and women’s monastic community must be present to grant acceptance (4=Sangha, 4+1 teacher=5, 5 bhikkhus + 5 bhikkhunis = 10). More Sangha members may participate in the ordination in addition to these 10, however, only 10 are required, unless one is in India’s heartland, the Madhyadesa, where the Buddha lived and taught. There at least 10 members of the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sanghas must come together = 20 (Mahasangha) to give the ordination. When there are no bhikkhunis available, the Vinaya allows a Bhikkhu Sangha including a preceptor, teacher and at least 5 members total to give the ordination.
Theravada bhikkhunis study and train with with 311 precepts after their ordination as bhikkhunis, Theravada bhikkhus with 227. About 60% of men’s and women’s monastic discipline is held in common. The differing numbers do not relate to any greater or lesser merit, as the Vinaya affirms the two disciplines are the same in essence. Rather, the bhikkhunis in the Buddha’s lifetime, due to their own sense of what was best for the discipline and protection of their monastic communities, called for most of their own unique precepts as circumstances arose for them. Additionally, some of the precepts are combined or seperated differently with several bhikkhuni precepts of a common theme being combined into one in the bhikkhus’ discipline.
Valid full ordination, the upasamada, is good for one’s entire life, unless one honorably disrobes or dishonorably commits a parajika offense (the most serious class of offenses in our monastic discipline) which automatically ends their monastic life.
The Bhikkhuni Sangha has existed since the Buddha’s lifetime and has continued into the present in China, Korea and Vietnam. Modern South and South-east Asian Buddhism is currently seeing the beginings of a revival of this ancient women’s monastic tradition, initially in the West and in Sri Lanka, now followed by Thailand. Sri Lanka currently has more than 2000 Theravada bhikkhunis, more than any other country in the world.
Step 6: From new bhikkhuni to mahatheri
Once ordained as a bhikkhuni, there are several main stages in one’s monastic life. The first is that of a nava or new bhikkhuni. A new bhikkhuni should stay, train with, serve and support her mentor/teacher for at least 2 years. After completing at least 2 years training, if she is ready, complete in knowledge and ability, her mentor may grant her independence . If she is not yet ready, her teacher may wait until she is for independance to be granted. In some communities, the requirement of 2 years is increased to 5. Five vassas are required before independence for the bhikkhus in their monastic rule.
Once independent, a bhikkhuni is free to travel and train where she herself feels is best for her. Sometimes bhikkhunis stay with their mentor their whole lives, sometimes they travel a little, sometimes for many years, rounding themselves in the training with various teachers and at various places. Sometimes they return to their original mentor after several years, sometimes not. This is very individual. Vocations in Buddhist monastic life, after completing the basic training, are discerned by the individual monastics themselves, although they may be in conjunction with the advice of their teacher or mentor. A bhikkhuni should see for herself whether more secluded meditation, further in-depth study of Buddhist texts or service to the monastic community or lay community are most conducive for her development and higher training in sila, samadhi and panna.
After 5 years, a bhikkhuni is known as a majja bhikkhuni or bhikkhuni in the middle years. During this time, she continues to further develop herself in her training. She may also, with community approval, begin to instruct novices.
A bhikkhuni may have any number of teachers, or only one. Also, in the Sri Lankan and Burmese Forest traditions as well as the Vipassana meditation tradition, a monastic may have come from any Nikaya or ordination lineage, but is a member of the practice tradition in which s/he lives and trains. It may be that monastics are asked to reordain, or strengthen and reaffirm their commitment to the practice of the Vinaya when coming to live and train in monastic communities particularly strict in monastic discipline if the parctice varies significantly from where she originally ordained.
After 10 years in monastic life, a bhikkhuni becomes a Theri or Elder [Sanskrit: Theri=Sthaviri]. It is normal, for those who have the propensity, to begin to teach within the monastic community and to the public at large at this time. It is also from this time that one may begin to accept and ordain novices as one’s pupils as well as undertake monastery administration such as an abbess or assistant abbess, although this may happen earlier or later under varying circumstances. From 12 vassas after full ordination, a bhikkhuni, if agreed upon and appointed by her bhikkhunis’ community, may also participate as pavattini or female preceptor/mentor in granting women the full bhikkhuni ordination, and take part in supporting their training.
From 20 years as a bhikkhuni, a Buddhist monastic woman may called a Mahatheri [Sanskrit: Mahatheri=Mahasthaviri], or “great Elder.”
Theris and Mahatheris may be reclusive or often they may be active as teachers, leaders and guides of the Sangha. They may be particularly sought after by the lay and monastic communities if they have teaching abilities and/or special talent and affinity for training fellow monastics. Recommended reading: The Therigatha: Verses of the Elder Nuns.