The Revival of Bhikkhunī Ordination in the Theravāda Tradition

by Barbara Yen




Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi has said in his book, The Revival of Bhikkhunī Ordination in the Theravāda Tradition, “that after an absence of more than 900 years, history was created when the Theravada bhikkhuni Order was revived in 1996 with the ordination of 11 women in Sarnath, India by Ven. Dodangoda Revata Mahāthera and the late Ven. Mapalagama Vipulasāra Mahāthera of the Mahābodhi Society in India.” The late Ven. Dr. K Sri Dhammananda who had strongly advocated for the revival of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order, attended the following ordination at Bodh Gaya in 1998.

In fact, the revival of the Bhikkhunī Sangha was advocated over half a century ago by a distinguished authority in one of the most conservative countries of Theravāda Buddhism, namely, Mynmar. The person is Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw, the meditation teacher of the famous Mahasi Sayadaw and Taungpulu Sayadaw. The Jetavan Sayadaw composed, in Pāli, a commentary to the Milindapanha in which he argues for a revival of the Bhikkhunī Sangha.

Jetavan Sayadaw unflinchingly maintains that bhikkhus have the right to revive an extinct Bhikkhunī Sangha. After introducing the dual-Sangha ordination, the Buddha did not require the women who had previously received ordination by the Bhikkhu Sangha only to undergo another ordination by the Bhikkhunī Sangha; he allowed their one-sided ordination to stand.

In those countries where the Bhikkhuni Sangha is not revived, the Bhikkhu Sangha should make a determined effort as follows: “Now that the Bhikkhunī Sangha has become extinct, we will revive the institution of bhikkhunīs! We will understand the heart’s wish of the Exalted One! We will see the Exalted One’s face brighten like the full moon!” added Jetavan Sayadaw.

Present Scene Today

Today there are more than 1,000 bhikkhunis, mainly in Sri Lanka and it is the only traditional Theravada country that has welcomed this new phenomenon.

It is therefore no longer a question of whether the Theravada bhikkhuni Sangha could be revived, but whether this development should be given the recognition and respect it seeks.

However, it is sad that those who want to seek full ordination have to do so in other Buddhist traditions or in other countries. By doing so, it does not solve the problem if their status is not recognised or supported by the sangha and lay community in their own country.

In the Buddha’s Words

In the forty-five years of the Buddha’s ministry, there were many situations either in words or action that he advocated positively in support of the bhikkkhunis. These can be found in some of the suttas for an example the MahaParinibbana Sutta (DN 16). 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.”

When Queen Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī and five hundred women approached the Buddha with their heads shaved and wearing ochre robes, they did not ask the Buddha to establish an order of nuns. They simply asked him “to permit women to go forth from the household life into homelessness in the Dhamma and Vinaya proclaimed by the Tathāgata.”

The Buddha compared the Dhamma to a chariot, “One who has such a vehicle, whether a woman or a man, has by this vehicle drawn close to. (MN I, 492).

In the simile of the ancient city, the Buddha exhorted that after he had followed the Noble Eightfold Path and penetrated the links of dependent origination, “I explained them to the bhikkhus, the bhikkhunīs, the male lay followers, and the female lay followers, so that this spiritual life has become successful and prosperous, extended, popular, widespread, well proclaimed among gods and humans.” (SN 107)

Also the Buddha did not design for women to go forth in some secondary or subordinate role, for example, as ten-precept nuns, but take full ordination as bhikkhunīs. (Vin II 253; AN IV 274)

The Buddha considered well-trained bhikkhunī disciples one of the pillars of the teaching. In the Aṅguttara Nikāya, Ekanipāta (AN i 25), includes suttas where the Buddha appointed various bhikkhunīs to the position of ‘most eminent’ in different domains of their spiritual life; for example, bhikkhunī Khemā was most eminent in wisdom, Uppalavaṇṇā in psychic powers, Bhaddakaccānā in great spiritual penetrations. The Therīgāthā also offers us deep insights into the yearnings, striving and attainments of the earliest generations of Buddhist women renunciants.

In Dakkhiṇāvibhaṅga Sutta (MN 142), the Buddha discussed seven types of gifts that can be made to the Sangha, and most of these include bhikkhunīs among the recipients. These are:

a gift to the dual-Sangha headed by the Buddha
a gift to the dual-Sangha after the Buddha has passed away
a gift specifically to the Bhikkhunī Sangha
a gift for the selection of bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs to represent the Sangha
a gift for the selection of bhikkhunīs to represent the Sangha
When Ven. Sāriputta devised a teaching that shows the path that all Buddhas take to arrive at full enlightenment, the Buddha urged him to expound that teaching to the bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs as well as to the male and female lay devotees. (SN 161)

For the bhikkhunīs, the highest success is arahantship, the same as for the bhikkhus. Evidence of such success is seen in the Mahāvacchagotta Sutta (MN 73) when Vacchagotta exclaims, “besides the Venerable Gotama and the bhikkhus, there are also bhikkhunīs who have attained success, this spiritual life is complete with respect to this factor.”

The poet-monk Vaṅgīsa confirms that the Buddha’s enlightenment was intended to benefit bhikkhunīs as well as bhikkhus:

“Indeed, for the good of many
The Sage attained enlightenment,
For the bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs
Who have reached and seen the fixed course”

On the Buddha’s supposed prediction that the Dhamma will last only five hundred years if women were to be ordained, if he had forseen such prediction with his divine vision, he would not have allowed them to be ordained and would not have given in to Ven. Ānanda’s pleas on their behalf. Scholars have questioned on the authenticity of this prediction. If it is true, the Dhamma would have disappeared around the first century A.D.

In fact, the Aṅguttara Nikāya indicates that the Dhamma will decline when the Four Assemblies dwell without respect to the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, the training, samādhi and heedfulness.

According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, “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. What we can deduce on the Buddha’s initial reluctance to accept the Bhikkhuni Sangha is that it would have placed on the bhikkhus the burden of educating and protecting the nuns, responsibilities that could have obstructed their own progress.”

The Buddha was also aware of the social conditions at that time that could place great challenges for women to go forth – the acceptance of the society for women to have equal status as men. Perhaps it could be a distraction to the young monks, to get enough preceptors to provide the nuns with proper training and guidance and also the sheer logistics of housing such a large number of women and his concern for their safety and well-being. (Writer, Barbara’s views)

Restoration of the Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha

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: (1) the problem of pabbajjā (novice ordination); (2) the problem of sikkhamānā ordination and training (two years); and (3) the problem of upasampadā (full ordination).

Before his parinibbana, the Buddha 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, “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.
In the Mahāvagga’s Vassūpanāyikakkhandhaka of the Vinaya Piṭaka, there is a passage which shows compassion, flexibility and a departure from the standard practice. The Buddha granted permission to a bhikkhu to leave his rains retreat at the request of a sāmaṇerī who wished to undertake the training to become a sikkhamānā. “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.” (Vin iv, 320)

Alternative Interpretations of Rules regarding the Ordination of Bhikkhunis

The following factors point to the fact that it is possible for Theravada bhikkhunis to receive back this continuous and unbroken lineage. They are:

In the MahaParinibbana Sutta, the Sangha was permitted to abolish lesser and minor rules
Dual Ordination rule was part of Eight Rules accepted by Maha Pajapati Gotami
As there were no bhikkhunis to form Dual Ordination quorum yet, the Buddha gave monks this right and privilege to confer ordination on the first batch of women. “I permit you monks, to confer full ordination on bhikkhunis”
We can use the English ‘common law’ as a precedence of past decisions as valid decisions to be applied today
There could be no greater precedence and authority than the decision of the Buddha
The Bhikkhuni Sangha in Mahayana countries eg. China and Korea is the direct descendent of Dharmaguptaka school which is from early Indian Buddhism and their Vinaya rules were kept intact
The Tibetan monastic system is also guided by a Vinaya derived from Mūlasarvāstivādins, also from early Indian Buddhism
Historical records show two delegations of Sri Lankan bhikkhunis, the latter group headed by Bhikkhuni Devasara conferred Dual Ordinations for nuns in China in 429 C.E. and 432 C.E.
The Bhikkhu Order had died off Sri Lanka as a result of wars but it was revived by the Order from Myanmar
The point that Mahayana nuns have different religious beliefs is irrelevant as ordination is a matter of Vinaya and not beliefs
Among Theravada monks, there is also a variety of beliefs but this does not affect their status as monks
Two methods have been proposed to restore the extinct Bhikkhunī Sangha.

That under exceptional circumstances the Bhikkhu Sangha is entitled to revert to a single-Sangha ordination of bhikkhunīs until a Bhikkhunī Sangha becomes functional and can participate in dual-Sangha ordination. The Buddha said, “Bhikkhus, I allow bhikkhus to give upasampadā (full ordination) to bhikkhunīs,” rightly pointing out that the Buddha never abolished that allowance.
The Theravāda Bhikkhu Sangha can collaborate with a Bhikkhunī Sangha from an East Asian country which belonged to the same Vibhajyavāda tradition to which the southern Theravāda school belongs and which follow the same Dharmaguptaka Vinaya.
In making major decisions, the Buddha displayed both compassion and disciplinary rigor; he took account of the social and cultural expectations of his contemporaries.

In making a challenging decision, we have these two guidelines to follow:

To be true to both the letter and the spirit, but above all to the innermost spirit of the Dhamma
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.
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.

The absence of a recognized Bhikkhunī Sangha in South Asian Theravāda Buddhism will be conspicuous, a glaring gap. Educated people around the world – even educated Theravādin lay followers, both men and women – will find it difficult to empathize with the refusal of the Theravādin monastic order to grant full ordination to women and will compare Theravāda unfavorably with the other forms of Buddhism.

Such an exclusive attitude would receive strong public disapproval today because of the vast differences between the social and cultural attitudes of our age and those of India in the fifth century B.C. when the Buddha lived and taught. Our own age has been shaped by the ideas of the European Enlightenment, a movement that affirmed the inherent dignity of the human person, led to the rise of democracy, ushered in such concepts as universal human rights and universal suffrage, and brought demands for political equality and equal justice for all under the law. In today’s world, all discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity and gender is regarded as unjust and unjustifiable, the remnant of primal prejudices that we are obliged to cast off in the realization that all human beings, by virtue of their humanity, are entitled to the same rights that we assume for ourselves, including the right to fulfill their highest religious aspirations.

On the other hand, by showing that they have the courage to restore to women the right to lead a full religious life as instituted by the Buddha, that is, by reviving the Bhikkhunī Sangha, Theravādin elders will enable their form of Buddhism to take its place in the modern world, firmly and proudly, while still upholding a path that is timeless and not subject to the vagaries of changing fashions. To take this step does not mean, as some might fear, that we are “meddling” with the Dhamma and the Vinaya just to fit people’s worldly expectations; the truths of the Dhamma, the principles of the path, the guidelines of the Vinaya, remain intact. But it would show that we know how to apply the Dhamma and the Vinaya in a way that is appropriate to the time and circumstances, and also in a way that is kind and embracing rather than rigid and rejecting.

“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 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?

Prominent Bhikkhus Who Support The Bhikkhuni Sangha

Ven. Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw of Myanmar, meditation teacher of Mahasi Sayadaw and Taungpulu Sayadaw
Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula
Ven. Dodangoda Revata Mahāthera and the late Ven. Mapalagama Vipulasāra Mahāthera of the Mahābodhi Society in India who revived the Bhikkhuni Order in Sarnath, India in 1996
Late Ven. Dr. K Sri Dhammananda who attended the bhikkhuni ordination at Bodh Gaya in 1998
Ajahn Brahmavamso and Ajahn Sujato who ordained four women in Australia in 2009

All the evidence indicated above point to the fact that the Bhikkhuni Order can be revived if we are guided by the spirit and not the letter alone. All we need is the political will and compassion towards the other half of human kind. In fact it has already been revived. The only question is – can we make the acceptance globally so that a woman renunciant can step into any country and can proudly say that “I am a full-fledged member of the Sangha.”?

This article is condensed from the following texts:

Bhikkhu Bodhi, ‘The Revival of Bhikkhunī Ordination in the Theravāda Tradition.’ 2009. The paper is available online. Copies of the book in English and Chinese version will be available when it is printed.

Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw, ‘Can an Extinct Bhikkhunī Sangha Be Revived?’ Milindapanha Aṭṭhakathā, Haṃsāvatī Piṭaka Press, Rangoon, 1949, Burmese year 1311, pp. 228-238. Translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi. It is available as an appendix in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article mentioned above.

Yu Ban. ‘A Lotus At Dawn: Opening The Doors To The Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha’ Yasodhara-Newsletter on International Buddhist Women ‘s Activities, July-Sept, 2008

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Friday May 20, 2022
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