Wednesday September 21, 2016

Warning: The following post is a whopping 3,500-word essay on the topic of nuns in Theravada. What started out as a normal blog post grew into a five-page Word document as I kept uncovering more about this fascinating (to me) topic. I don’t expect many people to read it, and I’d love to hear from those who do, as a lot of work has gone into this. Enjoy the ride!

In Burma, precept nuns mostly dress in pink robes


What follows is an introduction to the hugely controversial topic of bhikkhunis, i.e. fully ordained nuns in Theravada Buddhism. This is certainly one of the hottest topics in Theravada today. I don’t claim to be an expert, quite the contrary, I claim to be a beginner on the subject. This article is therefore my attempt to understand the issues, based on my Internet research, on conversations with monks and nuns of different nationalities (Asian and Western) at Shwe Oo Min monastery, in Burma, and on weeks of observation of people’s behaviour in this monastery. One more important note is that this article is only about nuns in Theravada Buddhism (the oldest form of Buddhism), which is practised nowadays in five countries: Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Lao. Although I mention nuns in other countries and other Buddhist sects, I do so only in relation to Theravadan bhikkhunis.


Bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are fully ordained monks and nuns, and the word itself means “alms mendicant” in Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures (the Pali Canon). The Buddha started ordaining women about five years after creating his Sangha (Buddhist community), when they too expressed the wish to ordain. Although there were problems, as can be expected with human beings, the Buddha always said that for Buddhism to be successful anywhere, the Sangha must comprise four elements: bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay men and lay women. This is called the “fourfold sangha”.


The bhikkhuni order lived on for about fifteen centuries after the Buddha, and there have been no bhikkhunis in Theravada for about 1000 years now. Only partially ordained nuns called “precept nuns” are allowed, and Buddhist authorities mostly say that the bhikkhuni order is permanently extinct and can never be revived. This being said, there is a very real revival taking place today, but it is not recognized by Asian Buddhist authorities.


A Vietnamese bhhikshuni (fully ordained Mahayan nun) at Shwe Oo Min monastery, with a Vietnamese lay woman

A little bit of context

One of the many things that made the Buddha a revolutionary was his treatment of women. In the patriarchal society of the his time, not only were women discriminated against, but they were seen as not having the capacity for the highest spiritual achievements. Along came the Buddha, who said that women are equal to men in their potential to achieve enlightenment.


He created a set of rules (the Vinaya) as problems arose in the Sangha. As we would expect, the monks treated the nuns in the same way that men in general treated women in Indian society at the time. The Buddha reacted to this by establishing rules protecting women’s status. For example, the monks could not ask the bhikkhunis to clean the monastery and to wash their dishes, robes, and rugs. Some scholars argue that the Buddha made the bhikkhuni order subservient to the bhikkhu order because the Vinaya says bhikkhunis must bow to bhikkhus (and other such rules). However this may have been to acknowledge the younger age of the bhikkhuni order.


Furthermore, the concept of subservience seems to contradict the Buddha’s assertion that men and women are equal in their potential to achieve enlightenment, as well as his wish for a fourfold sangha. And, of course, it is difficult to reconcile a sexist attitude with the basic Buddhist values of loving-kindness, compassion and wisdom. There are many seemingly sexist sections in the texts, but many scholars question their authenticity. For example, the Eight Garudhammas (special rules for women), which clearly push women into an inferior role.


One more key rule put in place by the Buddha is the system of dual ordination. In the first years of the bhikkhuni order, the Buddha would ordain women himself, and he authorized some bhikkhus to do this as well. But some women felt uncomfortable receiving ordination from men because they had to answer questions about their genitalia (men also have to do this when they ordain), so the Buddha put in place a system of dual ordination whereby both bhikkhus and bhikkhunis should be present for bhikkhuni ordination. This rule has turned out to be the reason most often quoted by Buddhist authorities for denying women full ordination. They conveniently claim that since there are no bhikkhunis around, new bhikkhunis cannot be ordained. So although this rule was put in place to protect women’s privacy, it is now used as a limiting factor to prevent them from ordaining.


The Buddha’s insistence on the fourfold assembly shows that he intended for women renunciants to become bhikkhunis, just as men renunciants could ordain as bhikkhus. According to the Buddha, any arrangement other than the fourfold sangha would be imbalanced and incomplete. And without the bhikkhuni order, Buddhism is deprived of a tremendously powerful spiritual component.


After the Buddha passed, Theravada Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Lao. The bhikkhuni sangha existed in several of these countries until the eleventh century A.D., when invasions and other factors lead to its disappearance.


The head teacher at Shwe Oo Min monastery, flanked by nuns

The situaton today

Essentially, there have been no bhikkhunis in Theravadan countries for the last thousand years. But this has been changing since the late nineties. Today, there are Theravadan bhikkhunis in North America, Europe and Australia, as well as in Sri Lanka, the first country to revive its bhikkhuni order (in 1996). Thailand has revoked its law against bhikkhunis, and there are now over 100 bhikkhunis in this country, although Thailand’s Buddhist authorities have yet to officially accept them into their ranks.


The overwhelming majority of women who wish to ordain can only take partial ordination and become what is called “precept nuns”. This means they follow eight or ten precepts, as opposed to the 331 laid out by the Buddha in the Vinaya. Precept nuns are basically female novices, but unlike male novices – who take the same eight or ten precepts –, they are forbidden from graduating to full ordination as bhikkhunis. Here at Shwe Oo Min monastery, there are more nuns than monks (excluding novices), but they are all sayalays (a Burmese term meaning “precept nun”). They handle money, attend to the monks in various ways, and take care of many practical matters, although the power rests with the monks. Precept nuns exist in subservience to the monks, which is exactly what the Buddha wanted to avoid when he set up his fourfold sangha.


So if the Buddha’s wish was for women renunciants to ordain as bhikkhunis, why won’t the bhikkhuni order be revived? We can speculate about the patriarchal nature of society, which slowly crept back into the Sangha after the Buddha’s passing, until the eventual disappearance of the bhikkhuni order. Traditionalists have made this into a vastly complex legal issue (Vinaya law, that is), in an attempt to base their patriarchal stance on the Vinaya, ignoring the Buddha’s wish for a fourfold sangha. But from talking with various monks and nuns, it seems the answer to the question above is twofold. There is a real reason and there is a pretext. The pretext is Vinaya law, whereas the reason is fear.


The pretext most often quoted by conservative Buddhist authorities is the necessity for dual ordination. I recently had an opportunity to ask three senior Burmese monks why we continue to disregard the Buddha’s wishes regarding the fourfold sangha. Their response: because of the need for dual ordination. I also asked the head teacher here at Shwe Oo Min, and the answer was the same. I respectfully pointed out that we are not following the Buddha’s instructions regarding the fourfold sangha, to which he responded that we are following the Buddha’s instructions regarding dual ordination. I ventured to argue that the dual ordination rule was set up not as an obstacle to women’s ordination, but as a way to protect their privacy. To which he said it was impossible, it was out of his hands, and the rules are the rules. I humbly added that the bhikkhuni order has been revived in Sri Lanka and Western countries, and he said these are not real bhikkhunis because the rules of ordination were not followed. I bowed out.


A 91-year-old Vietnamese precept nun

So what about this revival?

The bhikkhuni revival started in Sri Lanka in 1996 and has since spread to Europe, North America, Australia, and even Thailand. How did this happen? Essentially, by resorting to ordained Mahayana Buddhist nuns (bhikshunis) from Korea. When Buddhism reached China, and eventually Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Tibet and Vietnam in the centuries after the Buddha’s passing, it mixed with local cultures and became Mahayana Buddhism. The bhikshuni order has never been broken and is even thriving in countries such as Taiwan, Korea and Vietnam, where bhikshunis outnumber bhikshus.


In December 1996, eleven Sri Lankan nuns were ordained as bhikkhunis by Sri Lankan Theravadan monks and Korean Mahayana monks and nuns, a procedure that has been repeated since in various places. Bhikkhuni ordinations have since been conducted in Sri Lanka, the US, Germany, Australia, Thailand and Indonesia. Today, there are probably over 1,000 bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka, a little over 100 in Thailand, and a few dozen in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and maybe other Asian countries, and then several dozen or more in Western countries and Australia.


In the Theravadan countries, these ordained women have set up bhikkhuni monasteries, temples and teaching centres, and it seems they are recognized and well respected by lay people. However, they are not recognized by Buddhist authorities, who claim that since the Mahayana Vinaya differs slightly from the Theravadan Vinaya, these ordinations are invalid. They argue that only Theravadan bhikkhunis can ordain Theravadan bhikkhunis, and since the bhikkhuni order is no more, there can never be bhikkhunis, end of story. Here in Burma, there is a law against bhikkhuni ordination, and there is even a case of a Burmese woman (Saccavadi Bhikkhuni) who was jailed in 2005 upon returning from Sri Lanka, where she had received ordination. Suffering from post-traumatic stress, she subsequently disrobed.


img_20160903_155607The dual ordination problem can be resolved by simply asking women if they mind answering the delicate questions from men. Surely some women won’t mind. Once there are a few bhikkhunis around, they can ordain the ones who do mind. Problem solved. As for the fear of social upheaval, the antidote to fear is courage. So it really comes down to a question of willingness on the part of both men and women. Are we willing to face the social consequences of allowing bhikkhuni ordination? And are men willing to share power with women? If not, the status quo will continue. But if so, Buddhism could once again be a force of social change.


It is hard to untangle the real reasons behind the refusal to let women ordain. As I said above, the pretext is Vinaya law. Depending on who you talk to and for how long, the person might stick to the official pretext (the dual ordination rule), or perhaps launch into the actual reason, i.e. a fear of the social upheaval it would cause and perhaps a fear of sharing power with women. This is confirmed by the existence of a federal law in Burma against ordination. The monks are worried about the complications that would ensue from having women around as bhikkhunis, and they would rather keep the status quo than face these difficulties.


One monk I spoke with seemed to believe that here in Burma, women are actually quite well treated. He argued that if it could be demonstrated that the Mahayana nuns met Theravadan ordination criteria, then they would be considered actual bhikkhunis, and they would be allowed to ordain new Theravada bhikkhunis. But of course the conservative authorities have not looked into this closely, and they prefer to say that Mahayana bhikshunis are unqualified to ordain Theravada bhikkhunis. They further argue that the rule about the preliminary two-year training as a sikkhamana set out in the Vinaya wasn’t respected either. For these two reasons, the ordinations in Sri Lanka and elsewhere are considered null and void.


It also seems that the reports about the Asian bhikkhunis are mostly negative, and the conservative authorities use this as a further argument against bhikkhuni ordination. Unfortunately, it would seem that in most cases, Asian bhikkhunis were motivated more by a desire to improve their social status than by a sincere desire to practise. This is hinted at by poor observance of Vinaya rules. The precept nuns I’ve talked to who had lived with bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam said that these women behaved as precept nuns (they worked and handled money) but wanted to have the power and social standing of full ordination. There must be exceptions to this, but unfortunately, the reality on the ground (in Asia) doesn’t look good. Male authorities are quick to point this out.


Upon reflexion, the three arguments above (Mahayana nuns can’t ordain Theravada nuns, non-
img_20160906_163741observance of two-year training rule, and poor observance of Vinaya by bhikkhunis) make little sense to me. The first is a technicality that can easily be overcome with simple willingness. The second doesn’t make sense because all the bhikkhunis were precept nuns before ordination. As for the third, if strict observance of the Vinaya was a criterion for the right to keep the robes, most bhikkhus would have to disrobe immediately. People ordain for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of circumstances, and adherence to the Vinaya is rarely perfect. Most monks knowingly break the Vinaya on a daily basis, for example by handling money. Furthermore, bhikkhunis in the West and in Australia are without a doubt motivated by a sincere desire to practise and to observe the Vinaya. Although Asian Buddhist authorities don’t seem overly impressed with Western bhikkhunis, they might eventually change their minds when the numbers of sincere bhikkhunis reach a certain critical point. And the Western bhikkhunis may very well have an important role to play in this.


If we take a step back, it is hard to believe that the hair-splitting legal technicalities mentioned above could be the actual reasons why women haven’t been allowed to ordain for a thousand years. It seems more reasonable to think that these are attempts at giving a semblance of legality to what I think are the actual reasons: fear of change and fear of sharing power with women. If there was a willingness on the part of conservative authorities to change things, then they would surely make it happen, and they would suddenly find support for this in the Vinaya. But as long as the willingness is not there, the status quo will remain, and authorities will continue to justify this through the Vinaya.


The women’s point of view

I’ve asked a few Asian lay women and sayalays what they thought of the bhikkhuni issue, and their answer is basically that the title is unimportant and that what counts is the practice of the Buddha’s teachings. My initial reaction was to respond, Well then, if that’s the case, why don’t we see samaneras (novice monks) – who take the same eight or ten precepts as precept nuns – stay samaneras instead for eventually taking full bhikkhu ordination? If partial ordination is sufficient, why don’t we see men choose this path? But after a month of observation and conversation, I kind of see their point. Although there are certainly sincere and dedicated monks here, the nuns seem to have more humility and more diligence in their meditation. While the monks are at the top of the sangha hierarchy, the nuns are at the bottom, and one can wonder what effects this imbalance might be having on their respective practise.
The women I’ve spoken with also argue that the prohibition “is the Buddha’s rule”. But when I ask them what rule, they don’t know. They don’t seem to know either about the Buddha’s wish for a fourfold sangha, and don’t know this was meant to prevent subservience of the women to the men. Some informed me that cooking for the monks and washing their dishes and robes, and attending to their practical needs, is a worthwhile spiritual practice in itself. To which I reply, If this is the case, why did the Buddha create rules to specifically prevent this from happening? And, again, if this path of service is indeed spiritually satisfying, why don’t we see men choose it? Perhaps they too could choose to remain samaneras so that they can work to meet the women’s practical needs.


The sayalay who did the interpretation for the three Burmese monks

After my exchange with the three Burmese senior monks, I approached the sayalay who did the interpreting and asked her for her opinion. She said the same as other sayalays, but also added that we in the West take this topic of gender equality much too seriously. I commented that so did the Buddha, apparently, and she just laughed.


I have yet to meet an Asian sayalay who would like to become a bhikkhuni. There are advantages to being a precept nun. They can handle money, they can work, they can travel, and they can disrobe and re-join the sangha as they please. Precept nuns are well integrated in society, and they can enjoy quite good treatment in many monasteries throughout Asia, such as this one. They can choose a path of service if they want, or a path of meditation. In other words, although there is not as much support for them as for monks, there is support, and precept ordination offers interesting possibilities for many women.


I was initially shocked that women would so easily accept their lot, but I now see why most women in Asia would rather be precept nuns than bhikkhunis. The social integration, the freedom of movement and action, the support, the sisterhood. I am personally convinced that preventing women from ordaining goes against the spirit of Buddhism, and that the dual ordination rule is being misread in order to justify institutional patriarchy. But neither the men nor the women see this as discrimination, and they all seem mostly happy with the status quo.


So although allowing women to ordain seems like a no-brainer, social realities are such that many women – perhaps most – might actually choose not to ordain. But this is hardly an argument against the right to ordain. And who knows what might happen if the prohibition was lifted. The movement might not get off the ground, or it might slowly pick up steam until it became as strong as in Mahayana, i.e. bhikkhunis outnumbering bhikkhus. I think everyone knows the latter is true, and this is why there is so much resistance from Buddhist authorities.


A devoted laywoman in the village

Final thoughts

The prohibition on bhikkhuni ordination puts Buddhism in a paradoxical position, as it represents the very patriarchal values that the Buddha aimed to change 2500 years ago. Everyone was equal in his sangha, men and women of all castes. He revolutionized the religious landscape of his time by letting women take their rightful place in the spiritual arena, and this made early Buddhism extremely progressive. Now, 2500 years later, Buddhism does not follow the Buddha’s instructions regarding bhikkhunis, and Buddhist authorities use the Buddha’s name to uphold a stance that runs counter to his.


The issue of whether or not the bhikkhuni order can or should be revived is said to be vastly complex. But it is only complex if we get lost in the endless technicalities of Vinaya legalism. The Buddha was not a legalist but a pragmatist. Had he known that the dual ordination rule would one day be used as a limiting factor against bhikkhuni ordination, he would no doubt have settled the matter immediately by making it clear that in the absence of bhikkhunis, women can be ordained by bhikkhus alone – as was the case in the sangha’s early days.


But the decision to revive the bhikkhuni order should not have to be based on legal technicalities. Instead, it should be obvious to anyone with a basic knowledge of Buddhism that preventing women from ordaining is opposed to the basic Buddhist values of compassion and wisdom and harks back rather to an ancestral patriarchal paradigm. Refusing to support the religious aspirations of women because of legalistic details contradicts the luminous spiritual values advocated by the Buddha. In the spirit of Buddhism, women should certainly have the right to ordain if they so desire. It should not have to be more complicated than this.


Smiling for the camera at Shwe Oo Min monastery

Now, as we have seen, it is quite conceivable that initially not many women would actually make that choice, at least in Asia, for the reasons mentioned above. But things would certainly pick up steam over time. Furthermore, if the reason behind the prohibition is fear of social change and fear of sharing power, then surely the Buddha would tell his modern monks to display a little courage and to face the difficulties that would ensue. It might be good for everyone’s practise.


The Buddha started a movement of equality and inclusion, two values which went against the social norms of his time, and for which he was criticized by the Hindu priesthood and other social authorities. He was at the cutting edge of social and religious reform. Today, the revival of the bhikkhuni order can once again make Buddhism into the progressive force started by the Buddha 2500 years ago. In this spirit, I hope the revival will continue to gain momentum and acceptance as bhikkhuni monasteries crop up around the world.

6 thoughts on “Bhikkhunis

  1. Great post, Phil…

    I guess you are familiar with Ajahn Brahm’s plight with his own Thai Buddhist past leaders. He and Sujato (as well as others at Dhammaloka) have had the courage to go against conventional patriarchal conservatism coming from Thai officials as well as their Western Buddhist offshoots.
    I can only say that I am disappointed that Tejaniya falls for the habitual party line.

    The role of women in Buddhism is now being debated in the Thai national press. An editorial entitled “Women ban hurts Sangha” in the Bangkok Post said, “The clergy can no longer insist on operating in a closed, feudal system that violates universal norms and values… Instead of trying to crush women’s aspiration to pursue a monastic life, the clergy should concentrate on cleaning up its own house to restore declining public faith.”

    You might be also interested in Sujato’s White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes

    Take care,


  2. Fascinating post, man. Even being here in the monastery, I was completely unaware of these issues. I agree totally with your analysis.


  3. Très intéressant!
    Il semble y avoir une dose de mauvaise foi dans les raisons invoquées par les moines. Et on peut donc voir comment certaines règles peuvent être transformées en dogme afin de faire taire toute forme de discussion…


  4. Actually your (and many westerners’) views have been conditioned by the culture in which they have grown up. They think (average) men and women are equal in every aspect. They have gain access to Buddhism also through the reading material propagated by feminist western monks. They are living in a prison of non-Buddhist views from the beginning yet cherry pick the sutta passages to prove gender equality.
    As long as they expect a chicken to be a duck, they will suffer.


    1. Dear Wickramasinghe, thank you for your note. I agree with you that the article – written by a younger and more naive me – reflects the culture I grew up in, in the same way that your message reflects your own. But perhaps what is most interesting in your message is the last sentence, “As long as they expect a chicken to be a duck, they will suffer.” In other words, “Those who don’t understand the proper meaning of the suttas, as I do, will suffer.” The irony of this remark is that the self-righteous attitude behind it, as well as the threat of suffering for others, themselves come from a place of violence, and hence, of suffering. No doubt because you would like ignorant Westerners to be as knowledgeable as you. You would like chickens to be ducks.


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