By Bhiksuni Thubten Chodron

Suggested Reading

Chodron, Thubten, ed. Blossoms of the Dharma: Living as a Buddhist Nun. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2000.

Mohr, Thea and Tsedroen, Jampa, ed. Dignity and Discipline: Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010.

Tsedroen, Jampa. A Brief Survey of the Vinaya. Hamburg: Dharma Edition, 1992.

Tsering, Tashi and Philippa Russell. “An Account of the Buddhist Ordination of Women.” Cho-Yang 1.1 (1986): 21-30. Dharamsala: Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs.

Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. Sisters in Solitude: Two Traditions of Monastic Ethics for Women. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Yin, Wu (Chodron, Thubten, ed.) Choosing Simplicity: A Commentary on the Bhiksuni Pratimoksa. Ithaca NY: Snow Lion, 2001.

Additional Resources on this Issue: selected articles and publications on this topic that are particularly good, including HH Dalai Lama’s advice to nuns at Mundgod Nunnery will be posted here soon; please check back
Buddhist men and women have aspired for liberation and full enlightenment since the time of the Buddha. Such an aspiration is rare and precious in our materialistic world where consumerism rules, and monastic life is an important way to nourish this aspiration so that it can be fulfilled. Therefore the Buddha himself established both the bhiksu and bhiksuni sanghas (communities of male and female fully ordained ones), and together with upasakas and upasikas (male and female lay followers), they form the “four-fold sangha.” The presence of the four-fold sangha makes an area a “central land,” that is, one where the Buddha’s teachings are practiced, preserved, and passed down to future generations. In the sutras, the Buddha often extols the importance and value of the four-fold sangha. At present, some traditionally Buddhist countries have the four-fold sangha, while others lack it due to the absence of a bhiksuni sangha. The lack of a bhiksuni sangha, therefore, hinders the preservation and spread of the Buddha’s precious teachings in the world in general and deprives many serious women from fully practicing the path as they wish.

Brief History of Bhiksunis

Several years after the monks’ order was established in India in the sixth century b.c.e., the Buddha set up the nuns’ order. Three levels of ordination exist for nuns: sramanerika (novice), siksamana (probationary), and bhiksuni (full ordination). These are taken gradually in order to prepare and accustom one to keep the full precepts and to assume responsibility for the well-being and continuation of the monastic community. One becomes a bhiksuni by taking the ordination from those who have received it; thus the existence of the bhiksuni ordination lineage is important, for in this way, the purity of the transmission is traced back to the Buddha himself. Women are to receive bhiksuni ordination from a community of at least ten bhiksunis, and, at a separate ceremony later the same day, from a community of at least ten bhiksus (fully ordained monks). In lands where such a large number of monastics does not exist, communities of five can give the ordination. (Note: This is according to the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya Tradition. According to the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya Tradition, twelve bhiksunis are needed to give the ordination in a “Central Land” and six in a “border area” where there are few monastics.)

The bhiksuni lineage flourished in ancient India and in the third century b.c.e. spread to Sri Lanka. From there it went to China in the fourth century c.e. when the first bhiksuni ordination was given by a bhiksu sangha alone. The first dual ordination of bhiksunis in China occurred in 433.  Due to warfare and political problems, the lineage died out in both India and Sri Lanka in the eleventh century c.e., although it continued to spread throughout China and to Korea and Vietnam.

Regarding bhiksunis in Tibet, there are various views. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that the great Indian abbot Santaraksita brought bhiksus to Tibet to give the bhiksu ordination in the late eighth century, but he did not bring bhiksunis and thus the bhiksuni ordination was not given in Tibet. However, some Kargyu and Nyingma lamas say the bhiksuni ordination was lost in Tibet during the persecution of Buddhism by King Langdarma in the ninth century. In any case, the bhiksuni lineage was not established in Tibet after that due to the difficulties of crossing the Himalayan Mountains. A sufficient number of Indian bhiksunis did not go to Tibet, nor did a sufficient number of Tibetan women go to India to take the ordination and return to Tibet to pass it on to others. However, there historical records of a few bhiksunis in Tibet receiving their ordination from the bhiksu sangha alone, although that never took hold in Tibet.

While several Buddhist countries currently lack a sangha of fully ordained nuns, they have novice nuns who have ten precepts or “nuns” with eight precepts. Monks in the Tibetan community give the sramanerika ordination. The bhiksuni ordination was never extant in Thailand. In Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia women generally receive eight precepts and are known as “maechi” or as “thilashin” in Myanmar. In Sri Lanka they generally receive ten precepts and are called “dasasilmatas.” Although the maechis, thilashin, and dasasilmatas live in celibacy and wear robes demarcating them as religious women, their precepts are not regarded as any of the three Pratimoksa ordinations for women. However, this is beginning to change, as will be explained below.

As Buddhism spread in ancient India, various Vinaya schools developed. Of the eighteen initial schools, three are extant today: the Theravada, which is widespread in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia; the Dharmaguptaka, which is practiced in Taiwan, China, Korea, and Vietnam; and the Mulasarvastivada, which is followed in Tibet and Mongolia. All of these Vinaya schools have spread to Western countries in recent years. Considering that the Vinaya was passed down orally for many centuries before being written down and that the various schools had little communication with each other due to geographical distance, it is amazing that the Pratimoksa precepts and the Vinaya are so consistent among them. Slightly different variations of the listing of the monastic precepts exist, but no major, glaring differences appear. Of course, over the centuries, the schools in each country have developed their own ways of interpreting and living in the precepts in accord with the culture, climate, and social situation in each place.

Present Interest in Full Ordination

Given recent improvements in communication and transportation, the various Buddhist schools are now in more contact with each other. Some women who are eight- or ten-precept holders in countries where the bhiksuni sangha did not currently exist now wish to receive bhiksuni ordination. In 1980-1, five Sri Lankan nuns and one American nun who practiced in the Sri Lankan Theravada tradition received bhiksuni ordination at Hsi Lai Temple in Los Angles. In 1997, eight women from Sri Lanka received the bhiksuni ordination from a Korean sangha in India, and in 1998, twenty women from Sri Lanka received it in Bodhgaya, India, from Chinese bhiksunis and bhiksus. Sri Lankan monks then performed the bhiksuni ordination again for this latter group, making them Theravada bhiksunis. These bhiksunis returned to Sri Lanka, and in 1998 together with Sri Lankan bhiksus, the bhiksuni ordination was given to Sri Lankan dasasilmatas. While some Sri Lankan monks opposed this, many prominent ones supported it. Since then, many more bhiksuni ordinations have been given in Sri Lanka, so that currently (2010) there are approximately 400 bhiksunis there. We can safely say that the bhiksuni ordination has been re-established in Sri Lanka and the four-fold sangha once again is present there.

Until recently any bhiksunis in Thailand were ordained in the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya and were considered “Mahayana nuns.” However, beginning in 2002, some Thai women have gone to Sri Lanka to receive sramanerika and then bhiksuni ordinations, and have then returned to live in Thailand. Thai monks have been very resistant to this, and in 2009 when a sangha of Western monks from the Thai Forest Tradition participated in an ordination of Theravada bhiksunis in Australia, their leader was expelled from the Thai Forest Tradition. In 2010, a Theravada bhiksuni ordination was given in California, USA. The leading bhiksu here was Bhikkhu Henepola Gunaratana, a well-respected Sri Lankan monk who had been ordained over sixty years.

In 1972, with the encouragement of the Sixteenth Karmapa, Freda Bedi went to Hong Kong where she took bhiksuni ordination. Since the early 1980s, a number of Western women trained in the Tibetan tradition have gone to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, or in more recent years to sites in the USA, France, or India where they received bhiksuni ordination. A few Tibetan and Ladakhi nuns have done this as well, but they have faced difficulties returning to their home nunneries where knowledge of the Bhiksuni Vinaya is very limited.

Points to Investigate

These women would like the support of the monks in their traditions to introduce or re-establish the bhiksuni lineage. The monks have various concerns about this. According to Vinaya, bhiksuni ordination must be given as a dual ordination; i.e. that is, by both the bhiksu and bhiksuni sanghas. Since at present there are no bhiksunis ordained in the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya tradition, how can the bhiksuni ordination be given? Can there be a dual ordination with bhiksus from the Mulasarvastivada Tradition and bhiksunis from the Dharmaguptaka Tradition? If so, is the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya lineage pure? That is, has it been passed on without interruption from the time of the Buddha up to the present day? Has the Dharmaguptaka bhiksuni ordination consistently been given following the correct procedures indicated in Vinaya? If dual ordination is not possible, are there exceptional cases by which a Mulasarvastivada bhiksu sangha alone can give the bhiksuni ordination? What would happen if Tibetan nuns went to Taiwan and so forth to receive Dharmaguptaka bhiksuni ordination? When they return to their Tibetan communities, will the monks accept their ordination? Will they be able to do Vinaya ceremonies—such as giving ordination, participating in the rains retreat, and the closing ceremony of the rains retreat—together with the Tibetan Mulasarvastivada bhiksus, or will that not be possible because they belong to different Vinaya lineages?

In response to these questions:

Sakya Pandita said that two different Vinaya traditions cannot join together to give ordination. However, research indicates that the restoration of the bhiksu ordination in Tibet in the ninth century was done by a bhiksu sangha made of Mulasarvastivada and Dharmaguptaka bhiksus ordaining Lachen Gongpa Rabsel.

The Chinese bhiksuni lineage has been passed down in an unbroken lineage from its introduction into China until the present day.

The Pali Vinaya followed by the Theravada allows for bhiksuni ordination to be given by the bhiksu sangha alone, but sufficient research has not yet been done in the Dharmaguptaka and Mulasarvastivada Vinayas regarding this point. Chinese Buddhism has historically accepted the validity of bhiksuni ordination given by the bhiksu sangha alone. There is indication in the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya that ordination by the bhiksu sangha alone may be possible.

Venerable Bhiksuni Master Wu Yin, from Taiwan, said that if the ordaining bhiksu and bhiksuni sanghas are from different Vinaya schools, they can decide amongst themselves which version of the bhiksuni precepts the new ordainees will receive—the Dharmagupta possessed by the ordaining bhiksuni sangha or the Theravada or Mulasarvastivada possessed by the ordaining bhiksu sangha.

In addition, the Theravada bhiksuni lineage has been successfully restored in Sri Lanka.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is in favor of establishing the bhiksuni sangha in the Tibetan community. He has spoke about this publicly on several occasions. For example, in January, 2008 at the inauguration ceremony at Jangchub Choeling Nunnery in Mundgod, India, he said:

I feel that it truly is our responsibility as followers of Lord Buddha to restore the full ordination of nuns (bhikshuni ordination). But the way of its restoration should be in accordance with the Vinaya.

His Holiness has said that as a single bhiksu, he cannot decide this matter on his own; it must be decided by consensus in a gathering of Vinaya experts from the four Tibetan Buddhist traditions. In fact, he has encouraged the international sangha from all Buddhist traditions to meet together to decide this. Since the mid-1980s, the Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan government-in-exile has been researching the above points. Tibetan bhiksu sangha is charged with deciding if bhiksuni ordination is to be given in the Tibetan community and if so, how. However, there is a wide diversity of opinions on the issues involved here and until now, no consensus has been reached.

While these Vinaya concerns are important, some other, unspoken, issues may be at play regarding the introduction or re-establishment of the bhiksuni ordination in various places. For example, how does one tradition feel about taking on a lineage from another, thus acknowledging their own tradition is lacking in some way? How do political issues on a governmental level influence attitudes on this matter? With both the male and female sanghas coming to exist in one place, how will the economic conditions of the monasteries be affected? How will the relationship between monks and nuns change when both are fully ordained? Will the new bhiksunis be able to receive proper training from the monks and support from the laypeople in their own countries?

The existence of the sangha community of both bhiksus and bhiksunis establishes a place as a “central land,” one where the Dharma is flourishing. Both monks and nuns can contribute in myriad ways to the well-being of a society and its citizens, and tremendous value exists in receiving and observing precepts for the benefit of all beings. Thus many of us pray that full ordination will be available to both men and women and that everyone will work together to meet whatever challenges arise. The Committee for Bhiksuni Ordination, established in 2005 at the request of H.H. the Dalai Lama, is dedicated to working together with the Department of Religion and Culture, the Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama, and Tibetan bhiksus to find a way for bhiksuni ordination and training to be given so that a Mulasarvastivada bhiksuni sangha can be established in the Tibetan community.