A New Possibility:
Introducing Full Ordination for Women into the Tibetan
Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron©
It was 1986, and my life as a nun was changing
in a profound way. I had been a sramanerika (novice) in the Tibetan
tradition since 1977 and was now in Taiwan, to receive the bhikshuni
vow. The 30-day Vinaya training was excellent and the example of
so many educated and active Chinese bhikshunis inspiring. Still,
it took some time before the meaning of holding the full monastic
vow sank in.
The existence of the "four-fold community"--groups
of four or more fully ordained monks and nuns (bhikshus and bhikshunis)
and male and female lay practitioners holding the five precepts
(upasakas and upasikas)--establishes a place as a "central
land" where the Buddhadharma flourishes. Historically, it has
been the monastic community, with the aid of lay followers, that
has been responsible for the continuation of both the scriptural
and realized doctrine. The monastic sangha preserves the scriptural
Dharma by learning and teaching it; it preserves the realized Dharma
by putting those teachings into practice and actualizing them in
their own being. While these activities are not limited to monastics--lay
practitioners can and should engage in them--living a simple lifestyle
without family or many possessions gives monastics more time and
fewer distractions to do this. Monastics contribute in myriad ways
to the well-being of society by living with excellent ethical conduct
and consciously cultivating tolerance, love, compassion, and wisdom.
They teach others how to do the same. A community of monastics practicing
in this way radiates tremendous positive force in a world asphyxiated
by the ignorance, greed, and hostility of consumerism and terrorism.
Despite the importance of the four-fold community,
the bhikshuni sangha is currently absent in some Buddhist traditions.
To understand this, let's trace the development of the Bhikshuni
Order and see how the ordination is given.
Nowadays three levels of ordination exist for
nuns: sramanerika (novice), siksamana (probationary), and bhikshuni
(full). These ordinations are received gradually in order to prepare
and accustom one to keep the full precepts and to assume the privileges
and responsibilities of a fully ordained sangha member. One becomes
a bhikshuni by receiving the ordination from a sangha of the fully
ordained, and it is important that this transmission be traced back
to the Buddha in an unbroken lineage. Women receive bhikshuni ordination
in front of two sanghas, a community of twelve bhikshunis and ten
bhikshus. In lands where such a large number of monastics does not
exist, communities of five monks and six bhikshunis can give the
Six years after the Bhikshu Order was established in India in the
sixth century B.C.E., the Buddha established the Bhikshuni Order.
The bhikshuni 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 fifth century C.E. Due to warfare and political problems,
the lineage died out in India and Sri Lanka in the eleventh century,
although it spread throughout China, Korea, and Vietnam. Although
there are sramanerikas (female novices) who are ordained by Tibetan
monks, the Bhikshuni Order was not established in Tibet due to a
sufficient number of bhikshunis to give the ordination not having
crossed the Himalayan Mountains. Nevertheless, there are a few historical
records of bhikshunis in Tibet receiving their ordination from monks.
The bhikshuni ordination was never extant in
Thailand. Currently, in Thailand and Burma, women receive eight
precepts and in Sri Lanka ten precepts. Although they live in celibacy
and wear robes demarcating them as religious, their ordinations
are not regarded as monastic ordinations, nor are they considered
to be part of the sangha.
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 followed in Taiwan,
China, Korea, and Vietnam; and the Mulasarvastivada, which is practiced
in Tibet. 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 monastic precepts are so consistent
throughout. The differences among them are minor. Over the centuries,
each school has developed its own ways of enumerating, interpreting,
and living the precepts that accord with the culture and climate
of that place.
In recent years, some women who hold eight-
or ten-precept in countries where the bhikshuni sangha does not
currently exist wish to receive that ordination. In 1996, ten Sri
Lankan women received the bhikshuni ordination from a Korean sangha
in India, and in 1998, over twenty Sri Lankan nuns received it in
Bodhgaya, India, from Dharmaguptaka bhikshunis and Theravadin and
Dharmaguptaka bhikshus. The bhikshuni ordination has subsequently
been given several times in Sri Lanka, and while initially some
Sri Lankan monks opposed this, some prominent monks supported it.
Nowadays Theravadin bhikshunis, who number over 400, are accepted
by Sri Lankan society.
Since the early 1980s, over fifty Western women
and a handful of Himalayan women who practice in the Tibetan tradition
have gone to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, or in more recent years to
the USA, France, or India to receive the bhikshuni ordination. A
few Western women who practice in the Theravadin tradition and a
handful of Thai women have received bhikkhuni ordination in Sri
Among Tibetans, bhikshuni ordination is closely
related to the possibility of having geshe-mas--female geshes. For
over fifteen years, some Tibetans nuns have been diligently studying
Buddhist philosophy and debating. They have now reached the Vinaya
class, the last before taking the geshe exam. Traditionally, only
those who are fully ordained are allowed to do the complete Vinaya
studies required for the geshe degree. Thus, enabling the Tibetan
nuns to become bhikshunis so that they can study the Vinaya just
as the monks do is crucial for producing the first generation of
geshe-mas whose degrees are equal to those of the monks.
While the Department of Religion and Culture
of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile has been researching the possibility
of introducing bhikshuni ordination into the Tibetan tradition since
the early 1980s, no conclusion has been reached thus far. In 2005,
His Holiness the Dalai Lama repeatedly spoke about the bhikshuni
ordination in public gatherings. In Dharamsala, His Holiness encouraged,
"We need to bring this to a conclusion. We Tibetans alone can't
decide this. Rather, it should be decided in collaboration with
Buddhists from all over the world. Speaking in general terms, were
the Buddha to come to this 21st century world, I feel that most
likely, seeing the actual situation in the world now, he might change
the rules somewhat....In many countries of the world, not just within
Buddhism, women have great faith in religion. Within the Buddhist
countries in the Himalayan region, it is women who have greater
faith in their religion. Hence nunneries become very important and
accordingly, nuns' studies should be of high quality. If, gradually,
the lineage of bhikshuni ordination can be introduced, it would
Later, in Zurich during a 2005 conference of
Tibetan Buddhist Centers, His Holiness said, "Now I think the
time has come; we should start a working group or committee"
to meet with monks from other Buddhist traditions. Looking at the
German bhikshuni, Ven. Jampa Tsedroen, he instructed, "I prefer
that Western Buddhist nuns carry out this work
Go to different
places for further research and discuss with senior monks (from
various Buddhist countries). I think, first, senior bhikshunis need
to correct the monks' way of thinking.
"This is the 21st century. Everywhere we
are talking about equality
.Basically Buddhism needs equality.
There are some really minor things to remember as a Buddhist--a
bhikshu always goes first, then a bhikshuni
.The key thing
is the restoration of the bhikshuni vow." His Holiness also
mentioned the introduction of the bhikshuni ordination at the inauguration
of Dolma Ling Nunnery in 2005, and at the 2006 Kalachakra ordination
Bhikshuni Jampa Tsedroen together with Ven.
Tenzin Palmo, Ven. Pema Chodron, Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, and Ven.
Thubten Chodron formed a committee of Western bhikshunis that His
Holiness suggested. Bhikshuni Heng Ching Shih, a professor from
Taiwan, is their advisor. In March, 2006, we met at Sravasti Abbey
in Washington State to research and translate Vinaya passages showing
that bhikshuni ordination is possible within the Mulasarvastivada system
of Tibet. Our research has been submitted to the Department of Religion
and Culture and will be presented at a conference of Tibetan Vinaya
masters in May of this year. Another conference of abbots, rinpoches,
and high lamas is planned in August to discuss the bhikshuni ordination
in the Tibetan tradition.
View more photos at Sravasti Abbey website.
All Vinaya traditions agree that dual ordination--ordination
by a bhikshuni and a bhikshu sangha--is optimum and prescribed by
the Buddha himself. In fact, sramanerika and siksamana ordination
are to be given by bhikshunis, and nuns should do their confession
and restoration of precepts (sojong) before the bhikshuni sangha.
How are these to be accomplished if there are no bhikshunis ordained
in the Tibetan Mulasarvastivada tradition at present?
Through our research, our committee has found
Chinese texts establishing the unbroken lineage of Dharmagupta bkikshus
going back to the Buddha and of bhikshunis going back to the first
bhikshuni in China in 357 C.E. We have clarified the ordination
procedures followed in East Asian countries and found them sound.
We have also found Vinaya passages indicating that a monks' sangha
alone can give the bhikshuni ordination. Therefore, we are proposing
some options for Tibetan Vinaya masters to consider. Without going
into the intricacies of Vinaya, (1) Nuns could receive dual ordination
by a Dharmaguptaka bhikshuni sangha and a Mulasarvastivadin monks'
sangha, with the new bhikshunis receiving the Mulasarvastivadin
precepts, or (2) Nuns could be ordained as bhikshunis by a sangha
consisting of Tibetan monks of the Mulsravastivadin tradition alone.
In either case, after the new bhikshunis have been ordained twelve
years, they will be qualified to serve as the bhikshuni sangha in
a dual ordination procedure.
Since this is a sangha matter, Tibetan monks
will decide if and how to do this. It cannot be decided by popular
vote in society or by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as an individual.
If bhikshuni ordination could receive international acceptance through
an international conference of Vinaya masters of various Buddhist
traditions, as His Holiness suggests, it could open the door for
women from other Buddhist traditions to receive the bhikshuni ordination
The existence of full ordination for women is
not a feminist issue. It concerns the preservation and spread of
the Dharma. It is about individuals having the possibility to progress
on the path to enlightenment by means of living in full precepts.
It enables lay practitioners and society in general to reap the
benefits of having educated and confident bhikshunis in their midst.
Personally, receiving the bhikshuni vow
has had a huge impact on me. Previously I'd been primarily concerned
with my own Dharma practice, thinking of whom to study with and
where to do retreat so that my practice would advance. I was content
to sail on the tremendous wave of virtuous energy created by millennia
of monastic practitioners. Now as a bhikshuni, I am a full member
of the sangha and must assume responsibility for the continuation
of the monastic tradition and the existence of the Dharma in our
world. Instead of simply relying on others to preserve the Dharma
as I'd done in the past, I now have to contribute to this virtuous
wave so that future generations may enjoy the precious Dharma and
Vinaya. I am grateful for the opportunity to have received this
ordination and to the lineages of monastics who preserved it over
the centuries. Through our efforts, may all sentient beings throughout
infinite space benefit!
Click here for an audio recording on this topic.