The Present Status of the Bhikshuni Ordination
by Bhikshuni Thubten
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 bhikshuni (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. The bhikshuni ordination
lineage is important, for one becomes a nun by taking the ordination
from those who have received it, and in this way, the purity of
the transmission is traced back to the Buddha himself. Women are
to receive bhikshuni ordination from a community of at least ten
bhikshunis, and, at a separate ceremony later the same day, from
a community of at least ten bhikshus (fully ordained monks). In
lands where such a large number of monastics does not exist, communities
of five can give the ordination.
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 fourth century C.E. 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 as well. The bhikshuni
lineage was not established in Tibet due to the difficulties of
crossing the Himalayan Mountains. A sufficient number of Indian
bhikshunis 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 are a few historical records
of a few bhikshunis in Tibet receiving their ordination from the
bhikshu sangha alone, although that never took hold in Tibet. Nowadays,
monks in the Tibetan community give the sramanerika ordination.
The bhikshuni ordination was never extant in Thailand. In Thailand
and Burma, women receive eight precepts and in Sri Lanka they receive
ten precepts. Although they 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.
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 Mulasravastivada, which is followed
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 Vinaya is 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.
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 bhikshuni sangha does not currently exist
wish to receive that ordination. In 1997, eight women from Sri Lanka
received the bhikshuni ordination from a Korean sangha in India,
and in 1998, twenty women from Sri Lanka received it in Bodhgaya,
India, from Chinese bhikshunis and bhikshus. The bhikshuni ordination
was given in Sri Lanka in 1998, and while some Sri Lankan monks
opposed this, many prominent ones supported it. 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
the USA, France, or India to receive the bhikshuni ordination. As
far as I know, only one Thai woman has received it and only a handful
of Tibetan women.
These women would like the support of the monks
in their traditions to introduce or re-establish the bhikshuni lineage.
The monks have various concerns about this: (1) Has the Dharmaguptaka
lineage been passed on without interruption up to the present day?
(2) Has the bhikshuni ordination in China and Taiwan consistently
been given according to procedures indicated in Vinaya? The bhikshuni
ordination should be given by bhikshunis and bhikshus, and for some
time in Chinese history it was given only by the bhikshus. (3) How
will the ordination be given once new bhikshunis return to their
own countries? Now these women receive the ordination from Chinese,
Korean, or Vietnamese masters, but after twelve years when they
are qualified to give the bhikshuni ordination themselves, can they
do so together with the bhikshu sangha of another Vinaya school
which is present in that country?
In response to these questions, research so
far reveals (1) that the bhikshuni ordination has been passed down
in an unbroken lineage from its introduction into China until the
present day, (2) The Pali Vinaya followed by the Theravada allows
for bhikshuni ordination to be given by the bhikshu sangha alone,
but sufficient research has not yet been done in the Dharmaguptaka
and Mulasravastivada Vinayas regarding this point. Chinese Buddhism
has historically accepted the validity of bhikshuni ordination given
by the bhikshu sangha alone, and (3) Venerable Bhikshuni Master
Wu Yin, from Taiwan, said that if the ordaining bhikshu and bhikshuni
sanghas are from different Vinaya schools, they can decide amongst
themselves which version of the bhikshuni precepts the new ordainees
will receive-the Dharmagupta possessed by the ordaining bhikshuni
sangha or the Theravada or Mulasravastivada possessed by the ordaining
These Vinaya concerns are important, but some
other, unspoken, issues may be at play regarding the introduction
or re-establishment of the bhikshuni ordination in various places.
For example, how does one tradition feel about taking on a lineage
from another, thus acknowledging that their own tradition was 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 bhikshunis
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
bhikshus and bhikshunis 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,
for 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.