Women in Buddhism: Reinstating the Bhikshuni Ordination

In ancient times, gender differences were perhaps not so important. However, as civilization developed, strength and power played an increasingly more vital role to protect societies against their enemies. Consequently, males dominated because of their greater physical strength. In later times, education and intelligence played a more important role and, in this regard, men and women have no differences. Nowadays, however, affection and warm-heartedness play the most crucial role in the resolution of conflicts and other problems. These two qualities are required to control the use of education and intelligence and prevent them from being turned to destructive ends. Thus, women must now take a more central role since, perhaps because of biological factors, they naturally are able to develop affection and warm-heartedness more easily than can men. This comes from carrying children in their wombs and from normally being the primary caretakers of newly born infants.

Warfare has traditionally been carried out primarily by men, since they seem better physically equipped for aggressive behavior. Women, on the other hand, tend to be more caring and more sensitive to others’ discomfort and pain. Although men and women have the same potentials for aggression and warm-heartedness, they differ in which of the two more easily manifests. Thus, if the majority of world leaders were women, perhaps there would be less danger of war and more cooperation on the basis of global concern – although, of course, some women can be difficult! I sympathize with feminists, but they must not merely shout. They must exert efforts to make positive contributions to society.

Sometimes in religion there has been an emphasis on male importance. In Buddhism, however, the highest vows, namely the bhikshu and bhikshuni ones, are equal and entail the same rights. This is the case despite the fact that in some ritual areas, due to social custom, bhikshus go first. But Buddha gave the basic rights equally to both sangha groups. There is no point in discussing whether or not to revive the bhikshuni ordination; the question is merely how to do so properly within the context of the Vinaya.

Shantarakshita introduced the Mulasarvastivada bhikshu ordination into Tibet. All the Indians in his party, however, were men and, since bhikshuni ordination requires a dual sangha, he was unable to introduce the bhikshuni line. In later times, some Tibetan lamas ordained their mothers as bhikshunis, but from the point of view of Vinaya, these were not considered authentic ordinations. Since 1959, I have felt that most nunneries need to have their education standard raised to that of the monasteries. I have enacted that and today we already have scholars among the nuns. But as for re-establishing the bhikshuni ordination, I cannot act alone. This question must be decided according to the Vinaya.

Now we have the opportunity to discuss this question with other Buddhist traditions, such as the Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese traditions, which still have bhikshuni ordination. Already about two dozen Tibetan women have taken bhikshuni ordination with them according to the Dharmagupta tradition. No one rejects that they are now bhikshunis.

For the last thirty years, we have been conducting research on the Mulasarvastivada and Dharmagupta Vinaya texts. Since Vinaya is found in both these two Sanskrit-based traditions as well as in the Pali tradition, it is useful that sangha elders from all three Vinaya traditions come together to discuss the matter and share their experiences. Already, the bhikshuni ordination has been re-established in Sri Lanka and there is interest to do the same in Thailand. Further research will be useful so that one day we shall be able to remedy Shantarakshita’s failure. As one individual, however, I lack the power to decide this issue. That would not be in accord with the Vinaya procedures. I have only the power to initiate research.

We all accept and recognize as Dharmagupta bhikshunis those Tibetans and Westerners who have received Dharmagupta bhikshuni ordination. This is not the issue. The issue is to find the way to ordain bhikshunis that is in accordance with the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya texts. There needs to be a Buddha alive and here and now to ask. If I were a Buddha, I could decide; but that is not the case. I am not a Buddha. I can act as a dictator regarding some issues, but not regarding matters of Vinaya. I can institute that the Tibetan bhikshunis ordained in the Dharmagupta tradition meet in groups to perform the three sangha rituals: [the bimonthly purification of transgressions (sojong) (gso-sbyong, Skt. poshadha, Pali: uposatha), the installation of the summer retreat (dbyar-sbyor, Skt. varshopanayika, Pali: vassopanayika), and the parting from the restrictions of the summer retreat (dgag-dbye, Skt. pravarana, Pali: pavarana)]. But as for re-establishing the ordination ceremony, this is a different matter. Although I may wish for this to happen, it requires the consensus of the senior monks. Some of them have offered strong resistance. There is not unanimous agreement and that is the problem. However, I can have the appropriate texts for the Dharmagupta versions of these three sangha rituals translated from Chinese into Tibetan immediately. No one can oppose that.

As for other aspects, we need more discussion. The support from the sangha of other Buddhist traditions is important and so this meeting is a helpful stage in the process. As a next step, I invite this group of international sangha elders to come to India. Let them discuss the matter with those narrow-minded Tibetan elders who oppose re-establishment of the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination.

If Buddha were here today, he would undoubtedly give permission. But I cannot act as the Buddha. Although monasticism has been in Tibet since the eighth century, there have never been bhikshunis among us doing the three sangha rituals, so now this will happen. But it is too soon to decide about the ordination.

It may be difficult to start these three bhikshuni sangha rituals this year, but by next year we should be able to begin. The Bhikshuni Pratimoksha has already been translated from Chinese into Tibetan. It is between thirty and forty pages. The Tibetan Dharmagupta bhikshunis will need to learn it by heart. But the actual ritual texts for the three sangha rituals still need to be translated.

Although the Tibetan nuns may wish for ordination as Mulasarvastivada bhikshunis, the Dharmagupta bhikshuni ordination cannot be accepted as a Mulasarvastivada one. If the two were interchangeable, then there would have been no reason for Atisha to have been asked not to confer Mahasanghika bhikshu ordination in Tibet. [When the Indian master Atisha was invited to Tibet by King Jangchub-wo (Tib. Byang-chub ‘od) in the early eleventh century CE, the king’s grandfather, King Yeshey-wo, had already sponsored the re-establishment of the Mulasarvastivada bhikshu ordination in his kingdom with the invitation and subsequent visit there by the East Indian master Dharmapala. Atisha was requested not to confer Mahasanghika bhikshu ordination since that would introduce two Vinaya lineages to Tibet.]

Further, if a Dharmagupta ordination were a Mulasarvastivada ordination, then a Theravada ordination would also be a Mulasarvastivada ordination and this would be absurd. We need to re-establish the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination purely according to the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya.

This winter, then, let us hold a conference similar to this one, but in India – either in Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, or Delhi. In addition to the international sangha elders who attended this Hamburg conference, we shall invite all the top Tibetan sangha leaders and all the abbots of the major monasteries of all four Tibetan traditions, maybe even including the Bonpos. The Bonpos still have bhikshunis. We shall invite the senior, most respected bhikshu scholars, about a hundred all together. Then I would request the international sangha elders to state before them, in person, their reasonable arguments in favor of re-establishment of the bhikshuni ordination. This would be very useful. We Tibetans will finance such a conference and decide who would be best to organize it.

Over the last twenty-six centuries, many differences have developed between the Pali and Sanskrit versions of abhidharma. Nagarjuna has clarified certain points; other obvious differences between the two traditions can be clarified on the basis of examination. In that spirit, we may take the liberty to examine Buddha’s words, for instance concerning Mount Meru, the earth being flat, and the sun and moon being nearly the same size and same distance from the earth. These are totally unacceptable. Even my own tutors in Lhasa saw through my telescope shadows from the mountains on the moon and had to agree that the moon did not give off its own light, as abhidharma would claim. So, for Nagarjuna’s clarifications, there is no need for a sangha discussion. The same is true concerning sutra issues. But it is totally different when it comes to Vinaya.

All translations of the Vinaya texts begin with a salutation to the Omniscient One. This means that Buddha himself certified the texts, since only an omniscient Buddha knows what actions are to be practiced and what actions are to be abandoned. In the abhidharma texts, on the other hand, the salutation is made to Manjushri. Also, after Buddha’s passing away with parinirvana, a sangha council was held and some alterations to the Vinaya were made by it. Buddha gave permission for this to be done and it can be extended to other points. For example, we Tibetans practice Bodhisattvayana and Tantrayana, each with their set of vows. Some points and precepts are contradictory in them and in the Vinaya. In such matters, the higher sets of vows must take precedence over the lower ones.

In the twenty-first century, the concept of war is out of date. Instead, we need dialogue to settle disputes and, for that, intelligence is not enough. We also need warm-heartedness and serious interest in the welfare of others. Compassion is more important for sincere dialogue. Women, because of the biological factor, have more sensitivity to the suffering of others than men have. For example, not many women are slaughterers or butchers. Therefore, for international negotiations, women are needed very much and need to take a larger role.

The fourfold community of Buddha’s disciples consists of bhikshus, bhikshunis, upasakas, and upasikas. Obviously, women and men play an equal role. But, at present among the Tibetans, the fourfold community is incomplete. Among the eight and ten qualities of a precious human rebirth, one of them is being born in a central land, defined either geographically or spiritually. Tibet is not a geographically defined central land. As for a spiritually defined land, it is one in which the fourfold community of disciples is complete. Obviously, without bhikshunis, it is incomplete. Many Tibetans say that if bhikshus are present, it is a central land, since bhikshus are the most important of the four groups. But that defines merely a similitude of a central land and a similitude of a precious human rebirth. The previous masters in Tibet should have paid attention to this.

Without consulting a sangha group, I can initiate the improvement of education among the Tibetan nuns. I have done this and already many nuns have reached a high level of erudition. In the monasteries at Mundgod, I had announced that we must make preparations for a Geshema examination. Some senior monks objected, but I told them that Buddha gave equal rights for men and women to become bhikshus and bhikshunis, so why not the equal right to become Geshes and Geshemas? I think the problem is that these senior monks are just not habituated to this type of thinking.

In the early sixties, I summoned not only the monks, but the nuns as well, and told them they could join too in the bimonthly sojong ceremony. In those years, there were no bhikshunis, so although shramanerika novice nuns are not usually allowed in the monks’ sojong, my tutors gave their approval. So, we started doing that. There were several sarcastic objections from the monasteries in South India, since it was never the case that monks and nuns did sojong together. But no monks disrobed because of that!

From the seventies, some Tibetans have taken bhikshuni ordination from the Chinese tradition. One of the main reasons for my visit to Taiwan was to see for myself the bhikshuni lineage there and check on its situation. I appointed Losang Tsering to do research about the bhikshuni vow and he has done this now for twenty years. We have made the maximum effort. I requested the main Chinese ordaining bhikshus to organize an international sangha meeting, but they were unable to do this. I myself could not convene such a meeting, because of difficulties and complications that would arise from the Peoples’ Republic of China. I felt it would be better if another organization were to convene such a meeting, and therefore I asked Jampa Chodroen to do that. All that an individual monk can do has been done. Now we need broad monastic consensus from the Tibetan bhikshu elders.

In the novice monk and nun novice ordinations, it is stated that one should know the proper objects of reverence. It says that although, in terms of the vow itself, bhikshunis are superior; nevertheless, they are not to be objects of reverence for the novice monks. Maybe this also needs to be reworded, keeping in mind the bodhisattva and tantric vows, especially the tantric vow not to disparage women. From that point of view, it is inconvenient to keep this Vinaya point. So, in keeping the three sets of vows, some minor points also need to be modified. And as for the study of the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni vows before taking them, those who have become bhikshunis in the Dharmagupta lineage may read and study them, although they need to conduct their rituals according to Dharmagupta. However, there is still a problem with non-bhikshunis studying these vows.

In making all these modifications and, especially in terms of re-establishing the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination, it is extremely important that this not be done by only some of the Tibetan sangha. We must avoid a split in the sangha. We need a broad consensus within the Tibetan sangha as a whole and therefore we are taking further steps in that direction. I thank you all for your efforts.