The summer solstice of 2022 marked a day of renewal for the Vajrayana bhikshuni order. On this auspicious occasion, in the town of Paro, Bhutan, 142 nuns were fully ordained under the supervision of His Holiness the Je Khenpo. They received the gelongma vows, which constitute the final step in full monastic ordination. Never in recent memory have so many women been raised to bhikshuni status and responsibilities in a single ceremony. Much has already been written about the events of this historic day, including nature’s striking, propitious signs, such as rainbows encircling the sun. The implications of what was achieved are more significant.
In this move of brilliance and foresight, the Bhutan Nuns Foundation and the Zhung Dratshang, the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan, set a general example for gender equality in the Buddhist world. They also set the stage for hitherto-unseen large-scale growth of the Vajrayana bhikshuni order. Traditionally, there have been several major impediments to this growth: first, a traditional scholastic insistence that the Vajrayana lineage does not possess a bhikshuni lineage in the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya, and therefore bhikshunis do not exist; and second, the demand that aspiring bhikshunis may only be ordained by more senior bhikshunis. If such women never existed, no new women can be ordained. The possibility of new nuns existing is thus dismissed out of hand.
So why did the Je Khenpo, with the backing of the Zhung Dratshang and the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, as well as the blessing of Bhutan’s royal family, move ahead with this mass ordination? The argument about the non-existence of bhikshunis and the consequent incapacity to ordain new ones might seem a self-reinforcing, foolproof line of reasoning. Much to their credit, the Bhutanese clerical and secular authorities saw that this argument only works according to its own internal logic. One must accept the premise that bhikshunis do not exist, and then the ability to ordain women ipso facto does not exist. The organizers’ actions on 21–23 June demonstrated a fine rebuttal, encapsulated in three counterpoints:
1. Bhikshunis do already exist, and increasing their numbers to a tipping point would render their apparent non-existence an academic (and even out-of-touch) argument.
2. Not only can women be ordained by men, but ordination by men can be argued to be more legitimate, since the Khuddakavatthu (“The Minor Matters”), preserved in Chinese and Tibetan, states:
. . . in order to do the full ordination for the Bhikṣuṇī, you generally have to have both the male and female sanghas. However, the Bhikṣu male sangha is the primary one. For this reason, the sangha of male Bhikṣus alone can conduct the ordination and that becomes a valid action.(Dakini Translations)
3. The gelongma vows are extant in Vajrayana. There is no need to seek ordination outside of the Mulasarvastivada. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s website states:
[The gelong (for bhikshus) and gelongma (for bhikshunis) vows] . . . are recorded in the Mulasarvastivadin school’s Individual Liberation Sutras. Interspersed throughout their Tibetan translation is an easy to remember set of chantable verses summarising the gelong or gelongma vows. These versified mnemonics are known as the Interleaved Summaries of the Vinaya Discourse.(His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)
The Bhutanese have recognized that the arguments presented to restrict the ordination of women rest on assumptions that do not correspond to lived experience and the situation on the ground. It is certainly true that the gelongma vows are stricter and more numerous than their gelong counterparts, however this is a separate issue.
There was a confluence of favorable conditions on 21 June: a large number of learned women seeking ordination, a council (of men or women) with the authority to transmit the gelongma vows, and sufficient institutional support for said council to do so. The Zhung Dratshang stands as Bhutan’s highest ecclesiastic authority, demarcating real influence. This ceremony marks a milestone because the ordination of 142 nuns has shattered these assumed limitations.
Courage and boldness, while important, were never enough on their own. For decades, women have lacked outlets of male solidarity, their own influence, and institutional support. There was a constellation of cultural and social constraints that combined to deny women the resources to work toward undertaking the gelongma vows. These included a lack of educational support and even abandonment, including at the sramaneri level.
There has also been a decades-long convention of “ecumenical ordination.” It is prevalent due to the profound influence of the notion that the bhikshuni lineages are extinct in Theravada and Vajrayana. As journalist Haley Barker wrote for the website Religion News Service about the significance of this occasion:
To break this bind, some women have taken other routes to full ordination. In 1996, a group of Sri Lankan nuns was ordained with help from Korean bhikshunis of the Mahayana lineage, which has never been broken. Since then, hundreds of bhikshunis have been ordained in Sri Lanka, in what Tsedroen describes as an ‘ecumenical ceremony,’ essentially reviving the population.(Religion News Service)
Even Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, one of the most well-known Vajrayana monastics in the West, underwent the process of ecumenical ordination, becoming a bhikshuni in the Dharmaguptaka (Mahayana) lineage in 1973 in Hong Kong’s Miu Fat Temple. As Venerable Tathaloka Bhikkhuni wrote on Facebook in response to the ordination, there have been milestones for Vajrayana women at several points. In 1983, four Tibetan nuns from Karma Drubgyu Targye Ling in Tilokpur, India, received full ordination at a 45-day ceremony in Hong Kong. Four years later, in 1987, a further four nuns received bhikshuni ordination at Hong Kong’s Po Lin Monastery. Tathaloka Bhikkhuni concludes:
So we see that it has been 30 years since Buddhist nuns from Bhutan began to receive full bhiksuni ordination, albeit initially needing to go outside their tradition to do so. . . . All these groundbreaking bhiksuni ordinations from a very important 15-year period 25-40 years ago (from 1983 to 1998, as mentioned above) were of faithful Asian Himalayan women of Vajrayana traditions fully ordained in Asia. Note that these are not only individuals, but sanghas of four or more being ordained together each time.(Facebook)
Thus, 21 June was unique because it was a non-ecumenical Vajrayana ordination. Furthermore, the number of women ordained surpasses all previous ordinations in modern memory. This represents the culmination of a cultural shift, during which senior Vajrayana leaders such as His Holiness the Karmapa and His Holiness the Dalai Lama have come out in support of internal Vajrayana ordination for women. These aspirations were expressed in various statements, or brought up in media interviews, but they were themselves constrained in making unilateral decisions on the issue.
We return to the auspicious signs of 21 June. As it turns out, the true fortune was a convergence of ecclesiastic power, male solidarity, and a show of strength in numbers by the nuns. This is a gathering of conditions that should be replicated in as many contexts as possible. Such alliances will harness the boldness and courage of aspiring bhikshunis. Future ordinations of tens, dozens, or even hundreds of women can serve as examples for communities around the world to follow.
The spell cast by old arguments and outdated systems of thinking, which have held sway over vast swathes of the Vajrayana community, has been broken. These 142 can now go forth and grow the Buddhist order on different, fairer terms.
‘Like Stars in The Day’, The Descent of Female Arhatis: Fully Ordained Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Tibet, Past, Present and Future (17th Karmapa Spring Teachings (Day 13) (Dakini Translations)
Ordination in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)
Buddhist leader in Bhutan fully ordains 144 women, resuming ancient tradition (Religion News Service)
Tathaloka Bhikkhuni (Facebook)