In the Theravada tradition, bhikkhuni ordination has its roots in the time of the historical Buddha, who is said to have ordained the first Buddhist nuns. In his doing so, the Buddha recognized a profound equality across gender lines. However, this equality was generally limited to the spiritual realm: women could practice, attain insight and awakening, and act as teachers. All of this occurred according to early Buddhist texts.
As Buddhist journalist Mary Talbot wrote for Tricycle:
In the hagiographies of early Buddhist nuns, spiritual power is conveyed in glorious metaphors: enlightened women are great trees bearing heartwood, she-elephants that have burst their bonds, roaring lionesses who have sprung their cages. In fact, no textual record from an early civilization comes close to naming, and venerating, as many female spiritual masters as that of early Indian Buddhism—strong proof that women renunciates were identifiable and highly regarded.
Nonetheless, on the social level, women did not escape inequalities. Extra monastic rules were given to them—some to ensure their protection, others to ensure that the laity did not suspect improprieties between monks and nuns in the Buddha’s order. Most controversial among the added rules for nuns are those known as the eight garudhammas, or heavy rules. These teachings explicitly subjugated the nuns to the male monastic community.
In recent years, several scholars have called the garudhammas into question. The scholar-monk Bhikkhu Analayo has called the historicity of the rules into doubt, noting that the rules changed over time. Thich Nhat Hanh sought to overcome the controversy of the rules by suggesting that they were merely temporary—a means to quell misogynistic feelings of the time—and thus could be abandoned in our current day as we strive to be more equal.
The tradition of fully ordaining women has ended in all Theravada Buddhist countries. However, in recent years, there has been a renewed effort to revive the bhikkhuni lineage and ensure that women have the opportunity to become fully ordained monastics.
This year, the United Theravāda Bhikkhunī Saṅgha International, an organization based in Bodh Gaya, India, celebrated its first International Theravada Bhikkhuni Ordination. The ordination ceremony took place on 11-12 November in Bodh Gaya, in coordination with the Maha Bodhi Society of India. Holding the event there, they noted, was important as it is the site of the Buddha’s awakening.
At the ceremony, 31 new bhikkhunis were given full or higher ordination—this is distinguished from novice ordination, which has been maintained in Theravada countries including Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The new group of fully ordained nuns came from countries including Australia, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand.
The move follows closely after the creation of a lineage of fully ordained nuns in Bhutan. Last year, His Majesty the King and His Holiness the Je Khenpo, recognizing the ever-growing importance of women in society, the need to reflect this in greater institutional equality, and work yet to be done, resolved to create the first institutionally recognized full ordinations of nuns in Bhutan. And this summer, with the help of the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, 142 women, from 13 nunneries in Bhutan as well as nuns not affiliated with Bhutanese nunneries, took full ordination for the first time ever in the kingdom.*
These moves represent watershed moments and incremental steps in the struggle for gender equality in Buddhism. They are watersheds insofar as they break new ground in terms of their numbers, breadth of national backgrounds, and uniqueness in a particular country. They seize our attention, forcing us to reevaluate our own place in the struggle. Are we helping? Are we lifting up women who would like to live the holy life and those already pursuing this profound and difficult vocation?
As incremental steps, these events can be placed in a long list of achievements by Buddhist women in recent decades. Step by step, women have emerged within organizations as leaders who have founded new, innovative organizations, monasteries, and programs.
The recent ordinations in Bhutan and of Theravada bhikkhunis in Bodh Gaya will surely lead to yet new steps forward for women in Buddhism. But this will benefit not only women—it will benefit everyone. At the same time, the continued subjugation of women around the world does not only hurt women but instead negatively affects every person on the planet.
This is readily apparent in the Buddhist teaching of selflessness, perhaps best stated by the eighth century philosopher-poet Shantideva, who wrote:
If I give them no protection because their suffering does not afflict me, why do I protect my body against future suffering when it does not afflict me?
If you think it is for the person who has the pain to guard against it, a pain in the foot is not of the hand, so why is the one protected by the other?
The continuum of consciousness, like a queue, and the combination of constituents, like an army, are not real. The person who experiences suffering does not exist. To whom will that suffering belong?
Without exception, no sufferings belong to anyone. They must be warded off simply because they are suffering. Why is any limitation put on this?
(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
As individual women are held back, their flourishing suffers. But that suffering, as Shantideva explains, isn’t just their own. It is suffering that belongs to no one and thus, in a sense, to everyone. It is suffering that must be warded off.
Our limitations, or the barriers we place between ourselves and others, are manifestations of our own ignorance. And this causes our suffering, which likewise does not belong to us. This is the cycle of suffering and samsara. Seeing it and working to eradicate it is bodhisattva work. In that, we can vow to do more ourselves and take joy in the accomplishments of others.
Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!
The Ordination of Nuns in Sri Lanka (Harvard)
The Gurudharmaon Bhikṣuṇī Ordination in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Tradition (Journal of Buddhist Ethics)
Bhikkhuni Ordination: Buddhism’s Glass Ceiling (Tricycle)
Śāntideva (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Related features from BDG
Ho Centre for Buddhist Studies at the University of Toronto Hosts the First International Buddhist Bhikkhuni Forum
Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project: Nuns’ Monastery Set to Become Reality
The Buddhist Stance on Theravada Women’s Issues: A Conversation on Gender Equality and Ethics with Ajahn Brahmali
View from the Audience: Looking Back on the 15th Sakyadhita Conference in Hong Kong
Reviving the Bhikkhuni Sangha in Indonesia: an Interview with Ayya Santini
The 2,600th Anniversary of the Global Bhikkhuni Sangha and Fourfold Sangha of the Buddha
Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project: The First Buddhist Nunnery in the UK
The Journey of Women Going Forth into the Bhikkhuni Order in Bangladesh: An Interview with Samaneri Gautami, Part 2
Reflections from the 14th Sakyadhita International Conference: Nurturing the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha
Bhikkhunis in Thailand and the West