The Legality of Ordaining Nuns according to Buddhist Law

Editor’s note: Ven. Analayo has kindly given Buddhistdoor International permission to republish his recent, groundbreaking, Vinaya-based study of nuns’ higher ordination. Because it is Vinaya-based, its tireless reference to the relevant monastic laws, precedents, and codes mean that his conclusions are decisive and would require a study of similar rigour to refute. His investigation examines the legal validity of the revival of the Therav?da bhikkhun? ordination that has had the 1998 Bodhgayordinations as its starting point.


My interests are based on extracts from a more detailed study of various aspects related to “The Revival of the BhikkhunOrder and the Decline of the S?sana,” in which I also tried to cover relevant secondary sources to the best of my ability (JBE 20: 110–193: http://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/fileadmin/pdf/analayo/RevivalBhikkhuni.pdf). In what follows, I focus on the canonical sources only in an attempt to make my main findings regarding the question of the legality of bhikkhunordination easily accessible to the general reader. My presentation covers the following points:

1) The bhikkhun? order and the Bodhgay? ordination

2) Therav?da legal principles

3) The sixth garudhamma

4) The female candidates at the Bodhgay? ordination

5) The Chinese preceptors

6) Single ordination by bhikkhus

The bhikkhun? order and the Bodhgay? ordination

The account of the constitution of the bhikkhunorder in the Therav?da Vinaya is as follows (Vin II 255). The Cullavagga (X.1) reports that Mah?paj?pat? was the first woman to receive higher ordination. In her case this took place by accepting the “eight principles to be respected”, garudhammas.

One of these garudhammas is of considerable importance for the legal aspects of bhikkhunordination. This is the sixth garudhamma, which stipulates that a female candidate should have observed a two year training period as a probationer, a sikkham?n?. After having observed this period of training, higher ordination should be requested by her from both communities, that is, from the communities of bhikkhus and bhikkhun?s.

The Cullavagga (X.2) continues by reporting that, after having been ordained herself by accepting the eight garudhammas, bhikkhunMah?paj?pat? asked the Buddha how she should proceed in relation to her female followers, who also wanted to become bhikkhun?s. In reply, the Buddha prescribed that the bhikkhus should ordain them.

According to a subsequent section of the Cullavagga (X.17), female candidates who wanted to become bhikkhun?s felt ashamed when being formally interrogated by bhikkhus regarding their suitability for higher ordination (Vin II 271). Such interrogation involves questions about the nature of their genitals and their menstruation, so naturally women in a traditional setting are not comfortable discussing such matters with men, let alone with bhikkhus. The Cullavagga reports that when the Buddha was informed of this problem, he gave a ruling to amend this situation. He prescribed that the bhikkhus should ordain female candidates who have previously undergone the formal interrogation in front of the community of bhikkhun?s. These are the key elements from the Cullavagga account.

In what follows I briefly survey the subsequent history of the bhikkhunorder. The order of bhikkhun?s appears to have thrived in India until about the 8th century. Before it disappeared from India, the ordination lineage was transmitted to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Asoka. The Ceylonese chronicle D?pava?sa reports that the recently converted king of Sri Lanka approached bhikkhu Mahinda with the request to allow his wife, queen Anul?, to go forth. According to the D?pava?sa (D?p 15.76), bhikkhu Mahinda explained that bhikkhun?s from India were required, because: akappiy? mah?r?ja itthipabbajj?bhikkhuno, “Great King, it is not proper for a bhikkhu to confer the going forth on a woman.” The implications of this passage need a little discussion.

The canonical Vinaya has no explicit ruling against the conferring of the “going forth” on a female by a bhikkhu and it is only in the commentary that the suggestion is found that a female candidate should receive the going forth only from a bhikkhun? (Sp V 967). Considered within its narrative context, it seems that in this passage in the D?pava?sa the expression pabbajj? does not carry its technical Vinaya sense of “going forth” as a stage distinct from higher ordination, upasampad?. Instead, it appears to be used here as a term that describes the transition from lay life to monastic life in general. That is, here the expression pabbajj? would cover both the “going forth” and the “higher ordination”.

German-born Ven. Analayo of Hamburg University has argued for nuns’ ordination for years.
Ayya Medhanandi, an American nun of the Theravada tradition.
Ven. Hasappana, a nun of the Dhammasara monastery. From snfwrenms.wordpress.com.
By ordaining his stepmother Mahaprajapati, the Buddha set the first precedent for a male monastic ordaining a female monastic.
Ajahn Brahm, expelled from the Thai Forest Order in 2009, followed the Buddha’s lead and ordained several women at his monastery. From YouTube.com.
Adhimutta Bhikkhuni, a coordinator of the Sakyadhita Association of Buddhist Women.
Venerable Thanasanti of the Theravada tradition.

Since the king had only recently converted to Buddhism, it could hardly be expected that he would be familiar with the technicalities of ordination. As his request is formulated with the expression “going forth”, pabb?jehi an?laka? (D?p 15.75), it is natural that Mahinda?s reply uses the same terminology. The D?pava?sa (D?p 16.38f) in fact continues to use the same expression when reporting that Anul? and her followers received ordination: pabbaji?su, even though they eventually became bhikkhun?s, not just s?ma?er?s. Thus it seems clear that in this usage both the “going forth” and the “higher ordination” are included under the term pabbaji?su.

Let us return to the topic of the history of bhikkhunordination. In Sri Lanka the order of bhikkhun?s, founded with the help of a group of Indian bhikkhun?s headed by Sa?ghamitt?, continued to thrive until the 11th century. During a period of political turmoil that had decimated the entire monastic community, the bhikkhunordination lineage seems to have come to an end in Sri Lanka.

Before the Sri Lankan bhikkhunorder came to an end, in the early fifth century a group of Sri Lankan bhikkhun?s transmitted the ordination lineage to China (T L 939c). A Therav?da Vinaya had been translated into Chinese in the late fifth century, but this was later lost (T LV 13b), presumably during a period of political instability. Towards the beginning of the eighth century the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya appears to have been imposed by imperial order on all monastics in China (T L 793c). From that period onwards all bhikkhus and bhikkhun?s in China had to follow this Vinaya.

The bhikkhun? ordination lineage has recently been re-established in Sri Lanka with the help of Chinese bhikkhun?s at an ordination held in 1998 at Bodhgay? in India. While there have been bhikkhun? ordinations earlier, it is since the 1998 Bodhgay? ordination that the bhikkhunorder in Sri Lanka has gained momentum and subsequent bhikkhunordinations have been conducted in Sri Lanka itself.

At the Bodhgay? bhikkhunordination, the candidates received Therav?da robes and bowls, and they did not take the bodhisattva vows. After completing the ordination, the new bhikkhun?s underwent a second ordination at which only Therav?da bhikkhus officiated. The crucial question now is whether this ordination can be recognized as valid from a Therav?da legal viewpoint. In order to explore this, I first need to discuss Therav?da legal principles.

Therav?da Legal Principles

The term Therav?da can be translated as “Sayings of the Elders”. The D?pava?sa (D?p 4.6) uses the term Therav?da for the “sayings” that according to the traditional account were collected by the elders at the first communal recitation (sa?g?ti) at R?jagaha. The same term Therav?da in the D?pava?sa (D?p 5.51f) and in the commentary on the Kath?vatthu (Kv-a 3) then refers to the Ceylonese Buddhist school that has preserved the P?li version of these sayings collected at the first communal recitation. A central aspect of the Therav?da sense of identity is thus the P?li canon. This is the sacred scripture of the Therav?da traditions that developed in different countries of South and Southeast Asia, who also share the use of P?li as their liturgical language.

The rules and regulations given in the Vinaya part of the P?li canon are therefore of central importance for monastic members of the Therav?da traditions. The commentary on the Vinaya, the Samantap?s?dik(Sp I 231), highlights the eminent position of the canonical sayings. It declares that one’s own opinion is not as firm a ground as the indications given by the ancient teachers as recorded in the commentarial tradition, and these in turn are not as firm a ground as the canonical presentation, attanomatito ?cariyav?do balavataro …?cariyav?dato hi sutt?nuloma? balavatara?In short, the P?li Vinaya is the central reference point for deciding legal questions that concern Therav?da monasticism.

For the question of reviving the bhikkhunorder in the Therav?da traditions the central role of the P?li Vinaya has important ramifications. To propose that the Vinaya rules should be amended to allow for reviving the bhikkhunordination is unacceptable from a traditional viewpoint. Such a suggestion misses out on a central aspect of the Therav?da traditions, namely the strict adherence to the regulations in the way these have been preserved in the P?li Vinaya.

According to the commentary on the D?gha-nik?ya, the Suma?galavil?sin? (Sv I 11), at the first communal recitation at R?jagaha the bhikkhus decided to recite the Vinaya first. They did so because they felt that the Vinaya is what gives life force to the Buddha’s dispensation, vinayo n?ma buddhassa s?sanassa ?yu. The Buddha’s dispensation will endure as long as the Vinaya endures, vinaye ?hite s?sana??hita? hoti.

The proposal to adjust the rules not only misses out on what is considered to be the life force of the Buddha’s dispensation, it also suggests something that within the traditional framework is not really possible. According to the Mah?parinibb?na-sutta (DN II 77), the Buddha highlighted a set of conditions that will lead to the welfare of his disciples and prevent decline. According to one of these conditions, the bhikkhus are not to authorize what has not been authorized and are not to abrogate what has been authorized: appaññatta? na paññapessantipaññatta? na samucchindissanti. Thus it is not particularly meaningful to argue for membership in the Therav?da traditions and at the same time request changes that are directly opposed to the very way the Therav?da traditions ensure their continuity.

The revival of the bhikkhunordination is in fact not simply a question of gender equality. The detrimental effects of discrimination are of course important values in modern days, but these are not decisive criteria in relation to the question of membership in the Therav?da monastic traditions. That is, much of the problem lies in the apprehension that the legal principles, which form the basis for the Therav?da monastic traditions, are being jeopardized.

Suppose a woman who wants to become a bhikkhun? takes the Chinese Dharmaguptaka ordination and subsequently wears their style of robes and participates in their monastic rituals. Traditionalists would probably have little to object, only they would not recognize her as a Therav?da bhikkhun?. The problem is not merely that a woman wants to become a bhikkhun?. The question is rather if a bhikkhun?, who has been ordained in the Chinese Dharmaguptaka tradition, can become a recognized member of the Therav?da community.

This is a matter that needs to be resolved within the parameters of the Therav?da traditions. In particular, it needs to be evaluated from the viewpoint of the P?li Vinaya. While calls for gender equality, etc., have an influence in the case of legal ambiguity, they are in themselves not decisive. Of decisive importance are rather the legal principles recognized in the Therav?da traditions.

Therefore, if the rules in the Therav?da Vinaya render a revival of the bhikkhunorder legally impossible, then such a revival stands little chance of meeting with general approval. At the same time, however, if a revival can be done without infringement of the rules, then there is also no real basis for refusing to accept that the bhikkhunorder has been resurrected.

With this in mind, I now turn to the legal aspects involved. My discussion concentrates on the canonical Vinaya regulations, in line with the injunction given in the Samantap?s?dik? (Sp I 231) that the canonical injunctions in the Vinaya itself are more important than the commentarial tradition or one’s own opinion. These Vinaya injunctions are the final standard to evaluate if a revival of the bhikkhunorder in the Therav?da traditions is legally possible or not.

Regarding one’s own opinion, in what follows I consider the Vinaya description of events simply at face value. This description, in the way it has come down in the canonical Vinaya, forms the basis for legal decisions in the Therav?da traditions. For various reasons I may believe that things happened differently. Yet, my personal views are not directly relevant to the present matter, which is to explore a legal question based on the relevant legal document. The legal document in question is the P?li Vinaya. Therefore my discussion regarding the bearing of the Vinaya on the present issue has to stay within the parameters of the canonical account, independent of whether I believe that this actually occurred or not.

The Sixth Garudhamma

The term garudhamma, “principle to be respected”,carries distinct meanings in the Vinaya. In general, the termgaru can have two main meanings: garu can mean “heavy” in contrast to light, or else “respected” in contrast to being disrespected.

An example for the first sense can be found in the Cullavagga (X.1), according to which a bhikkhunwho has committed a garudhamma needs to undergo penance (m?natta) for half a month in both communities (Vin II 255). Here the term garudhamma refers to a sa?gh?disesa offence — the second gravest offence recognized in the Vinaya — which requires the undergoing of penance (m?natta). Subsequent to that, the offending monastic has to go through an act of rehabilitation called abbh?na. A sa?gh?disesa offence is a rather grave offence, a breach of the rules which merits temporary suspension of the offender. So here the term garudhamma stands for a “grave offence”.

This is not necessarily the sense the term garudhamma carries in the same part of the Cullavagga (X.1), however, when it is used for the eight dhammas that Mah?paj?pat? accepted in order to receive higher ordination. Closer inspection shows that here the term garu does not stand for an offence of the sa?gh?disesa category.

Several of the eight garudhammas recur as case rules elsewhere in the Vinaya. None of the eight garudhammas, however, occurs in the category of sa?gh?disesa offences. Instead, those garudhammas that recur elsewhere are all found in the p?cittiya class. A p?cittiya is an offence of a lighter class that requires disclosure to a fellow monastic. If the p?cittiya offence involves possessions, their formal forfeiture is required.

According to the second principle to be respected (garudhamma 2), a bhikkhunshould not spend the rainy season retreat in a place where there is no bhikkhu. This garudhamma is identical to p?cittiya rule 56 forbhikkhun?s in the Bhikkhun?vibha?ga (Vin IV 313).

The third principle (garudhamma 3) stipulates that a bhikkhunshould inquire every fortnight about the date of the observance day (uposatha) from the community of bhikkhus and she should come for exhortation (ov?da). This garudhamma corresponds to p?cittiya rule 59 in the Bhikkhun?vibha?ga (Vin IV 315).

According to the fourth principle (garudhamma 4), a bhikkhun? should carry out the invitation (pav?ra??) to be told of any of her shortcomings in front of both communities, the communities of bhikkhus and bhikkhun?s. This garudhamma has its counterpart in p?cittiya rule 57 in the Bhikkhun?vibha?ga (Vin IV 314).

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