The history of Buddhist monasticism and its Western adaptation

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From Blossoms of the Dharma: Living as a Buddhist Nun, published in 1999. This book, no longer in print, gathered together some of the presentations given at the 1996 Life as a Buddhist Nun conference in Bodhgaya, India.

Portrait of Bhikshuni Karma Lekshe Tsomo

Bhikshuni Karma Lekshe Tsomo

A thorough discussion of the transmission of Buddhist monasticism and its adaptation in Western cultures would take volumes. Moreover, this historical process is still in its initial stages and is so multifaceted that any conclusions drawn at this point would be premature. Here I shall simply explore a few of the issues involved. Some of the points I raise may be controversial, but both critical and comparative analyses are essential to an understanding of the momentous meeting of cultures presently underway. Moreover, the spirit of free inquiry is wholly compatible with Buddhist thinking.

The sangha, the order of Buddhist renunciants, began near Varanasi with five young men from respected Brahmin families who became monks not long after the Buddha achieved enlightenment and started teaching. Gradually they were joined by thousands of other bhikshus (fully ordained monks) and a few years later by hundreds of bhikshunis (fully ordained nuns) as well. The early sangha was disproportionately upper caste, with its members from the better-educated classes of Indian society.

The Buddhist order was not the first in India. Jain and Brahmanical communities, which served as prototypes for the early sangha, were already established. Surviving documents revealing how daily life was regulated in these communities offer evidence that the early Buddhist mendicants adopted some organizational features from them. For example, followers of contemporary religious groups gathered together periodically, so the early sangha also began to gather on new moon and full moon days. At first they sat silently, but followers of other sects criticized them for sitting “like dumb pigs,” so the Buddha instructed them to read the Pratimoksa Sutra containing their precepts on these occasions. This tradition of the bhikshu sangha reciting the bhikshu Pratimoksa Sutra and the bhikshuni sangha reciting the bhikshuni Pratimoksa Sutra is one of the three essential rites of the monastic community. The other two are the rite commencing the rainy season retreat (varsa) and the rite concluding it (pravarana). Other rites developed to help regulate the life of the sangha, including precise instructions for conducting ordinations and methods for resolving disputes.1

In the beginning the bhikshus lived an itinerant lifestyle, staying at the foot of trees and going to villages and towns to gather their daily meal in an alms bowl and to give Dharma teachings. Although they were dependent upon the lay followers for alms, the optimal condition for achieving liberation was said to be staying in seclusion in the forest, aloof from society. As the sangha grew, the Buddha sent the bhikshus out to disseminate the teachings far and wide saying, “Let not two go in the same direction.” This instruction helped prevent the formation of strong bonds of attachment to places or people. Gradually the bhikshus and bhikshunis began to assemble in seasonal settlements (vihara) for three months during the rainy season to avoid stepping on the insects that abounded during that time. Eventually these viharas became more or less fixed residences, developing into separate communities for the bhikshus and bhikshunis. These single-sex communities included sramaneras (male novices) and sramanerikas (female novices), who were training to receive the full precepts. The Buddhists may have been the first renunciants in India to establish organized monastic communities, many of which evolved into educational centers.2 Relieved of household responsibilities and attachments, the monks and nuns were able to concentrate single-pointedly on living a disciplined life and achieving the goal of liberation.

The purpose and practice of the precepts

The Sanskrit word for becoming a Buddhist renunciant is pabbajiya meaning “going forth.” It signifies leaving the household life and entering a state of homelessness. After becoming a renunciant, a person is expected to train for ten years (or at least a minimum of five) under the close guidance of a qualified senior bhikshu or bhikshuni preceptor.3 After some years of such training, one might enter the second stage of ordination, receiving the upasampada or ordination as a bhikshu or bhikshuni, signifying full admission into the sangha, or monastic order.

The Vinaya, the corpus of advice and incidents related to monastic discipline, was not originally formulated as a separate body of texts, but was an integral part of the Dharma teachings. When the order began, no set code of regulations for Buddhist mendicants existed. The regulations, or precepts, were established as needed beginning with the rule of brahmacarya (“pure conduct,” meaning celibacy) after one of the early monks returned home and slept with his wife.4 Gradually over two hundred precepts were formulated on the basis of the misconduct of the bhikshus and about one hundred more on that of the bhikshunis.5

That the bhikshunis have roughly one hundred precepts more than the bhikshus has been interpreted by some as evidence that women have more delusions than men and by some as evidence of sexism in Buddhism. Examined historically, however, neither interpretation is justified. Instead, it appears that as the bhikshuni sangha evolved, the nuns inherited most of the precepts formulated for the bhikshu sangha, and additional precepts were formulated as incidents arose involving nuns, particularly a nun named Thullananda and her followers. Some of these latter precepts, such as the ones prohibiting nuns from travelling alone, clearly are designed to protect them from danger and exploitation. Other precepts, such as the one requiring bhikshunis to receive instructions from a bhikshu twice a month (but not vice versa), clearly reflect gender inequalities in Indian society at that time.

The Pratimoksa texts contain the specific injunctions by which Buddhist monks and nuns live, the precepts that help them regulate their lives.6 These injunctions are an integral part of Buddhist ethics as a whole, helping practitioners create a conducive environment, physical and psychological, for spiritual practice. They help them, for example, to ensure the smooth functioning of the Buddhist monastic community and to protect the sangha from the criticism of the lay community. The Vinaya texts establish a baseline for acceptable conduct for Buddhist monastics and provide a framework within which sangha members may make informed judgments on how best to conduct their lives and nurture their practice of virtue.

The purpose of the Buddhist monastic code is to establish optimal conditions for the achievement of liberation. Observing the precepts helps beings control the passions that entangle them in samsara and fosters the awareness needed to precipitate liberation. Many times in the texts the Buddha says, “Come, o monk, live the brahmacarya life in order that you may put an end to suffering.” The Pratimoksa texts emphasize the practice of virtuous actions and the forswearing of negative actions in order to progress toward liberation from cyclic existence.

Sangha members make a voluntary, usually lifelong, commitment to maintain certain precepts and standards of behavior; it is important to consider this commitment seriously before making it. The most fundamental requirements are to refrain from sexual conduct; taking life; taking what is not given; telling untruths; taking intoxicants; attending entertainment; using ornaments, cosmetics, and perfumes; sitting on luxurious seats and beds; taking food at unregulated times, and handling silver and gold. In addition, many other precepts help monastics remain mindful of every action in daily life. To take the precepts lightly, saying “This precept is not that important,” or “This precept is impossible to keep,” violates the precept that prohibits belittling the precepts. To the casual observer, many of the secondary precepts appear trivial and irrelevant to spiritual pursuit; even to the dedicated practitioner their abundance can be discouraging. Harkening back to the classic clerical debate over the letter versus the spirit of the rule, one may also argue that adhering to technical correctness rather than embodying the spirit of the precepts is counterproductive to the achievement of liberation.

Of course, it is difficult to keep all the precepts purely. Differences in social conditions now and at the time of the Buddha require thoughtful adaptation of the precepts in the present day. Making wise decisions in adapting the precepts requires a thorough study of the precedents, described in the Vinaya texts, upon which the precepts were formulated.7 In addition, years of training under careful guidance are required to learn how to appropriately handle everyday situations, especially in the West. Monastics often fall short of their own expectations and occasionally commit infractions of the precepts—walking on the grass, handling silver or gold, digging the ground, and so on—but a clear understanding of the Vinaya injunctions provides criteria for making decisions and serves as a foundation for building a solid practice.

The patched robes and shaved head, the most obvious signs of a Buddhist’s monastic commitment, may be inconvenient sometimes, evoking mixed reactions of curiosity, admiration, or disdain from friends and passersby, but they are also a powerful incentive for mindful awareness. Wearing robes entails an obligation of honesty with regard to one’s moral conduct: it is a declaration that one is observing the precepts of a Buddhist monastic, so to wear them without keeping the precepts is dishonest. Sangha members are traditionally regarded as worthy of trust, respect, and offerings. To acquire these benefits undeservedly by misrepresenting oneself is a serious matter. The dangers implicit in according all members of the Buddhist community the status of sangha, whether they are abiding by precepts or not, should be abundantly clear. These days many Westerners commonly refer to all members of Dharma centers as sangha, although this is not the traditional usage of the term. Although it is possible for lay people to be exemplars of ethical conduct, those who have made a commitment to strict monastic discipline have traditionally been regarded a field of merit.

Although the monastic code can and needs to be interpreted within the context of culture, place, and time, the Vinaya texts are part of the Buddhist canon and cannot simply be revised at will. The various Buddhist monastic cultures observed in the world today—Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Tibetan, and so on—are the results of a synthesis of Vinaya and the local norms and customs of the countries where Buddhism spread. One of the most striking features of the world’s various Buddhist cultures is the common legacy of monastic discipline—the robes, the mores, the spiritual ideals—that each of these preserves in its own unique way.

As we may recall, it was the sight of a renunciant who appeared peaceful and contented that inspired Buddha Shakyamuni’s renunciation of worldly life. The image of this renunciant made a striking impression on the young prince, who had been shocked by his recent encounters with sickness, old age, and death, and his resultant realization that these sufferings are intrinsic to the human condition. To inspire others to develop renunciation and take up the spiritual path, then, is one of the roles that a monastic plays. This is a huge responsibility.

Nuns and monks cannot become genuine models of simplicity and contentment unless we live simple and contented lives. If we are caught up in consumerism, greed, and attachment—wanting more comfort, more possessions, better possessions—then we are spinning on the wheel of desire like everyone else and do not represent an alternative lifestyle for others. It comes down to this question: If nuns and monks live, act, and talk like worldly people, are we really fulfilling the socially beneficial role that is expected of a monastic? In an age when the clergy of various religions in many countries are coming under scrutiny for lavish indulgences and moral transgressions, Western nuns and monks have the opportunity to help revitalize Buddhism by reaffirming the original purity and simplicity of spiritual life.

Paradoxes in monastic life

In the beginning the Buddha exhorted the bhikshus and bhikshunis to “wander solitary as a rhinoceros.” As time went on and the number of nuns and monks grew, the Buddhist sangha was criticized for roaming around and trampling crops, so gradually many gave up their eremitic lifestyle and settled in cenobitic communities. In a sense, then, Buddhist monasticism represents a rejection of social expectations yet, whether as mendicants or settled contemplatives, nuns and monks are trained to be very conscious of social expectations. The apparent tension here reveals the push and shove in monastic life between self-oriented personal practice and other-oriented community life—the contrast between liberation from the constraints of the world on one hand, and concern for community and society on the other. It mirrors a larger dichotomy between the mystical ideal of the absolutely unconditioned and the mundane, reflected in the strict observance of precise, practical rules. Such contrasts illustrate the paradoxes implicit in Buddhist monastic life.

On a personal level, a tension exists between the desire for solitude and the desire to be of immediate service to living beings “in the world.” Perhaps influenced by their Judeo-Christian cultural background, most Western monastics become ordained with the intention, at least in part, of helping people and contributing to the betterment of society. Because Buddhism is new to the West, many opportunities arise for social service—establishing centers, teaching, leading retreats, serving teachers, translating, counseling newcomers, running a Buddhist center, and responding to requests from the wider community. However, these activities—important as they are—clearly leave little time for personal practice. We begin to feel guilty taking time away from the multifaceted needs of the Buddhist community for individual study and meditation. Yet, without a strong personal practice, we lack the inner resources to adequately serve the community’s needs. Ironically, developing the inner spiritual qualities needed to benefit sentient beings requires thorough study and reflection, which requires periodic withdrawal from the very beings we wish to serve.

Another paradox in monastic life concerns the range of images and expectations that a nun or monk confronts when living in the West. The lay community has high expectations of monastics and sometimes expects them to be saints. On the other hand they want them to be “human,” with all the human frailties, so that they can “identify with them.” Unrealistic expectations of saintliness can make monastics feel totally inadequate to their chosen task, often pushing them beyond their physical and emotional limitations; whereas the expectation that they exhibit human frailties can cause lapses in discipline. Monastics are expected to be at once reclusive—masters of meditation and ritual—and social—responding selflessly to the emotional and psychological needs of all who petition them. These contrasting expectations ignore the fact that individuals come to monastic life with a range of personalities, inclinations, and capabilities. For each one to be all things to all people is impossible, however hard we may try. This creates an inner tension between what we expect ourselves to embody spiritually and what we realistically could have achieved at this point, as beginners on the path. Trying to use this tension between spiritual ideals and psychological realities creatively, for spiritual progress, is one of the greatest challenges for a practitioner, lay or ordained. The process of skillfully negotiating the ideal and the ordinary, pride and discouragement, discipline and repose, requires a raw personal honesty that only relentless spiritual practice can engender.

Another paradox concerns the material well-being of Western nuns and monks. The original mendicant lifestyle practiced in India is difficult to replicate in contemporary Western countries. Although ethnic Buddhist communities generally care for the material needs of monastics in the temples of their particular traditions, Western monastics find few places outside Asia where they can live a monastic lifestyle. Thus, Western nuns and monks are often monastics without a monastery. Nuns and monks living at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia and Amaravati in England are the exceptions. Other ordained Western Buddhists find that issues of livelihood—food, shelter, and medical expenses, for example—require a great deal of energy that could otherwise be directed to spiritual practice.

The general public, including Western Buddhists themselves, often assumes that Buddhist monastics are cared for by an order, as are Christian monastics, and are surprised to learn that newly-ordained Western nuns and monks may be left to deal with issues of sustenance completely on their own. They may serve without compensation as teachers, translators, secretaries, cooks, and psychological counselors in the Dharma center and also work at an outside job in order to pay for their own rent, food, and personal expenses. They are expected to play the role of a monastic and do much more, without the benefits traditionally accorded a monastic.

The wide spectrum of choices that Western monastics make concerning issues of livelihood was evident at the 1996 Bodhgaya training course, Life as a Western Buddhist Nun. At one end of the spectrum were two nuns from Amaravati who had not touched money for sixteen years; at the other end was a nun who supported herself as a registered nurse, wore lay clothes and longish hair for her job, and had a mortgage on her apartment and taxes to pay. Because adequate monastic communities have yet to be developed, most ordained Westerners face the pressures of playing both the role of a monastic and that of an ordinary citizen. They must deal with the incongruity between the ideal mendicant lifestyle from the time of the Buddha and the modern ideal of economic self-sufficiency. Resolving the paradox between the ideal of renunciation and the realities of survival is one of the great challenges faced by Western Buddhist monastics.

Creating monastic communities for women

At the time of the Buddha nuns received their “going forth” (pabbajiya) and training under the guidance of nuns. Although monks in the early days were assumed to have greater knowledge and authority, nuns felt more comfortable discussing personal matters with nuns, rather than monks, and were able to receive closer personal guidance by training under them. Even though bhikshus confirm bhikshuni ordinations, as stipulated in the Vinaya texts, the tradition of nuns receiving ordination and training from nuns has continued in many monasteries until today, particularly in China and Korea.

In countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Tibet, however, the ordination of nuns has been conducted almost exclusively by bhikshus. In a way, this makes sense, since these bhikshu precept masters are well respected and experienced in performing these ceremonies. On the other hand, it means that monks have the power to decide who joins the nuns’ order without consulting the nuns. This creates a problem. The bhikshus ordain women, but they often do not provide them with food, accommodations, or training. Previously ordained nuns have no choice but to accept these novices, even if they are not at all suited to monastic life. Monasteries for nuns must figure out some way to feed and house the newcomers or are put in the awkward position of having to refuse them admission to their monasteries. There have also been cases where bhikshus have ordained women who are physically unwell, psychologically or emotionally unstable, or retarded. Although it is contrary to the Vinaya to ordain unfit people, once they are ordained, the situation becomes very difficult. Senior nuns and their monasteries are liable to be criticized if they are not able to care for these new nuns.

Now I would like to bluntly raise the issue of women’s reliance on men and recommend that women develop monastic communities independently. Of course nuns are deeply indebted and deeply grateful for all the support, encouragement, and teachings we have received from excellent male teachers and I am not suggesting that we sever or diminish these important relationships in any way. Instead, I am suggesting that women, and nuns in particular, need to assume, with wisdom and skillful means, a greater sense of responsibility for our own future. We need to address straightforwardly issues of autonomy and leadership, cutting dependencies on male authority, instilling a sense of self-reliance, and fostering independent communities.

Many women both in Asian and Western societies are male identified. This is natural in patriarchal societies, where men are valued over women. Male identified women respect men, ask and accept advice from men, work for men, support men materially, look to men for approval, and provide men with food, lodging, all necessities, and often luxuries, even when they do not have enough themselves. This is not a new phenomenon. During the Buddha’s time an elderly nun was found to have passed out from lack of food, because she had given the food in her alms bowl to a monk. When the Buddha heard about this, he prohibited monks from accepting alms that had been collected by nuns.

It is important to question honestly whether the tendency to identify with males is appropriate for nuns. In leaving household life, nuns reject the traditional role of subordination to a husband or male partner. We renounce the role of a sex object available for men’s enjoyment and enter a community of women where we can be free of men’s authority. Therefore, it seems a bit strange if nuns, having achieved a state of freedom and independence, then choose to rely constantly on men. Men have their own concerns and responsibilities. No matter how compassionate they are, monks cannot be expected to take full responsibility for nuns’ communities. Nuns need to develop self reliance and self confidence and begin to take full responsibility for their own communities. At present, due to a scarcity of qualified female teachers, that is, Tripitaka masters, nuns have no choice but to rely on male teachers in developing study programs. But I suggest that women adopt the goal of nurturing and developing themselves as fully qualified teachers and spiritual masters capable of guiding not only other women, but society at large.

Excellent models of autonomous monastic communities for women exist today in Taiwan and Korea. In the past few years these communities have inspired education and meditation training programs for women in locations as widespread as Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the Indian Himalayas. Autonomous monastic communities for men have been a staple of Asian life for centuries. Now, with the acculturation of Buddhism in the West, we have the opportunity to focus attention on developing autonomous monastic communities for women that are equally valued. Buddhist women teachers in both Asia and the West are demonstrating that spiritual leadership is not only a possibility for women, but is already an everyday reality.


  1. An extensive discussion of the procedures used for resolving disputes is found in Sunanda Putuwar’s The Buddhist Sangha: Paradigm of the Ideal Human Society (Lanham, MD: University Press of American, 1991), p.69-90. 

  2. A detailed examination of sangha organization is found Ibid., p.34-46. 

  3. For a description of this training, see Nand Kishore Prasad, Studies in Buddhist and Jaina Monachism (Vaishali, Bihar: Research Institute of Prakrit, Jainology and Ahimsa, 1972), p.94-99. 

  4. The history and complexity of the term brahmacarya are discussed in Jotiya Dhirasekeraa’s Buddhist Monastic Discipline: A Study of its Origin and Development (Colombo: Ministry of Higher Education, 1982), p.21-32. 

  5. For the precepts of the bhikshus, including extensive commentary, see Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff), The Buddhist Monastic Code (Metta Forest Monastery, P.O.Box 1409, Valley Center, CA 92082, 1994), and Charles S. Prebish, Buddhist Monastic Discipline: The Sanskrit Pratimoka Sutras of the Mahasamghikas and Mulasarvastivadins (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975). For the precepts of the bhikshunis, see Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Sisters in Solitude: Two Traditions of Buddhist Monastic Precepts for Women (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996). 

  6. For a discussion of the etymology of the term Pratimoksa, see Sukumar Dutt, Early Monachism (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1984), p.71-75. 

  7. Additional commentary on the precepts is found in the Somdet Phra Maha Samaa Chao Krom Phraya, Samantapasadika: Buddhaghosa’s Commentary on the Vinaya Pitaka, Vol. 8 (London: Pali Text Society, 1977). 

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