II. The case for a revival of Theravāda bhikkhunī ordination
Now that I have sketched the legal arguments that conservative Theravāda Vinaya authorities raise against restoring the bhikkhunī ordination to the Theravāda tradition, I want to look at some factors, textual and ethical, that favor its restoration. The factors that I will consider can be distributed into two groups: one might be called ancient mandate; the other, compelling contemporary circumstances.
The primary ancient mandate is the Buddha’s own decision to create a Bhikkhunī Sangha as a counterpart to the male Bhikkhu Sangha. We should note that when the five hundred women headed by Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī came to the Buddha with their heads shaved, wearing ochre robes, they did not ask the Buddha to establish an order of nuns. They simply asked him “to permit women to go forth from the household life into homelessness in the Dhamma and Vinaya proclaimed by the Tathāgata.”1 Although, according to the canonical record, the Buddha at first denied this request, he finally yielded. In yielding, however, he did not simply agree to allow women to go forth in some secondary role, for example, as ten-precept nuns; rather, he allowed them to take full ordination as bhikkhunīs, the female counterpart of the bhikkhus.Further, he constituted renunciant women into a distinct order, a society governed by its own rules and regulations. Though he subordinated this order to the Bhikkhu Sangha with respect to certain functions, he still made it largely autonomous.
In the canonical record, the Buddha is shown giving a dire prediction about the effect this step would have on the life span of the spiritual life (brahmacariya) or the good Dhamma (saddhamma). He says that because women have received the going forth, the spiritual life will not last the full thousand years that it was originally destined to last, but will instead endure only five hundred years.2 This prediction is one of the major stumbling blocks that conservative Theravādins raise against attempts to revive the Bhikkhunī Sangha. It is beyond my purpose here to determine whether this passage is authentic or not, but regardless of the truth value of the story, we should still note a significant fact about the version that has come down in the Pāli Canon (and, I believe, in all the other Vinayas that have been preserved except that of the Mahīśāsakas): namely, that the Buddha is shown making this prophecy only after he has agreed to allow women to go forth. If he truly wanted to prevent women from going forth, he would have made this prophecy while Ānanda was still launching his appeal on behalf of the Sakyan women. In such a case, Ānanda would probably have desisted from his effort and a Bhikkhunī Sangha would never have gotten off the ground.
There is little evidence that the permission to women to go forth contributed in any way to shortening the life span of the Teaching, and the time frame mentioned in the text is also difficult to reconcile with the facts of Buddhist history in so far as we can ascertain them. The text may be suggesting that the reason for the Buddha’s hesitancy was concern that close contacts between bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs would contribute to a situation whereby intimate feelings between the two would arise, and this would lead to many disrobings or to the rise of a married clergy such as we find among the Buddhist priests of Japan. But the historical record contains no indications that this happened in the course of Indian Buddhism—certainly not around the dreaded date (approximately the first century C.E.). Other suttas speak about different causes for “the decline and disappearance of the good Dhamma,” and these seem to me to point to factors that might play a greater role in the decline of the Dhamma than the conferring of ordination on women. For example, a sutta in the Aṅguttara Nikāya says the good Dhamma declines when the four assemblies dwell without respect for the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, the training, samādhi, and heedfulness.3 We should note that in this prediction the bhikkhunīs will also be around when the good Dhamma declines and disappears, which shows that in the view of the texts, the Buddha did not expect the Bhikkhunī Sangha to die out before the Bhikkhu Sangha did.
One way to interpret the Buddha’s hesitancy to permit the going forth of women is to see it as a mean of giving special emphasis to the need for caution in the relations between bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs. Consider a parallel: Shortly after his enlightenment, the Buddha pondered the question whether or not to teach the Dhamma to the world. According to the texts, he first decided not to teach, to keep silent and dwell at ease.4 The deity Brahmā had to come down from his celestial abode and persuade the Buddha to take up the task of proclaiming the Dhamma to the world. Can we really believe that the compassionate Buddha actually decided not to teach, to pass the rest of his life dwelling quietly in the forest? This hardly seems conceivable in the light of other texts which suggest that his career as a world teacher was already pre-ordained.5 But this dramatic scene can be seen as a way of emphasizing how hard it was for the Buddha to come to a decision to teach, and a message emerges that we have to revere and treasure the Dhamma as something precious. Similarly, because the Buddha hesitated to admit women to the Sangha, from fear that it would shorten the life span of the Teaching, we can draw out the message that bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs have to be heedful in their dealings with one another and not indulge in frivolous socializing. The Buddha might also have hesitated because he foresaw that the creation of a Bhikkhunī Sangha would have placed on the bhikkhus the burden of educating and protecting the nuns, responsibilities that could have obstructed their own progress.
Positive statements of support for the existence of bhikkhunīs can be gathered from the Sutta Piṭaka. I will briefly mention three.
- The first is the well-known statement in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (DN 16), which the Buddha is said to have made to Māra, when, shortly after his enlightenment, the Tempter urged him to pass straightaway into final Nibbāna without teaching others:
“Evil One, I will not pass into final Nibbāna until I have bhikkhunī disciples who are competent, well trained, confident, learned, upholders of the Dhamma, practicing in accordance with the Dhamma, practicing properly, conducting themselves in accordance with the Dhamma, who have learned their own teacher’s doctrine and can explain it, teach it, describe it, establish it, disclose it, analyze it, elucidate it, and having thoroughly refuted rival doctrines in accordance with reason, can teach the compelling Dhamma.”6
According to this text, then, the Buddha considered well-trained bhikkhunī disciples one of the pillars of the teaching.
Another passage, less well known, comes from the Mahāvacchagotta Sutta (MN 73). In this discourse, the wanderer Vacchagotta has been asking the Buddha whether he alone has achieved realization of the Dhamma or whether he has disciples who have also achieved realization. The wanderer inquires in turn about each class of disciple: bhikkhus, bhikkhunīs, celibate male householders, non-celibate male householders, celibate female householders, and non-celibate female householders. With each inquiry, the Buddha confirms that he has “not merely five hundred, but many more disciples than that” who have attained the highest realization appropriate to their particular status. When the questioning is finished, Vacchagotta exclaims, in words with which the Buddha himself would surely have agreed: “If the Venerable Gotama (the Buddha) had attained success in this Dhamma, and if there were bhikkhus who had attained success, but there were no bhikkhunīs who had attained success in this Dhamma, then this spiritual life would be incomplete with respect to this factor. But because, besides the Venerable Gotama and the bhikkhus, there are also bhikkhunīs who have attained success, this spiritual life is complete with respect to this factor.”7 For bhikkhunīs the highest success is arahantship, the same as for the bhikkhus.
The Sangha is known as “the field of merit for the world,” and while this epithet applies pre-eminently to the “ariyan Sangha,” it also extends to the monastic Sangha as the visible representation of the ariyan Sangha in the world. Therefore, in the Dakkhiṇāvibhaṅga Sutta (MN 142), the Buddha discusses seven types of gifts that can be made to the Sangha, and most of these include bhikkhunīs among the recipients. These are: (1) a gift to the dual-Sangha headed by the Buddha; (2) a gift to the dual-Sangha after the Buddha has passed away; (4) a gift specifically for the Bhikkhunī Sangha; (5) a gift for a selection of bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs taken to represent the Sangha; and (7) a gift for a selection of bhikkhunīs taken to represent the Sangha. The only two types of gifts excluded are those specifically for the Bhikkhu Sangha and for a selection of bhikkhus taken to represent the Sangha. Yet today, in Theravāda lands, these latter two types of gifts for the Sangha are the only two that are possible; the other four are excluded by the absence of a viable Bhikkhunī Sangha.
Besides these passages, the Aṅguttara Nikāya, Ekanipāta, includes a series of suttas in which the Buddha is shown appointing various bhikkhunīs to the position of “most eminent” in different domains of the spiritual life; for example, the bhikkhunī Khemā was most eminent in wisdom, Uppalavaṇṇā in psychic potency, Bhaddakaccānā in great spiritual penetrations.8 The compilers of the Pāli Canon also collected the verses of the elder nuns into a work called the Therīgāthā, which offers us deep insights into the yearnings, striving, and attainments of the earliest generations of Buddhist women renunciants.
Quite apart from specific texts, an even more powerful argument based upon ancient precedent would appeal to the spirit of the Dhamma itself, which by its very nature is intended to disclose the path to liberation from suffering to all humankind. When the Buddha first consented to teach, he declared: “Open to them are the doors to the Deathless: Let those who have ears release faith.”9 Obviously, he did not intend this invitation to apply only to men but to all who would be willing to listen to his message of deliverance from suffering. He compares the Dhamma to a chariot, and says “One who has such a vehicle, whether a woman or a man, has by this vehicle drawn close to Nibbāna.”10 The poet-monk Vaṅgīsa confirms that the Buddha’s enlightenment was intended to benefit bhikkhunīs as well as bhikkhus:
Indeed, for the good of many
the Sage attained enlightenment,
for the bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs
who have reached and seen the fixed course.11
In the suttas, we see that the Buddha often included the bhikkhunīs as the recipients of his teaching. When he compares himself to a farmer cultivating different fields, he likens the bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs jointly to the most excellent field for his teaching.12 In the simile of the ancient city, he says that after he had followed the Noble Eightfold Path and penetrated the links of dependent origination, “I explained them to the bhikkhus, the bhikkhunīs, the male lay followers, and the female lay followers, so that this spiritual life has become successful and prosperous, extended, popular, widespread, well proclaimed among gods and humans.”13 When Sāriputta devises a teaching that elucidates the path that all Buddhas take to arrive at full enlightenment, the Buddha urges him to expound this teaching to the bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs as well as to the male and female lay devotees.14
Though many people will not be mature enough to tread this path to its end, in principle no one should be hindered from doing so merely by reason of their gender. Yet this is precisely what is done when women are prevented from taking full ordination. While defenders of the present system say that women can make just as much progress by taking up some surrogate female renunciant lifestyle as they could by becoming bhikkhunīs, the plain fact is that these subordinate renunciant roles do not meet their aspirations or give them access to the complete training laid down by the Buddha. Nor did the Buddha ever design for women renunciants such subordinate roles as that of the dasasilmātā, the thilashin, or the maechee, who all technically still belong to the assembly of upāsikās. The one position that the Buddha intended for those who leave the homeless life was that of a fully ordained bhikkhunī, and if one is to be faithful to the Buddha, we should give renunciant women the role he intended for them. Further, in Asian Buddhist societies, nuns who have settled for such surrogate positions usually do not command the reverence from the Buddhist lay communities that bhikkhunīs could inspire. Thus they seldom take on leadership roles or give guidance in religious activities and social services, but linger on the margins, often appearing timid and self-conscious.
This line of thinking leads directly to reflection on the contemporary conditions that support a resuscitation of bhikkhunī ordination. I will note two such conditions.
The first arises out of the realization that has been thrust upon Theravādins, beginning around the middle of the twentieth century, that they are not the only Buddhists who preserve a monastic system guided by a Vinaya traceable to the early Sangha. As communiciations have improved between different parts of the Buddhist world, more knowledgeable Theravādin Buddhists (especially in Sri Lanka) have come to learn that the monks and nuns of East Asia—in Taiwan, China, Korea, and Vietnam, though not Japan—while following Mahāyāna teachings and practices, are still governed by a Vinaya with a body of rules largely identical with those laid down in the Pāli Vinaya Piṭaka. This Vinaya, which derives from the Dharmaguptaka school, is strikingly similar in many details with the Pāli Vinaya. The Tibetan Buddhist monastic system is also guided by a Vinaya derived from another early school, the Mūlasarvāstivādins. In recent years prominent Tibetan lamas have encouraged some of their student-nuns to receive full ordination in East Asian countries, and now they are on the verge of officially starting a Bhikkhunī Sangha within Tibetan Buddhism. Thus, when the Buddhist traditions of East Asia and Tibet have (or will soon have) orders of officially sanctioned bhikkhunīs, the absence of a recognized Bhikkhunī Sangha in South Asian Theravāda Buddhism will be conspicuous, a glaring gap. Educated people around the world—even educated Theravādin lay followers, both men and women—will find it difficult to empathize with the refusal of the Theravādin monastic order to grant full ordination to women and will compare Theravāda unfavorably with the other forms of Buddhism.
Such an exclusive attitude would receive strong public disapproval today because of the vast differences between the social and cultural attitudes of our age and those of India in the fifth century B.C. when the Buddha lived and taught. Our own age has been shaped by the ideas of the European Enlightenment, a movement that affirmed the inherent dignity of the human person, led to the rise of democracy, ushered in such concepts as universal human rights and universal suffrage, and brought demands for political equality and equal justice for all under the law. In today’s world, all discrimination based on race, religion, and ethnicity is regarded as unjust and unjustifiable, the remnant of primal prejudices that we are obliged to cast off in the realization that all human beings, by virtue of their humanity, are entitled to the same rights that we assume for ourselves, including the right to fulfill their highest religious aspirations. The great project of the contemporary world, we might say, has been the dissolution of privilege: without a sound reason, no one is entitled to special privileges denied to others.
One of the most basic grounds for distinguishing people into the privileged and the deprived, the superiors and the subordinates, has been gender, with men in the privileged position, women in the subsidiary position, denied those privileges claimed by men. From the mid-nineteenth century on, discrimination based on gender came to be perceived as arbitrary and unjust, a system that had been imposed on society simply because of the dominant roles that men had played in eras when social stability depended on physical strength and military force. Thus women came to claim the right to work at professional jobs, the right to vote, the right to equal salaries, the right to serve in the military, even the right to hold the highest position in the land. As far back as 1869, John Stuart Mill wrote in the opening paragraph of his tract, On the Subjection of Women: “An opinion which I have held from the very earliest period when I had formed any opinions at all on social political matters … is that the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.”15 The 130 years since these words were written have witnessed, in the progressive countries of the West, a sustained effort to translate this conviction into practice in various domains of both private and public life.
Now that discrimination based on gender has been challenged almost everywhere in the secular sphere, it is time for its role in religious life to come up for serious scrutiny. For religion, unfortunately, remains one of its most persistent strongholds, and Buddhism is no exception to this. It is true that the Vinaya makes bhikkhunīs subordinate to bhikkhus and the Bhikkhunī Sangha subordinate to the Bhikkhu Sangha, but we have to remember that the Buddha lived and taught in India in the fifth century B.C. and had to conform to the social expectations of the period. While certain practices that pertain to etiquette may need to be evaluated in the light of altered social and cultural conditions in so far as they do not touch on the basics of monastic discipline, in this paper I am not concerned with rules governing the relationship between monks and nuns, but solely with the question of ordination. When we contemplate what line of action would be appropriate for us to take on this issue, we should not ask what the Buddha did twenty-five centuries ago, but what he would want us to do today. If people see Theravāda Buddhism as a religion that includes male renunciants but excludes female renunciants, or which admits them only through some type of unofficial ordination, they will suspect that something is fundamentally askew, and defensive arguments based on appeals to arcane principles of monastic law will not go very far to break down distrust. This will be an instance of the type of behavior that we meet so often in the Vinaya where “those without confidence do not gain confidence, while among those with confidence, some undergo vacillation.”16
On the other hand, by showing that they have the courage to restore to women the right to lead a full religious life as instituted by the Buddha, that is, by reviving the Bhikkhunī Sangha, Theravādin elders will enable their form of Buddhism to take its place in the modern world, firmly and proudly, while still upholding a path that is timeless and not subject to the vagaries of changing fashions. To take this step does not mean, as some might fear, that we are “meddling” with the Dhamma and the Vinaya just to fit people’s worldly expectations; the truths of the Dhamma, the principles of the path, the guidelines of the Vinaya, remain intact. But it would show that we know how to apply the Dhamma and the Vinaya in a way that is appropriate to the time and circumstances, and also in a way that is kind and embracing rather than rigid and rejecting.
Vin II 253; AN IV 274: Sādhu, bhante, labheyya mātugāmo tathāgatappavedite dhammavinaye agārasmā anagāriyaṃ pabbajjaṃ. ↩
Vin II 256; AN IV 278. ↩
AN III 340. ↩
MN I 167-69; SN I 135-37; Vin I 4-7. ↩
For example, AN 5:196 (III 240-42) relates that the Bodhisatta had five dreams shortly before his enlightenment several of which foretell his role as a great teacher with many disciples, both monastics and householders. ↩
DN II 105. ↩
MN I 492. ↩
AN I 25. ↩
MN I 169, SN I 138, Vin I 7. ↩
SN I 33. ↩
SN I 196. The parallel verses at Theragāthā 1256-57 extend this to laymen and laywomen as well. ↩
SN IV 315. ↩
SN 107. ↩
SN 161. ↩
John Stuart Mill, On the Subjection of Women. (1869; Online version: The University of Adelaide Library Electronic Texts Collection). ↩
Ibid.: Appassānañceva appasādāya pasannānañca ekaccānaṃ aññathattāya. ↩