A seminar to be organised by the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration
A seminar to be organised by the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration
Whether or not there is a way to give bhikshuni (dge slong ma) ordination to Tibetan nuns (rab byung btsun ma) in accordance with the vinaya of the Mulasarvastivada tradition that flourished in Tibet, the tradition practised in Nalanda Buddhist University in India.
22nd to 24th May 2006
Vinaya masters of the Buddhist countries
The hall above the CTA staff mess, Gangchen Kyishong, Dharamsala
Chok Tenzin Monlam1
THE CORE TOPIC
A means to achieve Bhikshuni Ordination
There are two chief topics with regard to finding a way to either re-introduce or newly introduce a method for ordaining Tibetan nuns (rab byung btsun ma) as bhikshunis (dge slong ma), that is, nuns who have received full ordination in accordance with the Vinaya of the Mulasarvastivada tradition descended from Nalanda Buddhist University that flourished in Tibet:
- A way to re-introduce the tradition of ordaining bhikshunis by a sangha consisting only of bhikshus as was practised in Tibet in the past or
- A way to newly introduce a tradition of bestowing bhikshuni ordination by a sangha of bhikshus and bhikshunis, i.e. bhikshus who uphold the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya tradition of Tibet and bhikshunis who uphold the vinaya of other traditions, [i.e. the Sthaviravada or Theravada and the Dharmagupta].
Based on the two mentioned topics, vinaya practitioners are requested to discuss and write analytical articles on how to ordain bhikshunis in accordance with the vinaya texts of Mulasarvastivada School practised in Tibet, which will help us to resolve and ascertain the standpoint of vinaya practitioners of Mulasarvastivada School that flourished in Tibet in the forthcoming ‘International Conference of Buddhist Vinaya Practitioners’.
Here I will discuss the issue by way of four points: the history of bhikshuni ordination, a brief introduction, the core topic, and conclusion.
I. THE HISTORY OF BHIKSHUNI ORDINATION
In India, initially, during the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, he first ordained his first five disciples, imparting the bhikshu ordination, which marked the origin of the formation of the bhikshu sangha. Then came the bhikshuni sangha, which was formed by giving simultaneous ordination to 500 Shakyan women including Mahaprajapati after they accepted to follow the eight chief rules (gurudharmas).
Other than that, the procedure for full ordination is that women should successively move through the stages of upasika (dge bsnyen ma), pravrajita (rab byung ma), shramanerika or novice nun (dge tshul ma), shikshamani (dge slob ma), brahmacari (tshang spyod nyer gnas) and then full ordination as a bhikshuni. Thus, a four-fold assembly of disciples came into being [fully ordained monks and nuns, and male and female holders of the upasaka ordination] who spread the Buddhadharma and caused it to flourish.
The compassionate Buddha allowed women to be ordained as bhikshunis. Why he resisted at the beginning is, according to the Commentary on Lesser Points (phran tshegs ‘grel pa) [a commentary on one of the four sections of the vinaya, ‘dul ba phran tshegs kyi gzhi, that which deals with minor matters,] that for a brief time at the beginning Buddha did not give full ordination for women due to his special loving compassion towards women; he did so with the purpose that they might renounce cyclic existence and as a special technique that they might enter into the higher paths. We need to understand this in accordance with that explanation.
Buddha gave equal opportunities to men and women, and he never made any discrimination between them. From the time of the Buddha, there were set forth, in terms of monastics, fully ordained monks (dge slong pha) and fully ordained nuns (dge slong ma) and, in terms of lay practitioners, both male lay vow holders (upasaka, dge bsynen pha) and female lay vow holders (dge bsnyen ma) [that is, lay ordination with any of five precepts]. These are the four types of Followers of the Buddha (ston pa’i ‘khor rnam pa bzhi) mentioned in the three baskets (sde snod gsum) of Buddha’s teachings and particularly in the vinaya texts. In a similar vein, the statements in many scriptures, “Noble sons and noble daughters,” indicate that Buddha made no discrimination between men and women and gave equal rights.
Mahaprajapati was the first bhikshuni within Buddha Shakyamuni’s teaching and she was prophesied by Buddha to be supreme among all the elder nuns. Gradually a bhikshuni sangha came into being in the Noble Land of India.
First Sri Lankan Bhikshuni
During the time of Dharma King Ashoka, his son Mahindra and his daughter Sangammitra travelled successively to Sri Lanka. Initially they introduced the order of bhikshus and later Shri Lankan women received bhikshuni ordination. Anula Devi was the first Shri Lankan bhikshuni. The bhikshuni lineage continued there until eleventh century CE, after which it came to an end.
First Chinese Bhikshuni
In the fourth century CE, a very devout Chinese Buddhist woman named Ching Chien received bhikshuni ordination from a sangha consisting only of bhikshus and received the trainings and vows of a bhikshuni. There are clear accounts referring her as the first Chinese bhikshuni. This tradition of receiving bhikshuni ordination from a sangha consisting only of bhikshus is a living tradition that is practised in several Buddhist countries.
In the fifth century CE, the Kashmiri scholar Sanghavarma and a group of Sri Lankan bhikshunis led by Bhikshuni Devasara travelled to China and introduced a tradition of imparting bhikshuni ordination involving a sangha of both bhikshus and bhikshunis. Thus, a lineage of bhikshuni ordination involving a sangha of both bhikshus and bhikshunis arose there.
In the fifteenth century CE at Gyama in central Tibet, within the Mulasarvastivadin tradition there is an account of a woman who was especially devout being given full ordination by a sangha consisting of ten bhikshus. Chodup Palmo Tsotrung of Gyama received the bhikshuni ordination from a group of masters that included Panchen Shakya Chokden (1428-1507) as the abbot (upadhyaya), Chen-nga Drupgyalwa as the karma master (karmacharya), Jetsun Kunga Gyaltsen as the interviewer in isolation (bramacharya upavasak acharya). She came to be known as ‘the Gyama Bhikshuni’ or the Bhikshuni of Gyama.
However, this practice was criticized, stating that it was an invalid way of imparting bhikshuni ordination. In any case, there was never a lineage of bhikshuni vows that came directly from India or from any other country.
The lineage of bhikshuni ordination that came from China is a living tradition that is being practised in countries such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Korea. Not only can a thriving bhikshuni sangha be seen in those countries, but also new bhikshuni ordination is being imparted.
Many nuns from different parts of the world have received the bhikshuni vows and precepts of ordination in those countries. Several Tibetan nuns residing in the exile community have been offered special invitations to visit those countries to receive bhikshuni ordination, but even though patrons have offered financial support, only a few have chosen to go and receive the ordination. Until now, no Tibetan nun has received bhikshuni ordination on her own initiative.
In response to requests made in 1993 by some nuns from Eastern and Western countries for the restoration of bhikshuni lineage, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has shown great interest and concern regarding this matter and has repeatedly said:
If we could newly introduce the bhikshuni lineage in Tibet, there would be great benefit in the sense that it would make Tibet a country possessing the “four-fold assembly of disciples” of Buddha, and hence would make Tibet a “central-land” of the teachings of Buddha. However, such important matters related to the Vinaya should be discussed and decided collectively by sangha members and not by individual high-ranking Buddhist lamas or leaders. A meeting of a Tibetan sangha of vinaya-masters should be convened to discuss the matter thoroughly.
In 1993, as a preparation for the ‘Tibetan Religious Conference’, we invited several Tibetan scholars and vinaya-masters to give their opinions. At that time, there did not emerge a decisive and unanimous opinion regarding ordination of bhikshunis.
In 1995, under the auspices of the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration, the ‘Fifth Tibetan Religious Conference’ was convened at the Norbulinga Institute, Dharamsala. The possibility of establishing bhikshuni ordination was discussed in the conference and at the end the following resolution was made:
In order to come to a decision regarding the establishment of bhikshuni ordination for Tibetan nuns, the Department of Religion and Culture has taken special responsibility to do thorough research on the issue and has sought opinions from Tibetan scholars and vinaya-masters. However, they have not yet been able to reach a decisive opinion. There has been a free and open discussion in this conference, but still there is a need for authentic and reliable sources on the basis of which this essential matter can be decided in the future by scholars and vinaya-masters. For this, a special committee of scholars should be formed to gather together a comprehensive presentation of scriptural citations and reasonings based on which this can be settled.
In 2000, under the auspices of the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration and Norbulinga Institute, the ‘Seventh Tibetan Religious Conference’ was held at the Norbulinga Institute, Dharamsala. There was further discussion regarding bhikshuni ordination and the following resolution was passed:
It is best to resolve the matter of bhikshuni ordination in accordance with the textual and practical approaches of the individual vinaya traditions.
In 2003, under the auspices of the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration, the ‘Eighth Tibetan Religious Conference’ was held at the Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Varanasi. The possibility of establishing bhikshuni ordination was further discussed in the conference and was the following resolution was made:
With the regard to restoration of bhikshuni ordination within the Mulasarvastivada vinaya tradition, it is being discussed that there is a Chinese bhikshuni lineage. Hence, it is imperative to do a thorough research on the authenticity of the ordination rite and so forth of the Chinese bhikshuni ordination; and when we obtain reliable and genuine facts, bhikshuni ordination will be determined in conformity with that tradition.
In any case, the issue of restoring or newly establishing bhikshuni ordination has been discussed by Tibetan vinaya-masters and scholars in many conferences. However, in short, up until now a final decision on a means of accomplishing bhikshuni ordination for the Tibetan nuns has not been taken.
Furthermore, the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration is going to convene an assembly of Tibetan vinaya-masters for a conference in Dharamsala this year (2006) to discuss a means of accomplishing bhikshuni ordination in conformity with the Mulasarvastivada vinaya tradition of Nalanda that flourished in Tibet.
The reason why Tibetan nuns have been unable to receive bhikshuni ordination in conformity with the Dharmagupta vinaya tradition that flourished in China is briefly mentioned below with a short introductory history.
II. A BRIEF INTRODUCTION
Although the bhikshuni lineage of Sri Lanka was completely broken there in the eleventh century CE, it had been transmitted to China in the fifth century CE after a group of Sri Lankan bhikshunis led by Bhikshuni Devasara travelled to China. They introduced the tradition of bestowing bhikshuni ordination by a sangha of both bhikshus and bhikshunis. This lineage is extant even today, and we need to carry out research regarding sources showing that this is unbroken up to the present. Since 1982 the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration has been doing research on bhikshuni ordination; the findings were published in four books [three in Tibetan and one English summary] in 2000 and were sent to about two hundred persons—high lamas, scholars, and Tibetan vinaya-masters of all four traditions as bases of examination. They were asked to send their opinions here. However, we received only thirteen articles whose opinions were not unanimous. The bases of examination are clearly mentioned in the four books.
Summary of the three books on the lineage of Bhikshuni Ordination
Out of great concern and responsibility, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has time and again emphasized the need to conduct a thorough investigation on the actual situation of the lineage of bhikshuni ordination and has instructed our department to carry out that research. Consequently, in order to resolve the possibility of Tibetan nuns receiving the complete set of bhikshuni vows—the bases of all higher trainings—the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration has been carrying out extensive research over a lengthy period of time. Our department has published three books covering topics such as the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition that flourished in Tibet, the Dharmagupta vinaya tradition that flourished in China, the beginnings of the first bhikshuni sangha in China and the transmission of its lineage. The following is a summary of these three books—the bases of examination:
According to available sources found here [in the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives], there never was bhikshuni lineage in Tibet that came directly from India or any other country. However, there is a scriptural source in the Tibetan translation of the vinaya texts of Mulasarvastivadin tradition (gZhi smra’i ‘dul ba lung) that says that if a sangha comprised only of bhikshus imparts bhikshuni ordination to women through performing a bhikshu ceremonial rite (pha chog), the act though authentic will incur a minor infraction (nyes byas) to the performers [those who impart the bhikshuni vows through a ceremonial rite].
With this vinaya source, several Tibetan vinaya-masters such as Panchen Shakya Chokden (1428-1507) initiated a new system of imparting bhikshuni ordination in Tibet in which a sangha comprised only of bhikshus imparted the bhikshuni ordination using a bhikshu ceremonial rite. However, this practice met with much opposition from vinaya-holders who were his contemporaries, such as Kunkhyen Gorampa Sonam Senge (1429-1489).
They opposed the new system mainly with two reasons. First, they argued that no great pioneering vinaya-holders had imparted the bhikshuni ordination in Tibet in the past. Second, they claimed that the new system violated vinaya texts such as the Root Sutra of Monastic Discipline (Vinayamulasutra, ‘Dul ba’i mdo rtsa ba) and Extensive Elucidation of Vinayamulasutra (mDo rgya cher ‘grel).
The Vinayamulasutra states:
One can not become a bhikshuni if one has not received the brahmacaryopasthana (tshang spyod nyer gnas).
After that, the sangha imparts it (bhikshuni ordination).
The Extensive Elucidation of Vinayamulasutra states:
As it is the occasion, the bhikshuni sangha utters [the ceremonial rite of the brahmacaryopasthana].
They argued that a nun cannot seek bhikshuni ordination unless she has received the brahmacaryopasthana, as is established by the passage cited from the Vinayamulasutra. And the vows of brahmacaryopasthana are bestowed only by a bhikshuni sangha as is established by the citation from the Extensive Elucidation of Vinayamulasutra. Since Tibet never had bhikshuni sangha in the past, it is too extreme to impart bhikshuni ordination to women exclusively by a bhikshu sangha; and such practice is tantamount to denouncing the Buddhadharma.
Even though the practice [of imparting bhikshuni ordination to women by a sangha of only bhikshus] is directly condemned primarily with these citations from the Vinaya texts, the vinaya-holder, Panchen Shakya Chokden—who held that the said practice does not contradict the rules set forth in Vinaya texts—responded to the objection by saying that the bhikshuni ordination conducted by two different ceremonial rites—bhikshu ceremonial rite (pha chog) and bhikshuni ceremonial rite (ma chog)—needs to be separately interpreted. He argued that the citations do not refute his practice because the said requisites outlined in the Vinaya texts are required for imparting bhikshuni ordination for women by performing a bhikshuni ceremonial rite (ma chog), however, such requisites are not required for imparting bhikshuni ordination for women by performing a bhikshu ceremonial rite (pha chog). In a similar fashion, Drukchen Pema Karpo (1527-1592) also asserted the principle.
In any case, there are Vinaya textual references which state that the act of bestowing bhikshuni ordination by a sangha consisting only of bhikshus performing the bhikshu ceremonial rite is acceptable. However, it seems there is no Vinaya statement which states that flawless and perfect vows (nyes med phun tshogs kyi sdom pa) [of bhikshuni] are generated [when such a procedure is followed].
The arguments persist as to whether it is appropriate for a bhikshu sangha to impart bhikshuni ordination to a woman who has not received the brahmacaryopasthana vows. However, there are Vinaya textual references which state that a woman can receive the vows of shikshamana (dge slob ma) and brahmacaryopasthana from a bhikshu sangha in the case that the required number of bhikshunis does not exist [in that area]. However, it seems there is no Vinaya source proving that flawless and perfect vows [of shikshamani and brahmacaryopasthana] are generated.
To put it briefly, the great vinaya-masters of Tibet such as Panchen Shakya Chokden initiated a new system of imparting bhikshuni ordination to women using a bhikshu ceremonial rite carried out by an exclusively bhikshu sangha. Likewise, to facilitate the possibility of re-introducing the same practice today, the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration published a book entitled Thubwang Gongsel (Oral Instructions of Munindra [Buddha]). This book is published as a basis of research for the upholders of Tripitaka, especially the vinaya-holders and vinaya-scholars of Tibet.
In order to support the said practice of bhikshuni ordination in Tibet, a second book entitled ‘Rabsel Melong’ (Clear Mirror) has been published. It is a collection of all the indispensable textual statements of the Vinaya texts of the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition and the bhikshuni pratimoksha ceremonial rites (dge slong ma’i las chog) which were translated into Tibetan that are available at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Hence, this book is a basis of research to resolve the possibility of imparting bhikshuni ordination, having a complete set of fundamental vows, to Tibetan nuns in conformity with the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition that flourished in Tibet.
The third book is a brief account of research findings on the status of bhikshunis that flourished in China which was done by our Department. The summary of this book is as follows:
The facts concerning the origin of the Chinese bhikshuni are primarily based on the Chinese document entitled the Biographies of Bhikshunis (Chinese: Pi-chie-ni-chuan) which was written in the sixth century CE and its translations found in other languages. According to this document there were two types of traditions pertaining to the bestowal of bhikshuni ordination that flourished in China.
The first tradition was adopted in the fourth century CE where the bhikshuni ordination was imparted to women by an exclusively bhikshu sangha. This tradition has been practised since then and is still being practised to this day.
In justifying the validity of this tradition [i.e. imparting bhikshuni ordination by an exclusively bhikshu sangha], the Chinese bhikshunis quote the dialogue between the Chinese bhikshunis and Sri Lankan bhikshunis who came to China [in 429 CE]. The following is the summary of the dialogue:
At that time, the visiting Sri Lankan bhikshunis asked, “Have foreign bhikshunis ever been here before us?” The Chinese bhikshunis answered that there had been none. The Sri Lankan bhikshunis then asked, “If that was the case, how had the Chinese nuns taken bhikshuni ordination from the sangha of both bhikshus and bhikshunis?” The Chinese bhikshunis replied, “Like that of Mahaprajapati, they took the bhikshuni ordination from a bhikshu sangha only.” Although the Chinese bhikshunis justified the validity of the tradition of bhikshuni ordination that was flourishing then, they still had some doubts and consulted the Indian vinaya-holder Acharya Gunavarman (Yon tan go cha)—who was staying in China at that time—about the possibility of retaking the bhikshuni ordination. Acharya Gunavarman confirmed the validity of bhikshuni ordination imparted by a sangha consisting of bhikshu only [by saying, “As the bhikshuni ordination is finalized by the bhikshu sangha, the bhikshuni ordination still results in pure vows, just as in the case of Mahaprajapati], but he also consented the re-ordination saying, “With the intention of advancing the three higher trainings, receiving the bhikshuni ordination again has great benefit.”
It is distressing to find out that apart from the above dialogue there are no corroborative statements available in the Vinaya texts of the Dharmagupta vinaya tradition that flourished widely in China which support the practice of bhikshuni ordination imparted by a sangha consisting of bhikshus only. It remains a difficult issue here for the fact that we have not yet found any clear statements justifying the validity of said practice.
The second tradition of bhikshuni ordination imparted by a sangha of both bhikshus and bhikshunis initially began in the fifth century CE [433 CE] in China. During that time a group of Sri Lankan bhikshunis and the Indian vinaya-holder Sanghavarman (dGe ‘dun go cha) who acted as the chief preceptor (upadhyaya) imparted a dual bhikshuni ordination [i.e. of imparting the ordination by a sangha of both bhikshus and bhikshunis] to many Chinese women which was the beginning of the dual bhikshuni lineage in China.
Although many claimed that this lineage is unbrokenly transmitted up to this day, however, like the previous system, this also remained a mere claim, as there are no reliable and corroborative statements available justifying the validity that it is extant [unbroken] to this day. Hence, it also remains a difficult issue here.
In short, even though the documents on the origin of the Chinese bhikshuni can be found and their sources are not troublesome to be assessed, however, two things are essentially needed in order to receive the Chinese bhikshuni ordination for the Tibetan nuns. Firstly, it is important to find the Vinaya sources [from the Dharmagupta vinaya tradition] supporting the tradition of imparting bhikshuni ordination exclusively by a bhikshu sangha [that flourished in China]. Secondly, it is crucial to find the sources supporting that the lineage of the dual bhikshuni ordination—initially transmitted from the Sri Lankan bhikshunis—is unbrokenly transmitted up to this day.
Despite our earnest effort and continuous research for a long period of time, we have not been able to find a substantial testimony on these two issues. This has been the only reason for the failure of resolving the formal reception of the Chinese bhikshuni ordination for Tibetan nuns and it is the genuine fact. Allegations that this failure is rooted in a sense of gender discrimination are baseless and unwarranted.
Lastly, we request all the concerned people to give us a helping hand to find these indispensable two sources. On December 4, 2000, the Department of Religion and Culture published these three books as bases of research to determine the possibility of the bhiskhuni ordination for Tibetan nuns.
After earnest effort and continuous research, the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration has found a realistic element and new insight regarding the possibility of accomplishing bhikshuni ordination in conformity with the Dharmagupta vinaya tradition. In order to establish the Chinese tradition of bhikshuni ordination in the sangha community of Tibetan nuns, two indispensable points must be clearly spelt out and understood by the vinaya-holders and the nuns of Tibet. When they understand the issues clearly, just like the approach of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the international body of vinaya-holders will not encounter inconvenience in resolving the final decision regarding imparting a pure and complete bhikshuni ordination to Tibetan nuns in conformity with the Dharmagupta vinaya tradition that flourished in China.
In order to initiate and spread the tradition of Chinese bhikshuni ordination in the sangha community of Tibetan nuns, the concerned people should know the two indispensable points, but they remain unresolved to this day and need further research.
According to the documents, two traditions of bhikshuni ordination were originated and flourished in China. The first tradition of bhikshuni ordination was imparted by a sangha consisting of bhikshus only. The second tradition of bhikshuni ordination was imparted by a dual sangha consisting of both bhikshus and bhikshunis. The vinaya-holders and nuns of Tibet must comprehend how these two traditions developed and the factual nature and actual position of the traditions claimed to be transmitted to this day. These problematic issues should be clearly understood by them.
In 1997, a researcher was specifically sent to Taiwan by the Department of Religion and Culture specially to find solutions to these issues. These two issues were raised and discussed in the seminar organized by the Buddhist Research Centre of the University of Taiwan amongst the invited assembly of vinaya-holders of Chinese bhikshus and bhikshunis and scholars. Our researcher made every effort to find the answer to these problematic issues; likewise, the Chinese vinaya-holders helped to find the solutions. However, still we have not found any clear and detail answer to these two issues. Hence, the possibility of the bhikshuni ordination remains unresolved.
In 1998, a seminar to which an assembly of vinaya-holders of bhikshus and bhikshunis of the three vinaya traditions [Mulasarvastivadin, Sthaviravadin or Theravadin and Dharmaguptika] were invited was organized here in Dharamsala by the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration. The possibility of receiving the bhikshuni ordination in accordance with the three vinaya traditions, and particularly the two issues—the indispensable points according to the Vinaya texts—were discussed. They also readily discussed how to find the sources to resolve these two problematic issues regarding the bhikshuni ordination in accordance with the Dharmagupta vinaya tradition that flourished in China. However, they were unable to find the sources. Hence, the bhikshuni ordination was not finalized at that time. Yet, everyone unanimously agreed that it would be best if it is discussed and resolved by an international body of vinaya-holders.
After that, we requested all the concerned people—the vinaya-holders of Chinese bhikshus and bhikshunis, the Eastern and Western Buddhist monks and nuns who show concern towards the bhikshuni ordination, scholars and researchers—to help us to find and send these two sources, which are the indispensable points with respect to the Dharmagupta vinaya tradition. However, no one reported us so far. We again earnestly request the concerned people to assist us in finding these sources in order to achieve the desired goal.
Some people not knowing the real situation [pertaining to the above mentioned points] say that His Holiness the Dalai Lama prohibits the bhikshuni ordination. This is not true and has no factual sources and reasons behind it. The majority of the people know that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has taken great interest and concern in the bhikshuni ordination since 1980 and in many places he has repeatedly advised to do a thorough research on it. He also advised the Department of Religion and Culture to do a thorough research. Likewise, the researcher [Archarya Geshe Thubten Jangchub] has continuously put his effort in finding the two indispensable points, which is essential pertaining to the Vinaya texts. However, the truth is that he was unable to find them to this day. Another important truth is that the Chinese vinaya-holders of bhiskhus and bhikshunis claim that there are clear and detailed sources; however, it remains a mere claim. The researcher felt and was also told by some that the Chinese vinaya-holders do not take any responsibility and interest on these two issues which are indispensable points from the Vinaya perspective. Whatever the case may be, we have not found a reliable source to this day.
For this very reason, the situation of imparting bhikshuni ordination to the Tibetan nuns in accordance with the Chinese bhikshuni tradition remains unresolved up until now.
There is a separate agenda pertaining to the Chinese Bhikshuni Lineage that required further research; its summary is as follows:
- A Vinaya source is to be sought that supports a bhikshuni ordination by a sangha consisting of only bhikshus.
- A reliable document is to be sought that records a clear and detailed account of the dual bhikshuni lineage or the bhikshuni ordination imparted by a sangha of both bhikshus and bhikshunis.
- To continue an uncompleted research pertaining to the approaches of bhikshuni ceremonial rites exercised today by the Chinese bhikshus and bhikshunis and the bhikshuni ceremonial rite instructed in the Vinaya texts of the Dharmagupta vinaya tradition.
For that we earnestly request all the vinaya-holders in general and particularly the Chinese bhikshus and bhikshunis who follow the Dhramagupta vinaya tradition to take additional responsibility and help us to make these issues clearer and more reliable.
A means to achieve Bhikshuni Ordination in conformity with the Vinaya texts of the Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya Tradition
In order to find the methods of re-introducing or introducing the bhiskhuni ordination, having a complete set of fundamental vows, for the Tibetan nuns in conformity with the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition of Nalanda that flourished in Tibet, there are two main subjects to be discussed:
- Whether or not it is possible to re-introduce the tradition of bhikshuni ordination imparted only by a bhikshu sangha—as practised in Tibet in the past—in the nunneries of modern Tibetan society.
- Whether or not it is possible to introduce a tradition of imparting a flawless and perfect bhikshuni ordination by a sangha of both bhikshus and bhikshunis.
The possibility of re-introducing the tradition of Bhikshuni Ordination imparted by a Sangha of only Bhikshus
After earnest effort and continuous research since 1982, the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration has found an element of new insight regarding the possibility of accomplishing the bhikshuni ordination in conformity with the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition of Nalanda that flourished in Tibet. Here are the details:
There was neither a bhikshuni lineage [that directly came from India or from any other country] nor a dual bhikshuni ordination [that was imparted by a sangha of both bhishus and bhikshunis] in Tibet in the past; however, in the fifteenth century CE, some women were bestowed bhikshuni ordination by a sangha of only bhikshus. Nevertheless, some also came forth to criticize this practice. The main reason for criticizing the practice was that a novice nun cannot be ordained as a bhikshuni unless she has received the vows of brahmacaryopasthana. The vows of brahmacaryopasthana should be imparted only by a bhikshuni sangha. Since the bhikshu sangha cannot impart the vows of brahmacaryopasthana, there never was a bhikshuni sangha who received the vows of brahmacaryopasthana [in Tibet]. For this reason, the practice of imparting bhikshuni ordination only by a bhikshu sangha was considered to be unacceptable in Tibet.
However, although it is claimed that there never was a bhikshuni sangha in Tibet, there is a clear account stating not just that there bhikshunis, but that that there were hundreds of bhikshunis in Mi-nyag Rawagang [in Tibet]. And, although it is asserted that the vows of brahmacaryopasthana are imparted only by a bhikshuni sangha and not by a bhikshu sangha, nevertheless, there are sources in Vinaya texts of the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition that flourished in Tibet stating that a bhikshu sangha can impart the vows of brahmacaryopasthana as well. There are also clear Vinaya sources stating that if a woman [novice nun] is bestowed bhikshuni ordination by an exclusively bhikshu sangha, flawless and perfect bhikshuni vows are not generated, however, incomplete or imperfect bhikshuni vows are generated; and if bhikshuni ordination is bestowed on a woman through a bhikshu ceremonial rite, it is regarded as an authentic act (las chags pa).
Since there are Vinaya sources stating that imparting bhikshuni ordination by a sangha consisting only of bhikshus is an authentic act, although there never was a bhikshuni lineage in Tibet in the past, however, roughly in the fifthteenth century CE, some Tibetan vinaya-holders introduced a tradition of bestowing bhikshuni ordination on women. Some of the accounts are mentioned below.
Tibetan vinaya-holders such as Namkha Sonam (1378-1466), Sangye Sangpo, the abbot of Goyabpa monastery (fifteenth century) and Panchen Shakya Chokden (1428-1507) respectively bestowed bhikshuni ordinations on women such as Bhikshuni Chuwar Rangjon Ponmo, Shakya Chokden’s mother Bhikshuni Shakya Sangmo and Gyama Bhikshuni Chodup Palmo Tsodrung by a sangha consisting of bhikshus only.
There are some accounts of a bhikshuni sangha existing in Tibet before these vinaya-masters. For example, there are accounts mentioning “As Bhikshuni Tashi Palmo emerged in Mi-nyak Rawagang [monastery] as a disciple of Khenchen Kazhipa Rigpae Senge (1287-1375) and his entourage, they also took great care of the bhikshuni sangha” and “Hundreds of bhikshunis earnestly engaged in teaching, learning and practice of [Shantideva’s] Bodhicharyavatara, Vinaya and so on”. Especially, some reliable documents clearly recorded that Drogon Chogyal Phagpa (1235-1280) imparted bhikshuni ordination to hundreds of women.
There is a possibility of re-introducing in the same manner this tradition of imparting bhikshuni ordination to the Tibetan novice nuns in the nunneries of the contemporary Tibetan community. There are sources in the Vinaya texts of Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition of Nalanda which mention that the act of imparting bhikshuni ordination without the abbot [abbess] is permissible. Hence, such sources logically disprove the claim, stating that imparting bhikshuni ordination without the abbot [abbess] is an extreme path. Hence, like the system practised in Tibet in the past, by virtue of need, the present Tibetan vinaya-holders should discuss and resolve the matter in conformity with the Vinaya texts of the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition in order to reach a final determination.
The possibility of introducing a new tradition of Bhikshuni Ordination imparted by a Sangha of both Bhikshus and Bhikshunis
According to the Vinaya texts of the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition of Nalanda that flourished in Tibet, the minimum number of sangha members required for the dual bhikshuni ordination, having a complete set of fundamental vows, in a “central-land” is twenty-two: ten bhikshus and twelve bhikshunis. This minimum number of sangha members was set forth by Buddha Shakyamuni himself in his ‘Minor Precepts of Vinaya’ (‘dul ba phran tshegs kyi gzhi, one of the four categories of scriptures on the monastic discipline, Vinaya-agama, that which deals with minor matters):
After that, all the bhikshus should assemble and sit, at least a minimum number of ten bhikshu companions [is required] and all the bhikshunis should assemble and sit, at least a minimum number of twelve bhikshuni companions [is required]. In front of the bhikshus who perform the act [i.e. ceremonial rite], [she] should be placed on bunch of grasses or on a clean mat with folded hands. Then the sangha of both bhikshus and bhikshunis should impart the bhikshuni ordination [to her].
Here the number of sangha members required in the “border-land” is not mentioned. Although in the Sublime Vinaya Text (Vinaya-uttama, ‘Dul ba gzhung bla ma or ‘Dul ba gzhung dam pa), Buddha Shakyamuni (skye pa ma gtogs: to be discussed with the researcher) did not mention the number of sangha members required for the bhikshuni ordination in the “central-land” and “border-land”, however, texts such as Acharya Gunaprabha’s Practical Vinaya: One Hundred Formal Procedures (Karmashatama, ‘Dul ba’i lag len las brgya rtsa gcig pa) and Acharya Dharmamitra’s Extensive Elucidation of Vinayamulasutra (‘Dul ba mdo rtsa ba’i rgya cher ‘grel) mention that in the case that the required number of bhikshunis does not exist in the “border-land,” then the minimum number of sangha members required for the dual bhikshuni ordination is eleven: five bhikshus and six bhikshunis, however, the minimum number of sangha members required for the dual bhikshuni ordination in the “central-land” is twenty-two just as it is mentioned in the ‘Minor Precepts of Vinaya’.
The Karmashatama Vinaya states:
After that, in addition to the sangha of bhikshunis, in the “central-land”, a sangha of ten or more bhikshus should assemble; and in the case that the required number of bhikshunis does not exist in the “border-lands”, then in addition to the vinaya-holders [of bhikshus] and five [bhikshunis], more bhikshus should be added. It should be known that the act [i.e. ceremonial rite] of imparting bhikshuni ordination done by the bhikshu sangha is the dual bikshuni ordination [i.e. the bhikshuni ordination imparted by both bhikshus and bhikshunis].
The Extensive Elucidation of Vinayamulasutra states:
For the act [i.e. the ceremonial rite] of imparting bhikshuni ordination in the “central-land”, the sangha should have ten or more bhikshus and twelve or more bhikshunis. For the act [i.e. the ceremonial rite] of imparting bhikshuni ordination in the “border-land”, in the case that the required number of bhikshunis does not exist, the dual sangha should have five or more bhikshus classified as vinaya-holders and six or more bhikshunis who are classified as vinaya-holders.
Thus, the flawless and perfect bhikshuni ordination is imparted by a dual sangha of bhikshus and bhikshunis. However, the bhikshuni vows are obtained only from a bhikshu sangha and not from a bhikshuni sangha. Kunkhyen Tsonawa Sherab Sangpo proved this in his Dulwa Tsotik (a Vinaya commentary; ‘Dul ba mtsho taik) by quoting statements from the Vinaya texts: the Minor Precepts of Vinaya and Laezhi Tikka (Las gzhi’i tai ka).
The Dulwa Tsotik states:
After imparting the vows of celibacy, in addition to the assembled sangha of bhikshunis, here, to make up the deficiency, [the sangha of bhikshunis] are added as the supplementary members. The Laezhi Tika states, “For the act [i.e. the ceremonial rite] of imparting bhikshuni ordination, since the bhikshu sangha is the primary factor, the other sangha members of bhikshunis etc. are simply required in accordance with the tradition.” Here, to establish that the bhikshu sangha is the primary factor, the Minor Precepts of Vinaya states, “The bhikshni received the bhikshuni ordination from the sangha of bhikshus and they should bestow the entities [vows] of the bhikshuni.”
Buton Rinchen Drup (1290-1364) and Kunkhyen Jamyang Zhaepa (1648-1721) also established that the bhikshu sangha is the primary factor for imparting the bhikshuni ordination.
Buton’s Commentary on the Karmashatama states:
After [generating] the vows of brahmacaryopasthana, the vows of a bhikshun are given by the sangha of bhikshus; the congregation of women is simply required in accordance with the tradition.
Jamyang Zhaepa’s Vinaya text entitled Kalsang Rewa Kunkong states:
Here in this context, since the vows of bhikshuni primarily obtained from the sangha of bhikshus are prime vows, in addition to the sangha of bhikshunis, the sangha of bhikshus should be added; and this is the way to add…
Thus, with a Tibetan sangha consisting of ten or more bhikshus, who follow the stainless Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition of Nalanda that flourished in Tibet, and a sangha consisting of twelve or more bhikshunis, who follow the other Vinaya traditions [the Sthaviravadin or Theravadin and the Dharmaguptika], obtaining the completion of a specified number of twenty-two sangha members; and by performing the bhikshuni ceremonial rite of the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition, it is possible to introduce a new system of bhikshuni ordination for the Tibetan novice nuns. It seems this method does not contradict the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition; however, the vinaya-holders should make a final decision that does not contradict the Mulasarvastivadion vinaya tradition.
Identifying the Vinaya texts for study and practice
It seems there are great temporary and long-term benefits if the would-be Tibetan bhikshunis [who would be ordained through the previous mentioned method] engage in the listening, contemplation and meditation of the Vinaya texts of the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition of Nalanda that flourished in Tibet, and put its trainings into practice. The reasons are as follow:
Firstly, all the Vinaya texts related to bhikshuni pertaining to the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition are already translated in Tibetan; and are ready to be used by all. Secondly, there are many bhikshu vinaya-holders who hold its unbroken lineage who can give practical guidance. From them, would-be bhikshunis can ask for instructions on the prescribed limits of its disapprovals, avowals and sanctions pertaining to its salient points, hidden meanings and subtle matters. Thirdly, since the vows of a bhikshuni are obtained from a sangha of senior Tibetan bhikshu vinaya-holders, if the would-be bhikshunis could pay attention and wish to practise, they should recognize the existing requisites which are complete and unmistaken, and can be found without much difficulties. Having understood such, they would know that Vinaya texts of the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition and their commentaries are available for study. If it is done in this fashion, it also does not contradict the proscribed law of the Dharma King.
The Dharma King, Tride Songtsen, declared three important laws in Tibet. The law related to this context is mentioned in Buton Rinchen Drup’s History of Buddhism:
The Tibetan king, Tride Songtsen Ralpachan, decreed that vinaya traditions other than the Mulasarvastivada should not be established or cultivated, and their pitakas not translated.
Kongtrul Yonten Gyatso also mentioned in his Sheja Kunkyab Treasury:
The bhikshu lineages that flourished in Tibet from the three areas (Upper Lineage, Pandit Sakya Shri’s Lineage and Lower Lineage of Vinaya) are of the Mulasarvastivada vinaya tradition. It is so because the Dharma King prescribed that Tibet should follow the philosophical view of the Middle Way School and that conduct other than of the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya School is not allowed. For example, since Atisha held the bhikshu lineage of the Mahasamgika vinaya tradition, [his followers] could not ask him to transmit his bhikshu ordination [for the Tibetans]. This symbolises that Tibetans, as decreed by the Dharma king, should not follow other than the Mulasarvastivada vinaya tradition.
Furthermore, Khenpo Shantarakshita prophesied, “They would be no tirthikas (extreme non-Buddhist, mu stegs pa) in Tibet. However, Buddhism will diffuse into two separate divisions and they will dispute. At that time, invite my disciple, Kamalashila, and let him take the dispute. After his debate, the clash will be settled in accordance with the dharma.” As prophesied, [Hva-shang and his entourage] started to propagate the perverted teachings of Buddhism in Tibet in the past and started to dispute about the philosophical views and conducts [of Buddhism]. The Dharma King invited Kamalashila and asked him to debate [against Hva-shang and his entourage]. He defeated [Hva-shang and his entourage] and settled the dispute in accordance with the Buddhist teachings. Later on, four of the Chinese entourages assassinated Kamalashila. The detailed account on this topic is mentioned in Buton’s History of Buddhism.
Hence, the Vinaya texts that should be studied by the would-be bhikshunis should be the Vinaya texts of the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition and its commentaries just as it was decreed by the Dharma King.
A means to achieve Bhikshuni Ordination in conformity with Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya tradition in the future
In future years, if Tibetan bhikshunis are ordained through the bhikshuni ordination imparted by a sangha of both bhikshus and bhikshunis, they should find their desired teacher/s of the topics (gnas kyi slob dpon) who can guide them with instructions on the prescribed limits of Vinaya regarding the disapprovals, avowals and sanctions pertaining to its salient points, hidden meanings and subtle matters. In the distant future, as soon as they become qualified as steadfast in discipline and learned vinaya-holders and unbrokenly hold the vows for twelve years, they can start imparting shikshamana and brahmacaryopasthana vows; and the dual bhikshuni ordination can be imparted by twelve Tibetan bhikshuni vinaya-holders and ten Tibetan bhikshu vinaya-holders to the Tibetan novice nuns in conformity with the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition. However, such proposal should be finally determined by the vinaya-holders in conformity with the Mulsarvastivadin vinaya tradition.
In brief, the important Vinaya issues should be discussed and determined by the assembly of vinaya-holders without contradicting the Three Scriptural Collections (Tripitakas), just as the Vinayamulasutra states:
If [an act] goes against the ceremonial rite, then, the act is not acceptable. Here, the ceremonial rite is: the required number of sangha members should be complete; the act should be uttered; and the act should be performed.
The act is not acceptable if it goes against the ceremonial rite. The vinaya-holder Kunkhyen Tsonawa elucidated on this topic:
If it goes against the ceremonial rite, then, the act is utterly not acceptable and the act is not flawless. Specifically, if, for example, four members are missing from the required number of sangha members, and if they act such as reciting the four kinds of supplications, then, the act is utterly unacceptable. If the act goes against the sequentially order, then, the act is not accepted as flawless. Although the act is not done in sequence, but if they are able to understand the meanings of the words, then, it is accepted as a flawed act.
The Extensive Elucidation of Vinayamulasutra and the Dulwa Tsotik clearly mention how to perform the flawless and perfect acts pertaining to the ceremonial rite of the bikhshuni ordination. Therefore, one should look into them.
The recitation of the Pratimoksha-sutras (the Vinaya texts containing the code of precepts for monks) is regarded as both the Teacher (Buddha) and the teaching (Dharma) and the subtle instructions of the Vinaya should be determined by the assembly of vinaya-holders in conformity with the Vinaya as stated in the Vinayamulasutra:
Oh Bhikshus! When I, your Teacher, pass into parinirvana and became no more available, you should not regard and think “Our Teacher and Teaching are missing”. The purpose of which I told you to recite the Pratimoksha-sutras twice a month is from now on it is your Teacher and Teaching. Oh Bhikshus! For all the subtle points of the fundamental precepts and minor precepts, you convene the sangha and discuss the issue and resolve it to reach a peaceful decision.
Moreover, Tsongkhapa Lobsang Drakpa (1357-1419), in his Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path (Lam rim chen mo), quoted the statement of the incomparable Lord Dimamkara Atisha:
From the mouth of Atisha, “We in India, if any important or controversial issues come to light, convene an assembly of upholders of the Tripitaka. Then, we discuss whether it is disapproved in the Tripitaka or whether it is contradicts the Tripitaka. In this way, we make the decision. In Vikramashila, on top of this, we discuss whether it is disapproved from the conduct of bodhisattvas or whether it is contradicts the conduct of bodhisattvas. Then, it would be set forth and all the vinaya-holders abide by the decision.”
Likewise, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said time and again:
In any case, such matters related to these lineages should be discussed and decided collectively by the upholders of Tripitaka in general, and particularly by the vinaya-holders; there is no way an individual person can make a decision.
Hence, the final decision on the bhikshuni ordination should be discussed and determined only by the bhikshu vinaya-holders without contradicting the Vinaya. Otherwise, no one has the right to make decisions, just as it is proscribed in the Vinaya. Hence, it should be put into practice.
In order to present our perspective and position on how to accomplish bhikshuni ordination in accordance with the fundamental principles of the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition of Nalanda that flourished in Tibet in the forth coming International Conference of Buddhist Vinaya-holders, the Tibetan vinaya-holders are requested to discuss and write analytical articles based on the three agendas listed below:
- To re-introduce the tradition of receiving bhikshuni ordination from a sangha consisting only of bhikshus
- To introduce a new tradition of imparting bhikshuni ordination imparted by a Tibetan sangha of bhikshus and bhikshunis
- Any other method of imparting bhikshuni ordination that does not contradict the Mulasarvastivadin vinaya tradition
Based on these three agendas, the vinaya-holders are requested write the article by clearly quoting all the essential sources from the Vinaya texts.
Please reach your articles here by 25th April, 2006.
A PhD candidate at the Department of Buddhist Studies, University of Delhi. His thesis is on the life and works of Bodong Chokley Namgyal. He completed his thesis and submitted it to the university in February 2005. He has a BA (English Major) from IGNOU and MA in Buddhist Studies from Delhi University. He also has the Pharchin Rabjampa and Uma Rabjampa degrees from the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, Dharamsala. At present he works at the Bodong Research and Publication Centre, Dharamsala. ↩
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.