Bhikshuni vinaya and ordination lineages
A summary report of the 2007 International Congress on the Women’s Role in the Sangha, Page 1
University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany, July 18-20, 2007. Originally published on The Berzin Archives.
Translations of this article into Tibetan, German, and Chinese can be found on The Berzin Archives.
Part 1: Background
[As an aid to those unfamiliar with the topics presented here, some background information and a few technical terms and dates have been filled in to the summaries of some of the papers. When these supplements have been of significant length, they have been indicated by inclusion within square brackets and violet typeface.]
Introduction to the bhikshuni vows
The importance of having bhikshunis
The monastic community, the sangha, plays a central role in Buddhism. According to many of Buddha’s statements, the flourishing of the Dharma depends on the existence of a fourfold assembly of disciples (‘ khor rnam-bzhi’i dge-‘dun), comprising:
- full monks (dge-slong, Skt. bhikshu, Pali: bhikkhu),
- full nuns (dge-slong-ma, Skt. bhikshuni, Pali: bhikkhuni),
- laymen (dge-bsnyen, Skt. upasaka, Pali: upasaka), keeping five vows,
- laywomen (dge-bsnyen-ma, Skt. upasika, Pali: upasika), keeping five vows.
Thus, in The Chanting Together Sutta (Pali: Sangiti Sutta) within the Long Discourses (Pali: Dighanikaya), one of the nine unfortunate, inopportune times for leading a pure spiritual life (Pali: akkhana asamaya brahmacariya vasaya) is when born in a border region among “foolish barbarians” where there is no access to monks, nuns, laymen, or laywomen.
Similarly, in Shravaka (Listener) Stages of Mind (Nyan-sa, Skt. Shravakabhumi), the great fourth- or fifth-century CE Indian Mahayana master, Asanga, listed as one of the ten enrichments (sbyor-ba, Skt. sampad) of a precious human life rebirth in a central land. A central land is defined either geographically, as a certain region in India, or from a Dharma point of view, as a region having the fourfold assembly complete.
In many traditionally Buddhist countries, however, the bhikshuni ordination lineage has either never been established or, having been once established, has ended. Therefore, for the flourishing of the Dharma among the Buddhists in these lands and in non-traditionally Buddhist countries as well, it is essential that the bhikshuni ordination line be re-established. To do so, however, in a manner that accords with scriptural authority is not a simple matter.
The original establishment of the bhikshuni order
Buddha himself ordained the first monks simply by reciting the words, “Ehi bhikkhu (Come here, monk).” When a sufficient number of monks had been ordained in this manner, he instituted ordination (bsnyen-par rdzogs-pa, Skt. upasampada, Pali: upasampada) by the bhikshus themselves.
According to many traditional accounts, Buddha at first refused, however, when his maternal aunt, Mahaprajapati Gautami (Go’u-ta-mi sKye-dgu’i bdag-mo chen-mo, Skye-dgu’i bdag-mo, Pali: Mahapajapati Gotami), requested him to ordain her as a nun. Nevertheless, Mahaprajapati, together with five hundred women followers, shaved their heads, donned yellow robes, and followed him as homeless renunciates (rab-tu ‘byung-ba, Skt. pravrajita, Pali: pabbajita). When she asked for ordination a second and then a third time and was again refused, Buddha’s disciple Ananda (Kun-dga’-bo) interceded on her behalf.
With this fourth request, Buddha agreed on the condition that she and future nuns observe eight weighty restrictions (lci-ba’i chos, Skt. gurudharma, Pali: garudhamma). These include the seniority rank of nuns always being lower than that of the monks, regardless of how long the monk or nun vows were kept. Buddha instituted such restrictions in conformity with the cultural values of India at his time, in order to avoid disrespect by society for his community and, consequently, for his teachings. He also did so to protect the nuns and ensure them respect from the laypeople. In ancient India, women were first under the protection/supervision of their fathers, then their husbands, and finally their sons. Single women were thought to be prostitutes and there are many cases in the Vinaya of nuns being called prostitutes simply because they were not under the protection of a male relative. Affiliating the bhikshuni sangha with the bhikshu sangha made their single status respectable in the eyes of society.
According to some traditions, accepting the eight garudhammas constituted this first ordination. According to other traditions, Buddha entrusted the initial ordination of Mahaprajapati and her five hundred women followers to ten bhikshus, under the leadership of Ananda. In either case, the earliest standard method for ordaining bhikshunis was by a group of ten bhikshus. This manner of ordination is commonly known as “single bhikshu sangha ordination” (pha’i dge-’dun rkyang-pa’i bsnyen-par rdzogs-pa). The ordination procedure involves asking the candidates a list of questions concerning impediments (bar-chad-kyi chos, Skt. antarayikadharma, Pali: antarayikadhamma) she may have that might hinder her from keeping the full set of vows. In addition to the questions asked in common with candidates for bhikshu ordination, these include further questions concerning her anatomy as a female.
When some bhikshuni candidates expressed extreme discomfort at answering such personal questions to monks, Buddha instituted the “dual sangha ordination” (gnyis-tshogs-kyi sgo-nas bsnyen-par rdzogs-pa). Here, the bhikshuni sangha first asks the questions regarding the candidate’s suitability to become a bhikshuni. Later that same day, the bhikshuni sangha joins with the bhikshu sangha to form a joint assembly. The bhikshu sangha gives the ordination, while the bhikshuni sangha serves as witnesses.
At first, the vows for the monastic community included avoiding only the “naturally uncommendable actions” (rang-bzhin kha-na-ma-tho-ba)—the physical and verbal actions that are destructive for everyone, whether lay or ordained. For ordained persons, however, these included the vow of celibacy. As time passed, Buddha promulgated an increasing number of additional vows, regarding “prohibited uncommendable actions” (bcas-pa’i kha-na ma-tho-ba)—physical and verbal actions that are not naturally destructive, but are prohibited only for ordained persons in order to avoid disrespect by society for the Buddhist monastic community and Buddha’s teachings. Only Buddha has had the authority to promulgate such prohibitions. The nuns received more additional vows than did the monks, because each additional vow was established after a specific incident involving the improper behavior of a monk or nun. The nuns’ vows include those established based on improper behavior of nuns in their interaction with monks, while the monks’ vows do not include reciprocal stipulations.
Lineages and differences in ordination procedures
Due to geographic and cultural differences, eighteen schools (sde-pa, Skt. nikaya, Pali: nikaya) evolved within what Mahayana texts later called “Hinayana” Buddhism. Each had its own version of the rules of discipline (‘ dul-ba, Skt. vinaya, Pali: vinaya), including monk and nun vows for individual liberation (so-so thar-pa’i sdom-pa, Skt. pratimoksha-samvara; Pali: patimokkha-samvara). The differences among the schools concerning these sets of vows and ordination procedures were minor, although some conservative Vinaya masters have considered these differences significant.
Of the eighteen nikaya schools, three bhikshu lineages have survived until today with unbroken continuity:
Theravada (gNas-brtan smra-ba, Skt. Sthaviravada), followed in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, with bhikshus keeping 227 vows,
Dharmagupta (Chos-srung sde-pa), followed in Taiwan, Hong Kong and other parts of the People’s Republic of China, Korea, and Vietnam, with bhikshus keeping 250 vows,
Mulasarvastivada (gZhi thams-cad yod-par smra-ba), followed in Tibet, Nepal, the Himalayan regions of India, Bhutan, Mongolia, and Buryatia, Kalmykia, and Tuva within Russia, with bhikshus keeping 253 vows.
As the Vinaya customs evolved, three graduated levels of nun vows were delineated:
Novice nuns (dge-tshul-ma, Skt. shramanerika, Pali: samaneri), keeping the tenfold discipline (tshul-khrims bcu, Skt. dashashila, Pali: dasasila). This entails keeping ten vows, which are sub-divided into 36 in Mulasarvastivada.
Two-year probationary nuns (dge-slob-ma, Skt. shikshamana, Pali: sikkhamana), keeping six trainings in Theravada and Dharmagupta, and six root and six branch trainings in Mulasarvastivada. The two-year shikshamana period was instituted to ensure that candidates for bhikshuni ordination were not pregnant.
Full nuns, keeping 311 vows in Theravada, 348 in Dharmagupta, and 364 in Mulasarvastivada.
In Dharmagupta, and probably in the other lineages as well, at minimum two bhikshunis are needed to give the shramanerika vow; while four are necessary for the shiksamana ordination. The officiating bhikshuni preceptor (mkhan-mo, Skt. upadhyayani) must be ordained at least twelve years in Theravada and Dharmagupta, or ten years in Mulasarvastivada. In Dharmagupta, the assisting bhikshuni procedural master (las-kyi slob-dpon, Skt. karmacarya) for shramanerika ordination must be ordained at least five years. Since there has been no bhikshuni sangha in Tibet, the bhikshus ordain the Mulasarvastivada shramanerikas.
The bhikshuni ordination ceremony has two parts:
In the first, conducted by the bhikshuni sangha, the candidates are questioned regarding major and minor impediments to receiving the full ordination. For example, in Dharmagupta, the questions concern the thirteen major and sixteen minor impediments for both men and women, plus nine additional impediments specifically for women. In Mulasarvastivada alone, this first part of the ordination ceremony is called “approaching chastity” (tshangs-spyod nyer-gnas, Skt: brahmacharyopasthana, Pali: brahmachariyopatthana). In Dharmagupta, it is called the “basis dharma.”
In the second part of the ceremony, conducted later the same day, the candidate receives the bhikshuni vow from the bhikshu sangha. In Mulasarvastivada and Dharmagupta, the bhikshuni sangha are also present during this second part of the ordination, as witnesses. In Theravada, the bhikshunis escort the candidate to the bhikshu sangha, but are not present during the bhikshus’ part of the ceremony.
For full bhikshuni ordination to occur in a “central land,” ten bhikshunis in Theravada and Dharmagupta, or twelve bhikshunis in Mulasarvastivada, as well as ten bhikshus are needed for the dual sangha method. In Theravada and Dharmagupta, the bhikshuni preceptor must have held the bhikshuni vow for at least twelve years, while in Mulasarvastivada, for at least ten years. In all three schools, the bhikshu preceptor must have held the bhikshu vow for at least ten years. In border regions where the required number of bhikshunis is not available, Mulasarvastivada stipulates that five bhikshunis and an additional five bhikshus will suffice for conferring the dual sangha ordination.
History of the disrupted ordination lineages
Although Theravada, Dharmagupta, and Mulasarvastivada each has its own set of bhikshuni vows, only the Dharmagupta line of bhikshuni ordination has continued to the present in an unbroken fashion.
Buddhism first arrived in Sri Lanka in 249 BCE through the mission of the Indian Emperor Ashoka’s son, Mahinda. Although the date from which the name Theravada was used is in dispute, for the sake of simplicity we shall refer to this Buddhist lineage as “Theravada.” The Theravada bhikshuni ordination lineage was then transmitted to Sri Lanka in 240 BCE with the arrival of Emperor Ashoka’s daughter, Sanghamitta, to the island. By 1050 CE, this ordination lineage ended as a consequence of the Tamil invasion and subsequent rule of Sri Lanka under the Chola Empire.
According to oral tradition, Emperor Ashoka also sent two emissaries, Sona and Uttara, to the kingdom of Suwannaphum (Skt. Suvarnabhumi), and they established Theravada Buddhism there. Most scholars identify this kingdom with the Mon (Tailaing) people and the port city of Thaton in southern Burma. It is unclear, however, whether the bhikshuni ordination lineage was transmitted at this time.
Although Theravada Buddhism was present in the various Pyu city states of Northern Burma from at least the first century BCE, it became mixed with Mahayana, Hinduism, and the local Ari religion, which involved animal sacrifices to spirits. In the mid-eleventh century CE, King Anawrahta unified northern Burma, conquered the Mon kingdom at Thaton, established his capital at Pagan, and invited the Mon bhikkhu Arahanta to establish Theravada Buddhism throughout his kingdom.
With the defeat of the Cholas in Sri Lanka in 1070 CE and the establishment of the new capital at Polonnaruwa, the Theravada bhikshu ordination lineage was re-established in Sri Lanka by bhikshus invited from Pagan. King Anawrahta, however, questioned the purity of the Mon bhikshuni lineage and, consequently, did not send any bhikshunis to re-establish the bhikshuni ordination. Thus, the Theravada ordination lineage of bhikshunis was not revived at that time in Sri Lanka. The last inscriptional evidence of the presence of a bhikshuni nunnery in Burma is in 1287 CE, when Pagan fell to the Mongol invasion.
Sri Lanka was invaded and most of it ruled, from 1215 to 1236 CE, by King Magha of Kalinga (modern-day Orissa, East India). During this period, the Sri Lankan bhikshu sangha was severely weakened. With the defeat of King Magha, Theravada bhikshus from Kanchipuram, a Buddhist center within the weakened Chola Kingdom in present-day Tamilnadu, South India, were invited to Sri Lanka in 1236 CE to revive the bhikshu ordination lineage. The fact that no Tamil bhikshunis were invited suggests that the Theravada bhikshuni sangha was no longer present in South India by this time. The last inscriptural evidence of a bhikshuni sangha in North India, including Bengal, is from the end of the twelfth century CE. It is unclear which lineage of bhikshuni vow the nuns held.
King Ramkhamhaeng of the Sukhothai Kingdom in Thailand established Theravada Buddhism in Thailand from Sri Lanka at the end of the thirteenth century CE. Since a bhikshuni sangha was no longer available in Sri Lanka at that time, the Theravada bhikshuni ordination lineage never reached Thailand. Since Theravada was established in Cambodia from Thailand in the early fourteenth century CE and, shortly thereafter, in Laos from Cambodia, the Theravada bhikshuni ordination lineage never reached these countries either.
In the Theravada countries, only Sri Lanka has officially re-established the Theravada bhikshuni ordination, and that was in 1998 CE. Up until then, women in Sri Lanka were only allowed to become dasasil matas, “ten-precept practitioners,” but not bhikkhunis. Although such laywomen wear robes and keep celibacy, they are not considered members of the monastic sangha. In Burma and Cambodia, women are allowed only to become “eight-precept practitioners,” known in Burma as silashin and in Cambodia as donchi or yieychi. Some women in Burma also receive the ten precepts. In Thailand, they may become “eight-precept practitioners,” known as maechi (maeji). Since the revival of Theravada Buddhism in the Chittagong District and the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh in 1864 CE from Arakan district of coastal Burma, women have become eight-precept practitioners there.
Although lines of Mulasarvastivada bhikshu ordination were established in Tibet on three occasions, a Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni sangha never became firmly established. Consequently, women following the Tibetan Buddhist tradition within the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya tradition and who have wished to ordain have become shramanerikas or novice nuns.
The first time the Mulasarvastivada bhikshu ordination was established in Tibet was with the visit of the Indian master Shantarakshita, together with thirty monks, and the founding of Samyay (bSam-yas) Monastery in Central Tibet in 775 CE. This was under the patronage of the Tibetan Emperor Tri Songdetsen (Khri Srong-lde-btsan). However, because neither twelve Indian Mulasarvastivada bhikshunis came to Tibet at that time, nor did Tibetan women subsequently travel to India to receive higher ordination, the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination lineage was not established in Tibet during this first period.
According to a Chinese source preserved among the Dunhuang documents, however, one of the secondary wives of Emperor Tri Songdetsen, Queen Droza Jangdron (‘Bro-bza’ Byang-sgron), and thirty more women did receive bhikshuni ordination at Samyay. Their ordination would have been conferred by the Chinese bhikshus who were invited to the translation bureau in Samyay in 781 CE. Since the Chinese Tang Emperor Zhong-zong had decreed in 709 CE that only the Dharmagupta ordination lineage be followed in China, the bhikshuni ordination in Tibet must have been from the Dharmagupta lineage. Presumably, the ordination was given by the single sangha method and its lineage did not continue after the defeat of the Chinese faction at the Samyay debate (792-794 CE) and its expulsion from Tibet.
During the reign of the Tibetan Emperor Tri Relpachen (Khri Ral-pa can, 815-836 CE), the Emperor decreed that no Hinayana texts other than those within the Sarvastivada fold could be translated into Tibetan. This effectively limited the possibility of ordination lineages other than Mulasarvastivada from being introduced to Tibet.
The Mulasarvastivada bhikshu ordination lineage from Shantarakshita was almost lost with King Langdarma’s repression of Buddhism at the end of the ninth or beginning of the tenth century CE. Three surviving Mulasarvastivada bhikshus, with the help of two Chinese Dharmagupta bhikshus, revitalized this bhikshu ordination lineage with the ordination of Gongpa-rabsel (Tib. dGongs-pa rab-gsal) in Eastern Tibet. No similar procedure involving Dharmagupta bhikshunis, however, was followed for establishing the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination at that time through a mixed lineage dual sangha.
Gongpa-rabsel’s line of Mulasarvastivada bhikshu ordination was brought back to Central Tibet and became known as the “Lower Tibet Vinaya” (sMad-‘dul) tradition. In Western Tibet, however, King Yeshey-wo (Ye-shes ‘od), at the end of the tenth-century CE, turned to India to establish, or perhaps re-establish, the Mulasarvastivada bhikshu ordination in his kingdom. Thus, he invited to Guge in Western Tibet the East Indian Pandit Dharmapala and several of his disciples to establish the second Mulasarvastivada bhikshu ordination line. This line became known as the “Upper Tibet Vinaya” (sTod-‘dul) tradition.
According to the Guge Chronicles, a Mulasarvastivada nun’s order was also established in Guge at this time, and King Yeshey-wo’s daughter, Lhai-metog (Lha’i me-tog), received ordination in it. However, it is unclear whether this ordination was as a bhikshuni or a shramanerika novice. In either case, it is also unclear whether Mulasarvastivada bhikshunis were invited to Guge to confer the ordination, and there is no evidence that a Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni sangha became firmly established in Western Tibet at this time.
In 1204 CE, the Tibetan translator Tropu Lotsawa (Khro-phu Lo-tsa-ba Byams-pa dpal) invited the Indian master Shakyashribhadra, the last throne-holder of Nalanda Monastery, to come to Tibet to escape the destruction wrought by the invading Guzz Turks of the Ghurid Dynasty. While in Tibet, Shakyashribhadra and his accompanying Indian monks conferred Mulasarvastivada bhikshu ordination on candidates within the Sakya tradition, thus starting the third such ordination line in Tibet. It has two sublineages, one deriving Shakyashribhadra’s ordination of Sakya Pandita (Sa-skya Pan-di-ta Kun-dga’ rgyal-mtshan) and the other from his ordination of a community of monks that he later trained and which eventually divided into the four Sakya monastic communities (tshogs-pa bzhi). Although there is evidence that there were still bhikshunis in northern India as late as the twelfth century CE, no Mulasarvastivada bhikshunis accompanied Shakyashribhadra to Tibet. Thus, the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination lineage was never transmitted in conjunction with any of the three Mulasarvastivada bhikshu ordination lines in Tibet.
In the centuries that have followed Shakyashribhadra’s visit, at least one attempt was made to establish the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination in Tibet, but it was unsuccessful. In the early fifteenth-century CE, the Sakya master Shakya-chogden (Sha-kya mchog-ldan) convened a single sangha Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination specifically for his mother. Another contemporary Sakya master, Gorampa (Go-ram-pa bSod-nams seng-ge), however, strongly criticized the validity of this ordination and, subsequently, it was discontinued.
It is within this historical context that The International Congress on Women’s Role in the Sangha: Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages was convened to present the results of research concerning the possible methods for re-establishing the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination in the present day. A further aim was to learn of the experiences of the non-Tibetan Buddhist monastic traditions concerning bhikshuni ordination and to seek the advice of the elders of those traditions.
Summary of the main points of the papers
The 65 delegates to the congress included bhikshu and bhikshuni Vinaya master and elders from nearly all traditional Buddhist countries, as well as senior members of the Western-trained academic community of Buddhologists. All the delegates unanimously agreed that the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination needs to be restarted, can be restarted, and must be restarted. Otherwise, Buddhism will be looked down upon by modern society as discriminating against women and Buddhists will be limiting their own ability to benefit society. After all, Buddha formulated monastic vows primarily in such a way as to gain the acceptance and respect of society and to avoid criticism. Buddha himself showed great flexibility in adjusting the vows for this purpose, and the same can be done today in the spirit of Buddha.
The majority of delegates recommended that, from the point of view of practical considerations and scriptural authority, the most satisfactory method for restarting the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination lineage is with a dual sangha comprising Mulasarvastivada bhikshus and Dharmagupta bhikshunis. The Dharmagupta bhikshuni lineage in China was started in the fifth century CE in a parallel manner by including bhikshunis from the unbroken Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka as part of its dual sangha. Since the bhikshunis function is to question the candidate regarding her suitability to receive the vow, the vow conferred is that of the ordaining bhikshus.
According to Vinaya sources, if the first bhikshuni ordination is conferred like this, even when not preceded by preliminary shikshamana and brahmacharya ordinations, the bhikshuni ordination is still valid. Although the ordaining bhikshus incur a minor infraction, this would be an acceptable price to pay. Geshe Rinchen Ngudrup, however, cited other Vinaya sources that allow bhikshus, under certain circumstances, to confer brahmacharya ordination and without incurring a minor infraction. From that, he inferred that if such a bhikshu sangha then proceeded to confer bhikshuni ordination, which must follow on the same day as the brahmacharya one, doing so would also not bring upon the bhikshus a minor infraction.
Whether or not the ordaining bhikshus incur a minor infraction, after the new bhikshunis have kept their vows purely for ten years, they can participate in a dual sangha and also confer shikshamana and brahmacharya ordinations. In support of this method, several delegates cited a Tibetan precedent of mixed sangha ordination—but, in this case, comprising Mulasarvastivada and Dharmagupta bhikshus—with the ninth- or tenth-century CE bhikshu ordination of Gongpa-rabsel.
[See: The revival of the monk ordination lineage in tenth-century Tibet.]
Some of the Theravada Vinaya masters suggested a variant of this method of re-establishing the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination, based on a legal procedure followed in the Pali tradition. After dual sangha Dharmagupta ordination, the newly ordained Dharmagupta bhikshunis could receive re-ordination as Mulasarvastivada bhikshunis by a Mulasarvastivada strengthening procedure performed by the bhikshu sangha, dalhikamma (Skt. drdhakarma). This procedure converts their Dharmagupta vow into an equivalent Mulasarvastivada vow. In this way, subsequent dual sangha bhikshuni ordination could be conducted by an assembly of Mulasarvastivada bhikshus and Mulasarvastivada bhikshunis. Another suggestion was that senior bhikshunis ordained in Dharmaguptaka who practiced in the Tibetan tradition could be given the dalhikamma procedure, making them Mulasarvastivadin bhikshunis. They would then constitute the bhikshuni sangha in a purely Mulasarvastivadin dual ordination.
In support of either the mixed lineage dual sangha or the dahlikamma methods, several delegates underlined the fact that at the time of the Buddha and the founding of the bhikshuni ordination lineage, there were no divisions in the ordination or vow in terms of Theravada, Dharmagupta, or Mulasarvastivada ones. Therefore, we need to focus on conferring the essence of the bhikshuni vow in general and not on the lineage differences that arose over history.
Representatives of the Tibetan nuns community attending the congress, however, expressed their wish to remain totally within the Tibetan Mulasarvastivada family. Thus, those nuns present at the congress preferred bhikshuni ordination by a single sangha comprising only Mulasarvastivada bhikshus.
Within Theravada and Dharmagupta, this method of ordination involving only a single sangha is permissible within the context of the Vinaya for restarting a bhikshuni ordination lineage. Moreover, single sangha bhikshuni ordination in these two lineages may be and has been done in other circumstances too, in which case the ordaining bhikshus receive a minor infraction. The reason that this method of bhikshuni ordination has been followed is because the custom of dual sangha ordination was introduced by Buddha only after the single sangha one. In doing so, Buddha did not specifically disallow single sangha bhikshuni ordination, whereas in other places in the Vinaya he disallowed a preceding measure after instituting a later one. According to Vinaya, if a specific sangha act is not disallowed, but is in accord with Buddha’s intentions, it is permitted. After ten years, when these bhikshunis have gained sufficient seniority, the dual sangha ordination can be restarted by a dual Mulasarvastivada sangha.
Although not formally discussed at the congress, the Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan Government in Exile in Dharamsala, India, has offered further possible variants just a few weeks before the congress. According to the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya, Buddha stated that if a bhikshuni is ordained according to the bhikshu ordination ritual, the ordination is valid, although the ordaining bhikshus would receive a minor infraction. In this manner, the candidate receives bhikshuni vows through a bhikshu ordination ritual; she does not receive bhikshu vows. The further options, then, would be to confer either single or dual sangha bhikshuni ordination by means of the Mulasarvastivada bhikshu ritual.
In short, the present issue is how to re-establish the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination in accordance with scriptural authority. Many scriptural passages, however, seem to contradict each other concerning the possible methods. Since the Tibetan Geshes are experts in debate, the arguments for and against each possible method can be and have been presented convincingly. Some way for deciding the debate that is acceptable to both sides, perhaps involving a compromise, is needed. According to scripture, Vinaya issues, such as concerning the re-establishment of this ordination, must be decided by a council of sangha elders and Vinaya-holders. It cannot be decided by one individual alone, even if that individual is a Dalai Lama. Therefore, the main steps at this stage are (1) to establish the method for choosing the delegates to such a council, (2) to determine the decision-making procedure for the council, and then, after inviting the delegates, (3) to convene such a council as soon as possible.
The invited bhikshu and bhikshuni elders of the Theravada and Dharmagupta lineages unanimously voiced their recognition and support of whatever decision this council, under the leadership of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, takes concerning the method of re-establishment of the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination.
Difficult points concerning the suggested manners of re-establishing the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination
Vinaya-holders and researchers among the Tibetan scholarly community have outlined several legalistic points, needing to be resolved, that arise concerning the various manners that have been suggested for re-establishing the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination. Although these were not systematically presented at the congress, they emerged at various points in the discussion.
Is it possible for bhikshus and bhikshunis from different Vinaya lineages to participate in an ordination together? That is, could the dual sangha be composed of Mulasarvastivada bhikshus and Dharmagupta bhikshunis? And if such a dual sangha confers bhikshuni ordination, which lineage of the bhikshuni vow does the candidate receive?
Is it possible for the Tibetan bhikshus to confer bhikshuni ordination in a single sangha ordination?
Is it essential that a candidate for bhikshuni ordination has received the shiksamana ordination and completed its two-year training prior to becoming a bhikshuni?
In the bhikshuni ordination procedure, is it essential that the brahmacharya vow be given before the candidate becomes a bhikshuni? If so, could the bhikshu sangha give it? After all, the brahmacharya vow is not an actual vow; it is the part of the ordination ceremony in which the bhikshuni sangha questions the candidate regarding the major and minor obstacles to receiving ordination.
If the bhikshu ordination ritual were used to ordain bhikshunis, could that resolve some of the above points?
His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has said that the re-establishment of the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination, although extremely important, must be carried out in strict accordance with the textual tradition of the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya. It is essential to avoid the judgment of history that the Tibetans reinstated this ordination in an invalid manner, and especially that their laxity in following and upholding the Vinaya was due to their practice of tantra.
Nearly all Tibetan monks and nuns attending the congress have stated that the issue of the reinstatement of the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination has nothing to do with the more general issues of human rights or women’s rights. It is within the context of Vinaya that Buddha gave equal rights to both men and women to renounce householder life, take full ordination, and attain liberation and enlightenment. Thus, despite any emotional factors—overt or hidden, pro or con—that may be involved, re-establishment of the bhikshuni ordination lineage is purely a Vinaya legal issue and must be decided on those legal grounds alone. One guideline, however, suggested by Bhikkhu Bodhi, a senior Theravadin monk, is important to remember here: “The bhikshuni ordination procedure was designed to facilitate the ordination of bhikshunis, not to prevent it.”
Born in New Jersey in 1944, Alexander Berzin received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1972, specializing in Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese philosophy. Coming to India as a Fulbright scholar in 1969, he studied with masters from all four Tibetan traditions, specializing in Gelug. He is a member of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, has published many translations (An Anthology of Well-Spoken Advice), has interpreted for several Tibetan masters, principally Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, and has authored several books, including Taking the Kalachakra Initiation. Alex has lectured extensively on Buddhism in over fifty countries, including universities and centers in Africa, the former Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe.