Bhikkhuni pārājika 1

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An essay taken from Bhikkhu Sujato’s book Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies

Venerables. Jigme, Chonyi and Semkye studying together.

The bhikkhuni Vinayas generally confine themselves to laying out and defining the rules that are unique to the bhikkhunis. (Photo by Sravasti Abbey)

The life of the nuns is hidden behind that of the monks. The code of rules for Buddhist nuns (bhikkhunī pāṭimokkha) contains many rules held in common with the rules for Buddhist monks. These bhikkhuni rules have for the most part been formed by simply changing the gender of the bhikkhus’ rules. In most cases, the bhikkhunis’ version of the rules are not listed in the canonical Vinayas as we have them. The bhikkhuni Vinayas generally confine themselves to laying out and defining the rules that are unique to the bhikkhunis. It is assumed that many of the bhikkhus’ rules also apply, but this is not always spelt out clearly. For example, the Mahāvihāravāsin Vinaya gives no hint as to which of the bhikkhus’ rules should be adopted by the bhikkhunis, or how they should be rephrased. The canonical appendix, the Parivāra, lists the number of rules in each class that are shared and unshared, but does not mention the specific rules.185 That information is found only in the commentaries. Other schools give more information in the canon itself. In particular, the rule we are dealing with now, since it is the first rule in the pāṭimokkha, was dealt with in fair detail in some of the Vinayas.

This essay briefly highlights one case where it seems that the bhikkhunis’ rule could not have been formed by simply changing the gender of the corresponding bhikkhus’ rule. The rule itself, the first pārājika for bhikkhunis, does not appear in standard editions of the Pali canon.186 This class of offense is the most serious of all monastic offenses, resulting in immediate and permanent expulsion from full communion in the bhikkhu or bhikkhuni Sangha.187 The first pārājika prohibits sexual intercourse. Here is the rule from the Mahāvihāravāsin bhikkhu pāṭimokkha.

Should any bhikkhu who is endowed with the bhikkhus’ training and livelihood, not having given up the training, not having declared his inability, engage in the act of sexual intercourse, even with a female animal, he is pārājika, not in communion.188

Comparison with the other available versions of this rule reveals that there are no significant variations in the rule formulation across the schools.189

In the bhikkhuni pārājika 1, however, we find a significant difference in the rule formulation. As the rule is not found in the Pali Canon, it is sourced from the Pali commentary Samantapāsādikā190 and from manuscripts of the ‘Dual pāṭimokkha’. These have been found as palm-leaf manuscripts in various places in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and were recently published in a modern critical edition.191 The text is as follows.

Should any bhikkhuni willingly engage in the act of sexual intercourse, even with a male animal, she is pārājika, not in communion.

Here we notice two distinct differences from the bhikkhus’ rule. The first is the insertion of the word chandaso. This means ‘with desire’. The Indic term is the most flexible of the very many Indic words for desire. It is frequently used in a negative sense of sensual or sexual desire. It is also used in a neutral sense of ‘consent, willingness’, such as when a bhikkhu sends their ‘consent’ by proxy to an act of the Sangha which he is unable to attend. It is also commonly used in a positive sense as the basis of psychic power consisting of desire, which here means the aspiration for the Dhamma. This last meaning cannot apply here, so we are left with two possibilities. Either the word means ‘with sexual lust’, or it means ‘consenting’. The two may not always be the same. For example, someone may have sex for money, with no lust, perhaps even revulsion in mind. Or they may have a twisted view that performing such services is an act of merit or part of the spiritual path. Thus the occurrence of this word, and its possible interpretation, make a significant difference to the application of the rule.

The second difference is the absence of the phrase ‘endowed with the bhikkhus’ training and livelihood, not having given up the training, not having declared his inability …’. This phrase simply makes explicit what is understood in all the pārājika rules anyway: they apply to a fully ordained monk or nun. Thus the absence of this phrase does not significantly affect the application of the rule. However, it is a distinctive and quite recognizable part of the rule which will help us to evaluate parallels and differences in the rule formulation.

There is another version of the rule preserved in an Indic language, the Lokuttaravāda in Hybrid Sanskrit.

Should any bhikkhuni willingly engage in the vulgar act of sexual intercourse, even together with a male animal, that bhikṣuṇī is pārājika, not in communion.192

Despite a couple of minor differences in phrasing, this version is strikingly similar to the Burmese Pali version we have seen above. The word grāmya (‘vulgar’) is added, but this word is found frequently in similar contexts in the Pali, and does not alter the meaning. In fact it is found in the gloss on methuna a little later in the word-analysis of both the vibhaṅga to the bhikkhus’pārājika 1, as well as the Lokuttaravāda version, so it is quite possible that it has simply crept into the Lokuttaravāda rule from the word-analysis.

The Lokuttaravāda, unlike the Pali, is taken from the canonical Vinaya, so as well as the rule itself, we have a word-analysis. This helps us with the ambiguous term chanda. The comment in the Lokuttaravāda is: ‘ “Willingly” means with lustful mind’ (cchandaso ti raktacittā). Thus the Lokuttaravāda tradition says that a bhikkhuni would only fall into pārājika if she had a mind of lust. Unfortunately, the absence of a gloss of the Pali means we do not know whether this interpretation was also followed in the formative years of the Mahāvihāravāsin school.

However, the mature Mahāvihāravāsin position is in fact identical with the Lokuttaravāda, as chandaso occurs consistently throughout the Mahāvihāravāsin commentarial tradition.193 For example, the pāṭimokkha commentary Kaṅkhāvitaraṇī says that ‘ “Willingly” means with willingness connected with sexual lust and desire.’194 Thus the rule and explanation in the Mahāvihāravāsin and Lokuttaravāda are identical, despite the fact that they are not attested in the earliest stage of the Pali canon.

An examination of the bhikkhuni pāṭimokkhas in Chinese translation, however, shows that they have not preserved such a clear distinction between the bhikkhu and the bhikkhuni pārājika 1. The Chinese, unlike the Mahāvihāravāsin, preserve lists of the bare pāṭimokkha rules in their canon, alongside the full Vinaya. Typically these rules have been extracted from the canonical Vinayas, rather than stemming from an independent textual tradition. Here are the rules.

Mahīśāsaka: Should any bhikkhuni, sharing the bhikkhunis’ training rules, not having given up the training rules due to inability, willingly engage in sexual intercourse, even with an animal, that bhikkhuni is pārājika, not in communion.195

Dharmaguptaka: Should any bhikkhuni engage in sexual intercourse, transgressing what is not the holy life, even with an animal, that bhikkhuni is pārājika, not in communion.196

Sarvāstivāda: Should any bhikkhuni, having undertaken the bhikkhunis’ training, having not given up the precepts, having not got out from the precepts due to inability, engage in sexual intercourse, even with an animal, that bhikkhuni is pārājika, not in communion.197

Mūlasarvāstivāda: Again, should any bhikkhuni, sharing the bhikkhunis’ training rules, not having given up the training rules, not having declared her inability to keep the training, engage in unholy conduct, sexual intercourse, even with an animal, that bhikkhuni also is pārājika, not in communion.198

Mahāsaṅghika: Should any bhikkhuni, having full ordination in the midst of the two–fold Sangha, not having renounced the precepts, not getting out from the precepts due to inability, engage in sexual intercourse, even with an animal, that bhikkhuni is pārājika, not in communion.199

Thus it seems that the Mahāsaṅghika, Mūlasarvāstivāda, and Sarvāstivāda all preserve rules that are essentially similar to the corresponding bhikkhus’ pārājika 1, rather than the special bhikkhunis’ form as attested in the Pali and Lokuttaravāda. This cannot be explained by a fault of the translators, for the extant bhikkhuni pārājika 1 of the Mūlasarvāstivāda in Sanskrit also reflects the form of the bhikkhus’ rule.200 The case of the Dharmaguptaka and the Mahīśāsaka are less clear.

The Dharmaguptaka differs from the bhikkhus’ rule in that it lacks any reference to ‘disavowing the bhikkhunis’ training rules, declaring her weakness’. This could be because it, too, stems from the bhikkhunis’ special version of this rule, or it could have happened through simple textual loss. If so, this must have happened before the vibhaṅga was formed.

Whether this version should be read as a further example of the special phrasing of bhikkhuni pārājika 1 depends on how we read the ambiguous characters 婬欲. They could either stand for ‘sexual intercourse’, or alternatively 欲 might stand for ‘desire’, which would align this version with those of the Mahāvihāravāsin/Lokuttaravāda.

This problem is, however, readily solvable by reference to the corresponding rule in the Dharmaguptaka bhikkhu pāṭimokkha. There, the same phrase 婬欲 appears. By universal testimony of all the Vinayas, this cannot stand for ‘desire’, for a word for ‘desire’ never occurs in the bhikkhu pārājika 1. It must represent the Indic methunadhamma, meaning ‘sexual intercourse’, which is found in every version of bhikkhu pārājika 1. This is confirmed since it is followed by characters clearly standing for abrahmacariya, which is a synonym of methunadhamma. The meaning of 婬欲 in the Dharmaguptaka bhikkhu and bhikkhuni pārājika 1, therefore, must be ‘sexual intercourse’. Hence the bhikkhuni rule lacks anything that might correspond with the Indic chanda, ‘desire’. We are therefore unable to definitely conclude whether this version represents a third example of a special formulation of the bhikkhuni pārājika 1, or whether it has simply lost some text from the bhikkhus’ rule formulation.

The situation with the Mahīśāsaka is similarly unclear. This includes both a character meaning ‘according to one’s desire’ (隨意), but also includes the clause about giving up the training. It seems that this version either combines the two other versions together, or perhaps we are just witnessing an ambiguity in the Chinese.

Thus it seems that the Mahāvihāravāsin/Lokuttaravāda recension of this rule is not explicitly shared by any other Vinayas, although the Dharmaguptaka, and the Mahīśāsaka have some features in common. This raises the question where the formulation stems from. The Pali version is not found in the Pali Tipitaka, and derives from commentaries and from an extracanonical work found in a manuscript in Burma early in the 20 century. The consistency with which it is presented throughout the commentarial tradition makes it likely there was an older manuscript tradition of the bhikkhuni pāṭimokkha, but I am not aware if any actual texts exist. The Lokuttaravāda manuscript, on the other hand, takes us much further back as a physical object, since the manuscript takes us back to around the 11 century.201

The presence of this variant rule formulation alerts us to the fact there are significant correlations between schools that in terms of sectarian history are relatively separate, which may be even closer than the correlations between closely related schools. More importantly, the pāṭimokkha is most important as an oral text. It is recited each fortnight in the midst of the Sangha, and constitutes the key ritual ingredient that affirms the communal identity of the Sangha. Since this would have been recited regularly by the bhikkhunis, not by the bhikkhus, it seems likely that this variant, preserved so tenuously through the ages in far-flung reaches of the Buddhist world, preserves a memory of the bhikkhunis’ own liturgical literature. This was passed down, it seems, outside the Councils and hence outside the control of the bhikkhus.

Can a Bhikkhuni Ordain Again?

The persistence of a distinctive version of bhikkhuni pārājika 1 is a remarkable instance of textual tenacity. It raises the question as to why the difference arose in the first place. According to the Pali tradition, the difference stems from the differing manner of disrobal in the male and female Sanghas. A bhikkhu may disrobe by means of verbally renouncing the training, while a bhikkhuni may only disrobe by physically removing the robes and leaving the monastery with the intention to be no longer a bhikkhuni.

To understand the situation more clearly, let us look first of all at how a bhikkhu disrobes in the Pali tradition. This is described extensively in the discussion to bhikkhu pārājika 1. A bhikkhu must, being of clear mind, and intending to disrobe, declare that he is disrobing clearly in the present tense to someone who understands. Different cases are discussed where these factors are either present or not. Here is a typical example. Since the bhikkhu’s statement is in an optative form (‘what if … ’) he fails to disrobe.

He says and makes known: ‘What if I were to disavow the Buddha?’ This, monks, is revealing his inability but not disavowing the training.202

For our purposes, the important detail is that, in the initial sentence by the monk, he either speaks (vadati) or makes known (viññāpeti, ‘expresses’). Viññāpeti would cover forms of communication similar to speech, e.g. writing or sign language. Both of these acts are covered by the term paccakkhāti, which we translate as ‘disavow’. The root of this verb is √(k)khā, to say or declare. Those familiar with Pali chanting may recognize √(k)khā from the standard recollection of the Dhamma: ‘svakkhāto bhagavatā dhammo’ (‘the Dhamma is well-proclaimed by the Blessed One’).

Now, while this technical discussion makes it very clear what is and is not a correct form of leaving the bhikkhu life, in non-technical passages, a bhikkhu is often said to vibbhamati, which we translate simply as ‘disrobe’.203 The basic meaning is to ‘go astray’, as for example a wandering or confused mind. Since this is a non-technical term in the bhikkhu Vinaya, it is nowhere defined. Yet it is this form of disrobal, not the technically defined ‘disavowal of the training’ which is allowed for the bhikkhunis.

Now on that occasion, a certain bhikkhuni, having disavowed the training, disrobed. Having later approached the bhikkhunis, she asked for ordination. The Blessed One declared in regard to that matter: ‘Monks, there is no disavowal of the training by a bhikkhuni. But when she has disrobed, at that moment she is not a bhikkhuni.’204

The purpose of this rule is a little obscure, but the overall sense is clear enough. A bhikkhuni is not permitted to disrobe in the normal manner used by the bhikkhus, that is, by verbally renouncing the training. Rather she is ‘not a bhikkhuni’ when she has ‘disrobed’ ‘or gone astray’. This seems to refer to the physical act of actually leaving the monastic environment, literally disrobing and putting on lay clothes with the intention to be no longer a bhikkhuni. The Pali commentary affirms that putting on lay clothes is the defining act here. Similarly, the Mahāsaṅghika and Lokuttaravāda Vinayas discuss a case where a bhikkhuni puts on lay clothes as an expedient to avoid being attacked; the Buddha rules that such an act as an expedient is only a minor infringement, for the sake of safety is no offense, but if she does so intending on renouncing the training she is no longer a bhikkhuni.205

No reason is given to explain why the male and female Sanghas should disrobe in such different ways. But whatever the reason might have been, it clarifies why pārājika 1 does not speak of a bhikkhuni as ‘disavowing the training’. However, this still does not explain why the extra word ‘willingly’ was inserted. Perhaps this merely emphasizes that one must have a lustful mind to be guilty of this offense, given that women are more likely to be forced into sex unwillingly.

The Pali Vinaya commentaries, such as the Dvemātikapāḷī, confirm that the difference in disrobal methods is related to the difference in phrasing of pārājika 1.

Since there is no disavowal of the training by bhikkhunis, the phrase ‘endowed with the training and way of life, not having disavowed the training, not have declared inability’ is not recited.206

In this case even a subtle difference in the rule formulation accurately reflects the inner structure of other portions of the Vinaya, which is impressive testimony to the consistency and care of the compilers. It also makes it very likely that this formulation of the rule is in fact the correct one, not the formulation that sounds more like the bhikkhus’ rules. This rule has, it seems, been passed down accurately in the Mahāvihāravāsin, even though for them it is not strictly canonical.

There is a similar situation in the Lokuttaravāda Vinaya. As we noted in the discussion of pārājika 1, the form of the rule is virtually identical in both the Pali and Lokuttaravāda versions. And, just as the Pali maintains an awareness of the different modes of disrobal for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, even in unrelated sections of the Vinaya, so, it seems, does the Lokuttaravāda. The extant text of the Lokuttaravāda bhikṣuṇī Vinaya contains the bhikkhuni Suttavibhaṅga, as well as a shorter miscellaneous section for both bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. There we find a list of three things that make one ‘not a bhikkhu’ or ‘not a bhikkhuni’. These lists are identical, except that a bhikkhu is said to, with a mind intent on disrobal, ‘disavow the training’,207 while a bhikkhuni is said to have ‘fallen away from good conduct’.208 Similar rules are found in the corresponding sections of the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya.209 There is, however, a striking difference between the Lokuttaravāda and Mahāsaṅghika in that, whereas for the Lokuttaravāda this ruling is consistent with their formulation of pārājika 1, the Mahāsaṅghika, as we noted above, has the bhikkhus’ form of pārājika 1, which allows that a bhikkhuni may ‘disavow the training’. This is not merely an isolated slip-up, but is an important feature of the rule analysis.210 Clearly the Mahāsaṅghika analysis of this rule is built upon the assumption that a bhikkhuni can disavow the training. The passages discussing this aspect of the rule are absent from the corresponding sections of the Lokuttaravāda text. Thus the Lokuttaravāda consistently maintains that a bhikkhuni does not ‘disavow the training’, while the Mahāsaṅghika pārājika 1 allows that she can, while the Bhikṣuṇī-prakīrṇaka assumes that she cannot, but disrobes by literally removing her robes.

There is a further rule, found in similar form in all Vinayas,211 that should be taken into consideration. It is a saṅghādisesa offense for a bhikkhuni who, being angry, declares that she ‘disavows’ the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, and the training, and declares that there are other female ascetics of good behavior, who she intends to join. The term for ‘disavow’ is, in both the Pali and the Lokuttaravāda, the same used for the bhikkhus who ‘disavow the training’. If a bhikkhu were to say in such a case ‘I disavow the Buddha’, then by that much alone he would be disrobed and no longer a bhikkhu. Clearly that cannot be the case for the bhikkhuni who says this. She must still belong to the Sangha, or else she could not have a disciplinary procedure performed against her. Perhaps it might be argued that for the bhikkhu to disrobe he must have a clear intention to do so, whereas for the bhikkhuni in this rule it is a mere outburst of anger. That may be true; and yet the rule is a yāvatatiyaka, which requires that the bhikkhuni Sangha admonish the offender up to three times in the midst of the Sangha to relinquish her statement. She must be seriously set in her intention, not just making a moment’s angry outburst.

The most reasonable interpretation of this state of affairs is that this rule was laid down in a context where a bhikkhuni could not disavow the training. No matter how much she verbally abuses the Triple Gem and declares she is leaving the Sangha, as long as she does not actually ‘disrobe’, she remains a bhikkhuni. This, I would argue, is because the rule, as part of the pāṭimokkha itself, harks back to an early period in the Sangha when, as attested by the Pali and Lokuttaravāda Vinayas, a bhikkhuni could not disrobe by ‘disavowing’ the training. Even though many of the Vinaya traditions later forgot this nuance, it was maintained in the pāṭimokkha text, even though this was now inconsistent with the developed position of the school.

So far, so good. We have what appears to be a minor technical distinction in practice for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, which would not seem to have a great impact on their monastic life. But the commentary to the passage that determines the correct manner of disrobal for bhikkhunis goes on to say that having disrobed, a bhikkhuni may not re-ordain.

When she has disrobed’: because she has disrobed, by her own preference and acceptance has put on white [lay] clothes, therefore she is not a bhikkhuni, not by disavowal of the training is this seen. She does not get full ordination again.212

This comment clearly oversteps the scope of the original text, which says nothing of re-ordination. It seems to have been influenced by the subsequent paragraph in the text, which discusses a second case, that of a bhikkhuni who leaves the bhikkhuni monastery and joins a community of another religion.

Now on that occasion a certain bhikkhuni, wearing her ocher robe, went over to the fold of the non-Buddhist religionists (tittha). She returned and asked the bhikkhunis for ordination (upasampadā).213 The Blessed One declared in regard to that matter: ‘Monks, a bhikkhuni who, wearing her ocher robe, goes over to the fold of the non-Buddhist religionists, on her return is not to be ordained.’214

Here she is, it seems, still wearing her ocher robe,215 but has changed religions. It is clearly her acts, rather than her speech, which are relevant. This rule does not apply in the case of a bhikkhuni who has disrobed first. Furthermore, this rule makes it clear exactly what type of bhikkhuni may not be re-ordained: one who has gone over to another sect. The same rule applies for the bhikkhus.216

The Pali commentary raises the stakes in this equation. Whereas the canonical text says nothing about whether one who ‘disrobes’ (vibbhamati) can re-ordain, and states that one who goes over to another religion while wearing her robe cannot take full ordination again, the commentary states that no disrobed bhikkhuni can re-ordain; one who puts on the white clothes first (in other words, one who vibbhamatis) may take novice ordination, but one who goes over to another religion may not even take novice ordination.217

Why were these new rulings on novice ordination imposed? Remember that the original rulings made a clear distinction between the two cases. A bhikkhuni who disrobes honorably has done no wrong and is deserving of no punishment, whereas one who has gone over to another religion has acted fraudulently and may no longer be trusted, and hence is denied the chance to ordain again. The commentary, however, also denies re-ordination to the one who has disrobed honorably, and so both these cases receive the same punishment, which hardly seems fair.218 So in order to maintain the original pattern that the one who has acted fraudulently should receive a greater penalty, the commentary invents a new ruling saying that she may not even take novice ordination again. The very artificiality of these extra rulings highlights their difference from the canonical text. In such passages, the ‘commentary’ is no longer commenting on the text in any meaningful way, but is adding new rulings that had presumably found their way into contemporary practice.

In this way the commentary creates a link between two questions which in the original text are unrelated. One concerns the manner of disrobal, the second is ordaining again. The commentarial belief that re-ordination is impossible for bhikkhunis, while of course it is allowed for bhikkhus, is commonly held today. Several of the canonical Vinayas, in fact, say that a bhikkhuni may not re-ordain. The Mahāsaṅghika,219 and Lokuttaravāda220 Vinayas ask the candidate prior to bhikkhuni ordination if she has ever taken full ordination before. If she has, she is told to leave, she cannot take full ordination. Vinayas of the Sarvāstivāda group offer more details. Here is the origin story as told in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya.

At that time, in the city of Sāvatthī, there lived an elder. Not long after his marriage, his wife became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. When the child was born, the father passed away. The mother raised the child up and not long after, passed away too.

At that time bhikkhuni Thullanandā went on almsround and came to this dwelling place. On seeing the lady, she asked: ‘Which family do you belong to?’

[The lady] replied: ‘Venerable, I do not belong to anyone.’

The nun said: ‘If this is so, why don’t you renounce the homelife?’

The lady replied: ‘Who can give me ordination?’

The nun said: ‘I can, you may follow me.’ In this way the lady followed the nun to her dwelling place and received ordination to become a bhikkhuni. However, being entangled by defilements, she later disrobed. When Thullanandā went for her almsround, she met this lady and asked: ‘Young lady, how is your livelihood?’

She replied: ‘Venerable, I find it difficult to survive with no one to depend on.’

(The Nun) then asked: ‘If this is so, why don’t you renounce the homelife?

I have already disrobed, who will give me ordination?’

The nun replied that she could. Without delay, the lady received ordination and followed the practice of almsbegging. An elder Brahman saw this, became suspicious and slandered, spreading his suspicion that the Sakyan ladies, on grounds of virtue sometimes ordained to tread the holy life, and sometimes stopped the holy practice to return to the defiled stains of secular life. They follow their sentiments for happiness and this is not virtuous. The bhikkhunis came to hear of this and told the bhikkhus, who then reported it to the Buddha. The Buddha thought thus:

Because the disrobed bhikkhuni has committed this fault, from now onwards, disrobed bhikkhunis shall not be ordained. The elders of (other sects) find happiness in jeering and destroying my dhamma. As such, bhikkhunis, once they disrobe to return to laylife, should not be re-ordained. If they are given ordination, the upajjhāya and teachers commit an offence.’221

The background story locates the problem in the criticism levelled by critics of Buddhism, especially the followers of other sects. This is not hugely plausible, given that it was normal for wanderers of several sects to regularly alternate periods of ordained and lay life.222 Nor is any particular reason given as to why the bhikkhunis should differ from the bhikkhus in this regard. Furthermore, the problem here is obviously Thullanandā’s behaviour, and by any reasonable standard she would long ago have been forbidden from accepting students for ordination. The student who was encouraged to take ordination was an orphan, living in a precarious situation, who ordained seeking security rather than out of a genuine spiritual urge. She was given ordination immediately (with no apparent training period). In this case, surely the appropriate thing would be to test the sincerity of the applicant, not prohibit all women in the future from re-ordaining.

As we have come to expect, the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya offers a completely different origin story.

The Buddha was at the city of Rājagaha. At that time, the women were suffering from the treatment of the brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. So they left home and ordained as bhikkhunis. During the time that they were living as students with their upajjhāya and Teachers, they were vexed by suffering. They therefore disrobed and returned to wearing the white clothes of the lay person. The lay-devotees scolded and berated saying:

Those inauspicious and fraudulent women! Previously we were their masters. When they became bhikkhunis, they received our respects. Now we withdraw such respects. They are not stable.’

The Buddha was told, and said: ‘Should a bhikkhuni give up the precepts, she is not allowed to receive the going forth and full ordination again.’223

Compared to the Mūlasarvāstivāda, the city is different, the reason for going forth is different, there is no mention of Thullanandā, and the critics are not the religious, but the lay folk. As usual, these stories record, not the history of how the rule was actually formed, but the inventions of later generations of monks. Here, too, we find no reason given why the bhikkhunis should be treated differently than the bhikkhus.

It is clear enough that the Vinayas of the Sarvāstivāda group prohibit a bhikkhuni from re-ordaining. In addition, it is frequently stated that the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya prohibits re-ordination of bhikkhunis,224 but despite considerable searching and consultation, I have been unable to find any passage that confirms this. The widespread belief that the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya prohibits bhikkhunis from re-ordaining seems to stem from the remarks by the monk 懷素 (Huai Su) in his famous commentary on the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya.225 The world of Chinese commentaries is a mystery to me, so I do not know whether this ruling may be found in any earlier texts.

The Ten [part] Vinaya (= Sarvāstivāda) has a similar text to the Four [part Vinaya = Dharmaguptaka]. Bhikkhu(s) who disrobe do not face obstructions. Bhikkhunis who disrobe face the fear of being stigmatised as defiled. Therefore, in the Ten [part Vinaya], (she) cannot be re-ordained. Referring to scroll 40 …226

Huai Su goes on to quote the very passages from the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya that we have already reviewed. It seems clear enough from this that there was no explicit statement forbidding re-ordination in the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, but Huai Su felt that the matter should be treated in line with the rulings of the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya. Finally we have a reason for the discrimination; and it’s no surprise that the problem is women’s ‘defilements’. Since this reason is clearly sexist, and has no basis in the original text, it should be rejected.

The Mahīśāsaka Vinaya has so far yielded no passage on this point.

In conclusion then, the correct version of pārājika 1 for bhikkhunis has been maintained in the Pali tradition, despite the fact that it is not found in the canonical Vinaya itself. This is a rare case of a genuinely early text surviving outside the mainstream redaction process of the Councils. The pāṭimokkha is the most important ritual text for the Sangha, and to this day it is recited in full on the fortnightly uposatha day by Theravāda bhikkhus. The ancient Mahāvihāravāsin bhikkhunis would have carried out a similar custom. Thus the bhikkhuni pāṭimokkha would have been passed down as an oral text within the bhikkhuni lineage. While the bhikkhunis’ sections of the Vinaya have suffered decay, due to the weakening and eventual disappearance of the bhikkhuni Sangha within the later Mahāvihāravāsin tradition, the pāṭimokkha has survived into the manuscript and commentarial tradition, a testament to the bhikkhunis’ contribution to Pali literature, and more importantly, a reminder of the vital presence within Theravāda of a female Sangha who were dedicated to learning and practicing Vinaya.

In the mainland Vinayas, the situation becomes complex due to the evident contamination of the bhikkhuni Vinaya by the wording of the bhikkhus’ pārājika 1 in most of the Vinayas apart from the Lokuttaravāda, together with a generally less well understood and articulated form of the bhikkhuni Vinaya, and, we may assume, the lack of the bhikkhuni’s voice in making such decisions. Since the bhikkhunis were said to not be able to ‘disavow the training’, when their version of pārājika 1 became similar to that of the bhikkhus, it came to be understood that they could not re-ordain. This process, it seems, happened broadly but not always consistently across the Buddhist schools. The Vinayas of the Sarvāstivāda group developed the most elaborate context. In the Mahāsaṅghika group the prohibition became incorporated in the ordination question. In the Vibhajjavāda schools, the prohibition against bhikkhuni re-ordination was not incorporated in the canonical Vinayas, but was adopted by the commentators. In the case of the Chinese commentator on the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, this is explicitly said to be under the influence of the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya. We may assume that a similar influence underlies Buddhaghosa’s comments here.

Nuns and Rape

In some countries, such as India, nuns have been raped and subsequently forced or encouraged to disrobe, being told that they have broken the basic precept for their celibate life (pārājika 1), and can no longer continue to live as a nun. This has caused a tremendous degree of distress and trauma, and moreover creates a climate where nuns fear to report any attacks, which can further encourage would-be rapists. But the Vinaya is not so cruel, and deals with rape in a compassionate way, allowing the nun, who is the victim not the perpetrator, to continue her spiritual path.

The position of the Vinayas on this point is quite straightforward, so we will simply present some relevant Vinaya passages from the Vinayas of the three main traditions: the Pali Vinaya of the Theravāda; the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya as observed in the Chinese and related Mahāyāna traditions; and the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya as observed in the Tibetan Vajrayāna tradition.


The Pali version of bhikkhuni pārājika 1 specifies that a bhikkhuni only falls into an offense if she acts willingly. This is confirmed by actual examples in the Pali Vinaya where a bhikkhuni is raped:

Now on that occasion a certain student was infatuated with the bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā. And then that student, while bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā had entered the town for alms, entered her hut and sat down concealed. Bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā, returning from alms-round after her meal, washed her feet, entered the hut, and sat down on the couch. And then that student grabbed bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā and raped her. Uppalavaṇṇā bhikkhuni told the other bhikkhunis about this. The bhikkhunis told the bhikkhus about it. The bhikkhus told the Buddha about it. [The Buddha said:] ‘There is no offense, bhikkhus, since she did not consent’.227

Similarly, there are other cases of bhikkhunis who are raped, and in no instance is any offense or blame imputed to the bhikkhuni.228 This is entirely consistent with the application of the rule for bhikkhus, since whenever a bhikkhu had sexual intercourse or oral sex without his consent he was excused by the Buddha.229 Indeed, there is a series of cases where bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, sikkhamānas, sāmaṇeras, and sāmaṇerīs are abducted by Licchavī youths and forced to have sex with each other. In each case, if there is no consent there is no offense.230 This understanding is maintained in the Pali commentarial tradition.231


Unlike the Pali, the rule itself does not specify that the bhikkhuni is acting out of lust. However, this factor is found in the rule analysis, which specifies that a bhikkhuni must consent to penetration with sexual desire.232 Further, she must experience pleasure at the time of entering, remaining, or leaving in order for there to be an offense.233 This is made clear in the non-offense clause:

There is no offense if while asleep she does not know; if there is no pleasure; in all cases where there is no lustful thought.234


Like the Dharmaguptaka, there is no specific mention of ‘desire’ in the rule formulation itself. But the rule explanation makes it clear:

If she is forced, then if she does not feel pleasure in the three times [i.e., when entering, staying, or leaving] there is no offense. The offender is to be expelled.235

Who is to blame?

The Vinaya attitude towards rape of a bhikkhuni is uncompromising. A man who rapes a bhikkhuni cannot ever be ordained, and if they are ordained by mistake, they must be expelled.236 Similarly, a novice who rapes a nun must be expelled.237 The treatment of a rapist of bhikkhunis is treated in the same way as one who commits one of the 5 ānantarika acts (murdering one’s mother or father or an arahant, wounding a Buddha, and maliciously causing schism in the Sangha). Thus the rape of a bhikkhuni is regarded as one of the most heinous possible acts, with dreadful kammic repercussions on the offender. When Uppalavaṇṇā was raped, the commentary tells us that the earth, unable to bear the weight of that evil, split in two and swallowed up the rapist. Never is the slightest blame attached to the victim of the rape.

The Vinayas are clear and unanimous: there is no offense for a nun who is raped. The blame lies with the rapist, not the victim. A nun, whose life is devoted to celibacy and non-violence, will feel shattered and deeply traumatized by rape. At that time she needs support from her friends and teachers in the holy life. As in all the Vinaya cases mentioned above, she need feel no shame or blame in talking about the rape honestly and openly with other nuns, and if need be, with monks as well. The friends and teachers of the victim need to extend the greatest possible compassion and support. They must clearly and consistently reassure the victim that she has done nothing wrong and has not in any way broken her precepts. It is important that the police are told about the rape, so they can try to prevent similar crimes in the future. The Sangha should investigate whether there is any ongoing danger to nuns in that situation, and should take steps to ensure their protection and safety. If necessary, I would suggest that the nuns should be taught self-defense skills to ward off an attacker.

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185 Pali Vinaya 5.146–7.

186 The Chulachomklao of Siam Pāli Tipiṭaka, published in 1893, starts the bhikkhuni rules with the ‘first pārājika’, and then proceeds to give what is in fact the fifth pārājika ( The online edition of the VRI Tipiṭaka and the PTS edition (4.211) similarly list the fifth pārājika as the first. Since the PTS edition does not list any variant readings here (4.365) it would seem as if this was the standard practice in the manuscripts. The incoherence of this presentation is clear since at the end of each pārājika, the text anounces that ‘first’ through ‘fourth’ rules are concluded. Yet on the very next line after the ‘fourth’ pārājika, the text declares that the ‘eight pārājikas have been recited’. The online ‘World Tipiṭaka Edition’, on the other hand, lists the first four pārājikas in the contents, but the pages corresponding to these are empty (

187 This basic premise of the Vinaya has been questioned by Shayne CLARKE (‘Monks Who Have Sex). However, he overinterprets his material. The passages he quote show the setting up of a separate monastic status, the śikṣādattaka, which allows a pārājika bhikkhu who immediately confesses with remorse to remain living in the monastery. They are partially readmitted into the community, but are carefully excluded from full participation in the central acts of saṅghakamma. Hence the śikṣādattaka is not, contra Clarke, ‘in communion’. In fact the Mahīśasaka, Dharmaguptaka, and Sarvāstivāda Vinayas display a nicety of judgement: a śikṣādattaka may listen to the pāṭimokkha​ —​and hence be reminded of their ethical obligations​—​but may not make up the quorum. In other words, their presence cannot enable them to have any power of decision over the lives of bhikkhus, for example at an ordination.

188 Pali Vinaya 3.23: Yo pana bhikkhu bhikkhūnaṁ sikkhāsājīvasamāpanno, sikkhaṁ apaccakkhāya, dubbalyaṁ anāvikatvā, methunaṁ dhammaṁ paṭiseveyya, antamaso tiracchānagatāyapi, pārājiko hoti asaṁvāso.

189 PACHOW, pp. 71–2.

190 Samantapāsādikā 7.1302. This may be the earliest attested version of this rule.

191 PRUITT and NORMAN, pp. 116–7: Yā pana bhikkhunī chandaso methunaṁ dhammaṁ paṭiseveyya antamaso tiraccānagatena pi, pārājikā hoti asaṁvāsā.

192 ROTH, p. 79 § 117. Yā punar bhikṣuṇī chandaśo maithunaṁ grāmya-dharmaṁ pratiṣeveya antamasato tiryagyoni-gatenāpi sārdhaṁ iyaṁ bhikṣuṇī pārājikā bhavaty asaṁvāsyā. There are many spelling variants between this, the final phrasing of the rule, and its previous occurrence at ROTH p. 76 § 114.

193 ​​​Parivāra-aṭṭhakathā:vi aṭṭha.-5 Ro.:7.1302; Sāratthadīpanī-ṭikā-3:vi. ṭī.-3 Mya.:3.114; Kaṅkhāvitaraṇī-aṭṭhakathā:vi. ṭī Ro.:0.1, 0.25, 0.157; Vajirabuddhi-ṭīkā:Vi ṭī Mya.:0.65, 0.355; Vimativinodanī-ṭikā:vi. ṭī. Mya.:2.68: Kaṅkhāvitaraṇī-purāṇa-abhinava-ṭīkā: vi. ṭī. Mya.:0.12; Vinayavinicchaya-uttaravinicchaya:Vi. ṭī. Mya.:0.186. My thanks to Bhikkhu Ñāṇatusita for these references.

194 Kaṅkhāvitaraṇī 0.157: ‘ “Chandaso”ti methunarāgappaṭisaṁyuttena chandena ceva ruciyā ca.’

195 T22, № 1421, p. 77, c4–6 = T22, № 1423, p. 206, c29–p. 207, a2.

196 T22, № 1428, p. 714, a14–15 = T22, № 1431, p. 1031, b16–17.

197 T23, № 1437, p. 479, b29–c2 = T23, № 1435, p. 333, c29–p. 334, a2.

198 T24, № 1455, p. 508, c10–12.

199 T22, № 1427, p. 556, c4–7.

200 Sanskrit bhikṣuṇī karmavācanā 137.11–13 (quoted in ROTH, p. 79 note § 117.6): Yā punar bhikṣuṇī bhikṣuṇībhiḥ sārddhaṁ śikṣāsāmīcīṁ samāpannā ṣikśam apratyākhyāya śikṣādaurbalyam anāviṣkṛtyābrahmacaryam maithunaṁ dharmaṁ pratisevetāntatas tiragyonigatenāpi sārddhaṁ.

201 ROTH, pp. xxff.

202 Pali Vinaya 3.24ff: ‘Yannūnāhaṁ buddhaṁ paccakkheyyan’ti vadati viññāpeti. Evampi, bhikkhave, dubbalyāvikammañceva hoti sikkhā ca apaccakkhātā.

203 E.g. Pali Vinaya 3. 39, 3.40, 3.67, 3.183. Throughout the Mahākkhandhaka vibbhamati appears in a list for monks who are unavailable because they have left, disrobed, gone over to another sect, or died. HüSKEN (‘Rephrased Rules’, p. 28 note 22) states that vibbhamati is used as a synonym for nāsitā (expelled) in the vibhaṅga to bhikkhuni pārājika 1, and hence states that one who is vibbhantā cannot re-ordain, whether a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni. However she herself refers to a passage (Pali Vinaya 1.97-8) with a series of cases where a bhikkhu disrobes (vibbhamati) and then is allowed to re-ordain. This is hardly an ‘exception’ as she says; the same usage is found dozens of times in the Samuccayakkhandhaka. Nowhere is it stated that a bhikkhu who is vibbhanta may not re-ordain. She is mistaken in saying that bhikkhuni pārājika 1 (i.e. pārājika 5 if the rules taken in common with the bhikkhus are counted) refers to vibbhamati; presumably she means pārājika 6. The statement there is: Nāsitā nāma sayaṁ vā vibbhantā hoti aññehi vā nāsitā. (‘Expelled’ means: she is disrobed by herself or expelled by others.) This does not state that vibbhantā and nāsitā are synonyms. It simply states that the term nāsitā in this rule covers both cases. One is ‘expelled’ because the Sangha has good reason to consider a person unsuitable as a monastic. One ‘disrobes’ for all sorts of reasons, many of which do not imply any misconduct as a monastic.

204 Pali Vinaya 2.279: Tena kho pana samayena aññatarā bhikkhunī sikkhaṁ paccakkhāya vibbhami. Sā puna paccāgantvā bhikkhuniyo upasampada yāci. Bhagavato etamattha ārocesu. “Na, bhikkhave, bhikkhuniyā sikkhāpaccakkhāna; yadeva sā vibbhantā tadeva sā abhikkhunī”ti.

205 Tyaktamuktena cittena. Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya Bhikṣuṇī-prakīrṇaka 20 (T 1425 p. 547); Lokuttaravāda Bhikṣuṇī-prakīrṇaka 31 (ROTH p. 316 § 283).

206 Yasmā ca bhikkhuniyā sikkhāpaccakkhānaṁ nāma natthi, tasmā bhikkhunīnaṁ ‘sikkhāsājīvasamāpannā sikkhaṁ apaccakkhāya dubbalyaṁ anāvikatvā’ti avatvā. My source for this text is the online VRI Tipiṭaka. Unfortunately, this site does not supply individual URLs for each page, nor does it supply page references to the printed editions.

207 ROTH p. 321 § 290 (Bhikṣuṇī-prakīrṇaka 46): Tyakta-muktena cittena śikṣāṁ pratyākhyāti.

208 ROTH p. 321 § 290 (Bhikṣuṇī-prakīrṇaka 47): Tyaktamuktena cittena ācāraṁ vikopayati.

209 Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya Bhikṣuṇī-prakīrṇaka 37, 38 T22, № 1425 p. 548a, HIRAKAWA p. 411.

210 See HIRAKAWA pp. 104–7.

211 Mahāvihāravāsin saṅghādisesa 12 (Pali Vinaya 4.235–7); Dharmaguptaka saṅghādisesa 16 (T22, № 1428, p. 725, c6–p. 726, c8); Mahīśāsaka saṅghādisesa 17 (T22, № 1421, p. 82, c17); Mahāsaṅghika saṅghādisesa 19 (T22, № 1425, p. 523, c3–p. 524, a18); Lokuttaravāda saṅghādisesa 19 (ROTH p. 159–163 § 172); Sarvāstivāda saṅghādisesa 14 (T23, № 1435, p. 311, a3–c1); Mūlasarvāstivāda saṅghādisesa 13 (T23, № 1443, p. 937, a4–c5).

212 Samantapāsādikā 6.1295: Yadeva sā vibbhantāti yasmā sā vibbhantā attano ruciyā khantiyā odātāni vatthāni nivatthā, tasmāyeva sā abhikkhunī, na sikkhāpaccakkhānenāti dasseti. Sā puna upasampadaṁ na labhati.

213 Note the use of upasampadā for bhikkhuni ordination. This is a clear marker of a late passage, not one which is part of the early bhikkhuni’s own tradition. See chapter 6.

214 Pali Vinaya 2.279: Tena kho pana samayena aññatarā bhikkhunī sakāsāvā titthāyatanaṁ saṅkami. Sā puna paccāgantvā bhikkhuniyo upasampadaṁ yāci. Bhagavato etamatthaṁ ārocesuṁ. ‘Yā sā, bhikkhave, bhikkhunī sakāsāvā titthāyatanaṁ saṅkantā, sā āgatā na upasampādetabbā’ti.

215 The PTS reading is sakāsāvā (2.279). The World Tipitaka reads sakāvāsā, ‘from her own monastery’ ( But this seems to be a peculiarity of the Burmese tradition.

216 Pali Vinaya 1.86: Titthiyapakkantako, bhikkhave, anupasampanno na upasampādetabbo, upasampanno nāsetabbo. This has nothing to do with the normal case of a bhikkhuni who disrobes.

217 Samantapāsādikā 6.1295: ‘Sā āgatā na upasampādetabbā’ti na kevalaṁ na upasampādetabbā, pabbajjampi na labhati. Odātāni gahetvā vibbhantā pana pabbajjāmattaṁ labhati.

218 This anomaly was noticed by VAJIRAÑĀṆAVARORASA, 3.267.

219 T22 № 1425 p. 472, b5.

220 ROTH p. 33 § 35: Upasampanna-pūrvāsi? anyadāpi yady āha ‘upasampanna-pūrvā’ ti vaktavyā: ‘gaccha nasya cala prapalāhi. nāsti te upasampadā’.

221 T24, № 1451, p. 352, b2–20. This is not an isolated passage. The idea is also found at T24 № 1451 p. 358c1–3 (緣處同前。具壽鄔波離請世尊曰 。大德。若苾芻尼捨戒歸俗 重求出家得與出家近圓不佛言鄔波離一經捨戒更不應出家); Mūlasarvāstivāda Bhikṣuṇī Karmavācanā (SCHMIDT 16b2–4: Kaccit tvaṁ pūrvaṁ pravrajiteti? yadi kathayati ‘pravrajitā’, vaktavyā: ‘ata eva gaccheti’); T24 № 1453 p. 462a3–4 (汝非先出家不。若言不 者善。如言║我曾出家者。報云汝去。無尼歸俗重許出家). This section of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, the Ekottarakarmaśataka is, according to Shayne Clarke (private communication) an anthologized work, which is quite divergent in its Chinese and Tibetan versions.

222 See MN 89.10, MN 36.6.

223 T23, no 1435, p. 291, a10–16. As with the Mūlasarvāstivāda, this prohibition is echoed elsewhere in the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya (T23, № 1435, p. 377, c16). This passage allows an extraordinary exception: a bhikkhuni may reordain if she changes sex and becomes a man. A similar passage is found in the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya Mātṛkā (T23, № 1441, p. 569, a16–9) and the Kathāvastu of the Uttaragrantha of the Tibetan Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya (sTog ‘Dul ba NA 316b4–317a1).

224 For example, Wu YIN (p. 144) states: ‘According to the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, a woman may be ordained only once in this
lifetime. Regardless of whether she has violated a pārājika, once a bhikshuni gives back her vows, she cannot become a bhikshuni again in this life.’

225 Huai Su (625–698 CE) was a disciple of Xuan Zang, who specialized in the study of the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, and was renowned for his bold
challenges to the accepted understanding of Vinaya in his day. A modern retelling of his life story, ‘Huai Su’ by LIN Sen-shou, is at

226 X42, № 735, p. 454, a7–19. This text is not found in the CBETA Taishō edition.

227 Pali Vinaya 3.35. Anāpatti, bhikkhave, asādiyantiyāti.

228 Pali Vinaya 2.278, 2.280.

229 E.g. Pali Vinaya 3.36, 3.38, etc.

230 Pali Vinaya 3.39.

231 E.g. Dvemātikapāḷī: Chande pana asati balakkārena padhaṁsitāya anāpatti.

232 T22, № 1428, p. 714, b5–6: 比丘尼有婬心。捉人男根。著三處大小便道及口

233 T22, № 1428, p. 714, b12ff.

234 T22, № 1428, p. 714, c7–9: 不犯者。眠無所覺知不受樂一切無欲心

235 T23, № 1443, p. 914, b12: 若被逼者三時不樂無犯。逼他者滅擯

236 Pali Vinaya 1.89.

237 Pali Vinaya 1.85.

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