Bhikkhunīs in Theravāda

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Published on the website San­ti­pada.

Dur­ing 2006 and 2007 I was in com­mu­nic­a­tion with the Com­mit­tee of West­ern Bhikkhunīs dis­cuss­ing vari­ous mat­ters con­cern­ing bhikkhunī ordin­a­tion. Venerable Jampa Tsoed­ron asked if I would like to con­trib­ute some­thing for the ongo­ing dia­logue on bhikkhunīs from the Theravāda perspective.

In what fol­lows I will develop three main lines of thought for the valid­ity of bhikkhunī ordin­a­tion within the Theravāda:

  1. There are deep and close con­nec­tions between the exist­ing Vinaya schools, and scant evid­ence that there was ever a “schism” between them on Vinaya grounds. Thus there is no valid Vinaya objec­tion to accept­ing bhikkhunīs from the Chinese Dharmagup­taka lineage.

  2. The Pali Vinaya expli­citly author­izes the ordin­a­tion of bhikkhunīs by bhikkhus alone.

  3. The Vinaya is inten­ded as a prag­matic frame­work for the sup­port of prac­tice, and should not be used to obstruct sin­cere aspir­ants who wish to fol­low Dhamma in its fullness.


I will not pass away, O Evil One, until I have bhikkhu dis­ciples … bhikkhunī dis­ciples … lay­man dis­ciples … lay­wo­men dis­ciples who are accom­plished, dis­cip­lined, skilled, learned, expert in the Dhamma, prac­ticed in accord with the Dhamma, prop­erly prac­ticed, liv­ing in accord with Dhamma, who, hav­ing learnt from their own teacher, expound, teach, declare, set out, explain, ana­lyse it and make it clear; who are able to refute in accord with Dhamma other teach­ings that appear, and then teach the won­der­ful Dhamma.1

This pas­sage, trans­lated from the Pali Mahā­par­in­ib­bāna Sutta, records a con­ver­sa­tion which took place between the Buddha and Mara shortly after his enlight­en­ment. It is but one of many state­ments made in the texts which emphat­ic­ally affirm that the bhikkhunī Sangha is a vital limb of a truly suc­cess­ful and com­plete Buddhist com­munity. Such state­ments are found, not just in the Theravāda scrip­tures, but in vari­ous places through­out the scrip­tures of the schools. For example, the same epis­ode is recor­ded in the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya:

Mara, as long as my dis­ciples have not become wise and of quick under­stand­ing, as long as the bhikṣus, the bhikkhunīs, and the lay dis­ciples of either sex are not able to refute their adversar­ies accord­ing to the Dhamma, as long as my moral teach­ing has not been spread far and wide among gods and men, so long will I not pass away.2

I believe we must take such state­ments ser­i­ously as the main­stream present­a­tion of how the Buddha wanted his dis­pens­a­tion to be, right from the start.

Group photo of sangha in theravada bhikshuni ordination in sravasti abbbey.

As Buddhist Sangha, we should be the lead­ers in justice and fair­ness in the world. (Photo by Sravasti Abbey)

Although my ordin­a­tion lin­eage stems from Theravāda, in recent years my own path has been to seek the com­mon her­it­age of Buddhist tra­di­tions, and so my opin­ions on some mat­ters, includ­ing bhikkhunī ordin­a­tion, dif­fer from the Theravāda main­stream. I believe it is import­ant to acknow­ledge that within any tra­di­tion, even one with a repu­ta­tion for con­ser­vat­ism and ortho­doxy such as the Theravāda, there will be a wide diversity of opin­ions on many matters.

Here I will not repeat the basic his­tory of the intro­duc­tion of the bhikkhunī lin­eage into Sri Lanka, which is well known. It should be stressed, how­ever, that Saṅghamittā bhikkhunī will always be remembered in the hearts of Sin­halese Buddhists as she brought from Bod­hgaya to Sri Lanka the sap­ling of the Bodhi tree, which became the cent­ral devo­tional focus of Sin­halese Buddhism. Thus for the Sri Lankans, the bhikkhunī lin­eage is intrins­ic­ally linked with their own sense of iden­tity as Buddhists, which has no doubt been a major factor in the rel­at­ive accept­ance of bhikkhunīs in mod­ern times in Sri Lanka as com­pared to other Theravāda countries.

Tex­tual and archae­olo­gical evid­ence con­firms that the bhikkhunī lin­eage was also intro­duced into Burma.3

There are uncon­firmed reports that it was also intro­duced into Thai­l­and by the Burmese. By around the 11th Cen­tury CE the bhikkhunī order was becom­ing extinct in both Burma and Sri Lanka. Nev­er­the­less it remains indis­put­able that the bhikkhunī lin­eage is intrinsic to the Theravāda both in its Vinaya texts (the so-called “two-fold Vinaya’) and in history.

In the late medi­eval period, how­ever, the absence of the bhikkhunīs has meant that Theravāda has redefined itself as con­sist­ing of the four-fold group­ing: bhikkhus, sāmaṇeras, lay­men, lay­wo­men. This redefin­i­tion has by now become intrinsic to main­stream Theravāda’s sense of self-identity, repla­cing the Buddha’s “four-fold assembly” (catuṣ­par­iṣad) of bhikkhus, bhikkhunīs, lay­men, and lay­wo­men. Thus Thai monks recite in the intro­duc­tion to their Patimokkha each fort­night that there is no need to teach the bhikkhunīs “because they do not exist any more.”4 Sim­il­arly, for example, the Myan­mar offi­cial Sangha legis­la­tion defines the “Sangha” as male-only:

1.2 (a) “Sangha” means all monks who have attained the noble monk­hood by the Ñatticatuttha-upasampadā Kam­mavācā and who have the same reli­gious vows and pre­cepts.5

At their worst, the Theravād­ins will go so far as to imprison bhikkhunīs, as in the case of Bhikkhunī Sac­cavādī (Daw This­avati). Born on 14 May 1965, Daw This­avati gradu­ated from the then Ran­goon Arts and Sci­ence Uni­ver­sity in 1986 with a Burmese lit­er­at­ure degree, also win­ning sev­eral gold awards for her artistic tal­ents. Des­pite her worldly suc­cess, her exper­i­ence in a med­it­a­tion retreat led her to ordain as a nun in 1986. In 1988, she sat for the junior theo­lo­gical exams, and came first in the coun­try. In 1991, she sat the senior exams and came first again. In 1993, she passed her Dham­mā­car­iya exams with dis­tinc­tion. She went on to study Buddhist theo­logy in Sri Lanka, gradu­at­ing with a Mas­ters degree. Then in 2003, she con­tin­ued to study for a PhD in Philo­sophy, spe­cial­iz­ing in the devel­op­ment of the cat­egory of men­tal con­com­it­ants (cetas­ikā) in Theravāda Abhidhamma.

She repeatedly applied to the eccle­si­ast­ical author­it­ies in Burma (Sangha Mahā Nāyaka Coun­cil) for bhikkhunī ordin­a­tion in accord­ance with the Vinaya, but was refused each time. So she received her higher ordin­a­tion in Sri Lanka on Feb­ru­ary 28, 2003, becom­ing Bhikkhunī Sac­cavādī. In Decem­ber 2004, she returned to Burma in order to attend the World Buddhist Sum­mit, which was inten­ded to be a global show­case for Buddhism (although, as it happened, polit­ical con­tro­versy meant many of the par­ti­cipants pulled out at the last minute.) Accord­ing to her friend, fel­low nun Daw Uttama, Bhikkhunī Sac­cavādī was refused entry to the Sum­mit. How­ever, she remained in Burma because her father was ill. Dur­ing this time she was summoned for ques­tion­ing by the government-backed Sangha Mahā Nāyaka Council.

The arrest came on May 27 2005, after her father’s death. Bhikkhunī Sac­cavādī was charged under Burma’s crim­inal code, Sec­tion 295 for “abus­ing reli­gion,” and Sec­tion 295(a) for “desec­ra­tion of reli­gious build­ings and prop­erty.” An altern­at­ive source, from Saccavādī’s friend Bhikkhunī Guṇasārī lists the Sec­tion as 395 (Ka), and describes the reas­ons of arrest as:

a. Work­ing for for­eign human rights group [of] women for free­dom of wor­ship and free­dom for equal oppor­tun­ity for women. Caus­ing dis­rup­tion of peace within the country.

b. Work­ing to cause dis­har­mony (schism) within the com­munity of Sangha order in Myan­mar and thus dis­rupt the peace and har­mony of the com­munity of Sangha and the gen­eral populace.

Bhikkhunī Sac­cavādī was released after 76 days in a Burmese jail, and was released on the con­di­tion that she sign a paper say­ing she is not a bhikkhunī. She was then taken dir­ectly to the air­port and returned to Sri Lanka.6

The impris­on­ment of bhikkhunīs is not an isol­ated incid­ent. Yeo Kwang Sunim (Ayyā Tathāālokā) tells us the story of the attempts of Thai women to ordain as bhikkhunīs:

In 1928, two daugh­ters of the out­spoken polit­ical critic Narin Klung, Sara and Jongdi were ordained as bhikkhunī and saman­eri respect­ively along with a num­ber of other women. His house, which he gave to the Bhikkhunī Sangha, became known as Wat Nariwong. Due to their father’s polit­ical con­flicts, the daugh­ters were arres­ted and most of their Sangha dis­robed, while the two sis­ters were taken to prison, where the elder sis­ter (the bhikkhunī) was dis­robed by force. When they were freed they main­tained their mon­astic life, but changed the col­our of their robes. Their Sangha ended when one day the elder bhikkhunī sis­ter was snatched by someone on horse­back while she was out on alms round. Due to the neg­at­ive reac­tion to that event within the Sangha, the then Sangha­raja of Thai­l­and passed a law for­bid­ding any and all Thai Bhikkhus from ordain­ing women as either sāmaṇerīs [novice nuns keep­ing 10 pre­cepts], sikkhamānās [train­ees for full ordin­a­tion], or bhikkhunīs [fully ordained nuns].

Nev­er­the­less, there is sig­ni­fic­ant room for dif­fer­ing opin­ions within Theravāda. The Burmese gov­ern­ment in the 1970s was recom­men­ded to re-introduce the bhikkhunī order (there were Burmese bhikkhunīs up until at least the 11th cen­tury). A Sen­ate select com­mit­tee in Thai­l­and has also recently recom­men­ded in favour of bhikkhunīs. In fact, the offi­cial web­site of the Maha­mak­uta Rajavidy­alaya Found­a­tion, which is a Uni­ver­sity under Thai Royal Pat­ron­age, on a page from the “Office of the Prime Minister’s Sec­ret­ariat” pos­it­ively acknow­ledges the exist­ence of bhikkhunīs:

How­ever, a group of Sri Lanka Bhikkhunīs were invited over to China in B.E. 976 where they estab­lished a Bhikkhunī lin­eage there. This lin­eage has been kept alive until today. After­ward, they spread to many neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, i.e. Japan, Korea, etc. Bhikkhunī strong­holds can now be found in Taiwan mon­as­tery [sic] and Korea. In B.E. 2531 (1988) His [sic—read Hsi] Lai Temple, a Chinese mon­as­tery in Los Angeles, U.S.A., provided ordin­a­tion for 200 women from vari­ous tra­di­tions and coun­tries to strengthen the insti­tu­tion of fully ordained Buddhist women. In the last two dec­ades, Buddhist women have expressed clearly their desire to par­ti­cip­ate at all levels in Buddhism. Con­sid­er­ing that women from [sic] half of the world pop­u­la­tion, this trend should have a pos­it­ive effect towards the devel­op­ment of Buddhism.

Spe­cial men­tion should also be made of Jetavana Say­adaw, the teacher of the most renowned Burmese monk of mod­ern times, Mahasi Say­adaw. In the 1950s Jetavana Say­adaw pub­lished in Pali a com­ment­ary on the Milindapañha, in which he sup­por­ted the re-introduction of the bhikkhunī Sangha in Burma. In recent years sig­ni­fic­ant num­bers of senior Theras of the Theravādin tra­di­tion have voiced their sup­port for bhikkhunīs, and this num­ber will surely grow.

Even in the last dec­ade, I have wit­nessed a tre­mend­ous shift in the think­ing of the monks from my tra­di­tion, the West­ern monks of the Thai forest tra­di­tion. In the early 90’s, the ques­tion of bhikkhunīs was not dis­cussed, and the main­stream pos­i­tion was basic­ally accep­ted, that there simply are no bhikkhunīs. But by now, it seems to be fairly well accep­ted that bhikkhunīs exist, although opin­ions are still divided as to whether this is a good thing or not.

One of the most ser­i­ous ques­tions for Theravād­ins is the issue of whether Mahāyāna can be regarded as a legit­im­ate form of Buddhism at all. Theravādin bhikkhus often believe that Mahāyāna monks and nuns are not really ordained; that is, they are not truly bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs. This is for many reas­ons: Mahāyāna monks and nuns recite saṅghakamma in a dif­fer­ent lan­guage (but the Buddha said we should learn Dhamma in our own dia­lect); they do not keep Vinaya (but in fact the Mahāyāna Sangha keep the same major rules as the Theravāda and simply inter­pret some minor rules dif­fer­ently); or they do not fol­low ordin­a­tion pro­ced­ure prop­erly (but the cru­cial ele­ment in upasam­padā is the “motion and three announce­ments” that con­sti­tutes the Sanghakamma; if minor details are changed this does not affect the valid­ity of the ordin­a­tion). Since “Mahāyāna” is not really Buddhism and since “Mahāyāna” monks and nuns are not really bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs it fol­lows that it is impossible to rein­tro­duce the Theravādin bhikkhunī tra­di­tion. I believe this pos­i­tion, which may not be clearly artic­u­lated, is cru­cial in address­ing the prob­lem. What is needed is edu­ca­tion. For my part, I will con­trib­ute below my ana­lysis of the his­tor­ical con­nec­tions between the tra­di­tions as a way of under­lin­ing the com­mon ground. But this area also needs work by both the Mahāyāna tra­di­tions, to explain how their lin­eage is based on ortho­dox Vinaya prin­ciples (we all believe our own tra­di­tion is ortho­dox, and don’t feel the need to jus­tify this to oth­ers!), and also by the Theravād­ins, who must be will­ing to listen.

Pre-sectarian Buddhism

It is doubt­ful whether the vari­ous Buddhist com­munit­ies, passing down their texts in oral tra­di­tion, ever shared a uni­ver­sal ori­ginal Vinaya that was lit­er­ally identical. But it is reas­on­able to assume that the earli­est Buddhist mon­ast­ics pos­sessed a Vinaya that was fairly uni­form, and which in most respects cor­res­ponds to the com­mon ele­ments in the Vinayas exist­ing today. This was stud­ied and prac­ticed by all monks and nuns from the time of the Buddha for about 100 years.

The second council

Inev­it­ably, dif­fer­ences in prac­tice gradu­ally occurred. About 100 years after the Buddha’s passing away, this caused a crisis in the Sangha that was addressed at the “Second Coun­cil,” held in the Vajjian Repub­lic in the city of Vesali. It seems this was in the time of King Kāḷāśoka of Magadha.

The main issue was whether it was proper for Buddhist monks to use money. The Vinaya accounts, with the excep­tion of the Mahāsaṅghi­kas, men­tion a total of “ten issues” (with some dif­fer­ences), but these were of sec­ond­ary import­ance. The monks of Vesali, known as the “Vajji­put­takas” (“Sons of the Vaj­jis”) took to going into the towns with their bowls to col­lect money. They were opposed by the monks from the west and south; in the Theravāda Vinaya these are called “Pāveyyakas” (“those from Pāvā”). There was a great debate, atten­ded by 700 monks. The Coun­cil appoin­ted a group of eight monks, four from each side, to com­pare the prac­tices of the Vajji­put­takas with the Buddha’s words in the Sut­tas and Vinaya. They ulti­mately upheld the opin­ions of the Pāveyyakas. This makes it clear that, even though the monks and nuns at the time might dif­fer in prac­tice, they all upheld the same teach­ings and code of con­duct, and this was a stand­ard that was accept­able to all. Notice that the dif­fer­ences arose because of geo­graph­ical sep­ar­a­tion, and were resolved by going back to the com­mon source.

The Mahāsaṅghika schism

All the Vinayas agree that the dis­pute at Vesali was resolved without schism. But some years later there was another dis­pute, not about Vinaya, but about doc­trine. Accounts are var­ied, since this issue is not dis­cussed in the basic Vinayas, but in later sec­tarian his­tor­ies. But it seems that a cer­tain teacher (called Mahādeva by some) taught five ideas that were unac­cept­able to many monks and nuns. There is no need to go into details here about what these ideas were. It is enough to notice that the dif­fer­ence was largely about the nature of an ara­hant (enlightened dis­ciple). Was an ara­hant really com­pletely free of all worldly attach­ments and ignor­ance, or might he still be sub­ject to some subtle imperfections?

It is not clear whether there was an actual Coun­cil at which these issues were dis­cussed, or if there was, where it might have been. But it does seem likely that the event pre­ceded the time of King Asoka, since the exist­ence of vari­ous schools seems to be sug­ges­ted by his inscrip­tions, and is con­firmed in sev­eral of the later accounts. This time the dis­put­ing parties could not agree, and the first schism res­ul­ted. The group that ques­tioned the arahant’s per­fec­tion was the major­ity, so they were called the “Mahāsaṅghika.” It is not clear whether they were the major­ity of the whole Sangha, or just the major­ity at the meet­ing that res­ul­ted in schism.

There is no really con­veni­ent name for the other group, which upheld the arahant’s abso­lute pur­ity. The sources, both South­ern and North­ern, usu­ally call them the Theras (‘Eld­ers’). This, how­ever, has the defect of imply­ing that they are identical with the Theravād­ins of Sri Lanka. But the Theravād­ins are simply one branch of this ancient school, and many other schools may claim to stem from this school with equal jus­ti­fic­a­tion.7 Indeed, the Sri Lankan school is often, if not usu­ally, called by dif­fer­ent names—Vibhaj­javāda, Mahāvi­hāravāsin, Tam­bap­aṇṇīya, Tām­raśāṭīya, etc. Until the sub-commentarial period, the word “Theravāda” is found rarely even in their own accounts; and the earli­est usages are decidedly ambiguous.

For example Asoka’s son Mahinda, just after ordin­a­tion, is said to learn the entire “Theravāda,” includ­ing Tip­itaka and com­ment­ar­ies;8 here Theravāda is iden­ti­fied with the tex­tual tra­di­tion, obvi­ously meant to author­ize the Sri Lankan Pali texts, des­pite the obvi­ous ana­chron­ism (since the com­ment­ar­ies were not com­posed until much later than Asoka).9 In this text the vari­ous other Vibhaj­javāda schools such as Dharmagup­taka, Mahīśā­saka, Kaśyapīya, etc., had not yet split off from this “Theravāda.” But at Mahāvaṁsa 5.10 we find “Theravāda” used in oppos­i­tion to all the other schools, includ­ing Dharmagup­taka, etc. So the term which earlier embraced all the Vibhaj­javāda became nar­rowly asso­ci­ated with just one of the Vibhaj­javāda schools, namely the Sri Lankan one. There is no ques­tion that the Sri Lankan school can claim to be a legit­im­ate suc­cessor to the early Sthaviras or Theravād­ins, but the exclus­ive use of this term by the later Sri Lankan tra­di­tion hides an impli­cit claim that the Sri Lankan school is their only legit­im­ate suc­cessor. Wish­ing to avoid play­ing these party games, I will use the Sanskrit form, Sthaviras, to denote the early school that split from the Mahāsaṅghi­kas, and Mahāvi­hāravāsins (‘dwell­ers at the Great Mon­as­tery’) to refer to the Sri Lankan school. This term has the advant­age of being an authen­tic ancient name used by the school them­selves,10 which is quite pre­cise and free of ambi­gu­ity. It is worth not­ing that the Pali Vinaya expli­citly iden­ti­fies itself as a “Vibhaj­javāda” text of the Sri Lankan “Mahāvihāravāsins”:

Ācar­iyānaṁ vibhaj­javādānaṁ‚ tam­bap­aṇṇidīpapasādakānaṁ; mahāvi­hāravāsīnaṁ, vācanā saddham­maṭṭhitiyāti.

This recit­a­tion of the teach­ers of the Vibhaj­javāda, the inspirers of the Isle of Tam­bap­aṇṇi, Dwell­ers at the Great Mon­as­tery, is for the main­ten­ance of the true Dhamma.

This state­ment is found in the uddāna or sum­mary verse at the end of the Samuc­cayakkhand­haka.11 This simply con­firms that the Pali Vinaya, while final­ized in its present form by the Mahāvi­hāravāsins of Sri Lanka, was believed by them to belong to the Vibhajjavāda.

Some schol­ars try to con­nect the events of the Second Coun­cil with this schism, and say the Mahāsaṅghi­kas are the same as the Vajji­put­takas, and the Sthaviras are the same as the Pāveyyakas. This idea is based upon cer­tain state­ments in the Pali com­ment­ar­ies and some North­ern sources, all of which are sec­tarian records dat­ing from many cen­tur­ies after the fact. How­ever, some fea­tures of the exist­ing Vinayas have been adduced as addi­tional sup­port for this idea. For example, the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya deals with the Second Coun­cil quite quickly, and only men­tions one issue, rather than the ten of the other schools. Some have seen this as an attempt to skim over an embar­rass­ing epis­ode in the school’s his­tory. But the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya reg­u­larly abbre­vi­ates, espe­cially nar­rat­ive por­tions.12 This is a fea­ture of the lit­er­ary style of the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya, not a sec­tarian bias.

In fact, the evid­ence of the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya speaks against any con­nec­tion with the Vajji­put­takas. The main idea pro­posed by the Vajji­put­takas was that it was proper for a monk or nun to use money; but the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya has exactly the same rules as the Theravāda and all other schools regard­ing the use of money. Indeed, in their account of the Second Coun­cil the Mahāsaṅghi­kas openly cri­ti­cize the Vajji­put­takas. Fur­ther, in the Vinayas of both the Mahāsaṅghika and their branch the Lok­ut­tara­vāda, train­ees for bhikkhunī status are expec­ted to keep eight­een rules, rather than the six in other schools, and among those eight­een, pro­hib­i­tions against using money are men­tioned twice. Thus, in this respect, the Mahāsaṅghi­kas had stricter pro­hib­i­tions against the use of money than the other schools.

Further doctrinal schisms

Fol­low­ing this first schism, both schools pro­ceeded to splinter and frag­ment, res­ult­ing in a pro­lif­er­a­tion of schools. They are tra­di­tion­ally numbered as “eight­een,” but if all the schools men­tioned in vari­ous texts and inscrip­tions were added up, they would nearly double this. We won’t even begin to try to trace the devel­op­ment of all “eight­een” schools here, but will con­cen­trate on those that are spe­cific­ally rel­ev­ant for the Vinaya traditions.

The schisms of the Mahāsaṅghika schools are not par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant for a Vinaya dis­cus­sion, as we only pos­sess a com­plete Vinaya of the par­ent school, the Mahāsaṅghika itself, in Chinese trans­la­tion. In fact, Frauwall­ner argues that the other Mahāsaṅghika schools barely have any exist­ence of last­ing inde­pend­ent value, and in all dis­cus­sions fade into the back­ground.13 Per­haps they were mere local vari­ants of the main Mahāsaṅghi­kas, and may not have had an inde­pend­ent Vinaya tra­di­tion. The excep­tion is the Lok­ut­tara­vāda, whose Bhikkhunī Vinaya has been dis­covered in manu­script and pub­lished. This is very sim­ilar to the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya in Chinese, but some­times gives the text in full where the Mahāsaṅghika abbreviates.

Soon after the first schism, the Sthaviras split over a doc­trinal issue. It seems the first schism was over the ques­tion of the “per­son.” The Sut­tas fre­quently refer to “per­sons” (pug­gala), which taken lit­er­ally might seem to con­tra­dict the core doc­trine of “not-self” (anattā). Most schools took such say­ings to be merely a lin­guistic con­veni­ence, but one group, called the Pug­ga­lavāda (‘the doc­trine of the per­son’), asser­ted that the “per­son” was a subtle entity that exis­ted out­side the five aggreg­ates. The parties were unable to agree, and schism res­ul­ted. The Pug­ga­lavāda, though reviled by other Buddhists, had their own long and suc­cess­ful career in Indian Buddhism. Like the Mahāsaṅghika, sev­eral sub-schools emerged, but again Frauwall­ner argues that these had scarcely any inde­pend­ent status in the main his­tory. Although none of their primary lit­er­at­ure sur­vives, there are four Pug­ga­lavāda treat­ises exist­ing in Chinese trans­la­tion, from which we are able to ascer­tain that they had a scrip­tural col­lec­tion com­par­able to the other schools.

The next schism prob­ably happened soon after. The ques­tion was a subtle philo­soph­ical point about the nature of time and imper­man­ence. One group main­tained that “all dham­mas—past, future, and present—exist,” and they called them­selves the “Sar­vāstivāda” (‘the doc­trine that all exists’). The other group main­tained that we must “dis­tin­guish” between the past, future, and present, and they became known as the “Vibhaj­javāda” (‘the doc­trine of dis­tin­guish­ing’). The Sar­vāstivāda went on to become the most influ­en­tial of all the schools of Buddhism in India. The sources are not con­sist­ent as to whether the Pug­ga­lavāda or Sar­vāstivāda schism was earlier. But the Sar­vāstivādin Abhid­hamma work the Vijñānakāya con­tains a cri­tique of the “per­son” doc­trine which is sim­ilar to that held by at least one Vibhaj­javāda school (the Mahāvihāravāsin’s Kathāvat­thu). This sug­gests they shared this anti-personalist thesis before their schism.

Notice that each of these schisms res­ul­ted from dis­tinct and import­ant doc­trinal dis­putes. The Mahāsaṅghika schism con­cerned the nature of the per­fec­ted indi­vidual, a cru­cial soteri­olo­gical ques­tion. The Pug­ga­lavāda schism con­cerned the most char­ac­ter­istic Buddhist doc­trine, not-self. The Sar­vāstivāda schism con­cerned another key doc­trine, imper­man­ence, a topic of press­ing con­cern for a young reli­gion strug­gling to sur­vive after the death of its founder. The next set of schisms that we shall con­sider seem to spring, not from doc­trine, but from geography.

Geographical schisms

Now, this was around the Third Cen­tury BCE, the era of King Asoka. Under the pat­ron­age of that great Buddhist mon­arch, Buddhist mis­sion­ar­ies trav­elled the breadth of the Indian sub­con­tin­ent, tak­ing with them the Dhamma of tol­er­ance and com­pas­sion. It seems that the Vibhaj­javād­ins were among the most suc­cess­ful mis­sion­ar­ies.

The most per­suas­ive ana­lysis of the vari­ous records was made by Frauwall­ner. He argues for a broad sim­il­ar­ity between the records found in the Sri Lankan chron­icles, the Asokan inscrip­tions, and vari­ous North­ern records, par­tic­u­larly those of the Chinese pil­grims. Accord­ing to Frauwall­ner, this cor­res­pond­ence sug­gests that the schools we identify as the Vibhaj­javāda may be con­nec­ted with either per­sonal names or place names found in these records. These were sent out in a con­cer­ted mis­sion­ary effort in the time of Asoka, based in the city of Vidiśā.14

Thus the Kaśyapīya school seems to be con­nec­ted with the Kas­sapag­otta of the chron­icles and the Kās­sapag­ota, whose name is one of three found on a reliquary in Vidiśā. The Haimavata school is also men­tioned in these same reliquar­ies, and would res­ult from a mis­sion sent to the Him­alayan region.15

The chron­icles tell us the story of Majjhantika’s mis­sion to Kash­mir.16 The Sar­vāstivādin sources claim the same Mad­hyāntika as their pat­ri­arch, and tell of his mis­sion in closely sim­ilar terms.17 As is well known, Kash­mir was the headquar­ters of the later Sar­vāstivāda.18

Another mis­sion by a cer­tain Mahādeva (not to be con­fused with the reviled Mahādeva who allegedly caused the Mahāsaṅghika schism) went to the Mahisa coun­try. Frauwall­ner sug­gests that this may be con­nec­ted with the found­ing of the Mahīśā­saka school. He cau­tions that this iden­ti­fic­a­tion remains tent­at­ive, since the loc­a­tion of Mahisa is uncer­tain, although it seems to be the in the Andhra region (north­ern Dec­can),19 and, while the Mahīśā­saka are in later times attested across a wide area, their ori­ginal home is not known. Thus it is not pos­sible to con­firm any def­in­ite geo­graph­ical rela­tion­ship between the two. Nev­er­the­less, given the over­all pat­tern of cor­res­pond­ences that are emer­ging, it is cer­tainly possible.

Dutt, fol­low­ing Przyluski, devel­ops the idea that the Mahīśā­sa­kas are ori­gin­ally des­cen­ded from Purāṇa, the dis­sen­tient ara­hant of the First Coun­cil story, who, while acknow­ledging the author­ity of the Coun­cil, pre­ferred to remem­ber the teach­ings as he had heard them.20 Appar­ently, the Mahīśā­saka Vinaya treats Purāṇa as the second most senior ara­hant, fol­low­ing Aññā Koṇḍañña, and says that the teach­ings were recited once more for Purāṇa’s bene­fit. He accep­ted them after adding seven minor Vinaya reg­u­la­tions con­cern­ing food. If it is true that the Mahīśā­sa­kas stem from this time, it is one of the old­est schools. I think it is implaus­ible to think of any dis­tinct “schools” so soon after the Par­in­ib­bana, which does not pre­clude the pos­sib­il­ity that some of Purāṇa’s lin­eage might have given more emphasis to his spe­cial points. Purāṇa is said to have come from the south, which agrees with the later loc­a­tion of Mahisa in the Andhra region. Dutt com­ments that “this school agreed with the Theravād­ins in fun­da­mental doc­trines and dis­cip­lin­ary rules.”

Per­haps the best attested group of Vibhaj­javād­ins was led south by Asoka’s son Mahinda and daugh­ter Saṅghamittā, to the dis­tant island of Sri Lanka, where they were received with joy. The headquar­ters of a vig­or­ous new Buddhist cul­ture were estab­lished in Anuradhapura at the Mahāvi­hāra. This tra­di­tion is today usu­ally called the “Theravāda” (“doc­trine of the eld­ers”). But to avoid the con­fu­sion I noted above—the lazy but com­mon error of identi­fy­ing the Sri Lankan school with the par­ent school, the Sthaviras—I will through­out refer to this school as the “Mahāvi­hāravāsins” (“dwell­ers at the Great Mon­as­tery”). The Mahāvi­hāravāsins have to this day main­tained their col­lec­tion of Sut­tas, Vinaya, Abhid­hamma, and com­ment­ar­ies in the Pali language.

As recor­ded in the Sri Lankan chron­icles, another Vibhaj­javādin mis­sion trav­elled to Aparantaka in the west of India (Gujarat). This was under a monk called Yonaka Dham­marakkhita, a most intriguing name. Yonaka is related to “Ionia,” and is used in Indic texts for any West­erner, espe­cially the Greeks. Alex­an­der the Great had led his Greek army into north-west India only shortly before Asoka. He built sev­eral cit­ies called “Alex­an­dria,” one of which was Yonaka Dhammarakkhita’s home town.21 Thus he was prob­ably of Greek origin.

The second part of his name is just as inter­est­ing. The words rakkhita and gupta have exactly the same mean­ing: “guarded.” Thus some mod­ern schol­ars (Frauwall­ner, Przyluski) have seen a con­nec­tion between this “Dham­marakkhita” and the “Dharmagup­taka” school: the Dharmagup­ta­kas were a branch of the Vibhaj­javāda that fol­lowed Yonaka Dham­marakkhita into the west.22

The Greek con­nec­tion seems to be rein­forced in the Milindapañha, which fam­ously records (or rein­vents) a dia­logue between the Greek king Milinda (Men­ander) and the Buddhist monk Nāgasena. The Pali ver­sion of this records that Nāgasena, after his ini­tial train­ing, trav­elled “a long way” to the East to the Asokārāma in Pāṭali­putta in order to receive teach­ings from a cer­tain “Dham­marakkhita.”23 This epis­ode does not appear in the Chinese trans­la­tion. It is gen­er­ally agreed that the Pali ver­sion has been sub­ject to elab­or­a­tion, some blatantly unhis­tor­ical.24 There is another point where the text men­tions five rivers: in the Chinese, four of these are from the north-west of India, but in the Pali, all are in the east­ern dis­tricts. Since the Milindapañha is set in the North-west, it seems that the Chinese is more plaus­ible here, and the Pali edit­ors wanted to bring the action back fur­ther east, to lands they were more famil­iar with, and which had a long asso­ci­ation with the Buddhist heart­land. It is no coin­cid­ence that Asoka is invoked, and that it is here under Dham­marakkhita that Nāgasena becomes an ara­hant. It appears that the Pali, while cel­eb­rat­ing the spread of the Dhamma to for­eign lands, still holds the old places dear, and brings its hero back into the heart­land for the cru­cial event of his enlight­en­ment. Thus the inser­tion of the Dham­marakkhita epis­ode is prob­ably also to make the con­nec­tion with the “Greek Dham­marakkhita”—who bet­ter to teach the teacher of the Greeks, Nāgasena? The absence of Dham­marakkhita from the Chinese would rein­force the impres­sion that this dif­fer­ence is sec­tarian (and might sug­gest that the Chinese text, whose school is unknown, is not Vibhaj­javādin).25 It is unlikely that “Dham­marakkhita” could have been alive in the time of both Asoka and Milinda, though McEvil­ley thinks it is just pos­sible.26 But given the lack of con­cern for his­tor­icity dis­played by the Pali edit­ors, this does not affect the iden­ti­fic­a­tion of the two Dham­marakkhitas. The point of this digres­sion from our main argu­ment is simply to rein­force that “Dham­marakkhita” remained a revered elder for the Mahāvi­hāravāsins, and is in no way con­nec­ted with any heresy or schism.

Exam­in­a­tion of the texts and ideas of this school con­firms its close rela­tion, amount­ing to vir­tual iden­tity, with the Mahāvi­hāravāsins. The clas­sic Mahāvi­hāravāsin source for the doc­trines of the schools is the Abhid­hamma Kathāvat­thu. This lists lit­er­ally hun­dreds of points of con­ten­tion between vari­ous schools. The schools them­selves, how­ever, are not named in the text, and to find out who held these views—or at least, who the Mahāvi­hāravāsins believed held these views—we must turn to the com­ment­ary. In its intro­duc­tion, the com­ment­ary classes the “Dham­magut­tikas” as one of the branches of the Mahīśā­sa­kas, and hence they are reckoned among the 17 “schis­matic” or “heretical” schools. But in the body of the com­ment­ary, there is not a single men­tion of the Dharmagup­ta­kas as hold­ing any one of the so-called “heretical” views dis­cussed there. Thus we can con­clude that the men­tion of the Dharmagup­ta­kas in the intro­duc­tion tells us that the Mahāvi­hāravāsins knew of the school, but had prob­ably lost con­tact with them by that time. The con­dem­na­tion is entirely gen­eral, and is merely a sweep­ing sec­tarian dis­missal of all dif­fer­ent schools. There are no spe­cific grounds in the Mahāvihāravāsin’s own scrip­tures for con­clud­ing that the Dharmagup­ta­kas held any dis­sen­tient views.

Inform­a­tion about the Dharmagupataka’s views can be found in Vasumitra’s Samay­ab­he­do­pa­racana­cakra. This source dates from around 400C.E., and is thus later than the Kathāvat­thu. Since none of these points are ascribed to the Dharmagup­ta­kas in the Mahāvi­hāravāsin sources, it is quite pos­sible that the vari­ations arose gradu­ally, dur­ing the cen­tur­ies since the sep­ar­a­tion of the Vibhaj­javāda schools. Accord­ing to Dutt, Vasum­itra ascribes the fol­low­ing views to the Dharmagup­ta­kas:27

  • Gifts offered to the Saṅgha are more mer­it­ori­ous than those offered to the Buddha.

  • Gifts made to a stupa are meritorious.

  • The lib­er­a­tion of the dis­ciples and the Buddhas is the same, though the path may differ.

  • Those out­side Buddhism can­not gain the five spe­cial know­ledges (abhiññā).

  • The body of an ara­hant is without defilement.

The first three of these would be accept­able to Mahāvi­hāravāsins; the fourth would not; the fifth, while being too obscure to actu­ally make much sense to any­one except an ābhid­ham­mika, would con­flict with the Mahāvi­hāravāsin inter­pret­a­tion, which holds that the body of an ara­hant can become the object of defile­ments for oth­ers. In addi­tion the Abhid­har­makośa of Vas­ub­andhu (vi. 27) says that the Dharmagup­ta­kas held, in agree­ment with the Mahāvi­hāravāsins and against the Sar­vāstivād­ins, that real­iz­a­tion of the truths hap­pens all at once (ekāb­his­amaya).

It will take us too far afield to exam­ine in detail the actual texts of the Dharmagup­taka, but a quick sur­vey is enough to rein­force the impres­sion of their close­ness with the Mahāvi­hāravāsin. Regard­ing the Dharmagup­taka Vinaya, Pachow in his sur­vey of the pāṭimokkhas states: “the Dharmagup­taka fol­lows very closely the Pali text in most cases, not merely in num­ber­ing the series but also in con­tents, except the [sekhiya] sec­tion, in which it adds 26 pro­hib­it­ory rules regard­ing the Stupa.”28 (The spe­cial con­cern of the Dharmagup­ta­kas for stu­pas agrees with point 2 above). Sim­il­arly, the Dharmagup­taka ver­sion of the Brah­ma­jala Sutta is very close indeed to the Pali, with only tri­fling vari­ation in the sequence and word­ing of the 62 heretical views dis­cussed there.29 This dis­course is par­tic­u­larly import­ant in this con­text, as it spe­cific­ally dis­cusses heretical views. Moreover, the 62 views were cru­cial to decid­ing the iden­tity of the heretics as con­demned at the Third Coun­cil, where Mog­gali­put­tatissa upheld the Vibhaj­javāda as the true doc­trine of the Buddha. Finally, Frauwall­ner in his dis­cus­sion of the sole sur­viv­ing Dharmagup­taka Abhid­harma work, the Śāripūtrāb­hid­harma, shows the rela­tion between this work and vari­ous Mahāvi­hāravāsin Abhid­hamma books, includ­ing the Dham­mas­aṅgaṇi, Vibhaṅga, Dhātukathā, and Paṭṭhāna. He sums up by say­ing: “While mainly based on old trans­mit­ted mater­ial, even this is organ­ized in a dif­fer­ent way as com­pared with the other schools we have dis­cussed [namely, Mahāvi­hāravāsin and Sar­vāstivāda]. It con­tains little in the way of innov­a­tion or doc­trinal evol­u­tion.”30 Thus, while admit­ting that there are sev­eral sig­ni­fic­ant diver­gences in the field of Abhid­hamma, there is clearly a com­mon source. Again, there is no reason why such dif­fer­ences as exist should not have emerged in the long period of Abhid­hamma devel­op­ment that took place after the sep­ar­a­tion of the schools.

So it seems that the split between the Mahāvi­hāravāsins and the Dharmagup­ta­kas was due to neither Dhamma nor Vinaya, but mere geo­graphy. The Dharmagup­ta­kas were the north-western branch of the Vibhaj­javāda, and the Mahāvi­hāravāsins or Theravād­ins were the south­ern branch. But the affin­ity between these schools could even over­come such vast dis­tances, for the Sri Lankan chron­icles record that Yonaka Dham­marakkhita and many of his fol­low­ers trav­elled to Sri Lanka for the inaug­ural bless­ing cere­mony for the Great Stupa.31 This is not the treat­ment we would expect for a schis­matic heretic, but for a respec­ted Elder of the tradition.


The Dharmagup­ta­kas in the west were ideally situ­ated to spread fur­ther along the Silk Road to China. Traffic along this cent­ral Asian trade route was brisk and diverse, and Buddhists of vari­ous types soon made their pres­ence felt. Buddhism arrived in China about 500 years after the Buddha’s passing away. It seems that the Dharmagup­ta­kas were among the first to become estab­lished there, and the first to set up a Vinaya lin­eage. The ancient Chinese impor­ted and trans­lated at least five full Vinayas, the most pop­u­lar being the Dharmagup­taka and the Sarvāstivāda.

The Chinese com­ment­ator Tao Xuan (596–667 CE) recor­ded that in the early days the Sangha in China had prac­ticed accord­ing to dif­fer­ent Vinayas, but there had been a desire to unify and stand­ard­ize con­duct, so just one Vinaya was chosen to be bind­ing for the whole Sangha. There was some debate over which should be adop­ted. But even­tu­ally it was agreed that, since the ordin­a­tion lin­eage stemmed from the Dharmagup­taka, all should fol­low the Dharmagup­taka Vinaya. Until this day, the Dharmagup­taka Vinaya remains the accep­ted code of dis­cip­line for all Sangha in the Chinese and related tra­di­tions, such as Korea, Viet­nam, and Taiwan. It is worth not­ing that up until this time, prac­tice had been based on vari­ous Vinayas, espe­cially the Sar­vāstivāda, which means that ordin­a­tions would have been often car­ried out accord­ing to the Sar­vāstivāda Vinaya. So the exist­ing Chinese lin­eage stems from a uni­fic­a­tion of the Dharmagup­taka with the Sar­vāstivāda, which were clearly not felt to be incom­pat­ible. In the cur­rent situ­ation, this under­scores the rela­tion­ship between the Chinese lin­eage and the Tibetan, which was based on the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda. While I have never seen any evid­ence that the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya was ever used as the basis for an ordin­a­tion lin­eage in China, there is no doubt of the doc­trinal close­ness of this school with the Sarvāstivāda.

In the first period of Chinese Buddhism the ordin­a­tion lin­eage was estab­lished for monks only. There were as yet no bhikkhunīs, so the com­plete four-fold spir­itual com­munity envis­aged by the Buddha had not yet taken root. The first nuns were ordained halfway through the fourth cen­tury. But this ordin­a­tion was given by the monks only, and some felt that this was not strictly in line with the Vinaya. The nun Seng-kuo reports that around 433 CE a group of bhikkhunīs arrived on a ship from Sri Lanka. Bhikkhunī ordin­a­tions were car­ried out by these Sri Lankan bhikkhunīs together with the Chinese bhikkhus, guided by the monk Saṅghav­ar­man. He is known to have trans­lated a Bhikkhunī Vinaya kam­mavācā text of the Dharmagup­taka school, so it seems likely that the bhikkhunī ordin­a­tion was car­ried out in accord­ance with the Dharmagup­taka Vinaya. Else­where we have trans­lated the texts from the rel­ev­ant Chinese histories.

Thus the Dharmagup­taka Vinaya lin­eage of China has had his­tor­ic­ally very close links with Sri Lanka. Indeed, the Chinese canon con­tains a Sri Lankan Vinaya com­ment­ary (sim­ilar to the Pali Sāmantapāsādikā), and also a Vinaya of the Mahīśā­saka school that was brought from Sri Lanka. It is not sure whether the Sri Lankan nuns were from the Theravāda (Mahāvi­hāravāsins) or not. By that stage, two other schools had emerged in Sri Lanka: the Abhay­agirivāsins and the Jetavanīyas. These had sep­ar­ated from the Mahāvi­hāravāsins, with mutual acri­mony that sug­gests that per­sonal polit­ics played a role. The Sri Lankan texts exist­ing in Chinese trans­la­tion (the Vinaya com­ment­ary and the Vimut­timagga) are not exactly the same as their Mahāvi­hāravāsin coun­ter­parts, so it is pos­sible that the Sri Lanka-China con­nec­tions were from one of the other schools, prob­ably the Abhay­agirivāsins. But this does not affect the ques­tion of ordin­a­tion lin­eage, since the Abhay­agirivāsins and the Jetavanīyas both stemmed from the Mahāvi­hāravāsins. In later days they were quietly re-admitted into the fold, so the Theravāda we know today is in fact a re-union of the three ancient Sri Lankan schools, just as the Chinese lin­eage stems from the reuni­fic­a­tion of the Dharmagup­taka and Sar­vāstivāda. Such examples show how the Sangha can put aside ancient dis­putes and rivalry in the name of harmony.


Some time around the late 780s, the first Tibetan mon­as­tery of Samye was built, but there were only Indian monks. The so-called “Dharma King,” Tride Songt­sen Ralpachan, chose seven men for ordin­a­tion as a trial to see whether Tibetans were cap­able of main­tain­ing the Vinaya tra­di­tion. The ordin­a­tion and train­ing were car­ried out under the great Indian pun­dit Śantarakṣita, who had ordained and stud­ied at Nalanda, and whose treat­ise the Tat­tvas­aṅ­graha shows his flu­ency in the teach­ings of all the schools. This exper­i­ment was deemed a suc­cess and many other ordin­a­tions followed.

For their tex­tual source, the Tibetans used the huge Vinaya of the Mūlas­ar­vāstivād­ins. As the name sug­gests, they were closely related to the Sar­vāstivāda, and also stemmed from the ancient Sthaviras. Their Vinaya became very pop­u­lar in the later period of Indian Buddhism, pos­sibly because it incor­por­ates many sut­ras and stor­ies as well as the com­mon inher­it­ance of Vinaya mater­ial. This was the only Vinaya trans­lated into Tibetan, and in fact King Tride Songt­sen decreed that only the Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda Vinaya lin­eage should be estab­lished and prac­ticed in Tibet. There are a few ref­er­ences to the order of bhikkhunīs in Tibet, but clearly they did not survive.

We have already noticed the close con­nec­tions between the Sar­vāstivāda and the Dharmagup­taka in China. There is also a sur­pris­ing affin­ity between the Sar­vāstivāda and the Mahāvi­hāravāsin lin­eages. The accounts of the Second Coun­cil refer to a num­ber of lead­ing monks who rep­res­en­ted the “rig­or­ist” party. One of these was Samb­hūta Śaṇavāsin, a dis­ciple of Ven­er­able Ᾱnanda. He appears as one of the eight judges of the Second Coun­cil accord­ing to the Mahāvi­hāravāsin,32 Dharmagup­taka, Sar­vāstivāda, Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda, and Mahīśā­saka Vinayas (he also appears in Mahāsaṅghika sources, but not in their Vinaya). But, while the Mahāvi­hāravāsins have little else to say about Śaṇavāsin, the Sar­vāstivāda regards him as one of their great pat­ri­archs. He fea­tures in many stor­ies, and in his old age he ordained Upagupta, the most fam­ous of all the early Sar­vāstivādin teach­ers. Thus the Mahāvi­hāravāsins and the Dharmagup­taka acknow­ledge Śaṇavāsin as belong­ing to their own group at the Second Coun­cil, even though he was a leader of the Sar­vāstivād­ins. His town, Math­ura, went on to become one of the great centres of the Sarvāstivāda.

The influ­ence of this lin­eage is still alive today. Go to visit a Myan­mar temple, and look care­fully for a statue of a monk eat­ing from his bowl, all the while look­ing over his shoulder. This curi­ous image is no Theravādin monk: he is none other than Upagupta. His wor­ship is wide­spread in folk Buddhism through­out north­ern Myan­mar, Thai­l­and, Laos, and Cam­bodia, which sug­gests an early north­ern move­ment of Sar­vāstivāda through those areas that are now Theravādin.

But the affin­it­ies are even closer than this, for another great teacher renowned in the Sar­vāstivāda is cred­ited with play­ing a key role in the found­ing of Sri Lankan Buddhism. The Theravāda Vinaya com­ment­ary records that when King Asoka’s son Mahinda took ordin­a­tion, his pre­ceptor was Mog­gali­put­tatissa, but his teacher (ācar­iya) was Majjhantika.33 This Majjhantika, some­times also said to be Śaṇavāsin’s pre­ceptor, is famed in all tra­di­tions as the mis­sion­ary who brought the Dhamma to the Kash­mir region, where the Sar­vāstivād­ins were to become such a vig­or­ous force. Thus a found­ing pat­ri­arch of the Sar­vāstivāda was the teacher of the founder of the Sri Lankan Theravāda of the Mahāvihāra.

In later years there was some dir­ect exchange between Sri Lankan and Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibetan canon includes sev­eral trans­la­tions of the Buddha’s first ser­mon, one of which was made from a Pali ori­ginal.34) Indeed, the old­est exist­ing Pali manu­script stems not from Sri Lanka, but from Nepal, con­tain­ing sev­eral pages of the Theravāda Vinaya deal­ing with set­tle­ment of dis­putes and other matters.

In what sense schism?

We must pre­serve a due humil­ity in con­sid­er­ing the author­ity of sec­tarian tra­di­tions. The sects inherit a Vinaya which, we believe, was pro­mul­gated in its essence by the Buddha. The Buddha gave author­ity to the Vinaya; the Vinaya gives a lim­ited author­ity to the Sangha. It is up to each tra­di­tion to determ­ine non-essential mat­ters such as the lan­guage in which the teach­ings are passed down, the color and style of robes, etc. But the Sangha has no author­ity to make fun­da­mental changes in the Vinaya. This is pre­cisely the reason why we con­sider the Vinayas to be so import­ant: they are, in import­ant mat­ters, Buddha­va­canā, not sec­tarian doc­u­ments. None of the sects exis­ted in the time of the Buddha, so it is unthink­able that he could have author­ized any sect to alter the Vinaya. It simply is not within our sphere of author­ity to say, for example, that Chinese bhikkhunīs are “Mahāyāna” or “Dharmagup­taka” and there­fore can­not be coun­ted as bhikkhunīs within the “Theravāda” or “Tibetan” tra­di­tion. None of these words are men­tioned in the Vinaya, and they can­not be used as the basis for Vinaya arguments.

The only pos­sible grounds for mak­ing such dis­tinc­tions would be if the Chinese tra­di­tion was “schis­matic.” But this is a dif­fi­cult and subtle mat­ter, and one in which we would need to apply the prin­ciple of the assump­tion of inno­cence. That is, we would need some spe­cific and con­crete his­tor­ical evid­ence before con­clud­ing that the Chinese bhikkhunī lin­eage some­how stemmed from a “schis­matic” group. And when we look for such evid­ence it is not forthcoming.

Through­out this paper I have, reluct­antly, fol­lowed the nor­mal prac­tice of refer­ring to the pro­cess of school-development as “schism.” But this is, to say the least, prob­lem­atic. The word “schism” is usu­ally taken in a some­what loose sense as equi­val­ent to the Vinaya term saṅgh­ab­heda. But saṅgh­ab­heda is a tightly defined tech­nical term and it is not at all clear that this can apply lit­er­ally to the pro­cess of school form­a­tion. One issue is that it has become stand­ard in Buddhist circles to assert that a schis­matic will of neces­sity go to hell in their next life. This makes the mat­ter highly emotive. But the Vinaya is clear that this des­tiny only falls for someone who quite inten­tion­ally causes a saṅgh­ab­heda.35 The Vinaya also makes it clear that a saṅgh­ab­heda must fol­low a cer­tain pro­ced­ure—there must be a group of bhikkhus who assert what is not Dhamma as Dhamma, not Vinaya as Vinaya, etc.—a total of “eight­een points.” There must be a formal meet­ing where the oppos­ing groups fail to resolve their dif­fer­ences, and end by per­form­ing Acts of the Sangha such as uposatha separately.

There is little evid­ence that this situ­ation ever applied in the cases we are con­sid­er­ing. It seems likely that the Sar­vāstivāda schism was about doc­trine, so it could poten­tially have been the basis of a formal saṅgh­ab­heda in the Vinaya sense. Some­times this schism is iden­ti­fied with the pro­ceed­ings at the Coun­cil of Pāṭali­putta as described in the Mahāvi­hāravāsin sources. It is said that the defeated party, expelled by Asoka, retreated to Kas­mir; this, of course, invites iden­ti­fic­a­tion with the Sar­vāstivād­ins of Kas­mir. But this is not very plaus­ible, for the expelled heretics are sup­posed to be non-Buddhists who joined the Sangha by fraud,36 while the Sar­vāstivād­ins were obvi­ously Buddhists, and very sin­cere ones at that. The account states that the heretics were dis­robed and made to wear lay clothes, again con­firm­ing that they could not have been Sar­vāstivād­ins; nor, indeed, could this be a saṅgh­ab­heda, for saṅgh­ab­heda requires both sides to be bhikkhus, and res­ults, not in dis­rob­ing, but in the form­a­tion of sep­ar­ate com­munit­ies. Fur­ther, there is no pre­ced­ent in the Vinaya for the King to expel heretics, and it seems impossible that such an act could res­ult in a saṅgh­ab­heda in the Vinaya sense. Indeed, the evid­ence of Asoka’s inscrip­tions sug­gests that he was far from being a sec­tarian, but encour­aged “Dhamma” in gen­eral. The Sar­vāstivād­ins claim that Asoka was an enthu­si­astic pat­ron of their own pat­ri­arch, Upagupta, and there is no reason why he should not have sup­por­ted teach­ers of dif­fer­ent lin­eages. And, as we have seen, the Mahāvihāravāsin’s own account claims Majjhantika, who con­ver­ted Kas­mir to Sar­vāstivāda, as one of their own party, not one of the expelled sec­tari­ans. So we must con­clude that, while it is pos­sible that there was a formal Vinaya saṅgh­ab­heda between the Sar­vāstivāda and the Vibhaj­javāda, there is no ser­i­ous his­tor­ical evid­ence to back up such a claim.

For the Mūlas­ar­vāstivād­ins the case is even weaker, for the con­nec­tion between the expelled heretics of the Pāṭali­putta Coun­cil and the Sar­vāstivād­ins is made primar­ily on the basis of cer­tain state­ments that the expelled party went to Kas­mir: but one of the few clear things we know about the dif­fer­ence between Sar­vāstivād­ins and Mūlas­ar­vāstivād­ins is that the Sar­vāstivād­ins (Vaib­hāśi­kas) were based in Kas­mir, while the Mūlas­ar­vāstivād­ins, espe­cially their Vinaya, were asso­ci­ated with Math­ura.37 Thus even this very tenu­ous sec­tarian link­age of the Sar­vāstivād­ins with the expelled heretics of Pāṭali­putta has no rel­ev­ance in a con­sid­er­a­tion of the Vinaya tra­di­tion of the Mūlasarvāstivādins.

In the case of the Dharmagup­taka, there is no sug­ges­tion any­where, so far as I know, that there were any ser­i­ous dif­fer­ences in Dhamma or Vinaya with the Mahāvi­hāravāsins, so the ques­tion of saṅgh­ab­heda between these two schools does not really arise. The case of the rela­tion­ship between the Dharmagup­ta­kas and the Mūlas­ar­vāstivād­ins would, of course, be the same as the rela­tion­ship between the Mahāvi­hāravāsins and the Mūlasarvāstivādins.

Some mod­ern schol­ars have ten­ded to see the pro­cess of schism as being primar­ily driven by Vinaya. This is because the Vinaya itself defines schism (saṅgh­ab­heda) as a Vinaya pro­ced­ure. But this argu­ment would seem to ignore a num­ber of import­ant issues. First, it is no sur­prise that the Vinaya sees schism as a Vinaya issue—after all, the pur­pose of Vinaya is to dis­cuss Vinaya. Even so the Vinaya itself admits that, while the out­come of a saṅgh­ab­heda is a Vinaya split—the per­form­ance of sep­ar­ate acts—the basis of the schism can be either Dhamma or Vinaya. Secondly, there is no evid­ence that any of the schisms we are dis­cuss­ing here have any­thing to do with Vinaya. The Second Coun­cil dis­pute was over Vinaya, but that was resolved. Even if we accept the very tenu­ous link­age of the Second Coun­cil dis­pute with the Mahāsaṅghika schism, this still does not affect the ques­tion of later schisms among the groups des­cen­ded from the Sthaviras.

So it would seem that there is little evid­ence that the sep­ar­a­tion between the schools we are primar­ily inter­ested in—that is, the Mahāvi­hāravāsins, Dharmagup­ta­kas, and Mūlas­ar­vāstivād­ins—was caused by Vinaya or res­ul­ted in a saṅgh­ab­heda.

A fur­ther ques­tion, one that is not dir­ectly addressed in the Pali Vinaya, is what hap­pens to the sub­sequent gen­er­a­tions of those who inherit the schis­matic situ­ation. After all, most people do not join a par­tic­u­lar Sangha because they want to sup­port a cer­tain view fol­lowed by an ancient teacher—truth be told, most mod­ern Sangha mem­bers, at least in Theravāda, do not under­stand even what the issues were, nor do they care. Many mod­ern Theravād­ins hold doc­trinal pos­i­tions that are in fact con­trary to the “offi­cial” Theravāda views—for example, many Theravādin monks believe in the “in-between state” (ant­ar­abhava), which would align them doc­trin­ally with the Sar­vāstivād­ins against the Mahāvi­hāravāsins. And the Tibetan and Chinese lin­eages are primar­ily Mahāyān­ist in doc­trine, which means that they reject many of the doc­trinal pos­i­tions held by the founders of the schools whose Vinaya tra­di­tions they inherit. For example, most Tibetans fol­low mainly the Mād­hya­maka school doc­trin­ally, but they inherit the Mūlas­ar­vāstivādin Vinaya lin­eage. If the primary reason for the (Mūla)-Sarvāstivāda schism was doc­trine, it is not at all clear that this has any rel­ev­ance to those in the Tibetan tra­di­tion today.

Ordination lineages

I think we need to remind ourselves that we can never be cer­tain about the ques­tion of ordin­a­tion lin­eages. The whole mat­ter is barely men­tioned in the Pali Vinaya. The Theravāda tra­di­tion, as far as I know, pre­serves little to noth­ing of the his­tory of its own ordin­a­tion lin­eages. This tells us noth­ing of the valid­ity of the Theravāda ordin­a­tions, only that the Theravād­ins were not inter­ested in doc­u­ment­ing the lineages.

The Buddha evid­ences a common-sense, prag­matic approach to Vinaya, and it is con­trary to the very essence of the Vinaya to insist on details of pro­ced­ure if this demon­strably causes harm. A good example of this is found in the Uposath­akkhand­haka, deal­ing with the fort­nightly recit­a­tion of the pāṭimokkha.38 Nor­mally, such recit­a­tion requires a group of four or more bhikkhus, and all those present in the mon­as­tery should attend.39 But there is an extens­ive dis­cus­sion of “50 cases of non-offence,” where the uposatha is car­ried out by a group of four or more res­id­ent bhikkhus, who “per­ceive” (saññī) that the Sangha is com­plete, whereas in fact there are other res­id­ent bhikkhus not in attendance:

Idha pana, bhikkhave, aññatar­asmiṁ āvāse tadahuposathe sam­bahulā āvāsikā bhikkhū san­nipatanti cat­tāro vā atirekā vā. Te na jān­anti “atthaññe āvāsikā bhikkhū anāgatā”ti. Te dham­mas­aññino vinay­as­aññino vaggā samag­gas­aññino uposathaṁ karonti, pātimokkhaṁ uddis­anti. Tehi uddis­samāne pātimokkhe, ath­aññe āvāsikā bhikkhū āgac­chanti samasamā. Uddiṭṭhaṁ su-uddiṭṭhaṁ, avas­esaṁ sotab­baṁ. Udde­sakānaṁ anāpatti.

And here, monks, in a cer­tain mon­as­tery on the uposatha day many res­id­ent bhikkhus gather, four or more. They do not know: “There are other res­id­ent bhikkhus who have not come.” Per­ceiv­ing [that it is in accord­ance with] Dhamma, per­ceiv­ing [that it is in accord­ance with] Vinaya, per­ceiv­ing that the chapter is in har­mony, they per­form the uposatha, they recite the pāṭimokkha. While they are recit­ing the pāṭimokkha, then other res­id­ent bhikkhus come, the same num­ber. What is recited is well-recited, what remains should be heard. There is no offence for the reciters.40

Sim­ilar state­ments recur through­out this sec­tion, and are repeated in the Pavāraṇakkhand­haka.41 What such pas­sages imply is that, even in cer­tain cases where the detailed require­ments for a saṅghakamma have not been form­ally sat­is­fied, the valid­ity of the act will still stand, as long as those per­form­ing the saṅghakamma believe they are doing it cor­rectly. This cor­res­ponds with a com­mon prin­ciple in con­tem­por­ary law, where, for example, a clause is often included in cor­por­ate con­sti­tu­tions to the effect that, even if the com­mit­tee is elec­ted incor­rectly accord­ing to the details of the pro­ced­ure, the decisions and acts made by that improp­erly appoin­ted com­mit­tee still stand. This kind of safe­guard is a simple applic­a­tion of com­mon sense. It is not meant to jus­tify slop­pi­ness with pro­ced­ures, but to acknow­ledge the real­ity that pro­ced­ures are not always fol­lowed per­fectly, yet asso­ci­ations still need to function.

Now, these pas­sages do not occur dir­ectly in the con­text of ordin­a­tion. But the con­texts where they do occur—the Uposath­akkhand­haka and the Pavāraṇākkhand­haka—are the two places in the Vinaya where saṅghakamma is dis­cussed in most detail. It is nor­mally under­stood that gen­eral require­ments for saṅghakamma as defined in these places are also required in other places, even where this is not spelled out in the text. For example, the require­ment for a mon­astic bound­ary (sīmā) is found in the Uposath­akkhand­haka.42 This chapter fol­lows the Mahākhand­haka, where the ordin­a­tion pro­ced­ure is laid down, but there is no men­tion of sīmās in the con­text of ordin­a­tion, here or else­where in the Pali Vinaya. Yet the tra­di­tions insist very strongly that a prop­erly defined sīmā is neces­sary for ordin­a­tion, to the extent that some­times sīmās are used solely for that pur­pose. So if the tra­di­tions insist on gen­er­al­iz­ing from the Uposatha—and Pavāraṇākkhand­hakas in the case of sīmās, it is not unreas­on­able that they should do so in other cases as well.

If this prin­ciple is accep­ted, it sug­gests that as long as those per­form­ing the ordin­a­tion do their best, and believe that everything is in accord­ance with Vinaya, then the act can stand. In fact, this is the only reas­on­able pos­i­tion. There is no bhikkhu alive who is able to prove bey­ond reas­on­able doubt that his ordin­a­tion stems from an unbroken trans­mis­sion reach­ing back to the Buddha. We have some know­ledge of our own ordin­a­tion, but really, bey­ond that we rely entirely on faith. If we are look­ing for his­tor­ical records, then we will find that the bhikkhunī lin­eages are attested for many hun­dreds of years in writ­ten records from China and Korea, so their ordin­a­tion would seem to have stronger recor­ded basis than the Theravāda.

And it not as if the valid­ity of Theravāda ordin­a­tion is bey­ond doubt: the mod­ern Thai Dham­may­ut­tika order was foun­ded pre­cisely because it was feared that stand­ards of Vinaya were so bad that no bhikkhus in Thai­l­and at that time held a valid ordin­a­tion. If this were true, then 95% of bhikkhus in Thai­l­and (includ­ing myself!) would have an invalid ordin­a­tion, and since most bhikkhus in Sri Lanka also derive from the Thai lin­eage (Siyam Nikāya), they would be in the same pre­dic­a­ment. But the situ­ation is even worse than this, for I have heard Vinaya experts of the Mahā Nikāya in Thai­l­and ques­tion the pro­pri­ety of the ordin­a­tions car­ried out in the begin­ning of the reform Dham­may­ut­tika order, since the upa­jjhāya had less than ten vassa.

I don’t say these things in order to induce fear in bhikkhus (a pācit­tiya offence!), but to point out how tenu­ous our very notions of ordin­a­tion lin­eages are. This does not mean that things are hope­less, it just means that we have to take a reas­on­able, common-sense pos­i­tion. All we can do is to do our best. We find a good com­munity of well-practicing bhikkhus, fol­low the train­ing, and per­form the cere­mony as well as pos­sible. If it some­how happened that the ordin­a­tion lin­eage had been, unknown to us, broken long ago, what dif­fer­ence would it really make? Nobody insists that all bhikkhus must remain as novices forever. Why then do we take such a stand with the bhikkhunīs?

Ordination of nuns by monks

Fol­low­ing this prin­ciple of tak­ing a straight­for­ward, prag­matic approach to Vinaya, we must acknow­ledge that there is a clear and expli­cit allow­ance in the Pali for bhikkhunīs to be ordained by bhikkhus only, without requir­ing the pres­ence of a com­munity of bhikkhunīs. Here is the pas­sage from the Bhikkhunīkkhandhaka:

Atha kho mahāpa­jāpatī got­amī yena bhagavā tenu­pas­aṅkami. Upas­aṅkam­itvā bhagav­antaṁ abhivā­de­tvā ekamantaṁ aṭṭhāsi. Ekamantaṁ ṭhitā kho mahāpa­jāpatī got­amī bhagav­antaṁ eta­da­voca: “kathâham-bhante imāsu sākiyānīsu paṭipajjāmī’ti. Atha kho bhagavā mahāpa­jāpatiṁ got­amiṁ dham­miyā kathāya san­dassesi samād­apesi samut­tejesi sam­pa­haṁsesi. Atha kho mahāpa­jāpatī got­amī bhagavatā dham­miyā kathāya san­das­sitā samād­ap­itā samut­tejitā sam­pa­haṁs­itā bhagav­antaṁ abhivā­de­tvā padakkhiṇaṁ katvā pakkāmi. Atha kho bhagavā etas­miṁ nidāne etas­miṁ pakaraṇe dham­miṁ kathaṁ katvā bhikkhū āmantesi: “anujānāmi bhikkhave bhikkhūhi bhikkhūn­iyo upasampā­de­tunti.43

Then Mahāpa­jāpati Got­amī approached the Blessed One. Hav­ing approached and bowed down to the Blessed One she stood to one side. Stand­ing to one side she said this to the Blessed One: “How, bhante, am I to prac­tice with regard to these Sakyan women?” Then the Blessed One inspired, roused, uplif­ted and exhor­ted Mahāpa­jāpati Got­amī with talk on Dhamma, and hav­ing bowed down she left keep­ing her right side towards him. Then the Blessed One, hav­ing given a Dhamma talk, addressed the bhikkhus with regard to that reason, with regard to that cause say­ing: “I allow, bhikkhus, bhikkhunīs to be given accept­ance by bhikkhus.”

This is quite straight­for­ward. After a sub­stan­tial inter­ven­ing sec­tion, there are fur­ther details on bhikkhunī ordin­a­tion. Here we find the following:

Tena kho pana samay­ena bhikkhū bhikkhun­īnaṁ ant­arāyike dhamme pucchanti. Upasam­padāpekkhāyo vit­thāy­anti, maṅkū honti, na sakkonti vis­sa­jjetuṁ. Bhagavato eta­mat­thaṁ āro­cesuṁ. “Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, ekato-upasampannāya bhikkhun­īsaṅghe visuddhāya bhikkhusaṅghe upasampādetun”ti.44

Now on that occa­sion the bhikkhus ask the bhikkhunīs regard­ing the obstruct­ive dham­mas. The women seek­ing ordin­a­tion were embar­rassed and ashamed and were not able to answer. The Blessed One declared regard­ing this mat­ter: “I allow, monks, by [a woman] who has been accep­ted on one side in the bhikkhunī Sangha and is pur­i­fied [regard­ing the obstruct­ive dham­mas] to be accep­ted in the bhikkhu Sangha.

Fol­low­ing this are the details for bhikkhunī ordin­a­tion, the vari­ous pro­ced­ures and state­ments. From here on, it is assumed that bhikkhunī ordin­a­tion is nor­mally done on both sides. There is men­tion of a bhikkhunī “accep­ted on [only] one side,” for example:

Ekato-upasampannā bhikkhun­īsaṅghe, visuddhā….45

One accep­ted on one side in the bhikkhunī Sangha, and pure….

In the detailed defin­i­tion of “bhikkhunī” in the bhikkhunī Vinaya there is no men­tion of one accep­ted “on one side”:

Bhikkhun­īti bhikkhikāti bhikkhunī; bhikkhā­car­iyaṁ ajjhupag­atāti bhikkhunī; bhin­napaṭadharāti bhikkhunī; samaññāya bhikkhunī; paṭiññāya bhikkhunī; ehi bhikkhun­īti bhikkhunī; tīhi saraṇagamanehi upasam­pan­nāti bhikkhunī; bhadrā bhikkhunī; sārā bhikkhunī; sekhā bhikkhunī; asekhā bhikkhunī; samag­gena ubhat­osaṅghena ñat­ticatut­thena kammena akup­pena ṭhānāra­hena upasam­pan­nāti bhikkhunī. Tatra yāyaṁ bhikkhunī samag­gena ubhat­osaṅghena ñat­ticatut­thena kammena akup­pena ṭhānāra­hena upasam­pannā, ayaṁ imas­miṁ atthe adhip­petā bhikkhun­īti.46

‘Bhikkhunī” means: “she is an alms-food eater”—thus she is a bhikkhunī; “she has entered the life of alms-food”—thus she is a bhikkhunī; “she wears the patched robes”—thus she is a bhikkhunī; “by des­ig­na­tion”—thus she is a bhikkhunī; “by her acknow­ledge­ment”—thus she is a bhikkhunī; “[by say­ing:] come bhikkhunī!”—thus she is a bhikkhunī; “she is accep­ted by going for the three refuges”—thus she is a bhikkhunī; “she is aus­pi­cious”—thus she is a bhikkhunī; “she is the essence”—thus she is a bhikkhunī; “she is a trainee”—thus she is a bhikkhunī; “she is an adept”—thus she is a bhikkhunī; “she is accep­ted in har­mony by both Sanghas with a formal Act with a motion and three announce­ments which is unshake­able and fit to stand”—thus she is a bhikkhunī. Herein, whatever bhikkhunī is accep­ted in har­mony by both Sanghas by a formal Act with a motion and three announcements which is unshake­able and fit to stand, this is what is meant by “bhikkhunī” in this context.

Neither is one accep­ted on “one side” found in the shorter defin­i­tion in the bhikkhu Vinaya:

Bhikkhun­īyo nāma ubhat­osaṅghe upasam­pannā.47

“Bhikkhunī” means one fully accep­ted in both Sanghas.

Nev­er­the­less, in the next line, in dis­cuss­ing the offences fall­ing for exhort­ing bhikkhunīs without per­mis­sion of the Sangha, there is men­tion of bhikkhunīs accep­ted on “one side”:

Ekato-upasampannaṁ ovad­ati, āpatti dukkaṭassa

One exhorts one accep­ted on one side, an offence of wrong-doing.

So the bhikkhunī accep­ted on one side is occa­sion­ally acknow­ledged, but was cer­tainly not main­stream. In all the con­texts it appears, it clearly implies she is accep­ted in the bhikkhunī Sangha (ekato-upasampannā bhikkhun­īsaṅghe, visuddhā….). I do not believe there is any con­text, after the allow­ance for ordin­a­tion on both sides, which acknow­ledges one ordained only by the bhikkhus. It seems that the nor­mal pro­cess was that one would ordain in the bhikkhunī Sangha, then in the bhikkhu Sangha. Some­times this pro­cess might be inter­rup­ted, for example if there were dangers pre­vent­ing her from trav­el­ling to the bhikkhu Sangha for ordin­a­tion. Dur­ing this inter­val she would be accep­ted on “one side.”

Nev­er­the­less, it remains the indis­put­able fact that the allow­ance for ordin­a­tion by bhikkhus alone is there, and it is never res­cin­ded. This con­trasts with the situ­ation in the bhikkhu ordin­a­tion pro­ced­ure. The first allow­ance is for the going forth and ordin­a­tion by three refuges:

Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, imehi tīhi saraṇagamanehi pab­ba­j­jaṁ upasam­padaṁ.48

I allow, monks, the going forth and accept­ance by these three goings-for-refuge.

Later this is rescinded:

Yā sā, bhikkhave, mayā tīhi saraṇagamanehi upasam­padā anuññātā, taṁ ajjatagge paṭikkhipāmi. Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, ñat­ticatut­thena kammena upasampā­de­tuṁ.49

Monks, that accept­ance by the three goings-for-refuge that I allowed, from today I res­cind. I allow, monks, accept­ance by a formal Act with a motion and three announcements.

Thus the situ­ation for bhikkhus is per­fectly clear, while the situ­ation with the bhikkhunīs is less defin­it­ive. The allow­ance for accept­ance by bhikkhus only is clearly stated and never res­cin­ded, but the text pro­ceeds as if it no longer applied. I would under­stand this as most likely just a slight edit­or­ial slop­pi­ness in treat­ing the bhikkhunī pro­ced­ure. It could not be argued that such an ordin­a­tion by the bhikkhus only would be the “best prac­tice” accord­ing to the Pali Vinaya. But neither could it be main­tained that it was unallowed.

Come, bhikkhunī!

There is a pecu­li­ar­ity in the bhikkhunī ordin­a­tion pro­ced­ures as described in the Vinayas. When the bhikkhus were first ordained, the Buddha simply said “Come, monk!” Later, he laid down the ordin­a­tion by going for the three refuges. As time went on the ordin­a­tion became more formal and ritu­al­istic, as described in the first chapter of the Khand­hakas. It seems that after the earli­est period the Buddha him­self rarely if ever ordained with the “Come, monk!” for­mula, so those who had received such a per­sonal invit­a­tion were regarded with par­tic­u­lar reverence.

But there is no com­ple­ment­ary “Come, nun!” ordin­a­tion—or is there? The stand­ard Vinaya defin­i­tion of a bhikkhunī includes both a bhikkhunī ordained by say­ing “Come, bhikkhunī,” and also one by going for the three refuges.50 But these pro­ced­ures are com­pletely absent from the account of the bhikkhunī ordin­a­tion in the exist­ing Vinayas. So embar­rass­ing is this anom­aly that the com­ment­at­ors Buddhaghosa and espe­cially Dhammapāla feel forced to explain at length how these ref­er­ences don’t really mean there ever was a “Come, bhikkhunī” ordin­a­tion; after all, how could there have been, when there wasn’t?

But in the Ther­īgāthā, Bhaddā Kuṇḍalakesā says:

‘Bend­ing my knee and pay­ing homage, I made anjali in front of him.
“Come, Bhaddā”, he said to me: that was my full ordin­a­tion.”51

This verse is echoed by another in the Apadāna.52 Buddhaghosa informs us that what the Buddha really said was “Come, Bhaddā; go to the nun’s quar­ters and get ordained there.” So the text says “come” and the com­ment­ator explains this as “go’; an ungentle soul might claim the mean­ing is exactly opposite.

Else­where, too, the “Come bhikkhunī” ordin­a­tion was remembered by the tra­di­tions. The Pug­ga­lavāda Vinaya treat­ise Lu Er-Shi-Er Ming-Liao Lun men­tions the “Come, bhikkhunī” ordin­a­tion.53 The Avadān­aśā­taka fea­tures no less than seven “Come bhikkhunī” ordin­a­tions: Suprabhā, Supriyā, Śuklā, Somā, Kuvalayā, Kāṣikasundarī, and Muktā.54 The Dharmagup­taka Vinaya men­tions the “Come bhikkhunī” ordin­a­tion in its stand­ard pas­sage defin­ing a bhikkhunī, much as the Theravāda.55 This men­tion is repeated in a shorter Vinaya doc­u­ment of the same school.56 The Vinaya Mātṛkā Sūtra of the Haimavata school (one of the north­ern branches of the old Sthaviras) describes “Come bhikkhunī” ordin­a­tion like this: the Buddha says “Now listen! Rightly live the holy life in my Dhamma for the com­plete end­ing of suf­fer­ing!”57 A sim­ilar pas­sage is found in the Ni Jie Mo (*Bhikkhunī Sanghakamma).58 In the Dharmapāda-avadāna Sūtra, while the pre­cise words “Come, bhikkhunī” are not used, two stor­ies depict the women say­ing they wish to ordain, and the Buddha simply responds by say­ing “Excel­lent!,” and with that their hair falls off and they become bhikkhunīs.59

Des­pite the deni­als by the tra­di­tion, and the omis­sion from the “offi­cial” account of bhikkhunī ordin­a­tion, both the Vinayas and the voices of the nuns them­selves tell us there was a going forth, not by being first refused and then told that the entry of women into the Sangha was a dis­ease that will des­troy Buddhism, but by the joy­ous call­ing out to live the holy life for the end­ing of suf­fer­ing. The emo­tional dif­fer­ence between these pas­sages and the “offi­cial” account of bhikkhunī ordin­a­tion is ines­cap­able. While such mat­ters can never be “proven,” it remains a pos­sib­il­ity that this “Come bhikkhunī!” ordin­a­tion was, for the nuns as for the monks, the true first ordin­a­tion. And regard­less of whether “Come bhikkhunī!” was the first ordin­a­tion or not, these accounts remain as unim­peach­able evid­ence of the enthu­si­asm with which bhikkhunī ordin­a­tion can be received.


For me it is cru­cial that we base ourselves firmly on the main­stream pos­i­tion of com­pas­sion­ate under­stand­ing. Vinaya is a means for sup­port­ing prac­tice of the Dhamma. If we inter­pret Vinaya as mak­ing an obstacle to prac­tice, then I believe there must be some­thing wrong with our interpretation.

One of the over­all guid­ing prin­ciples, seen again and again in the stor­ies behind the rule for­mu­la­tions, is that Vinaya must con­form to the agreed eth­ical prin­ciples of the soci­ety in which it is prac­ticed. Here we would do well to remind ourselves of the fun­da­mental eth­ical prin­ciples embod­ied in the United Nations “Declar­a­tion on the Elim­in­a­tion of Dis­crim­in­a­tion against Women”:

Art­icle 1: Dis­crim­in­a­tion against women, deny­ing or lim­it­ing as it does their equal­ity of rights with men, is fun­da­ment­ally unjust and con­sti­tutes an offence against human dignity.

Art­icle 2: All appro­pri­ate meas­ures shall be taken to abol­ish exist­ing laws, cus­toms, reg­u­la­tions and prac­tices which are dis­crim­in­at­ory against women, and to estab­lish adequate legal pro­tec­tion for equal rights of men and women…

Art­icle 3: All appro­pri­ate meas­ures shall be taken to edu­cate pub­lic opin­ion and to dir­ect national aspir­a­tions towards the erad­ic­a­tion of pre­ju­dice and the abol­i­tion of cus­tom­ary and all other prac­tices which are based on the idea of the inferi­or­ity of women.

As Buddhist Sangha, we should be the lead­ers in justice and fair­ness in the world. We should be set­ting the example for oth­ers to fol­low. I have given a great deal of my time and effort to help sup­port the bhikkhunī move­ment, for I believe that in the future, any reli­gion will have to mani­festly prac­tice equal­ity for women. If we do not, Buddhism will forever remain mar­ginal and cul­tur­ally bound. When I spoke with my sis­ter some years ago, she said that the lack of equal­ity for women was what deterred her from being inter­ested in reli­gions. In our day, reli­gious dis­crim­in­a­tion against women is asso­ci­ated with groups such as the Taliban. If we do not demon­strate our pub­lic, prac­tical com­mit­ment to full equal­ity, we will be seen in the pub­lic eye as being in the same group. Com­plex and subtle argu­ments based on notions of ordin­a­tion lin­eage may be per­suas­ive to those of us who devote our lives to mon­ast­i­cism, but for the gen­eral pub­lic such argu­ments sound like empty excuses to jus­tify discrimination.

I find it rather sad that bhikkhus often cri­ti­cize those who speak out in favour of bhikkhunī ordin­a­tion, as if the con­cern for gender equal­ity was an alien, West­ern impos­i­tion into Buddhism. In fact, per­haps the earli­est and most per­fect state­ment on gender and spir­itu­al­ity in any spir­itual lit­er­at­ure is recor­ded in the scrip­tures of at least three ancient schools of Buddhism. It is claimed that women, with their “two-fingered wis­dom,” are incap­able of enlight­en­ment. How­ever, it was not the Buddha who said this, but Mara the Evil One. To this insult the ara­hant bhikkhunī Somā scorn­fully replied:

What does woman­hood mat­ter at all
When the mind is con­cen­trated in samadhi
When know­ledge flows on stead­ily
As one rightly sees into Dhamma?

One to whom it might occur:
“I am woman” or “I am man”
Or “I am any­thing at all”
Is fit for Mara to address!60

  1. DN 16.3.7–8 

  2. Dulva f.56b; translated in W. Woodville Rockhill, The Life of the Buddha, Asian Education Services, 1992, pg. 34. 

  3. See “Buddhist Nuns in Burma,” Dr. Friedgard Lot­ter­moser

  4. Bhikkhuni nām’ovādo pana idāni tāsaṁ nat­thitāya natthi. (‘But there is not what is called the “exhort­ing bhikkhunis”, because they do not exist now.’)  

  5. Law Relat­ing to the Sangha Organ­iz­a­tion: State LORC Law No. 20/90 of Oct. 31, 1990 

  6. Radio Free Asia, “Burma Arrests Buddhist Act­iv­ist Nun,” 7-7-2005; Demo­cratic Voce of Burma, “Burmese Nun Detained for Reli­gious Reas­ons,” 29-6-2005. My thanks to Daw Khin Pyone for sup­ply­ing this inform­a­tion. Thanks are also due to Amnesty Inter­na­tional, who gave me news of Saccavādī’s’s release. 

  7. While earlier aca­demic stud­ies ten­ded to accept the Theravāda’s claim to be identical with the ancient Sthaviras, mod­ern schol­ar­ship typ­ic­ally adopts a more bal­anced pos­i­tion. For example, Choong Mun-Keat (The Fun­da­mental Teach­ings of Early Buddhism, Har­rassow­itz Ver­lag 2000, pg. 3), fol­low­ing Mas­ter Yin Shun, says: “Although it calls itself Theravāda “the Teach­ing of the Eld­ers” or Vibhaj­javāda “the Dis­tinc­tion­ist Teach­ing,” the Tām­raśāṭīya is actu­ally a sub-school of the Vibhaj­javāda, which in its turn is a deriv­at­ive of the Sthavira or “Elder” branch.”  

  8. Sāmantapāsādikā 1.52 

  9. This iden­ti­fic­a­tion of Theravāda with a scrip­tural tra­di­tion (rather than spe­cific doc­trines or ordin­a­tion lin­eages) con­tin­ues today. The Myan­mar Sangha Law says:
    “Theravada” means the Pitaka such as Pali, Atthakatha and Tika which have been sub­mit­ted to and reviewed by the Six Buddhist Coun­cils com­men­cing from the First Buddhist Coun­cil to the Sixth Buddhist Coun­cil. (Law Relat­ing to the Sangha Organ­iz­a­tion: State LORC Law No. 20/90 of Oct. 31, 1990, 1.2 (d)  

  10. See, for example, the intro­duc­tion to the Visuddhi­magga, where Buddhaghosa describes his work as “mahāvi­hāravāsīnaṁ des­anānay­an­is­sitaṁ,” “rely­ing on the teach­ing method of the dwell­ers in the Great Mon­as­tery.” 

  11. Pali Vinaya 2.72. A vari­ant read­ing for vibhaj­javāda is vibhaj­japada, but Olden­berg and Horner both con­firm the read­ing vibhaj­javāda

  12. See eg. E. Frauwall­ner, The Earli­est Vinaya and the Begin­nings of Buddhist Lit­er­at­ure, Roma, Is. M. E. O., 1956 pg. 44 note 5.  

  13. E. Frauwall­ner, The Earli­est Vinaya and the Begin­nings of Buddhist Lit­er­at­ure, Roma, Is. M. E. O., 1956, pp 7–12. 

  14. Sāmantapāsādikā 1.63ff 

  15. This find­ing is long estab­lished and was one of the bed­rock dis­cov­er­ies of the early Indo­lo­gists. For a recent dis­cus­sion, see Alex Wynne, “How old is the Sut­tap­iṭaka? The rel­at­ive value of tex­tual and epi­graph­ical sources for the study of early Indian Buddhism.”  

  16. Sāmantapāsādikā 1.64 

  17. Eg. Tāranātha’s His­tory of Buddhism in India, trans. by Lama Chimpa and Alaka Chat­to­pad­hyaya, Motilal 2004, Chapter 3, pp 29–33. 

  18. In this case, there is some ambi­gu­ity between the doc­trinal and geo­graph­ical schisms. It is pos­sible, as argued by Wynne, that Majjhantika’s school was ori­gin­ally Vibhaj­javādin but later con­ver­ted to the Sar­vāstivāda doc­trine; this would explain the exist­ence of a sep­ar­ate Sar­vāstivāda com­munity from Math­ura, which later came into con­flict with the Kash­mir school, and claimed to be the “ori­ginal”: Mūlas­ar­vāstivāda. Be that as it may, the con­nec­tion of the Sar­vāstivādin pat­ri­arch Majjhantika with this mis­sion is unam­bigu­ous. 

  19. The Sāsan­avaṁsa makes this expli­cit: Mahiṁ­sakamaṇḍalaṁ nāma andhakaraṭṭhaṁ 

  20. See Teit­aro Suzuki, “The First Buddhist Coun­cil,” Incid­ent of Purāna. 

  21. Thūpavaṁsa 20: yonakaraṭṭhe alas­aṇdā nagar­ato yonaka dham­marakkhitat­thero tiṁsa bhikkhu sahassāni (“…from the city of Alex­an­dria in the Yonaka coun­try, Yonaka Dham­marakkhita and 30 000 monks…” This refers to his visit to the open­ing of the Great Stupa in Sri Lanka.)  

  22. The com­ment­ar­ies treat the two words together, eg. Dhammapāda Aṭṭhakathā 257: Dham­massa gut­toti so dham­magutto dham­marakkhito. In the records of the mis­sions, there is per­haps even a sug­ges­tion of this very sub­sti­tu­tion hap­pen­ing to one of the other monks. To appre­ci­ate this, we must first remark on the habit of Pali to group sev­eral sim­ilar names. Thus in our cur­rent con­text we have sev­eral “-rakkhitas”: Yonakadham­marakkhita, Mahād­ham­marakkhita, Yonakamahād­ham­marakkhita, Mahārakkhita, and plain old Rakkhita. This seems too many for coin­cid­ence, and I sus­pect some con­fu­sion in the names. In Mahāvaṁsa 29, the pas­sage on the return for bless­ing the Great Stupa, we find more of the same: Buddharakkhita, Dham­marakkhita, and Sangharakkhita. A few verses later we find –rakkhita replaced with –gutta: Cit­tagutta, Cand­agutta, and Sur­iy­agutta. The last two seem espe­cially arti­fi­cial, “Moon-guarded” and “Sun-guarded.” Now this Cand­agutta (Moon-guarded) is said to return from Vanavāsa. But in the ori­ginal mis­sion, Rakkhita is sent to Vanavāsa. Is it pos­sible to identify Rakkhita with (Canda-)gutta? 

  23. This Asokārāma is, of course, the great mon­as­tery that was estab­lished by Asoka, and fea­tures as the main centre of activ­ity for the ancient Sthaviras around the time of the Third Coun­cil. Yonaka Dham­marakkhita is depic­ted as fly­ing there with his psychic powers, an act that inspired Asoka’s brother Tissa to ordain as a monk. (Sāmantapāsādikā 1.55)  

  24. Such as the men­tion of Milinda vis­it­ing the six heretical teach­ers who lived in the time of the Buddha. 

  25. Accord­ing to Thich Minh Chau: “…we can­not detect any char­ac­ter­istic in the Chinese text which helps clas­sify it into one of the 20 Buddhist schools which sprang up after the demise of the Buddha.” But I think there are a few hints that point in a con­sist­ent dir­ec­tion: the Chinese, unlike the Pali, says Nāgasena is born in Kash­mir; and the Pali ver­sion, con­trary to the nor­mal pos­i­tion of the school, accepts two uncon­di­tioned ele­ments—Nib­bana and space. There is, of course, one school that is based in Kash­mir, accepts space as uncon­di­tioned, is not of the Vibhaj­javāda, and whose texts are fre­quently found in Chinese trans­la­tion: the Sar­vāstivāda. Whether this is the school of the Chinese ver­sion of the Milinda or not, it remains the fact that the most strik­ing and inter­est­ing aspect of the text is the very absence of marked sec­tarian char­ac­ter­ist­ics, in sharp con­trast with the Pali ver­sion.  

  26. Thomas McEvil­ley, The Shape of Ancient Thought, All­worth Press, 2002, pg. 378 

  27. Nal­inaksha Dutt, Buddhist Sects in India, Motilal Banarsi­dass, 1978, pg. 172 

  28. W. Pachow, A Com­par­at­ive Study of the Prā­timokṣa, Motilal Banarsi­dass 2000, pg. 39 

  29. See Cheng Jian­hua, A Crit­ical Trans­la­tion of Fan Dong Jing, the Chinese Ver­sion of Brah­ma­jala Sutra. This was formerly avail­able online, but I can cur­rently only find an imper­fect ver­sion at: http://​dhamma​.ru/​f​o​r​u​m​/​v​i​e​w​t​o​p​i​c​.​p​h​p​?​t​=​6​3​&​a​m​p​;​v​i​e​w​=​n​e​x​t​&​a​m​p​;​s​i​d​=​a​a​5​e​5​a​a​0​1​b​0​5​5​5​d​6​4​5​8​e​9​d​e​a​3​d​f​3​2​c91  

  30. E. Frauwall­ner, Stud­ies in Abhid­harma Lit­er­at­ure and the Ori­gins of Buddhist Philo­soph­ical Sys­tems, State Uni­ver­sity of New York Press, 1995, pg. 116 

  31. See above note from the Thūpavaṁsa. The event is earlier recor­ded in Mahāvaṁsa 29: Yonanagarā’lasandāso, yona mahād­ham­marakkhito; thero tiṁsa sahassāni bhikkhū ādāya āgamā

  32. Pali Vinaya 2.298  

  33. Sāmantapāsādikā 1.51: Majjhantikat­ther­ena ācar­i­y­ena upasampādesi

  34. See Nor­man Joseph Smith “The 17 Ver­sions of The Buddha’s First Dis­course” (Pro­posed Sub­mis­sion to Journal of the Inter­na­tional Asso­ci­ation of Buddhist Stud­ies (JIABS), 2001 

  35. Pali Vinaya 2.205 

  36. Pali Vinaya 1.60 

  37. E. Frauwall­ner, The Earli­est Vinaya and the Begin­nings of Buddhist Lit­er­at­ure, Roma, Is. M. E. O., 1956 pp. 24–37 

  38. My thanks to Ven­er­ables Brah­māli and San­tidhammo for point­ing this out.  

  39. Pali Vinaya 1.105 

  40. Pali Vinaya 1.128 

  41. Pali Vinaya 1.165 

  42. Pali Vinaya 1.105, etc. 

  43. Pali Vinaya 2.256 

  44. Pali Vinaya 2.271 

  45. Eg. Pali Vinaya 2.274  

  46. Pali Vinaya 4.214 

  47. Pali Vinaya 4.52 

  48. Pali Vinaya 1.22 

  49. Pali Vinaya 1.56 

  50. Pali Vinaya 4.214, quoted above. 

  51. Ther­īgāthā 109 

  52. Apadāna Therī 2.3.44 

  53. T24, no. 1461, p. 668, c21 

  54. T04, no. 200, p. 238, b25 ff. Also see T53, no. 2122, p. 557, c21, etc. 

  55. T22, no. 1428, p. 714, a17 

  56. T40, no. 1808, p. 499, b12 

  57. T24, no. 1463, p. 803, c1-2  

  58. T40, no. 1810, p. 540, c24 

  59. Wille­men, pp. 13, 68 

  60. SN 5.2/SA (T 99) 1198/SA (T100) 215 

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