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The controversy on bhikkhunī ordination

The controversy on bhikkhunī ordination

Cover of The Controversy on Bhikkhuni Ordination.


Cover of The Controversy on Bhikkhuni Ordination.

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In the Theravāda tradition the lineage of bhikkhunīs died out some thousand years ago. Present-day attempts to revive this lineage meet with opposition. In what follows I examine arguments raised by opponents to the revival of bhikkhunī ordination. I begin with the legal aspect, followed by taking up the question whether a revival of an order of bhikkhunīs is desirable.

The legal question: the rules

The main argument raised against bhikkhunī ordination is based on the widely held assumption that, once a Theravāda bhikkhunī order has become extinct, it cannot be revived. This assessment is based on the two main rules that, according to the Cullavagga (Cv) of the Pāli Vinaya, were given by the Buddha to bhikkhus on the matter of the higher ordination of female candidates. The two rules are as follows:

Cv X.2: “Bhikkhus, I authorize the giving of the higher ordination of bhikkhunīs by bhikkhus,” anujānāmi, bhikkhave, bhikkhūhi bhikkhuniyo upasampādetun ti.

Cv X.17: “Bhikkhus, I authorize the higher ordination in the community of bhikkhus for one who has been higher ordained on one side and has cleared herself in the community of bhikkhunīs,” anujānāmi, bhikkhave, ekato-upasampannāya bhikkhunīsaṅghe visuddhāya bhikkhusaṅghe upasampadan ti.

According to the earlier rule given to bhikkhus on the issue of ordaining bhikkhunīs (Cv X.2), bhikkhus alone can give the higher ordination. Without this rule being explicitly rescinded, the subsequent rule (Cv X.17) then stipulates that the higher ordination of female candidates requires the cooperation of a community of already existing bhikkhunīs. These first perform their part in giving the candidate the higher ordination, followed by a completion of the ordination ceremony in the presence of a community of bhikkhus.

The reasons why these rules are held to prevent a revival of an extinct order of bhikkhunīs can be gathered from the writings of two eminent contemporary Theravāda bhikkhus, Phra Payutto and Bhikkhu Ṭhānissaro. Bhikkhu Ṭhānissaro (2001/2013: 449f) explains that

“the Buddha followed two different patterns in changing Community transactions, depending on the type of changes made. Only when totally withdrawing permission for something he had earlier allowed … did he follow the pattern of explicitly rescinding the earlier allowance….

“When keeping an earlier allowance while placing new restrictions on it, he followed a second pattern, in which he merely stated the new restrictions for the allowance and gave directions for how the new form of the relevant transaction should be conducted in line with the added restrictions.”

“Because Cv.X.17.2, the passage allowing bhikkhus to give full Acceptance to a candidate who has been given Acceptance by the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha, simply adds a new restriction to the earlier allowance given in Cv.X.2.1, it follows this second pattern. This automatically rescinds the earlier allowance.”

Bhikkhu Ṭhānissaro concludes that “in the event that the original Bhikkhunī Saṅgha died out, Cv.X.17.2 prevents bhikkhus from granting Acceptance to women.”

So according to Bhikkhu Ṭhānissaro, with the disappearance of an order of bhikkhunīs it becomes impossible for bhikkhus to give the higher ordination to female candidates. The reason is that the first rule (Cv X.2) that allows them to do so has been implicitly rescinded by the promulgation of the second rule (Cv X.17). His argument is in line with a basic principle in law in general and in the Vinaya in particular, where the latest rule on a particular matter is the one that is valid and which has to be followed.

In a similar vein, Phra Payutto (2013: 58f) explains that

“when the Buddha prescribes a specific rule and then later makes revisions to it … the most recent version of the rule is binding. It is not necessary to say that previous versions have been annulled. This is a general standard in the Vinaya.”

He adds that “the reason why the Buddha didn’t rescind the allowance for bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunis is straightforward: the bhikkhus were still required to complete the bhikkhuni ordinations.”

Phra Payutto (2013: 71) adds that “if one were to assume that the original allowance for bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunis by themselves has been valid all along … then later on in the Buddha’s lifetime there would have also been ordinations conducted solely by the bhikkhus … but this didn’t happen. Why? Because once the Buddha laid down the second regulation the bhikkhus practiced accordingly and abandoned the first allowance.”

In short, Phra Payutto and Bhikkhu Ṭhānissaro conclude that the earlier ruling has been automatically rescinded by the later ruling. The interpretation proposed by Phra Payutto and Bhikkhu Ṭhānissaro clearly follows an inner coherence and logic. It is in line with a basic Vinaya principle according to which the latest rule on a specific issue is the valid one. This inner coherence explains why the conclusion arrived at by these two eminent bhikkhus has for a long time been taken as the final word on the issue.

The legal question: the narrative context

Note that the discussion so far has considered the two rules apart from their narrative context. Vinaya law is in principle case law. The various rules which according to the Vinaya have been promulgated by the Buddha come in response to a particular situation (the only exception being the garudhammas). As with any case law, a study of the significance of a particular ruling requires an examination of its narrative context. This narrative context determines the legal applicability of the respective rule.

In order to take into account this requirement, in what follows I sketch the Vinaya narrative at the background of these two rules. In this sketch I am not attempting to reconstruct or make a pronouncement on what actually happened. Instead my intention is only to summarize what the Pāli Vinaya presents as the narrative background to the promulgation of these two rules, Cv X.2 and Cv X.17.

The promulgation of Cv X.2 is preceded by an account of how Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī became the first bhikkhunī. This took place by her accepting the eight garudhammas, “principles to be respected.” The sixth of these garudhammas deals with the ordination of bhikkhunīs. It reads as follows:

“A probationer who has trained for two years in six principles should seek for the higher ordination from both communities,” dve vassāni chasu dhammesu sikkhitasikkhāya sikkhamānāya ubhatosaṅghe upasampadā pariyesitabbā.

Having become a bhikkhunī through the acceptance of the eight garudhammas, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī then approached the Buddha with the following question:

“Venerable sir, how should I proceed in relation to those Sākyan women,” kathāhaṃ, bhante, imāsu sākiyānīsu paṭipajjāmī ti?

She was asking about the proper course to be taken in relation to her following of 500 Sākyan women, who had come together with her in quest of higher ordination. In reply to this question, the Buddha promulgated Cv X.2, according to which bhikkhus on their own should give the higher ordination to female candidates.

Considering the background to the first rule clarifies that, according to the Vinaya narrative, the Buddha wanted bhikkhunī ordination from the outset to be done by both communities. This is clearly evident from his pronouncement of the sixth garudhamma.

Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī had accepted to undertake this and the other garudhammas and thereby became a bhikkhunī. Since she was only a single bhikkhunī, she was unable to follow the sixth garudhamma. There were no other bhikkhunīs to form the minimum quorum required for higher ordination. Because it was impossible for her at this juncture of events to act according to the sixth garudhamma, she approached the Buddha and inquired about the proper line of conduct to be adopted regarding her followers. In reply, the Buddha authorized that bhikkhus should give them ordination on their own.

So the first of the two rules under discussion, Cv X.2, has a very clear purpose. It addresses a situation where an ordination by a community of bhikkhus in cooperation with a community of bhikkhunīs is the proper way to proceed, as indicated in garudhamma 6. However, this is not possible if a community of bhikkhunīs is not in existence. In such a situation the Buddha authorized that the bhikkhus should give the higher ordination on their own. He laid down this rule after having promulgated the sixth garudhamma and thereby after having clearly expressed his preference for bhikkhunī ordination to be conducted by both communities.

The ruling Cv X.2 comes in the Vinaya directly after the report of Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī becoming a bhikkhunī. Following Cv X.2, the Vinaya continues with a series of other events related in some way or another to an already existing bhikkhunī order. For example, the Buddha explains to Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī that for her and the new bhikkhunīs the rules they have in common with the bhikkhus are as binding as the rules promulgated specifically for them (Cv X.4).

According to the Vinaya narrative, the rule Cv X.17 was occasioned by the fact that some female candidates were too shy to reply to questions by the bhikkhus regarding their suitability for higher ordination. As part of the standard procedure for the higher ordination for males as well as females, the ordaining monastics need to ascertain that the candidate has no sexual abnormality. In a traditional setting women can easily feel embarrassed if they have to reply to such questions in front of bhikkhus.

To deal with this problem, the second of the two rules mentioned above came into existence. According to the rule Cv X.17, the questioning of female candidates was now delegated to the bhikkhunīs. A community of bhikkhunīs should first give higher ordination. Once this has been accomplished, the bhikkhus perform their part. This second rule is given in a situation where a community of bhikkhunīs is in existence. Its purpose is to enable the carrying out of the higher ordination for a female candidate without creating unnecessary embarrassment for them.

The wording of Cv X.17 does not support the assumption by Phra Payutto that Cv X.2 could not be rescinded because “the bhikkhus were still required to complete the bhikkhuni ordinations.” Cv X.17 clearly indicates that a female candidate should receive “the higher ordination in the community of bhikkhus.” This is sufficient in itself and does not require the maintenance of any other rule in order to function. Even if there had never been any ruling of the type given at Cv X.2, the functionality of Cv X.17 would not be in any way impaired. It would still be clear that bhikkhus are to give the higher ordination to female candidates, once these have been ordained by the bhikkhunīs. In fact already with the sixth garudhamma the Buddha had made it clear that he wanted bhikkhus to perform their part in the ordination of bhikkhunīs. Once this was made clear, there was no need to make a rule just to clarify that.

The function of Cv X.2 is more specifically to enable the giving of the higher ordination to female candidates in a situation where no bhikkhunī order is in existence. This is unmistakably clear from the narrative context. In contrast, the function of Cv X.17 is to regulate the giving of the higher ordination to female candidates when a bhikkhunī order is in existence. This is also unmistakably clear from the narrative context. So there is a decisive difference between the two rules that needs to be taken into consideration: The two rules are meant to address two substantially different situations.

Contrary to the assumptions by Phra Payutto and Bhikkhu Ṭhānissaro, what we have here is not just an early rule and its subsequent adaptation. Instead we have two rules on related but different issues. This explains why after an order of bhikkhunīs had come into existence during the lifetime of the Buddha there were no ordinations by bhikkhunīs conducted solely by bhikkhus. There can be only one situation at a time: Either a community of bhikkhunīs is in existence, in which case Cv X.17 is to be followed, or else a community of bhikkhunīs is not in existence, in which case Cv X.2 is to be followed.

Since the belief in the impossibility of reviving an order of bhikkhunīs has such a long history in Theravāda circles, perhaps an example may help to clarify the point at issue. Suppose a person regularly commutes from home to work via a highway that connects two towns, and the municipal authorities have set a speed limit of 100 km/h for this highway. Later on, this person hears that the municipal authorities have set another speed limit of 50 km/h.

Even though the earlier limit of 100 km/h has not been explicitly abolished, when caught by the police for driving at 80 km/h this person will not be able to argue that he or she had on that day decided to follow the earlier speed limit regulation. It is not possible to assume that both limits are valid simultaneously and one can freely choose which one to follow. The last speed limit is the one that counts.

The situation changes considerably, however, once closer investigation reveals that the second speed limit set by the municipal authorities was not put up by the highway, but in town. It refers to traffic in the town in which this person works, it does not refer to the highway that leads up to this town. In that case, both speed limits are valid at the same time. While driving on the highway, the speed limit is still 100 km/h, but when leaving the highway and driving into town to reach the working place, the speed limit of 50 km/h needs to be observed.

In the same way, Cv X.2 and Cv X.17 are both valid. The second of the two, Cv X.17, does not imply a rescinding of the first, just as the town speed limit does not imply a rescinding of the speed limit for the highway. Both rules are simultaneously valid, as they refer to two distinctly different situations.

In sum, the traditional belief that the Theravāda Vinaya does not enable a reviving of an extinct bhikkhunī order seems to be based on a reading of the relevant rules without sufficient consideration of their narrative background. If studied in their narrative context, it becomes clear that an extinct order of bhikkhunīs can be revived by the bhikkhus, as long as these are not extinct as well.

As already stated by the Jetavan Sayādaw (1949), translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi (2009: 60 and 62):

“the Exalted One’s statement: ‘Bhikkhus, I allow bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs’ concerned … a period in the past when the Bhikkhunī Sangha did not exist; in the future, too, it will be restricted to a period when the Bhikkhunī Sangha will not exist; and at present it is restricted to a period when the Bhikkhunī Sangha does not exist.” He further explains that the Buddha knew “that when the Bhikkhunī Sangha is non-existent the occasion arises for an allowance [given to] the Bhikkhu Sangha [to be used], the Buddha laid down … that women can be ordained by the Bhikkhu Sangha, that is: ‘Bhikkhus, I allow bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs.'”

The interpretation proposed by the Jetavan Sayādaw is clearly a more accurate reflection of the Pāli Vinaya than the interpretations proposed by Phra Payutto and Bhikkhu Ṭhānissaro. The conclusion that emerges, after giving sufficient consideration to the narrative context of the two rules in question, is that it is definitely possible to revive an extinct order of bhikkhunīs through ordination given by bhikkhus alone.

The order of bhikkhunīs: the desirability of its revival

Phra Payutto (2014: 71) also wonders whether it is at all desirable for females to become bhikkhunīs. He comments that

“ordaining as a bhikkhuni may create even more obstacles for women. This is because once they have taken bhikkhuni ordination they will be obliged to keep the 311 training precepts. Go ahead and try to keep these rules in the present high-tech age. Would this simply increase problems?” “In today’s social environment and general way of life, keeping the 311 training rules will be a stumbling block for women who are ordained.”

While it is of course true that keeping precepts that evolved in a different setting two and a half millennia ago is a challenge, the same applies also to bhikkhus. One might similarly wonder if it is not going to increase the problems for males if they take higher ordination.

Another point worth noting is that often arguments raised against the revival of the bhikkhunī order seem to assume that this implies a rejection of the eight or ten precept nuns that have developed in Theravāda countries. These are the mae chis in Thailand, the thila shins in Burma and the dasasil mātās in Sri Lanka, to which the sīladhārās in the West could be added. The wish to revive a bhikkhunī order does not require a replacing of these orders in the respective countries. There is no reason why both cannot exist side by side. The question is thus not one of abolishing or dismissing what is already there, but rather one of enabling women to choose between the alternatives of becoming an eight or ten precept nun and taking ordination as a bhikkhunī.

Nowadays in Theravāda countries some men also prefer not become bhikkhus, and instead live a celibate lay life, at times by becoming anagārikas. Such celibate males exist alongside with bhikkhus, in fact often they live in close relationship with bhikkhus at a monastery. In the same way, the option of being eight or ten precept nuns will probably be of continuing appeal to some women in Theravāda countries. This does not imply, however, that the alternative option of becoming a bhikkhunī should not also be made available to those who feel ready for it.

Improving the situation of the eight or ten precept nuns is a very important and praiseworthy task that should be given full attention, but this does not suffice to fulfil the wish of those who want to have access to full ordination. Alongside such endeavours, there clearly remains a need to restore full ordination for bhikkhunīs. If some eight and ten precept nuns in Theravāda countries do not want to become bhikkhunīs, then this does not dispense with the need of reviving such an order in principle for others who do want higher ordination.

Recent developments in Sri Lanka have in fact shown that numbers of dasasil mātas, who earlier were not interested in bhikkhunī ordination, changed their mind once this became available and took higher ordination. Moreover, the new bhikkhunīs in Sri Lanka are well respected by laity and make a major contribution by meeting the needs of lay followers. This leaves little room for arguing that a revival of the bhikkhunī order is not needed or will not be beneficial for society at large.

The order of bhikkhunīs: the Buddha’s attitude

The notion that such a revival is better avoided often seems related to the impression conveyed by the account of the founding of the bhikkhunī order in the Vinaya. According to the narration that comes before the garudhammas, the Buddha originally refused to let Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī and her followers go forth.

In order to understand the implications of this passage, the relevant portion from the Theravāda Vinaya needs to be studied in comparison with other Vinaya traditions, because during the long period of oral transmission a portion of text can be lost.

The possibility of a portion of text being lost can be illustrated with the case of the Chabbisodhana-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya, the “Discourse on Sixfold Purity.” In spite of the explicit reference to six in its title, the discourse expounds only five types of purity of an arahant. The commentary reports several explanations for this inconsistency, one of them being that, according to the reciters from India, an arahant’s detachment in regard to the four nutriments (edible food, contact, volition, and consciousness) should be added to the five purities mentioned in the discourse (Ps IV 94, commenting on MN 112).

That this is indeed the solution can be seen through comparative study of a parallel preserved in the Madhyamaāgama, a discourse collection brought from India to China so as to be translated into Chinese. Besides the five purities mentioned in the Chabbisodhana-sutta, this parallel lists the four nutriments as a sixth purity (T I 732b).

From this it follows that at some point during oral transmission from India to Sri Lanka this sixth purity was lost. Indian reciters still knew of a complete version of the discourse that had this sixth purity, but by the time the discourse had reached Sri Lanka, this part of the text had gone missing. The case of the Chabbisodhana-sutta shows that substantial portions of a Pāli canonical text could get lost during oral transmission.

The difficulties of relying on oral transmission are explicitly taken up in the Pāli discourses themselves. The Sandaka-sutta points out that oral tradition might be well heard or else might not be well heard, as a result of which some of it is true, but some of it is otherwise (MN 76). The Caṅkī-sutta also takes up the unreliability of oral tradition, recommending that someone who wishes to preserve truth should not take a stance on oral transmission claiming that this alone is true, everything else is false (MN 95).

So considering the parallel versions of a particular text offers a way of giving proper consideration to the nature of oral transmission and its possible errors in accordance with the indications made in the Sandaka-sutta and the Caṅkī-sutta. Doing justice to the indications in these Pāli discourses requires allowing, in principle, the possibility that at times a portion of text preserved in the Pāli canon could be incomplete due to textual loss.

Based on allowing in principle this possibility, revisiting the account of the founding of the order of bhikkhunīs in the Pāli Vinaya brings to light a turn of events that is not entirely straightforward. After the Buddha had refused Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī’s request to go forth, she and her followers shaved off their hair and put on robes.

According to the Pāli commentarial tradition, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī had earlier become a stream-enterer (Dhp-a I 115). It seems inconceivable that a stream-enterer would openly defy the Buddha’s command in this way. Moreover, when Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī with shaven head and wearing robes approaches Ānanda, the latter comments on her exhausted bodily condition after having travelled, but makes no remark at all about her being shaven-headed and wearing robes (Cv X.1).

The solution to this conundrum can be found by consulting accounts of the same event in other Vinayas, in order to allow for loss of text during oral transmission. Relevant to the present issue are versions of this story preserved in the canonical texts of three Buddhist schools, the Mahīśāsaka, the Mūlasarvāstivāda, and the Sarvāstivāda. All these canonical texts are from India and have been brought to China for translation. Besides the Chinese translation, in the case of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya we also have the relevant passage preserved in a Sanskrit fragment as well as in Tibetan translation.

These texts report that when Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī approached the Buddha with her request, he indeed did not allow her to go forth, but he then offered her an alternative. This alternative was that she could shave her hair and wear robes (translated in Anālayo 2011: 287f). But she should apparently do so staying in the protected environment at her home instead of going forth to wander around India as a homeless person.

The perspective afforded by a comparative study changes the situation considerably. Instead of the Buddha just being against an order of bhikkhunīs in principle, he offers an alternative. This alternative seems to express his concern that, at a time when the Buddhist order was still in its beginnings, lack of proper dwelling places and the other harsh living conditions of a homeless life might be too much for queen Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī and her following.

The Theravāda Vinaya in fact records that bhikkhunīs were raped (e.g. Mv I.67), making it clear that in ancient India for women to go forth could be dangerous. The situation then was clearly quite different from modern South and Southeast Asia, where women who have gone forth can expect to be respected in their choice of living a celibate life.

For Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī and her following to go forth in such a situation would indeed be comparable to a household with many women and few men, which can easily be attacked by robbers (Cv X.1). The possibility of being raped would indeed be similar to ripe crop of rice or sugar cane that is suddenly attacked by a disease.

Returning to the Vinaya narration, on the assumption that Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī and her followers had received an explicit permission to shave their hair and wear robes, the rest of the story flows on naturally. It now becomes understandable why they would indeed do so and why Ānanda, on seeing Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī shaven-headed and in robes, would not find this worth commenting on.

Laity at times followed the Buddha for quite some distance on his journeys (Mv VI.24). In view of such a custom, it seems natural for Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī and her group similarly to follow the Buddha in an attempt to show that they were able to brave the living conditions of going forth. Such an action would not have been something the Buddha had forbidden. Having in this way proven their ability to handle the condition of going forth would also explain why the Buddha eventually allowed them to become bhikkhunīs.

In order to validate this alternative understanding of how the bhikkhunī order came into existence, the canonical principle of the four mahāpadesas needs to be followed (DN 16 and AN 4.180). According to the principle enshrined in these four mahāpadesas, any particular statement claiming to go back to the Buddha needs to be compared with the discourses and the Vinaya in order to ascertain if it conforms with them. In the present case, this requires examining what other canonical passages have to say about the Buddha’s attitude towards an order of bhikkhunīs. Do other canonical passages support what the comparative study has brought to light, namely that the existence of an order of bhikkhunīs is not something undesirable that the Buddha would rather have avoided?

The Lakkhaṇa-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya describes the Buddha’s possession of thirty-two superior bodily marks (DN 30). Each of these has a special relationship to his virtues and former deeds. Here the wheel-marks on the soles of the Buddha’s feet are portents of his destiny to be surrounded by a large retinue of four assemblies of disciples. These four assemblies are bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs, as well as male and female lay followers. According to this discourse, the Buddha was from his birth destined to have an order of bhikkhunīs. This makes the existence of bhikkhunīs an integral and indispensable part of the sāsana, the Buddha’s dispensation.

The Pāsādika-sutta in the same Dīgha-nikāya proclaims that the completeness of the holy life taught by the Buddha was evident in the accomplishment of his four assemblies of disciples, including an order of bhikkhunīs (DN 29). The same emerges from the Mahāvacchagotta-sutta in the Majjhima-nikāya, according to which the completeness of the Buddha’s teaching can be seen in the high numbers of bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs who had become fully liberated, and in the fact that similarly high numbers of lay followers of both genders had reached other levels of awakening (MN 73). Clearly, without accomplished bhikkhunīs the Buddha’s dispensation would not have been complete.

According to the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta in the Dīgha-nikāya, the Buddha had declared that he would not pass away until he had achieved his mission of having competent disciples from each of the four assemblies, including bhikkhunīs (DN 16). The importance of this statement is reflected in the fact that it recurs again in the Pāli canon in the Saṃyutta-nikāya, the Aṅguttara-nikāya, and the Udāna(SN 51.10, AN 8.70, and Ud 6.1).

In this way, from his birth until his passing away, it was an integral part of the Buddha’s mission to have an order of bhikkhunīs. On following the mahāpadesa principle, the results of the comparative study finds confirmation. An order of bhikkhunīs is a desirable, in fact an indispensable part of the dispensation of the Buddha.

The order of bhikkhunīs: the duration of the teaching

The passages surveyed so far help to set into context the prophecy that because an order of bhikkhunīs had come into existence during the lifetime of the Buddha, the duration of the teachings will be shortened to 500 years (Cv X.1). Now this prophecy is surprising, since once would not expect the Buddha to do something which he knew in advance would have such an effect. In fact, the prophecy in the way it is recorded in the Vinaya has not come true, as after 2,500 years the teaching is still in existence. Even the bhikkhunī order was still in existence in India in the 8th century and thus more than a 1,000 years after the time of the Buddha.

It also needs to be noted that the basic condition described in this prophecy has been fulfilled when an order of bhikkhunīs came into existence during the Buddha’s lifetime. The prophecy has no relation to whether an order of bhikkhunīs continues or is revived nowadays.

It seems, then, that here we have another presentation that is not entirely straightforward. On following the same principle of the four mahāpadesas, we now need to examine what other passages have to say about possible causes for a decline of the teaching. A discourse in the Aṅguttara-nikāya describes how each of the four assemblies can contribute to the thriving of the Buddha’s teachings. Here a bhikkhunī can stand out for illuminating the Buddhist community through her learnedness (AN 4.7). Another discourse in the same collection indicates that a bhikkhunī also illuminates the community through her virtue (AN 4.211). These two discourses reflect a clear appreciation of the contribution that learned and virtuous bhikkhunīs can make to the Buddhist community, instead of seeing them as something detrimental.

Other discourses more specifically address what prevents the decline of the teaching. According to a discourse in the Saṃyutta-nikāya, such a decline can be prevented when the members of the four assemblies, including bhikkhunīs, dwell with respect for the teacher, the Dhamma, the Saṅgha, the training, and concentration (SN 16.13). Here the bhikkhunīs actually contribute to preventing decline, rather than being themselves its cause.

Similar presentations can be found in three discourses in the Aṅguttara-nikāya. In agreement with the Saṃyuttanikāya discourse just mentioned, these three discourses present respectful behaviour by the members of the four assemblies, including bhikkhunīs, as what prevents decline (AN 5.201, AN 6.40, and AN 7.56). Besides respect for the teacher, the Dhamma, the Saṅgha, and the training, these three discourses also mention respect of the four assemblies for each other, heedfulness, and being helpful (to one another).

These passages clearly put the responsibility for preventing a decline of the teaching on each of the four assemblies. It is their dwelling with respect towards essential aspects of the Buddha’s teaching and each other that prevents decline.

According to Phra Payutto (2013: 49),

“the Buddha laid down the eight garudhammas as a protective embankment. With such protection the teachings will last for a long time, just like before.”

Now for this protective embankment of the eight garudhammas to function, the collaboration of the bhikkhus is required. Most of the eight garudhammas involve interactions between bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs in such matters as spending the rainy season retreat (2), announcement of the observance day and the exhortation, ovāda (3), invitation, pavāraṇā (4), penance, mānatta (5), and the granting of higher ordination, upasampadā (6). These clearly require the cooperation of bhikkhus.

Partaking in the higher ordination of bhikkhunīs, provided this accords with the legal requirements of the Theravāda Vinaya, thereby supports the protective embankment constructed by the Buddha for protecting the long life of his dispensation.

In sum, following the principle of the four mahāpadesas it seems clear that an order of bhikkhunīs is desirable and an important asset in order to prevent the decline of the Buddha’s teaching. In fact Buddhist countries which do not have such an order are in this respect in the category of border countries. It is an unfortunate condition to be reborn in such a border country, since the four assemblies, including an order of bhikkhunīs, are not found there (AN 8.29). Such a condition makes it more difficult to practice the Dharma.

A Buddhist tradition that has only three of the four assemblies could be compared to a noble elephant with one leg crippled. The elephant can still walk, but only with difficulties. The medicine to restore the crippled leg is now available, all it needs is a concerted effort to support the healing process.


(References are to the PTS edition)

AN Aṅguttara-nikāya
Cv Cullavagga
Dhp-a Dhammapada-aṭṭhakathā
DN Dīgha-nikāya
MN Majjhima-nikāya
Mv Mahāvagga
Ps Papañcasūdanī
SN Saṃyutta-nikāya
T Taishō
Ud Udāna


Anālayo 2011: “Mahāpajāpatī’s Going Forth in the Madhyama-āgama,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 18: 268–317.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu 2009: The Revival of Bhikkhunī Ordination in the Theravāda Tradition, Georgetown, Penang: Inward Path Publisher (reprinted 2010 in Dignity & Discipline, Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns, T. Mohr and J. Tsedroen (ed.), 99– 142, Boston: Wisdom).

Payutto, Phra and M. Seeger 2013: The Buddhist Discipline in Relation to Bhikkhunis, Questions and Answers, R. Moore (translated),

Payutto, Phra and M. Seeger 2014: The Buddhist Discipline in Relation to Bhikkhunis, Questions and Answers, R. Moore (translated),

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu 2001/2013: The Buddhist Monastic Code II, The Khandaka Rules Translated & Explained by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff), Revised Edition, California: Metta Forest Monastery.

Bhikkhu Anālayo

Bhikkhu Anālayo was born in Germany in 1962 and ordained in Sri Lanka in 1995, where he completed a PhD on satipatthana published in 2003 in the UK, which has quickly become a bestseller with translations in ten languages done or under way. As a professor of Buddhist Studies with well over 200 academic publications, he is a leading scholar worldwide in research on early Buddhism, with a special emphasis on the topics of meditation and women in Buddhism.

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