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Full ordination for Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Full ordination for Tibetan Buddhist nuns

In these interviews, recorded by a team from, Venerable Thubten Chodron answers questions about her life and what it means to be a Buddhist in the 21st century.

When the ordination lineage first came, it was with Śāntarakṣita, one of the great Indian sages who came in the 8th century. He brought the requisite number of monks, and they traveled together over the Himalaya Mountains into Tibet.

He didn’t bring any fully ordained nuns with him, possibly because he thought the journey would be too difficult for them. But I think more importantly, it’s because if you had a group of monks and a group of nuns traveling together, and you told the population that they were celibate, some people would go, “Oh yeah?!” So I think by just bringing monks, he made it very clear that these monks are celibate. So as it happened, he didn’t bring nuns.

The Karmapa has said that he’s known of some ordinations that have occurred in Tibet. I don’t have the details on those, but in any case it’s not something that is popularly accepted, because in order for nuns to be fully ordained, you need a certain number of bhikṣuṇīs, the fully ordained nuns, and a certain number of bhikṣus, the fully ordained monks, to give the bhikṣuṇī ordination for women.

And there’s never been that requisite number, so therefore it’s said that the lineage has died out. There’s interest by many people to see if it can be started up again, and there are several proposals for it.

One proposal is, because the lineage for full ordination of women, which is where my lineage comes from, exists in Taiwan, China, Korea, and Vietnam, to bring the complement of nuns necessary for the ordination from the East Asian tradition. Then we’d have the complement of monks from the Tibetan tradition.

But the Tibetan monks say that these are two different Vinaya lineages, and we can’t mix them. Then, the other proposal is that since it’s actually the monks who give the ordination, to have the Tibetan monks themselves give the bhikṣuṇī ordination, without the complement of nuns. And then after those nuns have been ordained the proper amount of time, we can have them become the complement of nuns.

But then other people say, “Well, is that a perfect ordination if you do it that way?” In East Asia and China, Taiwan and so on, they consider that ordination valid, if it’s just the bhikṣu Sangha.

Personally speaking I think, and actually this was told to me by a Tibetan who I respect quite a bit, and he said he thinks it is more of an emotional decision, even though it’s phrased in terms of Vinaya rules and so forth. Because it’s been this way with only fully ordained monks for over a millennium, and so to change it involves a changing of mentality, a changing of perspective, and it would be like the whole tradition would have to have that change.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is very much for introduction the bhikṣuṇī lineage, but he’s said he can’t do it alone, it has to be an effort of all the Tibetan Buddhist traditions. And some of the monks and some of the traditions are quite conservative.

The question may then arise, how come you’re in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, but you’re a bhikṣuṇī, a fully ordained nun, how is that possible?

So I went to Taiwan to take the full ordination. I had my novice ordination with Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in 1977, and then I wanted to take the full ordination in Taiwan. I went to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and asked his permission to do that, and he very clearly gave me his permission. So in 1986 I went to Taiwan and I took the bhikṣuṇī ordination there.

In setting up the Abbey, we use the Vinaya tradition that is practiced in Taiwan. It’s called the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, and it is a different lineage than the one practiced in Tibet. We say our Vinaya lineage is the Dharmaguptaka, but our practice lineage is Tibetan. And no one seems to have any qualms with that.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.