Misconceptions about the Bhikkhuni Order

Introduction

September 17 is designated as International Bhikkhuni Day. On this day, let us remember and honour the courage of the five hundred women, led by Maha Pajapati Gotamī who were so determined to renounce that they shaved their heads, donned the robes and walked about 350 miles barefoot, from Kapilavastu to Vesali to seek permission from the Buddha for ordination.

The Buddha believed that women were capable of being enlightened but is reported as being initially reluctant, if this was so he may have felt that the social and cultural climate of India at that time and the constraints in his young ministry were challenging factors for their going forth.

Ultimately, did the Buddha regret making this decision? From the facts of the case, it does not appear to be so. From these bhikkhunis, the Buddha singled out thirteen outstanding ones, all of whom were arahats, to be foremost in various aspects in Buddhism.

Misconceptions about the Bhikkhuni Order

Through the ages, some misconceptions or myths have crept in over the Bhikkhuni Order in various countries and cultures, particularly in Asia. Many genuinely believe them to be true. Some of these myths are:

Myth: The Buddha was reluctant to institute the Bhikkhuni Order but gave in to Ven. Ananda’s pleas.

The Buddha with His visionary powers had envisaged that the Bhikkhuni Order will come into being, otherwise He would not have replied to Mara who asked Him to go into Parinibbana soon after His enlightenment:

“I shall not come to my final passing away, Evil One until my bhikkhus & bhikkhunis, laymen & laywomen, have come to be true disciples – wise, well disciplined, apt & learned, preservers of Dhamma, living according to Dhamma, abiding by appropriate conduct & having learned the Master’s word, are able to expound it, preach it, proclaim it, establish it, reveal it, explain it in detail, & make it clear.” MahaParinibbana Sutta

Myth: With the ordination of women, the life of the Dhamma will be shortened by 500 years.

If it is true, the Dhamma would have disappeared around 1st CE. If the Buddha had foreseen this, He would not have agreed or have given in to Ven. Ānanda’s pleas. In fact, He said:

“The good Dhamma declines when the
Four-Fold Assemblies dwell without respect for the
Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha,
The Training, Samadhi and Mindfulness”
Aṅguttara Nikāya

Myth: The Bhikkhuni Sangha had gone extinct after the Buddha’s parinibbana as no bhikkhuni was mentioned in any of the Buddhist Councils.

We do not have to look very far back. Even in our daily speech or in written word, there is gender bias in that the masculine word is often used (he, him, his, mankind, man-power to depict both genders). Our descendents can also be mistaken that there are no women existing in this century!

Yet there were names of bhikkhunis and lay women found in King Asoka’s Edicts. They were mentioned to be donors of viharas and stupas.

The Chinese pilgrim, Fa Hsien also noted thousands of monks and nuns in Sankasya, India in the fourth century CE.

In Amaravati India, which is considered a centre for Theravada Buddhism, the word ‘bhikkhuni’ was mentioned in about 18 sites and dates back to the 11th century CE which showed that both sanghas survived till then and were wiped out by the Muslim invasion in that period.

Myth: Ven. Sanghamitta, daughter of King Asoka, is the last of the bhikkhunis.

In fact there was even doubt that she brought enough bhikkhunis for the ordination of Princess Anula, King Tissa’s sister-in-law in the third century BCE. However, the Sri Lankan Chronicle, Mahavamsa 17.1 recorded Sanghamitta Theri came with ten other bhikkhunis to ordain her. Recent archaeological findings discovered an area between Anuradhapura and Mahintale, where Ven. Anula and her five hundred followers had their nunneries. The royal families also built aramas for the bhikkhunis.

In 433 CE, Ven Devasara of Sri Lanka led a group of bhikkhunis in a ship called Nandi and gave ordination to three hundred Chinese women in the Southern Forest Monastery in Nanking, China. (see Edward Conze: Buddhist Texts Through the Ages).

Dr Hua Chee Min, a Chinese professor, in his book written in Sinhala, Theravada Buddhism in China, cited 40,000 Theravada Buddhists from 5,000 temples, many of which were in Yunnan. Ven Walpola Rahula acknowledged this fact in 1992 when he said, “If anyone wishes to re-introduce the Order of Nuns in Theravada countries, it is absolutely necessary to receive the genuine and authentic Ordination from an unbroken line of Buddhist nuns in China or other countries.”

The lineage therefore has not been broken and it later spread to Korea, Japan and Taiwan. In the Mahavamsa bhikkhunis are still mentioned up and till the 10th century.

In 1988, Fo Guang Shan of Taiwan organized the First International Ordination for women at Hsi Lai Temple, LA, USA and helped give the bhikkhuni lineage back to Sri Lanka, which was the country they got it from.

Myth: Women cannot come into contact with the robe. Her menstruation will soil it.

This is a Brahministic cultural and social belief. The Buddha was trying to discourage this kind of thinking. It is a biological process without which humans will go extinct. Not only are nuns ordained during the Buddha’s time but there was a nun who was pregnant. The Buddha called a royal commission to investigate the case with Ven Upali and a lay woman Visakha in the committee. When it was found that she was pregnant before she was ordained, not only was she not required to disrobe, she was allowed to go through with the pregnancy and breast feed her baby, whom she named Abhaya (Fearless) until he was one year old. The bhikkhuni’s is known as Abhayamata (the mother of Abhaya). The other nuns shared their alms food with her. Such was the compassion and deep understanding of the Buddha. Abhaya who was adopted by a prince, was later ordained as Ven. Kumāra. Both he and his mother became arahats.

Uppalavaṇṇā, a beautiful woman was raped by her cousin who was one of her many suitors. She did not need to disrobe as the Buddha disclosed that she was already an arahat and was beyond sensual pleasures. The assault was also committed against her will. She is the most prominent bhikkhuni in psychic powers.

This incident reminds me of an unfortunate case of a Tibetan nun who was raped by Chinese soldiers. She disrobed, thinking that she was defiled and not worthy of wearing the robes.

The recent case of the Nepali nun who was raped by a bus driver and his companions is another example of ignorance about the Order and its rules. She was apparently disowned by a Nepali Buddhist organisation for similar reasons which caused an international outcry.

Myth: A Burmese woman once told me that women are of lower birth, and have to be born as men to be able to achieve Buddhahood.

There is a seed of Buddhahood in everyone one of us. It depends on whether we want to nurture it and how we nurture it. According to Ven. Anandajoti, “in the early sangha anyone who attained arahatship was also called a Buddha, only later was the term restricted to a Sammasambuddha. In line with the original interpretation of the word, therefore, males and females could be Buddhas.

But according to tradition only males become Sammasambuddhas, this is based on mythological thinking, which says that what happened in the exemplary case is the way it always happens. We don’t really think in this way anymore, and I personally can’t see any reason why women couldn’t become a Sammasambuddha.”

Myth: Ordination of women needs the Dual Sangha.

The Dual Sangha Ordination was first introduced when the bhikkhus in a single Sangha Ordination, asked a nun to answer the questions about the obstructions to ordination which are areas related to a monastic’s sexuality which might be obstacles to ordained life. She was embarrassed to answer and upon consultation with the Buddha, senior nuns were requested to ask these questions. This really reflects the Buddha’s sensitivity, compassion and flexibility in difficult situations. Nevertheless, the Single Sangha Ordination by Bhikkhus was never abolished.

Myth: Ordination of women done in the Mahāyana tradition is not valid.

The ordination for both sanghas is based on Vinaya rules which are similar in all three traditions. The difference is in the Dhamma, not the Vinaya, which is what the lineage is all about. Even in this, the difference is in the letter, not in spirit.

Myth: Ordination is a sign of failure in social life especially for women whose countries prohibit full ordination. Their status as eight or ten preceptors is low and they often serve as helpers in temples.

This perception is slowly changing especially in Thailand where some of the maechees have doctorates in Buddhism and teach in universities or nuns’ colleges. Some live as nuns in the forest tradition and one of them literally brought the forest back by planting about ten thousand trees to the amazement of the community and the state. After the 12th Sakyadhita Conference in Bangkok in June, 2011, a few of us had the opportunity to visit this peaceful hermitage.

Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, a former professor in Buddhism in Thammasat University, received full ordination in Sri Lanka in 2003 and is now Abbess of Songdhammakalyani Bhikkhuni Arama, willed to her by her mother. She teaches Dhamma and conducts samaneri and temporary novitiate ordinations each year. On 24 June, 2011, she has five fully ordained bhikkhunis with her.

In 2005, she was among four Buddhist nuns to be selected for the 1,000 Peace Women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The others are Ven. Tenzin Palmo (UK), Ven. Rurui Shih (China) and Maeji Pratin Kwan-On (Thailand).

Perhaps the person who inspired her most is her mother, Ven. Voramai Kabilsingh who braved all odds to be the first woman in Thailand to be fully ordained in 1971, which she obtained in Taiwan after being a Maechee for 15 years, and afterwards she built her own monastery.

On this day, we also salute bhikkhunis for their strong perseverance and courage like Machee Kaew of Thailand, Ven Santini and Ven. Susilvati of Indonesia who braved strong opposition, and to Sara Narin (Thailand) and Saccavadi (Myanmar) who faced imprisonment. The former was kidnapped in 1928 and the latter disrobed in 2005 and is now married and residing in the USA.

Myth: Women can only disrobe once.

For a detailed discussion of this belief, please refer to Ven. Sujato’s chapter Can a Bhikkhuni Ordain Again? in his Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies.

Myth: Women are obstacles to the purity of the bhikkhus.

Evidence from other traditions in Taiwan, Vietnam, France, USA, Australia and others shows an ever expanding and healthy dual sangha, both joyfully working side by side to serve the community and spread the Dhamma.

Conclusion

These myths, if allowed to perpetuate from century to century, will not only be a great hindrance to the progress of Buddhism but they reflect very negatively on the religion which claims to enable us to achieve wisdom and liberation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can use all this energy instead to spread the Buddha Sasana?

We need to deconstruct these myths and the tools for it are facts, information and wisdom. It is the responsibility of all Dhamma protectors and propagators to help disentangle this web of delusion and remove this shroud so that the light of Truth can shine through and illuminate the world.

Bhikkhu ca sīlasampanno bhikkhunī ca bahussutā
upāsako ca yo saddho yā ca saddhā upāsikā
ete kho saṅghaṃ sobhenti ete hi saṅghasobhanā.

Virtuous monks and learned nuns,
Laymen and laywomen of great devotion,
These indeed are an ornament to the Saṅgha,
They do indeed adorn the Saṅgha.
A.N. II. 8

References

Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Revival of Bhikkhuni Ordination in the Theravada Tradition, Inward Path Publisher, Penang, Malaysia, 2009
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh), Women Strengthening Buddhism, Buddhasavika Foundation. Published by Thai Buddhist Centre, Bangkok, 2010
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, A Different Voice, Buddhasavika Foundation. Published by Thai Buddhist Centre, Bangkok, 2010
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, Bhikkhunis In Thailand, Buddhasavika Foundation, 2009. http://www.thaibhikkhunis.org.
Edward Conze: Buddhist Texts Through the Ages, Harper & Rows, 1953
Gunadasa Liyanage, On The Path, Biography of Ven. Prof. Dr. Walpola Sri Rahula, Buddhist Cultural Centre, Sri Lanka, 1995
Dr Hua Chee Min, Theravada Buddhism in China, Colombo
Sujato Bhikkhu, Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies: Can a Bhikkhuni Ordain Again? Santipada Publications, 2009

Barbara Yen, Malaysia, 17 September, 2011

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3 thoughts on “Misconceptions about the Bhikkhuni Order

  1. You write from a Mahayana viewpoint. Therefore your ideas are tainted and you cannot appreciate the Theravada tradition. This articles really gives alot of disinformation and leads to even more confusion of the people who are no insiders on this topic. It also does not aid women to really gain more means for reaching liberation. This kind of activism will only lead to more suffering and exhaustion.

    • Dear Venerable, actually Barbara is writing from a Theravada background, and most of the people involved in this project are also from the same background. There is no disinformation in the article as far as I can see, and when an opinion is expressed it is stated as such. You would do well to read up on some of the material on this site to better understand the position in regard to women renunciants.

  2. The ideas are wonderful. This article really gives a lot of information and leads to clarification of bhikkhuni history. It does aid me as a woman to really gain more means for reaching liberation of Buddhism. This kind of activism will lead to more understanding the real Buddha and Dhamma. Thanks a lot.
    dasa atthavase, the third one, Buddha might foreseen some bhikkhus not follow Buddha’s way, so in the third one of dasa attavase, Buddha used puggalanam instead of bhikkhunam:
    for Bhikkhu vinaya: dummankunam puggalanam niggahaya
    for Bhikkhuni vinaya: dummaṅkūnaṃ bhikkhunīnaṃ niggahāya
    bad bhikkhu cannot be called as bhikkhu but just the ordinary man.

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