Mingun Jetawan Sayādaw: Can an Extinct Bhikkhunī Sangha Be Revived?

Editor’s Note: the following is a translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi of part of a text by The Original Mingun Jetavan Sayādaw of Burma, one of the most respected scholars and meditation teachers in modern times.

The writing comes from his edition of the Milindapañha Aṭṭhakathā which was published by the Haṃsāvatī Piṭaka Press, Rangoon, Burmese year 1311 (=1949), pp. 228-238.

It is included in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book: The Revival of Bhikkhunī Ordination in the Theravāda Tradition, which is just being republished by our Support Network here in Malaysia.

The work sounds a little technical at the beginning because of the repetition, but it is well worth trying to understand, as the Sayādaw’s separation of two phrases in the Vinaya is cruical to understanding the correct position on this matter.

There are two sets of numbers included in square brackets. The higher numbers [228-238] refer to the Sayādaw’s original book from Burma; the lower numbers [53-62] to the edition published by the Support Network.


Mingun Jetawan Sayadaw

Mingun Jetawan Sayadaw

[53] [228] In this problem [of the Milindapañha], a guideline can be said to be given for bhikkhus of the future. 1 What is this guideline that can be said to be given for bhikkhus of the future? “Bhikkhus, I allow bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs.” There is a passage beginning: “After completing her training in six rules for two years, a sikkhamānā should seek ordination from both Sanghas.” The statement, “Bhikkhus, I allow bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs,” does not occur with reference to the subject2 of [the statement]: “After completing her training in six rules for two years, a sikkhamānā should seek ordination from both Sanghas.” And the statement, “After completing her training in six rules for two years, [229] a [54] sikkhamānā should seek ordination from both Sanghas,” does not occur with reference to the subject of [the statement]: “Bhikkhus, I allow bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs.” Although the latter does not occur [with that reference], still the subject referred to by the two statements, each taken by itself, is just a woman who is to be ordained.

One statement says that a woman who is to be ordained should be ordained by a Bhikkhu Sangha; the other, that a woman who is to be ordained should be ordained by a dual-Sangha. Now there will be future bhikkhus of wrong beliefs who will cling to their own conviction and for the purpose of promoting their wrong beliefs will argue thus: “Friends, if the Tathāgata said: ‘Bhikkhus, I allow bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs,’ then the statement: ‘After completing her training in six rules for two years, a sikkhamānā should seek ordination from a dual-Sangha’ is false. But if the Tathāgata said: ‘After completing her training in six rules for two years, a sikkhamānā should seek ordination from a dual-Sangha,’ then the statement: ‘Bhikkhus, I allow bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs’ is false. Isn’t it true that ordination by a dual-Sangha is excluded by [the injunction] that a Bhikkhu Sangha should give ordination to a woman? And isn’t [the allowance to give] ordination by the Bhikkhu Sangha excluded by the injunction that a dual-Sangha should give ordination to a woman? Thus the two are mutually exclusive. A Bhikkhu Sangha giving ordination to a woman candidate is one; a dual-Sangha giving ordination to a woman candidate is another.”

This is a dilemma. At present, when bhikkhus are unable to answer and resolve this dilemma, [other] bhikkhus sometimes come along and argue over it. Some say:

[55] “The Bhikkhu Sangha could ordain women only in the period before the Bhikkhunī Sangha arose. From the time the Bhikkhunī Sangha arose, women must be ordained by a dual-Sangha. Therefore, now that the Bhikkhunī Sangha has become extinct, women cannot be ordained by the Bhikkhu Sangha.” But others argue: “They can be ordained.” [230]

In this matter we say that the statement: “Bhikkhus, I allow bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs” was made by the Exalted One, and this statement of the Exalted One concerns restriction [of the ordination solely by a Bhikkhu Sangha] to a period when the Bhikkhunī Sangha does not exist.3 Hence there is a difference in both meaning and wording [between this statement and the other] explaining the procedure for a sikkhamānā. The statement: “After completing her training in six rules for two years, a sikkhamānā should seek ordination from a dual-Sangha” was spoken by the Exalted One, and it explains the procedure for a sikkhamānā. Hence there is a difference in both meaning and wording [between this statement and the other] restricting [the single-Sangha ordination] to a period when the Bhikkhunī Sangha does not exist. One is a restriction [of the ordination solely by a Bhikkhu Sangha] to a period when the Bhikkhunī Sangha does not exist, while the other explains the procedure for a sikkhamānā. The two are far apart in meaning; they are not speaking about the same thing and should not be mixed up. All the Exalted One’s bodily deeds, verbal deeds, and mental deeds were preceded and accompanied by knowledge. [56] He had unobstructed knowledge and vision regarding the past, the future, and the present. So what should be said of an arahant?4

Thus the Exalted One’s statement: “Bhikkhus, I allow bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs” concerned restriction [of the ordination solely by a Bhikkhu Sangha] to 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. Since the Exalted One had seen [such situations] with his unobstructed knowledge and vision, that is, with his knowledge of omniscience, his statement should be allowed [to have such applications]. It should be admitted that the Bhikkhu Sangha had been allowed [to ordain bhikkhunīs] in the past, though restricted to a period when the Bhikkhunī Sangha did not exist; in the future too, though restricted to a period when the Bhikkhunī Sangha will not exist; and at present too, restricted to a period when the Bhikkhunī Sangha does not exist. Hence at present, or even now, though restricted to a situation in which the Bhikkhunī Sangha has become non-existent, women can be ordained by the Bhikkhu Sangha.5

[Question:] Then, when Queen Anulā wanted to go forth, and the king said, “Give her the going forth,” why did Mahinda Thera reply: “Great king, we are not permitted to give the going forth to women”?6

[57] [Reply:] This was because the Bhikkhunī Sangha existed at the time, not because it was prohibited by the text (sutta). Thus to explain the meaning, Mahinda Thera said: [231] “My sister, the Therī Sanghamittā, is at Pāṭaliputta. Invite her.” By this statement, the point being made is that he is not permitted [to ordain women] because of the restriction [of the ordination solely by a Bhikkhu Sangha] to a period when the Bhikkhunī Sangha does not exist, not because it is prohibited by the text. The text which states: “Bhikkhus, I allow bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs” should not be rejected merely on the basis of one’s personal opinion. One should not strike a blow to the Wheel of Authority of the omniscient knowledge. The wishes of qualified persons should not be obstructed. For now women are qualified to be ordained by the Bhikkhu Sangha.7

When [the Buddha] said: “If, Ānanda, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī accepts these eight principles of respect, let that suffice for her ordination,” he laid down these eight principles of respect as the fundamental regulations (mūlapaññatti) for bhikkhunīs at a time when bhikkhunīs had not yet appeared. One principle among them – namely, “After completing her training in six rules for two years, a sikkhamānā should seek ordination from a dual-Sangha” – was laid down as a fundamental regulation for a sikkhamānā to undertake as part of her training at a time even before the Bhikkhunī Sangha appeared. After the Buddha had laid down these eight principles of respect as the fundamental regulations for bhikkhunīs, ordination [initially] arose by [Mahāpajāpatī’s] acceptance of them. When [58] Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī then asked: “Bhante, how shall I act in regard to these Sakyan women?” the Exalted One did not see: “It is only now that the Bhikkhunī Sangha is non-existent [but it will not be so] in the future too.”8 He saw: “The Bhikkhunī Sangha is non-existent now and in the future too it will be non-existent.” Knowing 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 a secondary regulation (anupaññatti) to the effect that women can be ordained by the Bhikkhu Sangha, that is: “Bhikkhus, I allow bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs.” But this secondary regulation did not reach a condition where it shared [validity] with any prior and subsequent prohibition and allowance that had been laid down.9 Thus the Exalted One, the Worthy One, the Perfectly Enlightened One, who knows and sees, allowed women at present to be ordained in such a way.

In order to achieve success in [the recitation of] the enactment formula (kammavācā), the text of the enactment formula should be recited in full. A competent, able bhikkhu, who understands the Exalted One’s intention, should inform the Sangha: [232] “Bhante, let the Sangha listen to me. This one of such a name seeks ordination under that one of such a name. She is pure with regard to the obstructive factors. Her bowl and robes are complete. This one of such a name asks the Sangha for ordination with that one of such a [59] name as sponsor (pavattinī). If the Sangha finds it fitting, the Sangha may ordain this one of such a name with that one of such a name as sponsor. This is the motion. Bhante, let the Sangha listen to me. This one of such a name seeks ordination under that one of such a name. She is pure with regard to the obstructive factors. Her bowl and robes are complete. This one of such a name asks the Sangha for ordination with that one of such a name as sponsor. The Sangha ordains this one of such a name with that one of such a name as sponsor. Any venerable who agrees to the ordination of this one of such a name with that one of such a name as sponsor should remain silent; any venerable who does not agree should speak up. A second time I declare this matter … A third time I declare this matter [repeat above pronouncement]. This one of such a name has been ordained by the Sangha with that one of such a name as sponsor. The Sangha is in agreement; therefore it is silent. That is how I understand it.”

At the conclusion of the enactment formula, the woman who was to be ordained by the Bhikkhu Sangha is now called “one ordained on one side [solely by a Bhikkhu Sangha].”10 But in the Commentary, the bhikkhus ordained the five hundred Sakyan women on the basis of the secondary regulation, “Bhikkhus, I allow bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs.” Without having them first select a preceptor, they ordained them making them pupils of Mahāpajāpatī, and thus, for the success of the enactment formula, they used the following proclamation: “Bhante, let the Sangha listen to me. This one of such a name seeks ordination under Mahāpajāpatī,” and so forth. Thus they too were all called “ordained on one side.” There [60] is no reference to them first selecting a preceptor. And since here the Exalted One had not yet authorized it, here there is nothing [233] about first selecting a preceptor, or about explaining the bowl and robes, or about requesting the ordination, or about inquiring into the twenty-four obstructive factors, or about explaining the three dependences and the eight strict prohibitions. Thus, even at the cost of life, bhikkhus do not lay down what has not been laid down and do not abrogate what has been laid down, but they take up and practice the training rules that have been laid down; such is the Exalted One’s intention. By this very method, a Bhikkhu Sangha can give ordination [to constitute] a Bhikkhunī Sangha made up of those ordained on one side, and when a chapter of five [bhikkhunīs] has been constituted, it is proper for them to give ordination in the remote countries through a dual-Sangha procedure. And in this case it is determined that a dual-Sangha has arisen.

Then, if it is asked, “Why did the bhikkhus in the past ordain the five hundred Sakyan women?” the answer should be given: “Because the narrative gives the story of what had been allowed all as one.”11

At this point, with the arising of a dual-Sangha, if a woman wishes ordination, she should acquire the going forth as a sāmaṇerī in the presence of bhikkhunīs, and it is only a bhikkhunī who should let her go forth. After they have let her go forth, only a Bhikkhunī Sangha should give her the agreement [to train] as a [61] sikkhamānā. After she receives it, she should train in the six rules for two years. When the sikkhamānā has completed her training, she should then seek ordination from a dual-Sangha. And here, when it is said in the fundamental regulation, “After completing her training, a sikkhamānā should seek ordination from a dual-Sangha,” the Exalted One laid down a particular sequence. He first had the sikkhamānā receive ordination from a Bhikkhu Sangha and cleared [of obstructive factors by the bhikkhus]. Thereupon she would receive ordination by a Bhikkhunī Sangha, and thus she would be “ordained by a dual-Sangha.” At a later time, however, the Exalted One laid down a secondary regulation, saying: “Bhikkhus, I allow a woman who has received ordination on one-side and been cleared [of obstructive factors] by the Bhikkhunī Sangha to receive ordination by the Bhikkhu Sangha.” Thus he enjoins a sikkhamānā who has completed her training to first receive ordination from a Bhikkhunī Sangha. When she has been ordained on one side and cleared [of obstructive factors] by the Bhikkhunī Sangha, she is subsequently to be ordained by the Bhikkhu Sangha. Thus he allowed her to become ordained by a dual-Sangha in a reversal of the preceding sequence,12 but did not reject one who previously had been ordained on one side by the Bhikkhu Sangha.13 The one was too remote from the other for the two to be confused with one another. Also, imagining that a later secondary regulation negates a previously [234] laid [62] down [regulation] occurs to blind foolish persons, not to those with insight, for the conclusion is seen in the narrative on the secondary regulation.14

This is the sequence in the text for the act of ordination of a sikkhamānā who has completed her training: First, she should be asked to choose her preceptor. After she has done so, the bowl and robes should be explained to her: “This is your bowl. This is your outer robe; this is your upper robe; this is your under robe; this is your blouse; this is your bathing cloth. Go, stand in that area.”

[Pages 234-238 give the formulas for dual-Sangha ordination found at Vin II 272-74, starting with “Suṇātu me, ayye, saṅgho, itthannāmā itthannāmāya ayyāya upasampadāpekkhā. Yadi saṅghassa pattakallaṃ, ahaṃ itthannāmā itthannāmaṃ anusāseyyaṃ,” and ending with “Tassā tayo ca nissaye aṭṭha ca akaraṇīyāni ācikkheyyātha.” The translation here resumes at the very end, on p. 238.]

Thus the Bhikkhu Sangha described above should make a determined effort as follows: “Now that the Bhikkhunī Sangha has become extinct, we will revive the institution of bhikkhunīs! We will understand the heart’s wish of the Exalted One! We will see the Exalted One’s face brighten like the full moon!”15 A bhikkhu motivated by a desire to resuscitate the institution of bhikkhunīs should be skilled in the subject praised by the Exalted One. But in this problem [set in the Milindapañha], this is the guideline given for bhikkhus of the future. So the question asked, “What is this guideline that is given for bhikkhus of the future?” has just been answered.

End Notes

1 Anāgatabhikkhūnaṃ nayo dinno nāma hoti.

2 In the phrase atthe nappavattati, I understand the word ‘attha’ to signify, not “meaning,” but the referent of a statement. Thus the attha or referent of the statement “I allow bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunīs” is a female aspirant for ordination at a time when no Bhikkhunī Sangha exists in the world; and the referent of the statement “a sikkhamānā should seek ordination from a dual-Sangha” is a sikkhamānā who has completed her training at a time when the Bhikkhunī Sangha exists in the world.

3 Tañca pana bhagavato vacanaṃ ayaṃ bhikkhunī saṅghassa abhāvaparicchedo. I understand the last phrase to signify the limitation (pariccheda) of single-Sangha ordination to a time when the Bhikkhunī Sangha is non-existent (bhikkhunīsaṅghassa abhāva).

4 The mention of an arahant here is difficult to account for, unless the Sayadaw is referring to Nāgasena, one of the two protagonists in the Milindapañha.

5 Tato eva paccuppanne ca etarahi vā pana bhikkhunīsaṅghassa abhāvapariccheden’eva bhikkhusaṅghena mātugāmo upasampādetabbo.

6 The reference is to Mahāvaṃsa, XV.18-23. See Wilhelm Geiger: The Mahāvaṃsa or The Great Chronicle of Ceylon (London: Pali Text Society 1912), p. 98.

7 Sabbaññutanāṇassa āṇācakkaṃ na pahārayitabbaṃ. Bhabbapuggalānaṃ āsā na chinditabbā. Bhikkhusaṅghena hi mātugāmo etarahi upasampādetuṃ bhabbo ti.

8 I felt it necessary to add the phrase in brackets in order to give this sentence (which in the original is merely a clause in an extremely complex sentence) the meaning required by the context.

9 Esā pana anupaññatti pure ceva pacchā ca paññattena paṭikkhepenāpi anuññātenāpi sādhāraṇabhāvaṃ na pāpuṇi. The purport seems to be that this authorization is valid only as long as the Buddha does not issue another decree that implicitly annuls its validity, such as that stipulating a dual-Sangha ordination.

10 Ekato upasampanno. The expression ends in the masculine termination –o because the subject of the sentence, mātugāmo, “woman,” is a word of masculine gender.

11 Atha kasmā pubbe bhikkhū pancasatā sākiyāniyo upasampādentī ti pucchitā anuññātassa vatthuno ekato nidānattā ti vissajjetabbā. Perhaps the point is: “Why did the bhikkhus go on to ordain five hundred women by a single-Sangha ordination, instead of ordaining five and then letting these five function as a Bhikkhunī Sangha that could help to ordain the others?” But I am not sure that I have caught the author’s point.

12 The earlier sentence, when explaining the procedure in which the bhikkhus give the ordination first, refers to the sequence as anukkama. I assume that the expression used here, kamokkama, means “a reversal of the preceding sequence,” and translate accordingly.

13 The point seems to be that after introducing the dual-Sangha ordination, the Buddha did not require the women who had previously received ordination by the Bhikkhu Sangha alone to undergo another ordination by the Bhikkhunī Sangha; he allowed their one-sided ordination to stand.

14 Anupaññatiyā nidānena niṭṭhaṅgatadiṭṭhattā. The point is not quite clear to me.

15 Idāni bhikkhunīsaṅghe vaṃsacchinne mayaṃ bhikkhunīsāsanaṃ anusandhānaṃ karissāma, bhagavato manorathaṃ jānissāma, bhagavato puṇṇindusaṅkāsamukhaṃ passissāmā ti.

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