Tag Archive | Revival

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.

The Revival of Bhikkhunī Ordination in the Theravāda Tradition

by Barbara Yen

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi has said in his book, The Revival of Bhikkhunī Ordination in the Theravāda Tradition, “that after an absence of more than 900 years, history was created when the Theravada bhikkhuni Order was revived in 1996 with the ordination of 11 women in Sarnath, India by Ven. Dodangoda Revata Mahāthera and the late Ven. Mapalagama Vipulasāra Mahāthera of the Mahābodhi Society in India.” The late Ven. Dr. K Sri Dhammananda who had strongly advocated for the revival of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order, attended the following ordination at Bodh Gaya in 1998.

In fact, the revival of the Bhikkhunī Sangha was advocated over half a century ago by a distinguished authority in one of the most conservative countries of Theravāda Buddhism, namely, Mynmar. The person is Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw, the meditation teacher of the famous Mahasi Sayadaw and Taungpulu Sayadaw. The Jetavan Sayadaw composed, in Pāli, a commentary to the Milindapanha in which he argues for a revival of the Bhikkhunī Sangha.

Jetavan Sayadaw unflinchingly maintains that bhikkhus have the right to revive an extinct Bhikkhunī Sangha. After introducing the dual-Sangha ordination, the Buddha did not require the women who had previously received ordination by the Bhikkhu Sangha only to undergo another ordination by the Bhikkhunī Sangha; he allowed their one-sided ordination to stand.

In those countries where the Bhikkhuni Sangha is not revived, the Bhikkhu Sangha 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!” added Jetavan Sayadaw.

Present Scene Today

Today there are more than 1,000 bhikkhunis, mainly in Sri Lanka and it is the only traditional Theravada country that has welcomed this new phenomenon.

It is therefore no longer a question of whether the Theravada bhikkhuni Sangha could be revived, but whether this development should be given the recognition and respect it seeks.

However, it is sad that those who want to seek full ordination have to do so in other Buddhist traditions or in other countries. By doing so, it does not solve the problem if their status is not recognised or supported by the sangha and lay community in their own country.

In the Buddha’s Words

In the forty-five years of the Buddha’s ministry, there were many situations either in words or action that he advocated positively in support of the bhikkkhunis. These can be found in some of the suttas for an example the MahaParinibbana Sutta (DN 16). The Buddha, was reminded of his words spoken to Mara soon after his enlightenment: “I shall not come to my final passing away, Evil One, until my bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen, have come to be true disciples – wise, well disciplined, apt and learned, preservers of the Dhamma, living according to the Dhamma, abiding by appropriate conduct and, having learned the Master’s word, are able to expound it, preach it, proclaim it, establish it, reveal it, explain it in detail, and make it clear; until, when adverse opinions arise, they shall be able to refute them thoroughly and well, and to preach this convincing and liberating Dhamma.”

When Queen Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī and five hundred women approached the Buddha with their heads shaved and wearing ochre robes, they did not ask the Buddha to establish an order of nuns. They simply asked him “to permit women to go forth from the household life into homelessness in the Dhamma and Vinaya proclaimed by the Tathāgata.”

The Buddha compared the Dhamma to a chariot, “One who has such a vehicle, whether a woman or a man, has by this vehicle drawn close to. (MN I, 492).

In the simile of the ancient city, the Buddha exhorted that after he had followed the Noble Eightfold Path and penetrated the links of dependent origination, “I explained them to the bhikkhus, the bhikkhunīs, the male lay followers, and the female lay followers, so that this spiritual life has become successful and prosperous, extended, popular, widespread, well proclaimed among gods and humans.” (SN 107)

Also the Buddha did not design for women to go forth in some secondary or subordinate role, for example, as ten-precept nuns, but take full ordination as bhikkhunīs. (Vin II 253; AN IV 274)

The Buddha considered well-trained bhikkhunī disciples one of the pillars of the teaching. In the Aguttara Nikāya, Ekanipāta (AN i 25), includes suttas where the Buddha  appointed various bhikkhunīs to the position of ‘most eminent’ in different domains of their spiritual life; for example, bhikkhunī Khemā was most eminent in wisdom, Uppalavaṇṇā in psychic powers, Bhaddakaccānā in great spiritual penetrations. The Therīgāthā also  offers us deep insights into the yearnings, striving and attainments of the earliest generations of Buddhist women renunciants.

In Dakkhiāvibhaga Sutta (MN 142), the Buddha discussed seven types of gifts that can be made to the Sangha, and most of these include bhikkhunīs among the recipients. These are:

  1. a gift to the dual-Sangha headed by the Buddha
  2. a gift to the dual-Sangha after the Buddha has passed away
  3. a gift specifically to the Bhikkhunī Sangha
  4. a gift for the selection of bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs to represent the Sangha
  5. a gift for the selection of bhikkhunīs to represent the Sangha

When Ven. Sāriputta devised a teaching that shows the path that all Buddhas take to arrive at full enlightenment, the Buddha urged him to expound that teaching to the bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs as well as to the male and female lay devotees. (SN 161)

For the bhikkhunīs, the highest success is arahantship, the same as for the bhikkhus. Evidence of such success is seen in the Mahāvacchagotta Sutta (MN 73) when Vacchagotta exclaims, “besides the Venerable Gotama and the bhikkhus, there are also bhikkhunīs who have attained success, this spiritual life is complete with respect to this factor.”

The poet-monk Vaṅgīsa confirms that the Buddha’s enlightenment was intended to benefit bhikkhunīs as well as bhikkhus:

“Indeed, for the good of many
The Sage attained enlightenment,
For the bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs
Who have reached and seen the fixed course”

On the Buddha’s supposed prediction that the Dhamma will last only five hundred years if women were to be ordained, if he had forseen such prediction with his divine vision, he would not have allowed them to be ordained and would not have given in to Ven. Ānanda’s pleas on their behalf. Scholars have questioned on the authenticity of this prediction. If it is true, the Dhamma would have disappeared around the first century A.D.

In fact, the Aguttara Nikāya indicates that the Dhamma will decline when the Four Assemblies dwell without respect to the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, the training, samādhi and heedfulness.

According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, “as the Buddha is enlightened, we can believe that it is impossible that he could make a mistake or be persuaded to any action he did not approve of. What we can deduce on the Buddha’s initial reluctance to accept the Bhikkhuni Sangha is that it would have placed on the bhikkhus the burden of educating and protecting the nuns, responsibilities that could have obstructed their own progress.”

The Buddha was also aware of the social conditions at that time that could place great challenges for women to go forth – the acceptance of the society for women to have equal status as men. Perhaps it could be a distraction to the young monks, to get enough preceptors to provide the nuns with proper training and guidance and also the sheer logistics of housing such a large number of women and his concern for their safety and well-being. (Writer, Barbara’s views)

Restoration of the Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha

To restore the Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha, the three challenges posed by Theravāda Vinaya legalists would have to be overcome. These are the challenges based on: (1) the problem of pabbajjā (novice ordination); (2) the problem of sikkhamānā ordination and training (two years); and (3) the problem of upasampadā (full ordination).

Before his parinibbana, the Buddha taught the Sangha four principles to help deal with novel situations not already covered by the rules of discipline, situations the monks might meet after his parinibbāna. These are called the four mahāpadesā, “the four great guidelines,” namely:

  1. If something has not been rejected by me with the words ‘This is not allowed,’ if it accords with what has not been allowed and excludes what has been allowed, that is not allowed to you.
  2. If something has not been rejected by me with the words ‘This is not allowed,’ if it accords with what has been allowed and excludes what has not been allowed, that is allowed to you.
  3. If something has not been authorized by me with the words ‘This is allowed,’ if it accords with what has not been allowed and excludes what has been allowed, that is not allowed to you.
  4. If something has not been authorized by me with the words ‘This is allowed,’ if it accords with what has been allowed and excludes what has not been allowed, that is allowed to you.

In the Mahāvagga’s Vassūpanāyikakkhandhaka of the Vinaya Piṭaka, there is a passage which shows compassion, flexibility and a departure from the standard practice. The Buddha granted permission to a bhikkhu to leave his rains retreat at the request of a sāmaṇerī who wished to undertake the training to become a sikkhamānā. “You should go, bhikkhus, for a matter that can be done in seven days even if not sent for, how much more so if sent for, thinking: ‘I will be zealous for her to undertake the training.’ You should return before seven days.” (Vin iv, 320)

Alternative Interpretations of Rules regarding the Ordination of Bhikkhunis    

The following factors point to the fact that it is possible for Theravada bhikkhunis to receive back this continuous and unbroken lineage. They are:

  • In the MahaParinibbana Sutta, the Sangha was permitted to abolish lesser and minor rules
  • Dual Ordination rule was part of Eight Rules accepted by Maha Pajapati Gotami
  • As there were no bhikkhunis to form Dual Ordination quorum yet, the Buddha gave monks this right and privilege to confer ordination on the first batch of women. “I permit you monks, to confer full ordination on bhikkhunis”
  • We can use the English ‘common law’ as a precedence of past decisions as valid decisions to be applied today
  • There could be no greater precedence and authority than the decision of the Buddha
  • The Bhikkhuni Sangha in Mahayana countries eg. China and Korea is the direct descendent of Dharmaguptaka school which is from early Indian Buddhism and their Vinaya rules were kept intact
  • The Tibetan monastic system is also guided by a Vinaya derived from Mūlasarvāstivādins, also from early Indian Buddhism
  • Historical records show two delegations of Sri Lankan bhikkhunis, the latter group headed by Bhikkhuni Devasara conferred Dual Ordinations for nuns in China in 429 C.E. and 432 C.E.
  • The Bhikkhu Order had died off Sri Lanka as a result of wars but it was revived by the Order from Myanmar
  • The point that Mahayana nuns have different religious beliefs is irrelevant as ordination is a matter of Vinaya and not beliefs
  • Among Theravada monks, there is also a variety of beliefs but this does not affect their status as monks

Two methods have been proposed to restore the extinct Bhikkhunī Sangha.

  1. That under exceptional circumstances the Bhikkhu Sangha is entitled to revert to a single-Sangha ordination of bhikkhunīs until a Bhikkhunī Sangha becomes functional and can participate in dual-Sangha ordination. The Buddha said, “Bhikkhus, I allow bhikkhus to give upasampadā (full ordination) to bhikkhunīs,” rightly pointing out that the Buddha never abolished that allowance.
  2. The Theravāda Bhikkhu Sangha can collaborate with a Bhikkhunī Sangha from an East Asian country which belonged to the same Vibhajyavāda tradition to which the southern Theravāda school belongs and which follow the same Dharmaguptaka Vinaya.

In making major decisions, the Buddha displayed both compassion and disciplinary rigor; he took account of the social and cultural expectations of his contemporaries.

In making a challenging decision, we have these two guidelines to follow:

  1. To be true to both the letter and the spirit, but above all to the innermost spirit of the Dhamma
  2. To be responsive to the social, intellectual, and cultural horizons of humanity in this particular period of history in which we live, this age in which we forge our own future destinies and the future destiny of Buddhism.

It will allow women to make a meaningful and substantial contribution to Buddhism in many of the ways that monks do – as preachers, scholars, meditation teachers, educators, social advisors, and ritual leaders – and perhaps in certain ways that will be unique to female renunciants, for example, as counselors and guides to women lay followers. A Bhikkhunī Sangha will also win for Buddhism the respect of high-minded people in the world, who regard the absence of gender discrimination as the mark of a truly worthy religion in harmony with the noble trends of present-day civilization.

The absence of a recognized Bhikkhunī Sangha in South Asian Theravāda Buddhism will be conspicuous, a glaring gap. Educated people around the world – even educated Theravādin lay followers, both men and women – will find it difficult to empathize with the refusal of the Theravādin monastic order to grant full ordination to women and will compare Theravāda unfavorably with the other forms of Buddhism.

Such an exclusive attitude would receive strong public disapproval today because of the vast differences between the social and cultural attitudes of our age and those of India in the fifth century B.C. when the Buddha lived and taught. Our own age has been shaped by the ideas of the European Enlightenment, a movement that affirmed the inherent dignity of the human person, led to the rise of democracy, ushered in such concepts as universal human rights and universal suffrage, and brought demands for political equality and equal justice for all under the law. In today’s world, all discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity and gender is regarded as unjust and unjustifiable, the remnant of primal prejudices that we are obliged to cast off in the realization that all human beings, by virtue of their humanity, are entitled to the same rights that we assume for ourselves, including the right to fulfill their highest religious aspirations.

On the other hand, by showing that they have the courage to restore to women the right to lead a full religious life as instituted by the Buddha, that is, by reviving the Bhikkhunī Sangha, Theravādin elders will enable their form of Buddhism to take its place in the modern world, firmly and proudly, while still upholding a path that is timeless and not subject to the vagaries of changing fashions. To take this step does not mean, as some might fear, that we are “meddling” with the Dhamma and the Vinaya just to fit people’s worldly expectations; the truths of the Dhamma, the principles of the path, the guidelines of the Vinaya, remain intact. But it would show that we know how to apply the Dhamma and the Vinaya in a way that is appropriate to the time and circumstances, and also in a way that is kind and embracing rather than rigid and rejecting.

“What would the Buddha want his elder bhikkhu-disciples to do in such a situation, now, in the twenty-first century?” If he were to see us pondering this problem today, would he want us to apply the regulations governing ordination in a way that excludes women from the fully ordained renunciant life, so that we present to the world a religion in which men alone can lead the life of full renunciation? Or would he want us to apply the regulations of the Vinaya in a way that is kind, generous, and accommodating, thereby offering the world a religion that truly embodies principles of justice and non-discrimination?

Prominent Bhikkhus Who Support The Bhikkhuni Sangha 

  • Ven. Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw of Myanmar, meditation teacher of Mahasi Sayadaw and Taungpulu Sayadaw
  • Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula
  • Ven. Dodangoda Revata Mahāthera and the late Ven. Mapalagama Vipulasāra Mahāthera of the Mahābodhi Society in India who revived the Bhikkhuni Order in Sarnath, India in 1996
  • Late Ven. Dr. K Sri Dhammananda who attended the bhikkhuni ordination at Bodh Gaya in 1998
  • Ajahn Brahmavamso and Ajahn Sujato who ordained four women in Australia in 2009

Conclusion

All the evidence indicated above point to the fact that the Bhikkhuni Order can be revived if we are guided by the spirit and not the letter alone. All we need is the political will and compassion towards the other half of human kind. In fact it has already been revived. The only question is – can we make the acceptance globally so that a woman renunciant can step into any country and can proudly say that “I am a full-fledged member of the Sangha.”?

This article is condensed from the following texts:

Bhikkhu Bodhi, ‘The Revival of Bhikkhunī Ordination in the Theravāda  Tradition.’ 2009.                                                                                                      The paper is available online. Copies of the book in English and Chinese version will be available when it is printed.

Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw, ‘Can an Extinct Bhikkhunī Sangha Be Revived?’                                                                           Milindapanha Aṭṭhakathā, Haṃsāvatī Piṭaka Press, Rangoon, 1949, Burmese year 1311, pp. 228-238. Translated from the Pāli by Bhikkhu Bodhi. It is available as an appendix in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article mentioned above.

Yu Ban. ‘A Lotus At Dawn: Opening The Doors To The Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha’                                                                              Yasodhara-Newsletter on International Buddhist Women ‘s Activities, July-Sept, 2008

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