Dignity and discipline | Daily News

Dignity and discipline

Reviving full ordination for Buddhist Nuns:

While monastic ordination has never been an absolute requirement for spiritual practice and attainment in Buddhism, through the centuries the lifeblood of the Buddhist tradition has flowed through its monasteries and hermitages. Even today, in this age of electronic commerce and high technology, the call to the simple monastic life still inspires many, women as well as men. Yet in most countries that follow the Theravada tradition women are allowed to enter only upon subordinate forms of renunciant life. The heritage of formally sanctioned monastic ordination prescribed in the ancient canonical texts is denied them.

Monastic ordination as a bhikkhuni involves three stages:

1) pabbajja, the “going forth” into homelessness or novice ordination;

2) the sikkhamana training, which prepares the candidate for full ordination; and

3) upasampada or full ordination. Conservative Theravadin Vinaya experts posit hurdles at all three stages. I will discuss each in turn.


The first step of entry into the renunciant life, pabbajja, transforms the woman aspirant from a lay devotee into a samaneri or novice. The Vinaya Pitaka itself does not explicitly state who is entitled to give pabbajja to a female aspirant for ordination, but the Theravada tradition unequivocally understands that it is a bhikkhuni who assumes this role. Of course, in the earliest phase of the Bhikkhuni Sangha, this procedure had to be managed differently. According to the account found in the Cullavagga, the Buddha ordained Mahapajapati Gotami by giving her eight principles of respect and then allowed bhikkhus to ordain the other women. The bhikkhus then gave upasampada to the five hundred Sakyan women directly. It seems that at this point the distinction between pabbajja as novice ordination and upasampada had not yet arisen. But thereafter it became the duty of a bhikkhuni to give pabbajja to a female aspirant, who would become her pupil, to be trained by her for eventual full ordination.

Once a full-fledged Bhikkhuni Sangha came into being, one never finds in the Pali Canon or its commentaries an instance of a bhikkhu giving pabbajja to a woman. But we can still ask whether there is any prohibition against a bhikkhu doing so. Though no Vinaya rule forbids this, conservative Theravadins hold that the pabbajja always has to be given by a bhikkhuni. They point out that in the texts and commentaries, when a woman asks the Buddha to admit her to the Sangha, the Buddha does not give her pabbajja himself or send her to any of the senior monks for ordination but always instructs her to go to the bhikkhunis. Later texts, neither canonical nor commentarial, explicitly state that it is prohibited for a bhikkhu to give pabbajja to a woman. Thus the Mahavamsa, the “Great Chronicle” of Sri Lankan history, relates the story of the Elder Mahinda’s arrival in Sri Lanka and his conversion of the royal court to the Dhamma.

But the queen Anula, who had come with five hundred women to greet the elders, attained to the second stage of salvation [once-returning]. And the queen Anula with her five hundred women said to the king: “We wish to receive the pabbajja-ordination, your Majesty.” The king said to the elder, “Give them the pabbajja!” But the elder replied to the king: “It is not allowed (to us), O great king, to bestow the pabbajja on women. But in Pataliputta there lives a nun, my younger sister, known by the name Sanghamitta. She, who is ripe in experience, shall come here bringing with her the southern branch of the great Bodhi-tree of the king of ascetics, O king of men, and (bringing) also bhikkhunis renowned (for holiness); to this end send a message to the king my father. When this elder-nun is here she will confer the pabbajja upon these women.

While waiting for Sanghamitta to arrive, the queen Anula, together with many women of the royal harem, accepted the ten precepts and wore ochre robes. That is, they observed the same ten precepts that a samaneri observes and wore the robes of a renunciant (probably not cut up into patches), but they had not received any formal ordination; they were the equivalents of the dasasilmatas of present-day Sri Lanka. They left the palace and went to reside in a pleasant convent built by the king in a certain part of the city. It was only after Sanghamitta and the other bhikkhunis arrived from India that they could take pabbajja.

The Sikkhamana Training

The second legal obstacle to a woman’s ordination, according to the conservative Vinaya experts, is imposed by the sixth garudhamma. This rule states that before she can take upasampada a woman candidate must live as a sikkhamana, or “probationer,” training in six rules for a period of two years. She receives the status of sikkhamana through a sanghakamma, a legal act of the Sangha. Now this act is performed by the Bhikkhuni Sangha, not by the Bhikkhu Sangha,and therefore, in the absence of a Bhikkhuni Sangha, a female candidate for ordination has no way to become a sikkhamana. Without becoming a sikkhamana, it is said, she will not be able to fulfill the prescribed training (sikkha) leading to upasampada. Further, after completing her training in the six rules, the sikkhamana must obtain an “agreement” (sammati) from the Sangha, an authorization to take upasampada, and this agreement too is given by a Bhikkhuni Sangha. Thus these two steps along the way to upasampada – namely, (1) the agreement to train in the six rules, and (2) the agreement confirming that the candidate has completed the two years’ training in the six rules – both have to be conferred by a Bhikkhuni Sangha. In the absence of a Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha, the Vinaya experts say, a candidate for bhikkhuni ordination cannot pass through these two steps, and without passing through these two steps, she will not be qualified for full ordination.

The last book of the Pali Vinaya Pitaka, known as the Parivara, is a technical manual dealing with fine points of Vinaya observance. One section of this work called Kammavagga (Vin V 220-23), devoted to legal acts of the Sangha, examines the conditions under which such acts “fail” (vipajjanti), i.e., grounds on which such acts are invalidated. Among the stipulations of the Parivara, an upasampada can fail on account of the candidate (vatthuto); on account of the motion (nattito); on account of the announcement (anussavanato); on account of the boundary (simato); and on account of the assembly (parisato). Applying these requirements to the case of the female candidate for upasampada, conservative Vinaya experts sometimes argue that a woman who has not undergone training as a sikkhamana is not a qualified candidate and thus upasampada given to her will be invalid.


In the eyes of the Vinaya conservatives, the most formidable barrier to reviving the Bhikkhuni Sangha concerns the upasampada, the full ordination. In the case of bhikkhu ordination, the ordination of a monk upasampada is administered by an act known as “ordination with a motion as the fourth” (natticatutthakammupasampada). First the spokesman for the Sangha makes a motion (natti) to the Sangha to give ordination to the candidate with a certain senior monk as preceptor. Then he makes three announcements (anussavana) that the Sangha ordains the candidate with the senior monk as preceptor; any monk present who disapproves is invited to voice objection. And finally, if no monk has objected, he concludes that the Sangha has given ordination to the candidate with the senior monk as preceptor.

When the Bhikkhuni Sangha was first established the same method must have been used to ordain women as bhikkhunis. After the Bhikkhuni Sangha gained maturity, however, this method was replaced by another, which involves the participation of both the Bhikkhuni Sangha and the Bhikkhu Sangha. Both ordain the candidate by separate processes following in close succession, each with a motion and three announcements. The method is therefore called ordination through eight proclamations (atthavacikupasampada).

The sixth garudhamma, which Mahapajapati Gotami reportedly accepted as a condition for ordination, already states that after training as a sikkhamana for two years in the six rules, a woman should seek upasampada from a dual-Sangha, that is, from both the Bhikkhuni Sangha and the Bhikkhu Sangha.The same principle is described more fully in the Cullavagga section of the Vinaya in its explanation of the upasampada rite, where the candidate first takes ordination from the Bhikkhuni Sangha and then comes before the Bhikkhu Sangha to undergo the second ordination involving another motion, three announcements, and confirmation.

The main legal objection that conservative Vinaya legalists raise against a revival of bhikkhuni ordination is that it must be given by an existing Bhikkhuni Sangha, and to be a purely Theravada ordination it must come from an existing Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha. This leads to a conundrum, for in the absence of an existing Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha, a legitimate Theravada bhikkhuni ordination cannot be granted. The ordination cannot be self-generated, but must be the continuation of an existing tradition. Therefore, the argument runs, when that tradition has been disrupted, it cannot be reconstituted even with all the good will in the world. For monks to attempt to reconstitute a broken Bhikkhuni Sangha, it is said, is to claim a privilege unique to a perfectly enlightened Buddha, and no one but the next Buddha can claim that.

Those who favor reviving the bhikkhuni ordination cite a statement by the Buddha in the Cullavagga: “Bhikkhus, I allow bhikkhus to give upasampada to bhikkhunis,” rightly pointing out that the Buddha never revoked that allowance. However, it would be incorrect to say that the Buddha gave permission in perpetuity to the bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunis on their own.

As long as there were no bhikkhunis in existence, that is, at the very inception of the Bhikkhuni Sangha, it was only natural that the Buddha’s allowance to the bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunis would be applied in this way, for there was simply no other way it could be applied. Thereafter the allowance continued, but it did not mean that bhikkhus on their own could ordain bhikkhunis. The Buddha did not revoke this allowance because the allowance was necessary after the dual-Sangha ordination procedure was initiated.

If the Buddha had revoked the permission he had earlier given to bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunis, then the Bhikkhu Sangha would not have been entitled to give ordination after the Bhikkhuni Sangha gave its ordination. However, the bhikkhus retained this privilege, except now it was part of a two-stage system of ordination. When the new procedure was introduced, with the Bhikkhuni Sangha conferring ordination first, the allowance to the bhikkhus to ordain bhikkhunis was integrated into the new two-stage ordination. So the permission remained intact, except that now the bhikkhus did not act alone. The upasampada they were entitled to confer followed upasampada conferred by the bhikkhunis.

This requirement for dual-Sangha ordination became integral to the Theravada tradition’s conception of the bhikkhuni. In the Pali Vinaya Pitaka, we encounter a standard description of a bhikkhuni that reads thus:

Bhikkhuni: one who is a mendicant; one who arrives on alms round; one who wears a robe made of cut-up patches; one who has the designation of a bhikkhuni; one who claims to be a bhikkhuni; a “come, bhikkhuni,” bhikkhuni; a bhikkhuni ordained by going to the three refuges; an excellent bhikkhuni; a bhikkhuni by essence; a trainee bhikkhuni; a bhikkhuni beyond training (i.e., an arahant bhikkhuni); a bhikkhuni fully ordained by a dual-Sangha in harmony, through an act that is unshakable and able to stand, consisting of a motion and three announcements. Among these, what is intended in this sense as a bhikkhuni is one fully ordained by a dual-Sangha in harmony, through an act that is unshakable and able to stand consisting of a motion and three announcements.

From the time the Bhikkhuni Sangha reached maturity until its demise, in Theravada countries the dual-Sangha ordination was regarded as mandatory. We find in the Vinaya Pitaka occasional mention of an ekato-upasampanna, “one ordained on one side,” and we might suppose this means that some bhikkhunis continued to be ordained solely by the Bhikkhu Sangha. This, however, would be a misinterpretation of the expression. The expression ekato-upasampanna refers to a woman who has received ordination solely from the Bhikkhuni Sangha but not yet from the Bhikkhu Sangha. It denotes a woman in the intermediate stage between ordinations by the two wings of the “dual-Sangha.” The Pali Vinaya Pitaka is scrupulously consistent in restricting the use of the word “bhikkhuni” to those who have fulfilled the dual-Sangha ordination. In the Suttavibhanga section of the Vinaya, whenever the text has occasion to gloss the word “bhikkhuni,” it states: “A bhikkhuni is one who has been ordained in the dual-Sangha” (bhikkhuni nama ubhatosanghe upasampanna).

Thus, in the light of the Parivara’s criteria, the Vinaya legalists argue that when the rules for ordination specify a dual-Sangha upasampada, and when a bhikkhuni is legally defined as one ordained by a dual-Sangha, if a single Sangha performs the ordination, the assembly is defective, because valid ordination requires the participation of the two assemblies, of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. The motion and announcements are also defective, because only one motion and three announcements have been recited, whereas valid ordination requires two procedures each with its own motion and three announcements.

Starting from these premises, since a Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha no longer exists, the legalists arrive at the inevitable conclusion that there is simply no possibility of reviving the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha. Bhikkhuni ordination will remain out of reach throughout the duration of the present Buddha’s dispensation.


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