As this node deals with the Pali term for a Buddhist nun, rather than the
Sanskrit equivalent, I deal here only with the history and status of the
Theravada women's renuncient order. Information about the Mahayana
equivalent might be located at bhikshuni. And as anthropod's wu above deals quite
well with the modern Thai Buddhist women's order, the Mae Ji, I'll deal
with that here only by way of comparison, and one or two other germane points.
Founding of the Bhikkhuni Order
The stories of the founding of the men's and women's monastic orders are contained in the Vinaya Pitaka.
The founding of the bhikkhuni order is recounted in the Cullavagga, the fifth book of the Theravada vinaya.
The first bhikkhuni was Mahaprajapati, the step-mother of the Buddha. Several years after the founding of
the monks order, Mahaprajapati approached the Buddha and asked to receive ordination as a female mendicant.
Three times she asked, and three times the Buddha refused to grant the ordination (more on this later).
In despair, Mahaprajapati returned to her home, and decided to affect the role of a bhikkhuni, even without the
support of the Buddha. She, as well as several other female members of her household, shaved their heads and donned
the saffron robes of a Buddhist mendicant. This group of women departed their home, walking on foot a great
distance to meet up with the Buddha and his entourage. Arriving at the vihara, Mahaprajapati and her fellow
female renunciants stood at the gates and wept.
At this point, Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and personal attendant, and a relative of Mahaprajapati, saw
the women standing at the gate, blistered and covered with the dust of the road. He asked her why she and
her companions wept, and she replied that it was because the Buddha would not permit women to join the
religious order. Ananda immediately volunteered to intercede with the Buddha on Mahaprajapati's behalf.
Initially, Ananda was refused as well. He then asked the Buddha if women were capable of attaining
enlightenment. The Buddha replied that they were indeed capable of this greatest spiritual attainment.
Ananda then reminded the Buddha, who had been raised by Mahaprajapati after the death of his mother, Queen Maya,
of the many kindnesses that his step-mother had performed in raising and nurturing him. Ananda repeated his request,
and this time the Buddha relented. He permitted women to be ordained into the order, provided that Mahaprajapati
would accept 8 regulations governing the behavior of female renunciants. The rules were as follows:
- A bhikkhuni ordained for any length of time might rise, salute, and venerate a bhikkhu ordained even for a single day.
- A bhikkhuni must not spend the rainy season (vassa) in a place where there are no bhikkhu.
- Every half month, an assembly of bhikkhuni must send for a bhikkhu to instruct them in the vinaya, the eight rules,
and to inform them of when to hold the Uposatha ceremony.
- At the end of the rainy season (vassa), bhikkhuni must confess their misdeeds before both the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.
- A bhikkhuni who has broken a serious vinaya rule must submit for discipline before both the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni orders.
- After two years as a novice, a female renunciant must seek ordination from both the male and female orders.
- A bhikkhuni must not abuse or revile any bhikkhu
- A bhikkhu may admonish a bhikkhuni, but a bhikkhuni must not admonish a bhikkhu.
Mahaprajapati accepted these rules, and the bhikkhuni order was established. Her ordination was unique, as she was the first
female mendicant to be ordained. All future bhikkhuni were required to be ordained before a quorum of both nuns and monks.
Some scholars question the historical accuracy of the traditional vinaya story of the founding of the bhikkhuni order. The
manner in which the permanently subordinate relationship between the male and female orders is established seems a little too
pat for some observers, and despite the generally male orientation of much of the teaching delivered in the Pali Canon, it
seems to contradict the Buddha's remarks regarding the equality of men and women in spiritual matters. However, even if it is
not historically accurate, it seems to be at least as old as most of the other scriptures in the Canon, and is generally accepted
in the modern Sangha.
The Bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka
The Buddhist Sangha, male and female, was established in Sri Lanka in the 3rd century B.C, carried by missionaries from
India (traditionally said to have been dispatched by King Asoka). The Queen of Sri Lanka requested that the bhikkhuni
lineage be transmitted to the island kingdom, and herself became the first Sri Lankan woman to be ordained.
Several residences were built for bhikkhunis, and inscriptions indicate that the nuns order was a vital part of Sri Lankan
religious life up until the 11th Century. At this point, Buddhism was almost eradicated in Sri Lanka following a series
of disastrous wars, political instability, and finally conquest by a Southern Indian tribe. So few Sri Lankan monks remained
that the 10-monk quorum required for ordination of new monks and nuns could not be achieved. However, earlier Sri Lankan
missionary activities had already established a bhikkhu and bhikkhuni lineage in Burma, so monks were recalled from Burma
to re-establish the monastic lineage in Sri Lanka. However, no attempt was made to re-establish the bhikkhuni lineage in Sri
Lanka. Following the temporary decline of Buddhist institutions in the 111th Century, no mention is made of the fate of the
bhikkhuni sangha, nor is any explanation given for why the nuns order was not re-invigorated as the monks order was. The order
of female renunciants simply passes out of Sri Lankan history.
During the 19th Century, under a general revival of Buddhist faith and institutions, attempts were made at establishing a role
for pious Buddhist women other than that of lay supporter. Since by this time, bhikkhuni orders had disappeared from all of the
Theravada nations, it was not possible to re-establish the traditional bhikkhuni ordination. Seeking an alternative, some Sri
Lankan women undertook the ten precepts and began to live in communal religious communities (called aramaya)). These
women, called Dasa Sil Matavo, or "ten-precept women" had a status somewhere between that of lay follower and ordained
renunciant. During the early days of the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, they enjoyed a status more similar to that of an ordained
follower than a lay woman. With the Buddhist institutions of Sri Lanka in a state of transition, and enthusiasm for religious
revival at a high point, these new female renunciants were supported by the lay community with enthusiasm.
In modern times, however, the dasa sil matavo have not faired quite as well. During the early days of the religious revival,
support and sources of new renunciants were likely to come from the well-educated Sinhalese middle-class. In more recent days,
the women who become dasa sil matavo are more likely to come from less affluent, less educated families. Formal institutions
(most notably the bhikkhu sangha) are more well-established and stable. And since traditional Buddhist beliefs hold that there
are great benefits for giving donations to ordained clerics, but say little or nothing about specific benefits of supporting
particularly devout lay followers. As such, as ordained clerics grow in number, the reasons to give to devout laywomen are
reduced for lay followers concerned about the merit created by their giving. Nevertheless, dasa sil matavo continue to be a
respected part of Sinhala society.
Some dasa sil matavo, as well as some other Sri Lankan Buddhists, would like to see the bhikkhuni ordination return to Sri
Lanka. Some Sri Lankan and Western dasa sil matavo have sought to accomplish this by receiving ordination in other linkages.
In 1988, 6 dasa sil matavo were ordained in a Taiwanese Fo Guang Shanlineage at the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda heights, California. At
present, little has come of this effort. Opinions about the re-establishment of the bhikkhuni lineage varies among Sri Lankan
monks; some, mostly younger monks, support the idea, but many older monks, including a number of the best-known and most
respected monks, have raised opposition to the idea, sighting the absence of a true Theravada bhikkhuni quorum.
The Bhikkhuni Order in Burma
Of all the nations in Southeast Asia, only Burma (or Myanmar, if you like) received a bhikkhuni lineage. Sri Lankan
missions during the 11th Century, prior to the collapse of the Sri Lankan Sangha, brought both the bhikkhu and
bhikkhuni linkages. Records of Burmese bhikkhuni persist until the late 13th Century, but the line apparently failed sometime
prior to the modern era. The Burmese bhikkhuni were the last Theravadin and Hinayana bhikkhuni in the world; their passing
marks the end of a female renunciant lineage stretching back to the Buddha
In modern Burma, as in other modern Theravadin nations, roles
for women exist outside of the formal sangha. Eight- and ten-precept women,
called thila-shin, observe either the eight uposatha precepts, or the
full ten monastic precepts, much like their counterparts in Sri Lanka and
Thailand. Unlike other non-ordained female lay devotees, however, the
thila-shin enjoy a level of respect and support that approaches that of the
ordained Sangha. Among their number are counted a number of highly
respected teachers and scholars, including teachers of meditation techniques
who have been recognized outside of their own country. Formal nunneries,
called gyaung, exist throughout Burma, where thila-shin study and live
communally, following a routine very similar to that observed by ordained
monks. Some of these nunneries have become quite well known respected.
The legal and social status of the thila-shin is somewhere between that of
a lay follower and an ordained monk. Most thila-shin communities are able to
exist solely on donations of food and other material requisites, much like
male monasteries and temples. Unlike monks, the thila-shin are permitted to
own property, handle money for themselves, and can be employed in regular jobs
(some work as menial laborers or support staff for Buddhist monasteries and
temples, to both support themselves and make merit). However, like Burmese
monks, thila-shin are not permitted to vote in elections or stand for
Due to the political and social upheaval that has taken place across Burma,
the issue of the status of the thila-shin has become less important for most
of these women. There is no present-day movement within Burma to try and
re-establish the bhikkhuni lineage by any of the methods attempted by Thai or
Sri Lankan female renunciants.
Re-establishing the Theravada Bhikkhuni Lineage
There are many people in the modern world who would like to see the
Theravada Buddhist women's order formally re-established, with at least as
much, if not more, parity with respect to the men's order as existed prior to
the disappearance of the bhikkhuni lineage. Most of the advocates of this
activity are female Buddhist devotees, though many males, particularly in the
West and among Western converts, also support the move. Some members of
modern-day women's orders, such as the Mae Ji, the Dasa Sila Matavo, and
others, have gotten behind this cause. Some Dasa Sila Matavo have sought
ordination from the Taiwanese lineage of the Fo Guang Shan temple
(represented in the West by the Hsi Lai Temple). During the spring of 2002,
a Thai woman advocating for the recreation of the bhikkhuni order caused a
stir in Thailand by receiving such an ordination, which was quickly condemned
by most civil and religious authorities in Thailand. The women who seek the
recreation of the bhikkhuni order are usually among the most well-educated of
the Buddhist female renunciants. Many are from middle or upper class
families, and a large number are Westerners or Western educated, particularly
in Sri Lanka.
There reasons for seeking the recreation of the bhikkhuni lineage vary.
The most common thread is a desire to raise the status of women in
Buddhist-dominated societies, and to provide an outlet for the religious
impulses of devout women that does not mandate subservience to an all-male
power structure (the formally recognized national Sangha). Many of these
reformers envision a new women's order as an institutional compatible with the
precepts of Engaged Buddhism, able to provide medical and social assistance
to women in societies that often are seen as being neglectful of their
Furthermore, some maintain that the absence of any formal women's role in
Theravada Buddhist society has lead to a general discounting of the worth of
women, particularly in a religious context. The establishment of a respected
and independent women's organization, with pedigree stretching back to the
Buddha would provide visible evidence of the Buddha's teaching that the
spiritual and intellectual potential of an individual is not determined by
gender, and that women have the same capabilities as men in this area.
Many who think along these lines would prefer to see the bhikkhuni lineage
reconstructed in such a way as to avoid the eight rules mandating a certain
level of submission of female renunciants to their male peers. They seek a
more liberal and modern interpretation of the Vinaya and the monastic codes,
one based primarily on the ten precepts as moral guidelines, and eschewing
many of the minor training rules (it is often mentioned that before his death,
the Buddha said that the minor training rules could be dispensed with.
Unfortunately, no one knows for sure which ones are minor.).
So in addition to the obvious religious motivation for the recreation of
the bhikkhuni order in the Theravada tradition, many see it as a vehicle for
raising the status of women, and bringing institutional Buddhism more in line
with what is seen as it egalitarian and enlightened (in the Western sense)
core. The influence of Western feminism, and changing attitudes among the
intelligentsia about the role and place of religion plays no small part in
this conception of a new birth for the Theravada women's order.
The Buddha predicted when the bhikkhuni order was created that its creation would shorten the span of time when the true Dhamma would remain in the world. The memory of this statement in the Vinaya Pitaka is, to some, the single most important reason why the order should not be reinstated. But other reasons are prominent as well.
All too often, opposition to the creation of a new Theravada women's order
to fill the role of the bhikkhuni Sangha is seen as solely a product of
male chauvinism, both Eastern and Western. Many view this opposition,
particularly from existing religious institutions and prominent Theravada
monks, as an attempt by a male-dominated power structure to keep its monopoly
on religious life. Certainly, the defense of a male-centered status quo in
modern Theravada countries has played a part in opposition to the ordination
of new Theravada nuns.
There are very obvious reasons why those members of
the Sangha (largely in high places) who have their minds focused somewhere
other than dhyana might object to or fear the creation of a women's
order. The creation of such an order, if it were to become popular, would
possibly threaten the material security of the male Sangha. If gifts to a
women's order were seen as being every bit as beneficial to merit-minded
upasikas as gifts to the monk's order, than the donations on which the Sangha
survives could easily be split. As developing countries become more enamoured
of the Western mode of living, a decline in religious giving could prove
disastrous, particularly if paired with new outlets for donations.
Additionally, most members of the higher levels of institutional Sanghas
are aware that their own houses aren't exactly in order. Recent scandals in
the Thai clergy, and the potentially sullying effect of ongoing monastic
involvement in the civil war in Sri Lanka have made the religious public
more aware then ever before of the corruption and laxity that has developed in
the modern Sangha. In the past, when awareness of corruption rises to a high
enough level, reformist revival movements have arisen, sometimes without the
approval of the official sanctifying bodies. These movements, though
generally short lived, can quickly draw the attention, and thus material
support, of lay followers. In several publicized cases in Sri Lanka,
some institutional monks had their livelihoods cut off, and were nearly forced
to choose between starvation and disrobing (not like that, silly) when the
local laity decided that groups of self-ordained sanyasins were more moral
and 'holy' than the village priests. A newly born women's order, populated by
devout and sincere believers, and free of the taint of institutional graft and
corruption, has the potential to repeat this phenomenon in areas where the
leaders of the clergy may already feel that things are getting a bit out of
control. While long-standing public perceptions of the relative merit of
gifts to men as opposed to women might severely curtail this possibility, the
early support for the Sri Lankan Dasa Sil Matavo shows that it is not entirely
outside the realm of possibility.
In the end, however, while these material and social reasons for leaders of
the Sangha to oppose the creations of a Theravada women's order may loom large
in the minds of some, if not most monks and lay followers who oppose the
charting of a new bhikkhuni lineage, they are not the only barriers to a
viable, authentic bhikkhuni lineage. Indeed, there are prominent monks and
scholars who oppose the creation of a new bhikkhuni order who could hardly be
accused of being male chauvinists- themselves having worked to improve the
status and perception of women in Buddhist countries.
One problem is that there simply may not be enough support, from men or
women, to create such an order. While many monastic institutions are
flourishing in Southeast Asia, the recent economic crisis and the growth of
other things to spend money on means that there may not be a chance for a
'new product' like a women's order to make it in the merit economy. Keep in
mind, no living Buddhist lay believer has ever seen a 'real' Theravada nun.
Most likely, they would be dismissed as another lay order, like the Mae Ji,
and subject to limited support. Worse yet, they could be perceived as
imposters- a crime in many Theravada nations.
Furthermore, there is some question as to whether Buddhist women,
particularly in Asia, are interested in the type of order that the reformers
envision. Many current Mae Ji and Dasa Sil Matavo are from agricultural or
working class families. They may have joined the lay order for tragic
reasons- being widowed, unable to afford marriage, or unmarriageable (in middle
and upper class Thai families, for instance, while it is still looked upon as
an honor to have a monk in the family, having a daughter become a Mae Ji can
be seen as an indication that the girl was in some way unfit to be married,
and can be a dishonor). Many current Mae Ji and other women see their choice
of lifestyle as a means of personal religious development, and are not
interested in the agenda of social work and public service that many Western
reformers present. To these women, serving monks means that are cultivating
religious merit; to become as the reformers want is to be a bald, robed social
worker- a nice thing to do, but with no special religious status.
The last and most troublesome question for many monks, and for students of
the Pali Canon, is that of legitimacy. While the lineage of East Asian
nuns, the often mentioned transplant candidate for the creation of a new
bhikkhuni lineage, may stretch back to the Buddha, no one can deny that there
are serious differences between the teachings and practices of these orders
and the historical Theravada bhikkhunis, not to mention modern Theravada
monks. Mahayana nuns subscribe to a monastic code quite different from the
one employed by Theravada monks, and, in their day, Theravada nuns. In many
cases, the Mahayana codes are, by Theravada standards, more lenient and
liberal. Critics ask how any new order could claim equality with the
Theravada monk's order when the standards of conduct between the two differ so
For any new order to be accepted as authentic by these critics, it would have
to adopt for itself a monastic code as strict as that of the historic bhikkhunis,
or at least one more closely comparable to the rule of modern Theravada monks. But,
in the Theravada, the practice of a code of discipline is much more than
simply knowing the rules, or being able to look them up on Access to
Insight. To be a monk, by the standards held both today and in the past, one must
be personally instructed and cautioned in each element of the code that one is
to follow. There must be more senior monks present to observe, teach, and
correct the new learner. While standing female monastic orders in Taiwan
and elsewhere would be able to instruct new bhikkhuni candidates in the tenets
of their own monastic regulations, there exists no way to provide adequate
instruction in those areas of the bhikkhuni code where Theravada rules are
more strict or otherwise differ from those of Mahayana orders.
While male members of the Theravada Sangha could potentially supplement
learning in these areas, restrictions on interaction between male and female
mendicants make this difficult. Because of standards of propriety in the
monastic code, monks can not be left alone with female mendicants.
Furthermore, without living examples to embody the Vinaya of the Theravada
bhikkhunis, it may be impossible to pass down the manner in which these rules
were actually lived by their practitioners.
Needless to say, any movement that purports to re-establish a Theravada
bhikkhuni lineage has significant hurdles to overcome. Popular support,
legal problems, and the standards of legitimacy established by the Pali
Canon all must all be reconciled if any modern movement is to stand a
Conclusion: What's With Them Funny Rules Anyway?
Of all of the issues that surround the Theravada bhikkhuni tradition, and
the tradition of Buddhist female renunciants generally, among the most
troublesome for Western observers are the statements and regulations
purportedly made by the Buddha himself regarding the status of women. While
seeming to maintain publicly the equality of males and females with regard to
spiritual achievement and potential for enlightenment, the regulations of
the monastic codes and certain statements made in the suttas seems to
contradict this notion. In addition to the eight rules specified above, the detailed monastic code of the Theravada nuns is far more strict than that of the monks- with a number of additional rules and regulations not covered by the eight principles above. Several lines of thought attempt to explain this
- The Buddha didn't really say any of these things. There are some who
chose to believe that statements and rules that seem to lower the status of
women relative to men were not made by the Buddha, but rather were added by
later Buddhists seeking to preserve or establish a justification for male
supremacy within both the religious and secular world. This position is hard
to either assail or defend from a scholastic point of view. Most scholars of
the Tipitaka feel that the rules regarding women are of the same vintage as
the remainder of similarly dateable entries in the Canon. While enough time
elapsed between the death of the Buddha and the commitment of the suttas to
writing that it is certainly possible that such elements were inserted later,
there is little or no way for such a determination to be made.
- The Buddha's statements reflect his society. Those inclined to see
the Buddha not as a supernatural or preternatural being, but rather as a human
sage and teacher are often partial to the notion that elements of the
Buddha's teaching must have reflected aspects of the society in which he lived
and taught, just as our own teachings and philosophy reflect their culture of
origin. Along these lines, subscribers to this notion reason that despite his
obvious insight into human nature and psychology, the Buddha was not immune to
the chauvinistic notions of his time. As such, he created a religious body
which was, though certainly in many ways revolutionary with regard to its
stand on caste and other issues, ultimately a product and reflection of the
society of the Indian sub-continent during the 4th or 5th Century
- The rules were designed to protect women. With respect to certain
rules of the bhikkhuni Vinaya, this theory seems to stand up. Because of
their poverty and wandering lifestyles, monks and nuns were often exposed to
the potential dangers of often unsettled regions of the world. While monks
were often seen as being immune to all but natural dangers (as there was
nothing to be gained from attacking a monk, who most likely carried little
more than enough food to keep himself alive for a day or so, and few other
possessions), nuns were perceived of as being at risk from the sexual predation
of bandits and ruffians. Because bhikkhuni had no family to protect them,
rules were established that restricted female renunciants relative to men, but
ultimately reduced the likelihood that they would be the victims of such
attacks. Thus, women were forbidden from traveling alone, and were required
to live during vassa at a location that was relatively close to the
residence of the monks.
- These rules were created not as a reflection of contemporary society,
but rather for its benefit. Those who hold that enlightened beings are
capable of rising above their societal origins may be inclined to believe
that these seemingly unfair rules were created for the benefit of the
surrounding society, rather than to restrict women. Buddhist teachings have
long held that the gift of the Dhamma is the most precious in the world- but
that the minds of most humans are incapable of grasping it. Therefore, all
steps must be taken to ensure that people's minds are not turned away from the
Dhamma. In the context of 5th Century India, as today, part of this process
is ensuring that the Sangha maintains its level of respect among the people.
To this end, there are a number of rules in the monks code that go much
farther than necessary in enforcing discipline among the monks. Rules such as
these- such as prohibiting a monk from being left alone with a woman-
certainly reduce the chance for temptation. But in addition, they prohibit
the possibility of a situation arising in which a monks respectability will be
questioned- even if he has stuck strictly to his vows. So instead of merely
prohibiting sexual contact between the genders, a monk or nun is prohibited
from all physical contact with the opposite sex. Why have people wondering
about the propriety of each and every touch when the issue can be put to
Just so, in the case of the Indian societies at the time of the Buddha, a
Sangha that openly flouted sexual standards of the day might loose the support
of the public- halting the Sangha's existence, and denying the people a chance
to learn the dharma. So, the Sangha must- to greater and lesser degrees-
reflect the sexual politics of the society around them. So female renunciants
are required to make gestures that maintain the appearance of the sexual
hierarchy of the greater society. Women can still study the dhamma, learn
from any teacher, and be teachers of both men and women themselves. And for
enlightened beings, it should be little matter who they do and don't bow to.
The women of the Buddha's Sangha know the truth- that they have the same
potential for learning and enlightenment as men. If, for the benefit of the
greater society's regard for the Sangha, and so their receptiveness to the
Dhamma, females must maintain the appearance that the sexual hierarchy of the
outside world is maintained within the Sangha, then so be it.
This explanation alse gives some light to the Buddha's statement following the ordination of Mahaprajapati that the Dhamma would not last as long in the world since a woman's order had been established. While there is nothing about the ordination of women that is of itself irreligious, it is rather that social perceptions of the practical institution of the Sangha were altered by the establishment of the women's order.
Of course, none of this explains away completely the distinctions made between women
and men within the records of the Buddhist Sangha in the Theravada world and
elsewhere. Nor does it constitute a justification of the gender politics of
Buddhist societies and nations. Issues of religion and gender, as seen in the life and
death of the bhikkhuni order and the movements that have followed it, are here
to stay for Buddhism, as they are for all of the world's religions.