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Ordination of women in Buddhism

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The ordination of women in Buddhism is currently and historically practiced in some Buddhist regions, such as East Asia and Taiwan, and now once again in India and Sri Lanka.

Ordained monastic community

The tradition of the ordained monastic community (sangha) began with the Buddha, who established an order of Bhikkhus (monks).[1] According to the scriptures,[2] later, after an initial reluctance, he also established an order of Bhikkhunis (nuns or women monks). However, according to the scriptural account, not only did the Buddha lay down more rules of discipline for the bhikkhunis (311 compared to the bhikkhu's 227 in the Theravada version), he also made it more difficult for them to be ordained, and made them subordinate to monks.

According to Peter Harvey "The Buddha's apparent hesitation on this matter is reminiscent of his hesitation on whether to teach at all", something he only does after persuasion from various devas.[3] Since the special rules for female monastics were given by the founder of Buddhism they have been upheld to this day. Buddhists nowadays are still concerned with that fact, as shows an International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha held at the University of Hamburg, Germany, in 2007.

Historicity of the account

The historicity of this account has been questioned,[4] sometimes to the extent of regarding nuns as a later invention.[5] The stories, sayings and deeds of a substantial number of the preeminent Bhikkhuni disciples of the Buddha as well as numerous distinguished bhikkhunis of early Buddhism are recorded in many places in the Pali Canon, most notably in the Therigatha and Theri Apadana as well as the Anguttara Nikaya and Bhikkhuni Samyutta. Additionally the ancient bhikkhunis feature in the Sanskrit Avadana texts and the first Sri Lankan Buddhist historical chronicle, the Dipavamsa, itself speculated to be authored by the Sri Lankan Bhikkhuni Sangha.

Tradition in South and East Asia

The tradition flourished for centuries throughout South and East Asia, but appears to have lapsed in the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka in the 11th century C.E.[6] It survived in Burma to about the 13th century, but died out there too.[7] Although it is commonly said to have never been introduced to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia or Tibet, there is substantial historical evidence to the contrary, especially in Thailand. However, the Mahayana tradition, in China, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and Hong Kong, has retained the practice, where nuns are called 'Bhikṣuṇī' (the Sanskrit equivalent of the Pali 'Bhikkhuni').

Recent developments

The International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha: Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages took place in Germany, on July 18–20, 2007.

Sri Lanka

There have been some attempts in recent years to revive the tradition of women in the sangha within Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, with many women ordained in Sri Lanka since 1996.[8] Some of these were carried out with the assistance of nuns from the East Asian tradition;[9] others were carried out by Theravada monks alone.[10] Since 2005, many have been ordained by the head of the Dambulla chapter of the Siyam Nikaya in Sri Lanka.[10]


In 1928, the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, responding to the attempted ordination of two women, issued an edict that monks must not ordain women as samaneris (novices), sikkhamanas (probationers) or bhikkhunis.[11] The two women were reportedly arrested and jailed briefly. In a more recent challenge to the Thai sangha's ban on women, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, previously a professor of Buddhist philosophy known as Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, was controversially ordained as first a novice and then a bhikkhuni in Sri Lanka in 2003 upon the revival of the full ordination of women there.[12] Since then, the Thai Senate has reviewed and revoked the secular law banning women's full ordination in Buddhism as unconstitutional for being counter laws protecting freedom of religion. Currently, more than 20 further Thai women have followed in Dhammananda Bhikkhuni's footsteps, with temples, monasteries and meditations centers led by Thai bhikkhunis emerging in Samut Sakhon, Chiang Mai and Rayong. The stance of the Thai Sangha heirarchy has largely changed from one of denial of the existence of bhikkhunis to one of acceptance of bhikkhunis as of foreign (non-Thai) traditions. However Thailand's two main Theravada Buddhist orders, the Mahanikaya and Dhammayutika Nikaya, have yet to officially accept fully ordained women into their ranks. Despite substantial and growing support inside the religious hierarchy, sometimes fierce opposition to the ordination of women within the sangha remains.


The governing council of Burmese Buddhism has ruled that there can be no valid ordination of women in modern times, though some Burmese monks disagree.[13]

Tibetan tradition

The Dalai Lama has authorized followers of the Tibetan tradition to be ordained as nuns in traditions that have such ordination.

According to Thubten Chodron, the current Dalai Lama has said on this issue:[14]

  1. In 2005, the Dalai Lama repeatedly spoke about the bhikshuni ordination in public gatherings. In Dharamsala, he encouraged, "We need to bring this to a conclusion. We Tibetans alone can't decide this. Rather, it should be decided in collaboration with Buddhists from all over the world. Speaking in general terms, were the Buddha to come to this 21st century world, I feel that most likely, seeing the actual situation in the world now, he might change the rules somewhat...."
  2. Later, in Zurich during a 2005 conference of Tibetan Buddhist Centers, His Holiness said, "Now I think the time has come; we should start a working group or committee" to meet with monks from other Buddhist traditions. Looking at the German bhikshuni, Ven. Jampa Tsedroen, he instructed, "I prefer that Western Buddhist nuns carry out this work…Go to different places for further research and discuss with senior monks (from various Buddhist countries). I think, first, senior bhikshunis need to correct the monks' way of thinking.
  3. "This is the 21st century. Everywhere we are talking about equality….Basically Buddhism needs equality. There are some really minor things to remember as a Buddhist--a bhikshu always goes first, then a bhikshuni….The key thing is the restoration of the bhikshuni vow."

Alexander Berzin referred to the Dalai Lama having said on occasion of the 2007 Hamburg congress

Sometimes in religion there has been an emphasis on male importance. In Buddhism, however, the highest vows, namely the bhikshu and bhikshuni ones, are equal and entail the same rights. This is the case despite the fact that in some ritual areas, due to social custom, bhikshus go first. But Buddha gave the basic rights equally to both sangha groups. There is no point in discussing whether or not to revive the bhikshuni ordination; the question is merely how to do so properly within the context of the Vinaya.
taken from Berzin Summary Report [15]

See also


  1. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (Volume One), page 352
  2. Book of the Discipline, Pali Text Society, volume V, Chapter X
  3. Harvey, Peter (2000). An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge University Press. pp. 384. ISBN 9780521556408. 
  4. Routledge Encyclopedia of Buddhism, page 822
  5. Nakamura, Indian Buddhism, Kansai University of Foreign Studies, Hirakata, Japan, 1980, reprinted Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1987, 1989, pages 57-9, point (6)
  6. Buddhist Studies Review, volume 24.2, page 229
  7. id, page 229
  8. Buddhist Studies Review, volume 24.2, page 227
  9. id, page 227
  10. 10.0 10.1 id, page 228
  11. id, page 230
  12. id, pages 230f
  13. id, page 234
  14. A New Possibility: Introducing Full Ordination for Women into the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition
  15. [1]

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