Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Chanting English text to Chinese melodies during a novice ordination at Sravasti Abbey.
A Brief History of Bhikshunis
by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron
Several years after the monks’ order was established in India in the sixth century BCE the Buddha set up the nuns’ order. Three levels of ordination exist for nuns: sramanerika (novice), siksamana (probationary), and bhikshuni (full ordination). These are taken gradually in order to prepare and accustom one to keep the full precepts and to assume responsibility for the well-being and continuation of the monastic community. One becomes a bhikshuni by taking the ordination from those who have received it; thus the existence of the bhikshuni ordination lineage is important, for in this way, the purity of the transmission is traced back to the Buddha himself. Women are to receive bhikshuni ordination from a community of at least ten bhikshunis, and, at a separate ceremony later the same day, from a community of at least ten bhiksus (fully ordained monks). In lands where such a large number of monastics does not exist, communities of five can give the ordination.
The bhikshuni lineage flourished in ancient India and in the third century BCE spread to Sri Lanka. From there it went to China in the fourth century CE, when the first bhikshuni ordination was given by a bhiksu sangha alone. The first dual ordination of bhikshunis in China occurred in 433. Due to warfare and political problems, the lineage died out in both India and Sri Lanka in the eleventh century CE., although it continued to spread throughout China and to Korea and Vietnam.
Regarding bhikshunis in Tibet, there are various views. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that the great Indian abbot Santaraksita brought bhiksus to Tibet to give the bhiksu ordination in the late eighth century, but he did not bring bhikshunis and thus the bhikshuni ordination was not given in Tibet. However, some Kargyu and Nyingma lamas say the bhikshuni ordination was lost in Tibet during the persecution of Buddhism by King Langdarma in the ninth century. In any case, the bhikshuni lineage was not established in Tibet after that due to the difficulties of crossing the Himalayan Mountains. A sufficient number of Indian bhikshunis did not go to Tibet, nor did a sufficient number of Tibetan women go to India to take the ordination and return to Tibet to pass it on to others. However, there are historical records of a few bhikshunis in Tibet receiving their ordination from the bhiksu sangha alone, although that never took hold in Tibet.
While several Buddhist countries have lacked a sangha of fully ordained nuns, they have novice nuns who have ten precepts or “nuns” with eight precepts. Monks in the Tibetan tradition give women the sramanerika ordination. The bhikshuni ordination was never extant in Thailand. In Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia women generally receive eight precepts and are known as “maechi” or as “thilashin” in Myanmar. In Sri Lanka they generally receive ten precepts and are called “dasasilmatas.” Although the maechis, thilashin, and dasasilmatas live in celibacy and wear robes demarcating them as religious women, their precepts are not regarded as any of the three Pratimoksa ordinations for women. However, this has begun to change.
In recent developments, monastics of the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya1 school together with Theravadin monks have helped to re-introduce the full ordination in the Theravada tradition, and bhikkhunis have established communities in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and in the West. (See this issue's lead article, "State of the Bhikkhunis" by Ayya Tathaaloka.) While the Asian nuns often face challenges, they are also finding growing acceptance and support. In the Tibetan tradition, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa has begun to prepare Tibetan nuns for bhikshuni ordination in conjunction with Taiwanese nuns of the Dharmaguptaka lineage, and some Western nuns in the Tibetan tradition have received bhikshuni ordination in the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya lineage.2
1 Vinaya includes the ethical discipline, precepts, and rules of training for the monastic community and the texts that explain these. The Dharmaguptika is the Vinaya school of the Sanskrit tradition predominantly practiced in China, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam through which the bhikshuni lineage has continued since the Buddha's time.
2 Adapted from the Commiteee for Bhikshuni Ordination website where you can read an expanded explanation of the issues and find additional resources.
Venerable Thubten Chodron is an author, teacher, and the founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey, the first Tibetan Buddhist training monastery for Western nuns and monks in the US. She graduated from UCLA and did graduate work in education at USC. Ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun in 1977, she has studied extensively with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tsenzhap Serkong Rinpoche, and Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche among many others. She received full ordination as a bhikshuni in 1986.
Ven. Chodron teaches worldwide and is known for her practical (and humorous!) explanations of how to apply Buddhist teachings in daily life. She is also involved in prison outreach and interfaith dialogue. She has published many books on Buddhist philosophy and meditation, and is currently co-authoring with His Holiness the Dalai Lama a multi-volume series of teachings on the Buddhist path, The Library of Wisdom and Compassion. The first volume, Approaching the Buddhist Path, was released in 2017. Visit http://thubtenchodron.org for a media library of her teachings, and http://sravasti.org to learn more about Sravasti Abbey.