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Barbara O'Brien

Bhikkhunis and the Buddha

By September 21, 2011

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An article in the Christian Science Monitor from a few days ago reminds us of the discrimination nuns face in Thailand. The Thai Buddhist establishment does not allow women to be ordained. But the article says there are 25 Thai bhikkhunis, ordained in Sri Lanka, who are trying to get legal recognition of their status.

Monks get free public transportation, including reserved bus seats, and government funds to support their temples. Nuns get nothing from the government, and their temples are not considered "real" temples.  This isn't just a matter of injustice. In the Thai monastic sangha a monk may not be alone with a woman or touch her at all, and lay women have a lot of issues they don't want to talk to a man about. There is a huge need for ordained women who can minister to other women.

One of the nuns involved in this effort says they are trying to remain low-key and respectful. Their request must be about the Buddha's teaching, not women's empowerment. So let's talk about that.

First, I don't think anyone denies the Buddha ordained women. As I understand it, the loophole used by the Thai Buddhist establishment is that, according to the Vinaya, fully ordained nuns must be present at the ordination of nuns. And since the Thai nuns' orders died out centuries ago, new nuns may not be ordained.

The article doesn't say why the Thai sangha would not respect an ordination in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan and Thai Buddhists are both Theravada, and as far as I know they follow exactly the same version of the Vinaya. However, I understand nun's ordinations in Sri Lanka were revived by importing Chinese Mahayana nuns for the ordinations, so perhaps the Thai establishment does not consider the ordinations legitimate.

According to the Pali Canon, the Buddha was reluctant to ordain women and had to be cajoled into the first ordination of Buddhist nuns by his cousin, Ananda. Then the Buddha predicted that allowing women into the Sangha would cause his teachings to survive only 500 years instead of a 1,000. In addition, he gave eight "grave rules," or Garudhammas, for nuns to follow that seem mostly designed to keep the nuns subordinate to monks.

For centuries, and to the present day, scholars have debated about the Buddha's attitude toward nuns. Some conclude he was trying to protect the nuns; other say he was a man of his culture, so what do you expect? But there is another explanation.

There is a new theory that the story about the first ordination was not in the original Pali text, but added later. As I understand it, the basic argument is that at the time of the first ordination, of the Buddha's aunt Pajapati, Ananda would have been a small boy. It is also noted that the story does not appear in any version of the sutras preserved in languages other than Pali.

I've been told the latter also is true of the Garudhammas  -- that they appear only in the Pali Vinaya, not in other early records of the Vinaya that were preserved in other languages. So it is possible these parts of the Pali text were not in the original teachings of the Buddha, but were added later.

It's been only relatively recently that historians with no particular sectarian axe to grind have been looking at the role of women in early Buddhism. I don't know if long-standing ideas about the status of women in early Buddhism are being radically challenged, but they could be.

September 22, 2011 at 1:30 am
(1) Petteri Sulonen says:

Jayarava discusses this in his blog here. It’s about a few verses where the Buddha gave Bhadda, a Jain woman, the higher ordination with no conditions, complications, or expected negative repercussions. He says that textual evidence indicates that these verses are a great deal older than the famous ones describing Pajapati’s ordination.

This would very much support the theory you cite, that the discrimination against women would have been added to the canon later on, as it was written down, with perhaps passages like the one about Bhadda being removed, but this one somehow slipping through the net.

September 22, 2011 at 10:35 am
(2) Mila says:

Thanks for that link, Petteri. I’m not a historian, but can say that I found Jayrava’s presentation fascinating, and that it rang deeply true, at an intuitive level.

To the extent that written Buddhist scriptures have, over the centuries, been transmitted by countless not-fully-enlightened beings, it makes perfect sense that — despite all efforts at purity & authenticity of translation — various cultural prejudices would have crept in.

September 22, 2011 at 4:28 pm
(3) Petteri Sulonen says:

Yes, it did ring true to me too. I always found that bit about Pajapati and the 500 years odd, for many reasons besides the obvious one.

September 22, 2011 at 6:17 pm
(4) Phra Ajahn Bill says:

It’s interesting to note, that Ajahn Brahm of Australia, got in a whole lot of trouble for ordaining some nuns down there. His temple is a so called satellite temple of Ajahn Chah’s and his temple was stricken from the rolls. There are many Thai monks who don’t particularly like Ajahn Brahm. They don’t like his casual attitude. I don’t think he cares whether they like him or not. :-)

September 22, 2011 at 8:13 pm
(5) rz65j8 says:

Take a look at the Fo Guang Shan Monastery in Taiwan, they have over 200 temples worldwide, and many abbesses.
They treated male, female equally and many outstanding female Venerable; some even have PhD degree from Harvard, Yale.

They have temples in LA (Hsi_Lai temple, the largest), NY (Flushing), Orlando, Miami, Austin, San Diago, San Fransisco, and more.

Some English sites to find out more, and know there is hope for female wishes to become Buddhist nun.


September 22, 2011 at 11:05 pm
(6) Bodhicitta says:

One important thing deserved to notify is that the Shakyamuni Buddha and the past Buddha belonged to the Samanas clan who believed in the equality of Enlightenment, regardless of gender. there are many Bikkhunis and lay women who attained Arahanship during the Buddha time. it goes without saying that the prejudice of man and woman in Theravada is a later addition!

September 23, 2011 at 7:38 am
(7) David says:

The argument that patriarchal attitudes are a later addition to Buddhist thought, that layers of patriarchy were laid upon a more egalitarian foundation, is echoed by similar arguments concerning Judeo/Christain/Muslim traditions. One thinks of strong women such as the prophet Miriam in the Bible and her band of women prophets, Fatima daughter of Muhammet, Mary Magdalene and other such figures. Such claims seem to look for authority in history–women were equal to men in the original religion, or at the very least were powerful, and so they should be equal to men now. But I wonder if that is all beside the point, especially in a religion such as Buddhism that does not involve absolute commandments. The question is simply what is to be done right now. In our world now, it should be a given that men and women have equal rights. What did or did not happen before is immaterial.

September 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm
(8) Mila says:

RE: “The question is simply what is to be done right now. In our world now, it should be a given that men and women have equal rights. What did or did not happen before is immaterial.”

I’m in general agreement with this, David — though to the extent that this kind of inequality has become institutionalized, the issue of how exactly to go about the transformation can be a tricky one. The conflict mentioned by Phra Ajahn Bill — around the decision by an Australian Theravada sangha to go through with a Bhikkhuni ordination — is a case in point.

Ajahn Amaro offers his take on the situation in one of his “non-contention” talks. From what I understand, the issue wasn’t entirely or even primarily one of agreement vs. disagreement with the general principle of gender equality in relation to ordination — but rather had more to do with the fact that Ajahn Brahm decided to go ahead with the ordination without first opening communicating this intention with the larger sangha. His reasoning was that he felt certain that the request would be denied, and so — in a “revolutionary” spirit — just did it.

So here’s a case in which one aspect of “right action” or “Buddhist ethics” was defined in terms of appropriate ways of conducting oneself, in the context of a particular institution, i.e. the larger sangha. In relation to this set of rules, Ajahn Brahm was found (probably correctly) to be guilty of acting very unskillfully — even though he was (IMO) “right” in relation to the larger issue at hand.

Ajahn Amaro spoke quite humorously and poignantly about what it was like, for members of their larger sangha — who generally speaking had previously felt very proud to be associated with the teachings of the welll-loved & respected Ajahn Cha — to suddenly find themselves being designated as “those evil mysogynist Theravadin monks.”

September 24, 2011 at 2:05 pm
(9) Bodhicitta says:

David, when something has become tradition and culture, without concerning the root of the past it is impossible to change present. until and unless you uproot the tradition with valid reason, you could not change the situation of present! without history there is no present!

October 6, 2011 at 11:29 am
(10) Bodhicitta says:

David, what do you mean by immaterial???? Do you think that reasoning should be proven with evidence as clearly as a cup on table? But remember that Buddhist reasoning is that the table is not a table, a cup is not cup. but a cup is also a table and the whole universe!

September 23, 2011 at 11:47 am
(11) Cuong says:

It’s time for the Thai people to wake up. I grew up in South Vietnam and I saw with my own eyes the numerous temples headed by nuns. Some of these nuns commanded hundreds of followers many males among them.

Our mothers are women.

September 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm
(12) Nalinaksha Mutsuddi says:

It is sad that in Buddhism there exists discrimination between sexes. No doubt, nuns were there during Buddha’s time also, but they were always relegated to an inferior status. The current Thai practice is worse.

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