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Translations of
English: nun
Pali: bhikkhunī
Sanskrit: bhikṣuṇī
Burmese: ဘိက္ခုနီ
(IPA: [beiʔkʰṵnì])
Chinese: 比丘尼
Japanese: 比丘尼/尼
(rōmaji: bikuni/ama)
Korean: 비구니
(RR: biguni)
Thai: ภิกษุณี[pʰiksuniː])
Vietnamese: Tỉ-khâu-ni
Glossary of Buddhism
A Taiwanese bhikṣuṇī, a member of the Dharmaguptaka ordination lineage.
A high-ranking bhikṣuṇī in the Chinese Buddhist tradition during an alms round.
Full bhikṣuṇī ordination is common in the Dharmaguptaka lineage. Vesak, Taiwan

A bhikkhunī (Pali) or bhikṣuṇī (Sanskrit) is a fully ordained female monastic in Buddhism. Male monastics are called bhikkhus. Both bhikkhunis and bhikkhus live by the Vinaya, a set of rules. Until recently, the lineages of female monastics only remained in Mahayana Buddhism and thus are prevalent in countries such as Korea, Vietnam, China, and Taiwan but a few women have taken the full monastic vows in the Theravada and Vajrayana schools over the last decade.

In Buddhism, women are as capable of reaching nirvana as men. According to Buddhist scriptures, the order of bhikkhunis was first created by the Buddha at the specific request of his aunt and foster-mother Mahapajapati Gotami, who became the first ordained bhikkhuni. A famous work of the early Buddhist schools is the Therigatha, a collection of poems by elder nuns about enlightenment that was preserved in the Pāli Canon.

Bhikkhunis are required to take extra vows, the Eight Garudhammas, and are subordinate to and reliant upon the bhikkhu order. In places where the bhikkhuni lineage was historically missing or has died out, due to hardship, alternative forms of renunciation have developed. In Tibetan Buddhism, women officially take the vows of śrāmaṇerīs (novitiates); Theravadin woman may choose to take an informal and limited set of vows similar to the historical vows of the sāmaṇerī, like the maechi of Thailand and thilashin or Burma.


According to tradition, the bhikkhuni order was established five years after the bhikkhu order of monks at the request of a group of women whose spokesperson was Mahapajapati Gotami, the aunt who raised Gautama Buddha after his mother died.

In Buddhism, women can openly aspire to and practice for the highest level of spiritual attainment. Buddhism is unique among Indian religions in that the Buddha as founder of a spiritual tradition explicitly states in canonical literature that a woman is as capable of nirvana as men and can fully attain all four stages of enlightenment.[1][2] There is no equivalent, in other traditions, of the Therigatha or Apadanas to record the high levels of spiritual attainment by women.[3]

In a similar vein, major canonical Mahayana sutras such as the Lotus Sutra, chapter 12,[4] records 6000 bhikkhuni arhantis receiving predictions of bodhisattvahood and future buddhahood by Gautama Buddha.[4]

The Eight Garudharmas[edit]

Main article: The Eight Garudhammas

Female monastics are required to follow special rules that male monastics do not, the Eight Garudhammas. The origin of the Eight Garudhammas, the special vows taken by female monastics, is unclear. The Buddha is quoted by Thannisaro Bhikkhu as saying, "Ananda, if Mahaprajapati Gotami accepts eight vows of respect, that will be her full ordination (upasampada)."[5] Modern scholars[who?] have shown that this story abounds in textual problems, and cannot possibly be a factual account.[6] According to the scriptural accounts, the reason the Buddha gave for his actions was that admission of women to the sangha would weaken it and shorten its lifetime to 500 years. This prophecy occurs only once in the Canon and is the only prophecy involving time in the Canon.[7]

In Young Chung noticed that society as recorded in the Vinaya always criticized the bhikkhunis more harshly using "shaven headed strumpets or whores", whereas the bhikkhus were simply called "shaven headed". This harsher treatment (which also included rape and assault) of bhikkhunis by society required greater protection. Within these social conditions, Gautama Buddha opened up new horizons for women by founding the bhikkhuni sangha. This social and spiritual advancement for women was ahead of the times and, therefore, drew many objections from men, including bhikkhus. He was probably well aware of the controversy that would be caused by the harassment of his female disciples."[8]

The Vinaya does not allow for any power-based relationship between the monks and nuns. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni wrote:

Nuns at the time of the Buddha had equal rights and an equal share in everything. In one case, eight robes were offered to both sanghas at a place where there was only one nun and four monks. The Buddha divided the robes in half, giving four to the nun and four to the monks, because the robes were for both sanghas and had to be divided equally however many were in each group. Because the nuns tended to receive fewer invitations to lay-people's homes, the Buddha had all offerings brought to the monastery and equally divided between the two sanghas. He protected the nuns and was fair to both parties. They are subordinate in the sense of being younger sisters and elder brothers, not in the sense of being masters and slaves."[9]

Scholars such as Akira Hirakawa,[10] Hae-ju Chun and In Young-chun argue that these eight rules were added later. In notes:

  1. there is a discrepancy between the Pali bhikkhuni Vinaya
  2. the fact that these same rules are treated only as a minor offense (requiring only confession as expiation) in the pāyantika dharmas.

Hae-ju Chun, a Bhikṣunī and assistant professor at Tongguk University in Seoul, Korea, argues that six of the Eight Rules (#1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8)

belong to the Bhikṣunī Pāyantika Dharmas, as they are the same as or similar to rules found there. We may compare the differences in the punishment for any offense of the Eight Rules with that for an offense of the pāyantika dharmas. Violation of any of the Eight Rules means that women cannot be ordained. The Eight Rules must be observed throughout the Bhikṣunīs lives. However, the pāyantika dharmas (#175, 145, 124 or 126, 141, 143, 142) require only confession, as there offenses of bhikunis are considered to be violations of minor rules. Based on the differences in the gravity of offenses between the Eight Rules and the pāyantika dharmas, she also asserts the probability that the Eight Rules might have been added later.[8]

Most of these rules are also found in the pāyantika dharmas as minor rules since they only require confession: "Theriya tradition, which at some stage, seems to have accommodated the idea that the Buddha conceded the abrogation of the minor rules [D.II.14 & VIn.II.287]".[11] This agrees with the fact that rival groups such as Jainism also had the first rule for women according to the Śvētāmbara school.[12] (The other surviving Jain school, the Digambara, denies both women's ordination and liberation.)

Ian Astley argues that under the conditions of society where there is such great discrimination and threat to women, Buddha could not be blamed for the steps he took in trying to secure the Sangha from negative public opinion:

In those days (and this still applies to much of present Indian society) a woman who had left the life of the household would otherwise have been regarded more or less as a harlot and subjected to the appropriate harassment. By being formally associated with the monks, the nuns were able to enjoy the benefits of leaving the household life without incurring immediate harm. Whilst it is one thing to abhor, as any civilized person must do, the attitudes and behavior towards women which underlie the necessity for such protection, it is surely misplaced to criticize the Buddha and his community for adopting this particular policy.[8]

Becoming a Bhikkhuni[edit]

The progression to ordination as a bhikkhuni is taken in four steps. A layperson takes the Five Precepts. The next step is to enter the pabbajja (Sanskrit: pravrajya) or monastic way of life, which includes wearing the monastic's robes. After that, one can become a śrāmaṇerī or "novitiate". The last and final step is to take the full vows of a bhikkhuni.

The Fourteen Precepts of the Order of Interbeing[edit]

The Order of Interbeing, established in 1964 and associated with the Plum Village movement, has fourteen precepts observed by all monastics.[13] They were written by Thích Nhất Hạnh. In an interview, Chân Không described his approach:

In Plum Village, the Eight Observations of Respect that nuns have to observe towards Buddhist monks are not observed, as Nhat Hanh claims they were invented only to help the stepmother of the Buddha, and that one need only keep Nhat Hanh's 14 precepts properly. That's all. But of course he doesn't despise the traditional precepts. And I can accept them just to give joy to the monks who practice in the traditional way. If I can give them joy, I will have a chance to share my insights about women with them, and then they will be unblocked in their understanding.[14]

Bhikkhunis in Theravada Buddhism[edit]

The traditional appearance of Theravadan bhikkhunis is nearly identical to that of male monks, including a shaved head, shaved eyebrows and saffron robes. In some countries, nuns wear dark chocolate robes or sometimes the same colour as monks. In the Theravada tradition, some scholars believe that the bhikkhuni lineage became extinct in the 11th to 13th centuries and that no new bhikkhunis could be ordained since there were no bhikkhunis left to give ordination. For this reason, the leadership of the Theravada bhikkhu Sangha in Burma and Thailand deem fully ordained bhikkhunis as impossible. "Equal rights for men and women are denied by the Ecclesiastical Council. No woman can be ordained as a Theravada Buddhist nun or bhikkhuni in Thailand. The Council has issued a national warning that any monk who ordains female monks will severely punished."[15] Based on the spread of the bhikkhuni lineage to countries like China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Japan and Sri Lanka, other scholars support ordination of Theravadan bhikkhunis.[16]

Without ordination available to them, women traditionally voluntarily take limited vows to live as renunciates. These women attempt to lead a life following the teachings of the Buddha. They observe 8–10 precepts, but do not follow exactly the same codes as bhikkhunis. They receive popular recognition for their role. But they are not granted official endorsement or the educational support offered to monks. Some cook while others practise and teach meditation.[17][18][19][20][21][22]

White or pink robes are worn by Theravadan women renunciates who are not fully ordained. These women are known as dasa sil mata in Sri Lankan Buddhism, thilashin in Burmese Buddhism, Maechi in Thai Buddhism, guruma in Nepal and Laos and siladharas at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England.

Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, now known as Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, is a Thai scholar who took bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka and returned to Thailand, where bhikkhuni ordination is forbidden and can result in arrest or imprisonment for a woman.[23] She is considered a pioneer by many in Thailand[24][25]

In 1996, through the efforts of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, the Theravada bhikkhuni order was revived when 11 Sri Lankan women received full ordination in Sarnath, India, in a procedure held by Dodangoda Revata Mahāthera and the late Mapalagama Vipulasāra Mahāthera of the Maha Bodhi Society in India with assistance from monks and nuns of the Jogye Order of Korean Seon.[26] [27][28][29]

The first Theravadan bhikkhuni ordination in Australia was held in Perth, 22 October 2009, at Bodhinyana Monastery. Four nuns from Dhammasara Nun's Monastery, Ajahn Vayama, Nirodha, Seri and Hasapanna, were ordained as bhikkhunis in full accordance with the Pali vinaya.[30]

Re-establishing Bhikkhuni Ordination[edit]

In July 2007 a meeting of Buddhist leaders and scholars of all traditions met at the International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha,[31] in Hamburg, Germany to work toward a worldwide consensus on the re-establishment of bhikshuni ordination. 65 delegates, bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, Vinaya masters and elders from traditional Buddhist countries and Western-trained Buddhologists attended. The Summary Report from the Congress[32] states that all delegates "were in unanimous agreement that Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination should be re-established," and cites the Dalai Lama's full support of bhikkhuni ordination (already in 1987 H. H. XIVth Dalai Lama had demanded the re-establishment of full ordination for nuns in Tibet). The only women's transmission lineage that remains is the Dharmaguptaka one, which is in use in East Asian Buddhism.

The aim of the congress has been rated by the organizers of utmost importance for equality and liberation of Buddhist women (nuns). "The re-establishment of nuns’ ordination in Tibet via H. H. XIVth Dalai Lama and the international monks and nuns sanghas will lead to further equality and liberation of Buddhist women. This is a congress of historical significance which will give women the possibility to teach Buddha’s doctrines worldwide."[33]

To help establish the Bhikshuni Sangha (community of fully ordained nuns) where it does not currently exist has also been declared one of the objectives of Sakyadhita,[34] as expressed at its founding meeting in 1987 in Bodhgaya, India.

In Part Four of Alexander Berzin's Summary Report: Day Three and Final Comments by His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama it is said: "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."[35]

The Eight Garudhammas belong to the context of the Vinaya. Bhikkhuni Kusuma writes: "In the Pali, the eight garudhammas appear in the tenth khandhaka of the Cullavagga." However, they are to be found in the actual ordination process for Bhikkhunis.

The text is not allowed to be studied before ordination. "The traditional custom is that one is only allowed to study the bhikshu or bhikshuni vows after having taken them", Bhikshuni Prof. Dr. Karma Lekshe Tsomo stated during congress while talking about Gender Equality and Human Rights: "It would be helpful if Tibetan nuns could study the bhikshuni vows before the ordination is established. The traditional custom is that one is only allowed to study the bhikshu or bhikshuni vows after having taken them. [36] Ven. Tenzin Palmo is quoted with saying: "To raise the status of Tibetan nuns, it is important not only to re-establish the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination, but also for the new bhikshunis to ignore the eight gurudharmas that have regulated their lower status. These eight, after all, were formulated for the sole purpose of avoiding censure by the lay society. In the modern world, disallowing the re-establishment of the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination and honoring these eight risk that very censure."[37]

According to the Summary Report as well as according to the other texts available from the congress there has not been a discussion on how and which of the eight gurudharmas discriminate against Buddhist nuns and how this can be changed in detail in the process of re-establishing the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination.

In Burma, 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.

In Indonesia, the first Theravada ordination of bhikkhunis in Indonesia after more than a thousand years occurred in 2015 at Wisma Kusalayani in Lembang, Bandung.[38] Those ordained included Vajiradevi Sadhika Bhikkhuni from Indonesia, Medha Bhikkhuni from Sri Lanka, Anula Bhikkhuni from Japan, Santasukha Santamana Bhikkhuni from Vietnam, Sukhi Bhikkhuni and Sumangala Bhikkhuni from Malaysia, and Jenti Bhikkhuni from Australia.[38]

There have been some attempts in recent years to revive the tradition of women in the sangha within Theravada Buddhism in India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, with many women ordained in Sri Lanka since 1996.[39] Some of these were carried out with the assistance of nuns from the East Asian tradition;[40] others were carried out by the Theravada monk's Order alone.[41] Since 2005, many ordination ceremonies for women have been organized by the head of the Dambulla chapter of the Siyam Nikaya in Sri Lanka.[41]

In Thailand, 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. The two women were reportedly arrested and jailed briefly. A 55-year-old Thai Buddhist 8-precept white-robed maechee nun, Varanggana Vanavichayen, became the first woman to receive the going-forth ceremony of a Theravada novice (and the gold robe) in Thailand, in 2002.[42] 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. 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. 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 Thai Senate has reviewed and revoked the secular law passed in 1928 banning women's full ordination in Buddhism as unconstitutional for being counter to laws protecting freedom of religion. The stance of the Thai Sangha hierarchy 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.

In 2010, Ayya Tathaaloka and Bhante Henepola Gunaratana oversaw a dual ordination ceremony at Aranya Bodhi forest refuge in Sonoma County, California where four women became fully ordained nuns in the Theravada tradition.[43]

Discriminating against nuns[edit]

In March 1993 in Dharmasala, Sylvia Wetzel spoke in front of the Dalai Lama and other luminaries to highlight the sexism of Buddhist practices, imagery and teachings.[44] Two senior male monastics vocally supported her, reinforcing her points with their own experiences. Ajahn Amaro, a Theravada bhikkhu of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, said, "Seeing the nuns not receiving the respect given to the monks is very painful. It is like having a spear in your heart".[44]

American Tibetan Buddhist monk Thubten Pende gave his views: "When I translated the texts concerning the ordination ceremony I got such a shock. It said that even the most senior nun had to sit behind the most novice monk because, although her ordination was superior, the basis of that ordination, her body, was inferior. I thought, "There it is." I'd heard about this belief but I'd never found evidence of it. I had to recite this text at the ceremony. I was embarrassed to say it and ashamed of the institution I was representing. I wondered, "Why doesn't she get up and leave?" I would.[45]


The former wife of Buddha—Yasodharā, mother of his son Rāhula, according to legend also became a bhikkhuni and an arahant.


There is the quite famous Therigatha collection of poems call Verses of the Elder Nuns and a less known collection called Discourses of the Ancient Nuns.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ven. Professor Dhammavihari, Women and the religious order of the Buddha
  2. ^ Padmanabh S. Jaini (1991). Gender and Salvation Jaina Debates on the Spiritual Liberation of Women. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-06820-3. this is in contrast to Jain tradition which is always compared to with Buddhism as they emerged almost at the same time, which is non-conclusive in a woman's ability to attain final liberation Digambara makes the opening statement: There is moksa for men only, not for women; #9 The Svetambara answers: There is moksa for women; 
  3. ^ Alice Collett. "BUDDHISM AND GENDER Reframing and Refocusing the Debate". The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. 22.2 (2006): 55–84. A brief digression into comparative analysis should help to illustrate the significance of these central texts. Although it is possible to ascertain (however, unfortunately from just a few references) that women within the Jain śramaṇa tradition possessed similar freedoms to Buddhist women, Jaina literature leaves to posterity no Therīgāthā equivalent. There are also no extant Jain texts from that period to match stories in the Avadānaśataka of women converts who attained high levels of religious experience. Nor is there any equivalent of the forty Apadānas attributed to the nuns who were the Buddha's close disciples. In Brahminism, again, although Stephanie Jamison has eruditely and insightfully drawn out the vicissitudes of the role of women within the Brahmanic ritual of sacrifice, the literature of Brahmanism does not supply us with voices of women from the ancient world, nor with stories of women who renounced their roles in the domestic sphere in favor of the fervent practice of religious observances. 
  4. ^ a b "Lotus Sutra - Chapter 12". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  5. ^ "The Buddhist Monastic Code II: The Khandhaka Rules Translated and Explained". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  6. ^ Bhante Sujato.
  7. ^ Hellmuth Hecker, Ananda The Guardian of the Dhamma
  8. ^ a b c In Young Chung (1999). "A Buddhist View of Women: A Comparative Study of the Rules for Bhikṣunīs and Bhikṣus Based on the Chinese Pràtimokùa" (PDF). Journal of Buddhist Ethics 6: 29–105. Retrieved 2010-11-07. 
  9. ^ Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh The History of the Bhikkhuni Sangha
  10. ^ Hirakawa 1999, p. 37.
  11. ^ Women and the religious order of the Buddha Ven. Professor Dhammavihari
  12. ^ Padmanabh S. Jaini (1991). Gender and Salvation Jaina Debates on the Spiritual Liberation of Women. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-06820-3. 
  13. ^ Order of Interbeing Beginnings (Sister Chân Không, Excerpt form Learning True Love)
  14. ^ Alan Senauke; Susan Moon. "Walking in the Direction of Beauty--An Interview with Sister Chan Khong". The Turning Wheel (Winter 1994). Retrieved 2010-11-30. 
  15. ^ Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 24.2 (2007)
  16. ^ "Theravada". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  17. ^ Thai Forest Tradition. "Thai Forest Tradition". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  18. ^ "Book Review: Mae Chee Kaew: Her Journey to Spiritual Awakening & Enlightenment". Wandering Dhamma. Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  19. ^ "MC Brigitte Schrottenbacher - Meditationteacher Thailand". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  20. ^
  21. ^ "Wat Pa Namtok Khemmako". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  22. ^
  23. ^ "Ordained at Last". Shambala Sun. 2003. Archived from the original on 3 July 2008. Retrieved 21 July 2008. 
  24. ^ "Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh". UCEC. 8 September 2010. Retrieved 15 August 2012. 
  25. ^ "Why We Need Bhikkhunis as Dhamma Teachers". The Buddhist Channel. 5 November 2011. Retrieved 15 August 2012. 
  26. ^ "Bhikkhuni ordination". Dhammawiki (archived). Archived from the original on 23 December 2013. 
  27. ^ Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Revival of Bhikkhuni Ordination in the Theravada Tradition. Dignity and Discipline: Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns. 
  28. ^ Bhikkuni Dr. Kusuma Devendra. "Abstract: Theravada Bhikkhunis". International Congress On Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha. 
  29. ^ Dhammananda Bhikkhuni. "Keeping track of the revival of bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka". 
  30. ^ Post Publishing PCL. "Bangkok Post: The world windows to Thailand". Retrieved 25 April 2015. [dead link]
  31. ^ "Background and Objectives". International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha. 20 July 2007. Archived from the original on 19 June 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-21. 
  32. ^ "A Summary Report of the 2007 International Congress on the Women's Role in the Sangha: Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages". The Berzin Archives. 2007-08-00. Archived from the original on 7 August 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-21. 
  33. ^ "Press release 09/06/2006". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  34. ^ "Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  35. ^ "A Summary Report of the 2007 International Congress on the Women's Role in the Sangha: Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  36. ^ "A Summary Report of the 2007 International Congress on the Women's Role in the Sangha: Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  37. ^ "A Summary Report of the 2007 International Congress on the Women's Role in the Sangha: Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages". Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
  38. ^ a b
  39. ^ Buddhist Studies Review, volume 24.2, page 227
  40. ^ id, page 227
  41. ^ a b id, page 228
  42. ^ Sommer, PhD, Jeanne Matthew. "Socially Engaged Buddhism in Thailand: Ordination of Thai Women Monks". Warren Wilson College. Retrieved 6 December 2011. 
  43. ^ "Another Step Forward". Lion's Roar. November 12, 2010. Retrieved September 19, 2015. 
  44. ^ a b Vicki Mackenzie 2008, pp. 154.
  45. ^ Vicki Mackenzie 2008, pp. 154-5.


Further reading[edit]

  • Rongxi, Li; Dalia, Albert A. (2002). The Lives of Great Monks and Nuns, Berkeley CA: Numata Center for Translation and Research (T2063: Biographies of Buddhist Nuns)

External links[edit]