BuddhaSasana Home Page
English Section

Ordination of Women

Ajahn Brahmavamso

Sister Rocana left Bodhinyana Monastery recently to take a 'higher' ordination in England. As I mentioned in the 'Sangha News' article, she visited Thailand en-route and was rather disappointed at what she saw of the opportunities for nuns there. The place of women in Theravada monasticism is a problem no less prickly than some of the native bushes here in the monastery! But it cannot be avoided. It can only be understood in relation to the VINAYA, the body of monastic rules and regulations established by the Buddha which are binding on every Buddhist monk and nun. Thus in this fifth article in the series I will discuss the ORDINATION OF WOMEN.

'Bhikkhu' is the name which denotes a fully ordained Buddhist monk. The term literally means one who depends on alms. Correspondingly, a 'Bhikkhuni' is a fully ordained Buddhist nun. During his lifetime, the Buddha established thriving communities of both bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. However, not only did the Buddha lay down more rules of discipline for the bhikkhunis, 311 as against the bhikkhus' 227, but he also made it more difficult for them to be ordained.

To become a bhikkhuni a woman had to begin by asking for 'ordination' as a sikkhamana (meaning a woman in training) before an assembly of at least 5 bhikkhunis. Her training consisted of 6 rules: the Five Precepts, the third of which being extended to complete celibacy, plus abstaining from eating outside of the morning time. Only when she had kept these six rules UNBROKEN FOR TWO YEARS could she, with the permission of her parents and husband, take higher ordination as a bhikkhuni. Should she break a precept then she would begin her period of training anew. Having completed her training, she should then seek an experienced bhikkhuni of at least 12 years standing to be her preceptor. A preceptor has to be agreed upon as such by the local community of bhikkhunis before she may ordain another and even then, she may only ordain one candidate every other year. the candidate is first ordained in a formal meeting of at least five bhikkhunis and afterwards this 'ordination on one side' is confirmed before a formal meeting of at least five bhikkhus. Only then is she a fully ordained nun according to Theravada tradition.

The Bhikkhuni Sangha flourished for many centuries and spread throughout South and East Asia. It seems to have died out in Sri Lanka in the 11 th century C.E. (according to Professor Malalasekera) mainly due to the civil turmoil coming from invasion and war. The fact that the Bhikkhuni Sangha was not re-established in the last decades of the 11 th century when Sri Lanka was again peaceful strongly suggests that there were few if any bhikkhunis in neighbouring lands, such as India or Burma, who could be invited to Sri Lanka to re-establish the tradition. For, as explained above, to ordain another bhikkhuni one requires a minimum of five existing bhikkhunis; once their number drops to below five then the Institution is doomed.

For many centuries the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma have assumed that the Order of Bhikkhunis died out ages ago and that it is impossible to revive. To compensate for this, other female monastic traditions have been established by the monks to help give the opportunity to women to live a simple meditative life. Such an Order is that of the white robed nuns of Thailand keeping the 8 Precepts and such a nun was Sister Rocana. But being a later addition, this ordination lacks the status of having been established by the Buddha and lacks the authority of an ancient tradition and thus social and cultural prejudices have been able to take root and prevail. For this reason many senior monks, such as Ajahn Sumedho in England for example, have attempted to revive and build upon the female novice ordination. Though still less than a bhikkhuni, a female novice wears brown and essentially keeps 10 precepts, the last of which is abstaining from the use or possession of money. Thus a female novice is more of a renunciant than the white robed Thai nun, and, wearing robes similar in appearance to those of a monk, she may get more of the respect she deserves.

There has even been much discussion recently, that is in the last decade or so, that it may be possible to revive the full bhikkhuni ordination. There are bhiksunis of the Mahayana tradition in Taiwan and Hong Kong. 'Bhiksuni' is merely the Sanskrit (the language of Mahayana) equivalent to our 'Bhikkhuni'. If it turns out that the ordination procedure used by the Mahayana bhiksunis contains the vital ingredient of a formal resolution, put three times to a gathering of at least 5 bhikkhunis, informing those gathered that the candidate wishes for ordination as a bhikkhuni and asking their approval, then the ordination is probably valid by Theravada standards. Should this be so, and I have no information on this at present, then we may see the full female counterpart of the monks restored to the Theravada tradition.

Whatever the technicalities, one should always keep in mind the old English proverb: "Where there is a will, there is a way". I am often amazed to see how far rules can be bent under the weight of compassion. All it needs is the motive for doing the bending, and that motive will increase as do the numbers of women who show by their example a willingness to surrender to a renunciant's life.

Ajahn Brahmavamso
(BSWA Newsletter, January-March 1990)

[Back to English Index]
(updated 16-06-2002)