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Restoring the Order of Nuns to the Theravaadin Tradition

Senarat Wijayasundara

Followers of the Buddha's teachings consist of four components: monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. Of the two major Buddhist traditions, Mahaayaana and Theravaada, Mahaayaana alone has all four of these components extant. For a number of reasons, including a series of invasions in Sri Lanka, the Theravaadin tradition lost its Order of nuns sometime after the 10th century. This puts women in Theravaadin societies at a spiritual disadvantage through no fault of their own. One may legitimately question why steps have not been taken over the last nine hundred years to restore the Order to its rightful place.

The origin of the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha is documented in the Paali canon [1]. Permission to enter the Order for nuns was won with much difficulty thanks to the skilful diplomacy of the monk Aananda who appealed to the Buddha on behalf of Mahaapajaapatii [2] and her companions. The position of the Buddha in this matter requires investigation. In her book, Women under Primitive Buddhism, I. B. Homer states, "I hope to show that [the Buddha] did not, as is usually said of him, grudge women entry into the Order, but his compassion for the many folk included, from the beginning, women as well as men and animals. He saw the potentially good, the potentially spiritual in them as clearly as he saw it in man. Hence, were their life spent in the world or in the religious community, he spared himself no trouble to show them the way to happiness, to salvation a way which they might train themselves to follow by self-mastery." [3]

Aananda was later criticized for having prevailed upon the Buddha for the establishment of the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha, [4] although the Order appears to have functioned successfully. At the Third Buddhist Council held in India in the third century B.C.E., it was decided to dispatch nine missions abroad to spread Buddhism.[5] One mission, headed by Mahinda, son of Emperor Asoka of India, reached Sri Lanka. The tremendous success it achieved was such that within a short time there was a request from a group of five hundred women, led by Anula, to join the order. Mahinda's sister Sa"nghamittaa was invited to Sri Lanka to initiate the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha. Both Bhikkhu and Bhikkhunii Sa"nghas grew quickly in strength and popularity.

By the turn of the tenth century, however, Buddhism in Sri Lanka was being seriously affected by internal political conflicts and foreign invasions, during which the monastic orders disappeared. Eventually a king named Vijayabahu was able to establish law and order in the country and became keen to revive Buddhism from the pathetic state to which it had fallen. Realizing that no members of the Bhikkhu Sa"ngha remained, he sought assistance from Burma to restore the order of monks, [6] but there is no mention of reviving the order of nuns.[7] If monks suffered so extensively that their order became extinct, there can be little doubt about the plight of the order of nuns. There is no record that the king tried to revive it.

Even though the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha disappeared in Sri Lanka, Buddhist women remained earnest in their quest for spiritual awakening. Rather unusual steps have been taken by women in Thailand [8] and Sri Lanka.[9] In Thailand several groups of women have come forward who wish to practice religion with an earnestness beyond that common among laywomen. The status of one group, the maejis, is far from satisfactory. Another group of women, known as silacarinis, began in 1957 with the ordination of five women who observe ten precepts. They have a nunnery centered in Bangkok and wear brown robes. Another group wearing dark brown robes live under the guidance of a self-ordained monk, Bodhiraksa, who initiated the ordination lineage himself. Yet another group is headed by Bhikkhunii Voramai Kabilsingh who began as a maeji, but later received full ordination in Taiwan. Members of this group wear light yellow robes. I believe that this group will have the best opportunity of meeting the needs of Buddhist women who choose to lead a life of renunciation.

In Sri Lanka a movement known as Dasasilmaataa can be traced to the pioneering efforts of Sudhammacari (1885-1937). Born into a Christian family in Bentota, Catherine de Alwis Gunatilaka became interested in Buddhism and wished to become a nun. As there were no nuns in Sri Lanka and no monk would administer the ten precepts, she went to Burma (Myanmar) where she underwent training and was given ordination by Daw Ni Chari. She received the name Sudhammacari at ordination and founded the Lady Blake Nunnery at Katukele (Kandy) when she returned to Sri Lanka in 1903. Many women from various parts of the country came to her to receive the precepts

From there the number of Dasasilmaataa grew. These women now command respect from the lay community and receive assistance from the Buddha Sangha Ministry of the Government of Sri Lanka for their educational and material needs. Some of them are satisfied with the traditional ten precepts, but many are hopeful of becoming fully ordained nuns, either within or outside of the Theravadin tradition.

Many heads of the nikaayas (monastic orders) in Sri Lanka oppose ordination for nuns and maintain that it cannot be granted within the Theravadin tradition of Vinaya. Moreover, they oppose nuns receiving ordination from any other Buddhist tradition. Fortunately some other leading members of the Sa"ngha are of the opinion that Sri Lankan women may legitimately receive ordination from countries like China, Korea, or Taiwan where the lineage has been maintained without a break.[10] Considerable numbers of laymen and laywomen also favor such a step and support this cause.

Opposition to the revival of an order of Buddhist nuns seems to run counter the spirit as well as the religious aims of Buddhism. Two significant statements found in two authoritative suttas indicate how important the presence of nuns is in Buddhism and how much is lost in their absence. The first statement occurs in a relevant discussion between the Buddha and a wanderer, Vacchagotta.[11] In this discussion the Buddha affirms that all six components of Buddhist society named by Vacchagotta are expected to realize their ideals. These six components are: monks, nuns, celibate laymen, celibate laywomen, ordinary laymen, and ordinary laywomen. In another text, in a discussion with Mara, the Buddha is reminded of his commitment not to pass away until the four components of a Buddhist society, namely monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen, became eligible for nibbaana by cultivating the necessary qualities.[12]

Although in the Theravaada tradition women who aspire to be nuns are prevented by historical circumstances from receiving ordination, their counterparts in the Mahaayaana tradition fortunately are not. Therefore it is possible to overcome these obstacles by turning to the nuns of the Mahaayaana countries.

Historians believe that Buddhism reached China around the first century C.E. [13], Pao-Chang gives an account of the early beginnings of the order of nuns in China.[14] Given the extreme hardships of travel either over the Himalayas or through the deserts Central Asia, it was difficult for an order of monks to become established in China; how much more difficult it would have been for nuns to survive the journey and establish an order there. Eventually, it was by the sea route from Sri Lanka that the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha reached China in the fifth century.

Soon after Buddhism arrival in China, a number of Chinese women became interested in becoming nuns. There appear to have been many discussions on the ordination of women among the Buddhists in China prior to the establishment of a bhikkhunii order. Some maintained that the establishment of an order was not possible without the participation of nuns in the ordination ceremony. Others were of the opinion that it was possible for Chinese women to receive only the initial, novice (saamanerii) ordination. Others believed that the Vinaya rules for full ordination could be interpreted to permit monks to grant ordination to women in spite of the absence of ordained nuns.[15] This seemingly unresolvable problem was vexing to unimaginative minds. Finally, the problem of full ordination for women was referred to Gunavannan of Kashmir by Hui Kuo, the woman who was to become the first Chinese bhikkhunii, herself an expert in Vinaya.[16] When she asked him whether it was legitimate for women to receive full ordination without the participation of nuns, Gunavarman responded by saying that there would be nothing wrong with such an ordination. When she asked whether it would be wrong for monks to grant bhikkhunii ordination to women without the participation of nuns, he replied that there would be no fault on the part of the monks if they did so. He explained that monks would be deemed at fault only if they gave bhikkhunii ordination without nuns when nuns were available to participate. Since there were no nuns in China at the time, there would be nothing wrong with such an ordination. This was a wise solution that was within the limits of Vinaya.

But Gunavarman, an intelligent and ardent propagator of Buddhism, did not stop there. He worked to get a sufficient number of nuns to perform the full ordination. In 429 C.E., eight nuns from Sri Lanka arrived in China, but were deemed insufficient in number to perform an ideal dual ordination.[17] Therefore another group of nuns, eleven in number and headed by Devasara, was brought from Sri Lanka and reached China in 432 C.E.[18] Prior to his death, Gunavarman thoughtfully left instructions for performing the dual ordination with a Sinhala monk, Sa"nghavarman, who completely fulfilled the instructions.[19] The two groups of nuns who had arrived in China from Sri Lanka conferred the dual ordination of nuns for the first time in China. It is said that at that time, "more than 300 Chinese nuns received full ordination from Sinhala Bhikkhuniis" [20]. Strangely enough, no Sri Lankan chronicle mentions this important event. It comes to us only from Chinese sources.

The Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha became firmly rooted in China and gradually spread through neighboring countries, such as Korea and Vietnam. In 1992, at a well-attended ceremony held to bid farewell to a group of five Chinese monks who had completed their education in Sri Lanka, Prof. W. Rahula referred to the regrettable lack of fully ordained Theravaadin nuns. He suggested that Sri Lankan dasasilmaataas could receive their full ordination from one of these countries.[21]

The two suttas discussed earlier show that the disappearance of the nuns' component disable the Theravaadin tradition. Dr. Senarat Paranavitana has asserted that without the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha, the present-day Bhikkhu Sa"ngha in Sri Lanka, cannot be called a Mahaasa"ngha (great order). In addition, the inability of the Theravaadin tradition to meet the legitimate demands of women to practice Buddhism equally makes it vulnerable to criticism. Therefore, it is imperative for the Theravaadin tradition to meet this serious challenge and open its doors to nuns.

The following are possible ways to achieve this aim. The first three possibilities were presented by Prof. G. P. M. Malalasekara, founder of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB), when he called or the restoration of the order of Buddhist nuns. His contributions to this effort, have appeared as far back as 1934 in the Ceylon Daily News.[22] He puts forth six recommendations.

First, according to the Mahaaparinibbaana Sutta, the Buddha, when lying on his death bed, is said to have told his attendant Aananda that the Sa"ngha was permitted to abolish lesser and minor rules.[23] Malalasekara says "That, then, is the first possibility - a decision by a representative assembly of the Sa"ngha to dispense with the traditional ceremonial in the ordination of nuns."[24] Making use of the Buddha's final concession, it is within the power of the Bhikkhu Sa"ngha to make the necessary amendments to restore the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha by performing an ordination without, the participation of nuns. If any monk believes that the rules pertaining to the ordination of nuns are of major concern and do not fall within the category of "lesser and minor rules," he would be invited to come forth and justify his position.

Second, it. is possible to make use of an injunction issued by the Buddha that stipulates, "I permit you monks, to confer full ordination on nuns."[25] There are references in the texts that show that some regulations were amended, altered, or abrogated by the Buddha himself on various occasions under special circumstances. The absence of Bhikkhuniis in Theravaada clearly being a special circumstance, these textual references should be sufficient cause for granting monks the authority to ordain nuns with a clear conscience that no transgression of the Vinaya rules has been committed. Those who oppose the restoration of the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha on the grounds of Vinaya technicalities seem to ignore this relevant injunction.

Third, certain special procedures have been performed in Buddhist history, such as when Mahaapajaapatii Gotami and her companions took the precepts before the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha had been instituted. The ordination of Buddhist monks nuns essentially consists of followers taking upon themselves voluntarily the observance of certain precepts. Ordination is not something that is transmitted from one person to another; rather, it is certain precepts that one undertakes to keep and observe in accordance with one's own motivation. Buddhist ordination is essentially different from the ordination of priests found in other religions, where priests are regarded as intercessors between human beings and a divine power. In the Buddhist context, there is not relegation of authority, no question of acting earth as a divine ministrant. Just as Buddhist lay-people in Sri Lanka undertake to observe the eight or ten precepts on poya days by reciting the precepts at a shrine, there is nothing to prevent women from observing the precepts of novice or full ordination. There cannot be any serious objection to this type of self-ordination.[26]

If any one of the above suggestions by Prof. Malalasekera is accepted, it would be possible to restore the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha within the Theravaadin tradition. What is required is an understanding of the spirit, rather than the letter, of the Vinaya regulations. There are three further options available for the restoration the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha which have come to light because of the public discussions and debates that have taken place on this issue in Sri Lanka, particularly in the past ten years.[27]

Fourth, due to improved relations and closer contact with China, Korea, and Taiwan, in recent years, it became known that the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha transmitted to China by Sinhalese nuns continues in these countries in an unbroken succession. Therefore it is possible to reintroduce the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha to Sri Lanka from one of these three countries (or Vietnam), either by bringing chapter of nuns to Sri Lanka or by sending a group of applicants to those countries to be ordained. Sending applicants to one of these countries is a better approach, since they would have the opportunity to undergo training there. This proposed step is not as drastic as some would make it out to be. It is merely the receiving back of the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha that was earlier sent from Sri Lanka to China. It would be like accepting back the great gift that was given in earlier times.

There are precedents for this proposed reintroduction. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, a delegation from Thailand was invited to Sri Lanka to reestablish the Bhikkhu Sa"ngha and began the Siam Nikaaya.[28] In the nineteenth century, two separate groups of monks went to monasteries in Amarapura and Ramanna in Burma and received full ordination there. On their return, they founded the Amarapura sect in 1803[29] and the Ramanna sect in 1864.[30] It is also well known that Sri Lanka has been instrumental at times in reviving and reorganizing Buddhism in Thailand and Burma. Therefore, there can be no legitimate objection to seeking the assistance of Chinese or Korean nuns in restoring the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha to Sri Lanka.

Fifth, if the venerable Mahaanayakas, the leading bhikkhus of the Theravaadin tradition in Sri Lanka, are not prepared to accept the authenticity of the Bhikkhunii Sa"nghas in China and other Mahaayaana countries, Sri Lankan Buddhist women are still free to seek ordination in any Buddhist tradition they like.[31] Nuns fully ordained in other traditions should be recognized as bhikkhunii without any discrimination. Theravaadin leaders in Sri Lanka should not be hasty to oppose such a move. The choice to renounce worldly life and practice "the holy life" is the inalienable right of all Buddhist women. No Buddhist can legitimately deny women this right. Those who oppose women's right to obtain ordination within the Theravaadin tradition cannot oppose their right to become bhikkhuniis in another tradition. Gunapala Dharmasiri has stated that, since the tradition of Vinaya ordination is fundamentally the same in Mahaayaana and Theravaada, if an ordination lineage has been lost in one tradition, it can be reinstated by borrowing from those countries where it has been preserved.[32] The respected scholar Aananda Wellawatte Thera holds a similar view.[33] For tradition to question the validity of an ordination given by another established Buddhist tradition is not reasonable or justified.

Sixth, a meeting may be convened of a special body comprised of leading members of the international Sa"ngha community, representing several Buddhist traditions from all over the world. Sri Lankan candidates can be given saamanarii and full bhikkhunii ordination by this representative body. At present there are several international Buddhist organizations of this type, including one recently established in Colombo. Therefore, the convening of an international body of monks and nuns would not be a difficult task.

The dasasilmaataas of Sri Lanka have dedicated their lives to the Buddhist path as nuns in an age when few are committed to spiritual values. Helping to promote their aspirations would encourage them and would promote the welfare of Buddhism as a whole. As Prof. Jotiya Dhirasekera has stated, Buddhism has contributed much to the emancipation of women.[34] This contribution has been impaired by the opposition of Theravaadin leaders in Sri Lanka to the revival of the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha. Some Buddhist leaders proudly assert that from its inception Buddhism has stood for the liberty of womankind. Their words are rendered idle coasts in the face of their opposition to the revival of the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha. Revival of the traditional order of nuns can no longer be delayed, for it constitutes a rejection of the fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


[1] Cullavagga, part 2, Buddha Jayanti Tripitaka Granthamala (BJE), (Colombo: Janarajaya, 3977), p. 472.

[2] Paali equivalent of the Sanskrit: name Mahaaprajaapati.

[3] I. B. Horner, Women under Primitive Buddhism (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975), p. xxiv.

[4] Cullavagga, part 2, p. 289

[5] Mahaava.msa, XII. lff.

[6] University History of Ceylon, vol. 1, part 2, p. 563.

[7] R. A. L. H. Gunawardana has given evidence to prove the existence of Buddhist nuns in Burma at the time when the Sri Lankan king was seeking the assistance or Burmese monks for the revival of the Bhikkhu Sa"ngha in Sri Lanka. He says, "Owing to the inadequacy of information bearing on this problem, it is not possible to give a satisfactory explanation of their surprising lack of clerical or lay interest in reviving the order of nuns." Robe and Plough: Monasticism and Economic Interest in Early Medieval Sri Lanka (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1979), p. 39.

[8] Chatsumam Kabilsingh, "The Role of Woman in Buddhism," in Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha (Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1989), pp. 225-35; "The Future of the Bhikkhunii Sa"ngha in Thailand" in Diana Eck, ed., Speaking of Faith: Global Perspectives on Women, Religion, and Social Change (Philadelphia, Pa.: New Society Publishers, 1987), pp. 139-48; "Mae-Ji: A Religious Minority in Contemporary Thailand," Sri Lanka Journal of Buddhist Studies, 11(1988):141-47.

[9] Hema Goonatilake "The Dasa Sil-Mata Movement in Sri Lanka," Sri Lanka Journal of Buddhist Studies, 11(1988): 124-40; Paanadure Vajiraa Silmaathaa, Bhikkhunii Vamsaya (in Sinhala, Colombo 1992), pp. 370-76.

[10] Ceylon Daily News, February 6, 1992.

[11] Mahaavacchagotta Sutta, Majjhima Nikaaya, part 2 (Colombo: BJE, 1973), pp. 270-74.

[12] Mahaaparinibbana Sutta, Diigha Nikaaya, part 2 (Peradeniya, Sri Lanka: JE, 1967), pp. 162-76.

[13] K. W. Morgan, The Path of the Buddha (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1986), pp. 184-85.

[14] Pao-Chang, Biographies of Buddhist Nuns, trans. Li Jung-hsi (Osaka: Tohokai. 1981),

[15] Morgan, Path of the Buddha, p. 63.

[16] Pao-Chang, Biographies, pp. 36-38.

[17] Ibid, p. 53-54.

[18] Ibid, p. 54.

[19] Ibid, pp. 62-63.

[20] Ibid, p. 54.

[21] Ceylon Daily News, February 6, 1992.

[22] Reproduced in The Buddhist Vesak Annual, Colombo, 1989, pp. 24-28.

[23] Mahaaparinibbaana Sutta, Diigha Nikaaya, part 2 (Oxford: Paali Text Society

[PTS]), p. 154.

[24] The Buddhist Vesak Annual.

[25] Mahaaparinibbaana Sutta, Diigha Nikaaya, part 2, p. 257.

[26] The Buddhist Vesak Annual.

[27] "Ven. Sanghamitta and the Order of Nuns," Daham Ama Mahinda Commemorative Volume (in Sinhala) (Colombo: Department of Buddhist Cultural Affairs, 1993), pp. 21-26.

[28] K. L. Hazra, History of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1982), pp. 166-74.

[29] Ibid., pp. 86-87.

[30] "On Restoration of the Bhikkhuni Order" (in Sinhala), paper presented at the 2nd Sa"ngha Seminar, Maharagama, Sri Lanka, 1988.

[31] Ibid.

[32] "Buddhist Monks in the 20th Century," Vimutti Symposium of the Ramana Sect Annual Ordination Ceremony (Kalutara, Sri Lanka; 1991).

[33] Ananda Wellawatte, "The Life of the Mahaayaana Bhik.su," Prajnasara Felicitation Volume (in Sinhala), pp. 250-57.

[34] Jotiya Dhirasekera, Buddhist Monastic Discipline (Colombo: Ministry of Higher Education Research Publication Series, 1982), p. 141.

(Transcribed for "Buddhism Today" by Thich Nu Lien Hieu)


Source: Buddhism Today, http://www.buddhismtoday.com

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updated: 14-02-2002