Ordination Part III Introducing Full Ordination for Women into the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron©


To illustrate a further view point from a respected and long term practitioner, I am taking the liberty to reproduce the excellent and thought provoking article from Thubten Chodron and encourage readers to further consult her site  In particular, if you enjoy her work and reding her articles, consider donating – even a symbolic sum to Sravasti Abbey and support the growing Western Monastic  community! http://www.thubtenchodron.org/

A New

Full Ordination for Women into the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition


Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron©


Historical event in Bodthgaya 1987, where for the first time in more than 800 years more than ten bhikshunis — most from

Taiwand and the USA — who could do the Bhikshuni Posadha, where

this photo (above) was taken. ( one of the treasures to be found on Thubten Chodron site)

It was
1986, and my life as a nun was changing in a profound way. I had been a
sramanerika (novice) in the Tibetan tradition since 1977 and was now in Taiwan,
to receive the bhikshuni vow. The 30-day Vinaya training was excellent and the
example of so many educated and active Chinese bhikshunis inspiring. Still, it
took some time before the meaning of holding the full monastic vow sank in.

existence of the "four-fold community"–groups of four or more fully
ordained monks and nuns (bhikshus and bhikshunis) and male and female lay
practitioners holding the five precepts (upasakas and upasikas)–establishes a
place as a "central land" where the Buddhadharma flourishes.
Historically, it has been the monastic community, with the aid of lay followers,
that has been responsible for the continuation of both the scriptural and
realized doctrine. The monastic sangha preserves the scriptural Dharma by
learning and teaching it; it preserves the realized Dharma by putting those
teachings into practice and actualizing them in their own being. While these
activities are not limited to monastics–lay practitioners can and should
engage in them–living a simple lifestyle without family or many possessions
gives monastics more time and fewer distractions to do this. Monastics
contribute in myriad ways to the well-being of society by living with excellent
ethical conduct and consciously cultivating tolerance, love, compassion, and
wisdom. They teach others how to do the same. A community of monastics
practicing in this way radiates tremendous positive force in a world
asphyxiated by the ignorance, greed, and hostility of consumerism and

the importance of the four-fold community, the bhikshuni sangha is currently
absent in some Buddhist traditions. To understand this, let’s trace the
development of the Bhikshuni Order and see how the ordination is given.

three levels of ordination exist for nuns: sramanerika (novice), siksamana
(probationary), and bhikshuni (full). These ordinations are received gradually
in order to prepare and accustom one to keep the full precepts and to assume
the privileges and responsibilities of a fully ordained sangha member. One
becomes a bhikshuni by receiving the ordination from a sangha of the fully
ordained, and it is important that this transmission be traced back to the
Buddha in an unbroken lineage. Women receive bhikshuni ordination in front of
two sanghas, a community of twelve bhikshunis and ten bhikshus. In lands where
such a large number of monastics does not exist, communities of five monks and
six bhikshunis can give the ordination.

 Six years
after the Bhikshu Order was established in India in the sixth century B.C.E.,
the Buddha established the Bhikshuni Order. The bhikshuni lineage flourished in
ancient India and in the third century B.C.E. spread to Sri Lanka. From there
it went to China in the fifth century C.E. Due to warfare and political
problems, the lineage died out in India and Sri Lanka in the eleventh century,
although it spread throughout China, Korea, and Vietnam. Although there are
sramanerikas (female novices) who are ordained by Tibetan monks, the Bhikshuni
Order was not established in Tibet due to a sufficient number of bhikshunis to
give the ordination not having crossed the Himalayan Mountains. Nevertheless,
there are a few historical records of bhikshunis in Tibet receiving their
ordination from monks.

bhikshuni ordination was never extant in Thailand. Currently, in Thailand and
Burma, women receive eight precepts and in Sri Lanka ten precepts. Although
they live in celibacy and wear robes demarcating them as religious, their
ordinations are not regarded as monastic ordinations, nor are they considered
to be part of the sangha.

Buddhism spread in ancient India, various Vinaya schools developed. Of the
eighteen initial schools, three are extant today: the Theravada, which is
widespread in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia; the Dharmaguptaka, which is
followed in Taiwan, China, Korea, and Vietnam; and the Mulasarvastivada, which
is practiced in Tibet. All of these Vinaya schools have spread to Western
countries in recent years. Considering that the Vinaya was passed down orally
for many centuries before being written down and that the various schools had
little communication with each other due to geographical distance, it is
amazing that the monastic precepts are so consistent throughout. The
differences among them are minor. Over the centuries, each school has developed
its own ways of enumerating, interpreting, and living the precepts that accord
with the culture and climate of that place.

 In recent
years, some women who hold eight- or ten-precept in countries where the
bhikshuni sangha does not currently exist wish to receive that ordination. In
1996, ten Sri Lankan women received the bhikshuni ordination from a Korean
sangha in India, and in 1998, over twenty Sri Lankan nuns received it in
Bodhgaya, India, from Dharmaguptaka bhikshunis and Theravadin and Dharmaguptaka
bhikshus. The bhikshuni ordination has subsequently been given several times in
Sri Lanka, and while initially some Sri Lankan monks opposed this, some
prominent monks supported it. Nowadays Theravadin bhikshunis, who number over
400, are accepted by Sri Lankan society.

Since the
early 1980s, over fifty Western women and a handful of Himalayan women who
practice in the Tibetan tradition have gone to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, or in
more recent years to the USA, France, or India to receive the bhikshuni
ordination. A few Western women who practice in the Theravadin tradition and a
handful of Thai women have received bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka.

Tibetans, bhikshuni ordination is closely related to the possibility of having
geshe-mas–female geshes. For over fifteen years, some Tibetans nuns have been
diligently studying Buddhist philosophy and debating. They have now reached the
Vinaya class, the last before taking the geshe exam. Traditionally, only those
who are fully ordained are allowed to do the complete Vinaya studies required
for the geshe degree. Thus, enabling the Tibetan nuns to become bhikshunis so
that they can study the Vinaya just as the monks do is crucial for producing
the first generation of geshe-mas whose degrees are equal to those of the

 While the
Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile has been
researching the possibility of introducing bhikshuni ordination into the
Tibetan tradition since the early 1980s, no conclusion has been reached thus
far. In 2005, His Holiness the Dalai Lama repeatedly spoke about the bhikshuni
ordination in public gatherings. In Dharamsala, His Holiness encouraged,
"We need to bring this to a conclusion. We Tibetans alone can’t decide
this. Rather, it should be decided in collaboration with Buddhists from all
over the world. Speaking in general terms, were the Buddha to come to this 21st
century world, I feel that most likely, seeing the actual situation in the
world now, he might change the rules somewhat….In many countries of the world,
not just within Buddhism, women have great faith in religion. Within the
Buddhist countries in the Himalayan region, it is women who have greater faith
in their religion. Hence nunneries become very important and accordingly, nuns’
studies should be of high quality. If, gradually, the lineage of bhikshuni
ordination can be introduced, it would be good."

 Later, in
Zurich during a 2005 conference of Tibetan Buddhist Centers, His Holiness said,
"Now I think the time has come; we should start a working group or
committee" to meet with monks from other Buddhist traditions. Looking at
the German bhikshuni, Ven. Jampa Tsedroen, he instructed, "I prefer that
Western Buddhist nuns carry out this work…Go to different places for further
research and discuss with senior monks (from various Buddhist countries). I
think, first, senior bhikshunis need to correct the monks’ way of thinking.

is the 21st century. Everywhere we are talking about equality….Basically
Buddhism needs equality. There are some really minor things to remember as a
Buddhist–a bhikshu always goes first, then a bhikshuni….The key thing is the
restoration of the bhikshuni vow." His Holiness also mentioned the
introduction of the bhikshuni ordination at the inauguration of Dolma Ling Nunnery
in 2005, and at the 2006 Kalachakra ordination in India.

Jampa Tsedroen together with Ven. Tenzin Palmo, Ven. Pema Chodron, Ven. Karma
Lekshe Tsomo, and Ven. Thubten Chodron formed a committee of Western bhikshunis
that His Holiness suggested. Bhikshuni Heng Ching Shih, a professor from
Taiwan, is their advisor. In March, 2006, we met at Sravasti Abbey in
Washington State to research and translate Vinaya passages showing that
bhikshuni ordination is possible within the Mulasarvastivada system of Tibet.
Our research has been submitted to the Department of Religion and Culture and
will be presented at a conference of Tibetan Vinaya masters in May of this
year. Another conference of abbots, rinpoches, and high lamas is planned in
August to discuss the bhikshuni ordination in the Tibetan tradition.

All Vinaya
traditions agree that dual ordination–ordination by a bhikshuni and a bhikshu
sangha–is optimum and prescribed by the Buddha himself. In fact, sramanerika
and siksamana ordination are to be given by bhikshunis, and nuns should do
their confession and restoration of precepts (sojong) before the bhikshuni
sangha. How are these to be accomplished if there are no bhikshunis ordained in
the Tibetan Mulasarvastivada tradition at present?

our research, our committee has found Chinese texts establishing the unbroken
lineage of Dharmagupta bkikshus going back to the Buddha and of bhikshunis
going back to the first bhikshuni in China in 357 C.E. We have clarified the
ordination procedures followed in East Asian countries and found them sound. We
have also found Vinaya passages indicating that a monks’ sangha alone can give
the bhikshuni ordination. Therefore, we are proposing some options for Tibetan
Vinaya masters to consider. Without going into the intricacies of Vinaya, (1)
Nuns could receive dual ordination by a Dharmaguptaka bhikshuni sangha and a
Mulasarvastivadin monks’ sangha, with the new bhikshunis receiving the
Mulasarvastivadin precepts, or (2) Nuns could be ordained as bhikshunis by a
sangha consisting of Tibetan monks of the Mulsravastivadin tradition alone. In
either case, after the new bhikshunis have been ordained twelve years, they
will be qualified to serve as the bhikshuni sangha in a dual ordination

 Since this
is a sangha matter, Tibetan monks will decide if and how to do this. It cannot
be decided by popular vote in society or by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as an
individual. If bhikshuni ordination could receive international acceptance
through an international conference of Vinaya masters of various Buddhist
traditions, as His Holiness suggests, it could open the door for women from
other Buddhist traditions to receive the bhikshuni ordination as well.

existence of full ordination for women is not a feminist issue. It concerns the
preservation and spread of the Dharma. It is about individuals having the
possibility to progress on the path to enlightenment by means of living in full
precepts. It enables lay practitioners and society in general to reap the
benefits of having educated and confident bhikshunis in their midst.

receiving the bhikshuni vow has had a huge impact on me. Previously I’d been
primarily concerned with my own Dharma practice, thinking of whom to study with
and where to do retreat so that my practice would advance. I was content to
sail on the tremendous wave of virtuous energy created by millennia of monastic
practitioners. Now as a bhikshuni, I am a full member of the sangha and must
assume responsibility for the continuation of the monastic tradition and the
existence of the Dharma in our world. Instead of simply relying on others to
preserve the Dharma as I’d done in the past, I now have to contribute to this
virtuous wave so that future generations may enjoy the precious Dharma and
Vinaya. I am grateful for the opportunity to have received this ordination and
to the lineages of monastics who preserved it over the centuries.

Through our
efforts, may all sentient beings throughout infinite space benefit!

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