About Buddhist Nuns

The Tradition of Bhikkhunis

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Burmese Buddhist nuns on an alms round. Staffan Scherz, Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

Back in 2011, Fox News personality Gretchen Carlson expressed astonishment that a Buddhist nun was included in the September 11 memorial service in Washington, DC.

"It's going to have an interfaith prayer vigil from all denominations," Carlson said.."We're going to have a Buddhist nun, which we didn't even know existed." Another Fox personality, Brian Kilmeade, added, "I think you could fit all the Buddhist nuns in our country in a phone booth."

I don't know how many Buddhist nuns are in America, never mind the world, but to fit all of them I suspect we'd need a really big phone booth.

What Is a Buddhist Nun?

In the West, Buddhist nuns don't always call themselves "nuns," preferring to call themselves "monastics" or "teachers." But "nun" could work. The English word "nun" comes from the Old English nunne, which could refer to a priestess or any woman living under religious vows.

The Sanskrit word for Buddhist women monastics is bhiksuni and the Pali is bhikkhuni. I am going to go with the Pali here, which is pronounced BI-koo-nee, emphasis on the first syllable. The "i" in the first syllable sounds like the "i" in tip or banish.

The role of a nun in Buddhism is not exactly the same as the role of a nun in Christianity. In Christianity, for example, monastics are not the same as priests (although one can be both), but in Buddhism there's no distinction between monastics and priests.

A fully ordained bhikkhuni may teach, preach, perform rituals, and officiate at ceremonies, just like her male counterpart, a bhikkhu (Buddhist monk).

This is not to say that bhikkhunis have enjoyed equality with bhikkhus. They have not.

The First Bhikkunis

According to Buddhist tradition, the first bhikkuni was the Buddha's aunt, Pajapati, sometimes called Mahapajapati.

According to the Pali Tipitaka, the Buddha first refused to ordain women, then relented (after urging from Ananda), but predicted that the inclusion of women would cause the dharma to be forgotten much too soon.

However, scholars note that the story in the Sanskrit and Chinese versions of the same text say nothing about the Buddha's reluctance or Ananda's intervention, which leads some to conclude this story was added to the Pali scriptures later, by an unknown editor.

Rules for Bhikkunis

The Buddha's rules for the monastic orders are recorded in a text called the Vinaya. The Pali Vinaya has about twice as many rules for bhikkunis as for bhikkus. In particular, there are eight rules called the Garudhammas that, in effect, make all bhikkunis subordinate to all bhikkus (see "The First Buddhist Nuns"). But, again, the Garudhammas are not found in versions of the same text preserved in Sanskrit and Chinese.

The Lineage Problem

In many parts of Asia women are not allowed to be fully ordained. The reason--or excuse--for this has to do with the lineage tradition. The historical Buddha stipulated that fully ordained bhikkhus must be present at the ordination of bhikkhus and fully ordained bhikkhus and bhikkhunis present at the ordination of bhikkhunis.

When carried out, this would create an unbroken lineage of ordinations going back to the Buddha.

There are thought to be four lineages of bhikkhu transmission that remain unbroken, and these lineages survive in many parts of Asia. But for bhikkhunis there is only one unbroken lineage, surviving in China and Taiwan.

The lineage of Theravada bhikkhunis died in 456 CE, and Theravada Buddhism is the dominant form of Buddhism in southeast Asia -- in particular, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. These are all countries with strong male monastic sanghas, but women may only be novices, and in Thailand, not even that. Women who try to live as bhikkunis receive much less financial support and often are expected to cook and clean for the bhikkhus.

Recent attempts to ordain Theravada women -- sometimes with borrowed Chinese bhikkunis in attendance -- have met with some success in Sri Lanka.

But in Thailand and Burma any attempt to ordain women is forbidden by the heads of the bhikkhu orders.

Tibetan Buddhism also has an inequality problem, because the bhikkhuni lineages simply never made it to Tibet. But Tibetan women have lived as nuns with partial ordination for centuries. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has spoken in favor of allowing women to have full ordination, but he lacks the authority to make a unilateral ruling on that and must persuade other high lamas to allow it.

Even without the patriarchal rules and glitches women who want to live as disciples of the Buddha have not always been encouraged or supported. But there are some who overcame the adversity. For example, the Chinese Chan (Zen) tradition remembers women who became masters respected by men as well as women (see "Women Ancestors of Zen").

The Modern Bhikkuni

Today, the bhikkhuni tradition is thriving in parts of Asia, at least. For example, one of the most prominent Buddhists in the world today is a Taiwanese bhikkuni, Dharma Master Cheng Yen, who founded an international relief organization called the Tzu Chi Foundation. A nun in Nepal named Ani Choying Drolma has established a school and welfare foundation to support her dharma sisters.

As the monastic orders spread in the West there have been some attempts at equality. Monastic Zen in the West often is co-ed, with men and women living as equals and calling themselves "monastics" instead of monk or nun. Some messy sex scandals suggest this idea may need some work. But there are increasing numbers of Zen centers and monasteries now headed by women, which could have some interesting effects on the development of western Zen.

Indeed, one of the gifts western bhikkunis may give their Asian sisters some day is a big dose of feminism.