There is not much written in English explaining why bhikkhuni ordinations are rejected by the Theravāda Community of Monks. The English writings are a poor representation of the vast majority of Buddhist Scholarship and that is why there is “controversy” regarding the revival of the extinct Theravāda Bhikkhuni order. There is really no controversy to speak about once you know the full story.
Many Westerners believe that women are not able to become nuns without such a revival, but that is not true. The extinct bhikkhuni ordination had rules that were numerous, restrictive, and heavy in consequence to protect their brahmacariya life. To give monastic opportunities to women, the senior monks created new lineages in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and within the Western Thai Tradition long before this “revival”. Not only that, these “new” traditions have been designed to simplify and remove many of the “difficult to follow” rules which gives more freedom to practice to attain the goals of Buddhist meditation. Pa-Auk allocates roughly half of its residential resources to female monastics with equal access to the teachers. Na-Uyana in Sri Lanka and Amaravati in England have similar arrangements. One of these nuns has her own international meditation center with donors to offer full autonomous support.
So opportunities exist for women, but there was one problem. These nuns were given names like sīlashin or dasasīlamātā (10 precept mothers) instead of bhikkhuni which is the female counterpart of bhikkhu. Why? Because to call oneself a bhikkhuni when one is not a bhikkhuni is considered a “theft of saṅgha” and a very heavy karmic crime. Furthermore, it was found that there was no way to bring the bhikkhuni saṅgha back from extinction. Lastly, the special rules that went along with the bhikkhuni name were restrictive, and heavy in punishment and karmically obstructive to attainments or progress in the Path if broken.
In this article, we will discuss the 2 methods which are used today for bhikkhuni ordinations and we will discuss whether or not they are proper to make new bhikkhunis.
There are two methods used today to bring the Pāḷi Bhikkhunis back from extinction:
1. Using existing Mahayana bhikṣuṇī to ordain new Pāḷi Bhikkhunis to fulfill the requirement of two saṅghas to perform the ordinations.
2. Single saṅgha ordination by letting bhikkhus alone perform the bhikkhuni ordinations with no further action required.
Mahayana Bhikṣuṇī Method:
Traditionally, in order for a Pāḷi bhikkhuni to be ordained, one needs both the bhikkhuni saṅgha and the bhikkhu saṅgha to ordain the new candidate inside a proper ordination hall called a sīma. This method is called aṭṭhavācikūpasampadā because there are 4 readings each done by two saṅghas which equals eight times (aṭṭha). Because the lineage was extinct, one idea was to import the nuns from Mahayana to fulfill this factor.
I have not read Buddhist history books, but according to legend, when there was disagreement that caused a heated split in the saṅgha, the group which is now calls themselves Mahayana did not do the detailed technicalities to officially make a new sect in saṅgha. This is good news if you want to use Mahayana bhikṣuṇīs as seeds for new Pāḷi bhikkhunis.
Because of this, progressives believe that Mahayana bhikṣuṇīs are still the same as Pāḷi Bhikkhunis and these Mahayana nuns can be used to make new Pāḷi bhikkhunis. There is one problem and one controversial term in Pāḷi called, Sakāya Nirutthiya.
At one time, a Brahman criticized the Buddha for having the teachings in the Pāḷi language and transcribed the teachings into Sanskrit which only scholars could understand. The Buddha did not like that and prohibited his teachings being transcribed into another language or Sanskrit. He said that it should be done in the common dialect.
‘‘na, bhikkhave, buddhavacanaṁ chandaso āropetabbaṁ. Yo āropeyya, āpatti dukkaṭassa. Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanaṁ pariyāpuṇitu”nti.CV.285
In the English texts, sakāya niruttiyā is translated as “one’s own dialect.” Sometimes words cannot be literally translated. For instance, what does the word “under–stand “ mean? Does it mean to stand underneath something? Probably not. Because of this single mention of sakāya niruttiyā, Mahayana ordinations have been performed in Mandarin. The question is can Pāḷi Buddhism be compatible with Mandarin Buddhism? The commentaries explain that this sakāya niruttiyā means the “common language” used in Māgadha or where the Buddha was from. Based on the keywords in this discussion, you can see what the Pāḷi explanation means below:
Sakāya niruttiyāti ettha sakā nirutti nāma sammāsambuddhena vuttappakāro māgadhiko vohāro.CV.A.285
In those times, many dialects were spoken in India. A common language was used for people to communicate with each other beyond their own village and at that time it was the Māgadhi language.
Because we are biased with English and most native speakers of English speak only one single language, I asked a resident Indian monk about this and if Hindi would be a similar example of a “Common Dialect” for Indians. Even today, Indians speak many languages because there are many languages inside India. Hindi is a unifying language among the different dialects, and the Indian monk agreed with my suspicion. Ironically, Mandarin is the unifying language across China for the local dialects which are still used today.
Now we are asked if Mandarin is valid or not for Pāḷi ordinations. If we conclude Mandarin is valid, then we are left with other logical statements to ask. You remember those logic games right?
If:Typical logic question on SAT exams in the USA
a is equal to b and
c is equal to b,
then we can conclude that:
a is also equal to c.
If Mandarin is considered valid for Pāḷi Buddhist Ordinations, then English can also be used for ordinations for both Pāḷi Buddhist Ordinations and Chinese Mahayana ordinations. If English is valid for bhikkhunis, then English should also be valid for bhikkhus. How many monks are ordained in English and would it be recognized by saṅgha if that were done? Are the monks who perform bhikkhuni ordinations with this method positive English would be valid for bhikkhus as well? The answers to these questions also answer whether or not using Mahayana bhikṣuṇīs are a valid substitute for a two-saṅgha-ordination (aṭṭhavācikūpasampadā).
The second option is using the Bhikkhus to ordain Bhikkhunis as a single-saṅgha-ordination. This has now become the preferred method because it is of a single school and retains the Pāḷi language as a single language for the ordinations. Not only that, the Buddha has been documented in saying this can be done. This sounds promising, however, we must look more deeply into what was allowed at the time and how rules are made and how rules are overwritten or “overruled”.
Historically, there have been 8 ways that ordinations were performed. Only the last two are considered valid for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.
For simplicity, we will talk about only a few types of ordinations. The very first and early ordinations were done directly by the Buddha. He would simply say “ehi bhikkhu” which means “come monk” and the ordination was complete. However, after some time, that was not possible, so the Buddha allowed the monks to give ordination by saraṇāgamanūpasampadā. This ordination is performed by having the monk take triple refuge tisaraṇa, which is exactly the same as novice monks and lay people take today. Buddhaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi.. etc. This was later replaced with the current “4-speakings-ordination” method called ñatticatutthakammūpasampadāti.
For Bhikkhunis, the very first ordinations were called garudhammapaṭiggahaṇūpasampadā. They were performed in the presence of the Buddha by agreeing to follow the 8–garu-dhamma or 8-heavy-rules. Because it was difficult to travel and visit the Buddha like before, the Buddha allowed the monks to ordain the bhikkhunis. However, problem after problem arose with this procedure, and more and more amendments were successively made by the Buddha until the last ordination procedure was finalized in the Cūḷavagga-pāḷi text as the evolved standard and only method for ordaining women. The evolution of this ordination method is all translated into English and you should read these texts if you doubt what is said here in this article. This final method involves both saṅghas (a group of bhikkhus and a group of bhikkhunis) separately to perform the ordination in a proper ordination hall with 8 (aṭṭha) transactions performed in total, 4 transactions for each saṅgha. That is why it is called aṭṭha-vācik-ūpasampadā, (ordination-by-8-speakings), where the bhikkhu ordination done by a single group is ñatti-catuttha-kammūpasampadāti 4 speakings.
Historically, when the rules are amended by the Buddha in the vinaya, the previous version is rendered invalid and the most recently declared rule is the full and final replacement. The context of how previous rules are invalidated and new declarations are replacements are very clear in the Pāḷi texts.
In the same way, when each ordination method was changed, the former became invalid. This is why it is called “over-ruled.” We easily can see this in the vinaya for the monks rules when they are mentioned twice with amendments. It is very clear, and once it has changed, the original rule is no longer valid. There is no controversy to this “over-ruling” process. Any scholar monk will confirm this point.
So the single saṅgha ordination was over-ruled to current extinct two saṅgha ordination aṭṭhavācikūpasampadā.
If we conclude that ordination of a bhikkhuni by a single saṅgha is valid, then we are left to conclude all other previous ordination methods mentioned in the texts are still valid. Let’s go back to those logic games again.
a is equal to b and
c is equal to b,
Answer:Typical logic questions for SAT exams in the USA.
We can conclude that a is also equal to c.
So if single saṅgha ordination is valid for ordaining bhikkhunis, then we must also conclude that any previous ordination method for monks would be valid too. That means that merely taking triple gem refuge saraṇāgamanūpasampadā should be valid for ordaining bhikkhus today. While it is true the Buddha specifically said, this method was abolished, it is very rare for him to say this and it is understood that a new rule overrides the old rule.
Do you think that any Pāḷi bhikkhus would recognize a monk who merely took triple gem as a valid ordination? Would the Western monks who support the bhikkhuni revival accept saraṇāgamanūpasampadā as a valid ordination for bhikkhus? No, and that is why saraṇāgamanūpasampadā are never performed today except for novice monks and lay people. I encourage you to ask these same questions to the monks who support bhikkhuni ordinations. Nope..Saraṇāgamanūpasampadā is never going to be performed and if someone did, there would be no recognition for such monks. A new religious order would be created.
There are two present methods used to bring the Pāḷi Bhikkhunis back from extinction. The first method relies on the validity of accepting English as a valid language for ordaining Pāḷi bhikkhus or Pāḷi bhikkhunis. The single school method relies on outdated or “over-ruled” ordinations as valid today. Therefore, if we accept these two points then we must accept:
- Bhikkhu ordination can be made by taking Triple Gem as the means of an ordination
- Bhikkhu ordinations can be performed in English as the means for a valid ordination.
- Bhikkhu with a triple gem ordination also performed in English as the means for a valid ordination.
When you consider the two ordination methods that exist in this way, one can easily see why the Greater Community of Pāḷi Monks (Mahāsaṅghikānaṃ) do not accept the current “bhikkhuni” revival in practice today. Strong governement laws exist in some Theravada countries for those claiming to be bhikkhunis because it is considered to be a form of fraud of the highest degree.
It should be known that Mahayana Ordinations are valid within their own community. Theravāda recognizes them as monks and nuns. However, they are not Pāḷi bhikkhus or Pāḷi bhikkhunis. They are monks and nuns, but of a different order that is not compatible with the technicalities of Pāḷi Buddhist ordinations.
This discussion on the two methods of bhikkhunii ordination is now finished. A further article is being written about the heavy bhikkhuni saṅghādisesa rules which appear to be ignored by the vast majority of Western “bhikkhunis” that exist today. Such rules include sleeping or traveling alone without another bhikkhuni present. When a bhikkhuni breaks these heavy rules, she must enter a special monastery, lose her full status as a bhikkhuni and undergo probation for 2 weeks to purify such offenses before being reinstated back to saṅgha.
You can read my other article (which came later) which explores.. “If bhikkhunis are real, what rules do they need to follow?”
If you have read this far, then you were interested in the whole article and its issues. I encourage you to post this article in Western Dhamma outlets, such as dhammawheel.com and https://discourse.suttacentral.net/