Should Bhikkhunis Be Sent To Probation Monasteries?

Share this:

Copyright notice.. picture by Kim Traynor cc-by-sa

Did you know that bhikkhunis (nuns) are not allowed to sleep alone or travel alone and if they do, they are sentenced to 2 weeks of rehabilitation and lose their full status as bhikkhunis during this period? In my last article, we discussed whether or not the bhikkhuni ordinations are valid. In this article, we will assume that today’s bhikkhuni ordinations are valid and then explore the heavy rules and consequences that are at stake. You will learn that bhikkhunis who claim to be serious about the rules are likely to be already breaking some of the heavy rules of the bhikkhuni vinaya.

What Is A Probation Monastery?

In Theravāda Buddhism, we have special monasteries for bhikkhus (monks) who break recoverable heavy rules which are called saṅghādisesa rules. A bhikkhu (monk) who breaks these rules needs to spend 6 nights and some extra bonus nights in special monasteries which are called parivāsa monasteries. They are also often nicknamed as “Prison Monasteries”, but they are really probation or rehabilitation monasteries.

Parivāsa means “probation period” It sounds similar to vassa, which means “rainy season”, but it is a very different to a trained ear. A monk who breaks any of the 13 saṅghādisesa rules must undergo penance and probation and he loses his full status as a monk during this time. Such monks lose their seniority and status and must get their food last if they are mixed in with other monks. Lastly, the monk must announce his offense to every resident monk each and everyday of his 6 day minimum sentence called mānatta (which means state of paying respect).

Practicalities. Because a bhikkhu observing penance must notify every bhikkhu in
the monastery of his penance, it is impractical for him to observe penance in a
monastery with many bhikkhus in residence or coming and going on visits. Thus the
texts agree that a wise policy is to choose a monastery where only a few (but no
less than four) other congenial bhikkhus are living and where visiting bhikkhus are

The Buddhist Monastic Code II p. 314

Bhikkhuni Rehabilitation

Bhikkhunis also have these rules and similar ways to purify their offenses, but they must undergo the rehabilitation period for 2 weeks with a minimum of four bhikkhus and four bhikkhunis (usually five or six is needed for each group, with a total of 10 or 12 monastics). The initial 2 week time is longer than a bhikkhu’s 6 days period, but it is capped and can never exceed two weeks because there are no bonus nights added to the sentence for concealing the offense. Some monks have been sentenced to months or even years but that will never happen to bhikkhunis. If the ordinations of bhikkhunis are legitimate, then all bhikhunis who sleep alone and travel alone have “warrants” on their heads and must go to special (purifying/rehab) monasteries for two weeks, and be demoted from their full bhikkhuni status until restored by both saṅghas.

What is a heavy offense?

A heavy rule is something not to be taken lightly. That is why they call them “heavy rules”. There are three classes of heavy rules. The first class is defeat or pārājika rules. These are not recoverable. This means the monk or nun is automatically disrobed without a trial the moment the rule is broken. Even if the monk or nun continues to wear robes, they are not real monks or nuns. The bhikkhus have four pārājika rules while the bhikkhunis have eight. While a monk can have defeat for having sex, a nun can be defeated for merely consenting to being touched in the area above the knees and below the collar bone or merely meeting in private for such purposes. The rules are strict and they are nonnegotiable. For this reason, and the bhikkhuni lineage’s extinction, alternative 10 precept ordinations have been created for nuns.

The other two heavy classes are recoverable. As part of the recovery or rehabilitation process, the nuns must announce their offenses daily to every single bhikkhu and bhikkhuni in the monastery and also do other duties for two weeks. If they forget to tell one monastic, they must do another night to replace the broken night. For this reason, separate and secluded rehabilitation monasteries are used to avoid spontaneous and discrete visitors from disqualifying the process. At the end of two weeks, the nuns receive special recitations by 20 bhikkhunis (nuns) and also 20 bhikkhus (monks), which is called abbhānaṃ. Furthermore, 20 is not usually considered enough and usually 23-25 monastics are required as a minimum on each side. This gathering of 50 monastics is quite a big burden and there might not even be enough bhikkhunis to do such transactions today. That is probably the real reason why the book, Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies attempts to relegate the heavy rules as a modern nuisance. However, the karma still exists. The heavy rules are so heavy, that even if one disrobes for twenty years and then ordains again, those offences still exist and they must be dealt with upon ordination.

The second class of heavy rules are those involving subsequent meetings by the community or saṅghadisesa rules. The third class for nuns are called Aṭṭha Garudhammā which means “The eight heavy rules [a bhikkhuni must agree to for ordination]”. If you ask a nun about the breaking of these heavy recoverable rules, and I have, they will mention that most monks break the rules and they are exercising the same privilege.

As for the masses of monks who break many rules as a “normal”, this is true, but not to the fullest extent. Monks who desire to follow all of the rules are rare to find in the world. Most of these “normal” and “run of the mill” monks break a good majority of the rules out of convenience. The biggest cause for the widespread breaking of rules, is the false need to use money in “modern times”. Using money renders a monk as, “always breaking the rules as long as money is held or things bought with the money are held or used.” Because of this, many of the other rules have less of a sting to them. It is like breaking a diet with a slice of 2000 calorie chocolate cake. If one eats this cake daily, there is not much purpose in following the rest of the diet.  Nevertheless, these “normal” monks will draw the line when it comes to breaking the heavy rules, or at least we hope they do. There will be cases where a rule is broken, and when that happens, he will know something very bad has been done wrong. He will need to confess and make arrangements for purification and rehabilitation. It will be on his mind until it is resolved. This is a heavy offense.

However, Bhikkhu Sujato, in his book, Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies, carefully writes to his readers that implies that it is okay to break a recoverable heavy rule. You can read and decide what his intentions are:

The problem with our current rule is that it seems to fall for everyday
activities, which no-one today would consider blameworthy. This is, how-
ever, not all that dissimilar to the bhikkhus’ saṅghādisesas, as one of them
deals with building a hut for oneself that is too large. Given the apparently
small size of the allowable hut, this would not generally be regarded as
blameworthy today.
But given the serious consequences of committing a
saṅghādisesa, we must carefully consider the various sources, their contexts
and interpretations before drawing conclusions.

Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies Page 76.

The above quote sets the stage at the beginning of a Chapter 3, which tries to relegate the importance of (heavy classed) saṅghādisesa rules which are very restrictive for bhikkhunis. Unfortunately, he fails to even list the rule number he is talking about in the above quote. He is actually referring to saṅghadisesa rule #6 which is specifically written only for the monk who builds his own kuṭi by his own begging, with no donor. That part was missing from his description which misleads one to believe that all kuṭi are at fault and ignored out of convenience. The actual abridged rule is listed below:

6. When a bhikkhu is building a hut from (gains acquired by) his own begging — having no sponsor, destined for himself — he is to build it to the standard measurement. Here the standard is this:… spans … or if he should exceed the standard, it entails initial and subsequent meetings of the Community.

6. Saññācikāya pana bhikkhunā kuṭiṃ kārayamānena assāmikaṃ attuddesaṃ pamāṇikā kāretabbā … vidatthiyo … pamāṇaṃ vā atikkāmeyya, saṅghādiseso.  

Rule abridged for ease. The full rule is found here: Saṅghādisesa # 6

SG #6 in summary: “If you beg for the materials of your own kuṭi, its size must be the absolute minimum.”

I have never heard of this detailed multi-factored rule ever broken in any vinaya monastery. You can decide if his description is misleading. He also sets the stage for bhikkhunis to believe that it is okay to break any rule written in Pāḷi that does not exactly match across 6 other different translations and traditions.

The rules define the sport being played. Removing a heavy rule is like removing the net from tennis, or removing the goal from hockey because they are essential parts of the games. In the same way, bhikkhunis should not change or redefine the rules. Furthermore, all monks know that it is wrong when they break a rule, such as accepting and using money. The bhikkhus will never deny that it is wrong. The “bhikkhunis” of today are different as you will see.

Saṅghadisesa Heavy Rules That Apply

There are quite a few rules, but we will limit this article to the common rules that are disregarded by most Theravāda Bhikkhunis. Rule #3 is translated word by word and again in a normal way below:


Yā pana bhikkhunī
Should any bhikkhunī

ekā vā gāmantaraṃ gaccheyya,
alone, or, among villages, should-go

ekā vā nadīpāraṃ gaccheyya,
alone, or, other-shore-of-river, should-go

ekā vā rattiṃ vippavaseyya,
alone, or, night, should-stay-apart

ekā vā gaṇamhā ohiyeyya,
alone, or, companion(s), should fall behind her

ayampi bhikkhunī paṭhamāpattikaṃ dhammaṃ āpannā nissāraṇīyaṃ saṅghādisesaṃ.
this bhikkhunī, also, as soon as she has fallen into the first act of offence, is to be (temporarily) driven out, and it entails initial and subsequent meetings of the Community.

(eka or “alone” means “without another Theravāda bhikkhuni companion”)

Proper Translation:

Should any bhikkhunī go among villages alone or go to the other shore of a river alone or spend the night apart alone or fall behind her companion(s) alone: this bhikkhunī, also, as soon as she has fallen into the first act of offence, is to be (temporarily) driven out, and it entails initial and subsequent meetings of the Community.

Pac mmPara#688

This rule means that:

  1. If a bhikkhuni goes outside of her village and into another village without another bhikkhuni present, she requires rehabilitation for two weeks.
  2. If a bhikkhuni sleeps alone without another bhikkhuni without being within the hand’s reach at dawn she requires rehabilitation for two weeks.
  3. If a bhikkhuni crosses a river alone without another bhikkhuni present, she requires rehabilitation for two weeks.
  4. If a bhikkhuni falls behind a group traveling without another bhikkhuni present, she requires rehabilitation for two weeks.

While these rules are oppressive for women, they are nearly verbatim in all of the active or inactive Buddhist traditions. Bhikkhu Sujato, who is the leading vinaya teacher1He is the leading vinaya teacher for Westerner Bhikkhunis because he has written “The English Bhikkhuni Vinaya Book” in the same sense that Ajahn Thanissaro who is the author of the BMC is the leading vinaya teacher for Westerner Bhikkhus for most of the Western Bhikkhunis lists six other translations from different Buddhist Traditions (outside of Pāḷi Theravāda Buddhism as the seventh) in his book. There are really only two versions as a result from the 2nd Buddhist Council which resulted in a saṅgha schism. This council was called to action because many monks wanted to make a looser vinaya and even allow the use of money. Agreements could not be reached and a schism took place. Therefore, listing these three conflicting schools from the other side of a schism with loose vinaya and loose philosophy are not reliable for true vinaya comparisons. Even so, there are just a few words that are different from the Pāḷi version. The rule at hand is exactly the same in , Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies four listed traditions (including our Pāḷi) which are on our Theravāda side of the schism, or the side that did not break away. Let me remind you that the Western bhikkhuni ordinations are performed in Pāḷi. The Theravāda tradition is based on Pāḷi. The rules should be followed as written in Pāḷi.

The goal of the chapter 3 of Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies is to create doubt for the rule listed above so the bhikkhunis or bhikkhunis-to-be can feel comfortable breaking these rules. This was essential at the time the book was written in 2007, just before the mass exodus and ordinations of the Western nuns headed by Ajahn Sumedho’s Western Thai Forest Tradition. This chapter is very confusing to read because doubt is rooted in moha or delusion. Listing non-Pāḷi versions just confuses things and says very little to me. I encourage you to read the chapter on this rule. Nevertheless, let me digest this for you. Four out of the seven listed versions including our Pāḷi version are exactly the same as the rule listed and quoted in the above section. These four that are in agreement with the Pāḷi are from our side of the schism.2Mahāvihāra, Dharmagupta, Mūlasarvāstivāda, Sarvāstivāda.

Furthermore, the mūla (root) texts, called Pācittiyapāḷi defines “alone” as “another bhikkhuni”. The proximity is defined as arm’s length for sleeping and “within and earshot” during travel. If she separates even for a moment during the night, she incurs a grave offence (thullaccaya). If separated at dawn, she has the full saṅghādisesa offense. Contrary to what the book Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies says, it does not matter if she is in the same room or building, etc.3The commentary to the rule says:
Hatthapāsoyeva hi idha pamāṇaṃ,
Hatthapāsa (arm’s reach) is the distance in this precept
hatthapāsātikkame ekagabbhopi na rakkhati
exceeding the hatthapasa in one room also does not guard [against āpatti]
4How do they go to the toilet? Even during my time, in 2001, with toilets that are shared and external to where one sleeps, one can see monks carrying containers to the toilet in the morning. Let me tell you that “piss pots” actually look like plastic sauce pans. The same practice of using a pot inside the kuṭi was probably practiced in the time of the Buddha. During travel, being separated at any moment, even a second can cause a full offense. It is very clearly stated in the mūla texts, Pācittiyapāḷi. Therefore the practice of sleeping or traveling without the specified proximity of a fellow bhikkhuni is quite serious.

A further confirmation of the correctness of the rule is found within the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni vinaya Pāḷi texts. In these texts, the monks (bhikkhus), as part of their saṅghādisesa rehabilitation, are not allowed to sleep in the same lodging as other bhikkhus. However, the section which explains the punishment of bhikkhunis (nuns) undergoing saṅghādisesa rehabilitation relaxes this requirement because they are never not allowed to sleep alone…ever. This easily proves that the rule is correct and consistent within the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka.

It is very clear in many other sections that bhikkhus (monks), sleeping in the same lodging as other bhikkhus (monks), is a privilege (pācittiya 69 & 70). When there are problems, this privilege is taken away. However, sleeping in the same lodging as other bhikkhunis is never taken away as punishment because sleeping alone would break a heavy rule for bhikkhunis.

While it seems ancient to think that women are susceptible to sex more than men, a study claims that 20% of all U.S women have either been raped or have been a victim of attempted rape. Furthermore, Susan Blackmore once said that women can acquire sex anytime they wish and they can even get paid for doing so5The Meme Machine is a popular science book by British Susan Blackmore on the subject of memes. Blackmore attempts to constitute memetics as a science by discussing its empirical and analytic potential, as well as some important problems with memetics.. The requirement for an additional bhikkhuni to be present is to provide that monastic moral support whereas another laywoman might not provide the same moral shame as a bhikkhuni would provide. It should be noted that consensual sex with a nun is referred to as rape in the same way as statutory rape is used today. It is a very serious (garu) karmic crime for the man. Nevertheless, forced rape has happened in the modern and recent past. The unthinkable still happens and it is surely easier to happen to a female monastic who is traveling alone. In summary: Consensual or forced sex is easier to happen to a woman and heavy rules are in place to prevent that from happening.

8 Heavy Rules (Garudhammas)

The bhikkhunis of today will also try to invalidate the Garudhamma (heavy) rules as “light” and optional. If you are not familiar with the rules, those same Western bhikkhunis who rewrite and explain the heavy rules listed above may sound like an authority but they are far from being learned or informed. Because most monks, and lay people do not know the bhikkhuni vinaya, it is easy to pull the wool over one’s eyes.

Garudhamma rules can be explained as heavy by the definition of garu which literally means “heavy”. The typical “heavy” punishment explained above for saṅghadisesa is also listed directly in the fifth Garudhamma rule below that clearly shows that heavy rules are punished with rehabilitation time.

 ‘‘Garudhammaṃ ajjhāpannāya bhikkhuniyā ubhatosaṅghe pakkhamānattaṃ caritabbaṃ. 
Heavy-rules, transgression, by-bhikkhunis, both-sanghas, 2-week-rehabilitation, to-be-practiced.

Different translations:

5) A nun, offending against an [garudhamma] important rule, must undergo mānatta (discipline) for
half a month before both Orders. This rule too must be honoured . . . during her life

(5) If a nun commits a serious offence she must undergo expiation before both assemblies. (oxford )

Cv mmPara#403, Garudhamma rule #5 “important rule” and “serious offence”= garudhamma

All 8 rules are listed below:

  1. “A nun who has been ordained (even) for a century must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, do proper homage to a monk ordained but that day. And this rule is to be honoured, respected, revered, venerated, never to be transgressed during her life.
  2. “A nun must not spend the rains in a residence where there is no monk. This rule too is to be honoured . . . during her life.
  3. “Every half month a nun should desire two things from the Order of Monks: the asking (as to the date) of the Observance day, and the coming for the exhortation. This rule too is to be honoured . . . during her life.
  4. “After the rains a nun must ‘invite’ before both Orders in respect of three matters: what was seen, what was heard, what was suspected. This rule too is to be honoured . . . during her life.
  5. “A nun, offending against an important rule, must undergo mānatta (discipline) for half a month before both Orders [bhikkhus and bhikkhunis]. This rule too is to be honoured . . . during her life.
  6. “When, as a probationer, she has trained in the six rules for two years, she should seek ordination from both Orders. This rule too is to be honoured . . . during her life.
  7. “A monk must not be abused or reviled in any way by a nun. This rule too is to be honoured . . . during her life.
  8. “From to-day admonition of monks by nuns is forbidden, admonition of nuns by monks is not forbidden. This rule too is to be honoured, respected, revered, venerated, never to be transgressed during her life.

Again, these rules sound oppressive, but that is what being a bhikkhuni of an ancient tradition means. We have only touched the surface with heavy rules. It is also prohibited for bhikkhunis to live outside the village. There is no such thing as disregarding a rule and blurting out,
“It is just a light rule.”
The modern 10 precept nuns who are called thilashin6Like the maechi of neighbouring Thailand and the dasa sil mata of Sri Lankathilashin occupy a position somewhere between that of an eight-precept lay follower and a fully ordained monastic. However, they are treated more favourably than maechi, being able to receive training, practice meditation and sit for the same qualification examinations as the monks. in Myanmar, however, do not have heavy penalties for such rules, but they are expected to follow rules of respect as well. By being a bhikkhuni, one is forced to live with monks and to always be respectful to and be controlled by monks. The way to equality is to become a monastic that is not a bhikhuni and instead ordain with 10 precepts like thilashin do in Myanmar. By doing so, one can become self reliant on requisites and develop a separate community. Sayalay Dipankara has created autonomy along with several meditation centre communities around the globe in her name.


The bhikkhuni rules are not easy to follow especially if one cannot travel alone or sleep alone. However, if one wants to be called a bhikkhuni, one needs to honour such ancient non-negotiable rules that come with the ancient bhikkhuni title and ordination. Theravāda (School of the Elders) can be loosely translated in modern English as “Old-School”. If this is not suitable, perhaps something different like a thilashin should be considered. The rules discussed are heavy and if the ordination is real, severe kammic consequences are present if they are broken, ignored and propagated. If the ordination is not real, there are severe consequences for claiming a title that is not due. The senior monks have provided 8 and 10 precept ordinations for women as a modern solution, yet the rules were there for a reason and the risks of a nun being compromised still remain. Pa-Auk, Na-uyana, Panditarama, Amaravati and many other established monasteries have often been providing food, lodging and instruction for such widely accepted thilashins or equivalents to attain the goals of Buddhism for many years now. In fact, such nuns in Pa-Auk have very high success rates. Ironically, in the West, few westerners will know the difference between a bhikkhuni and a thilashin. The supporters might even prefer a thilashin because they are easier to take care of due to fewer rules and regulations. In the end, it is not about the official monastic title or fame, but rather, it is about the practice of Buddhism to attain the goals of our Buddha’s instructions which matters the most.

Leave a Reply