Rocana left Bodhinyana Monastery recently to take a 'higher'
ordination in England. As I mentioned in the 'Sangha News'
article, she visited Thailand en-route and was rather disappointed
at what she saw of the opportunities for nuns there. The place
of women in Theravada monasticism is a problem no less prickly
than some of the native bushes here in the monastery! But
it cannot be avoided. It can only be understood in relation
to the VINAYA, the body of monastic rules and regulations
established by the Buddha which are binding on every Buddhist
monk and nun. Thus in this fifth article in the series I will
discuss the ORDINATION OF WOMEN.
is the name which denotes a fully ordained Buddhist monk.
The term literally means one who depends on alms. Correspondingly,
a 'Bhikkhuni' is a fully ordained Buddhist nun. During his
lifetime, the Buddha established thriving communities of both
bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. However, not only did the Buddha
lay down more rules of discipline for the bhikkhunis, 311
as against the bhikkhus' 227, but he also made it more difficult
for them to be ordained.
become a bhikkhuni a woman had to begin by asking for 'ordination'
as a sikkhamana (meaning a woman in training)
before an assembly of at least 5 bhikkhunis. Her training
consisted of 6 rules: the Five Precepts, the third of which
being extended to complete celibacy, plus abstaining from
eating outside of the morning time. Only when she had kept
these six rules UNBROKEN FOR TWO YEARS could she, with the
permission of her parents and husband, take higher ordination
as a bhikkhuni. Should she break a precept then she would
begin her period of training anew. Having completed her training,
she should then seek an experienced bhikkhuni of at least
12 years standing to be her preceptor. A preceptor has to
be agreed upon as such by the local community of bhikkhunis
before she may ordain another and even then, she may only
ordain one candidate every other year. the candidate is first
ordained in a formal meeting of at least five bhikkhunis and
afterwards this 'ordination on one side' is confirmed before
a formal meeting of at least five bhikkhus. Only then is she
a fully ordained nun according to Therevada tradition.
Bhikkhuni Sangha flourished for many centuries and spread
throughout South and East Asia. It seems to have died out
in Sri Lanka in the 11 th century C.E. (according to Professor
Malalasekera) mainly due to the civil turmoil coming from
invasion and war. The fact that the Bhikkhuni Sangha was not
re-established in the last decades of the 11 th century when
Sri Lanka was again peaceful strongly suggests that there
were few if any bhikkhunis in neighbouring lands, such as
India or Burma, who could be invited to Sri Lanka to re-establish
the tradition. For, as explained above, to ordain another
bhikkhuni one requires a minimum of five existing bhikkhunis;
once their number drops to below five then the Institution
many centuries the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma
have assumed that the Order of Bhikkhunis died out ages ago
and that it is impossible to revive. To compensate for this,
other female monastic traditions have been established by
the monks to help give the opportunity to women to live a
simple meditative life. Such an Order is that of the white
robed nuns of Thailand keeping the 8 Precepts and such a nun
was Sister Rocana. But being a later addition, this ordination
lacks the status of having been established by the Buddha
and lacks the authority of an ancient tradition and thus social
and cultural prejudices have been able to take root and prevail.
For this reason many senior monks, such as Ajahn Sumedho in
England for example, have attempted to revive and build upon
the female novice ordination. Though still less than a bhikkhuni,
a female novice wears brown and essentially keeps 10 precepts,
the last of which is abstaining from the use or possession
of money. Thus a female novice is more of a renunciant than
the white robed Thai nun, and, wearing robes similar in appearance
to those of a monk, she may get more of the respect she deserves.
has even been much discussion recently, that is in the last
decade or so, that it may be possible to revive the full bhikkhuni
ordination. There are bhikksunis of the Mahayana tradition
in Taiwan and Hong Kong. 'Bhikksuni' is merely the Sanskrit
(the language of Mahayana) equivalent to our 'Bhikkhuni'.
If it turns out that the ordination procedure used by the
Mahayana bhikksunis contains the vital ingredient of a formal
resolution, put three times to a gathering of at least 5 bhikkhunis,
informing those gathered that the candidate wishes for ordination
as a bhikkhuni and asking their approval, then the ordination
is probably valid by Therevada standards. Should this be so,
and I have no information on this at present, then we may
see the full female counterpart of the monks restored to the
the technicalities, one should always keep in mind the old
English proverb: "Where there is a will, there is a way".
I am often amazed to see how far rules can be bent under the
weight of compassion. All it needs is the motive for doing
the bending, and that motive will increase as do the numbers
of women who show by their example a willingness to surrender
to a renunciant's life.
(BSWA Newsletter, January-March 1990)