The Ordination of Nuns

Nuns at Sathira-Dhammasathan

With­in many Bud­dhist com­mu­ni­ties, both in Asia and in non-Asian coun­tries, the issue of the valid ordi­na­tion of nuns and the sta­tus of nuns with­in the wider monas­tic com­mu­ni­ty is at the fore­front of dis­cus­sion and debate. Any­one who has par­tic­i­pat­ed in this dis­cus­sion will have seen how much emo­tion this issue has gen­er­at­ed. It is prob­a­bly fair to pre­dict that this issue will con­tin­ue to offer chal­leng­ing ques­tions for the next few decades and will have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on the land­scape of the Ther­avā­da tradition.

For many peo­ple in the West, the appar­ent inequal­i­ty deter­mined by gen­der touch­es a deep and raw nerve. The hier­ar­chi­cal struc­ture of the Ther­avā­da tra­di­tion does not blend in eas­i­ly with the mod­ern West­ern prin­ci­ples of egal­i­tar­i­an­ism and fem­i­nism. If women are seen to be denied ‘equal rights’ then for many peo­ple this auto­mat­i­cal­ly equates with dis­crim­i­na­tion and injus­tice. The result­ing emo­tion­al reac­tion can be so pow­er­ful and vis­cer­al that peo­ple may lose an abil­i­ty to be objective.

Because of Ajahn Payutto’s sta­tus as a lead­ing schol­ar and teacher, it is nat­ur­al that he has par­tic­i­pat­ed in this dis­cus­sion. He has been crit­i­cized by some peo­ple for being over­ly con­ser­v­a­tive and nar­row-mind­ed. I have recent­ly begun to read the book titled ‘Answers to Dr. Mar­tin – the Bud­dhist Vinaya in rela­tion to Bhikkhu­nis,’ com­piled by Dr. Mar­tin Seeger of Leeds Uni­ver­si­ty (pub. 2010). Here are some of the ini­tial top­ics dis­cussed in this text:

Before the Buddha’s final pass­ing away, he said to Ven. Ānan­da: ‘If they wish, the order may abol­ish the minor rules after my pass­ing.’ The five hun­dred ara­hants led by the Elder Mahākas­s­apa who gath­ered short­ly after the Buddha’s death for the First Coun­cil, how­ev­er, decid­ed unan­i­mous­ly to not accept this offer and decid­ed instead to keep the dis­ci­pline (Vinaya) as it was. Ajahn Payut­to claims that this deci­sion by the saṅgha effec­tive­ly ‘sealed’ or ‘deter­mined’ the Ther­ava­da tra­di­tion. He goes on to describe how there have been fre­quent chal­lenges to this author­i­ty, which result­ed in myr­i­ad, splin­tered schools or denom­i­na­tions (nikāya): for exam­ple, two hun­dred and fifty years after the Buddha’s death, dur­ing the time of King Aso­ka, there were already eigh­teen dif­fer­ent schools. Today, by includ­ing the Mahāyā­na tra­di­tion, there are hun­dreds, includ­ing two hun­dred in Japan alone. Of all these hun­dreds of Bud­dhist schools, the Ther­avā­da school is the largest.

Shaving of the Head – Nun's Ordination

The Vinaya includes a pro­ce­dure for the ordi­na­tion of bhikkhunīs (ful­ly ordained nuns) and sāmaṇerīs (novice nuns), which requires the pres­ence and approval of exist­ing bhikkhunīs. Here we come to the crux of prob­lem. Some­time between the 6th and 11th cen­tu­ry, the Ther­avā­da bhikkhu­ni order ceased to exist. If one choos­es to reestab­lish the bhikkhu­ni order then one in effect decides to rewrite the Vinaya in order to val­i­date the pro­ce­dure. Indeed, this deci­sion has been made by some Ther­avā­dan monas­tic com­mu­ni­ties, and there have been many women ordained as bhikkhu­nis over the past thir­ty years, notably in Sri Lanka.

The mat­ter of nuns’ ordi­na­tions is a Catch 22. Those indi­vid­u­als who sup­port and car­ry out bhikkhu­ni ordi­na­tions feel that this act of empow­er­ment to women who aspire to renun­ci­a­tion and awak­en­ing off­sets the risk of divi­sion and dis­sen­sion with­in the wider Ther­avā­da com­mu­ni­ty. Oth­ers, like Ajahn Payut­to, feel that the risks of divi­sion and schism in the Ther­avā­da com­mu­ni­ty endan­ger the sta­bil­i­ty and long-last­ing exis­tence of this tra­di­tion. Once peo­ple begin to tam­per with the Vinaya, the flood­gates open—there is like­ly to be no end to peo­ple rais­ing objec­tions, demand­ing reform, and splin­ter­ing off into dif­fer­ent fac­tions. From what I gath­er, Ajahn Payut­to is much more in favour of pro­mot­ing (and per­haps cre­at­ing) opti­mal and healthy female renun­ciant forms of prac­tice (for exam­ple the Mae Chi order in Thai­land, the sīlad­hāra order estab­lished by Ajahn Sumed­ho in Eng­land, or the dasa-sīla-māta of Sri Lan­ka). This way the integri­ty of the Ther­avā­da tra­di­tion is pre­served and women are pro­vid­ed with the req­ui­sites for liv­ing the Holy Life, so that they can be bea­cons of light and wis­dom in the world.

In reply to the accu­sa­tion of being nar­row-mind­ed, Ajahn Payut­to sim­ply states:

There are two facets to open-mind­ed­ness: first is recog­ni­tion and acknowl­edge­ment of the truth, not sim­ply hold­ing to per­son­al pref­er­ences. Recog­ni­tion of the truth is accom­plished by being open to what oth­ers have to say and being open to dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, which may require a sac­ri­fice of one’s cher­ished opin­ions. Sec­ond, is a giv­ing up of per­son­al advan­tage for the ben­e­fit and sta­bil­i­ty of the wider community.


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