The origins of the Buddhist Nuns ‘ Order are a contentious issue in Theravada Buddhism. Paradoxically, it is also the issue that is not discussed a lot. Which is surprising, as in current Buddhism there is a gaping hole where a Theravada Bhikkhuni (Nuns) community should be. The prevailing view is that the nuns’ full ordination line was irrevocably lost long in the past and cannot be restored.
There are separate attempts here and there to bring Theravada Nuns’ Order back, including Ajahn Brahm’s ordaining a group of nuns in Dhammasara Monastery in Australia in 2009. This resulted in severe criticism by some Theravada religious leaders and expulsion of Ajahn Brahm and the monastery he leads from the organisation of the Sangha of Wat Nong Pah Pong.
Mahayana Nuns receive full ordination, as it is considered that historically the Order did not lose continuity since the Buddha’s times. However, for both Theravada and Mahayana something called “The Eight Garudhammas” – the eight heavy rules – remain a painful issue. These are the rules that the historical Buddha is supposed to have given the first nuns to whom he gave ordination. These eight rules were the condition on which the Buddha would even allow women to become Bhikkhuni.
In 2001, Venerable Shih Chao-hwei, accompanied by two monks, two nuns, two laymen, and two laywomen, tore apart a copy of the rules. This took place at an academic conference on Humanistic Buddhism in Taipei. Academic debates had preceded this act, including those on the pages of the Sangha Magazine since 1992, and criticism and outrage followed. You can read an academic article by Chiung Hwang Chen about the event in Journal of Feminist Scholarship, available online for free.
The Eight Rules put a Bhikkhuni in a subordinate position to Bhikkhu in various circumstances of monastic life. One rule, for instance, requires a nun to rise up and bow to a monk, even if she has been ordained decades ago, and he only the day before.
Of course I oppose each of these rules and I believe that contrary to what they say, a Bhikkhuni can certainly give discourses to Bhikkhu, or admonish Bhikkhu. And if a nun should do penance before both male and female Sanghas, so should monks.
How do I relate to the fact that the Buddha, the founder of the spiritual tradition I follow, said these things? Apart from numerous claims by feminist scholars and nun-sympathetic male Buddhist leaders that the rules were not in fact given by the Buddha, but are later additions to the Canon, let’s look at the situation.
The Buddha’s aunt and step-mother, Mahapajapati herself asks for admission and then Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and attendant, asks for same, but he refuses. Then Ananda asks the Buddha if women at all can achieve the same Enlightenment as men. The Buddha says yes. Here is already enough information for me: women can achieve Enlightenment.
However, when I say “for me”, I mean exactly this social identity, raised under particular circumstances and given particular opportunities in life. I never subscribed to any patriarchal rules, written or unwritten, and if I experience negative consequences of patriarchy, I have ways of confronting them. I came to Buddhism with this luggage. The conditional in me: my upbringing and my outlook had put me in a position that allows me to ignore the Eight Heavy Rules. For me Enlightenment is unconditional. It is beyond what even the Buddha said.
That is me, living in the Global North in the 21st century, being a laywoman. Suppose I was a Buddhist nun or a laywoman living in the past. What effect would it have had on me to see the male Monastic Order being so elevated over the female one? Would it affect my spiritual confidence and even efforts? Would it put me off from striving? I would say – most probably. And as in this conditioned world effect follows cause, more Buddhist women who are made to fell inferior, beget more Buddhist women who feel inferior.
Thus, although Enlightenment is beyond this world, the means and the roads to it are firmly in this world. There is a sticky issue in Buddhist history that many feminists, including on this blog, point to. This is the issue of the Buddha’s living his family to become enlightened. I usually respond to this by saying that practically speaking, if you think through all the conditions of patriarchal India 2,500 years ago, this was the only way humanity could have got the Buddha’s teaching of end of suffering. The Buddha would not have practiced what he practiced had he stayed in the palace. The Buddha had to be a man because of the structure of the then spiritual life and organisation.
However, by the same token, the Buddha should have realised, that although women could achieve Enlightenment even without being officially admitted into the Order, in reality, the Establishment of the Female Monastic tradition was essential for women’s striving toward Liberation.
Interestingly enough, Ananda made this point to the Buddha. Ananda said that Mahapajapati had brought the Buddha up, and now he was refusing her admission. What Ananda seems to be saying is that without his step-mother’s care and nurturing the Buddha would not have been where he was – he would not have grown to be the man he became, the Enlightened One.
Oxana Poberejnaia is a content writer at http://content4you.org. She was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and has been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention, now in its 9th year. Oxana is now exploring the Sacred Feminine through marking seasonal festivals, working with her menstrual cycle, frame drumming and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Oxana is an artist and an author. Her works can be found on her blog.