In recent years, many Buddhist nuns have taken on leadership roles that require either ordination status or academic degrees, all of which was quite unheard of in Buddhist monastic traditions in the past.
However, this change has also met with much resistance, as traditionally Buddhism has allowed only men to serve in these roles. The early Pali Vinaya texts in the Buddhist canon recount how Buddha thrice rejected the request of his foster mother, Mahaprajapati, to be ordained, before his disciple, Ananda, persuaded him to accept women into the monastic body.
Ananda had to make two arguments for his case: an emotional one – that Mahaprajapati had been kind to the Buddha and raised him – and a logical one – that women, too, had the potential to become enlightened.
Even so, the Buddha stipulated an extra set of rules – the Eight Heavy Rules, or gurudharma in Sanskrit – that effectively placed the nuns under the supervision of monks. These rules have formed a crucial part of the Buddhist discourse on women’s status.
As a scholar of Buddhism with a focus on gender, I have been closely following the debates over women’s leadership. Nuns in virtually all Buddhist traditions, from Sri Lanka, Tibet and Nepal to Thailand, are becoming equal members in the sangha, or the Buddhist community.
Ordination and opportunities
The Buddhist monastic community is divided into a fourfold system of novice monks, novice nuns, fully ordained monks and fully ordained nuns, each with a set of precepts, or vinaya, that they need to follow.
Of the three major Buddhist monastic traditions – Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, Mahayana Buddhism in East Asia and Tantric Buddhism in Tibet and the Himalayas – a continuous lineage of fully ordained nuns is found only in the East Asian Mahayana tradition.
This is because to conduct the full ordination ceremony there need to be five fully ordained monks and five fully ordained nuns present. While there are individual cases of fully ordained nuns in both the Theravada and the Tibetan traditions, the rarity of these cases made a continuous lineage practically impossible.
Those who are fully ordained have to adhere to many rules governing their speech, behavior, clothing, daily schedule, and interaction with others. While novice nuns have only about 100 precepts to follow; those who are fully ordained have to adhere to over 300. However, full ordination also offers prestigious standing in the community, higher ritual status, and freedom from serving monks and senior members, cooking, cleaning and performing daily maintenance.
Additionally, because of the lack of equal ordination status for nuns, lay patrons have generally preferred to have monks undertake ritual tasks instead. As a result, nuns not only receive less financial support from their families, than monks do, they are also paid less by patrons of their monastic community.
The overall lack of opportunity, income and prestige further perpetuates a cycle that disadvantages female monastics.
Buddhist women began to seek change and request full ordination from the East Asian tradition as early as the 1970s.
At the First International Conference for Buddhist Women in 1987, the issue of full ordination for Buddhist women emerged as one of the central themes. This conversation was initiated by a group of nuns from Europe and the United States in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
“Sakyadhita: International Association of Buddhist Women” was founded shortly after the conference. With its name inspired by the Pali and Sanskrit word meaning “daughters of the Buddha,” Sakyadhita serves as an international forum on women’s status and gender equality in Buddhism.
As with the admission of women into the Buddhist community, the establishment of a continuous lineage of full ordination was accompanied by controversy since its inception. The different opinions among Buddhist women and feminist scholars came to the fore at the International Congress on Women’s Role in the Sangha in Hamburg, Germany, in 2007.
While some hailed the return of full ordination for women as a victory against patriarchy, a group of Tibetan and Himalayan nuns affiliated with the Tibetan Nuns Project openly stated their discomfort with the feminist label placed on efforts to reinstate fully ordained nuns.
Despite the difference in their opinions, many more nuns have taken concrete steps to elevate their ordination status, either in groups or individually. For example, in Tibetan Buddhism, while the Dalai Lama has yet to weigh in on this issue, the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, decided to initiate this change. The Karmapa is the leader of the Karma Kagyu school, another major Tibetan Buddhist school.
In March of 2017, with much fanfare and the Karmapa presiding, 19 women received novice monastic vows from a group of five fully ordained nuns from Nan Lin Vinaya Nunnery in Taiwan. It marked the first step to revive the long-lost tradition of full ordination for Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhist monastic women.
In addition, there are examples of women from Buddhist communities in Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Burma receiving full ordination abroad. To do so, these nuns usually seek ordination from their East Asian Buddhist sisters, outside their own lineage.
While the issue of ordination remains controversial in the Thai Buddhist community, the presence of fully ordained female Buddhist leaders such as Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, a Thai Buddhist nun, scholar and activist, has encouraged many in Thailand to take similar steps and receive ordination from abroad.
Seeking higher religious education
In addition to providing equal standing for nuns through restoring ordination, another approach toward building future female Buddhist leadership has to do with education.
Historically, limited educational opportunities were available to Buddhist women. However, in recent years two emerging education initiatives have come to fruition across the Himalayas: Nuns in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition are, for the first time in Buddhist history, receiving the highest degrees and becoming Buddhist scholars and educators themselves.
The first of such gender-equal monastic education programs started in Eastern Tibet. It grants the title of khenmo – the highest degree in Buddhist learning in the Nyingma tradition – to nuns who have completed a rigorous decadelong curriculum. Since the 1990s, over 200 women have graduated from the program. Some remained in teaching roles, while others assumed editorial or publishing roles, or became administrators at the Buddhist academy.
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Another group of Tibetan nuns at Dolmaling Nunnery in Himachal Pradesh, India, have received the geshema degree – the highest degree in Tibetan Gelugpa monastic learning – since 2016, following a precedent set by the German Tibetan nun Kelsang Wangmo. As of 2019, 44 nuns hold the geshema degree. Like their counterparts in Eastern Tibet, many geshema graduates became teachers at their institutions and are cultivating future generations of female scholars.
In a tradition that associates much status and prestige with lineage transmission and scholarly achievement, establishing a legitimate ordination lineage and providing equal education opportunities clear the way for women to become leaders in unprecedented ways. It also ensures a continuous impact on future generations.