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A Summary Report of the 2007 International Congress on the Women's Role in the Sangha: Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages

University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany
18-20 July 2007
Alexander Berzin, August 2007

Part Two: Day One

Opening Addresses, Day One

Welcoming Speeches by the Host Institution

Prof. Dr. Ing. Habil. Monika Auweter-Kurtz, President of the University of Hamburg

Prof. Dr. Ludwig Paul, Dean of the Asia-Africa Institute, University of Hamburg

Rinchen Khandro Chogyal, Director of the Tibetan Nuns’ Project

His Holiness replied, when asked for bhikshuni ordination in 1984, that the decision required the support of the Asian sangha as a whole and research by the Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan Government in Exile, Dharamsala, India. Now we have reached the point of deciding how the starting of the ordination will be possible.

Prof. Dr. Lambert Schmithausen, University of Hamburg, Foundation for Buddhist Studies

Many prohibitions that Buddha made for monks and nuns were not because of ethical reasons, but so that society would not look down on the sangha, as in the example of not damaging plants and not eating dog meat. The same is the reason for Buddha’s initial hesitation to ordain bhikshunis and the subordinate position of women in the sangha. Now if women do not have equal treatment and bhikshuni ordination, again society will look down on Buddhism. Therefore, this must change in accordance with the times.

Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, Kalon Tripa of the Tibetan Government in Exile

For the Triple Gem to be complete, we need to have the full monastic sangha. Therefore, there is a great necessity for re-establishing bhikshunis within the Mulasarvastivada fold.

Bhikshuni Dr. Myongsong Sunim, Un-mun Sangha College, South Korea, President of the National Association of Korean Bhikkhunis

“The Role of Bhikshunis in the Twenty-first Century”

The Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, established in 1987 CE, has played an important role in helping to improve the education of Buddhist nuns. After World War II, the bhikshus in Korea helped to re-establish the dual order Dharmagupta bhikshuni ordination there through initially participating in the single sangha ordination method. To re-establish the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination will also need the support of the bhikshus and education and training facilities for the bhikshunis.

Bhikshuni Prof. Dr. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, University of San Diego, California, USA, President of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women

“Gender Equality and Human Rights”

Basic human rights apply to women as well as to men. Women need equal opportunities for reaching enlightenment, which includes bhikshuni ordination. It would be helpful if Tibetan nuns could study the bhikshuni vows before the ordination is established. The traditional custom is that one is only allowed to study the bhikshu or bhikshuni vows after having taken them. Moreover, at present, the Tibetan nuns are prevented from completing the Geshema degree, since Vinaya is one of the five subjects studied and they are not permitted to study it without already being bhikshunis.

Session One, Day One: Foundation of the Bhikshuni Order

Bhikkhu Dr. Analayo, University of Marburg, Germany

“Women’s Renunciation in Early Buddhism: The Four Assemblies and the Foundation of the Order of Nuns”

Buddha at first hesitated to ordain Mahaprajapati, but allowed her to shave her head, to put on robes, and to follow the discipline. This was because there was too little societal support for the nuns to receive sufficient food when begging for alms. There are many problems chronologically, however, in the traditional account of Mahaprajapati. She first requested ordination five years after Buddha’s enlightenment; but Ananda, who requested Buddha on her behalf, first ordained only twenty years after Buddha’s enlightenment. Considering that Mahaprajapati, as Buddha’s maternal aunt, raised him after his mother’s death, she would have been about eighty years old when Ananda was senior enough to make the request. Also, it makes no textual sense that there were bhikshunis before Mahaprajapti who gave her the brahmacharya ordination first.

Dr. Ute Hüsken, University of Oslo, Norway

“The Eight Garudhammas”

There are many differences in the accounts found in Differentiations within the Bhikkhuni (Vows) (Pali: Bhikkhunivibhanga) and in chapter ten of The Minor Section (Pali: Cullavagga) concerning Buddha’s hesitation to ordain Mahapajapati and his imposing the eight garudhammas as the precondition for ordaining. These differences reflect opposing factions at the time when the texts were written down and it is unclear even if Buddha imposed these eight. The ordination procedures in different lineages reflect the local society and times, and the ordination needs to adapt now to the present society and times.

Prof. Dr. Oskar von Hinüber, Professor Emeritus, Albert-Ludwigs Universität in Freiburg, Germany

“The Foundation of the Bhikkhuni Sangha as a Model for a Revival”

Primary sources do not indicate that Buddha actually spoke with nuns and there probably were no nuns at the time of the Buddha. Soon after Buddha, his followers, mainly Ananda, started the bhikkhuni order in order to compete with the Jain tradition, which already had bhikkhunis. The first Buddhist bhikkhunis were originally Jain ascetics and much of the Jain terminology came into the bhikkhuni vow texts. Although Mahakassappa was against the nuns, the Ananda faction won. But the influence of the Mahakassappa faction caused many restrictions to be made on the bhikkhunis. If monks themselves started the bhikkhuni ordination and not Buddha, then there is no need to receive anyone’s permission to reinstate the Mulasarvastivada bhikkhuni ordination. The monks should just do it.

Prof. Dr. Gisele Krey, Ruhr University Bochum, Germany

“The Acceptance of Women in Early Buddhism: Some Remarks on the Status of Nuns and Laywomen”

The implication from The Sutra on Differentiations among Offerings (Pali: Dakkhinavibhanga Sutta) that there were bhikkhunis before Mahapajapati makes no sense. According to the poem The Venerable Female Elder Kundalakesa (Pali: Theri Bhadda Kundalakesa), Buddha ordained Mahapajapati just with the words “ Ehi bhikkhuni (Come here, bhikkhuni),” with no ritual and no brahmachariya ordination beforehand. Buddha’s hesitation to ordain merely reflects the custom that he needed to be requested three times before agreeing.

Prof. Dr. Noritoshi Aramaki, Professor Emeritus, Kyoto University, Japan

“Mahapajapati Gotami as the Bhikkhuni”

The bhikkhu sangha ordained Mahapajapati as a bhikkhuni during Buddha’s lifetime, but the full list of bhikkhuni vows, the bhikkhuni bimonthly ceremony for the purification of transgressions (gso-sbyong, Skt. poshadha, Pali: uposatha), and the full ritual for bhikkhuni ordination developed almost a hundred years later, toward the end of King Ashoka’s reign. Similarly, not all suttas attributed to Buddha were actually spoken by Buddha during his lifetime, but evolved over the next few centuries.

Session Two, Day One: Bhikshuni Ordination

Bhikkhuni Sik Wei-chun, Taiwan

“The Legal Procedures for the Bhikshuni Ordination”

The Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination requires first brahmacharya ordination by twelve bhikshunis, and then, on the same day, full ordination by a dual sangha of ten bhikshus and twelve bhikshunis. The candidate must have kept the six root and six branch trainings for shikshamana probationary nuns for two years before this. The minimum age for shikshamana ordination is eighteen, while for bhikshuni ordination it is twenty.

For the brahmacharya ordination, the shikshamana, in the presence of the bhikshuni assembly, first requests the bhikshuni preceptor (mkhan-mo, Skt. upadhayayani) to be her abbess and sponsor. [The bhikshuni preceptor will be the one from whom the bhikshuni vows and their transmission lineage will be transmitted to the candidate. She will also be responsible for the care and education of the candidate after she has received ordination. She needs to have held bhikshuni vows for at least twelve years.] The candidate is then questioned twice about impediments she might have for keeping the vows. [First, the bhikshuni instructing master for private matters (gsang-ste ston-pa’i slob-dpon, Skt. raho ‘nushasakacharya) instructs and asks the candidate about the questions outside the assembly and then the bhikshuni procedural master (las-kyi slob-dpon, Skt. karmacarya) formally asks the questions before the assembly.] Next, the candidate requests the brahmacharya ordination before the bhikshuni assembly. The bhikshuni procedural master then calls the attention of the bhikshuni assembly, announces the name of the candidate’s bhikshuni preceptor, states the candidate’s qualifications, and then announces that the brahmacharya ordination has been completed.

Three bhikshus officiate during the bhikshuni ordination: [a bhikshu preceptor (mkhan-po, Skt. upadhyaya, Pali: upajjhaya) who has held bhikshu vows for at least ten years, a bhikshu procedural master, and a bhikshu instr u cting master for private matters]. First, the brahmacharya bhikshuni requests the full bhikshuni ordination before the dual sangha assembly, announcing her name and the name of her bhikshuni preceptor. [There is no need for the bhikshu instructing master for private matters to instruct her once more about the questions concerning impediments.] Then, in the presence of the dual assembly, the bhikshu procedural master asks her about the impediments she might have for keeping the vows. He then calls the attention of the dual sangha assembly, announces the name of the candidate’s bhikshuni preceptor, states the candidate’s qualifications and request for ordination, and then announces that the bhikshuni ordination has been completed. An assistant then announces the exact time of the ordination. [Afterwards, from time to time, the bhikshuni master for giving certainty (gnas-sbyin-pa’i slob-dpon, Skt. nishcayadayakacarya) instructs the newly ordained bhikshuni about the actions that are prohibited, those that are to be followed, and the permitted exceptions (dgag-sgrub-gnang).]

Acharya Geshe Tashi Tsering, Bhikshuni Ordination Researcher, The Department of Religion and Culture, Central Tibetan Administration, Dharamsala, India

“The Possibility of the Revival of the Mulasarvastivadin Bhikshuni Ordination in the 21st Century Depends of the Vinaya-Holders”

To reinstate the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination by means of a dual sangha requires the help of Dharmagupta bhikshunis. However, because of the dual sangha being constituted by members of two different Vinaya schools, the ordination will not be according to pure protocol, which calls for the dual sangha to be constituted from the same school. According to The Supreme Vinaya Scripture (‘Dul-ba gzhung dam-pa, Skt. Vinayottaragrantha), a single bhikshu sangha may confer shramanerika novice nun vows, although the ordaining bhikshus incur a minor infraction. Further, in The Root Vinaya Sutra (‘Dul-ba’i mdo rtsa-ba), Gunaprabha stated that it is not an invalid act if the bhikshus perform the other bhikshuni ordinations.

If bhikshuni ordination is conferred by a single Mulasarvastivada bhikshu sangha, however, the Tibetan Vinaya holders still have not been able to reach agreement concerning three points: (1) whether the present time would warrant conferring the bhikshuni ordination entailing the above-mentioned infraction, (2) whether brahmacharya ordination would be required before such a single sangha ordination, and (3) whether a bhikshu sangha would be permitted to confer brahmacharya ordination. Since the ordination procedures must be implemented in strict accordance with the Vinaya, only Vinaya-holders can make the final decision of the procedure to follow.

Prof. Dr. Bhikshuni Heng-ching Shih, Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association, Taipei, Taiwan

“Three Options: Re-establishing the Bhikshuni Lineage in the Tibetan Tradition”

At a conference of sixteen Tibetan Vinaya masters held in Dharamsala, India, in May 2006, two options were discussed for re-establishing the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination. (1) Theravada, Dharmagupta, Sarvastivada, and Mulasarvastivada Vinayas all allow bhikshuni ordination by bhikshus alone. When Buddha introduced dual sangha ordination, he did not disallow ordination only by bhikshus. Even if bhikshunis are ordained without brahmacharya ordination first, Buddha said the ordination is valid, although the ordainers incur a minor infraction. (2) If dual sangha ordination is conferred with Dharmagupta bhikshunis, this has historical precedent with Gongpa-rabsel. With such ordination, the newly ordained bhikshunis would follow the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni vows.

A third option, however, is also possible: (3) In 1998, twenty Sri Lankan ten-precept nuns were ordained in Bodh Gaya as bhikshunis by a single Taiwanese Dharmagupta sangha, with Mulasarvastivada and Theravada bhikshus and bhikshunis as additional witnesses. Then on that basis, they were given Theravada bhikshuni re-ordination by ten Sri Lankan Theravada bhikshus in Sarnath. Subsequently, the bhikkhunis participated in Theravada dual sangha bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka.

It is possible to do something similar for Mulasarvastivada bhikshunis. Many Tibetan and non-Tibetan nuns now for many years have been keeping the bhikshuni vows purely after ordination by Dharmagupta, but following a course of study and practice similar to that of the Mulasarvastivada bhikshus. If the Mulasarvastivada bhikshus recognize the ordination these nuns have received and then a group of only these bhikshus re-ordain them as Mulasarvastivada bhikshunis, then afterwards there will be a dual sangha of Mulasarvastivada bhikshus and bhikshunis who can confer bhikshuni ordination. 

Bhikshu Dr. Huimin Shih, Taipei National University, Taiwan; President Dharma Drum Buddhist College

“An Inquiry Concerning the Lineage of the Bhikshuni Ordination”

Buddha first ordained without a ritual, just saying, “ Ehi (Come here).” The rituals developed later. Typically, the shramanerika, shikshamana, and brahmacharya ordinations were conferred by a bhikshuni sangha alone. However, according to the Sri Lankan chronicles, there are records of shramanerika ordination being performed by bhikshus. Even in China, the Dharmagupta bhikshuni ordination was first conferred by bhikshus alone. The eleventh-century CE Kashmiri scholar Gunavarmin wrote that the ordination was valid even without the brahmacharya ordination beforehand, although the ordainers incur an infraction. Only in the fifth century CE when Theravada bhikshunis finally came to China was there a dual sangha bhikshuni ordination.

Dr. Petra Kieffer-Pülz, Martin-Luther University, Halle, Germany

“Presuppositions for a Valid Ordination with Respect to the Restoration of the Bhikshuni Ordination in the Mulasarvastivada Tradition”

The Dharmagupta and Mulasarvastivada ordination procedures differ concerning the number of rules kept by shikshamana (Dharmagupta six, Mulasarvastivada twelve), the texts and words recited during the bhikshuni ordination ritual, the extent of the large and small ceremonial boundaries (mtshams, Skt. sima, Pali: sima) that are set up for the ordination ritual, and the numbers of bhikshus and bhikshunis required in the ordaining assembly. Thus it would be difficult for Mulasarvastivada to accept to follow and use the Dharmagupta ritual procedures to reinstate the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination. It would be better to follow the precedent the Sri Lankan Theravadas used to reinstate their bhikshuni ordination. The re-ordination conferred there was based on the precedent of the strengthening procedure (Pali: dalhikamma) followed, for instance, when bhikkhus ordained according to the procedures of the Sri Lankan division of Theravada have been re-ordained according to those of the Burmese division of Theravada. In such cases, the re-ordained bhikkhus were permitted to keep their seniority.

Dr. Shayne Clarke, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada

“Creating Nuns out of Thin Air: Problems and Possible Solutions Concerning the Ordination of Nuns According to the Tibetan Monastic Code”

It is important to differentiate between an ideal ordination and an acceptable one. It will be difficult to have the ideal situation. Thus, even if the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination is restarted without the brahmacharya ordination beforehand and is performed only by bhikshus, the ordination is valid and the infraction of the ordainers is a small price to pay for reinstating the ordination. The Mulasarvastivada Vinaya specifies many such cases in which alternative methods by which bhikshuni and bhikshu ordination may be validly conferred, but which entail minor infractions for the ordainers. These include full ordination, by bhikshus, of a candidate who has not become a homeless renunciate first; full ordination of a bhikshuni through a bhikshu procedure; and full ordination, by bhikshus and bhikshunis, of a bhikshuni through a bhikshu procedure. The exact interpretation of such passages, however, is unclear.

Dr. Ann Heirman, Ghent University, Belgium

“Sramaneris and Siksamanas in the Dharmaguptaka Tradition”

The shikshamana ordination was not conferred at the start of the bhikshuni order, but only introduced later for the purpose of study. To become a shikshamana, a girl must have been a shramanerika first and at least eighteen years of age. The formal shikshamana status seems not to have been introduced in China. Nevertheless, girls must undergo a two-year probationary period of study before receiving bhikshuni ordination.

Bhikshuni Inyoung Chung (Bhikshuni Sukdham), Ph.D. Candidate, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA

“The Revival of a Dual Ordination for Korean Buddhism in the Modern Period”

During the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945 CE), Korean Dharmagupta bhikshunis were ordained by the single sangha method. Dual sangha ordination was revived in 1982, conducted by these bhikshunis together with Korean Dharmagupta bhikshus. The 189 candidates were all shramerikas and they received shikshamana and bhikshuni ordinations within the period of one week. In 1996, the shikshamana ordination was revived in the Chogye (Jogye) Order, although the instruction in Vinaya was given by bhikshu preceptors. In 2007, bhikshunis became sufficiently learned in Vinaya to be able to act as preceptors.

Session Three, Day One: History of the Bhikshuni Order

Prof. Dr. Peter Skilling, École française d’Extrême-Orient, Bangkok and Paris

“Tracing the History of Nuns in South Asia”

Although bhikshunis are hardly mentioned in Indian Buddhist literature, they are mentioned in Emperor Ashoka’s inscriptions (third century BCE). During the time of King Kanishka (late first or early second century CE) and following, many stupas and Buddha images were commissioned by bhikshunis and women lay followers. No nunneries in India have yet been found.

Dr. Mettanando Bhikkhu (Dr. Mano Laohavanich), Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

“The First Council and Suppression of the Bhikkhuni Order”

From a medical point of view, Buddha died from a bowel bleeding disease. Mahakassappa took over the leadership afterwards and was a big rival of Ananda. Mahakassappa was against the nuns; Ananda was in favor of them. Although Buddha had said that bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, upasakas and upasikas should come together to settle the teachings, Mahakassappa called the First Council, comprising only bhikkhus, and faulted Ananda at it. Perhaps Mahakassappa and the bhikkhus of that time were jealous of the bhikkhunis being more popular and doing more teaching and social work than the bhikkhus. Their anti-women prejudice became institutionalized at that time with the eight garudhammas, the eight weighty restrictions. We must discontinue that prejudice. There is no anti-women prejudice in Jainism and they survived in India; whereas Buddhism had prejudice and did not survive in India.

Damchö Diana Finnegan, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, USA

“A ‘Flawless’ Ordination: Some Narratives of Nuns’ Ordinations in the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya"

Tibetans only study Gunaprabha’s commentaries to the Vinaya, but the actual Mulasarvastivada Vinaya shows that the main consideration for Buddha’s instituting the monastic vows was to win social acceptance for his order. Thus, for example, when Buddha said the ordination of a certain courtesan had to be flawless, this meant that it needed to receive King Bimbisara’s support, which it did. Thus, Buddha sometimes changed rules and sometimes even dropped some. Therefore, the subordinate position of women in the monastic sangha was also instituted to gain social support.

Prof. Dr. Florin Deleanu, International College for Postgraduate Buddhist Studies, Tokyo, Japan

“Between State Control and Neglect: Nuns in Ancient and Early Mediaeval Japan”

The first Japanese bhikshunis were ordained in the Dharmagupta lineage in Korea at the end of the sixth century CE. Nevertheless, subsequent nuns in Japan never seemed to follow the precise Dharmagupta ordination ritual, despite government control of the number of ordinees during most of the Nara Period (710-794 CE). Private ordination, in which the nuns received from just one teacher the ten precepts from The Net of Brahma Sutra (Skt. Brahmajvala Sutra), and self-ordination, in which the nuns mostly took only the bodhisattva vows, were extremely common and performed without any ritual. Official support for nuns was low during the Heian Period (1091-1152 CE). In the early thirteenth century, Kakujo and Eison took self-ordination and declared themselves to be bhikshus. Subsequently, Eison ordained women as shramanerikas, shikshamanas, and bhikshunis solely with the assistance of ten bhikshus from his line. This practice continued in Japan until the early eighteenth century CE.

Dr. Ivette Maria Vargas-O’Brian, Austin College, Austin, Texas, USA

“Remembering the Ordained Nuns: Models for Modern Tibetan Communities”

The eleventh-century CE Indian or Kashmiri Gelongma Palmo and her life story of overcoming leprosy and establishing the fasting ritual ( smyung-gnas) is a great inspiration for all Tibetan women.

Dr. Shobha Rani Dash, Otani University, Kyoto, Japan

“Misinterpretations of the Buddhist Texts and the Problem of Ordination of Women”

In Kumarajiva’s Chinese translation of The Lotus Sutra (Skt. Saddharmapundarika Sutra), passages about women’s bodies being polluted seem to have been added by the translator and were not in the Sanskrit original. Originally, the text says women have not yet been able to reach the five ranks of a Brahma, an Indra, one of the guardian protectors of the four directions, a chakravartin universal emperor, or a bodhisattva incapable of sliding back. Kumarajiva translated the Sanskrit term for the “five ranks” into Chinese as the “five obstructions” and omitted “until now.” He then added into the text that the female body is polluted, not fit as a vessel for the Dharma, and therefore how can someone attain enlightenment on the basis of a woman’s body? This passage reinforced gender discrimination in Japanese Buddhism. Buddha’s placing women in a subordinate position to men, however, was to avoid getting disapproval of society and was not because he felt women were inherently inferior, as some translations would lead us to believe.

Evening Discussion, Day One

Like lawyers arguing a case in court, it is possible to make a logical argument either for or against any of the various ways to reinstate the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination. Enough research, however, has been done already and now a decision needs to be made. Otherwise, the period of research and Vinaya legal debate will go on indefinitely. Whether the single or dual sangha ordination procedure is followed, it is important that the newly ordained bhikshunis have Mulasarvastivada bhikshu elders with whom to study the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni Vinaya. This will enable them to complete their monastic study as soon as possible and to obtain the Geshema degree, as is His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s wish.

If dual sangha ordination is instituted by including in the ordainer assembly bhikshunis holding Dharmagupta ordination, but who have been following the Tibetan traditions of practice and study similar to those of the Mulasarvastivada bhikshus, there would be an additional advantage. Living within the same sangha community as the ordination candidates, such ordainer bhikshunis would be better able to evaluate the readiness of these candidates to take bhikshuni ordination and would be better able to serve as ongoing personal mentors.