This booklet is a collection of pieces I have written over the past several years concerning the recent efforts to revive the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha in the Theravāda tradition. Some of these pieces have appeared on-line; others have simply been circulated by mail. Because of the ephemeral nature of both on-line and private communication, a number of my students have asked that these pieces be gathered and printed, to make them more permanently available to a wider audience. The fact that these pieces were originally composed separately means that there is some overlap among them. I apologize in advance if this seems tedious, but bear in mind that some of the issues at stake deserve repeated emphasis.
A Bhikkhunī Saṅgha has to be composed of legitimate bhikkhunīs, and the essential step in becoming a bhikkhunī is ordination, so most of these pieces focus on proposals for reviving bhikkhunī ordination. Since ordination is a Saṅgha transaction, the validity of ordination is determined by whether it conforms to the rules established in the Vinaya for Saṅgha transactions. Thus most of the material in these pieces deals with legal issues raised by the rules in the Vinaya and their proper interpretation.
There have been many claims to the effect that bhikkhunī ordination is a right, and that legalistic thinking should not be allowed to get in the way of a woman’s right to become a bhikkhunī. These claims, however, grossly misinterpret the issue. To begin with, anyone has the right to practice the Dhamma as he or she sees fit. However, that right does not impose an obligation on others to validate whatever status that person claims—especially if validation would require those others to violate the rules of the Vinaya. So the issue is not whether a woman has the right to be ordained as a bhikkhunī. Bhikkhunī ordinations are happening. The issue is whether bhikkhus who are serious about training under the rules of the Vinaya can accept such ordinations as valid, and whether, if not, anyone else has the right to force them to violate the Vinaya.
Secondly, the pejorative term “legalistic” discredits the rules of the Vinaya. Those rules are not simply the refuge of the narrow-minded. Instead, they serve a well-designed purpose. For instance, the rules surrounding bhikkhunī ordination require that a quorum of bhikkhunīs be present at the transaction, and that one of them be named as the mentor who will be responsible for training the new bhikkhunī. These rules reflect an important aspect of monastic training: that it is an apprenticeship in which the new student learns not only from the texts, but also from the day-to-day living example of her mentor and her Community. If there is no such Community at the ordination, or if the Community of bhikkhunīs does not follow the rules that the new bhikkhunī hopes to train in (as happens when non-Theravāda nuns constitute the quorum), or if the mentor herself has not been properly trained, then it is a sign that the new bhikkhunī will not have the opportunity to gain the proper apprenticeship.
So the rules, instead of being minor inconveniences, are there to assure that at least the minimal requirements for a proper apprenticeship are met. And it follows that it would be irresponsible for any bhikkhu to encourage a woman to ordain as a bhikkhunī when even this basic assurance is lacking.
The practical implications of this point are well illustrated in a recent interview with two bhikkhunīs in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (Winter, 2014). One of the questions was, “What have been the effects upon your practice, either beneficial or detrimental, of no longer belonging to the lineage of a contemporary master?” One of the bhikkhunīs answered, “The strongest connection I’ve had to lineage is through the Buddha, and certainly we haven’t lost that connection.… Now I really feel a tangible connection to the bhikkhuni sangha wherever it is around the world… and going all the way back to the founder of the order, Mahapajapati, the Buddha’s adoptive mother and aunt. On our main shrine we have an image of the Buddha and one of Mahapajapati. Those are my lineage holders.” Then, later in the interview, the bhikkhunīs address the issue of how to judge reports of what the Buddha taught: “It’s important to remember that the teachings were written down several hundreds of years after the Buddha’s passing by Brahmans [priests] who were aligned with the misogynistic worldview of their time. So of course that worldview flew into the records.” “The one thing I always come back to is that compassion and wisdom are at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. If you cannot find either wisdom or compassion in something, then I don’t feel it can be the Buddha’s teaching.”
This attitude doesn’t inspire confidence. Anyone with any experience in a good monastic Community knows that your own ideas of wisdom and compassion can be very mistaken and self-serving, and that it takes more than just an image on a shrine or a felt connection to a person dead for millennia to make you accept that fact. The true Dhamma is hard enough to learn simply from the texts. If one regards the texts as corrupt, and has no authoritative living guide to make one question one’s ideas of Dhamma and Vinaya, then one is simply training in line with one’s own preconceived notions. That is not training; and it would be irresponsible and uncompassionate to recommend to any woman that she place herself in such a situation.
The Vinaya’s rules on the training of new monastics consistently center on the need for a living apprenticeship: New bhikkhus must live with well-trained mentors for at least five years; new bhikkhunīs, for at least two. The opportunity for such an apprenticeship ends irrevocably when the last living mentor dies, and it cannot be revived. This is why the Buddha did not provide any rules for the revival of either the Bhikkhu Saṅgha or the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha if either died out.
Any attempt to revive the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha flies in the face of this simple fact. The irony of the recent movement for such a revival is that its proponents apply legalistic strategies foreign to the Vinaya to twist the rules to support an effort that the Buddha did not allow. This is perhaps the most damaging aspect of the movement: If their strategies for interpreting the rules are accepted, it would drastically alter the way many other rules are interpreted as well. If members of the living apprenticeship were forced to adopt those strategies, that would hasten the end of the only living apprenticeship we still have.
So as you read through the technical details of the Vinaya in the following pieces, remember that the rules and their details serve a much larger purpose: keeping the training in the true Dhamma alive.