Issues Related to Bhikkhunī Ordination

1. It has been argued that the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha in the past was entirely independent of the Bhikkhu Saṅgha, and that therefore that bhikkhus have no right to pass judgment on the validity of bhikkhunī ordination. This argument is based on several factual misunderstandings. Even though the bhikkhunīs were independent in many of their communal transactions, they were still subject to the governance by the Bhikkhu Saṅgha in two major areas: Acceptance (upasampadā) (see Cv.X.17.2) and disciplinary transactions (see Cv.X.7, although this passage is mistranslated in The Book of the Discipline; see The Buddhist Monastic Code, volume 2, p. 451). In other words, a bhikkhunī did not count as fully ordained until she received Acceptance from both the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha and the Bhikkhu Saṅgha. According to the fourth of the eight garudhammas, bhikkhunīs had to give their pavāranā to the Bhikkhu Saṅgha at the end of the rains residence (Cv.X.1.4). This was not a mere formality. If any of the bhikkhus suspected a bhikkhunī of having an unconfessed offense, the bhikkhus had to look into the matter and adjudicate the case. If they decided that the bhikkhunī in question deserved a disciplinary transaction, they would tell the bhikkhunīs, and the bhikkhunīs had to carry it out in line with the bhikkhus’ decision. And if the bhikkhunīs of their own accord wanted to impose a disciplinary transaction on one of their members, bhikkhus had to adjudicate the case and tell the bhikkhunīs what punishment, if any, they should impose.

Thus it is very much the duty of the Bhikkhu Saṅgha to decide whether they will formally recognize the ordination of bhikkhunīs and take on the attendant duties and responsibilities of overseeing the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha.

2. It has been argued that if bhikkhunīs want to proclaim that they belong to a particular affiliation, that is their business and none of the bhikkhus’ business. This ignores the fact that belonging to a particular affiliation is measured by agreement on issues of what counts as Dhamma and Vinaya, including what was and was not said by the Buddha. The Theravāda holds that the rules in the Pāli Vinaya were formulated by the Buddha. If bhikkhunīs want to argue that the rules were not the word of the Buddha—as many of them have—they are separating themselves from the Theravāda. I personally am mystified by why anyone would want to claim affiliation with a tradition they see as corrupt.

3. It has been argued that, when bhikkhunīs have been accepted by a particular group of bhikkhus, and they have gained the support of enough of the laity, they are “for all intents and purposes, bhikkhunīs.” The implication here is that other groups of bhikkhus should thus accept this as a done deed, and not withhold their recognition of what has happened. Again, this overrides one of the basic duties of bhikkhus, which is to investigate the validity of saṅgha-kammas performed by other Communities; and it deprives them of their right and duty to withhold approval if they see that the saṅgha-kamma was not properly carried out.

4. It has also been argued that there are arguments on both sides of every point concerned with this issue, and that there is thus no way of reaching final adjudication on the matter. However, the simple existence of an argument on one side or the other of the issue does not prove that the argument is valid. Each argument has to be judged on its merits in line with the Vinaya as it has been handed down. And although there may be no final adjudication that everyone will agree with, it is possible for each Community to make an informed judgment as to which arguments are more solid. Indeed, it is their responsibility to do so.

If people want to form independent practice communities, that’s their right.

But that does not mean that bhikkhus serious about training under the Vinaya should abandon their training rules in order to recognize those communities on a formal, institutional level. As I said in a previous piece, it’s entirely allowable for bhikkhus, on an informal level, to give instruction to anyone who desires instruction, and advice to anyone who wants to form an independent practice community, but it should not be done in a way that leads to divisions in the Bhikkhu Saṅgha.

Some added random thoughts:

A few other pieces of misinformation have been advanced in the course of this ongoing discussion.

5. It has been stated in many web-postings that the Bhikkhu Saṅgha must give Acceptance to anyone who requests it. This is not true. Mv.I.29.1 states that a Community may not give Acceptance to someone who has not requested it, but that doesn’t mean that it has to give Acceptance to someone who does. There are also many qualifications that a candidate must meet in order for his Acceptance to be valid (see Mv.IX.4.10). And the nature of the Community transaction whereby Acceptance is given explicitly opens the opportunity for any one member of the Community to deny Acceptance to a candidate. Only if all members of the Community agree to accept the candidate is the transaction complete.

6. Similarly, it has been argued that the Buddha granted ordination to anyone who sincerely wanted it, and that therefore no one should deny bhikkhunī ordination to any woman who sincerely wants it. However, there were cases where the Buddha refused to give ordination to people who were not fully prepared to ordain—Bāhiya of the Bark Cloth (Ud 1:10) and Pukkusāti (MN 140) being the most famous examples. And there is an important distinction between what the Buddha did and what he allowed the Bhikkhu Saṅgha to do. Cv.X.17.2 allows the Bhikkhu Saṅgha to give ordination to candidates only after they have been purified in the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha. If the candidates don’t meet this qualification, the bhikkhus are not empowered to grant them ordination.

7. As proof that the bhikkhunīs were fully independent of the Bhikkhu Saṅgha, it has been stated that, just as bhikkhunīs were not allowed to enter a bhikkhu monastery unless given permission by the bhikkhus, so too bhikkhus could not enter a bhikkhunī monastery unless given permission by the bhikkhunīs. This latter statement is apparently a reference to Pācittiya 23, which however simply forbids a bhikkhu from exhorting a bhikkhunī in the bhikkhunī residences unless the bhikkhunī is ill or he has been invited by the bhikkhunīs to do so. The rule says nothing about a bhikkhu going to the bhikkhunī residences for other purposes.

8. In the arguments supporting the revival of bhikkhunī ordination, many principles foreign to the Vinaya have been proposed for interpreting the rules. For instance, it has been stated that the Vinaya is case law, and that the rules were intended to cover only the specific cases mentioned in the origin stories for the rules. Thus we can extrapolate from the stories as we see fit to decide if a specific rule applies to us or not, dropping a rule if we feel that the case in the origin story is not similar enough to ours. As I have pointed out in more detail in my article, “On Ordaining Bhikkhunīs Unilaterally,” his flies in the face of the interpretive framework set out by the Sutta Vibhaṅga, which—except for a few clearly marked exceptions—treats each rule as meant for all time, and states in objective terms where the rules apply and where they don’t. That framework never takes its guidance from the origin stories, and in some cases clearly goes against what the story has to say. For example, there are cases where, according to that framework, the incident reported in the origin story wouldn’t even count as an offense at all (see Pārājika 4, Nissaggiya Pācittiya 4, and Pācittiya 8).

There is also a case in the Khandhakas—the same section of the Vinaya that contains the rules on bhikkhunī ordination—showing that the same principle applies there. Mv V.1.29 shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Buddha, in creating a rule, was not simply adjudicating the specific case before him. In that passage, he offers to create a rule specifically allowing Ven. Soṇa Koḷivisa to wear sandals with one lining because Ven. Soṇa was delicately brought up. Ven. Soṇa objects, responding that he will not make use of such sandals unless the Buddha allows them for the entire Saṅgha. The Buddha does so, and the wording of the rule is significant, in that it doesn’t mention the Saṅgha. It simply says, “Monks, I allow sandals with one lining” (Mv V.1.30). This means that rules of this form are for everyone: i.e., in them, the Buddha is not adjudicating just for the case at hand, but is creating what is closer to a law that, unless later modified, is applicable for all time for the entire Community.

9. Also, it has been proposed that when we find a rule or a story in the Pāli Vinaya that we don’t like, we can import an alternate rule or story from another Vinayas and use it to override what the Pāli Vinaya has to say—even though the whole question concerns what a bhikkhu training in the Pāli Vinaya can and cannot do.

A corollary of this last approach is that if an origin story supports one point that we like but another that we don’t, we can declare the story historically reliable for the sake of the first point, and unhistorical for the sake of the second. This is called “finding a usable past,” but it’s simple dishonesty.

The importation of these foreign principles for interpreting the Vinaya is perhaps the most damaging aspect of the whole effort to revive bhikkhunī ordination. If such principles get accepted in this case, they will then be applied to others, and an essential aspect of the training—submitting oneself to rules even when you’re not yet developed enough to understand their wisdom—will get lost. This would hasten the death of the Saṅgha’s living apprenticeship.

10. Some people have advocated denying support to Communities that do not accept the validity of the revived bhikkhunī ordination, claiming that the Buddha endorsed such a procedure for bringing the wrong side of a split in the Saṅgha into line. This claim is based on a precedent in Mv.X.5.1–2, in which the lay followers at Kosambī, upset that quarreling monks in their city had driven the Buddha from the city, made an agreement not to give food to the monks.

This claim ignores two things. a) The lay followers withheld alms from both sides of the quarrel. If this precedent were to be followed, lay people would have to withhold alms both from Communities that accepted the validity of the new ordinations and those that didn’t.

b) In Mv.X.5.8–9, Anāthapiṇḍika and Visākhā come to see the Buddha and ask him how to behave toward bhikkhus on two sides of a quarrel. The Buddha’s advice: “In that case, give gifts to both sides. Having given gifts to both sides, listen to the Dhamma from both sides. Having listened to the Dhamma from both sides, give preference to the view, approval, preference, and belief of the side of those who speak Dhamma.”

In other words, even though the Buddha recommended that lay people use their judgment in choosing whom to take as a teacher, he recommended that they still give alms to both sides of a split. He didn’t entrust them with the role of enforcing their views on the Saṅgha by depriving those they disagreed with of alms. In fact, he never recommended depriving anyone of gifts—a principle he stated clearly in AN 3:58:

“Vaccha, whoever prevents another from giving a gift creates three obstructions, three impediments. Which three? He creates an obstruction to the merit of the giver, an obstruction to the recipient's gains, and prior to that he undermines and harms his own self. Whoever prevents another from giving a gift creates these three obstructions, these three impediments.”

Whoever recommends depriving bhikkhus of alms knows nothing of the Dhamma.