After finishing my piece, “A Trojan Horse: Unilateral Bhikkhunī Ordination Revisited,” I was not planning to engage in any more arguments on the issue of bhikkhunī ordination. However, a young monk recently wrote two letters to me, raising issues stemming from two of the responses to “A Trojan Horse”: “The Case for Reviving the Bhikkhunī Order by Single Ordination,” by Bhikkhu Anālayo and “A Response to Bhikkhu Ṭhānissaro’s A Trojan Horse: Unilateral Bhikkhunī Ordination Revisited” by Bhikkhu Brahmāli. Both of these responses appeared in 2018.
In answering the young monk’s letters, I had to clear up several misunderstandings contained in those two responses. On reflection, I have decided that those clarifications should be made more widely available to anyone sincerely curious about the Vinaya technicalities surrounding this issue. So below are some excerpts from my answers, fleshed out for the sake of further clarity.
I’ll start with two technical issues, and then go to a few larger ones (one of which will include a third technical issue).
I know you don’t like getting embroiled in technicalities, but you have to remember that that’s how the argument in favor of reviving the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha began.
The larger context presented by the Canon is quite clear: In the garudhammas, the Buddha laid down the conditions for the establishing and continuance of the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha, one of which was that bhikkhunīs had to undergo double ordination (Garudhamma 6). This was to ensure that there would be enough bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs to train a new bhikkhunī. The fact that the Buddha named these points garudhammas means that they were not to be treated lightly, and that they would not count as minor rules. They form the underlying conditions for how the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha should be governed, and they give the clearest indications for the Buddha’s intentions in this area. All other rules governing the life of bhikkhunīs have to be understood in light of these garudhammas.
One of the consequences of Garudhamma 6 is that if there are no longer enough bhikkhus and/or bhikkhunīs to constitute a quorum, the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha would have to die out. Now, nowhere at all in the Canon did the Buddha indicate that, once an order had died out, it could or should be revived. A parallel principle holds true for the rules surrounding bhikkhu ordination, so there’s no sexism here. People could continue to practice the Dhamma, but they could not rightly claim to meet the Buddha’s standards as members of his Saṅgha.
The bhikkhunī pro-revivalists have called this larger context into question, casting aspersions on the garudhammas, declaring them invalid for one reason or another. (Anālayo has continued in his efforts in this area. Let me know if you’re interested in my analysis of how he has handled the issue.) They then focus on the technicalities of the rules around ordination, saying that these rules clearly show the Buddha’s implicit approval for reviving a dead order. But given the larger context of Garudhamma 6 as it stands, the burden of proof is on them. Their technical arguments would have to show that the Buddha designed the technicalities to show, in no uncertain terms, his approval of a revival. But when you look at the technicalities, they do not clearly make that point at all.
The technical issues. In looking over the two 2018 responses to the Trojan horse article, I found only three points that deserved a response. The first is Brahmāli’s assertion that the way Cv X.17.2 (the rule on dual ordination) modifies Cv X.2.1 doesn’t strictly follow the pattern for rule modification set forth in the Sutta Vibhaṅga—i.e., simply adding clauses to the original formulation of a rule—so it doesn’t count as a modification of Cv X.2.1. Therefore, it doesn’t automatically replace Cv X.2.1.
Actually, the Sutta Vibhaṅga recognizes more than one way in which a rule modifies an earlier rule. A prime case in point is the relationship between the two Aniyata rules and Adhikaraṇa-samatha (As) 4. All three rules concern accusations made against a monk. In the Aniyata rules, the monk may be dealt with in line with the accusation against him, even if he doesn’t admit to having committed an offense. For instance, Aniyata 1 states:
“Should any bhikkhu sit in private, alone with a woman on a seat secluded enough to lend itself (to sexual intercourse), so that a female lay follower whose word can be trusted, having seen (them), might describe it as constituting any of three cases—entailing defeat, communal meetings, or confession—then the bhikkhu, acknowledging having sat (there), may be dealt with in line with any of the three cases—entailing defeat, communal meetings, or confession—or he may be dealt with in line with whichever case the female lay follower whose word can be trusted described. This case is indefinite.”
What’s important to note here is that the simple act of sitting alone with a woman does not count as an offense if he is not aiming at privacy (see the Sutta Vibhaṅga’s discussions of Pācittiya 44 and 45). So under this rule, as stated, a monk could be found guilty of an offense even if he only admitted to having sat there but without having admitted to have been aiming at privacy.
In As 4, though, all issues are to be settled in line with what the accused admits to having done.
“For the settling, the resolution of issues that arise… (4) Acting in accordance with what is admitted.”
Under this principle, a bhikkhu can be found guilty of an offense only if he admits to having acted in a way that constitutes an offense. This is a principle that is assumed in all of the Vinaya’s other discussions of accusations, but it conflicts with the Aniyata rules. Now, nowhere does the Buddha rescind the Aniyata rules, but in the Sutta Vibhaṅga to those rules, the interpretation follows, not those rules, but the principle set out in As 4: Regardless of what the accuser says, the bhikkhu is to be dealt with in line with what he admits to having done. The bhikkhus are encouraged to question him stringently, in case they suspect him of lying, but ultimately they cannot impose any punishment on him for an offense he does not admit to having committed.
Now, the way As 4 is phrased doesn’t follow the pattern that Brahamāli says must be followed in order for one rule to modify an earlier rule, and yet the way the Sutta Vibhaṅga explains the Aniyata rules, the Aniyata rules are, in effect, modified to fit in with As 4. Because the pattern that Brahmāli says must be followed for one rule to count as a modification of an earlier rule is not being followed in this case, that means that it doesn’t necessarily have to be followed in other cases, either. Cv X.17.2 differs much less radically from Cv X.2.1 than As 4 differs from the Aniyata rules, so it is well within the limits of what would count as a modification of the earlier rule.
This brings us to the second technical issue, the argument that the history of the rules for bhikkhu ordination shows that if the Buddha had wanted to rescind Cv X.2.1, he would have said so explicitly. After all, when he switched procedures for ordination from the three goings-for-refuge to a Community transaction, he explicitly rescinded the first procedure, as follows:
“Bhikkhus, I allow the Going-forth and the Acceptance by means of these three goings-for-refuge.”—Mv I.12.4
“I rescind from this day forth the Acceptance by means of the three goings-for-refuge (previously) allowed by me. I allow Acceptance by means of a transaction with one motion and three proclamations.”—Mv I.28.3
So, the argument continues, following this pattern, if the Buddha had wanted Cv X.17.2 to rescind Cv X.2.1, he would have stated so explicitly, as he did in Mv I.28.3. But he didn’t, which means that Cv X.2.1 is still in force.
But if you look carefully at Cv X.2.1 and Cv X.17.2, you’ll see that their relationship doesn’t really parallel that of the rules for bhikkhu ordination:
“I allow that bhikkhunīs be given full Acceptance by bhikkhus.”—Cv X.2.1
“I allow that one who has been given full Acceptance on one side and purified (of the 24 obstructing factors) in the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha be given full Acceptance in the Bhikkhu Saṅgha.”—Cv X.17.2
In the rules for bhikkhu ordination, both Mv I.12.4 and Mv I.28.3 describe a specific procedure to be followed. To make clear that the second procedure supplants the first as long as the Sāsanā is still alive, the Buddha, in the second rule, explicitly rescinds the first.
Cv X.2.1, however, doesn’t describe a specific procedure at all. It simply indicates who has permission to ordain bhikkhunīs—bhikkhus—with no indication as to what procedure they are to follow. In this sense, it’s an incomplete allowance, in that the Buddha’s usual pattern when giving an allowance for a formal procedure was to explicitly describe the procedure as well. The allowance is not really completed until Cv X.17.2. There, bhikkhus are still allowed to ordain bhikkhunīs, simply that a procedure is now described as to how it’s to be done. So, strictly speaking, what is there in Cv X.2.1 that needs to be rescinded? Bhikkhus are still allowed to ordain bhikkhunīs, only now the procedure is spelled out: Bhikkhunīs can receive full acceptance by the bhikkhus only after they have received full allowance and been purified in the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha. In fact, this—along with the special case given in Cv X.22—is the only procedure for ordaining bhikkhunīs explicitly described and allowed in the Vinaya.
So it’s more accurate to say that Cv X.17.2 is an extension added on to Cv X.2.1. And because there’s nothing in the extension to indicate that it applies only to certain conditions, it’s in force for the life of the Sāsanā.
So the two cases are not analogous at all, so Brahmāli’s argument does not stand.
Larger issues: Origin stories. You raise the question of the role that origin stories play in interpreting the rules. There are lots of ways that the origin stories to Cv X.2.1 and Cv X.17.2 could be interpreted, but they are all inconclusive.
For example, it has been argued that the conditions given in the origin story to Cv X.2.1 are the same as they are now: There was no Bhikkhunī Saṅgha in existence then, so the rule is showing what to do in a case like that.
But is our situation now really similar to what it was then? At that time, the Buddha was present, there were many arahant disciples certified by the Buddha, and the True Dhamma—i.e., a single version of the Dhamma that everyone agreed on—was still alive. Yet even then, it was difficult to get the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha started on a good footing. Which of those conditions is present now?
There’s also the question of the condition under which Cv X.17.2 was formulated. It didn’t happen as soon as bhikkhunīs existed. It happened when the stumbling blocks particular to bhikkhunīs were added to the ordination procedure. This could be read as meaning that Cv X.17.2 is the rule to be followed as long as those stumbling blocks are still part of the procedure—which they are. That would mean that Cv X.17.2 still has to be used in all cases.
This argument may not convince someone who is determined to find a way around Cv X.17.2, but that shows how indeterminate the origin stories can be when trying to press them into service for interpreting the rules. And when you’re dealing with a big issue like reinstating a Saṅgha, you want to be 100% sure that you’re proceeding in line with the Buddha’s intentions as you go through with it. As I indicated above, if there were anyplace in the Canon where the Buddha, out of a desire to see his holy life last longer, indicated in any way at all that it would be advisable to revive an order that had died out, then we could confidently interpret the origin story to Cv X.2.1 as license for how to proceed in such a case. But even though the Buddha does talk about the orders eventually ending, there’s no place in the Canon where he even hints that he would approve of reviving dead orders.
So it’s risky business to assume that the Buddha would have wanted such an ad hoc rule to be pressed into service for that purpose.
For this reason, when you try to press the origin stories into serving such an assumption, you’re on shaky ground—especially when you remember that the Buddha didn’t compose the origin stories to begin with.
You’re on much more solid ground when you look at the Buddha’s own words: how the rules themselves are expressed. That’s why I’ve recommended looking at cases where we can see, from how the rules themselves are formulated, that a later formulation of an issue was intended not to replace or modify an earlier formulation of how to proceed, but simply to provide an alternative way of proceeding. And I found that there is a pattern in such cases: There has to be something explicit in the second formulation to indicate that it is an alternative: either the word “also” or the specific conditions to which it applies.
Brahmāli and Anālayo express doubt that such a pattern exists, but if they really wanted to prove their point, it wouldn’t be hard: Find a counter example in which it’s obvious that the later formulation is meant as an alternative to, rather than a modification of, the earlier one. But so far, neither has found a valid counter example.
(The third technical issue: Anālayo claims to have found one such example: the allowance for an experienced, competent bhikkhunī to act as the messenger in an ordination through a messenger (Cv X.22.2), which doesn’t contain the “also” (api) that was in the original allowance for ordination through a messenger (Cv X.22.1). Here’s how the two allowances are phrased:
“I allow, bhikkhus, for Acceptance to be given also [api] through a messenger.” — Cv X.22.1
“I allow, bhikkhus, for Acceptance to be given through a messenger who is an experienced, competent bhikkhunī.” — Cv X.22.2
The second allowance is obviously a modification of the original allowance. Anālayo claims that, in dropping the api, the modified version is breaking with the pattern I described: It’s giving final expression to an allowance for an alternative form of ordination but without saying anything explicit in its formulation to indicate that it is an alternative.
However, think about what it means for Cv X.22.2 to be a modification of Cv X.22.1. The original allowance in Cv X.22.1, by including the word, api, had already established the fact that this type of ordination was an alternative to the more standard type, described in Cv X.17, where the candidate for ordination goes to the Bhikkhu Saṅgha in person. Now, if the modification of Cv X.22.1 as given in Cv X.22.2 had included the word api, it would have been saying that it was optional as to whether the messenger was a bhikkhunī, competent or not, or someone else entirely. By not including the api, it was stating clearly that the messenger had to be an experienced, competent bhikkhunī. So, instead of being a counter example, it actually fits into the pattern I described.)
So, the pattern that I noted is a valid indicator of the Buddha’s intentions as to whether a modification of a rule is intended as a replacement or an alternative to the original rule. Because Cv X.17.2 doesn’t say “also” or list specific conditions, it has to be read as a permanent modification of Cv X.2.1.
Larger issues: Textual interpretation. The literature that has grown up in defense of reviving the Theravāda bhikkhunī lineage has tried to establish three standards for how to read and interpret the various extant versions of the Vinaya. These standards, taken together, make it easy to justify dropping any rules that strike one as inconvenient or opposed to one’s presuppositions about what the Buddha would say. The standards are mutually inconsistent, a fact that comes to light only when they are listed right next to one another.
1) If there are disagreeable passages that appear in some of the extant versions but not in others, they can be written off as later accretions, on the grounds that people might add things to texts that they are transmitting and/or translating, but that they would never subtract anything.
2) However, if a passage that one likes happens to appear in only one version, it can be argued that it had been dropped from the other versions. In that case, there suddenly is the possibility that people might subtract things as they transmit or translate passages.
3) As for passages that do appear in all versions of the Vinaya but don’t fit in with what one wants to find there, they can be attributed to the maleficent work of a brahmanical mindset, exemplified by Ven. Mahā Kassapa, at odds with what the Buddha originally intended that has tainted all the available texts.
These three principles, which look objective as long as they are not stated right next to one another, give carte blanche to interpret the Dhamma-Vinaya any way one likes. Add to that the idea that the original texts were patriarchal anyway, and you can justify adding or subtracting just about anything from the Canon.
These standards, which take one’s own views and preferences as a guide for deciding what’s Dhamma-Vinaya and what’s not, leave no room for the possibility that the compilers of the Canon knew more than one already knows and believes oneself. If these standards were adopted into the living Vinaya tradition of the Theravāda, there would be no objective standards at all for determining what is a valid or invalid way of interpreting the rules. That would be a sad day indeed.
Larger issues: The half-the-world argument. You write that by not recognizing bhikkhunī ordination, we are preventing half the world from practicing the Dhamma. That’s simply not true. No one is preventing women from practicing. If they want to set up their own communities to practice, they’re free to do so.
Which would be more honorable: women who set up communities where they can practice all the bhikkhunī rules, if they like, without demanding official recognition, earning respect through their practice, or those who demand that bhikkhus break their rules in order to give a certificate of authenticity to “bhikkhunīs” who don’t really meet the conditions that the Buddha set down, and who—in the West at least—keep talking about rescinding many of the rules he formulated for the bhikkhunīs?
Here we have to give primary importance to the Buddha’s intentions for the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha as expressed in the canonical Vinaya. In the garudhammas, he set out what he saw as the necessary conditions for the continuance of the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha. I can’t see how he would have approved of the revival of that Saṅgha in a situation where those conditions are not met. Do you have any reason to believe that he was wrong?
When you think about the opinion of the world vis-à-vis Vinaya issues, remember that one of the ways of showing that you really do take the Buddha as your teacher is to be willing to stand by the Dhamma-Vinaya against the world. Remember the words of Mahānāma in SN 55:23:
“There is the case, lord, where a certain Dhamma issue might arise, with the Blessed One on one side and with the Bhikkhu Saṅgha, the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha, the male lay followers, the female lay followers, and the cosmos with its devas, Māras, & Brahmās, its generation with its contemplatives & brahmans, its royalty & commonfolk on the other side. Whichever side the Blessed One would be on, that’s the side where I would be. May the Blessed One remember me as one with such confidence.”
That’s an honorable sentiment.