Female Monks In Buddhism

by Dhammacaro

Bhikkhuni in Buddhism

The meaning of the term ‘Bhikkhuni’

The name bhikkhuni refers to a fully ordained Buddhist nun i.e. a woman who has taken higher ordination (upasampada) in the Buddhist monastic community. Bhikkhunis of the Theravada tradition observe the 311 precepts. They live a simple life, equal to that of a bhikkhu or monk, but quite different from that of other women. A bhikkhuni wears orange robes, shaves her head, lives near the Sangha (a monastic commnuity), learns and practises the Buddha’s teaching and listens to Dhamma talks every 15 days. [Dhammapitaka, Buddhist Dictionary]

The First Bhikkhuni

Palikambhiculavagga, Vinaya of Bhikkhunikhandhaka and Palikambhi-anggutaranikaya Atthakanibata of the Gotami Sutta says in detail:

After the Buddha had cremated his father, King Suddhodana, he stayed at Viharanigoradharam, in Kapilavattu city. One day Maha Pajapati Gotami, his foster mother, went to see him. She paid her respects to him, sat one side and said, “Lord Buddha, would you please give women the opportunity to be ordained in your Dhamma and Vinaya.” The Buddha said to her, “Gotami, please do not be delighted with that, it is very hard to live a monastic life in the Dhamma and Vinaya.” She implored the Buddha in a similar way three times, but got the same answer. She was very sad and left in tears. After a while the Buddha left Kapilavattu city, and went to Vesali city. There he stayed at Kotagarasala in the Mahavana forest.

At that time, Maha Pajapati Gotami with many other like minded women, shaved their heads and donned the patched-up robes of Buddha’s monastic followers. They left the city and set out to find the Buddha. It was a long journey and when they arrived, they were utterly exhausted. Gotami, overcome by the journey and by the Buddha’s refusal, sat at the gates of the monastery in tears. There Ananda saw her and asked her, “Lady, why are you crying like this?” She replied to him, “Ven. Ananda, because the Buddha did not permit women to be ordained in his Dhamma and Vinaya.” Ananda said to her, “please wait for me here for a while, I am going to beg the Buddha on your behalf.” After he had said that, he went to see the Buddha, paid respect to him, sat on one side and asked him to allow women to be ordained, but he got the same answer. He then asked, “Lord Buddha, can women attain enlightenment?” The Buddha said to him, “Ananda, yes of course they can.” He said, “If they can, why don’t you allow them to join the Sangha, learning and practicing directly, especially your foster mother who looked after you when you were young.” In fact, the Buddha at first denied Gotami the chance to ordain so as to make them sure that this is what they wanted to do.

Then the Buddha said to Ananda, “Ananda, if Maha Pajapati Gotami can accept the eight Garudhammas, the rules of training for a Bhikkhuni, then I will allow her to take ordination. These Garudhammas are; 1) a female monk should pay respect to a monk and should learn and practise dhamma through life, 2 a female monk should reside in where there is a monk, learn and practise dhamma through life, 3 a female monk should listen to dhamma from a monk twice a month and should learn and practise dhamma through life, 4 a female monk should take vow from two sanghas, male and female Sanghas and should learn and practise dhamma through life, 5 when a female monk happens or intends to break the serious precepts, she should say sorry to two Sanghas and then behave or discipline herself and should learn and practise dhamma through life, 6 a female monk has to find two teachers in two Sanghas and learn from them for two years as a female novice monk before becoming a female monk and should learn and practise dhamma through life, 7 a female monk should not blame a monk at all, speak only word of wisdom, and should learn and practise dhamma through life, 8 since having become a female monk, she should be teachable to a teacher and should learn and practise dhamma through life. Ananda, tell her that if she can, follow these 8 garudhammas she can become a bhikkhuni.”

Ananda learned those eight dhammas, and went to tell Maha Pajapati Gotami what the Buddha had said. She was delighted and said to Ananda, “Venerable Ananda, I accept the eight garudhammas and I will keep them with all my life.” When Ananda heard that, he went back to report to the Buddha. The Buddha said to Ananda, “Since she has accepted these eight dhammas, she is a now a Bhikkhuni.” Maha Pajapati Gotami was the first Bhikkhuni in the Buddhist tradition and the only one who became a Bhikkhuni by means of this ordination method. She became a Bhikkhuni by accepting the eight garudhammas which Ananda had brought her.

Why women go forth in Buddhism

There is an ancient tradition in India which is known as ‘going forth’. This way of life was always held in very high esteem, however, it was reserved only for the higher castes; kings, Brahmins, merchants etc. They had to live their life according to 4 asamas;

  1. Brahmacari: as youths their duty is to practise celibacy and study the Vedas.
  2. Garuehastha: when they decide to marry they become family men who have a duty to look after their wife and children.
  3. Vanaprastha: At middle age when the duty to look after the family is complete they may go to live in solitude or in the forest in order to develop spiritual practice. At this point, business and responsibility is handed over to successors.
  4. Sanyasi: Finally, those who detach from everything and go forth, living a monastic or ascetic life.

However, these practices were reserved for men only. Women were banned from learning and practicing like this, especially studying the Vedas. It was regarded as a secret scripture whose wisdom was only for men. Many women, who of course did not have right to practice spirituality in such a way, were drawn to the openness and equality of that which the Buddha taught.

How the Bhikkhunis disappeared

When the Buddha allowed the first women to be ordained, many women from many different castes, both high and low, decided to take up the robes and alms – bowl of a bhikkhuni. From then on the female Sangha grew very quickly. The first written records come from the reign of King Ashoka. Specifically, at around the time of the third council, there is record of the Bhikkhuni Sangha settling down on the island of Sri Lanka. The transmission of the order to Sri Lanka and beyond was largely due to a bhikkhuni and daughter of King Ashoka named Sanghamitta Theri. In later life she helped spread Buddhism out of Sri Lanka and into neighbouring countries. There are records showing that, at its peak, the Bhikkhuni Sangha in Sri Lanka was large and healthy, although by around the 11th century it was in serious decline and eventually died out. This is probably due in most part to wars and invaders from Tamil Nadu in Southern India. In the end, this just goes to show that whatever arises will pass away.
[The Bhikkhuni Sangha continued to thrive in East Asia, although in a new form, that of Mahayana Buddhism.]


How the female Sangha came about

On one occasion, the Buddha was staying at Nikrodharama near the border of Kapilavattu Kingdom in Sakkajanapada. There his foster mother, Maha Pajapati-Gotami paid a visit to the Buddha, paid her respects and sat down to one side. Then, she requested the Buddha thus, “My Lord, please allow a lady like me to become a nun (bhikkhuni) in your order.” The Buddha dismissed her, saying, “Gotami, it is hard to live a monastic life. Please do not get delighted in such things.” She asked another three times for permission to take up the holy life, but all with no success. She then reluctantly gave in and she respectfully left the Buddha, although greatly saddened.

[The commentator, Ananda, asked why the Buddha denied Gotami’s proposal. The answer is that the Buddha wanted to make this occasion important and so all women would think, “To get permission to go forth into the holy life is truly very difficult; thus we shall maintain it with care and respect.” (Vi. A. 3/448)]

At that time, the Buddha was staying in the Kingdom of Kapilavattu. When he decided to leave he travelled to the city of Vesali, where he stayed at Kutagarasala in the Mahavana forest. Gotami wanted to show the Buddha how determined she was to ordain and so with a group of like minded women, she left her own country, shaved their heads, donned the patched robes of monks and walked to find the Buddha. When they finally reached Kutagarasala they were absolutely exhausted. Bhikkhu Ananda saw her crying and her exhausted party arriving and asked her, “What has happened to you, Lady Gotami?” She replied to him, “Venerable Ananda, I cried because I felt very sorry that the Buddha had not allowed me to become a bhikkhuni in his Sangha.” Ananda comforted her that he himself would go to put her request to the Buddha for her.

Ananda then went to see the Buddha. He paid his respects and sat down to one side and reported the matter to him, “Lord Buddha, Lady Maha Pajapati-Gotami has arrived and is crying at the gate because she was denied the chance to ordain.” The Buddha said to him, “Ananda, it is very hard to live a monastic life, especially for a lady.” Ananda then tried to help her and asked the Buddha, “Lord Buddha, can a lady become enlightened?” The Buddha said, “Yes absolutely, Ananda.” He then said to the Buddha, “If so, why don’t you approve of the ordination of your foster mother? She took good care of you when you were young. Lord Buddha, would you please allow her and the other women to become bhikkhunis in our Sangha, it would be a great chance for her, and indeed, all women.” The Buddha said to him, “Ananda, I will give my approval on the condition that they accept the eight Garudhammas, which are as follows:

  1. However old a bhikkhuni may be, she must pay respect even to a newly ordained monk and should learn and practise this dhamma throughout her life.
  2. A bhikkhuni must not stay in a nunnery to observe the Buddhist Lent where there is no bhikkhu nearby and should learn and practise this dhamma throughout her life.
  3. A bhikkhuni must invite a bhikkhu every fortnight to fix the date of Sabbath and the day to listen to the exhortation (Ovada) of the monks and should learn and practise this dhamma throughout her life.
  4. A bhikkhuni must perform the ceremony of Confession and taking advice both in the bhikkhu Sangha and the bhikkhuni Sangha and should learn and practise this dhamma throughout her life.
  5. A bhikkhuni must observe the manattna discipline first from a bhikkhu and then from a bhikkhuni and should learn and practise this dhamma throughout her life.
  6. A bhikkhuni, after training in six pacittiya rules of the bhikkhuni patimokkha, should seek upasampada from both bhikkhu and bhikkhuni sanghas and should learn and practice this dhamma throughout her life.
  7. A bhikhhuni must not admonish a bhikkhu and should learn and practice this dhamma throughout her life
  8. Since having become a nun, she should be receptive to learning and should learn and practise this dhamma throughout her life.

Ananda tell her that if she can abide by these rules, I will grant her ordination.”

There and then, Ananda memorised the eight Garudhammas and went to tell Gotami. “Lady Gotami, if you can accept these dhammas, the Buddha will ordain you.” She was delighted and said, “Venerable Ananda, I sincerely accept these conditions.” After that Ananda reported it all to the Buddha. The Buddha said to him, “Ananda, I have laid down these dhammas for a female Sangha because I know that at first it will be weak and it will need support. It can be likened to a family in which there are more women than men. In such a family a thief can rob from them easily.”
[The commentary says that the Buddha knew the female Sangha would have to face hardships in the future so he laid down Garudhammas in order to take precautions. The family referred to is Buddhism, the women represent the female Sangha, the men represent the male Sangha, and the thief can be seen as representing degeneration.]

The Buddha then said to the Sangha, “Monks, from now on, I will allow you all to ordain women.” After that, all of Gotami’s followers requested ordination from the monks. Later that evening, Gotami went to see the Buddha, she politely paid her respects and asked the Buddha what she could do with her followers. At this time Gotami’s followers had all been ordained and came to ask why Gotami herself had not yet been formally ordained by a monk. When she heard, she asked Ananda to explain about her ordination. Ananda went and asked the Buddha about it and the Buddha explained as he had done before; as Gotami was the one who accepted the Garudhammas personally, she was ordained at the moment she had done so. When she heard that, she was very happy.

One day, she went to see Ananda and asked him to request that the Buddha allow the respect of monks and nuns according to their individual vassa seniority. Ananda passed on her request to the Buddha, but the Buddha disagreed and replied, “Ananda, it is not time yet, for the female Sangha has only just been formed.” Then Ananda told Gotami what was said and she in turn informed the female Sangha. She was also asked by some other nuns about precepts and training rules (sikkhapada) and about how many they had to observe. She could not answer them so she herself went to see the Buddha and asked him the same thing. The Buddha told her, “Gotami, you observe the same precepts as the monks do and those I laid down for the Sangha.”

[The precepts (sikkhapada) for the monks are 227, and are 311 for the nuns, which must be recited on every full moon and new moon day. (vi. P. 8/1024/365)]

The method of the female ordination

When the Buddha first allowed women to be ordained, a lot of women came into the monasteries, requesting ordination. The monks were confused as to who should be ordained and who should not be, so they went to ask the Buddha. The Buddha laid down a further 24 questions to ask the postulant at the beginning of the ordination procedure for example; are you a human? Have you got any contagious diseases? Have you been given permission to ordain by your parents or relatives? Are you a slave? Are you fully 20 years old? These questions threw up much confusion. This was because the ordination was to take place, according to the Garudhammas, in front of both a male and female Sangha. Eventually, to make things easier, the questioning of the candidate was allowed to take place in front of just the female sangha, after which the candidate would visit a male Sangha to confirm the ordination.

Means of support on which the monastic life depends

In monastic life, the Buddha taught his disciples to live simply and after the ordination, the preceptor explains these means of support upon which the monastic life depends. They are as follows:

  • food obtained by going on the alms-round
  • discarded cloth for robes taken from the rubbish heap or the charnel ground
  • dwelling at the foot of a tree
  • medicines pickled in stale urine

However for the nuns, there are only three, the Buddha did not allow bhikkhunis to dwell at the foot of a tree because it was dangerous for them to do so. This was due to the case of one female monk, Ven. Ubonwanna Theri, who was raped by a young man whilst she was dwelling in the forest.
At the very beginning of the establishment of the Sangha, the Buddha did not lay down any rules or discipline (Vinaya) that should be followed by his disciples. However, the Sangha grew steadily larger and larger and the Buddha realised that the monks came from different families and so had different backgrounds. Some monks behaved very well but on the other hand some did not know how to behave at all, and some behaved just as they had done when they were laymen. From this point onwards, the Buddha began to establish training rules to keep the Sangha from trouble; at first there were four rules. The first is that a bhikkhu (monk) should not indulge in sexual intercourse. The second is that a bhikkhu should not take with intention to steal that which is not given. The third is that a bhikkhu should not intentionally deprive another human being of life. The fourth is that a bhikkhu should not make claims to attainments he does not really possess, namely, attainments to jhana, supernatural powers and to stages of enlightenment. Upon breaking any one of these rules, the offender is guilty of a very grave transgression and he ceases to be a bhikkhu any longer. His offence is irremediable. These disciplines were exactly the same for the female Sangha. The rules generally evolved over time as more and more cases arose, in which individual behaviour was seen as unbecoming of a monk or nun. The Buddha laid these rules down, as they provided security for the Sangha in the future, thus the rules would act as both a guide and a teacher.

The distinctions of the bhikkhunis

In fact, all the monks and nuns are equal as the disciples of the Buddha, but they are divided into three distinct classifications; the first is according to their level of learning or training; one is called learner or trainee and one is non-learner or non-trainee, which means she or he is beyond learning or training. The second is according to their ordination; one group was ordained personally by the Buddha and one was ordained by other monks and nuns in the Sangha. The third is according to the period in which they lived; the Buddha’s period and the period after the Buddha’s passing away.

Conclusion

The female monk or nun in the Pali language is known as a “bhikkhuni”, which means a woman who has obtained the higher ordination (upasampada) in the Buddha’s Sangha. She is under the protection of the Sangha and lives a simple life, using the four necessities, learning and practising the Buddhadhamma, and listening to regular dhamma talks from the Sangha. The order of nuns was established lastly, after the Bhikkhu Sangha, and the communities of laymen and laywomen. It took much time and persuasion for the Bhikkhuni Sangha to be established, but thanks to Maha Pajapati-Gotami it finally came to be. The first written records come from the reign of King Ashoka. Specifically, at around the time of the third council, there is record of the Bhikkhuni Sangha settling down on the island of Sri Lanka. The transmission of the order to Sri Lanka and beyond was largely due to a bhikkhuni and daughter of King Ashoka named Sanghamitta Theri. In later life she helped spread Buddhism out of Sri Lanka and into neighbouring countries. There are records showing that, at its peak, the Bhikkhuni Sangha in Sri Lanka was large and healthy, although by around the 11th century it was in serious decline and eventually died out. This is probably due in most part to wars and invaders from Tamil Nadu in Southern India.

Even if there is no the female Sangha, women can still practice the Buddha’s teachings as a Brahmacarini who observes eight precepts. She may shave her and wear white robes if she wishes or she may not, it depends on her. In fact, ordination is not as important as it may seem; it simply depends on how much one commits himself or herself to the learning and the practice of the teachings. This is most important.

Reference: Siamese Tipitaka, Vinayapitaka and Atthakathadhammapada Khuddakanikay

12 Responses to "Female Monks In Buddhism"

  • Gayani | July 28, 2013 at 7:18 am

    i want joing meditation programme .how to joing it

    Reply
    • editor | October 22, 2013 at 4:09 pm

      Just come to a class

      Reply
  • Katy | August 3, 2013 at 1:36 am

    Hello,
    I am interested in doing meditation courses at the temple. I have studies Buddhism since a child. I have some questions about women and Buddhism and wondered is there ever the chance to meet or talk with nuns at the temple?
    Thank you,

    Katy

    Reply
    • editor | October 22, 2013 at 4:07 pm

      We have no resident nuns

      Reply
  • Sulekha Nair | September 9, 2013 at 7:55 am

    I would like to know about the stories behind the common rules for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.. What prompted their formation?

    Reply
    • editor | October 22, 2013 at 3:56 pm

      The Buddha

      Reply
  • Santhoshya | March 29, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    I want to become a Buddhist Nun. I want to meditate till the end of my life while living in an abbey. Please tell me the procedure to do it. Where can I find a Buddhist Nuns’ temple?

    Reply
    • editor | April 2, 2014 at 3:42 pm

      Sorry we don’t have residential nuns here.

      Reply
  • poojabatra | May 26, 2014 at 5:23 am

    I wanted 2 know if i become a female buddhist nun .. can i pursue further studies .. like a PhD in economics .. is there any age to become a nun ? and what rules and regulation to follow.

    Reply
    • editor | May 27, 2014 at 9:56 am

      It would be best if you contact temples where nuns reside.

      Reply
  • Alisha | June 2, 2014 at 8:29 pm

    Hi can women come meditation?

    Reply

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