A 2600 Year Journey

A History of the Bhikkhuni Order
by Mindy Zlotnick and Donna McCarthy

A 2600 Year Journey

A History of the Bhikkhuni Order
by Mindy Zlotnick and Donna McCarthy

What is a Bhikkhuni/Bhikshuni?

A bhikkhuni (Pali/Theravada) or bhikshuni (Sanskrit/Mahayana) is a fully-ordained female Buddhist monastic. (A fully-ordained male monastic is called a bhikkhu or bhikshu.) Both bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are ordained through full acceptance by a quorum of members of the monastic Sangha. The bhikkhunis Patimokkha (the basic code of monastic discipline) has 311 rules. The bhikkhu Patimokkha has 227 rules.

This history is an overview of how bhikkhunis, or fully ordained nuns, came into being, disappeared and are now reappearing again in modern times. We know that the bhikkhuni lineage arose during the time of the Buddha, was in existence for about 1500 years and then disappeared for as long as a thousand years in some places. About 30 years ago we began to see the reappearance of bhikkhunis and what we see now in the 21st century is the beginning of a growing and thriving lineage throughout the world.

Beginnings of the Bhikkhuni Order

The story of the Bhikkhuni order begins about five years after the Buddha’s enlightenment. There is a wonderfully dramatic story in the Pali canon about how Mahapajapati, the Buddha’s aunt, who raised him after the death of his mother, came to see the Buddha, along with 500 of her followers. She asked the Buddha for ordination three times, being refused each time.

BUT there are inconsistencies and contradictions in this story. In recent times, Analayo Bhikkhu has done some extraordinary research with other contemporary texts and has come up with another version of the story that makes more sense:

Mahāpajāpatī requests permission for women to go forth, which the Buddha refuses because conditions are not yet suitable for such a move, as living the holy life in celibacy might not last long if they were to become homeless wanderers. He was mainly concerned for their safety, for fear of rape was high.

Therefore, he tells her that they should better live a celibate life in the more protected environment at home, having cut off their hair and put on robes, but stay at home.

MahpajapatiMahāpajāpatī and a group of women follow this suggestion and shave off their hair and put on robes. After the Buddha has left for a long trip, they decide to follow him, proving their willingness to brave the conditions of a homeless life. On witnessing their keenness and ability to face the difficulties of a homeless life, the Buddha gives them permission to join the order.

The Bhikkhuni Order was established by the Buddha around five years after his enlightenment, in the 6th century BC.

Whichever story we follow we do know that Mahapajapati was one of the first strong Bhikkhunis leaders in the Buddha’s sangha. We also know that she brought many women into the sangha with her. By inviting women into his sangha, the Buddha established what was to become a controversial stance on the position of women in spiritual life.

But since the Buddha knew that enlightenment was a possibility for all human beings, he opened the door for women to be ordained.

Ananda, the first cousin and one of the principal disciples of the Buddha, is supposed to have said: “Lord, if women were to go forth from the home life into homelessness in the Tathagata’s Dhamma-Vinaya, would they be able to realize the fruit of stream-entry, once-returning, non-returning, or arahantship?” The Buddha replied: “Yes, Ananda, they would…….”

Single vs. Dual Ordination

At first, Bhikkhunis received upasamapada or ordination from the Buddha, and then from the Bhikkhu Sangha only.

Ordination by the bhikkhu sangha continued on for some time until there was a case of a candidate who was shy and could not answer the series of questions which are asked of the candidate at the beginning of the ceremony. These questions are very private and caused her embarrassment when having to be answered to a male bhikkhu. The ordination couldn’t be completed and the case was reported to the Buddha.

It was with this incident that the Buddha suggested that the bhikkhuni sangha come in and ask the questions and become part of the ordination process, according to the Pali text. The Bhikkhuni sangha alone gives the ordination and the bhikkhus confirm and complete the process.

This was the beginning of what is called Dual Ordination as opposed to single bhikkhu ordination, an important differentiation that the texts tell us happened in the time of the Buddha. We will be hearing more about dual ordination as opposed to single ordination later on in this history.

Many Enlightened Bhikkhunis

bhikkhuni historyThe Buddha was convinced of the women’s ability to practice and extolled the attainments of the many enlightened bhikkhunis in his Assembly. As the Buddha had two chief male disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, he likewise had two foremost female monks, bhikkhunis, Uppalavanna and Khema. This mural on a wall in Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand, depicts the Thirteen Great Arahant Bhikkhuni Disciples.

 

The Four-fold Assembly

Shortly after his awakening, speaking about his vision of the sangha, the Buddha said: “I will not pass away…until I have bhikkhu disciples…bhikkhuni disciples…layman disciples… laywoman disciples who are accomplished, disciplined, skilled, learned, expert in the Dhamma.” (From the Mahaparinibbana Sutta) This is known as the Four-fold Assembly (parisa).

There are many examples of art work which represent images of bhikkhunis. This particular mural of the four-fold sangha is from Wat Pho in Bangkok, made in the 18th C. CE. The bhikkhunis are to the right of the Buddha. Female lay practitioners are below or in front of them. The bhikkhus are to the left of the Buddha and male lay practitioners are below or in front of them. (It’s kind of ironic that this image of the four-fold sangha would be in a mural in Bangkok Thailand, where in the present day there is a lot of push back to the full ordination of women in general.)

The Spread of Buddhism and the Bhikkhuni Sangha

spread of bhikkhunis

 

Sanghamitta

Sanghamitta Takes the Bhikkhuni Sangha to Sri Lanka
We now skip ahead 300 years. By the time of Emperor Asoka (304-232 BC), Buddhism was well established in India. Buddhism spread from India to northern Asia, in the form of Mahayana Buddhism. Toward the south, it spread to Sri Lanka and from there to South East Asia (in the form of Theravada Buddhism), and with it spread the bhikkhuni sangha.

Asoka sent his own son, Mahinda Thera, to Sri Lanka down south to teach the Dhamma and establish the bhikkhu sangha. The Princess there, the sister-in-law of the King of Sri Lanka, converted to Buddhism and wanted to join the sangha. Mahinda Thera said, “It is not for us to do”. He said that bhikkhunis were needed to do the ordination. He suggested that she ask the King of Sri Lanka to ask King Asoka, his father, in India to send his daughter, Sanghamitta Theri, and some other bhikkhunis to give ordination.

In 245 BCE, Arahanta Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta (“Friend of the Sangha’), the daughter of Emperor Asoka, left her home in India and travelled to Sri Lanka to establish the bhikkhuni sangha there. She brought with her a cutting from the Bodhi-Tree carried in a golden vase. It is from Sri Lanka that Buddhism and the bhikkhuni sangha spread throughout Asia, and the world.

The Bhikkhuni Sangha Spreads to China

Now, jumping ahead 700 years, the bhikkhuni sangha was well established in Sri Lanka. In 429 CE, Bhikkhuni Devasara, a Sri Lankan nun, took a cutting from the Sri Lankan bodhi tree, grown from a cutting from the Indian Bodhi Tree, and traveled by boat to China with a group of bhikkhunis to establish a bhikkhuni sangha there.

We know from a primary document that there was also a group of nuns in China around this time who had already been ordained by the bhikkhu Sangha alone in single ordination. These Chinese nuns wanted to be re-ordained with a dual ordination so that it was in line with what they saw was the Buddha’s vision.

They asked the visiting Sri Lankan bhikkhunis if some of them would be willing to go back to Sri Lanka to gather more bhikkhunis so they would have enough for an ordination. Some of the original bhikkhunis stayed on in China to study Chinese and some went back to Sri Lanka to gather the requisite number of bhikkhunis to make a quorum for the ordination.   Four years later, in 433 CE, the second group arrived back in China. These Sri Lankan bhikkhunis gave higher ordination to more than 300 Chinese nuns at the Nan Lin (NAH LYNN) Southern Forest Monastery in Nanjing.

China’s bhikkhuni lineage, has continued to the present day in an unbroken upasampada (ordination) lineage and eventually was transmitted to Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam.

There are now thousands of Taiwanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese bhikkhunis. This unbroken lineage became very important about 1500 years later, as we shall see, when the bhikkhunis from these orders were able to help their Theravada sisters revive their Sangha.

Disappearance of the Bhikkhuni Sangha in India and Sri Lanka

In 1017 Cholian tribes came down from India and conquered the island of Sri Lanka and the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni orders disappeared and became defunct. After 50 years of Cholian rule though, a new Buddhist king arose and expelled the invaders. During this period the local Buddhist practices became more and more under Tamil and Hindu influence.

When this new Buddhist King wanted to revive the monastic sangha, he had to get bhikkhus from Siam (Thailand) and Burma (Myanmar). But there were no bhikkhunis of the same order in those countries according to the people who came back. They maintained that the Bhikkhuni order should be considered defunct and not restorable.

So the bhikkhuni order died out in the Theravada tradition until within the last 50 years. However, women continued to practice. Women’s monasticism took different forms, for example eight and ten precept nuns. There’s really not much information until we see evidence of the emergence of the mae chee in Thailand during the Ayutthaya period which began in the 14th century.

Revival of the Modern Theravada and Tibetan Bhikkhuni Sanghas (Or ‘With a little help from our friends/sisters’!)

After a gap of almost 1000 years, the bhikkhuni and Tibetan bhikṣhuṇī orders around the world owe a debt of gratitude to their East Asian sisters. You remember that 1500 years ago Sri Lankan bhikkhunis carried the bhikkhuni order to China, and hence to Korea and Taiwan. Over the centuries Bhikkhuni orders thrived in these countries.

Early in the 20th century, there were many huge monasteries in Mainland China. Before the communist takeover, the monks in China thought they were strong and would be able to survive. The nuns, though, thought that if China was going to be taken over by the communists, it was time for them to migrate to Taiwan. They brought all their resources with them, began to build nunneries, and became very well settled in Taiwan.

When the communists did take over the mainland, the monks realized that this was not going to work, so they fled to Taiwan in a hurry and arrived with almost nothing. The nuns’ sangha gave them considerable help as they became reestablished. The monks remembered their kindness, and the nuns in Taiwan are very well respected by both the monks and the lay Buddhists. The nuns far outnumber the monks, are well educated, and have strong communities with their own leaders. (The numbers in 2014 show that there were as many as 6 times as many bhikkhunis as bhikkhus in Taiwan.)

In recent years these sisters in Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong, along with supportive monks, many from Sri Lanka, have been able to ordain women who practice in both Theravada and Vajrayana (Tibetan) tradition. There are now over 1000 bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka and about 50 bhikkhunis and samaneris in Thailand in the Theravada tradition. Many Thai women traveled to Sri Lanka to ordain since they could not do so in Thailand, back to where Sanghamitta Bhikkhuni started her sangha!

Ajahn Brahm

Ajahn Brahm

Mahayana Ordination Almost Identical to Theravada Ordination Ceremony
When bhikkhuni ordination began some Theravadan monks questioned the validity of this ordination. Numerous monastics have researched this, including Ayya Kusuma. Ajahn Brahm, who has been a great supporter of bhikkhunis, says that his research shows that they are almost identical. He said, “One of the biggest myths is that bhikkhunis under the Mahayana tradition is somehow separated from the Theravada. But the truth of the matter is, there is no such thing as a Mahayana Vinaya. In all the Mahayana schools whether in Tibet, China, Korea, or Vietnam, they follow mostly a Dharmagupta Vinaya. Dharmagupta is one of the Theravada sects. If you see an ordination ceremony in Taiwan …It is almost identical with the ordination ceremony which is done say in Wat Bovorn here in Bangkok.”

It’s important to remember that the ordination lineages are not innately “Mahayana” or “Theravada”- they all stem from early Buddhist vinaya traditions. In China, we are not talking about a Mahayana ordination lineage.

The Mahayana schools whether in Tibet, China, Korea, or Vietnam, mostly follow the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya. Dharmaguptaka is one of the Theravada sects.

Some Modern Bhikkhuni and Bhiksuni Pioneers
Not only have today’s bhikkhunis and bhiksunis been helped by their East Asian sisters, but they also stand on the shoulders of some very courageous and pioneering women, women who followed the example of their predecessor Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta. We’ll meet a few of them and see how their sisters played a part in the ordinations of these women and their contributions to the revival of the Bhikkhuni order.

Bhikkhuni Tao Fa Tzu Dhammanada Bhikkhuni
Born in 1908, Voramai Kabilsingh Shatsena, became the first Thai woman to become a bhikkhuni. In 1971, lacking full ordination in Thailand, she traveled to Taiwan for bhikkhuni ordination. She then established Songdhammakalyani Temple outside of Bangkok on land purchased from the Queen. Her daughter Venerable Dhammananda Theri is now the most prominent bhikkhuni in Thailand, and is a pioneer in reviving the bhikkhuni order in Thailand.

Four Pioneering Tibetan Bhiksunis
During the next 16 years, four pioneering women, practicing in the Tibetan tradition, also received bhikkhuni ordination from their Mahayana sisters. In turn, they were also very helpful in the future ordinations of Theravada bhikkhunis.

  • 1973: British born Bhiksuni Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo ordained in Hong Kong; after having lived as a nun in a remote cave in the Himalayas; established Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in the Himalayas; published several books.
  • 1981: American born Bhiksuni Pema Chodron ordained in Hong Kong after studying with different teachers in London, San Francisco and Hong Kong; first American in the Vajrayana tradition to become a fully ordained nun or bhikṣuṇī; has written several books and is the director of the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada.
  • 1982: American born Bhiksuni Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Ph.D. ordained in South Korea, after having lived as a nun in Dharamsala studying with the Dalai Lama for 15 years; co-founded Sakyadhita with Ayya Khema; established Jamyang Foundation for education of Himalayan nuns; associate professor of Theology & Religious Studies, University of San Diego, California; published many books.
  • 1987: American born Bhiksuni Thubten Chodron ordained in Taiwan after ordaining as a nun in Dharamsala, India; established Sravastri Abbey in Washington State.

Shortly after these Ordinations, Theravada Bhikkhuni Ordinations Began 1988

With the help of the international group Fo Guang Shan, who had temples all over the world to support the Chinese diaspora in Taiwan, and the Taiwanese Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis, the order began to revive.   A Bhikkhuni/bhiksuni training and ordination for 20 women was held at Hsi Lai Monastery in Hacienda Heights, Southern California, by Taiwanese bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, together with bhikkhus of Sri Lankan Theravada and Tibetan traditions. It is important to note that this ordination was co-organized and supported by one of the most venerable Sri Lankan elder bhikkhus, Ven. Havanpola Ratanasara Nayakathero who served as preceptor.

That Theravada group included Ayya Khema, Ven. Dharmapali (the first American bhikkhuni – now disrobed), and the first Nepalese Theravada bhikkhunis in modern times including Ven Dhammawati. We understand three of these bhikkhunis, Dhamma (Germany), Darsika (Sri Lanka) and Dammavati (Nepal), are still living and would now be Mahatheris (Great Elders)! (Guruma Dhammawati was from the Sakyan clan, the same as the Buddha’s family. She returned to Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha and continued to grow a thriving community there.)

Sadly, without support, some of the others were not able to remain as bhikkhunis. (It was awareness of this situation that later inspired Susan Pembroke to found the Alliance for Bhikkhunis, to help support bhikkhunis, but more about that later.)

Theravada Mahatheris for the First Time in Centuries!
Mahatheri is a title meaning ‘Great Elder’. It is conferred after 20 vassas (rains retreats/years) as a bhikkhuni. In 2008, the bhikkhunis ordained in 1988 became the first Theravada Mahatheris in centuries!

The First Sri Lankan Bhikkhunis – 1996 Sarnath, India
In 1996, an International higher ordination in Sarnath, India was organized and sponsored by Sri Lankan monks, Sakyadhita, along with the South Korea Sangha. (It was planned and intended to be a dual ordination, but that’s not what happened, which led to some criticism.) At that time 10 Sri Lankan dasasilmatas received full ordination as bhikkhunis. Although it did not occur in Sri Lankan it reestablished the Bhikkhuni sangha in Sri Lanka. These bhikkhunis then served an important role in ordaining other bhikkhunis around the world, especially Ayya Kusuma Mahatheri and Ayya Sudharshana Mahatheri. Ordained at this time were: K. Kusuma, Habarana Chandradassi, Matale Vijitha, Galle Subhadra, Bandarawela Sudhammika, Peliyagoda Sudharshana, Pandura Wekada-Bhadra, Passara Sama, Kurengala Subhadra and Kurunegala Hemapali.

You can read more about this ordination in this issue of Present in the article by Ayya Kusuma.

Bhikkhunis now become Theravada Mahatheris!

This year marks several anniversaries for bhikkhunis. It is the 2600 year anniversary of the founding of the bhikkhuni order, when Mahajapati ‘went forth’ from her home to the life of a fully ordained bhikkhuni. And this time period also marks the 20 year anniversary of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Revival which Ayya Tathaaloka explains below:

Ayya Tathaaloka: “I would like to highlight that all of those bhikkhunis ordained in the primary arising time of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Revival–in late 1996, early 1997 & early 1998–will be becoming Mahatheris, with 20 vassas as bhikkhunis, during this period.”

In 2016, Ayya Kusuma, Ayya Sudharshana and all the other Sri Lankan bhikkhunis who ordained at the 1996 ordination, became Mahatheris.

1997 International Buddhist Meditation Center (IBCM), Los Angeles

The next year women from Sri Lanka, Nepal and USA were ordained by the Sri Lankan Bhikkhu Sangha, together with Thai, Lao, Cambodian and Vietnamese bhikkhus witnessing. Ven. Dr. Karuna Dharma served as organizer, and Ven. Dr. Ratanasara served as preceptor and confirming monk. (Again, it was planned as a dual ordination, but one of the bhikkhunis got the flu, so there was not enough for a quorum.) Ayya Tathaaloka was ordained at this time

ordination in Bodhgava1998 International Full Ordination Ceremony in Bodhgaya, India
Like Sanghamitta, the women who ordained earlier trained and ordained other women. In 1998, sponsored by Fo Guang Shan from Taiwan, Bhiksunis Thubten Chodron and Karma Lekshe Tsomo were part of the bhikshuni sangha that gave dual ordination to new bhiksunis and bhikkhunis at Bodhgaya, India. Among them were Ayya Sucinta (Germany), Ayya Saddha Sumana (see article), and Ayya Sumitra (both from Sri Lanka.) Unlike previous ordinations, the candidates were allowed to dress in the robes of their tradition.

2000 – Bhikkhuni ordination at Fo Guang Shan Temple in Taiwan.
Ayya Gotami (Dr. Prem Suksawat) from Thailand was ordained at this time, as were four nuns from Indonesia, Ayyas Santini, Susilavati, Dhammakunatii, and Dhirasirini.

First Modern Bhikkhuni Ordinations in Sri Lanka
Beginning in 1998, Sri Lanka came full circle from the time that Sanghamitta first brought the bhikkhuni sangha to the island. The first bhikkhuni higher ordinations in modern times were held on Sri Lankan soil.

  • 2002 – Ayya Sudinna was ordained at Tapodanaramaya, Galkissa, Sri Lanka
  • 2003 – First International Bhikkhuni Ordination: Ordained at this time were American Ayya Sudhamma, and Burmese Ayya Gunasari and Ayya Saccavadi, as well as Thailand’s Venerable Dhammananda. Ayya Gunasari was the first Burmese and Ven. Dhammananda the first Thai woman to be fully ordained as a Theravada bhikkhuni in modern times. In this same year, Vietnamese Bhikkhuni Dhammananda also ordained but at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

Many of the bhikkhunis went on to build the bhikkhuni sangha. Ven. Sudhamma established the Carolina Buddhist Vihara, a Theravada Buddhist center in a small house in the suburbs of Greenville, SC. Ayya Gunasari is now the abbess of Mahapajapati Monastery near Joshua Tree, California. And Ven. Dhammananda is abbess of Songdhammakalyani Monastery in Thailand.

In 2005, the North America Bhikkhuni Association was established. Since then it has almost doubled in size.

Ordinations in Thailand In 2006
In a secret ceremony in the ancient ruins at Ayutthaya in Thailand, three more Thai women ordained as bhikkhunis − Bhikkhunis Rattanavali, Dhammamitta, and Silananda. Bhikkhunis Rattanavali, Dhammamitta, and Silananda now have their own viharas and are well supported by lay people in their communities.

Bhikkhuni Ordinations Continue

  • 2006 – At Golden Temple, Dambulla, Sri Lanka Sri Lankan born Ayya Satima and American Ayya Sobhana both ordained at this time.
  • 2006 – Czech born, Bhikkhuni Visuddhi, after training for 9 months in Taiwan at Fo Guang Shan Temple, ordained as a Dharmaguptaka bhikṣuṇī at Tzu Yun Temple in Taiwan. (In 2015 – Dalhikamma Vinaya procedure and acceptance in the Therāvada Bhikkhu and Bhikkhunī Saṅgha in Sri Lanka.) Established Karuṇā Sevena Bhikkhunī Ārāma in the Czech Republic.
  • 2007 – Ayya Medhanandi was ordained at a Bhikkhuni ordination at Ling Quan Chan Monastery, Keelung, Taiwan, later establishing Sati Saraniya Hermitage, Perth, Ontario, Canada
Bhikkhunis at Hamburg

Left to right: Burmese Bhikkhuni Ven. Gunasari (retired physician); American Ven. Sudhamma; British-born Ven. Tenzin Palmo (Cave in the Snow); American Ven. Tathaaloka, abbess of Dhammadharini; Ven. Dhammananda, first Thai bhikkhuni, renowned scholar

2007 – Hamburg Congress
Called by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Hamburg Congress, “The First International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha” brought the issue of full ordination for women into world attention. Leading Buddhist monastics met to discuss the history and legitimacy of the ordination of women.

  • 2008 – Thai Bhikkhuni Ajahn Nanthayani ordained in Sri Lanka
  • 2008 – In 2008 the ordination of the first female novice into the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha took place at Dharma Creek Dhammadharini’s Awakening Forest Hermitage, Aranya Bodhi. This is the first time a bhikkhuni teacher (Ayya Tathaaloka) gave the Samaneri Pabbajja in North America, an important milestone in the American bhikkhuni sangha.

Rocking the Boat

2009
In 2009, Ajahn Brahm took a very bold step. With Ayya Tathaaloka as the preceptor, supported by Ayyas Sobhana and Sucinta, four nuns were ordained as bhikkhunis at Bodhinyana Monastery in Serpentine, Australia. Ajahn Brahm was a ‘chanting acariya’. Since Ajahn Brahm was in the Ajahn Chah Thai lineage, which does not allow full ordination for women, Ajahn Brahm was recalled to Wat Pah Pong in Thailand. He was asked three times to recant and declare the ceremony invalid and that these women were not bhikkhunis. He refused each time, and he and his monastery were “delisted” from the lineage he’d been part of for about 35 years.

August 2010 Bhikkhuni Ordination at Aranya Bodhi Hermitage, Northern California
With Ayya Tathaaloka being able to ordain in the USA, the Bhikkhuni Sangha has begun to grow in North America. In Aug. 2010 four women were ordained by Ayya Tathaaloka at Aranya Bodhi. After being ordained by the Bhikkhuni Sangha on one side, the bhikkhunis then went over to the assembled Bhikkhu Sangha for the confirmation of their ordination, which completed the bhikkhuni ordination.

The four samaneri ordained as bhikkhunis were: Ven. Thanasanti Bhikkhuni (United States), Ven. Adhimutta Bhikkhuni (New Zealand), Ven. Suvijjana Bhikkhuni (United States), and Ven. Phalanyani Bhikkhuni (Germany)

October 2010 Bhikkhuni Ordinations at Dharma Vijaya in Los Angeles
The new bhikkhunis were Lakshapathiye Samadhi (born in Sri Lanka), Cariyapanna, Susila, Sammasati (all three born in Vietnam), and Uttamanyana (born in Myanmar).

Oct. 17, 2011 – A Sima of Flowers
Three more bhikkhunis ordained in North America at the Spirit Rock Meditation Hall in Northern California. It was significant in that it was very much a ‘mainstream’ public ordination, widely attended by bhikkhus and bhikkhunis from around the world, representing different lineages, as the request of the sisters. (See article about this ordination )

ordinatio -2011

L-R: Ayya Nimmala, Sati Saraniya Hermitage, Ontario, Canada; Ayya Santacitta and Ayya Anandabodhi, Aloka Vihara, San Francisco, California (now in Placerville, CA)

New Bhikkhuni Training Monasteries
Both Dhammadharini and Aloka Vihara started out in rented facilities. In the past two years, land and houses have been purchased by the Sanghas, which are big steps in establishing permanent bases from which to grow.

  • Aloka Vihara, Placerville, CA
    Ayyas Anandabodhi & Santacitta, Founding Teachers
  • Dhammadharini Monastery, Penngrove, CA
    Ayyas Tathaaloka, Sobhana & Suvijjana, Founding Teachers

Aloka Vihara’s First Ordination
Jayati Bhikkhuni, a former anagarika from Amaravati, is ordained by preceptor Ayya Tathaaloka at the new monastery, in 2014.
Jayati ordination

 

Two historic ordinations were held on June 21, 2015, one in Europe and one in Asia

  • The first bhikkhuni ordination in Europe was held at Anenja Vihara in Germany, with Bhikkhuni Dhira ordained by both bhikkhuni and bhikkhu sangha
  • On the same day, an historic ordination was held at Wisma Kusalayani in Lembang, Bandung. It was the first ordination in Indonesia in over 1000 years. Ayya Santini was the preceptor. The eight Bhikkhunis ordained were from: Indonesia (2); Sri Lanka (1); Japan (1); Vietnam (1); Malaysia (2) and Australia (1).
Dharma Vihaya Ordination

Ayya Sudarshana (top L.) a preceptor at 2016 ordination at Dharma Vijaya, with Ayya Gunasari, Ven. Uttama, Ayyas Dhammadhira & Anandabodhi

Ordination at Dhamma Vijaya – 2016
Ayya Anandabodhi’s comment on the ordination: “Having known Bhante Piyananda for many years, Sm. Satima had come from Sri Lanka to take Bhikkhuni Ordination and then return to her center there. Bhante commented on how extraordinary it is that California has become one of the most supportive places for women to ordain at this time, with women even coming from Buddhist countries to take the ordination back there!”

Bhikkhunis Worldwide!
We have only just touched on the many ordinations that are happening throughout the world. Today there are now bhikkhunis and bhiksunis in Australia, Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, UK, U.S., and Vietnam.


 

About the Authors

Donna McCarthy

Donna McCarthy, PhD. Following graduation from college Donna served for two years in the Peace Corps in Sabah (North Borneo), Malaysia. Another Peace Corps volunteer serving in the same town was Bob Jackman, who later ordained as a Buddhist monk, studied with Ajahn Chah and became known as Ajahn Sumedho. Donna received an MA in International Studies in 1974 and PhD in Social Psychology in 1994. It was through renewing her friendship with Ajahn Sumedho, some 30 years later, while working in the UK, and a subsequent trip to Thailand, that she was introduced to Buddhism. She has been practicing for 20 years. Donna has two grown sons, a grandson, and lives in San Diego with her husband Brian.

Mindy Zlotnick

Mindy Zlotnick decided at age 30 that she would only do work that she loved. This aspiration lead her to serve healthy, disabled and sick children and babies as a postpartum care provider, teacher, and foster parent. She has presented nationally and internationally around the issues of birth, postpartum, infant development and communication through touch and is excited to use these skills to tell the story of the history of Bhikkhunis in the Theravada tradition.

She has been a dedicated practitioner in the Theravada tradition for almost 30 years and has supported the Aloka Vihara nuns from the beginning of their time in the USA. Five years ago, she left San Francisco when settled life began to interfere with her spiritual practice. Since then she has spent time serving at Insight Meditation Society as a Retreat Support fellow, learned to cook for large groups of people in Yogaville in Virginia and completed 7 months of intensive practice. Life continues to unfold.


 

What is a Bhikkhuni/Bhikshuni?

A bhikkhuni (Pali/Theravada) or bhikshuni (Sanskrit/Mahayana) is a fully-ordained female Buddhist monastic. (A fully-ordained male monastic is called a bhikkhu or bhikshu.) Both bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are ordained through full acceptance by a quorum of members of the monastic Sangha. The bhikkhunis Patimokkha (the basic code of monastic discipline) has 311 rules. The bhikkhu Patimokkha has 227 rules.

This history is an overview of how bhikkhunis, or fully ordained nuns, came into being, disappeared and are now reappearing again in modern times. We know that the bhikkhuni lineage arose during the time of the Buddha, was in existence for about 1500 years and then disappeared for as long as a thousand years in some places. About 30 years ago we began to see the reappearance of bhikkhunis and what we see now in the 21st century is the beginning of a growing and thriving lineage throughout the world.

Beginnings of the Bhikkhuni Order

The story of the Bhikkhuni order begins about five years after the Buddha’s enlightenment. There is a wonderfully dramatic story in the Pali canon about how Mahapajapati, the Buddha’s aunt, who raised him after the death of his mother, came to see the Buddha, along with 500 of her followers. She asked the Buddha for ordination three times, being refused each time.

BUT there are inconsistencies and contradictions in this story. In recent times, Analayo Bhikkhu has done some extraordinary research with other contemporary texts and has come up with another version of the story that makes more sense:

Mahāpajāpatī requests permission for women to go forth, which the Buddha refuses because conditions are not yet suitable for such a move, as living the holy life in celibacy might not last long if they were to become homeless wanderers. He was mainly concerned for their safety, for fear of rape was high.

Therefore, he tells her that they should better live a celibate life in the more protected environment at home, having cut off their hair and put on robes, but stay at home.

MahpajapatiMahāpajāpatī and a group of women follow this suggestion and shave off their hair and put on robes. After the Buddha has left for a long trip, they decide to follow him, proving their willingness to brave the conditions of a homeless life. On witnessing their keenness and ability to face the difficulties of a homeless life, the Buddha gives them permission to join the order.

The Bhikkhuni Order was established by the Buddha around five years after his enlightenment, in the 6th century BC.

Whichever story we follow we do know that Mahapajapati was one of the first strong Bhikkhunis leaders in the Buddha’s sangha. We also know that she brought many women into the sangha with her. By inviting women into his sangha, the Buddha established what was to become a controversial stance on the position of women in spiritual life.

But since the Buddha knew that enlightenment was a possibility for all human beings, he opened the door for women to be ordained.

Ananda, the first cousin and one of the principal disciples of the Buddha, is supposed to have said: “Lord, if women were to go forth from the home life into homelessness in the Tathagata’s Dhamma-Vinaya, would they be able to realize the fruit of stream-entry, once-returning, non-returning, or arahantship?” The Buddha replied: “Yes, Ananda, they would…….”

Single vs. Dual Ordination

At first, Bhikkhunis received upasamapada or ordination from the Buddha, and then from the Bhikkhu Sangha only.

Ordination by the bhikkhu sangha continued on for some time until there was a case of a candidate who was shy and could not answer the series of questions which are asked of the candidate at the beginning of the ceremony. These questions are very private and caused her embarrassment when having to be answered to a male bhikkhu. The ordination couldn’t be completed and the case was reported to the Buddha.

It was with this incident that the Buddha suggested that the bhikkhuni sangha come in and ask the questions and become part of the ordination process, according to the Pali text. The Bhikkhuni sangha alone gives the ordination and the bhikkhus confirm and complete the process.

This was the beginning of what is called Dual Ordination as opposed to single bhikkhu ordination, an important differentiation that the texts tell us happened in the time of the Buddha. We will be hearing more about dual ordination as opposed to single ordination later on in this history.

Many Enlightened Bhikkhunis

bhikkhuni historyThe Buddha was convinced of the women’s ability to practice and extolled the attainments of the many enlightened bhikkhunis in his Assembly. As the Buddha had two chief male disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, he likewise had two foremost female monks, bhikkhunis, Uppalavanna and Khema. This mural on a wall in Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand, depicts the Thirteen Great Arahant Bhikkhuni Disciples.

 

The Four-fold Assembly

Shortly after his awakening, speaking about his vision of the sangha, the Buddha said: “I will not pass away…until I have bhikkhu disciples…bhikkhuni disciples…layman disciples… laywoman disciples who are accomplished, disciplined, skilled, learned, expert in the Dhamma.” (From the Mahaparinibbana Sutta) This is known as the Four-fold Assembly (parisa).

There are many examples of art work which represent images of bhikkhunis. This particular mural of the four-fold sangha is from Wat Pho in Bangkok, made in the 18th C. CE. The bhikkhunis are to the right of the Buddha. Female lay practitioners are below or in front of them. The bhikkhus are to the left of the Buddha and male lay practitioners are below or in front of them. (It’s kind of ironic that this image of the four-fold sangha would be in a mural in Bangkok Thailand, where in the present day there is a lot of push back to the full ordination of women in general.)

The Spread of Buddhism and the Bhikkhuni Sangha

spread of bhikkhunis

 

Sanghamitta

Sanghamitta Takes the Bhikkhuni Sangha to Sri Lanka
We now skip ahead 300 years. By the time of Emperor Asoka (304-232 BC), Buddhism was well established in India. Buddhism spread from India to northern Asia, in the form of Mahayana Buddhism. Toward the south, it spread to Sri Lanka and from there to South East Asia (in the form of Theravada Buddhism), and with it spread the bhikkhuni sangha.

Asoka sent his own son, Mahinda Thera, to Sri Lanka down south to teach the Dhamma and establish the bhikkhu sangha. The Princess there, the sister-in-law of the King of Sri Lanka, converted to Buddhism and wanted to join the sangha. Mahinda Thera said, “It is not for us to do”. He said that bhikkhunis were needed to do the ordination. He suggested that she ask the King of Sri Lanka to ask King Asoka, his father, in India to send his daughter, Sanghamitta Theri, and some other bhikkhunis to give ordination.

In 245 BCE, Arahanta Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta (“Friend of the Sangha’), the daughter of Emperor Asoka, left her home in India and travelled to Sri Lanka to establish the bhikkhuni sangha there. She brought with her a cutting from the Bodhi-Tree carried in a golden vase. It is from Sri Lanka that Buddhism and the bhikkhuni sangha spread throughout Asia, and the world.

The Bhikkhuni Sangha Spreads to China

Now, jumping ahead 700 years, the bhikkhuni sangha was well established in Sri Lanka. In 429 CE, Bhikkhuni Devasara, a Sri Lankan nun, took a cutting from the Sri Lankan bodhi tree, grown from a cutting from the Indian Bodhi Tree, and traveled by boat to China with a group of bhikkhunis to establish a bhikkhuni sangha there.

We know from a primary document that there was also a group of nuns in China around this time who had already been ordained by the bhikkhu Sangha alone in single ordination. These Chinese nuns wanted to be re-ordained with a dual ordination so that it was in line with what they saw was the Buddha’s vision.

They asked the visiting Sri Lankan bhikkhunis if some of them would be willing to go back to Sri Lanka to gather more bhikkhunis so they would have enough for an ordination. Some of the original bhikkhunis stayed on in China to study Chinese and some went back to Sri Lanka to gather the requisite number of bhikkhunis to make a quorum for the ordination.   Four years later, in 433 CE, the second group arrived back in China. These Sri Lankan bhikkhunis gave higher ordination to more than 300 Chinese nuns at the Nan Lin (NAH LYNN) Southern Forest Monastery in Nanjing.

China’s bhikkhuni lineage, has continued to the present day in an unbroken upasampada (ordination) lineage and eventually was transmitted to Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam.

There are now thousands of Taiwanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese bhikkhunis. This unbroken lineage became very important about 1500 years later, as we shall see, when the bhikkhunis from these orders were able to help their Theravada sisters revive their Sangha.

Disappearance of the Bhikkhuni Sangha in India and Sri Lanka

In 1017 Cholian tribes came down from India and conquered the island of Sri Lanka and the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni orders disappeared and became defunct. After 50 years of Cholian rule though, a new Buddhist king arose and expelled the invaders. During this period the local Buddhist practices became more and more under Tamil and Hindu influence.

When this new Buddhist King wanted to revive the monastic sangha, he had to get bhikkhus from Siam (Thailand) and Burma (Myanmar). But there were no bhikkhunis of the same order in those countries according to the people who came back. They maintained that the Bhikkhuni order should be considered defunct and not restorable.

So the bhikkhuni order died out in the Theravada tradition until within the last 50 years. However, women continued to practice. Women’s monasticism took different forms, for example eight and ten precept nuns. There’s really not much information until we see evidence of the emergence of the mae chee in Thailand during the Ayutthaya period which began in the 14th century.

Revival of the Modern Theravada and Tibetan Bhikkhuni Sanghas (Or ‘With a little help from our friends/sisters’!)

After a gap of almost 1000 years, the bhikkhuni and Tibetan bhikṣhuṇī orders around the world owe a debt of gratitude to their East Asian sisters. You remember that 1500 years ago Sri Lankan bhikkhunis carried the bhikkhuni order to China, and hence to Korea and Taiwan. Over the centuries Bhikkhuni orders thrived in these countries.

Early in the 20th century, there were many huge monasteries in Mainland China. Before the communist takeover, the monks in China thought they were strong and would be able to survive. The nuns, though, thought that if China was going to be taken over by the communists, it was time for them to migrate to Taiwan. They brought all their resources with them, began to build nunneries, and became very well settled in Taiwan.

When the communists did take over the mainland, the monks realized that this was not going to work, so they fled to Taiwan in a hurry and arrived with almost nothing. The nuns’ sangha gave them considerable help as they became reestablished. The monks remembered their kindness, and the nuns in Taiwan are very well respected by both the monks and the lay Buddhists. The nuns far outnumber the monks, are well educated, and have strong communities with their own leaders. (The numbers in 2014 show that there were as many as 6 times as many bhikkhunis as bhikkhus in Taiwan.)

In recent years these sisters in Taiwan, Korea and Hong Kong, along with supportive monks, many from Sri Lanka, have been able to ordain women who practice in both Theravada and Vajrayana (Tibetan) tradition. There are now over 1000 bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka and about 50 bhikkhunis and samaneris in Thailand in the Theravada tradition. Many Thai women traveled to Sri Lanka to ordain since they could not do so in Thailand, back to where Sanghamitta Bhikkhuni started her sangha!

Ajahn Brahm

Ajahn Brahm

Mahayana Ordination Almost Identical to Theravada Ordination Ceremony
When bhikkhuni ordination began some Theravadan monks questioned the validity of this ordination. Numerous monastics have researched this, including Ayya Kusuma. Ajahn Brahm, who has been a great supporter of bhikkhunis, says that his research shows that they are almost identical. He said, “One of the biggest myths is that bhikkhunis under the Mahayana tradition is somehow separated from the Theravada. But the truth of the matter is, there is no such thing as a Mahayana Vinaya. In all the Mahayana schools whether in Tibet, China, Korea, or Vietnam, they follow mostly a Dharmagupta Vinaya. Dharmagupta is one of the Theravada sects. If you see an ordination ceremony in Taiwan …It is almost identical with the ordination ceremony which is done say in Wat Bovorn here in Bangkok.”

It’s important to remember that the ordination lineages are not innately “Mahayana” or “Theravada”- they all stem from early Buddhist vinaya traditions. In China, we are not talking about a Mahayana ordination lineage.

The Mahayana schools whether in Tibet, China, Korea, or Vietnam, mostly follow the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya. Dharmaguptaka is one of the Theravada sects.

Some Modern Bhikkhuni and Bhiksuni Pioneers
Not only have today’s bhikkhunis and bhiksunis been helped by their East Asian sisters, but they also stand on the shoulders of some very courageous and pioneering women, women who followed the example of their predecessor Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta. We’ll meet a few of them and see how their sisters played a part in the ordinations of these women and their contributions to the revival of the Bhikkhuni order.

Bhikkhuni Tao Fa Tzu Dhammanada Bhikkhuni
Born in 1908, Voramai Kabilsingh Shatsena, became the first Thai woman to become a bhikkhuni. In 1971, lacking full ordination in Thailand, she traveled to Taiwan for bhikkhuni ordination. She then established Songdhammakalyani Temple outside of Bangkok on land purchased from the Queen. Her daughter Venerable Dhammananda Theri is now the most prominent bhikkhuni in Thailand, and is a pioneer in reviving the bhikkhuni order in Thailand.

Four Pioneering Tibetan Bhiksunis
During the next 16 years, four pioneering women, practicing in the Tibetan tradition, also received bhikkhuni ordination from their Mahayana sisters. In turn, they were also very helpful in the future ordinations of Theravada bhikkhunis.

  • 1973: British born Bhiksuni Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo ordained in Hong Kong; after having lived as a nun in a remote cave in the Himalayas; established Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in the Himalayas; published several books.
  • 1981: American born Bhiksuni Pema Chodron ordained in Hong Kong after studying with different teachers in London, San Francisco and Hong Kong; first American in the Vajrayana tradition to become a fully ordained nun or bhikṣuṇī; has written several books and is the director of the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada.
  • 1982: American born Bhiksuni Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Ph.D. ordained in South Korea, after having lived as a nun in Dharamsala studying with the Dalai Lama for 15 years; co-founded Sakyadhita with Ayya Khema; established Jamyang Foundation for education of Himalayan nuns; associate professor of Theology & Religious Studies, University of San Diego, California; published many books.
  • 1987: American born Bhiksuni Thubten Chodron ordained in Taiwan after ordaining as a nun in Dharamsala, India; established Sravastri Abbey in Washington State.

Shortly after these Ordinations, Theravada Bhikkhuni Ordinations Began 1988

With the help of the international group Fo Guang Shan, who had temples all over the world to support the Chinese diaspora in Taiwan, and the Taiwanese Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis, the order began to revive.   A Bhikkhuni/bhiksuni training and ordination for 20 women was held at Hsi Lai Monastery in Hacienda Heights, Southern California, by Taiwanese bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, together with bhikkhus of Sri Lankan Theravada and Tibetan traditions. It is important to note that this ordination was co-organized and supported by one of the most venerable Sri Lankan elder bhikkhus, Ven. Havanpola Ratanasara Nayakathero who served as preceptor.

That Theravada group included Ayya Khema, Ven. Dharmapali (the first American bhikkhuni – now disrobed), and the first Nepalese Theravada bhikkhunis in modern times including Ven Dhammawati. We understand three of these bhikkhunis, Dhamma (Germany), Darsika (Sri Lanka) and Dammavati (Nepal), are still living and would now be Mahatheris (Great Elders)! (Guruma Dhammawati was from the Sakyan clan, the same as the Buddha’s family. She returned to Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha and continued to grow a thriving community there.)

Sadly, without support, some of the others were not able to remain as bhikkhunis. (It was awareness of this situation that later inspired Susan Pembroke to found the Alliance for Bhikkhunis, to help support bhikkhunis, but more about that later.)

Theravada Mahatheris for the First Time in Centuries!
Mahatheri is a title meaning ‘Great Elder’. It is conferred after 20 vassas (rains retreats/years) as a bhikkhuni. In 2008, the bhikkhunis ordained in 1988 became the first Theravada Mahatheris in centuries!

The First Sri Lankan Bhikkhunis – 1996 Sarnath, India
In 1996, an International higher ordination in Sarnath, India was organized and sponsored by Sri Lankan monks, Sakyadhita, along with the South Korea Sangha. (It was planned and intended to be a dual ordination, but that’s not what happened, which led to some criticism.) At that time 10 Sri Lankan dasasilmatas received full ordination as bhikkhunis. Although it did not occur in Sri Lankan it reestablished the Bhikkhuni sangha in Sri Lanka. These bhikkhunis then served an important role in ordaining other bhikkhunis around the world, especially Ayya Kusuma Mahatheri and Ayya Sudharshana Mahatheri. Ordained at this time were: K. Kusuma, Habarana Chandradassi, Matale Vijitha, Galle Subhadra, Bandarawela Sudhammika, Peliyagoda Sudharshana, Pandura Wekada-Bhadra, Passara Sama, Kurengala Subhadra and Kurunegala Hemapali.

You can read more about this ordination in this issue of Present in the article by Ayya Kusuma.

Bhikkhunis now become Theravada Mahatheris!

This year marks several anniversaries for bhikkhunis. It is the 2600 year anniversary of the founding of the bhikkhuni order, when Mahajapati ‘went forth’ from her home to the life of a fully ordained bhikkhuni. And this time period also marks the 20 year anniversary of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Revival which Ayya Tathaaloka explains below:

Ayya Tathaaloka: “I would like to highlight that all of those bhikkhunis ordained in the primary arising time of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Revival–in late 1996, early 1997 & early 1998–will be becoming Mahatheris, with 20 vassas as bhikkhunis, during this period.”

In 2016, Ayya Kusuma, Ayya Sudharshana and all the other Sri Lankan bhikkhunis who ordained at the 1996 ordination, became Mahatheris.

1997 International Buddhist Meditation Center (IBCM), Los Angeles

The next year women from Sri Lanka, Nepal and USA were ordained by the Sri Lankan Bhikkhu Sangha, together with Thai, Lao, Cambodian and Vietnamese bhikkhus witnessing. Ven. Dr. Karuna Dharma served as organizer, and Ven. Dr. Ratanasara served as preceptor and confirming monk. (Again, it was planned as a dual ordination, but one of the bhikkhunis got the flu, so there was not enough for a quorum.) Ayya Tathaaloka was ordained at this time

ordination in Bodhgava1998 International Full Ordination Ceremony in Bodhgaya, India
Like Sanghamitta, the women who ordained earlier trained and ordained other women. In 1998, sponsored by Fo Guang Shan from Taiwan, Bhiksunis Thubten Chodron and Karma Lekshe Tsomo were part of the bhikshuni sangha that gave dual ordination to new bhiksunis and bhikkhunis at Bodhgaya, India. Among them were Ayya Sucinta (Germany), Ayya Saddha Sumana (see article), and Ayya Sumitra (both from Sri Lanka.) Unlike previous ordinations, the candidates were allowed to dress in the robes of their tradition.

2000 – Bhikkhuni ordination at Fo Guang Shan Temple in Taiwan.
Ayya Gotami (Dr. Prem Suksawat) from Thailand was ordained at this time, as were four nuns from Indonesia, Ayyas Santini, Susilavati, Dhammakunatii, and Dhirasirini.

First Modern Bhikkhuni Ordinations in Sri Lanka
Beginning in 1998, Sri Lanka came full circle from the time that Sanghamitta first brought the bhikkhuni sangha to the island. The first bhikkhuni higher ordinations in modern times were held on Sri Lankan soil.

  • 2002 – Ayya Sudinna was ordained at Tapodanaramaya, Galkissa, Sri Lanka
  • 2003 – First International Bhikkhuni Ordination: Ordained at this time were American Ayya Sudhamma, and Burmese Ayya Gunasari and Ayya Saccavadi, as well as Thailand’s Venerable Dhammananda. Ayya Gunasari was the first Burmese and Ven. Dhammananda the first Thai woman to be fully ordained as a Theravada bhikkhuni in modern times. In this same year, Vietnamese Bhikkhuni Dhammananda also ordained but at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

Many of the bhikkhunis went on to build the bhikkhuni sangha. Ven. Sudhamma established the Carolina Buddhist Vihara, a Theravada Buddhist center in a small house in the suburbs of Greenville, SC. Ayya Gunasari is now the abbess of Mahapajapati Monastery near Joshua Tree, California. And Ven. Dhammananda is abbess of Songdhammakalyani Monastery in Thailand.

In 2005, the North America Bhikkhuni Association was established. Since then it has almost doubled in size.

Ordinations in Thailand In 2006
In a secret ceremony in the ancient ruins at Ayutthaya in Thailand, three more Thai women ordained as bhikkhunis − Bhikkhunis Rattanavali, Dhammamitta, and Silananda. Bhikkhunis Rattanavali, Dhammamitta, and Silananda now have their own viharas and are well supported by lay people in their communities.

Bhikkhuni Ordinations Continue

  • 2006 – At Golden Temple, Dambulla, Sri Lanka Sri Lankan born Ayya Satima and American Ayya Sobhana both ordained at this time.
  • 2006 – Czech born, Bhikkhuni Visuddhi, after training for 9 months in Taiwan at Fo Guang Shan Temple, ordained as a Dharmaguptaka bhikṣuṇī at Tzu Yun Temple in Taiwan. (In 2015 – Dalhikamma Vinaya procedure and acceptance in the Therāvada Bhikkhu and Bhikkhunī Saṅgha in Sri Lanka.) Established Karuṇā Sevena Bhikkhunī Ārāma in the Czech Republic.
  • 2007 – Ayya Medhanandi was ordained at a Bhikkhuni ordination at Ling Quan Chan Monastery, Keelung, Taiwan, later establishing Sati Saraniya Hermitage, Perth, Ontario, Canada
Bhikkhunis at Hamburg

Left to right: Burmese Bhikkhuni Ven. Gunasari (retired physician); American Ven. Sudhamma; British-born Ven. Tenzin Palmo (Cave in the Snow); American Ven. Tathaaloka, abbess of Dhammadharini; Ven. Dhammananda, first Thai bhikkhuni, renowned scholar

2007 – Hamburg Congress
Called by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Hamburg Congress, “The First International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha” brought the issue of full ordination for women into world attention. Leading Buddhist monastics met to discuss the history and legitimacy of the ordination of women.

  • 2008 – Thai Bhikkhuni Ajahn Nanthayani ordained in Sri Lanka
  • 2008 – In 2008 the ordination of the first female novice into the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha took place at Dharma Creek Dhammadharini’s Awakening Forest Hermitage, Aranya Bodhi. This is the first time a bhikkhuni teacher (Ayya Tathaaloka) gave the Samaneri Pabbajja in North America, an important milestone in the American bhikkhuni sangha.

Rocking the Boat

2009
In 2009, Ajahn Brahm took a very bold step. With Ayya Tathaaloka as the preceptor, supported by Ayyas Sobhana and Sucinta, four nuns were ordained as bhikkhunis at Bodhinyana Monastery in Serpentine, Australia. Ajahn Brahm was a ‘chanting acariya’. Since Ajahn Brahm was in the Ajahn Chah Thai lineage, which does not allow full ordination for women, Ajahn Brahm was recalled to Wat Pah Pong in Thailand. He was asked three times to recant and declare the ceremony invalid and that these women were not bhikkhunis. He refused each time, and he and his monastery were “delisted” from the lineage he’d been part of for about 35 years.

August 2010 Bhikkhuni Ordination at Aranya Bodhi Hermitage, Northern California
With Ayya Tathaaloka being able to ordain in the USA, the Bhikkhuni Sangha has begun to grow in North America. In Aug. 2010 four women were ordained by Ayya Tathaaloka at Aranya Bodhi. After being ordained by the Bhikkhuni Sangha on one side, the bhikkhunis then went over to the assembled Bhikkhu Sangha for the confirmation of their ordination, which completed the bhikkhuni ordination.

The four samaneri ordained as bhikkhunis were: Ven. Thanasanti Bhikkhuni (United States), Ven. Adhimutta Bhikkhuni (New Zealand), Ven. Suvijjana Bhikkhuni (United States), and Ven. Phalanyani Bhikkhuni (Germany)

October 2010 Bhikkhuni Ordinations at Dharma Vijaya in Los Angeles
The new bhikkhunis were Lakshapathiye Samadhi (born in Sri Lanka), Cariyapanna, Susila, Sammasati (all three born in Vietnam), and Uttamanyana (born in Myanmar).

Oct. 17, 2011 – A Sima of Flowers
Three more bhikkhunis ordained in North America at the Spirit Rock Meditation Hall in Northern California. It was significant in that it was very much a ‘mainstream’ public ordination, widely attended by bhikkhus and bhikkhunis from around the world, representing different lineages, as the request of the sisters. (See article about this ordination )

ordinatio -2011

L-R: Ayya Nimmala, Sati Saraniya Hermitage, Ontario, Canada; Ayya Santacitta and Ayya Anandabodhi, Aloka Vihara, San Francisco, California (now in Placerville, CA)

New Bhikkhuni Training Monasteries
Both Dhammadharini and Aloka Vihara started out in rented facilities. In the past two years, land and houses have been purchased by the Sanghas, which are big steps in establishing permanent bases from which to grow.

  • Aloka Vihara, Placerville, CA
    Ayyas Anandabodhi & Santacitta, Founding Teachers
  • Dhammadharini Monastery, Penngrove, CA
    Ayyas Tathaaloka, Sobhana & Suvijjana, Founding Teachers

Aloka Vihara’s First Ordination
Jayati Bhikkhuni, a former anagarika from Amaravati, is ordained by preceptor Ayya Tathaaloka at the new monastery, in 2014.
Jayati ordination

 

Two historic ordinations were held on June 21, 2015, one in Europe and one in Asia

  • The first bhikkhuni ordination in Europe was held at Anenja Vihara in Germany, with Bhikkhuni Dhira ordained by both bhikkhuni and bhikkhu sangha
  • On the same day, an historic ordination was held at Wisma Kusalayani in Lembang, Bandung. It was the first ordination in Indonesia in over 1000 years. Ayya Santini was the preceptor. The eight Bhikkhunis ordained were from: Indonesia (2); Sri Lanka (1); Japan (1); Vietnam (1); Malaysia (2) and Australia (1).
Dharma Vihaya Ordination

Ayya Sudarshana (top L.) a preceptor at 2016 ordination at Dharma Vijaya, with Ayya Gunasari, Ven. Uttama, Ayyas Dhammadhira & Anandabodhi

Ordination at Dhamma Vijaya – 2016
Ayya Anandabodhi’s comment on the ordination: “Having known Bhante Piyananda for many years, Sm. Satima had come from Sri Lanka to take Bhikkhuni Ordination and then return to her center there. Bhante commented on how extraordinary it is that California has become one of the most supportive places for women to ordain at this time, with women even coming from Buddhist countries to take the ordination back there!”

Bhikkhunis Worldwide!
We have only just touched on the many ordinations that are happening throughout the world. Today there are now bhikkhunis and bhiksunis in Australia, Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, UK, U.S., and Vietnam.


 

About the Authors

Donna McCarthy

Donna McCarthy, PhD. Following graduation from college Donna served for two years in the Peace Corps in Sabah (North Borneo), Malaysia. Another Peace Corps volunteer serving in the same town was Bob Jackman, who later ordained as a Buddhist monk, studied with Ajahn Chah and became known as Ajahn Sumedho. Donna received an MA in International Studies in 1974 and PhD in Social Psychology in 1994. It was through renewing her friendship with Ajahn Sumedho, some 30 years later, while working in the UK, and a subsequent trip to Thailand, that she was introduced to Buddhism. She has been practicing for 20 years. Donna has two grown sons, a grandson, and lives in San Diego with her husband Brian.

Mindy Zlotnick

Mindy Zlotnick decided at age 30 that she would only do work that she loved. This aspiration lead her to serve healthy, disabled and sick children and babies as a postpartum care provider, teacher, and foster parent. She has presented nationally and internationally around the issues of birth, postpartum, infant development and communication through touch and is excited to use these skills to tell the story of the history of Bhikkhunis in the Theravada tradition.

She has been a dedicated practitioner in the Theravada tradition for almost 30 years and has supported the Aloka Vihara nuns from the beginning of their time in the USA. Five years ago, she left San Francisco when settled life began to interfere with her spiritual practice. Since then she has spent time serving at Insight Meditation Society as a Retreat Support fellow, learned to cook for large groups of people in Yogaville in Virginia and completed 7 months of intensive practice. Life continues to unfold.