It’s Time to Restore Bhikṣuṇī Ordination

Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje
Translated by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso

His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa discusses ordination of Tibetan women with faculty and students of the Buddhist Studies program at HDS.

His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa discusses ordination of Tibetan women with faculty and students of the Buddhist Studies program at HDS. Photo by Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office.


First, I want to clarify that reestablishing the bhikṣuṇī (female monastic) ordination in the Tibetan Mūlasarvāstivādin tradition is not something I initiated. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has shown great concern about this issue and given an enormous amount of support to the whole process. Under his leadership, several decades of research and hard work had already been put into how this could be accomplished before I became involved. I must express my gratitude to him, and to the others who have worked so hard on this. It would be unfitting were they to have done all the hard work and I were to claim the credit.

My personal interest began for a very simple, or you could say accidental, reason. In the year 2004 we began the process of bringing the yearly or annual Kagyu Monlam1 into full line with the traditions of the monastic Vinaya. We were concerned with the establishment of the correct seating, order, and rituals, the fully appropriate robes and the wearing of the necessary marks and so forth for both bhikṣus (male monastics) and novices, or śrāmaṇeras. As we worked on this, questions came up because there were several women—nuns—in the Tibetan tradition who had received bhikṣuṇī ordination already. Thus, we had to address questions about where these several bhikṣuṇīs should sit, what exactly they should wear, and so on.

Whereas, initially, for me it was merely a question of protocol, I quickly became engaged when I consulted the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje’s manual of Vinaya procedures and ordination rituals. In this text, he writes that since there is no longer a community of bhikṣuṇīs, if any woman or group of women wishes to receive the bhikṣuṇī ordination, the ordination should be given using the ceremony for bhikṣu ordination. I inferred from this that he actually was a proponent of the reestablishment of this ordination, and I came to recognize the tremendous importance of the issue.

One of the questions that has arisen and been discussed regarding the reestablishment of the order of bhikṣuṇīs in Tibet is whether bhikṣuṇī ordination was ever given in Tibet. I’ve become quite certain that it did exist. It’s clear that during the initial or early propagation period, when monastic ordination first began in Tibet, both men and women were ordained. There are
accounts in that period of some queens, or at least royal consorts, becoming nuns. It’s also clear from the wording of these accounts that they didn’t simply receive the primary ordination, but the full ordination, that is, both the getsulma and the
gelongma bhikṣuṇī ordination. Moreover, in other older Tibetan historical texts, there are many accounts of communities of bhikṣuṇīs. So I am quite certain that both during the early propagation period, between the eighth and eleventh centuries, and during at least the beginning of the later propagation period, the community and the ordination of bhikṣuṇīs existed in Tibet, but that somehow the ordination fell into disuse and died out. We still don’t know why it died out, and so we’re continuing to study and research this.

His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa on Full Ordination for Tibetan Women


Later on, there seem to have been several individual women who requested and received the bhikṣuṇī ordination, but there were no longer any communities for bhikṣuṇī, so they may in fact have been included in the bhikṣu ordination. My understanding is that this probably occurred during the lifetime of the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje. It also seems that Bodong Chogle Namgyel gave the bhikṣuṇī ordination to the first Samding Dorje Phagmo, who is regarded as the highest female tulku, or nirmāṇakāya, in Tibet.

Another issue or question that arises is whether, according to the Vinaya, it is permitted for male monastics or a male preceptor to bestow this ordination of bhikṣuṇī on women. If we look at the Vinaya, it says that the primary ordination, or the śrāmaṇerikā, the novitiate, and also the intermediate ordination, which is called gelongma, or virtuous disciple, can be given by bhikṣuṇīs, but that the bhikṣuṇī ordination should be given by an attending preceptor and assistant preceptor community composed of both bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs. This raises the question: If the vow is given by bhikṣus alone, will the pure, complete transmission of the vow occur?

From one point of view, I suppose you could say that what’s held up the restoration or reestablishment of the bhikṣuṇī ordination in Tibetan Buddhism is that some scholars, some teachers, have been against it. But from another point of view, looking at it a little more positively, the reason it has taken so long is that we want to be really careful that, once we reestablish it, it is undisputable in its authenticity and can be universally and officially accepted by all the teachers of all of the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. This has involved rigorous and extensive research into both Indian and Tibetan source texts. While this has led to a delay, we could say that it’s enabled us to learn much more about the situation. Personally, this has helped me a great deal, because all of the discussion and all of the research has enabled me to gain an understanding of the entire situation surrounding ordination.

Initially, several Western nuns of Tibetan Buddhism demonstrated a strong interest in the reestablishment of the bhikṣuṇī vow. At the time, most Tibetan nuns were not concerned with the issue, because it hadn’t existed in their society for so long. Whether it was that the Western Tibetan Buddhist nuns’ interest simply reminded the Tibetan Buddhist nuns of the bhikṣuṇī ordination or made them aware of it, it sparked an interest among Tibetan Buddhist nuns in learning more about it. Though some Tibetan people have suggested that the interest comes only from outside Tibet, not from inside, I have been a proponent of educating or introducing Tibetan nuns to what bhikṣuṇī is, what becoming a bhikṣuṇī means, the benefits of the reestablishment of the bhikṣuṇī lineage, and the problems with not having it.

My personality is such that I tend to think that endless talking is no good—it’s not going to get the job done. At some point, after there’s been enough talking, you just have to do it! That’s how I feel about the bhikṣuṇī ordination, and about other things, too. As I’ve noted, there has been a great deal of discussion of the validity of the reestablishment of this ordination, and, as I’ve also said, I’m very appreciative of all of that discussion and exploration. But I think now’s the time to just do it.

We have a yearly gathering called the Arya Ksema, the Kagyu winter dharma gathering, a tradition of our particular lineage, where we’ve discussed this issue of the bhikṣuṇī ordination. I’ve introduced and explained the concept, and the sangha, including the khenpo—the abbots and preceptors and others—have been very enthusiastic and supportive (both men and women). What they’ve said to me is, “You need to do it.” They’ve pointed out that regardless of how much longer we spend discussing this among all the different masters of all the different schools, it’s unlikely that we will ever arrive at a truly unanimous consensus. They have encouraged me to lead the way, since someone has to do it first, and then the others will follow. I agreed, and last year I stated publicly that the bhikṣuṇī ordination would be reestablished.

The actual administration of the first conferral of the bhikṣuṇī ordination will occur in 2016, because it takes several steps. Before receiving the bhikṣuṇī vow, a woman must first receive the śrāmaṇerikā, or novitiate monastic vow, and then after that the intermediate vow—gelongma, or in Sanskrit, śikṣamāṇā. They have to hold that vow for two years before they can receive the bhikṣuṇī vow. And then they have to remain a bhikṣuṇī in good standing for ten years before they can go on to confer it. So even if we begin this is in 2016, I’ll be forty years old before any Tibetan women will be able to give the bhikṣuṇī vows. If we were to wait much longer, I would be getting old, so I think it is time to do it!

We want to create a committee to explore and determine the procedure for bhikṣuṇī ordination in very precise detail so that when it is given, it is fully authentic and eventually can become a glorious and independent tradition that will last. There appear to be two ways in which the bhikṣuṇī ordination can be given. One is where all stages of the ordination are given by a male bhikṣu preceptor and sangha, but as I mentioned, there are debates about the validity of that. The second way is drawn somewhat from the Dharmaguptaka bhikṣuṇī lineage, which of course still continues. In that tradition, all of the preparatory procedures and ordinations prior to the bhikṣuṇī ordination would be given by a bhikṣuṇī, and then the final bhikṣuṇī ordination would be given by a convened sangha including both male bhikṣus of the Mūlasarvāstivādin tradition, which is the bhikṣuṇī vow lineage we wish to reestablish, and female bhikṣuṇīs (initially, or in some cases, from the Dharmaguptaka tradition). In a sense, that is a little tricky, because the vow that we want to reestablish is the Mūlasarvāstivādin one. But since the implication of the text seems to be that the actual, final bhikṣuṇī vow is to be transmitted by the attending bhikṣu preceptor, and since the preceptor would be a bhikṣu from the Mūlasarvāstivādin tradition, I think this is OK. There are more details to iron out, but these get into matters that you’re not supposed to discuss with people who are not monastics.

This issue didn’t become important recently only because Western Tibetan Buddhist female monastics have asked for it—it always was important. From the beginning, we define the sangha as the fourfold entourage of the Buddha—male and female monastics, and male and female laity. Indeed, it’s said that one of the reasons that brought the Buddha into this world was so that the fourfold entourage would be made complete. So if the fourfold sangha is not complete, then we’re not honoring one of the major reasons the Buddha appeared here to begin with. This is important given that, traditionally, Buddhists would define a Buddhist land or country as a place where the four types of sangha are all represented or present, and if they’re not, it’s not a Buddhist land or country. I’ve also stressed that the bhikṣuṇī ordination should have continued. We are at fault for having allowed it to lapse in the first place.

There are more female humans than male humans in the world. And from what I have encountered, there seem to be more women interested in spirituality than men. One of the responsibilities of any spiritual leader is to determine the needs of those he or she serves—especially what they lack, what they need that they’re not getting—and to respond. Moreover, women are often said to be of the nature of wisdom, inherently so. One of the implications of this is that women often have a tremendous innate ability to lead. Therefore, to have great bhikṣuṇī spiritual leaders in the Buddhist tradition would do Buddhism a tremendous amount of good.

Notes:

  1. See www.kagyumonlam.org.

Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje is the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa, head of the nine-hundred-year-old Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He is a world spiritual leader, a scholar and meditation master, as well as a painter, poet, songwriter, and playwright. In addition to his advocacy for women monastics, he is known for his environmental activism. This is an edited version of a talk he delivered at Harvard Divinity School on March 26, 2015, during a two-day visit. To read an article about his visit and watch videos of his talks, visit hds.harvard.edu/news/2015/03/27/caring-life-earth.

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