On Multiple Ordination : Second Letter
February 23, 2010
Dear Ven. Ñāṇadhammo,
You asked for a clarification of my letter of last November 13, in light of the criticisms that have been raised against it. I apologize for the delay in my response, which was caused partly by a bout of ill health on my return to the U.S., and partly by a desire to wait until all the criticisms were in, so that I could deal at once with all the those that seem worthy of a reply.
This response will fall into three parts:
The first part will restate my position that the transaction statement used in the bhikkhunī ordinations at Perth—which mentioned two candidates in a single statement—invalidated the transaction.
The second part will respond to criticisms of this position that are based on accepting the Vinaya as it appears in the Pāli Canon. Arguments based on rejecting parts of the canonical Vinaya defeat their own purpose. If a transaction is to be accepted only when certain rules are ignored, that is enough reason to reject it. Criticisms that call the canonical Vinaya into question cannot form the basis for a position of the Saṅgha. Even though they may cite the results of scholarship, the interpretation of that scholarship can be highly speculative and subjective. Thus they are simply the opinion of the person expressing them and so don’t require a response. Also, historical examples of bhikkhus not following the canonical Vinaya should not be taken as precedent for our decisions: The fact that other bhikkhus broke the rules, even with the approval of the chroniclers who told their story, does not mean that we should break the rules.
Still, several arguments have been made in favor of dropping or amending some of the rules in the Vinaya with regard to this particular case, on the grounds that the issue of training opportunities for women is an important one, and the rules broken in trying to reestablish a Theravāda Bhikkhunī Saṅgha are minor. These arguments may sound convincing to a person from a non-Theravādin background—say, in liberal Protestantism, Reform Judaism, or Mahāyāna—but when they’re closely examined, we find that they contradict many of the larger principles of the Dhamma and Vinaya. Thus, in the third part of the letter, I’ll examine some of the principles that have been advanced for dropping the minor rules, and discuss the larger principles of the Dhamma and Vinaya that argue for sticking with the rules as they are.
First, I’ll give a clearer and more thorough restatement of the position I expressed in my letter. It’s traditional, when a Vinaya discussion comes up in the Saṅgha, to give a review of all the relevant rules and their proper interpretation before delving into the issue at hand. People need background in the rules to make informed decisions about them, and because the Vinaya is so complex, it’s unfair to expect that everyone will be up to speed on every rule relevant to a particular case.
In canonical times this review took a question-and-answer format, with a knowledgeable member of the Saṅgha answering questions put to him by other members of the Saṅgha. Thus, in the course of this review, I will respond to some of the questions that you have put to me. There was some comment that the statement of my position in the November 13 letter was too long, so when I get to my actual position I will try to keep it short. But because many of the responses to my position were based on misinformation about the rules, and because many rules are involved in this issue, I will have to preface it in the traditional way, laying out all the rules that are relevant.
Also, I gave two arguments for the position in my November 13 letter: one based on the canonical Vinaya and the commentaries, and one based solely on the oldest parts of the canonical Vinaya: the Vibhaṅgas and the Khandhakas. Some people missed the fact that there were two arguments, and rejected the position on the understanding that it relied heavily on the commentaries. So here, for clarity’s sake, I’ll base my argument solely on the Vibhaṅgas and the Khandhakas. I’ll make occasional references to the Parivāra—a part of the canonical Vinaya traditionally recognized as later—and to the Commentary, but only to point out the sources of arguments used against my position. I won’t make these later texts carry the burden of the position I’m taking.
If you want to skip the review, go straight to the section marked, “The Question.”
Otherwise, here’s the review:
Background. Community transactions are the means by which the Saṅgha is governed. There is no overarching organization that can pass judgment on the transactions of individual Communities; thus for one Community to have its transactions accepted as valid by other Communities in the larger Saṅgha, those transactions have to fulfill certain validating qualifications. The general qualifications are these:
The validity of the object: the person or item acting as the object of the transaction fulfills the qualifications required for that particular transaction (Mv.IX.5–6; see also the qualifications under the relevant transactions).
The validity of the transaction statement: the statement—called the kammavācā—recited in the course of the transaction follows the correct form for the transaction (Mv.IX.3.2).
The validity of the assembly: the meeting contains at least the minimum number (the quorum) of bhikkhus required to perform that particular transaction (Mv.IX.3.6).
The validity of the territory: any bhikkhus in the territory where the meeting is being held whose consent needs to be conveyed are either present at the meeting or their consent has been conveyed, and no one who is qualified to do so protests the transaction while it is being carried out (Mv.IX.3.6).
If a Community conducts a transaction that does not meet these qualifications as established in the Vinaya, it has betrayed the trust placed in it. The transaction is reversible and unfit to stand (Mv.IX.2.4; Mv.IX.3.2–5). Any bhikkhu who sees that this has happened can declare the transaction invalid and can agitate to have the matter reopened (see the non-offense clauses to Pācittiya 63).
The validity of the transaction statement is the primary issue here, but the validity of the object (in this case, the candidate for Acceptance) also enters into the discussion, so we will have to look at the rules for both. For clarity’s sake, these two types of validity have to be discussed separately, for the general rules applicable to the first type don’t necessarily apply to the second.
The validity of the object: In most transactions, if the object does not meet the qualifications for that particular transaction, the transaction as a whole is invalidated. However, Acceptance (upasampadā) is unusual in that the Canon (Mv.IX.4.11) discusses two classes of invalid objects (i.e., candidates for Acceptance): those that, even if they are accepted by a Community, do not count as accepted; and those that, if they are accepted, count as accepted nevertheless, although the members of the Community accepting them each incur a dukkaṭa. Candidates in the first category include those under the age of twenty, matricides, patricides, and ex-bhikkhus who went over to another religion while they were previously accepted as bhikkhus. Candidates in the second category include those with tuberculosis or epilepsy, slaves, debtors, and sons who have not received their parents’ permission.
However, the Canon also includes prohibitions against accepting certain types of candidates, yet without stating which of these two categories the candidates belong to. Examples common to bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs include candidates without preceptors, candidates without a robe or bowl, or candidates with borrowed robes and bowls. Examples specific to bhikkhunīs include the prohibition (in Bhī Pc 83) against accepting a candidate when her sponsor (pavattanī) has already sponsored another candidate that year, and the prohibition (in Bhī Pc 72–73) against accepting a candidate who has not undergone the formalities of her full two-year training in the first six of the ten precepts. In the general cases, the Commentary states that if the candidates are accepted, they count as accepted. In the case of the bhikkhunīs, the Commentary is silent, but because, under Bhī Pc 71—the rule against accepting a bhikkhunī-candidate under twenty years of age—it explicitly states that the candidate does not count as accepted, its silence under the other rules is interpreted as meaning that candidates accepted in defiance of those rules do count as accepted, even though the members of the Community accepting them incur offenses.
The validity of the transaction statement: The transaction statement lies at the heart of each transaction. In a sense it is the transaction, for when the statement is recited, the transaction has been accomplished. At the same time, the transaction statement is an announcement to the larger Saṅgha of what this particular Community is doing. When the Community gathers for the transaction, one or two bhikkhus recite the statement appropriate for the transaction: either in the form of an announcement, a motion, a motion with one proclamation, or a motion with three proclamations. If, during the recitation, none of the present and qualified bhikkhus protest, and all the validating factors are complete, the transaction has been done.
In most cases, the Canon—when allowing a Community to perform a transaction—gives the form for the authorized statement to be used in that transaction. The statement-form usually contains the equivalent of blanks—such as, “the bhikkhu named so-and-so”—so that the form can be tailored to fit the specifics of the case at hand. Examples would be the statement-form for accepting a single candidate into the Bhikkhu Saṅgha, given at Mv.I.76.9–12, and the statement-forms for accepting a single candidate into the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha, given at Cv.X.17.7–8.
There are a few cases where the Canon allows a particular transaction yet does not explicitly give the form for the statement to be used, but in each of these cases the transaction is so similar to one where the statement-form has been provided that it is easy to modify the given form to fit the specifics of the case where a form has not been provided. And the modifications are extremely minor: substituting plural forms for singular forms when the number of objects is more than one; substituting masculine forms for feminine forms when the object is a woman rather than a man; and taking the statement-form used for authorizing one type of Community official and substituting the title of another type of Community official where the form is not given (as in Cv.VI.21). An example of such modification is the statement for accepting two or three candidates with a single preceptor into the Bhikkhu Saṅgha. Mv.I.74.3 gives permission for this transaction but does not provide the relevant transaction statement-form. The form can be derived, however, by putting the relevant singular forms in Mv.I.76.9–12 into the plural.
Thus a certain amount of modification is allowed for the various statement-forms, but the Canon sets some general limits on how far the modification can go and still be valid. Even for statements explicitly allowed, the reciters cannot omit the motion or the proclamation; if the proclamation has to be stated three times, it cannot be stated only once or twice. A transaction using a statement of this sort is called a non-Dhamma transaction, which is invalid (Mv.IX.3.2–4). Also, the reciters cannot state the proclamations first and the motion later. To do so leads to what is called a semblance-of-the-Dhamma (dhamma-paṭirūpaka) transaction (Mv.IX.3.7–8). This, too, is invalid (Mv.IX.2.3). In other words, these minor slip-ups will invalidate any transaction, even those where the original, correct form for the statement is explicitly authorized.
Mv.IX.3.2 states that the following are also non-transactions: any that—
have an invalid motion and valid proclamation;
have an invalid proclamation and valid motion;
have an invalid motion and invalid proclamation;
are apart from the Dhamma;
are apart from the Vinaya;
are apart from the Teacher’s instruction;
have been protested, are reversible and unfit to stand.
The origin story to this passage lists each of these types as separate types of transactions, but the passage itself doesn’t define the terms. A transaction “apart from the Dhamma” is apparently the same as a non-Dhamma or semblance-of-the-Dhamma transaction.
As for a transaction with an invalid motion and/or proclamation, the Parivāra does define these terms, but because these are later definitions, some people do not take them as definitive. However, as I mentioned above, they have come up in the criticisms of my position, so it’s good to know what they are and where they come from.
Parivāra XIX.1.3 lists five factors that would make a transaction invalid with regard to its motion: if it doesn’t touch on the matter, doesn’t touch on the Saṅgha, doesn’t touch on the individual, doesn’t touch on the motion, or if it later sets aside the motion. Parivāra XIX.1.4 lists five factors that would invalidate a transaction with regard to its proclamation: if it doesn’t touch on the matter, doesn’t touch on the Saṅgha, doesn’t touch on the individual, if the announcement isn’t mentioned, or if it is mentioned at the wrong time [e.g., before the motion].
There is some question as to whether the lists at Parivāra XIX.1.3–4 are exhaustive—i.e., whether the factors they list are the only ones that would invalidate a motion or a proclamation. For instance, suppose that if—in modifying the form of an allowed transaction statement-form to fit a transaction that has not been explicitly allowed—the resulting form inherently would involve an offense. In other words, the statement-form explicitly states that the Saṅgha is performing an act that we clearly know—from the Vibhaṅgas or Khandhakas—incurs an offense for any bhikkhu or Saṅgha performing it.
For such a modification to count as valid under the Great Standards (Mv.VI.40.1), it would have to be similar to an example already authorized in the Canon. And yet the Canon does not contain a single example of a transaction statement-form whose implementation would inherently involve an offense. Thus any newly created statement-form of this sort would be invalid. According to the Great Standards, this would come under the standard of, “And whatever I have not permitted, saying, ‘This is allowable,’ if it conforms with what is not allowable, if it goes against what is allowable, that is not allowable for you.”
Using the categories listed in Mv.IX.3.2, its invalidity can be classed in any of three ways. First, it might be classed as invalid with regard to its motion or proclamation. Or—if we were to take the lists in Parivāra XIX.1.3–4 as exhaustive in defining that category—it could be classed either as “apart from the Vinaya” or as “apart from the Teacher’s instruction.” These last two characterizations would be hard to argue against, for even though the transaction may not be explicitly forbidden, it is not explicitly allowed, and the form of the transaction statement states explicitly that the Community is doing something we know to be an offense. There is no way that such a transaction or its statement could be described as in line with the Vinaya or the Teacher’s instruction. Thus, regardless of which of the three categories the transaction would fall under, it is a non-transaction, i.e., invalid and unfit to stand.
The Question. The issue is whether it is valid to perform an Acceptance transaction for bhikkhunīs in which two or three bhikkhunī-candidates are mentioned in the transaction statement.
1) There is no allowance for this transaction given in the Vibhaṅgas or the Khandhakas.
2) Mv.I.74.3 does allow for an Acceptance transaction for bhikkhus in which two or three bhikkhu-candidates are mentioned in the transaction statement, but a condition is placed on the allowance: “I allow a single proclamation to be made for two or three [candidates] if they have the same preceptor, but not if they have different preceptors.”
3) Thus it might be argued, on the basis of the Great Standards, that a similar allowance should be assumed for bhikkhunīs.
4) However, as we have noted above, Bhī Pc 83 places special limitations on how many students a bhikkhunī sponsor (as the pavattanī, the bhikkhunī equivalent of a preceptor, or upajjhāya) may have at any one time: “Should any bhikkhunī sponsor [Acceptances—act as a sponsor for] two [candidates] in one year, it is to be confessed.” (There is no corresponding rule for bhikkhus.)
5) The Vibhaṅga to Bhī Pc 83 states that this rule, if broken, carries a pācittiya offense for the sponsor, and a dukkaṭa offense for every member of the Community participating in the transaction. (There is no equivalent rule limiting the number of candidates a bhikkhu may take on as preceptor at any one time.)
6) Thus the transaction would fit into the categories that would invalidate it as “apart from the Vinaya, apart from the Teacher’s instruction”: The transaction is not allowed in the Vibhaṅgas or Khandhakas, and the form of the transaction statement states explicitly that the Community is doing something that we know, from Bhī Pc 83 and its Vibhaṅga, to constitute an offense for every member of the Community participating in the transaction. It is thus unfit to stand.
That’s the restatement of the position I presented in my previous letter.
Objections. Four objections based on the canonical Vinaya have been made to the above position.
The first objection gives the counter-example of a candidate without a bowl or robes. Mv.I.70.3 imposes a dukkaṭa on any member of a Community who accepts such a candidate into the Saṅgha, but does not state whether the candidate counts as validly accepted or not. The Commentary to this passage states that he does. The objection then uses this example to note that because the transaction statement in this case would involve a lie—i.e., the transaction statement explicitly states that the candidate’s robe and bowl are complete when in fact they are not—the statement would entail an offense for the Community approving it, and yet the candidate would count as accepted. This, the objection states, disproves the point made in my letter, that “There are no examples of transaction statements authorized in the Canon where the sheer form of the statement would intrinsically entail the breaking of a rule.”
However, this counter-example is based on a misunderstanding of what is meant by a statement-form that would intrinsically entail the breaking of a rule. If a Community wished to give Acceptance to a candidate without a robe or bowl, and did so using the full transaction statement-form given in Mv.I.76.9–11 (which states that the candidate’s robe and bowl are complete), the lie would not be inherent to the form of the statement. The lie occurs in the fact that the Community in question is applying a perfectly valid, authorized transaction statement to the wrong case. There is nothing intrinsic in the form of the statement that would automatically entail the breaking of a rule. Thus the counter-example is irrelevant to the case at hand.
(As an aside—and this is not essential to my argument—if we follow the standards set out in Parivāra XIX.1.3–4, there would be no need for a Community to tell a lie in this case anyhow. According to those passages, only three things need to be touched on in a motion or announcement: the matter (in this case, the candidate for Acceptance), the Saṅgha performing the action, and the individual (the preceptor). Thus a Community who wished to give Acceptance to a candidate without a robe or bowl could simply drop all reference to the presence or absence of the robe and bowl in the transaction statement, and yet the statement would be valid. At the same time it would not contain a lie.)
In any event, this first objection is irrelevant and does not stand.
The second objection is actually tangential to my argument. In sections 1–7 of the argument in the November 13 letter, I presented my reasoning—summarized above—for stating that a transaction statement accepting two candidates into the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha qualifies as “apart from the Vinaya” in the words of Mv.IX.3.2, and so is invalid. In sections 8–10 of that letter, however, I checked to see if the Canon or commentaries might allow for an exemption to Mv.IX.3.2, in which a transaction using an unauthorized transaction statement would nevertheless still be valid. In other words, I was checking to see if the general principle that an invalid transaction statement invalidates the whole procedure was granted some exemptions, or if it was a universal principle.
The closest possibility for an exemption I could find was the example in Mv.I.69.1, of a candidate who doesn’t have a preceptor but whose Acceptance, at least according to the Commentary, is still valid. My reasoning was that if a transaction using an invalid statement under Mv.I.69.1 (statement x) was still valid, then perhaps we could conclude that a transaction using a statement accepting two candidates into the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha (statement y) would also be valid. I found, however, that none of the texts allow for an exemption in the case of statement x. In every case, the transaction was deemed valid if a valid statement-form was used, but invalid if an invalid statement-form was used. Thus I came to the conclusion that the texts allow for no exemptions in this area. The principle that invalid statement-forms invalidate their transactions is a universal one, and the judgment based on Mv.IX.3.2 still stands.
The objection to this point was this: The texts reject statement x because it lacks the necessary reference to the relevant individual (the preceptor). This is not true of statement y, and so the two statements are not parallel. Thus my conclusion does not stand.
This objection is based on a misunderstanding of the purpose of the argument in sections 8–10. It assumes that I was trying to prove that statement y is invalid because it is similar to statement x. Actually, I had already made my case that statement y is invalid, on other grounds, in sections 1–7. In sections 8–10 I was simply trying to see if there was a possible exemption to Mv.IX.3.2. To disprove my conclusion in sections 8–10 it would be necessary to find an example in the Canon where a Community uses an invalid transaction statement and yet the transaction is deemed valid. As far as I can see, no such example exists.
The third objection is that, because there are some cases where candidates who don’t fully meet the qualifications for Acceptance still count as accepted once they are accepted, that means that minor flaws in the Acceptance transaction don’t matter. The problem with this objection is that it conflates two types of validity: validity as to the object and validity as to the transaction statement. The fact that there are some exemptions to the requirements for a valid object in an Acceptance transaction does not transfer to the requirements for a valid transaction statement. Even though Mv.IX.4.11 grants specific exemptions for the validity of some candidates who don’t fulfill the qualifications as “object” in Acceptance transactions, all the other validities—assembly, territory, and transaction statement—have to be fully met for the transaction to be valid. Nowhere in the Vibhaṅga or Khandhakas are any exemptions granted in the case of invalid transaction statements.
This distinction is not as arbitrary as it might seem. It’s one thing to accept a specific individual even though he or she does not fully meet the qualifications, for the Community is exercising its judgment on a case-by-case basis. It’s something else when a Community has decided that it wants to break Bhī Pc 83 as a Community policy and uses a statement-form not found in the Canon whose sole purpose is to make it easier and more convenient to break the rule—for that’s what happened at the ceremonies in Perth. The sort of attitude reflected in that effort is not something that should be approved and emulated by other Communities.
The fourth objection is that my argument mistakenly assumes that Bhī Pc 83 was formulated before the allowance at Mv.I.74.3—in other words, that the restriction on multiple students for one bhikkhunī-sponsor was in place before the allowance for bhikkhus to ordain two or three candidates with a single preceptor. Further, this objection states that because we know there was a period when a bhikkhunī was allowed to have multiple students at any one time—prior to the origin story to Bhī Pc 83, when lay supporters complained that there were too many bhikkhunīs—we can use that previous period as an example for current behavior.
This objection is mistaken on many levels. To begin with, the argument I made is not based on the above assumption. In fact, as a personal opinion, I had assumed the opposite: that Mv.I.74.3 was in place before Bhī Pc 83. But this question is irrelevant at present. It does not matter which rule was in place before which other rule, for all the rules are currently equally in place. Once a rule is in place, it’s in place and cannot be revoked except by unanimous approval of the Saṅgha (Cv.XI.1.9). It does not matter that there was once a period when a bhikkhunī could have multiple students at any one time, for that is true of all the rules: We know that there was a period when none of the rules had been formulated. But, that does not give us grounds to assume the pre-rule period as a precedent for our behavior at present, for that would mean that we could revoke all the rules at our pleasure.
This objection also assumes that the origin story to a rule—in this case, Bhī Pc 83—gives us the full range of situations in which the rule applies, along with the Buddha’s total reason for formulating the rule, and that the rule does not have to apply outside of that limited range of situations. To assume this as a general principle, however, would be to severely limit the application of all the rules. The rule against killing a human being would apply only to monks who hired assassins to kill themselves; the rule against having sexual intercourse would apply only to monks who were having sex with their former wives to provide an heir for the family fortune. As a point of fact, the Vibhaṅgas to the Pāṭimokkhas provide each rule with a section of non-offense clauses that delimit the actual range of the rule’s application. And as I noted in my letter of November 13, the non-offense clauses in the Vibhaṅga to Bhī Pc 83 do not grant any exemptions for periods when residences for bhikkhunīs are plentiful. At present, the only bhikkhunī who would break that rule without incurring an offense would be one who breaks it while she is insane.
Another objection has been made to my position, which calls into question the validity of the canonical Vinaya, so I am not duty-bound to respond to it. But, because it is based on a passage in the canonical suttas, I feel it should be addressed.
The objection is this: Therīgāthā 6:1 mentions that Pāṭācārā Therī had 500 students. If Bhī Pc 83 had indeed been formulated by the Buddha, she would had to have been ordained 1,000 years to have so many students. Therefore Bhī Pc 83 must not have been formulated by the Buddha, and thus is not binding.
There are several flaws in this objection. To begin with, Therīgāthā 6:1 does not say that the 500 bhikkhunīs had all been sponsored by Pāṭācārā. It simply says that they were her students. There are many cases throughout the Canon of bhikkhus studying with bhikkhus who are not their preceptors, and the same could easily have been the case here. So the mere mention of 500 students does not disprove the validity of Bhī Pc 83.
Second, even if we assume (following the Commentary to the Therīgāthā) that the 500 bhikkhunīs were sponsored by Pāṭācārā, we have to remember that the rules in the Vinaya were not all formulated at the same time. Some came early in the Buddha’s lifetime, some came later in his lifetime. It might have been the case that Pāṭācārā had sponsored many bhikkhunīs before the Buddha formulated Bhī Pc 83. The rules, obviously, were not binding before they were formulated, but—as I stated above—they were binding after they were formulated, and they are binding now.
(As an aside: Why is it that, when there is a perceived discrepancy between two passages in the Canon, it is often taken as proof that the more convenient passage is authentic, and the less convenient one is not? Is this the way a monastic should train?)
So none of the above objections, as far as I can see, refute my position that the transaction statement used at the Acceptance transaction in Perth rendered the transaction invalid.
So what does it mean to declare another Community’s transactions invalid? It simply means that we do not see ourselves bound by any responsibilities that would come from accepting those transactions as valid. In this case it means that we would not regard the bhikkhunīs accepted at the ceremony at Perth as genuine bhikkhunīs. It does not mean that we are ordering other people not to give them respect or support. We are not in a position to give orders to others in that way. We are simply exerting our right not to be bound by an invalid transaction.
Of course, when one Community performs a transaction that it sees as valid but other Communities see as invalid, and both sides hold to their positions—i.e., they insist that they are right and we are wrong, while we insist the reverse—then you have a rift. It’s not yet a schism, but it does lead to disharmony in the Saṅgha. This is why the freedom for a Community to conduct its own business is coupled by the responsibility to conduct that business in a way that other Communities would accept. It’s also why the Buddha directed Communities to conduct their transactions in a way that fulfills all the necessary requirements to the letter. Otherwise, in such a loosely confederated Saṅgha, it’s hard for harmony to be maintained.
And notice how offenses are allotted in a case like this: When a Community performs an invalid transaction, each of the participants incurs a dukkaṭa even if he doesn’t realize that the transaction is invalid. On the other hand, if a bhikkhu agitates for the overturning of a transaction, then even if the transaction was actually valid, he incurs an offense under Pācittiya 63 only if he perceives the transaction as valid. If he perceives it as invalid, he incurs no offense. So the onus is on each Community to perform its transactions in ways that are clearly valid, for an invalid transaction is perceived as the cause of the rift.
As I stated in my previous letter, the question of the transaction statement is only one of many Vinaya issues that need to be considered in the issue of bhikkhunī ordination. It is certainly not the most serious one, but I feel that it is important enough that it be treated with as much clarity as possible. The harmony of the Saṅgha often depends on issues like this, and I don’t regard the importance of this harmony as “ironic.” I also don’t see that it’s compassionate to show people that they can get what they want by bending or breaking the rules, even in special circumstances. That’s called a slippery slope, and it doesn’t lead upward.
Which brings me to the third part of my letter.
Several arguments have been advanced for putting aside any of the Vinaya rules that would interfere with the revival of the Theravāda Bhikkhunī Saṅgha. The arguments tend to be based on any one of four rationales—or on combinations of the four—and it’s useful to examine these rationales to see whether they accord with the Dhamma.
The first rationale is that setting aside the rules is what the Buddha would have us do. Sometimes this rationale is couched in general terms: that the Buddha was compassionate, and the revival of the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha is a compassionate thing. Sometimes it’s couched in more particular terms: the fact that the rules the Buddha instituted for the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha are the rules he would like female renunciates to live by; that he declared that, “A bhikkhunī is essential”; and that he allowed the Saṅgha to rescind any of the minor rules he had instituted: “After I am gone, the Saṅgha—if it wants—may abolish the lesser and minor training rules.” (DN 16)
This rationale is often accompanied by a rhetorical question: “If the Buddha were alive, wouldn’t he revive the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha?” But this is the wrong question to ask, because the Buddha is no longer alive. A more relevant question would be, “If the Buddha knew that we in the 26th century of his Dispensation were trying to revive the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha, would he approve of our breaking some of the rules to do so?” And it’s not clear that he would.
To begin with, the Buddha never declared that, “A bhikkhunī is essential.” This statement is a mistranslation of the phrase, sārā bhikkhunī, “a heartwood bhikkhunī,” found in the Vibhaṅga to the first Bhikkhunī Pārājika rule. It comes in the context of a list detailing the different types of bhikkhunīs covered by that rule and all the subsequent rules in the Bhikkhunī Pāṭimokkha. I. B. Horner mistranslated the list in her translation of the Vinaya Piṭaka, so it might be useful to have the full translation: “Bhikkhunī: an alms-goer bhikkhunī, a bhikkhunī who consents to alms-going, a wearer of the cut-up robe bhikkhunī [these first three are etymological puns on the bhi- syllable in the Pāli], a bhikkhunī by designation, a bhikkhunī by acknowledgement, a ‘Come, bhikkhunī,’ bhikkhunī, a bhikkhunī accepted by means of the going-for-the-Triple-Refuge [these were two early types of Acceptance], an auspicious bhikkhunī, a heartwood bhikkhunī [these two types refer to those endowed with any of the qualities of the practice from virtue up through the destruction of the āsavas], a learner bhikkhunī, an adept bhikkhunī, a bhikkhunī accepted by both Saṅghas in unity, by means of a transaction with a motion and three proclamations, irreversible and fit to stand.” This list is slightly adapted from the same list appearing in the Vibhaṅga to the first Pārājika rule in the Bhikkhu Pāṭimokkha. Thus the phrase sārā bhikkhunī simply denotes one type of bhikkhunī, does not say that a bhikkhunī is essential, and so has no bearing on the question at hand.
Second, even though the Buddha did in fact state that the Saṅgha could abolish the lesser and minor training rules, he stated that this could be done only by the Saṅgha, and not by a separate group. This means that any action of this sort would have to receive the unanimous support of the Saṅgha. That is far from feasible at present. At the same time, there are statements elsewhere in the suttas that counsel against such a move.
“As long as the monks neither decree what has been undecreed nor repeal what has been decreed, but practice undertaking the training rules as they have been decreed, their growth can be expected, not their decline.” — AN 7:21; DN 16
“And furthermore, just as the ocean is stable and does not overstep its tideline, in the same way my disciples do not—even for the sake of their lives—overstep the training rules I have formulated for them. The fact that my disciples do not—even for the sake of their lives—overstep the training rules I have formulated for them: This is the second amazing and astounding fact about this Dhamma and Vinaya that, as they see it again and again, has the monks greatly pleased with the Dhamma and Vinaya.” — Ud 5:5
Thus when bhikkhus refuse to change the Buddha’s rules, it’s not necessarily out of misogyny or lack of sympathy. It could instead be out of a sense of honor combined with loyalty and gratitude to the Buddha—and to the Dhamma and Vinaya, which are our teachers in his absence. These bhikkhus see that dropping a few rules “temporarily” tends to result in their being dropped permanently; the example of dropping one inconvenient rule leads to the dropping of others. To set such an example is not an expression of wise compassion. Remember how Mahā Kassapa expressed his compassion for future generations: by setting an example of strict deportment that he followed into old age (SN 16:5).
Second-guessing the Buddha’s attitude toward the present is a risky endeavor, but there are two important points that the Vinaya teaches as fact.
a) The Buddha did not establish the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha on an equal footing with the Bhikkhu Saṅgha. It’s not the case that the idea for women’s equality with men was unthinkable in his time: After all, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī is quoted as having thought of it soon after the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha was founded (Cv.X.3). However, as the Buddha had earlier explained to Ven. Ānanda, he had to choose between providing equality on the one hand and arranging for the long life of the brahmacariya (holy life) on the other. Just as a family composed mostly of women easily falls prey to robbers and thieves, a brahmacariya where women gain the going-forth does not last long (Cv.X.1.6). Thus he gave preferential treatment to the bhikkhus—not because men were in any way superior to women spiritually, but simply because in a world of war, invasions, and genocide, a men’s celibate order is more likely to outlive a women’s celibate order. And history has shown that his strategy was wise. If we had depended on the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha to keep the Theravāda Dhamma and Vinaya alive, it would have died out centuries ago, when the last remnants of the Theravāda Bhikkhunī Saṅgha were wiped out by the Mongol invasion of Myanmar.
b) The Buddha did not establish protocols for reinstating either of the Saṅghas when they had died out. It is hard to imagine that he did not foresee this possibility—after all, his knowledge of previous lifetimes had taught him a great deal about what caused the Dispensations of previous Buddhas to end quickly or slowly (Sutta Vibhaṅga I.3). So we can only surmise that he foresaw this eventuality and decided that once the Saṅghas had died out—with no living members trained in the training he had established—they should stay that way.
Thus his compassion was more subtle, circumspect, and pragmatic, more informed by his knowledge of the past, than we could ever hope to comprehend. As DN 16 notes that, soon after his Awakening, he told Māra that he would not enter total Nibbāna until he had established both a Bhikkhu Saṅgha and a Bhikkhunī Saṅgha. Yet when the opportunity came to establish the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha, he did so only when the conditions were right, and only on his own terms: terms designed to provide an opportunity for women to train in the practice leading to Awakening, while at the same time trying to ensure that the brahmacariya would last long.
I have no access to the Buddha’s thinking on this matter, but I can point to some of the conditions that he had in his favor when setting up the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha, and that we don’t have at present.
To begin with, when the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha was originally formed, the Buddha was present, and he had the assistance of his arahant disciples in setting it up. If—when the bhikkhunīs were informed that the Buddha had formulated a rule for the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha—they disapproved of the rule or thought it a sexist monkish interpolation, they could check with him in person. We at present do not have this opportunity.
When the Buddha passed away, he left the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha in the hands of well-trained bhikkhunīs who had lived by the rules, had benefited from them, and could instill respect for the rules in their students. They could offer living proof that the rules, far from being sexist or demeaning, provided a vehicle conducive for training for liberation. These well-trained bhikkhunīs could also offer the living example of accumulated wisdom, which cannot be contained in a written text, of how women should live harmoniously in community in a way that furthers their practice. Having trained in the forest tradition, you know the importance of having living examples of teachers well-trained in the Dhamma and Vinaya to convey the aspects of the training that cannot be contained in books. But the living tradition of well-trained bhikkhunīs has now been lost.
What we do have now are a few very vocal academic scholars making their livelihood out of trying to disprove the authority of the Pāli Canon, and a chorus of disrespectful and polarizing voices on the Internet. These are not conditions conducive to reviving the bhikkhunī training.
The second rationale for rescinding some of the rules is that women desire the opportunity to devote their lives fully to Dhamma practice, and that this desire should be honored.
This desire is an honorable desire, and should be honored, but not at all costs. There are various forms in which women might form communities to practice the Dhamma full-time—think of the Khao Suan Luang community in Ratburi—but not all of them risk causing rifts in the Saṅgha. The revival of the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha, however, is already causing rifts in the Saṅgha. If there are women who want bhikkhunī ordination at all costs and see no problem in causing rifts in the Bhikkhu Saṅgha, that is not an honorable desire.
It’s as if they were asking, “Who do you love more, your teachers or us?” And, frankly, I wonder why they would not be suspicious of bhikkhus who choose them over their teachers.
Many people forget that there is no rule in the Dhamma or Vinaya forbidding people from setting up practice communities of their own, even to the point of adopting the rules of the bhikkhus or bhikkhunīs. And here in the West, there is no one to stop them from doing so, or from seeking support for their communities. I know of no bhikkhu who would argue that, because the communities are self-formed, they would not be deserving of support, for there is the Buddha’s statement in AN 3:58:
“Vaccha, whoever prevents another from giving a gift creates three obstructions, three impediments. Which three? He creates an obstruction to the merit of the giver, an obstruction to the recipient’s gains, and prior to that he undermines and harms his own self. Whoever prevents another from giving a gift creates these three obstructions, these three impediments.”
And I know of many bhikkhus who—if they saw that the members of these communities were sincere in their desire for training—would be happy to give them advice on an informal basis if requested.
So the positive good of women’s practice communities has to be combined with the positive good of maintaining harmony in the Bhikkhu Saṅgha if it is to be genuinely in line with the Dhamma. The revival of the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha does not meet this double need.
The third rationale is that Theravāda Buddhism would look better in the eyes of the world if it provided equal opportunities for women to practice, and that we should be concerned by the face that we show to the world if the Dhamma is to survive.
This rationale treats Theravāda as if it were a commodity that we are trying to sell to the world. And in selling out to modern values—which are constantly changing and would keep demanding further changes down the line—it abandons those who would look to Theravāda for what it does best: remaining faithful to its roots regardless of modern pressures. Efforts to change the Dhamma so that it will “survive” in the modern world usually end up killing it. The timeless (akālika) wisdom of the Dhamma survives not by following in line with the world, but by practicing the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma (dhammānudhammapaṭipatti) with as much integrity and fidelity as we can manage.
It is true that one of the factors underlying the establishment of the rules was that they would increase confidence among the laity, but that was not the only factor the Buddha considered. The origin story to Saṅghādisesa 13 provides an excellent example of his not approving of the behavior of bhikkhus who tried to appeal to what the laity found inspiring.
An even more relevant cautionary tale comes from closer to home. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the King of Thailand and his ministers—all of whom had had a Western education—realized that, for Thailand to maintain its independence in the face of the Western colonial threat, it would have to develop a mass education system. The money needed to set up such a system, however, was lacking. So, thinking like Westerners—and in a way that struck them as showing obvious common sense—they hit upon an economical way to get the system underway: by requesting permission from monasteries to build schools on their land, and by pressing monks into service as teachers in the schools until adequate teacher-training colleges could be built. This is what happened. Pressure on monks to act as teachers in the new elementary and secondary schools kept growing until, in 1927, an ordinance was passed requiring all monks to act as teachers in the schools.
The response of the forest tradition was to go deeper into the wilderness—this was the period when Ajaan Mun left the northeast and headed to the greater solitude of the forests in northern Thailand. And at present we’re glad they did. If they hadn’t—if they had all become school teachers in line with “educated” and “enlightened” modern values—we wouldn’t have had the opportunity we did have to study and train with accomplished meditators.
The fourth rationale is that modern scholarship argues that the Vinaya as we have it is not a reliable record of the rules that the Buddha formulated, and thus we are not necessarily going against the Buddha’s teachings if we dispense with some of the rules.
This rationale, however, is self-defeating. Why would bhikkhus who have given their lives to training under the Vinaya feel compelled to authorize the ordination of people who treat the Vinaya with such a cavalier attitude? If the Vinaya is not to be treated with respect, then why would people want to receive training in the Vinaya? Why should they care if the Bhikkhu Saṅgha gives formal approval to women wanting to call themselves bhikkhunīs?
As Ajaan Mun once said, “Logs have never gotten into people’s eyes, but fine sawdust can—and it can blind you.” In other words, people rarely get into trouble for breaking the major rules; it’s the tendency to dismiss minor rules that keeps people blind to their own defilements.
And as AN 8:2 points out, a first prerequisite for training is a sense of respect, shame, and compunction. Where these qualities are missing, the training is in vain.
That covers the questions that were raised when we last met, plus a few that have arisen in the interim. I hope that this is helpful.
With best wishes,