Thanks for narrowing things for me.
According to Theravada tradition the relationship of women to the
Sangha goes back to Gautama Himself.
The Buddha certainly acknowledged that women could become enlightened.
That acknowledgement cuts across most all Buddhist practices. In
Jodo Shinsu, for example, about half our priesthood is women in the US
and a slightly smaller percentage in the rest of the world. However,
your question is about the Sangha, which is the order of the monastics
rather than the priesthood. Monastic life in Jodo Shinsu is rare.
However, that Sangha still represents the highest ecclesiastical
authority as it does in those practices which include large monastic
orders. A priest in many practices is not much more than a high
ranking layman, a lay reader, or master of ceremonies who conducts the
services but has little spiritual authority. That belongs to the
bhikkhus, the monastics, the Sangha. Though in the larger sense, the
Sangha is composed of all believers, in whatever tradition, united in
However, according to Theravada tradition, even though Gautama
acknowledged that women could become enlightened, he was reluctant to
allow them to go out and teach. He only gave in upon their acceptance
of the eight gurudharmas. These gurudharmas are the precepts of life
which give primacy to the bhikkhus both in social and ecclesiastical
realms. Much of this attitude toward the women going out simply
reflects the cultural norms at the time of Gautama. - - - (a note to
avoid confusion as we progress: There are times I will refer to
Gautama, to Sakya (a dimunitive nickname) or simply the Buddha. The
term Buddha will always refer to the Gautama which is the Buddha of
Our Age rather than to the Amida or Universal Buddha which is the
embodiment of the Dharma and the actual object of our worship and
So, while there is controversy about this bit of history, the Buddha
did allow for the establishment of the bhikshuni (the women's orders)
along with the bhikkhus (the men's orders).
What makes your question so interesting, is that right now there is a
movement within Theravada to re-create the bhikshuni order which is
getting considerable support even from followers of Mahayana
Sakya said just before his Parinirvana, that it was necessary to only
keep the major rules. His words were: "Make yourself the light, and
make the Dharma the light. Do not accept a statement on the ground
that it is found in our books, nor on the supposition that "this is
acceptable," nor because it is the saying of your teacher."
Buddhism during its history, has had to adapt to a wide variety of
cultures rather than impose its own. In fact, such an imposition of
culture or belief is expressly forbidden and acceptance of the
teachings must be entirely voluntary. In order to meet this demand,
it must be possible for changes to take place concerning particular
rules, provided that the basic Dharmic principles are maintained.
So we come once again back to the variations in practice I mentioned
in my clarification request. Not for the purpose of trying to tie you
down to a particular practice and the relationship of women to that
practice but because you asked about other factors involved. And
after we explore them, I needed to know where you wanted me to land.
And as you might expect, these other factors are cultural in nature
more than spiritual.
To understand this, we will need to go back to the beginning and
discover just what the Great Commission given the orders was and what
happened that there needs to be a re-creation of the bhikshuni rather
than a simple continuation.
"Go forth, o bhikkhus, for the good of the many, for the happiness of
the many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, for the
good, for the happiness of gods and men. Let not two go by one way.
Preach the doctrine that is beautiful in its beginning, beautiful in
its middle, and beautiful in its ending. Declare the holy life in its
purity, completely both in the spirit and the letter."
With those words, the Sakya initiated the world's earliest missionary
religion. Throughout it's history, Buddhism spread not by conquest or
colonization, not by intimidation or threat, and not by condemnation
of beliefs which were not their own, but peacefully through the
ambassadorial work of its community of monks. And in the beginning,
that community was made up of men and women both.
The major center for the development of Theravada Buddhism became the
ancient nation of Sri Lanka after Buddhism left India and it was
during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa. (BCE 250 - 210) that the
bhikshuni exerted their real strength for the first time. Some claim
that the king introduced the bhikshuni to the kingdom at that time but
the fact is that there were already bhikshuni there. It was during
his reign that their presence was strengthened and their position
became powerfully influencial. Since then this order flourished at
Anuradhapura for about 1200 years. With the fall of Anuradhapura to
the Cholian invaders in AD 1017 and the annexation of the Aunradhapura
Kingdom to the Cholian empire the bhikshuni order disappeared and
After 50 years of Cholian rule, King Vijayabahu from Ruhuna expelled
the invaders and assumed rulership over the whole island. He shifted
his capital to Polonnaruwa. During the Polonnaruwa period which
followed, Buddhism came more and more under Tamil, Hindu influence.
The Tamil caste system of South India was adopted and the monks took
the names of their villages as a prefix to their Pali names given at
ordination. The Sangha became the preserve of one caste monopolising
the temporalities in imitation of the Hindu priesthood. Anti-feminism
was a feature entrenched in the Manu laws of Hinduism.
This feature found its way to Sinhalese society and into Theravada
practice. Therefore, in this era, the revival of the defunct bhikshuni
order became anathema to Theravada Buddhism. There is permission in
the Vinaya Chullavagga for monks to ordain nuns. This permission could
easily have been made use of if the monks were willing to restore the
bhikshuni order. But since their wishes were otherwise and they were
more interested in maintaining their monopolies, it suited them to
take the cast and anti feminist line. This enabled them to avert
rivalry from low caste men in the Sangha and from women in the
bhikshuni order. and since Sri Lanka was one of the strongest
philosophical players within Theravada, this attitude spread
throughout the Theravada community in Asia.
From then on until the 19th century, no one took up the issue of
admitting women to the bhikshuni order. Priestcraft saw to it that
the Theravada Buddhist Sangha was the preserve of 'men of rank' and
that women were debarred from leading the holy life of a bhikshuni as
advocated by the Buddha. The majority of people were ignorant and
illiterate. They took their Buddhism from the priestcraft of the
Sangha and the Theravadan Asian Kings took their advise in matters of
religion from the Sangha hierarchy. Thus, a tradition to the effect
that the bhikshuni order is defunct and cannot be restored until the
appearance of Martie Buddha in a future age became accepted. Thereby
the teachings of the Buddha on appamada (diligence) and samanatmata
(egalitarianism) were lost to sight. An anti-feminist dogma prevented
women from taking to holy orders in Theravada Buddhism.
During the 19th century, it was Anagarika Dharmapala who was the
pioneer of the Buddhist bhikshuni revival. He opened the first
Theravada nunnery in modern times in Ceylon at Darley Lane, Colombo.
It was not a success. He was followed by Catherine de Alwis who went
to Burma and got ordained there as a Junior Nun without Higher
Ordination. She came back to Sri Lanka in 1903 and founded the Dasa
Sil Mata order of Buddhist nuns. Thus from 1903 onwards these D.S.M
nuns were the vestige and the representatives of the bhikshuni Sangha
of old. They seemed to believe in the theory that half a loaf is
better than no bread at all. Therefore they had to be satisfied with
observing the ten precepts of Junior Nuns or Samaneris.
However, the bhikshuni had not vanished from every location in Asia.
Among the advocates for the revival of the bhikshuni order was Ven.
Pandit Narawala Dhammaratana Thero. He had led a delegation to a peace
conference in China. He studied the bhikshuni order in China and found
that it had been established on a firm footing by Sinhalese nuns from
Anuradhapura in 429 CE. Therefore, in his writings and teachings he
advocated the revival of the bhikshuni order in Theravada Buddhism
with the help of the Chinese nuns.
While the progressive monks called for and advocated the revival of
the bhikshuni there were reactionaries, conservatives and
others who took the traditional stand in Theravada Buddhism as a
dogma, equating it with pure Theravada Buddhism. Thus there was
division of opinion in the two camps, the conservatives sticking to
traditional anti-feminism and the progressives calling for a revision
of the traditional stand and a restoration of the bhikshuni order.
Now, I imagine I should do an epilogue to this drawn out tale. In
1996, at the Saranath Temple in India, there was an ordination
ceremony. At this ceremony 11 selected Sinhalese DSM nuns were
ordained as full bhikshuni by a team of Theravada monks. After 980 odd
years the Theravada order of bhikshuni was alive again.
Sri Lanka became the caretaker and headquarters of Theravada Buddhism
since it was expelled from India. Other Theravada countries such as
Thailand, Burma, Laos, Viet Nam and Cambodia have never had a
bhikshuni order. As I mentioned earlier, there are now movements in
these countries for the admission of women to the bhikshuni Sangha in
the Theravada tradition to which they belong. These countries border
China and they see that in China bhikshuni has existed from the
earliest days of the introduction of Buddhism.
Now that the Theravada bhikshuni order has been established in Sri
Lanka it should be a matter of little time for women renunciates in
these countries to come to Sri Lanka, or get Sri Lankan nuns to come
to their countries and establish the bhikshuni order. Admittance to
the bhikshuni order by women was granted by the Buddha himself.
Womens' rights are a part of human rights in the modern world. The
main question now is how to provide women with supports for their
practice in the present cultural situation, both in Asia and in the
rapidly growing Buddhist communities in the United states and Europe.
But then again, that's another question.
Search - Google
Terms - theravada history, women +and +the sangha, women +and
theravada, sri lanka history, sri lanka sangha, plus a bit of personal
If I may clarify anything before you rate the answer, please ask.
Namu Amida Butsu