Not long ago we were intrigued by the following brief comment in Richard Gombrich’s What the Buddha Thought: “I am convinced by the arguments of Ute Hüsken that the story of the Buddha’s reluctance to allow nuns into the Sangha does not date from his lifetime.”

And then there was this further comment, stemming from a discussion of ordaining Jain nuns into the early Sangha: “This is corroborative of Ute Hüsken’s thesis that the story that nuns were allowed into the Order only at a late stage is a forgery.”

As Gombrich himself notes, “This is utterly fascinating.”

We reached out to Professor Hüsken, who is a teacher and researcher at the University of Oslo (and whose work also appears in Dignity & Discipline, a book on bhikkhuni ordination from Wisdom Publications) for more. We’re very grateful for Professor Hüsken’s generosity and patience in responding to these questions.

The stories concerning the foundation of the order of Buddhist nuns have struck many Buddhists as being at odds with the remainder of the tradition, and of other egalitarian positions held by the Buddha, such as his rejection of the caste system and the largely democratic organization of the Sangha. What has your research told you about the foundation of the order of bhikshunis (bhikkhunis)?

I am surprised that the Buddha’s positions towards socio-religious matters are perceived to be “egalitarian”. While it is certainly true that he rejected the caste-based hierarchy for the Sangha, this was replaced by other explicit hierarchies, based e.g. on gender and on ordination age. Thus, each nun, even if she has been ordained for many years, is hierarchically placed below each newly ordained monk. Moreover, while in principle members of all castes were allowed into the order, it is less well known that the Buddha is supposed to have explicitly excluded for example people with missing limbs, or people suffering from certain diseases, or soldiers from membership in the order. In addition, many passages in the Pali canon reverse the Brahminical hierarchy based on caste, placing the Kshatriya (the Buddha’s caste) above the Brahmins, and are thus far from rejecting a caste-based hierarchy altogether.

My research – based largely on the Pali canon and its commentaries and subcommentaries in Pali – taught me that the expectation to find a uniform view on any of the issues you mention (women, caste, structure and organization of the Sangha) is misled. I can clearly say that the canon is NOT a collection of the words of the Buddha, or of any single person, but a sometimes carefully, sometimes not so carefully edited collection of diverse texts by different authors with differing opinions and intentions. If you are looking for passages that seem to imply that the Buddha was in favor of ordaining women, you can find them, and if you are looking for passages that indicate that the Buddha wanted to keep women out, you will find them, too. This holds true even for the short passage in the monastic discipline, which retells the events that led to the foundation of the nuns’ order. The Pali scholar Oskar von Hinueber’s close investigation of the terminology used in this passage even suggests that the nuns’ order might have been established after the Buddha’s demise.

The Dalai Lama has repeatedly called for the full ordination of women in Tibetan Buddhist lineages to be re-examined. Why has this not happened?

The re-examination of this issue has in fact taken place on the instigation of the Dalai Lama, but no action has been taken. One of the major events was for example a huge conference held in Hamburg, Germany: The First International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha in Hamburg, July 18 – 20, 2007 (see http://www.congress-on-buddhist-women.org/). Practitioners of diverse Buddhist traditions – male and female – as well as Buddhist studies scholars were invited to this conference. I was among the invited researchers and gave a talk on the “eight severe rules (attha garudhamma)” for nuns. For me this conference was an eye opener. It became clear that the overwhelming majority of Western nuns and female practitioners, and also Buddhist studies scholars, think that the perceived obstacles to an establishment of a Tibetan nuns’ order could relatively easy be overcome. However, it also became clear that the majority of Tibetan monks is not in favor of it, and most importantly, that the Himalayan nuns (women who live in monasteries in South Asia under the tutelage of monks) feel that they do not have a voice in these discussions and that their concerns and desires are ignored. Being a fully ordained nun clearly has entirely different implications and consequences for these women than for the Western nuns—as is to be expected: you have entirely different needs and desires if you live in a tiny monastery in the Himalayas than you have if you are a female Buddhist who is used to acting on the national or even international stage.

The Dalai Lama, who is a major actor in both settings, represents on the one hand Tibetan Buddhism (and for many also “World Buddhism.”) On the other, he is the head of concrete Tibetan monastic communities. Whatever his personal opinion might be, as one of the best known international “faces” of Buddhism he certainly cannot take a stance against female ordination. But as leader of monastic communities he has to take into account the opinions prevalent within these (monks’) communities, and has to be careful not to alienate other powerful players within the Tibetan Sangha. This, again has some of its roots in Buddhist monastic law: samghabheda, a split of the monastic community, is a serious offense and has to be avoided by all means. While a non-consensual decision to ordain women might be accepted while the present Dalai Lama is alive, he certainly is very well aware that he is not immortal, and that in view of the unity of the Sangha it would be a risky decision of him to take – one that could lead to a split of the order after his passing on.

In your opinion, is monastic equality—that is, fully ordained bhikkhunis in every Buddhist tradition—necessary for Buddhism to be fully embraced by Westerners in the 21st century?

The idea that “full ordination for women” implies “monastic equality” is at odds with what I know about Buddhist monastic life. I undertook a detailed comparison of the rules for monks with the rules for nuns in the Pali Vinaya (even though the Tibetan Mulasarvastivada Vinaya differs from The Pali Vinaya, my main points apply there, too). This investigation clearly shows that the nuns’ Sangha is always dependent and subordinate to the monks’ Sangha. For example, the nuns’ Sangha has to perform the confession ceremony (pavarana/pravarana) at the end of the yearly rains retreat in front of the monks, whereas the monks perform this ceremony only within their own community. The same holds true for the full ordination (upasampada): for nuns, a monks’ and a nuns’ order is required, whereas a monks’ ordination is performed by monks alone. Dependence and hierarchy is also the underlying principle of the relation between individual nuns and monks: a nun (irrespective of age, learning etc.) has to get up when a monks approaches (irrespective of his age and standing within the community), she has to respectfully greet him whereas he may not pay respect to her, and punishment for identical wrongdoing (especially sexual misconduct) is much more severe for nuns than for monks. The monastic restrictions applying to nuns are in general more severe than those for monks.

In this sense, full ordination for women to me does not seem to be a very attractive choice if “equality” is the goal. A number of female practitioners in Sri Lanka, for example, seem to think similarly. Full ordination, they argue, puts them under the control of monks and limits them much more than they would profit from it. However, in countries where the Sangha is supported by the state, and in cultures that recognize the Sangha, not individuals, as the proper “field of merit” for lay donations, it is of course important to be full member of this institution, since only this gives them right to resources (and thereby the provides the option to live an ascetic’s life), which they would not have otherwise.

There are certainly several reasons why many (mainly Western) women consider it important to obtain full ordination. One reason might be that this would allow them to trace their lineage to the historical Buddha.

Is Western participation needed or helpful in these discussions within lineages based in Asia?

At least in theory, all Buddhist lineages are based in Asia. The historical Buddha Gautama is considered the founder of the Buddhist Sangha (for monks and nuns). According to the Vinaya, all monks (and nuns) have to be ordained by fully ordained monks (and nuns). If this is taken to correspond to reality, every fully ordained member of the Sangha can trace his or her lineage back to the historical Buddha.

However, no Buddhist Sangha is independent of its concrete social context: the existence of the Sangha depends on generous lay people, who provide the Sangha with shelter, food, and their labor. It seems that right from the beginning there was an acute awareness of the Sangha’s dependence on its surroundings: many rules of conduct were explicitly established in order not to upset the laity, irrespective of their relevance for the spiritual development of monks and nuns.

The Buddhist traditions in Asian countries have over the centuries undergone many such locally and historically specific transformations, through lived practice and adaptation to changing circumstances. This is why, for example, Theravada Buddhism as practiced in Sri Lanka looks so different from Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet, Nepal, or India.

In contrast to these forms of Buddhism, shaped by context and practice as well as by texts, Western Buddhists in their efforts to establish an ordination tradition for nuns, rather try to “go back” to the canonical texts, presupposing that in “the book” the “true authority” is situated. This stance has some of its roots in Western research done mainly on Pali Buddhism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when scholars tried to find (and recreate) “authentic Buddhism” in the canonical texts, contrasting this “pure” form of Buddhism with what they saw practiced on the ground in Asia. But it is of course also rooted in the importance the Buddhist traditions give to “the word of the Buddha”, taken to be transmitted in the canonical texts.

I do not prioritize any of these approaches, but I am fairly sure that it would be wrong if a middle class woman from the USA (for example) would tell an ethnically Tibetan nun living in a monastery in Northern India how she should live her life. And it would be similarly wrong the other way round. It all seems to boil down to the tricky questions of “ownership of tradition”, and how we can share an increasingly globalized world, where economic and political power are distributed so unequally.

Related: Bhikkhuni Ordination: Buddhism’s Glass Ceiling

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