Abandoning houses, going forth,
Giving up son, livestock, and all that is dear,
Leaving behind desire, anger, and ignorance,
Discarding them all,
Having pulled out craving down to the root,
I have become cool, I am free.

—Verses of the nun Sangha
(Therigatha 18); trans. K. Norman 

There are these fools who doubt
That women too can grasp the truth;
Gotami, show your spiritual power
That they might give up their false views.

—The Buddha’s instructions to Mahapajapati
(Gotami Theri Apadana 79)
trans. Ayya Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni

In the inaugural issue of Tricycle, the editors ran an excerpt from Old Path, White Clouds, a colloquial retelling of the Buddha’s life by Thich Nhat Hanh, about the genesis of the bhikkhuni, or nun, lineage. While the particulars vary from version to version, the story centers on Mahapajapati, the Buddha’s aunt and surrogate mother—and an ardent disciple—who asks the Buddha to admit her to the monastic sangha, but he turns her away.

Dead set on ordaining, she and her following of 500 women cut off their hair, don saffron robes, and walk 150 miles to Vesali, where the Buddha is teaching. Again, she is refused. Moved by the women’s plight, Ananda, the Buddha’s principal attendant, intercedes on Mahapajapati’s behalf. “Is it that women cannot attain the fruits of awakening?” he asks. No, says the Buddha, women are equal to men in their capacity for awakening—that is not the problem (though he doesn’t articulate what is). Ultimately, he agrees to ordain Mahapajapati and her retinue. In very short order, every single one of them becomes enlightened.

But there’s a catch to the story—or rather, a detail that has become a catch in the intervening 2,500 years: according to the Vinaya, the monastic law code, as a precondition for ordination the Buddha imposed on Mahapajapati, and all subsequent nuns, a set of eight restrictive rules, known as the garudhammas, or “rules of respect.”

These rules unequivocally positioned women as subordinate to men in the monastic hierarchy. Rule 1, for instance, states that a nun, no matter how senior, must always bow to a monk, no matter how junior—even to one ordained “but that day.” In that first issue, the editors interpreted the rules, as Thich Nhat Hanh described them, as the Buddha’s temporary strategy to keep the brahmins from rising against him. But the garudhammas have proved quite durable, and in the quarter century since Tricycle first weighed in on them, bhikkhuni ordination and the status of female renunciates have become two of the most important and talked- about issues confronting contemporary Buddhists.

Nuns in the Terdrom convent, Tibet, China, Asia (imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo)
Nuns in the Terdrom convent, Tibet, China, Asia (imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo)

Scholars, both lay and monastic, generally agree that if the historical Buddha did insist on the garudhammas (that they were not, as some Vinaya experts have argued, a much later addition to the canon), he imposed them to keep peace with the society around him, where women were mainly chattel and the status quo would have been intolerably threatened by their departure for the spiritual life. The rules defined a second-class status for nuns that mirrored their position in the society at large, and by placating the laity, the theory goes, they made women’s ordination possible.

But in what has become a confounding irony, the rules seemed to make it nearly impossible to revive a lineage that has since largely died out. This perception zeroed in on the sixth rule, which requires the presence of elder bhikkhus and bhikkhunis to officiate at a nun’s ordination:  “When, as a probationer, she has trained . . . for two years, she should seek higher ordination from both orders.” A nun, in other words, should not receive full ordination unless a retinue of both monks and nuns is available to grant her permission and officiate.

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