On March 11 and 12, 2017, 19 Tibetan and Himalayan women, the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, and 5 fully ordained nuns from Nan Lin Nunnery in Taiwan took bold steps to revitalize full female ordination in Tibetan Buddhism. The ceremony was held at the sacred Buddhist site of Mahabodhi Temple, in Bodhgaya, India. In fact, it took place directly under the generous boughs and fluttering green leaves of the Bodhi tree (or probably more accurately, the Bodhi tree’s distant progeny). This famous tree stands next to the Vajra Seat, the original spot where the Buddha is said to have become enlightened, in around 450 BCE. The extraordinary nature of the site, and the spectacular temple that was built there, made a most appropriate stage for the dawning of a new day in the history of the Tibetan Buddhist sangha, especially its women. A fortunate witness to this happy event, I offer here my attempt at anumodana: a traditional Buddhist expression of rejoicing in the meritorious actions of others. 

Reviving lost lineages of Buddhist female ordination has been a goal of many, in both Asia and around the world, for the past century at least, if not much longer. Most lineages of bhikshunis, or fully ordained female nuns, have either died out or never existed in the first place in many parts of the Buddhist world, including Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and Tibet. In Korea and China, full female ordination never completely disappeared and has been reinvigorated since the early part of the 20th century. More recently, women from countries following other Buddhist monastic traditions have taken ordination from one of the strongest living bhikshuni lineages, namely the Chinese Dharmaguptaka, in Taiwan. These women have then attempted to transfer their ordination back to their local monastic contexts. In a few cases, such as in Sri Lanka, they have met with some success, in spite of reticence on the part of conservative monks and laity. But such efforts have largely languished in Thailand despite several attempts, and the situation is similar in Tibetan communities.

In 2007, a conference of international Buddhist monastics and academics was convened at the University of Hamburg, Germany, under the auspices of H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, to try to rectify this situation. As excellent as the papers and discussions were, initiatives coming out of that conference stalled as well. I was present at the meeting, and heard the Dalai Lama speak fervently about the specific talents of women and their ability to provide leadership in Buddhism. But he added that he is not a dictator and cannot simply command the major Tibetan monastic institutions to accept a newly constituted Tibetan bhikshuni sangha. Instead, he said, he needs a broad consensus on the process of reviving the female monastic lineage. And that has proved elusive, despite prodigious efforts on the part of Tibetan scholars, at the behest of the Dalai Lama and other leaders, to scour the Vinaya—the ancient Indian monastic code—and Tibetan historical writing
for the appropriate procedures and precedents.

But the Karmapa—Ogyen Trinley Dorje is one of the two claimants to that title—and other leaders of Tibetan Buddhism have been eager to move forward. While visiting Harvard Divinity School in spring 2015, the Karmapa declared in a lecture to Harvard Buddhist Studies faculty and students that there had been enough research and discussion. It was time for action. Without setting firmly in place the traditional “four pillars,” or fourfold assembly—the female and male monastic sangha and female and male lay community—Buddhism could never really flourish. Thus he announced his intention to begin the ritual process that would lead to a fully ordained Tibetan female monastic sangha.

There are three sets of monastic vows for women: the preliminary shramanerika, or novice vows, then shikshamana, or training ordination, and finally the full bhikshuni ordination. The first ceremony would confer the shramanerika vows, but would eventually lead to the recipients’ full bhikshuni ordination a few years thereafter. The Karmapa sought an outcome that is as ritually correct as possible. And so in light of longstanding monastic and pedagogical practice, he wanted the eventual bhikshunis to receive all three ceremonies from the same bhikshuni mentors, beginning with the shramanerika vows, even though many Tibetan nuns have already taken those vows. This ceremony requires five bhiksunis to perform, so the Karmapa’s plan entailed locating and inviting five nuns from another Vinaya lineage, since the Tibetan Mulasarvastivada tradition has no living bhikshunis. These turned out to be the five women from Nan Lin Vinaya Nunnery in Taiwan, celebrated for its fine monastic discipline in the Dharmaguptaka tradition. Although such lineage-crossing has already occurred many times in Taiwan, it is the first time it has been attempted in a Tibetan-sponsored context.

When I heard the Karmapa announce his decision in his talk at the Divinity School, I decided right then that when the first ordination ceremony took place, I would be there to witness it—even though as a layperson I wasn’t entirely sure if I’d be allowed to. I had an immediate sense of the indubitable goodness of the event, a goodness that called for witness. Having taught and written about women in Buddhism for most of my working life, I readily recognized the significance of the decision. It meant extraordinary support, at the highest levels of Tibetan religious hierarchy, for women’s education, access to leadership roles, and general cultural status, all of which are lacking in Tibet, just as they are in most of the rest of the world. It was a chance for the Tibetan community in exile to make a mark on the world stage, and an opportunity for the kind of earnest and creative human interaction that would boost the confidence of women in Buddhist societies. 

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