In June 2022, over the summer solstice, a remarkable event took place in the high Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Watched over by the royal family, who had initiated the event, 144 women—mostly Bhutanese, wearing red-and-gold robes—became the first-ever nuns in the Tibetan lineage to crash through centuries of rigid monastic tradition and receive full ordination as bhikshunis (nuns). Until then, they, like hundreds of thousands of Buddhist nuns before them, had languished in the lowly position of mere novice—denied entrance to full monastic rule, together with the status and invaluable learning opportunities that accompanied it. Disregarded by their male counterparts and the population at large, they were relegated to kitchen work and serving monks their meals, literally taking a back seat at ceremonies and barred from the higher teachings.

The historic ordination, conferred by His Holiness the Je Khenpo, head of Bhutan’s largest Buddhist school—the Drukpa Kagyu—took three days, and when it was over, witnesses reported auspicious rainbows above the ceremonial ground.

Looking on was a beaming Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, a founding member of the Committee for Bhikshuni Ordination, founder of Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery (also within the Drukpa Kagyu lineage), and renowned champion of equal status for nuns of all traditions. Before disappearing into a Himalayan cave for twelve years to meditate, she had publicly announced that she aspired to attain enlightenment in a female body “no matter how many lifetimes it took.” She was fed up with the patriarchal resistance she had encountered in her own driving desire to spiritually progress since becoming a nun at 21.

“This is so important,” Tenzin Palmo said. “The Buddha himself gave his nuns the full ordination. His vision was to have a fourfold sangha, composed of fully ordained monks and fully ordained nuns together with laymen and laywomen. Only then would his dispensation to relieve all sentient beings of their suffering be achieved. For centuries we have not had a fourfold sangha in Tibet, which is what the Buddha decreed. We have a three-and-a-half-fold sangha. Our nuns are novices, for heaven’s sake! They’re not accepted into the monastic system—they are not a complete part of the sangha. They’re just standing at the door. They haven’t gone through,” she said.

After the ceremony in June 2022, Tenzin Palmo was photographed hugging a newly ordained bhikshuni from her nunnery.

A solitary Tibetan bhikshuni. It was a start.


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or all of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s delight at the historic ordination, the response among the Tibetan Buddhist clergy in Dharamsala, home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and many Tibetans in exile, was the greatest pushback of all: silence. “It’s what they always do—they just ignore it,” said Tenzin Palmo.

Tibetan clergy have been stubbornly resisting granting higher ordination to nuns since the 8th century, when the Indian abbot Shantarakshita arrived in Tibet with a group of fully ordained Buddhist monks to ordain “seven worthy young men.” He had omitted inviting bhikshunis to travel with him. According to the Vinaya (the monastic rule book), only when bhikshunis are present can novice nuns be ordained. Hence, since the very beginning of Buddhism arriving in Tibet, there has never been a bhikshuni order. It was a catch-22: bhikshunis were needed to create more bhikshunis, but since they didn’t exist, they couldn’t be made!

 “They are sticking to their guns: we have to wait for the Buddha Maitreya to arrive for him to confer it,” said Tenzin Palmo. The argument is that if the ordination is done solely by bhikshus (monks), as it was recently in Bhutan, then it isn’t valid. However, in the Vinaya, the Buddha said, “Oh, monks, in the absence of bhikshunis I allow you to ordain the nuns.” He gave the allowance. In fact, the Vinaya states that the bhikshu and bhikshuni ordination is of “one essence” rather than two separate lineages.

“There is no essential difference between the ordination for bhikshus and bhikshunis. It is almost the same,” she continued. “When I got ordained in Hong Kong, we were ordained just by bhikshus. This is very common. Even if there are bhikshunis present, the monks always complete the ordination. Nuns by themselves cannot confer it. But the bhikshu sangha alone are totally capable of giving the ordination. So if there is no bhikshuni sangha present, it doesn’t matter.”

Why is the resistance so strong?

 “Somebody once asked a learned and well-known lama the same question,” Tenzin Palmo said.  “He replied, ‘Fear. The monks are afraid that if the nuns come up, that will somehow diminish the monks.’ Which is absurd. The same underlying fear has been around since Buddha’s time. He experienced much resistance from the monks in establishing the female order. It was Ananda, beloved to all nuns, who finally persuaded him. There have always been obstacles presented to make sure nuns were subjugated to the monks, which were unlikely to have come from the Buddha himself.”

Contributing to the resistance is the weighty matter of tradition. All cultures, secular and religious, cling tightly to their long-standing, self-imposed rituals and customs—be it in their clubs, regiments, government, monarchy, or festivities. Understandably, perhaps, the Tibetans hold their unique religious tradition particularly close to their hearts. For some, the dharma was all they managed to carry into exile. On the plus side, the structure of their monastic institutions, together with their deeply ingrained faith, has kept many Tibetans in exile grounded. But like many institutions established in bygone times, Buddhism, for all its embedded gems, struggles with patriarchy and misogyny.

“The Buddha was always talking about change and impermanence, but no one is more resistant to change than the Buddhists.”

“Tibetan Buddhism in all traditions is hierarchical and feudal,” said Tenzin Palmo. “The Buddha was always talking about change and impermanence, but no one is more resistant to change than the Buddhists. When I was establishing DGL Nunnery, Dorzong Rinpoche reminded me that when the monks were reestablishing monasteries in India, they had to look back at how everything was formerly done in Tibet, and the closer they got to that ideal, the better. He added that I, on the other hand, was lucky because I didn’t have any precedent to follow, so I could do what I liked. He also warned me to be very careful how I decided to run the nunnery, because once started, it is very difficult to change. It’s hard for people to adapt to new ideas. Any change is regarded as a degeneration, not an improvement, because however it was before must have been perfect.”

Denying nuns full ordination is not merely an argument over the fine print of monastic lore, however. According to Tenzin Palmo, it’s about establishing self-esteem, respect, and inclusivity.

“Look at the level of ordination among nuns worldwide. Only China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Korea have full bhikshuni ordinations. In Thailand and Burma, nuns only have to take eight precepts to be ordained—just three more than laypeople. They are hardly financially supported. They are basically servants to the monks. If the monks are treated like gods, the nuns are like ants. When your son becomes a monk, it’s ‘How fantastic! What great merit!’ If your daughter becomes a nun, the reaction is likely to be, ‘Oh dear, what went wrong in her life? Such misfortune.’ Even though the maechis [novice female monastics in Thailand] are usually totally dedicated, devoted, and lead pure ascetic lives, they are mostly unconsidered and ignored. They wear white or pink robes. They can’t even wear monastic colors. This is the lowest picture.”

tenzin palmo womens ordination 1
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo embraces a newly ordained nun in Bhutan. | Photo courtesy DGL Nunnery

Tenzin Palmo says that the fully ordained nuns in China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Korea are treated quite differently: “Laypeople regard them as having the same status as a monk, and they are addressed in the same way. When I am in Taiwan, many monks will come and prostrate to me.” And with their status comes self-esteem and opportunity: “They are nowadays highly educated and confident. They even found hospitals, Buddhist universities, schools, and orphanages. They are often socially engaged and also run nunneries and retreat centers.”

The Tibetan traditions, though, are somewhere in the middle. “At least we have novice ordination and can wear monastic robes. But still, the word for woman in Tibetan is ‘inferior born,’ based on the belief that one can only attain enlightenment in a male body. After the ordination in Bhutan, one of the new bhikshunis remarked that she had been praying always to be reborn as a male, so that she could become a bhikshu and complete the path. ‘Now, I don’t have to worry. I have everything complete in a female body,’ she said.”

The few instances of full nun ordination in the Tibetan tradition have been spearheaded by Westerners. Among the very first was Karma Tsultrim Khechog Palmo (shortened to Sister Palmo, not to be confused with Tenzin Palmo), a formidable scholar, professor, and social reformer. She was championed to take full ordination by her guru, His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu school. Not only did he personally make three visits to Hong Kong (where the bhikshuni ordination existed) to organize this virtually unprecedented event, but he also persuaded the King of Bhutan to finance the whole venture.

The 16th Karmapa understood that only a nun of Sister Palmo’s confidence and courage was capable of challenging the patriarchal system, and could, it was hoped, set a precedent for other Tibetan nuns to follow. It seems he was right; two years after Sister Palmo was ordained, she persuaded Tenzin Palmo to follow in her footsteps.

While other Western nuns have since sought bhikshuni status within the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean lineages, Tibetan nuns have been reluctant to follow suit. In spite of the magnificent recent example of their 144 Bhutanese sisters, there has been no push from their side to demand full ordination—not any waving of banners, or loud, angry voices, in a Western-style revolt.

“Tibetan nuns will always do whatever the lamas tell them,” Tenzin Palmo said. “The monk teachers say, ‘You don’t need ordination. So many rules, so many vows, how will you keep them all? It’s not necessary. You are already becoming geshemas [holders of an academic degree equivalent to the geshe degree for men], and that’s enough.’ So the nuns go away thinking, ‘Why should we bother when we are told it’s not important?’ ”

Passive the nuns might be, but Tenzin Palmo insists that adopting a confrontational attitude would not work within Asian culture, and might in fact be counterproductive. “One time I was giving a weekend course in Korea about feminism. Some of the participants were Buddhists, and all were high-powered lawyers, college professors, and so on. These women were highly accomplished but great fun, and also gracious and very feminine. They weren’t interested in working with ideas that were anti-male or aggressive. They stressed that that wasn’t the way to gain genuine power and control. What was needed was to be pro-female without being anti-male. When there is no aggression in the air—just total confidence in the feminine—that will win the day.”

According to Tenzin Palmo, one reason that the recent Bhutan ordination was ignored was simply that it happened outside Tibet. “The Tibetan authorities don’t care what anyone else does. What is required is for just one bold lama of high status within the Tibetan monastic hierarchy to take the plunge and perform the bhikshuni ordination ceremony. To open the door. Then everyone might fall into line. At the moment, the lamas are too afraid of criticism from inside their own ranks. His Holiness the Je Khenpo is a wonderful lama. He really cares about the advancement of nuns,” remarked Tenzin Palmo.

“That is why what happened in Bhutan was so important. It all came together spontaneously. When requested by the Queen Mother [who is the patron of the Bhutanese Nuns Foundation], His Majesty the King gave instant permission to His Holiness the Je Khenpo, who said, ‘Yes, we’ve been discussing and debating about this issue for too long. Time to stop talking and just do it!’ ”

In recent years, they were almost there when the 17th Karmapa (following in his predecessor’s footsteps) took up the challenge and was halfway through organizing the ordination when he became mired in scandals, which stopped the whole process. “He was the only one who cared enough and had the authority,” said Tenzin Palmo.

Thirteen years ago, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was brought to tears by an impassioned plea from Tenzin Palmo to confer the ordination. He said that he would do it in a heartbeat, but he needed the agreement of the monastic heads first. “I am not Vajradhara [the Buddha],” he said. Nevertheless, he has recently instituted a group of Tibetan and Theravada scholars to research the issue and see if there is some way it can happen.

“The door has opened a little crack, so more nuns can step up and say this is what we want to do.”

In a daring move, the popular Western Theravada monk Ajahn Brahm defiantly bit the bullet and ordained four nuns in Perth, Australia. It was the first bhikshuni ordination within the Thai Forest Tradition anywhere in the world. He was summarily excommunicated from the Wat Pa Phong Sangha by the conservative lineage holders.

For all the foot-dragging, Tibetan nuns have seen remarkable improvements in their lives over the past few years. Well-run nunneries like Dongyu Gatsal Ling have sprung up, offering excellent education programs and allowing nuns to take geshema and khenmo degrees. They are disciplined, articulate, strong, ethical, and focused. With it, their confidence has risen exponentially.

tenzin palmo womens ordination 2
Newly ordained bhikshunis gather at the June 2022 ordination ceremony in Bhutan. | Photo courtesy DGL Nunnery

Tenzin Palmo: “A while ago, about one hundred monks came to our nunnery to debate with the nuns, and the nuns consider that they won! What was clear was that it wasn’t a gladiatorial contest between male and female monastics. Everyone enjoyed debating each other. There was a lot of laughter and good feeling. There was competition, but it certainly wasn’t aggressive.”

 It remains to be seen whether the Dalai Lama’s efforts will succeed. “It has to be said that thirty years ago the timing was wrong—then nuns were not ready,” Tenzin Palmo said. “The nunneries were poorly run, and the nuns had very little confidence. If they had taken full ordination at that time, they would have fallen flat on their faces, because they wouldn’t have been able to study the Vinaya texts, conduct all the rituals, and so forth. Now things are very different.”

Despite all the stalling and shut doors, Tenzin Palmo is confident the bhikshuni ordination will happen.

 “It has to come. It was the Buddha’s intention. He said, ‘When the fourfold sangha is well established, it is like a table with four legs, balanced and stable.’ We have still got a ways to go, but it’s moving. Although the Bhutanese ordination was basically ignored by the Tibetans, at least it happened. The door has opened a little crack, so more nuns can step up and say this is what we want to do.

 “Bhutan is holding the ordination again this year. We are expecting more nuns to attend, including several from my own nunnery. Eventually, the Tibetan hierarchy can’t ignore that.”

And once the bhikshunis have fulfilled their vows for twelve years, there will be no stopping them, because then they will be qualified to open the full ordination to all their devoted novice sisters. This feminist revolution, when it comes, will come quietly—with grace, and joy.

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