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A proposal for the reform of discriminatory bhikkhunī rules (part 1)

Thanks so much, Ayya Vimalañāṇī, for your essay. It is so important to hear the voices of those with a different perspective. If it weren’t for this sort of essay, I would be in the dark about what it is like to be a bhikkhunī. We all need education.

I take your point that the “circles that place a lot of emphasis on the early texts” can sometimes be unreasonably conservative and oppressive, thereby perpetuating gender discrimination. It seems to me that the emphasis on early texts is often too rigid, even bordering on fundamentalism. What we need instead, it seems to me, is a reasonable conservatism that sticks to the word of the Buddha, while recognising that parts of the Canon are later additions. One could perhaps argue that the conservatives are not conservative enough: instead of sticking to the word of the Buddha, they hold on to all sorts texts that were never spoken by the Master. Open-minded inquiry will uncover, as it already does, that even the earliest texts, especially the Vinaya Piṭaka, are chronologically layered documents. It is by trying to pry apart these various strata that I think a solution to gender discrimination may eventually be found. Let me give an example.

Together with many others, I have long concluded that the garudhammas and other minor rules in the Vibhaṅga are not binding on monastics. This is clear from at least two perspectives. First, most of these rules were laid down after the time of the Buddha, as can be seen from comparative studies. Second, these rules were never meant to be adhered to as absolutes, as can be gathered from the formulation of the sekhiya rules, which are offences only if breached out of disrespect. If one has reasonable grounds not to keep these rules, there is no offence.

But I think we can go much further than this. Many of the rules that are the most discriminatory against the bhikkhunīs are found in the pācittiya section (“rules entailing confession”) of the Bhikkhunī-vibhaṅga. Here are some instances of such rules:

  • If a nun abuses or reviles a monk, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 52: on the face of it this rule is not unreasonable, except that there is no equivalent rule for the monks.)
  • If a nun spends the rainy-season residence in a monastery without monks, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 56)
  • If a nun who has completed the rainy-season residence does not invite correction from both Sanghas in regard to three things—what has been seen, what has been heard, and what has been suspected—she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 57)
  • If a nun does not go to the instruction or take part in a formal meeting of the community, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 58)
  • Every half-month a nun should seek two things from the Sangha of monks: asking it about the observance day and going to it for the instruction. If she goes beyond a half-month, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 59)
  • If a nun gives the full admission to a trainee nun who has not been given permission by her parents or her husband, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 80)
  • If a nun gives full admission every year, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 82)
  • If a nun gives the full admission to two women in one year, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 83)
  • If a nun sits down on a seat in front of a monk without asking permission, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 94: again, this rule is not entirely unreasonable, but once again there is no equivalent rule for the monks.)
  • If a nun asks a question of a monk who has not given permission, she commits an offense entailing confession. (Bī-pāc. 95: ditto.)

What can we do about this? My rather radical suggestion would be to disregard the pācittiya rules that apply specifically to the bhikkhunīs.

In truth, this is not as radical as it may seem. The Buddha gave one injunction and one allowance that specifically speak to this. Both are found in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (DN16):

As long as the mendicants don’t make new decrees or abolish existing decrees, but undertake and follow the training rules as they have been decreed, they can expect growth, not decline.

If it wishes, after my passing the Saṅgha may abolish the lesser and minor training rules.

The first of these makes it clear that laying down new rules tends to be detrimental to the Dhamma. We should try to distinguish between rules laid down by the Buddha and those laid down by others, creating a solid basis for deciding which parts of the Vinaya are authentic. It is well known that the pācittiya rules for bhikkhunīs (some of which are quoted above) vary considerably from school to school, suggesting that many of them, perhaps most, where laid down in the sectarian period. This in turn suggests that keeping these rules may be detrimental to the well-being of Buddhism, and they should, as is implied by the Buddha’s injunction above, be disregarded.

The second of these, the allowance, seems to contradict the first one, for how can one not “abolish existing decrees” and at the same time be allowed to “abolish the lesser and minor training rules”. It is certainly true that the first of the above is the predominant sentiment in the suttas. The attitude expressed in the second quote is pretty much exclusive to DN16. Yet I think it would be wrong to regard the second one as somehow inauthentic. It is precisely because it is so unexpected, and because it goes against the normal view of the suttas, that the second quote actually carries a lot of weight. This is in accordance with the text-critical principle of lectio difficilior potior, that is, that the more unusual reading is to be preferred. In other words, if a reading has withstood the harmonising forces that tend to affect such ancient texts, then it is likely to be authentic.

Still, we need to explain how such apparently opposing ideas could have come from one and the same person. In fact, I do not think we should be very surprised by this. Life is messy and what is appropriate to say on one occasion may contradict what is appropriate on another. To reconcile these ideas all we have to do is to regard the allowance given in the second quote as forming part of the decrees mentioned in the first quote. That is, we should practice what the Buddha has laid down, without changing it, unless he has said we may change it. No-one apart from the Buddha has the authority to say such a thing.

If we grant that this allowance is real, we need to decide what are “the lesser and minor training rules”. This may seem like an impossible task, since even the participants of the first joint recitation (saṅgīti) supposedly where unable to decide on this. The reality, however, is that we have solid pointers to decide. The monastic rules are divided between heavy and light rules (garukāpatti and lahukāpatti), with the lesser and minor rules clearly belonging to the latter. Moreover, the phrase ending the section on pācittiya rules in the Bhikkhu-vibhaṅga is khuddakaṃ niṭṭhitaṃ, “the minor section is finished”. The equivalent in the Bhikkhunī-vibhaṅga is khuddakaṃ samattaṃ, which essentially means the same thing. The idea that the monks at the first saṅgīti were unable to decide on what were the minor rules may be a rhetorical devise used to justify keeping all the rules. It seems doubtful to me that this reflects an actual historical situation.

Putting these two arguments together - that there should be no rules other than those from the Buddha, and that minor rules may be abolished - we can make a strong case that the pācittiya rules of the bhikkhunīs should not be allowed to stand, at least not in their present form. The question is how they should be reformed. Without presuming that I have all the answers, I would like to make a few suggestions with the hope of stimulating a creative discussion. Here are a few options, as I see it:

  1. The rules that the bhikkhunīs do not share with the monks are inoperative, except the pārājikas and saṅghādisesas.
  2. The rules that the bhikkhunīs do not share with the monks are inoperative, except the pārājikas, the saṅghādisesas, and those rules that are shared among most early schools of Buddhism.
  3. The rules that the bhikkhunīs do not share with the monks are inoperative, except the pārājikas, the saṅghādisesas, and those rules that concern morality as defined in the commentaries. (The commentary makes the distinction between rules that are loka-vajja and paṇṇatti-vajja, “faults of morality” and “faults by convention”.)

Personally I like option 1. It is clean break with a discriminatory tradition, yet reasonable.

Of course, even this quite radical proposal would probably not be enough to create a level playing field between the bhikkhus and the bhikkhunīs. Still, it would be a significant step in the right direction.

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Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhuuuu!!!

This is a conversation we really need to have! Thank you Ajahn!!

The various schools have evolved different vinayas over time. That means the original vinaya must have been changed at multiple times in the past. We know that this was permitted by the Buddha. But how to go about it?

Could for instance, there be a conference of monks representing the major monasteries and traditions who could codify a brand new vinaya after due deliberation? How were the Buddhist councils of the past organized?

My vote too is for option 1. If at all possible, there should be a uniform code for both male and female monastics.

:grin:

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Holy Cow! :astonished:

Well this thread is bound to overtake the FFW discussions.

I haven’t studied enough vinaya to weigh in but can’t wait to see how the discussions unfold.

I think its fair to say that Dhammasara will be expecting a visit from @Brahmali to talk about this one!

Thank you so much for all your efforts for the Bhikkhuni sangha Ajahn.

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Hi Ajahn,

Thanks for starting this discussion. :heart:

I think everything you suggest is entirely reasonable and fairly easy to implement if any community wants to do it. It’s well-grounded in the early texts and in line with the Buddha’s instructions. Of your three options, number 2 (keep all the rules shared between the schools) isn’t going to be useful for the purpose of removing discrimination. The schools only split one or more centuries after the Buddha’s passing, so the vinayas share many of the pacittiyas you outlined above. But suggestions 1 and 3 would probably work. (I haven’t looked at the commentary’s disctinction between faults of morality and faults of convention in detail.)

But as you say:

Yes, there would still be way to go.

It seems to me that there has been quite some research into textual layers of the vinaya, and it is clear that (most of) the discriminatory practices were introduced later. But we haven’t drawn any practical conclusions from that knowledge. If, for example, the garudhammas are late, what does that mean for dual ordination? For the sanghadisesa procedure? For ovada? For all the other discriminatory rules?
We don’t have suggestions for alternatives. So I’m very happy that someone has finally made a proposal that at least addresses part of the issues.

As you have shown, the Buddha was very clear that it’s not OK to add new rules after his passing. So if we know that parts of the vinaya are late, it should be our duty as monastics to try to restore earlier “more authentic” versions. After all, it could be argued that rules and procedures not sanctioned by the Buddha are invalid, and therefore much of our current vinaya isn’t actually valid.

If we start discussing about changing the patimokkha, then we need to look at these areas too. For example, the dual sanghadisesa procedure is mentioned in the patimokkha. That’s based on the garudhammas and is discriminatory. And things like ovada are all over both patimokkhas. The monks have several rules on it, and it’s in the preliminary duties section as well. Technically, having ovada is a prerequisite for reciting the patimokkha for both monks and nuns, so this is an additional issue.
There’s also the problem that nuns have twice as many parajikas as monks. And when you start altering parajikas, things become really difficult.
My personal feeling is that it will be hard to completely remove discrimination from the patimokkha because it’s just all over the whole structure of the text, and in almost every section of rules. For this reason, I’ve developed an alternative framework based on the early texts a few years ago. I’m not saying that this is the perfect solution but I think it’s worth discussing about:


Eventually, we should also look at the elephant in the room: dual ordination. There’s evidence that indicates that the early nuns’ sangha did their ordinations alone. If that’s what the Buddha set up, it’s very justifiable to go back to it.

Again, thank you so much for starting a discussion. It is extremely important to discuss ways to remove gender discrimination in the sangha for the future of Buddhism. And it’s also an issue very close to my heart.

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Thank you, Ajahn Brahmali, for starting this discussion! :pray:

I was surprised when I first saw how the ancient Buddha Vipassi laid down the Vinaya for his Sangha:

DN14:3.28.1:
And there the Blessed One Vipassī, the perfected one, the fully awakened Buddha, recited the monastic code thus:
‘Patient acceptance is the ultimate austerity.
Extinguishment is the ultimate, say the Buddhas.
No true renunciate injures another,
nor does an ascetic hurt another.
Not to do any evil;
to embrace the good;
to purify one’s mind:
this is the instruction of the Buddhas.
Not speaking ill nor doing harm;
restraint in the monastic code;
moderation in eating;
staying in remote lodgings;
commitment to the higher mind—
this is the instruction of the Buddhas.’

Short and simple, not discriminatory at all.

The difference to our Buddha was … that Vipassi’s Sangha consisted purely of arahants. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case for our Buddha, as we can clearly see in all existing Vinayas.

I found this very inspiring to read!

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Regarding the garudhamma , conservative does not necessarily means being oppressive and discriminative though . And from what can be seen , other than bowing to junior monk rule that appears problematic nowadays (but considering at the time the Royal family whom get ordained probably were arrogant , feeling superior , the Buddha wanted to discipline them and because society at large where female are lacking education and authority which needs assistant from male monks and most probably other existing entity groups may oppossed of female ordination) , but actually it can be de-emphasised and while the other rules cant be said really biased . The other rules appears to be a kind of buffering or a safeguarding and guidance .
A knife can be two sided .
And taking into consideration that If the rules was really laid by the Buddha (it could be due to many reasons and circumstances) and not added later , then are we doing a wise move . And rules that the nuns follows and abide to and not in monks list should not be taken as something unfair . Dont let feeling of victimisation post syndrom affects our rationale . Would at a later times , every now and then , any sangha thinking that something is not suitable to its society and environments and its ideals (of equality etc) , then they simply may abolish the rules !

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If at a later time, any sangha discovers that parts of the vinaya are not laid down by the Buddha, then yes, they are justified in setting them aside. And if they make use of the Buddha’s allowance to abolish the minor rules, that’s in line with Dhamma too.

Ajahn has explained his reasoning:

And I proposed to go back to the model that the Buddha set up, which is likely not the current model.

People are not dismissing rules at a whim, a lot of research has been done on the bhikkhuni vinaya.

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@Sumano - I would love to hear what the community at Empty Cloud thinks of this proposal :pray:

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Note : this is concerning about the chain-reaction of abolishing certain rules .
And in your opinion if handling money by monastic then a minor rule ?

Your post is off topic. The thread is not about the money rules.

I think it’s pretty clear that the money rules were laid down by the Buddha. I’ve never heard anyone dispute that. So I personally don’t use money.

Lets go back to topic please.

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Note that abolishing certain minor rules will affect something along the line , that is the whole concern looking at a bigger picture . Thats why i brought it up . Once i discussed with a disciple of Luang phor Khun and he saids handling money is minor rule and it should be disregarded because living in this modern era will have much difficulty in observing it . And most of the rules laid down by the Buddha are not biased .

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You’ll have to wait till March or later—I’m going into extended seclusion tomorrow and the others are enjoying blissful samādhi till then as well :grin:

But I am happy to see a discussion forming, even in a small way, to really investigate what’s been handed down to us—so we can practice the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma and not in line with societal norms that are so often shrouded in delusion.

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Ah! Wonderful! Enjoy you seclusion! :smiling_face_with_three_hearts:

The question from @Gene might be due to mistakenly believing that Ajahn’s proposal is to drop all minor rules. It is not. It is a very specific and narrow proposal:

Ajahn is suggesting to focus on the discriminatory rules directed only at the female monastics. There wouldn’t be a giant cascade of effects from such a narrow and specific slicing.

Does that help clarify?

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This proposal is amazing to me…that there is a clean way that is even endorsed by the Buddha to abolish rules that may become irrelevant or impractical over time is…brilliant! Of course I should not have expected less from a Buddha.

Question about this quote:

How do we validate its authenticity? Is it at all contentious?

And to @vimalanyani’s point, how does this address ordination, if at all, and if it does not then I’m very interested in your next essay :nerd_face:

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Hi owl thanks . No , i understand that but if not following the minor rules is one thing and the act of abolishing it is another matter . Imo the rules are not biased but it acts as a kind of “cushioning” medium between the monastics , and for the consideration aiming at the survival of the dispensation . Well , just for your reflection .

Regards .

Sadly, I don’t think this will ever work. I think the only real way forward is for groups of monastics to band together and form their own coalition of monasteries/nunneries that follow an updated vinaya.

Regarding a genderless vinaya, I wonder if that would mean normalizing the categorization of offenses between the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni patimokkahs? I recall a conversation I heard between a Theravada monk and a Mahayana nun where it was revealed that masturbation was a very minor offense in the Dharmaguptaka bhishuni patimokkha, whereas in the Theravada bhikkhu patimokkha it’s the second most grievous offense. The monks eyes popped out of his head when he learned this.

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If this refers to what I was proposing on the “genderless vinaya” thread, then no, it doesn’t mean normalizing the categorizations of offenses. What I suggested there is that we completely depart from the patimokkha system and use an alternative sanctioned by the Buddha, the “training in higher virtue”, which is detailed in many suttas.

As for the Theravada monk you described, I don’t know why he would be so surprised. It’s the same rule in Theravada.
“Intentional emission of semen” is a sanghadisesa for monks. Touching the vagina however slightly is a pacittiya for nuns. Although depending on which school’s vinaya you read, there are disagreements whether that covers sexual interaction between two women, or masturbation. But both rules are strict in their own way. In the monks’ case, the offense is in a heavier category of rules. In the nuns’ case, the offense is already incurred at the slightest touch. So the situations aren’t really comparable. As there’s a physiological difference, it’s not obvious how we would normalize this rule.

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The same rule in the Theravada bhikkuni patimokkha? I’m not sure we understood each other.

I can’t remember what prompted that discussion, but it was in public (during the meal), so neither the monk nor nun wanted to dive into the details of the rules. Even in private, they might not have felt comfortable discussing it. Anyway, the nun was responding to something the monk said, and made it seem as if they were equivalent rules. Therefore, the monk was shocked that the same rule was categorized as such a lesser offence. By the way, I tried to find an online version of the Dharmaguptaka bhikshuni pratimoksha to double check this before posting, but there isn’t one.

Then how does one clean oneself? I’m certainly no vinaya expert (or a woman, or nun, so what I think doesn’t matter at all), but it seems like that would be referring to sexual stimulation (by one’s own or another’s hands) to me. The nun I referred to certainly felt that way. It would be really strange if masturbation was not mentioned at all in the bhikshuni pattimokkha.

As a side note, the highly influential Japanese monk Kukai abandoned the vinaya in favor of keeping only the bodhisattva precepts. He had political reasons for doing this, but it is a precedent of sorts.

Could you please continue this in another thread? We are somewhat off topic here and I don’t want to derail this thread.
Thanks.


Edit: Since @dayunbao doesn’t want to continue the discussion in another thread, I thought I’d just answer their questions briefly here. If there’s any follow-up, please start a new topic.

Yes, the same rule.

That problem came up pretty quickly after the rule was laid down. :wink: So a new rule was made explaining how nuns could wash themselves.

Yes, there are precedents. The Thich Nhat Hanh group of monastics has rewritten their entire patimokkha, removed rules and added new ones, for example about computers and modern communication.

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