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

Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu for this topic :pray:

Would this include the rules relating to travel and living arrangements?
eg
Nuns’ Formal Meeting (Saṅghādisesa) 3
Ekagāmantara Pli Tv Bi Vb Ss 3 Vin iv 228
A nun who walks alone in an uninhabited area or spends the night by herself is to be suspended.

I state up front that I have a limited understanding of the Vinaya and I’m coming from a wholly Practice perspective. As such, I feel that there should be no difference at all between Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis when it comes to practice conditions.

In particular, seclusion is such a central pillar of the Buddhas teachings, that to put any impediments on this is placing an impediment on practice. I was really shocked to see the restrictions placed on Bhikkhunis in this regard. Surely the best and most conducive conditions are the best and most conducive conditions, and should not be varied based on gender (the body).

The imposition of special conditions on a sub-group of practitioners, appears to be prioritizing the ‘protection of the body’ over and above the facilitation of taming the mind. This dynamic of ‘special protection’ of women is very problematic, and originates from perceived dangers that are not static over time and place.

The Buddha made it clear that there are very real dangers associated with some practices, eg seclusion and wandering in the ‘jungle’. One is subject to wild animals and ‘wild’ people. Yet these are risks that need to be assessed and mitigated by individuals in relation to specific circumstances. The Buddha relates this to making wise choices, and MN2, for example, lists things that are to be Avoided eg wisely avoiding, elephants and serpents, bandits etc, and also things that are to be endured and how things like lodgings etc are to be used. While this may not be the best sutta as example, it illustrates a universal principle. There are major problems with the idea that women need special protection (by men- from dangers that may in particular be perpetrated by other men) … It undermines the assumption of responsibility of risk. There is a modern concept in community services, and that is the ‘dignity of risk’ – it is disempowering to enforce a set of ‘protections’ (limitations) on a group. When this is done the sub-ordinate group is treated as less competent - like children.

My argument here, which I hope is coming through, is that it is especially important to allow ALL practitioners to assess risk as it comes up, and to deal with it with wisdom (or not) and to be heirs to their own actions. Gender has nothing at all to do with this capacity. Men and women can both make foolish choices or wise choices that lead to good or bad consequences, even death. There should be no difference what-so-ever, in the rules that govern conditions and opportunities for practice. To enforce ‘protection’ about perceived or potential (not real) dangers for one group is simply discrimination. Note – this means that in dangerous circumstances it is up to the person to make wise choices, to avoid them.

In particular, my concern is all the rules that treat Bhikkhuinis differently when it comes to the ability to practice, including seclusion, travel and living arrangements. The imposed special restrictions are an imposed lessening of practice opportunities, and this is a fundamental flaw in my view. It removes the right to assess risk and to make choices about it. Surely the only non-discriminatory approach is to allow individuals to make this choice. (not for men to impose on women – just in case… something might happen).

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Dear Ayya Vimalanyani, I love your thought experiment on the genderless Vinaya :smiley:

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Wonderful Ajahn!
A long overdue discussion and a beautiful breath of fresh air. :pray:

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Thanks so much for all your comments and replies. I should point out up front that the Bhikkhunī-vinaya is a matter for the bhikkhunīs to decide. Any proposal I make is merely meant as a support. I have no desire to interfere with how the bhikkhunīs practice their rules.

Anyway, here are my responses.

In DN16 the Buddha is saying that, if we want the Dhamma to last long, we should not change anything or add anything, unless he has given an explicit exemption. And the only exemption we have is the abolishing of the lesser and minor rules.

But yes, how would even this be done in practice? It would be nice to think that this could be done by consensus, but really, this is wishful thinking. The institutions of Buddhism are conservative and in many cases virtually immovable. Meaningful change has in almost all instances come from the grassroots via the leadership of charismatic individuals: think the Thai forest tradition (Ajahn Mun), the Sri Lankan modernist movement (Anagarika Dhammapala), the reintroduction of bhikkhunī ordination in Sri Lanka. Any reform of the Vinaya will probably have to happen in the same way. And to be honest, the chances of it taking hold in Buddhism at large are slim. To have any chance at all, reform will have to be firmly grounded in the Suttas and Vinaya.

A recent example of attempted Vinaya reform is the case of the monk Phra Kukrit in Thailand, a monk originally from Wat Pah Pong. He decided to no longer recite the sekhiya rules of the Pātimokkha, since there is good evidence that these were not laid down by the Buddha. He was quickly reprimanded by the hierarchy and told in no uncertain terms that he should recite these rules or risk ostracism. Of course, many of the monks in that hierarchy, probably most of them, would not be keep many of those rules. Yet they should be recited! You may decide for yourself what this says about the state of institutional Buddhism.

It’s tricky. Reform—to be successful and effective beyond a narrow and small group of people—will have to be based on solid Dhamma principles. The argument for abolishing all the bhikkhunī pācittiya rules would have to be that they are generally late and so generally inauthentic. (In this they are quite different from the bhikkhu pācittiyas, almost all of which are likely to be authentic.) Combining this general inauthenticty with the allowance to abolish the minor rules, gives, I think, good ground for abolishing them.

However, there are some significant road blocks. The biggest one is that the Sangha at the first saṅgīti (“Council”) decided they did not want to abolish any rules. One counter-argument would be that this refers to the bhikkhu rules, not those of the bhikkhnunīs. Another counter-argument is that the Buddha’s allowance is always open and not closed off by a single decision made 2,400 years ago. No doubt there are other arguments as well. Regardless, it is not going to be easy to satisfy conservative parts of he Sangha that these arguments are valid.

According to Ven. Analayo’s research, the garudhammas of some schools don’t mention dual ordination, but instead ordination by bhikkhus alone. In other words, this seems to have been a preliminary ruling to enable the establishment of the Bhikkhunī-sangha.

But the bhikkhunī ordination is also laid down in the Bhikkhunī-kkhandhaka. This is a particularly trick area, since we are dealing with Sanghakamma. If the Sanghakamma is not generally accepted as valid by Buddhist institutions, then the Bhikkhunī-sangha will potentially disappear once again.

Bhante @Sujato has written on the in his book Bhikkhunī Vinaya Studies. Perhaps it is time to revisit some of his arguments. Still, regardless of its importance for gender equity, I am not optimistic about the chances of successfully changing the ordination procedure.

This, too, is not just about garudhammas, but is laid down at the end of the saṅghādisesa chapter in the Bhikkhunī-vibhaṅga (as you too point out further on). Yet this is far easier to deal with than the ordination procedure. I can’t think of any reason why, in principle, mānatta cannot be done towards the Bhikkhunī-sangha alone. (It would depend on what is considered ratticheda for the bhikkhunīs, that is, which parts of the saṅghādisesa procedure are essential for emerging from the offence. This would require more study.) Even if others disagree with this, it should not have any implications for the survival of the Bhikkhunī-sangha.

If the garudhammas and the pācittiyas specific to the bhikkhunīs are disregarded, then the ovāda would no longer be required. The fact that ovāda is mentioned in the bhikkhu rules does not really have any bearing on this. However, once you remove the ovāda, you also remove the responsibility for bhikkhu to teach bhikkhunīs. In the Nandakovāda Sutta (MN146) the arahant monk Nandaka did not want to give the ovāda, but was pretty much required by the Buddha. By removing the ovāda, you may find that certain monks will refuse to give teachings. This may not be a problem, but it is good to be aware of potential consequences.

I don’t think you can actually alter these rules. What you can do is have a voluntary system where everyone keeps the same rules.

I agree. My personal take is that when we have something of value, we should be conservative. But when we have something that destroys value, we should not. Arguably, rules added after the time of the Buddha are destructive for the Dhamma.

So far as I know this is not contentious. And it exists in all the schools a Buddhism that we have records of. The contentious part is whether it is still open for us to abolish these rules when it was rejected by the first saṅgīti. I cannot see why not, but many are likely to disagree.

Lol! Bhante @Sujato has studied this in greater detail than I have. Perhaps he would like to step up?

Personally I feel such rules are redundant. And I agree with the general sentiment of your post. Yet it is not at all obvious how to deal with these heavy offences. That’s why I am focusing on the light offences for now.

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Ajahn, this was a case of a monk in Thailand, where there is an established sangha hierarchy (which is contrary to the vinaya, but oh well…). In the west, we have no such hierarchy. Every monastery is independent and the local sangha can decide how they want to practice. As long as the sangha is unanimous and the laypeople continue to support them, any change to the vinaya can easily be done.
As you say, vinaya reform for gender equality will have to be a grassroots movement. I think it will probably have to start in western countries, because the frictions between the current vinaya and the values of society are greatest there. If the movement is successful, it’ll spread. If not, it’ll die out. Probably all the grassroots movements in the past weren’t sure if they’ll make it. Probably they didn’t even care if they’d be accepted by the mainstream. They just did what they thought was the right thing.

I think what is lacking are some alternatives that are well grounded in the suttas and vinaya. If we had a range of options, every monastery could choose how far they want to go and what to take on board. Maybe some want to abolish some minor rules, maybe some want to go further and remove all discrimination for good. There doesn’t need to be universal consensus, every sangha can do it on their own. Over time, best practices might emerge and clusters of monasteries might align their practices. But in the beginning, experimentation might be a good thing.

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:clap::point_up_2::pray: I completely agree.

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Bhante, given that the four additional pārājika rules entail nuns being defeated for actions that would be only sanghādisesas if performed by monks, why is it that in all three of your options you wish the said rules to be left intact?

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I just don’t know how you would make the case for it. The Buddha gives no allowance for abolishing these rules. Nor is there any obvious evidence that they are late.

Do you have any suggestions?

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Why one needs to become a bhikkhuni to practice the Buddha Dhammas (the same question also applies to becoming a bhikkhu)? The Vinaya rules, such as garudhammas, are irrelevant to the Dhammas. The Vinaya rules were in fact established in India for a particular assembly (sangha) at that time.

If the bhikkhuni rules are considered discriminatory, useless for practicing the Dhamma in daily life, hard to reform, and/or irrelevant to a particular society, then, the followers just break away from the old group, and establish a new organisation. Women in today also do not really need to depend on men financially for living.

Just like Japanese Buddhism becomes completely different organisation from the Chinese.

The idea of becoming a bhikkhuni seems to become an issue/attachment. But it should not have to be an issue for practicing the Dhamma, and/or forming a new group independently (it seems this already becomes a reality).

Thank you Ajahn for your post. We are very fortunate to have such ‘friends of the nuns’.

As you mentioned above, this is going to come down to individual communities. There are very lenient ways to interpret rules such as SD3, which I have heard you suggest in the past. However, many communities choose to take a more conservative stance. Maybe it is because they feel that to do otherwise would draw too much attention/criticism, or maybe for some communities this is just not seen as an issue :frowning: . Hopefully as the Bhikkhuni sangha continues to grow groups of like-minded women will form communities which can make their own decisions on these matters, but for now the Bhikkhuni Sangha is still quite young.

On the issue of Bhikkhuni ordination by Bhikkhuni’s alone I thought I would once again share this article from Ajahn Hiriko
http://slo-theravada.org/ucenja/blog/465-autonomy-of-the-bhikkhuni-sa-gha.html

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I think that a key issue is long-term stability. If I chose to become a Bhikkhu, I’d be reasonably confident that my local monastery, at least, would have the resources and commitment to support me for the long term. Women, unfortunately, face much more uncertainty, and creating a new group would be even more uncertain. Would lay people keep supporting them for many decades into the future?

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No, I’m afraid I don’t.

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This is about living in a monastery/temple for supporting a particular lifestyle (monks/nuns). But it does not have to follow completely the Indian rules to become a Bhikkhu. Chinese monks, for example, in history and in today, do not follow entirely the Indian rules. They in fact have created their Chinese rules developed in China and beyond.

I do not think so!
Women (and men) in different areas/countries are certainly able to make new rules, new lifestyle for supporting their livelihood. They also can create useful activities to make anyone, including lay people, to keep supporting them. E.g. Chinese nuns (and monks) have adapted a lifestyle different from the Indian one. If not doing so, they simply cannot survive in a Chinese society. One has to adapt sufficiently, quickly to a new environment.

The current form of dual ordination isn’t accepted as valid by Buddhist institutions, and not recognized in any Theravada country either. Still the bhikkhuni sangha continues to grow.
I’m thinking that for bhikkhuni-only ordinations, the existing sanghakamma should be used. So even those that don’t accept bhikkhuni-only ordinations would see the sanghakamma as valid and the “bhikkhunis” as ekato-upasampanna nuns. If such a bhikkhuni needed to join a more conservative group, the “flaw” could easily be fixed by completing the bhikkhu part later.
I agree that there’s no way anyone would accept someone ordained with a made-up sanghakamma or new kind of ordination. We’ve seen that with the siladharas.

There are several lines of argument that could be used to justify single-sided ordinations:

  1. Dual ordination is absent from early texts, especially the Therigatha, and the bhikkhuni patimokkha. If it is inauthentic, then we need to abolish it, as the Buddha didn’t allow alterations to the vinaya after his passing.
  2. I think it can be argued that garudhammas are minor rules and can therefore be abolished. Most of the garudhammas have parallels among the pacittiya rules, which is a class of minor rules. This is well-documented across all schools of Buddhism. That then implies that garudhammas should also be seen as minor.

I’ll read up on what Bhante @Sujato proposed in Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies and post an update later.

Yes, I was thinking the same thing. Note that this would make the parajikas stricter for everyone. The monks would have four additional parajikas. The nuns would have a stricter parajika 1 that includes same-sex intercourse, which is normally a pacittiya for them.
It also couldn’t be enforced outside the monastic circles that agree to practice in this way.

Actually, I think it would make things easier for both monks and nuns, not more difficult. Even now, with all the obligations and rules in place for both sanghas, there are plenty of monks who refuse to give ovada. The ones that don’t recognize bhikkhuni ordination don’t give it, and some of the bhikkhuni’s allies don’t give it either, because they don’t want to be part of a discriminatory system.
In my personal experience, nearly all monks, including those from strict forest traditions and from Myanmar, are very happy to discuss dhamma and vinaya with bhikkhunis and answer questions (with some exceptions, of course). They just don’t like to do it in the framework of a formal ovada. It would make things much easier for everyone if the bhikkhuni sangha didn’t need to rely on the bhikkhus for ovada and ordination. Then the “traditional” monks could be a lot more relaxed around bhikkhunis because they didn’t need to worry that we’ll ask them to perform services they can’t really do without getting into trouble with their sangha hierarchy.

I think it’s a really big misunderstanding that monks that don’t support bhikkhuni ordination are hostile towards bhikkhunis. The majority of them are really not. I’ll share some examples for inspiration:

When I took bhikkhuni ordination, my preceptor bhikkhuni needed to organize sanghatis (outer robes, i.e. the robes the candidates get during the ordination ceremony). So she asked a Burmese monk to bring some from Myanmar. He’s not supportive of bhikkhuni ordination, but although he, his entire community in the US, and presumably his home monastery in Myanmar knew the sanghatis would be for future bhikkhunis, they sent some very well-made, expensive robes for us, that even average Burmese monks don’t have.
When my samaneri/future bhikkhuni friend visited the same group of monks, they told her at the beginning of their conversation “bhikkhunis don’t exist”, and then had a long dhamma discussion with her, gave her a pile of requisites including several sets of “monks’” robes, and told her to come back anytime if she ever needed any support.
I know of many monks of the Ajahn Chah tradition that let bhikkhunis stay at their monasteries and have no problem teaching them. Some of them even have participated in bhikkhuni ordinations. One bhikkhuni I know has been invited to stay at Wat Pa Nanachat.

I think it is precisely ovada and dual ordination that make relationships with these groups of monks awkward and tense. Everyone could be more relaxed if bhikkhunis simply managed their own affairs.

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Interesting. We need to give more thought to all of this …

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This sounds like their way of trying to placate the hardliners while still secretly supporting bhikkhunis. You know, something like “Bhikkhunis don’t exist,” wink, wink, “but here take all these requisites.” If the monastic powers that be back in Myanmar, or even conservative laity, heard one of their monks publicly supporting bhikkhunis, there might be serious ramifications for him. I wonder how often this is the case. There might actually be a lot more support for bhikkhunis than is immediately apparent.

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Not “might”, I know there is. There are some very senior monks in Myanmar who are supportive, but who have to keep quiet.

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I highly recommend that people read his book, or at least chapter 6. There’s a wealth of details and evidence pointing to single-sided ordination that I can’t do justice in a summary. So I’ll just share his conclusion, on p. 158f in the book.

Conclusion
The texts speak of bhikkhuni ordination as vuṭṭhāpana, and there is no suggestion that the bhikkhus were involved. This is represented by the bhikkhuni pāṭimokkha and the Therīgāthā. If this textual strata represents a genuine historical stage, then I conclude that the bhikkhus did not, during the Buddha’s lifetime, take part in the bhikkhuni ordination. Later the bhikkhus introduced the dual ordination. This found its textual form in the narrative of Mahāpajāpatī as the founder of the bhikkhuni order, and the subsequent developments in the Bhikkhuni Khandhaka and the vibhaṅga to the bhikkhuni pāṭimokkha. The dual ordination was introduced before the first schism, probably as part of the general reforms and Vinaya tightening that followed the Second Council.
This evolution of the forms of the ordination procedure is mainly inferred from the pattern of distribution of the special terminology for bhikkhunis in the Mahāvihāravāsin and Lokuttaravāda Vinayas. In addition, it explains the unique nature of the Mūlasarvāstivāda bhikkhuni ordination procedure, where the brahmacāryopasthāna ordination in front of bhikkhunis alone is by motion and two (one) announcements, and is not regarded as upasampadā; the upasampadā is accomplished in front of both Sanghas simultaneously. The Mūlasarvāstivāda brahmacāryopasthāna appears to be a relic of the vuṭṭhāpana ordination procedure, carried out by the bhikkhunis alone, without involvement of the bhikkhus.
The dual ordination is mandated in all existing Vinayas, so it would be controversial to suggest that single ordination be applied in practice. […]
Nevertheless, it remains the case that the dual ordination is potentially a powerful instrument of control by the bhikkhus. It seems undeniable that this was one of the purposes for introducing it in the first place. By having a power of veto over which women can receive ordination, the bhikkhu Sangha can in theory throttle any chance for the bhikkhuni Sangha to grow and thrive. In recent years in Korea one arm of the bhikkhuni Sangha, being disillusioned with their experience with the bhikkhu Sangha, has taken matters into their own hands and performs ordinations themselves. My research indicates that in doing so they are not making a radical new departure, but may be simply following the practice of the earliest bhikkhunis. Whether this is a wise move I cannot say; the mere contemplation of such an act is a sign that there are serious problems. In a situation where the bhikkhus were using their veto power in an unprincipled manner, the option of performing ordination by themselves remains one that the bhikkhunis can consider.


You may want to check out chapter 3 in Bhante’s book. It’s clear that sanghadisesa 3 is incompatible with the lifestyle of the early nuns. As we know from early texts, such as the Therigatha and the bhikkhuni samyutta, they did in fact travel alone and practice in seclusion.

Here’s the book:
Bhikkhuni_Vinaya_Studies_Bhikkhu_Sujato.pdf (2.1 MB)

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Thanks for posting this Ayya. I am aware that there has been some further research in this area, but since writing this I haven’t really kept up. But so far as i know the argument still holds good.

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Can you point us to that further research? Who has done it? Is it online? :anjal:

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