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

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


That’s what I’m saying, I don’t really know. But some of these topics have been discussed, I think.


Maybe Ayya @Adhimutti would know? :anjal:

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No, sorry, I don’t know. Ayya Tathaaloka is the one most current I would say.


Bhante @Sujato and Ayya @Adhimutti, I’m curious if you know anything more about these Korean bhikkhunis that did single-sided ordinations?

Were they accepted by the wider bhikkhuni sangha?

(If you don’t have more information, I’ll contact Ayya Tathaaloka).


No, I don’t know anything about them. I had heard of Japanese bhikkhunis maintaining their ordination lineage without bhikkhus - but that was because the bhikkhus in Japan were forced to marry (or something - I forget the details) - so the bhikkhunis kept their ordination going themselves.


Thanks. :anjal:
I’ve written to Ayya Tathālokā but she’s on retreat until the end of March. We’ll have to wait…


Excuse me, may I ask how exactly one can keep quiet in the face of persisting injustice and still can be seen as supportive?


To the wider issue at play here, the best solution is simply to stick to human rights. In this case the negative human rights of free speech, free assembly and freedom of religion. Those monasteries who recognise said ordination and wish to perform them should be allowed to do so. Likewise those monasteries who don’t accept it should be allowed to prohibit it. That way everyone is happy. I doubt you will ever get everyone to agree on this issue, and it’s not a good idea to suppresses the rights of one over the other (to suppress anyone’s rights to be exact). After all, freedom is always and invariably freedom for the person who thinks differently.

Just my thoughts on the issue.

Let’s face it, it’s hard to always speak up against injustice, especially when the personal cost is high. But in truth I don’t have much experience with Myanmar. @Vimalanyani, are you able to shed some light on this?

Or is your question rhetorical? Although I do think it is understandable, I do not wish to make any excuses for monks remaining quiet. The point of my post was to merely show that what may appear as solid opposition to bhikkhunīs or bhikkhunī ordination is in fact no such thing.


I was told about this by Chi Kwang Sunim. I’m guessing any of the bhikkhunis who spent time in Korea would know about it. But I’m afraid I can’t recall any further details.

@adhimutti Hi Ayya what’s up?

Well, indeed.

I think it’s important understand that in different contexts, actions have different consequences. I’ve never lived in Myanmar, and I have only barest idea of what it is like to like under such repression, especially under repression that lasted multiple generations. So I can understand why people prefer to stay quiet.

The problem is, of course, that no matter how bad the repression might be in the case of monks, for nuns it is a thousand times worse.

But the sad fact is, if you call out injustice, you’ll always be told that you’re wrong. It’s the wrong time, you’re saying it the wrong way. Strangely enough, it always seems to be the right time to commit injustice.


Hi Bhante @sujato, you mean what’s up in Myanmar?

About the topic of direct and indirect forms of communication and support - I think this article may be helpful in the general mix of our discussion.


(I just got an automatic message from the D&D system to stop posting on this thread because apparently others don’t get a chance to engage. Not sure if I’ll get cut off or what… :zipper_mouth_face: )

Yes, it’s difficult for us to understand but in my experience, the monastics in traditional Theravada countries are not as independent as those in the west. The sangha hierarchy has a lot of control and disobeying them can have very serious consequences. Even the famous monks that lead large communities often don’t have the authority to make certain decisions for themselves.

Here’s a case that was discussed on D&D a few years ago:

If famous monks like Pa Auk Sayadaw can’t even decide on alms bowls for their nuns, how could they make a decision on bhikkhuni ordination?

Myanmar was a military dictatorship for a long time (and it seems is turning into one again now), so openly challenging authorities is not that easy.

We can’t judge them by western standards. If we speak up, we don’t face the risks that they might face. Also, in their cultural context, chances of success might really be better if they do things in a less confrontational and more roundabout way.


Dear Ayya Vimalanyaani, completely agree - often in this context indirect is more effective and safer. One has to flow with things, and redirect them subtly rather than making a splash.

I have been incredibly supported at times over here, the support has been very real, and I have felt much security and gratitude arising - but it’s certainly expressed indirectly.

I must say, it took me some years of being in Asia to appreciate this mode of communication and to be able understand it (and I’m still a klutz) In the past I thought people should just tell me, if something was up. It took kindhearted Asian friends spelling things out for me, and years of bumping up against things to get it through my thick skull that much communication was going on, but in a subtle, nuanced, read between the lines way.


No, just generally, I haven’t heard from you in a while! But you seem good.

Don’t worry!


Hello, yes it’s true - I’ve been thinking to catch up with you sometime. But, yes, things are going pretty well.


Thank you for your comment, Ajahn. No, I sincerely try to understand why more Buddhists get away with oppressing women. And why in general all religions get away with it. And why as a woman, I would still want to be a member of any religion oppressing women.


And thanks for your reply!

There is no way I can give an answer that does full justice to you concerns. But perhaps I can give a sketch to a solution, or at least a partial solution.

To me the critical issue is whether the Buddha himself oppressed women. Even raising this may seem like blasphemy—if we had such a thing in Buddhism—but I do think it is a valid question. There are two aspects to this: the Buddha’s personal behaviour and the pressures exerted on Buddhism by society at large. If we are to follow the suttas and we have confidence in the awakening of the Buddha, then we have to conclude that he did not personally oppress women, or anyone else for that matter. At the same time, it is obvious that the Buddha lived in a certain cultural context. It is impossible, even for an awakened being, to fully extract oneself from that context. A typical example is the laying down of monastics rules, which was often done at the behest of the lay people. Many of their complaints were about decorum or non-Buddhist ideas that were generally accepted by the population. In a society that was strongly patriarchal, it is to be expected that some of these social norm were oppressive for women. I am not sure if it would be possible for the Buddha simply to ignore them all and still have the Dhamma thrive in ancient India.

Let me give some examples. Bhikkhunī-saṅghādisesa 3 is rightly considered discriminatory towards bhikkhunīs. There is no similar rule for bhikkhus. In brief, the rule states that bhikkhunīs cannot travel or stay by herself. If she does, she incurs a saṅghādisesa offence, which is a surprisingly heavy penalty. To understand why such a rule came about, all we need to do it look at the origin stories. Every one of them is about sexual violence. In fact, when you read the Vinaya rules for bhikkhunīs, it is hard not to get the impression that sexual violence was widespread in ancient India. One way of dealing with this is to make sure the bhikkhunīs always are accompanied by someone. In the present day this seems discriminatory, because surely it is up to the bhikkhunīs themselves to decide what is an acceptable risk. Yet at that time it was probably uncommon for women to travel on their own at all, and so the current social norms may have affected the nature of this rule. This is no more than an educated guess, but I think the general principle for how rules sometimes came to be laid down is correct.

Another example is bhikkhunī-pārājika 8, which prohibits bhikkhnunīs with a penalty of expulsion for doing a number of “seductive” actions, which for a bhikkhu would be at most a saṅghādisesa offence. Again, we can only speculate, but this may have come about because women at that time and place had very little outlet for such seductive activity. Actions that may seem trivial now would, I think, have been considered scandalous then. So the sexual mores of that society would have impacted on the formulation of the rules. The Buddha may have felt he had no choice if he was to protect the good name of Buddhism.

There are heaps of examples such as the ones above. Most such rules can be abandoned at a stroke if we accept, as I argue we should, that the minor rules can indeed be abolished. But I chose the above two rules precisely because there is no easy way of getting around them. They are both heavy rules (garukāpatti) and there is little evidence, so far as I know, that they were laid down after the Buddha. So unless such evidence is forthcoming, the bhikkhunīs will have to find ways of accommodating these rules, except if they decide on truly radical solutions, which I personally would caution against.

How can such rules be accommodated? Again, there is no fully satisfactory answer short of abolishing them. Yet the reality is that all rules can be read in a number of ways: there are readings that (1) focus on the content of the rule, that (2) accept all the canonical Vibhaṅga material as authoritative, that (3) accept all the commentaries as authoritative. Then there are strict readings where everything is interpreted in the strictest possible way, natural readings where the rule is interpreted according to the most obvious meaning, or “compassionate” readings where alternative interpretations are explored. In the case of the bhikkhunī Vinaya, in my opinion, we should use this whole range of interpretative tools to our advantage, so as to end up with practical applications of these rules that are as acceptable as can be. If at this point the rules are still not considered acceptable, then we need to look at alternatives, if such can be found.

Again, let me sketch how this would work. For any given rule one would look at the phrasing of the rule, the content of the canonical commentary (Vibhaṅga), and the commentarial interpretation, and one would choose whatever is the most reasonable. Which text to give preference to would vary from rule to rule. People have argued with me that such an approach is inconsistent and arbitrary. Yes, it is. But that is precisely the point. We are dealing with texts that came of age in a very different society. To get a reasonable reading, we have the right, I say, to choose the one that comes closest to match our modern ideals. The fact that the texts vary just shows that there have always been a number of possible interpretations. When it comes to gender discrimination, we should use the one that is most acceptable.

And we shouldn’t stop there. We should then analyse the rules through the compassion filter. Word and phrases, especially words, can generally be interpreted in a number of ways. We need to ask what possible meanings are derivable from the standards meanings found in the canonical texts. As we do so, new understandings of these ancient rules tend to open up.

Perhaps all this seems far-fetched and radical. But it isn’t, really. This is the way the Vinaya has always been interpreted. It is just that with gender discrimination we have to apply these techniques quite consciously to arrive at results that are as satisfactory as possible.

You know, in recent years I and others have gone against the common Theravadin approach of trying to seal all the gaps in the Vinaya and produce some sort of final and authoritative interpretation of all the rules. I think this is wrong-headed. An interesting aspect of the Buddha’s allowance to abolish the minor rules is that it gives a lot of autonomy to the Sangha, as a Bhante Sujato points out. This autonomy may have been granted precisely because the Buddha knew that the Vinaya was culturally bound to ancient India. He may well have foreseen that it would be less suited to other times and places. I don’t think it is far-fetched to think that the Buddha decided to trust the future Sangha to make reasonable adjustments so as to ensure the longevity of the Dhamma itself.

But if such autonomy was granted to in regard to the minor rules, would it not be natural to think it was granted also elsewhere in the Vinaya? Surely that is the case. I think it is possible, even likely, that the Buddha purposefully left the Vinaya vague in certain places, allowing for a variety of interpretations. Instead of trying to fill in all the gaps, as the commentaries sometimes seem bent on, we should be grateful that the gaps are there so that we have greater scope for adapting the rules. I would argue that our interpretations should vary from time to time and from place to place, in effect making the Vinaya an living document. The commentaries, including the Vibhaṅga, should best probably be regarded as interpretations that were relevant to ancient India and Sri Lanka, but not as authoritative statements for all eternity on how the Vinaya should be read. In this way we end up with a Vinaya that is never archaic and outdated, but instead adapted to the needs of any time and any place.

My point is that there is more inbuilt flexibility in the Vinaya than it is sometimes given credit for. We should be guided by the Buddha as far as possible. And we should remember that the Buddha did give us a fair degree of autonomy. We should not abuse this autonomy, but use it judiciously to make the Vinaya an instrument fit for present purposes. How far we can take this is hard to say. We need to continue laying the groundwork. But I have no doubt that we can move to a state of far less gender discrimination within Buddhism than we have at present. The Buddha’s teachings are magnificent and powerful, and we should ensure that they are made available to everyone as equitably as possible.


I haven’t looked at parajika 8 in any detail, because it’s quite an irrelevant rule in practice and chances of breaking it are very slim. But sanghadisesa 3 is quite a big issue, so I just wanted to point out that there is in fact plenty of evidence that it is a late rule:

  1. There’s an unusually large variance between schools for this rule. Other rules in the category of “heavy rules” tend to be much closer.

  2. It’s totally contrary to the lifestyle of nuns shown in early sources, such as the Therigatha and the bhikkhuni samyutta. Clearly it wasn’t in place at the time the events in these texts occured.

  3. There’s some tension between this sanghadisesa and pacittiyas 37 and 38 (and their parallels). The pacittiyas make a (single) nun travel with groups of merchants through dangerous territory and don’t mention a companion bhikkhuni. This seems to me to be an early attempt to mitigate the risks associated with traveling alone for women. If this is the case, then traveling alone would have been fine in areas that weren’t considered dangerous. This would fit much better with the picture we get from the Therigatha and the bhikkhuni samyutta.

I recommend chapter 3 of Bhante @Sujato’s Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies for anyone who wants to look deeper into this issue. This is from page 92f:

Here [i.e. in pacittiya 55] it is quite clear the nun was traveling alone and visiting houses alone. The case is far from unique. In fact, the Vinaya constantly depicts bhikkhunis walking into the village for alms alone, visiting houses alone, or traveling through the countryside alone. In only a cursory survey of the Dharmaguptaka and Mahāvihāravāsin Vinayas, I have counted around thirty such cases, where the bhikkhuni is, or at least seems to be, alone. This is not confined to the Vinaya tradition, for similar situations occur throughout the Therīgāthā. For example, Subhā Jīvakambavanikā is chatted up as she enters Jīvaka’s mango grove, being asked: ‘What delight is there for you, if you plunge into the wood alone?’ (kā tuyhaṁ rati bhavissati, yadi ekā vanamogahissasi). Particularly striking is the case of Jinadattā a ‘Vinaya expert’, who comes, apparently alone, to a lay household, and sits to take her meal.
As a verse collection, the Therīgāthā is light on background details and offers more insight into the psychology of the nuns than their lifestyle. Nevertheless, in most cases where lifestyle is referred to, it sounds as if the nuns are frequenting woods and secluded spots, even if it is not clear that they are alone. For example, we have reference to a nun ‘wandering here and there’, ‘entering inside the wood’, going to the mountains for meditation, or, having wandered for alms, sitting at the root of a tree for meditation.
The Bhikkhunī Saṁyutta, which consists of short suttas involving bhikkhunis, throughout depicts bhikkhunis dwelling in the solitude of the forest. Each sutta depicts the bhikkhuni walking for alms in Sāvatthī, returning for the day’s meditation at the ‘Blind Man’s Grove’. It seems clear enough that they are alone, both when going for alms and entering the forest. In certain cases this is confirmed: Āḷavikā is said to be seeking seclusion (vivekatthinī); Kisāgotamī is taunted for being ‘alone in the woods’ (vanamajjhagatā ekā); Uppalavaṇṇā is teased while ‘standing alone at the root of a sāla tree’ (ekā tuvaṁ tiṭṭhasi sālamūle). This evidence is very weighty, for this Saṁyutta is one of the few major early collections of literature concerning the bhikkhunis, and in fact constitutes the major document concerning the bhikkhunis within the four Nikāyas/Āgamas. No doubt these examples could be multiplied by a more thorough sampling of the literature. But the quantity is already enough to raise a serious question mark over the meaning of the rule.

(my emphasis)

Personally, I think the evidence that it is late is so convincing that it would be justified to set it aside. I even believe that we have somewhat of a duty to set it aside, because the Buddha asked us to preserve the Dhamma-Vinaya as he has laid it down and not to impose new rules.


Hey thanks for reading my book, Ayya, it makes it all worthwhile.

One bit of context that I think is easily forgotten.

It’s not at all obvious that the Vinaya rules, in general, are meant to be lived and kept in a literal way in modern times. From the EBTs it’s pretty clear that no-one was thinking of them applying at such a far-distant time. And in every Buddhist culture, without exception, the norm is that most monks don’t actually keep the Vinaya in a rigorous way.

Now, this is a dynamic and complex situation in Buddhist cultures, and there are always reform movements popping up that call for a return to the roots. My background, in what is known in the west as the Thai Forest Tradition, was one such reform movement. Its founders took the Vinaya texts and manuals and applied them in a very rigorous way. Sometimes these things were based on more culturally-received understandings, but for the most part the emphasis was on strict adherence to the rules.

That these rules can be kept in this way is somewhat of a surprise and a challenge to the mainstream. And as these things go, it doesn’t take long for the strictness to either be abandoned or to be re-interpreted. And then you need another reform!

My point here is that, even within the monks rules, it isn’t the case that there is this monolithic idea that everyone must keep all the rules. I remember at Bodhgaya once, something about a rule came up, and the Sri Lankan monk I was with just said, “Do you think the Buddha really wanted everyone to keep all those strict rules? Wasn’t he kind?”

I’m not saying one way is right or wrong, just trying to be realistic about what actually happens in monks’ circles.

Now, all of this is the case, even though the monks rules are far more clear and far less problematic than the nuns’. And even though the monks get unquestioned and 100% support for what they do.

Currently, it is usually the case that the nuns keep Vinaya more strictly than the monks. So much so that the same Sri lankan monk I was chatting with, when I asked him how the bhikkhunis were doing in Sri Lanka, he said, “Good. Actually people prefer to invite the bhikkhunis for dana, because their practice is better.”

I think that is only natural that as time goes on the bhikkhuni communities will figure out their own relationships with Vinaya.