Autonomy of the Bhikkhūnī Sangha-Aj. Hiriko

My hope is that this article from Ajahn Hiriko will help cool some of the heat regarding Bhikkhūnī ordination and the female Sangha.

(If it doesn’t load the article straight away, click the big button- I don’t read Slovenia either)


This being is delighted.


Thank you for sharing this interesting article!


Within Theravāda the Bhikkhunī Question remains unresolved. Since the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha’s apparent extinction the dispute regarding its re-establishment within Theravāda has been laborious, heated, and inconclusive.

In July 2007 the 1st International Congress was convened to discuss issues pertaining to the role of women in the contemporary Buddhist world. Over three days of discussion there emerged two core arguments justifying the legality of Bhikkhunī ordinations which I will summarise in brief:

A) The Bhikkhu Saṅgha (the Community of monks) can ordain women without the presence of the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha. This argument is based on an allowance by Lord Buddha.

B) Historical evidence suggests that Dharmagaptaka Bhikkunīs are also descended from the Theravāda lineage and so bhikkhunī ordinations are valid. This is the argument based on history.

Whilst reflecting on the ongoing bhikkhunī question a Vinaya point came to mind which, as far as I am aware, has not been raised before. I would like to present this as a third argument:

C) The Bhikkhu Saṅgha and the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha are two legally separate entities and subsequently one cannot exert its will on the other. It follows, therefore, that the Bhikkhu Saṅgha cannot determine the legality of the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha. The legality of bhikkhunī ordination is a choice to be made by bhikkhunīs, not for bhikkhunīs. This is the argument based on Vinaya.

What will follow are critical briefs of the first two arguments and the case for a third way, an alternative perspective on the matter. It is my hope that in doing so this Vinaya perspective may be recognised and implemented moving forward.

(Italic passage = my emphasis.)

Reading this sentence I have highlighted just made my heart rejoice… :heart:


I believe that the above view gives greater freedom to prospective renunciant women to judge their situation independently, without the intercession of the bhikkhus in the matter, should they wish to avoid it. Vinaya decisions for bhikkhunīs should be made by nuns themselves. There is no justifications for bhikkhus under the Vinaya to impose any interpretation or practice on the bhikkhunīs. As was said above the bhikkhus’ role is to educate and support when it is needed, and to remain silent when it is not.

:pray: :heart_eyes:


I don’t believe that anyone is intentionally being deceptive about this situation. It could be the case that it has not been fully understood as a human rights issue - it is an ethical dilemma. The fact is the problem has not been solved - plain and simple.

“Achieving equality between women and men requires a comprehensive understanding of the ways in which women experience discrimination and are denied equality so as to develop appropriate strategies to eliminate such discrimination.” - United Nations Human Rights (Office of the High Commissioner).

“I believe that the above view gives greater freedom to prospective renunciant women to judge their situation independently, without the intercession of the bhikkhus in the matter, should they wish to [avoid] it. […] This is purely a Vinaya argument, but it can also appeal to the cause of [equity amongst the genders], which is a key aspect of contemporary western thought – thus a bridge between Vinaya principles and modernity can be made whilst compromising neither. […] I hope that this will support peace and harmony in our communities.” - Hiriko Thera

Peace and harmony is a wonderful thing to aspire to but, at what cost? I don’t believe this is addressing the issue of discrimination head-on? We cannot resolve a human rights issue by ‘avoiding’ it. We cannot resolve a human rights issue by glossing over it.

“That could perhaps resolve the current “cultural cr[l]ash” between the Thai system and the [Western idealism of equality], and thus offer a possibility for women to ordain as bhikkhunīs without trying to be institutionalized into the Bhikkhu lineage.” - Hiriko Thera

Its nice to see that Bhikkhunis have a high degree of autonomy when it comes to self-governance but it still does not change the fact that discrimination is built into the monastic discipline. If any one does not support discrimination against women - period - then, unfortunately this does not go far enough. It would appear as if the Theravada tradition is unable to embrace genuinely progressive change - period. It is permanently out-of-step with modern values and needs to be honest about that - when any new aspirants come along.

Is this purely a Vinaya argument or a human rights issue?

I believe its good to tell the truth! It should be made clear that those who have supported and, helped to facilitate the reinstatement of female ordination - in Buddhism - have not moved towards eliminating the discriminatory rules once they have been ordained. Otherwise, people may be given the false impression that ‘fundamental’ change has taken place. From the outside looking in we can create the appearance of progress but if the situation is still discriminatory once women ordain then this needs to be made crystal clear.

To do otherwise would be to ‘mislead’ people through an act of omission. It would be false propaganda about traditional Buddhist teachings. We best not create ‘alternative facts’ - don’t you think?

Honesty - truthfulness - is a core Buddhist precept that is practiced by every member of the four-fold assembly.

Ideology is a kind of ‘spin’ but those who are under the influence of an ideology may not be fully aware that they have been taken in. In fact, this is fairly commonplace!

“As such, a standard tactic used in “spinning” is to reframe, reposition, or otherwise modify the perception of an issue or event, to reduce any negative impact it might have on public opinion. […] This tactic could enable the company to defocus the public’s attention on the negative aspects of its product.” - Wikipedia

You are correct. Discrimination is built into monastic displine - by design. All the monastics have to respect senority within their Sanghas; different levels of ordination within the sanghas mean different procols; etc. All are effective training exercises. As is the social design, where the monastics cannot just go off as hermits. Training design. Four fold sangha - by design.

Those who do not want monastic immersion in training can be laity, and have near total control over their practice.

However. Thailand is waaaaay out of compliance with the design. And it is unlikely they will be moved by human rights argument, or bad pr on human rights either.

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Other flavors of Buddhism may practice with less apparent or actual discrimination and hierarchy. There is also secular buddhism. And all of them are effective practice, imo even up to liberation even for the folks who dismiss rebirth =D

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“Although recognition and respect for some rights articulated in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights can be found in the cultural references and religious texts of many communities, the traditional cultural norms and practices also include numerous discriminatory stipulations. The novelty of the Declaration and subsequent human rights documents is not only universalism – the notion that all people hold certain rights by virtue of being human – but is also the desire to end all forms of violations that have been allowed in existing cultures. In other words, international human rights follow a reactive pattern: as violations are noticed, the rights violated within prevailing cultures are enumerated in declarations and treaties to bring them under protection. In the case of women, many human rights violations and discrimination have been not only culturally permissible, but often encouraged or demanded by cultural norms. That is why CEDAW makes specific references to culture, as well as traditions and customs embodied in cultures, and emphasizes the need to change discriminatory cultural norms, values and practices.” -

I understand why there is discrimination between the elders and the new-comers but this is not the issue here - we are talking about sexism.

As far as I know, the recognition of seniority is not considered a human rights issue. I don’t feel there is anything pernicious about respecting seniority per se. It is not these facts per se that are important. However, if a female elder is not treated ‘equally’ to a male elder then, we have an issue.

If there is anything in the monastic codes - male or female - that leads to discrimination based on gender then, are you willing to ignore that fact? Are you willing to say this is acceptable in your eyes? If not, why not say so?

Are you OK about discriminatory monastic rules in Buddhism? The next logical question would be, if you don’t agree with them, do you choose to ignore them or, encourage change?

If there is a point-blank refusal to do anything about it even though you find this an affront to the basic rights of women then, that’s potentially problematic - IMO. It creates a dissonance between someones values and practice. If we believe that women’s rights should be respected and efforts should be made to do something about this kind of discrimination and, we simultaneously ignore it when it is part of the religion I/we practice - and celebrate - there is a contradiction in this (an ethical dilemma).

There is also an ethical contradiction in pointing out sexual discrimination against females in other religions - world-views - and not objecting to discrimination against females in our own religion - world view. We could argue that our form of discrimination is less troubling than the practices found in other religions and therefore, it is acceptable? This has not been said as of yet, would anyone like to highlight this and make much of it?

Perhaps, all religions could agree to cooperate and tell the ‘United Nations’ to deal with sexual discrimination in every other arena of life but to sanction it in religious practice? Would you have a problem with this?

Shall we make a distinction between religious rights and human rights? I can see how the present dysfunctional dynamic could be justified on these grounds. What we do in Buddhist practice is not to be considered a human rights issue - it is a matter of religious freedoms? We are free to discriminate and treat women as second-class citizens because our tradition says its OK - it is supported. In fact, something like this is actually being done - by some - but it is being done subtlety, implicitly - not explicitly.

This is why I drew attention to ‘spin’ and alternative facts. We really need to own this issue and not baffle ourselves and, others, through ideological persuasion.

Some - not all - religious conservatives, traditionalists and, fundamentalists, would have no problem with making a distinction between religious rights and human rights. They may be openly opposed to some other human rights - as well! As we know, some religions encourage their practitioners to shun, persecute or, kill there own family members, if they change their religion. This seems to be the general pattern we see everywhere?

Those who do not comply with a traditional or ‘accepted’ mandate in Theravada Buddhism may be shunned or ostracised - as in the case of ‘Ajahn Brahm et al.’. In some other religions/teachings, they like to up (or raise) the ante! We all know this, don’t we?

Why not say I don’t agree with this inequality of men and women practitioners in the Sangha and insist that it is not good-enough? If there is a willingness to acknowledge the problem and do something about it - even if it involves a departure from convention - then, this is a cause for happiness and joy. By doing this we are saying boo! to the fearful spectre of religious oppression. It will find another group of Buddhists to haunt and torment.

When there is a point-blank refusal to do anything about it out of fear of ostracisation, persecution etc. or, for some other reason then, we are faced with a choice. Be part of the problem, a supporter of the problematic dynamic through passive acceptance - through inaction - or, practice passive resistance.

Many Roman-Catholics - not all - are notorious for their passive acceptance. They disregard many of the teachings and practices required of them and, still insist on being Catholics. Many, have been conditioned at a young age to submit to the Church and, they have been told that if they are not Catholic, God would disapprove! They may live in fear of change and may refuse to leave the Church - even when some of them have suffered abuse. Violence and abuse can be subtle or gross - correct? This is something we best not emulate - IMO. We need to question everything - it goes with the territory!

We might also consider creating alternative forms of practice that keeps what we can all celebrate and is willing to let go of that which is unwholesome and, therefore, without benefit.

When we build something we need to create solid foundations. Otherwise cracks will appear etc. Our structure - what we build - may look nice but on closer inspection we will discover a problem. I am looking at the problem holistically and there is a problem with the foundations of practice - they are sexist.

Someone had to point out the issues here (there may be others). I have done my best to highlight the obvious ones! It makes me a bit sad that I felt the need to do this but somebody had to regardless of the consequences. It saddens me because it may sadden, annoy or, upset others who I care about. I believe what I have said is reasonably accurate? I hope it helps to awaken people or, at least clarify, why I see problems with the consensus view.

We really need to be the change we wish to see in the world. Cosmetic change does not deal with the underlying issue. If we are vitally concerned about human rights in Buddhism we need to ‘change’ fundamentally.

It seems we struggle to see clearly how human rights and, many other important issues are related to our practice together in fairly insular groups and, our individual practice. There is not a single good reason why it should remain this way!

Lawrence, this seems to be a very personal issue to you. It is to me as well.

I would suggest we be careful about making assumptions or using intimidating rhetoric, friend. Familiar with the term “mansplaining”? Neither of us want that, I hope. For this reason, I will not respond to the personal interrogatories…

There is more than one perspective on nonsexist non oppressive Buddhist responses to this world view’s corruption of Buddhism is.

My earlier point, which I wonder if you may have missed, is that monastic lifestyle is not egalitarian on purpose. And that there is a great deal of diversity in Buddhist practice.

Each individual and community is faced with the cognitive dissonance of what we perceive Buddha taught, and what we see in life.


No mansplaining going on as far as I can tell - just inquiring and questioning. However, if you feel you are being ‘mansplained’ to then, I guess that means you are not interested in my questions and inquiry. That is your choice! I feel I am entitled to speak freely without reference to my gender - is that OK with you? Unless, you would like to make my male-existence a problem of some kind? I could be a female and still see things the way they are being explored - in what I have had to say? There is nothing ‘gendered’ about what I am saying - period.

Unfortunately, I did understand what you said when you reduced the issue to the question of hierarchy. At no point did I take issue with hierarchies - of senior and junior members of the Sangha. I have no problem with Seniority based on the number of rains one has been in robes. Somehow, you conflated the question of seniority in the Sangha with something else entirely. As I explained, there would be no problem if a female and a male elder was treated equally. In the existing monastic rules this is not the case - plain and simple. We know that a sexist dynamic exists within the Vinaya’s of both male and female monastics. This is the only thing I was taking issue with! Where is the confusion about what I have been saying all along? If you would like to talk about hierarchy based on seniority then that’s fine. It is not a topic I have mentioned and is completely unrelated to this thread - or the focus of the earlier threads.

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This is mansplaining. For clearly, I AM interested.

I have no problem with your or my incarnations in any or no gender. May life be used, for liberation, of all beings.



Time out!

Please take this time to review the community guidelines and cool your heads.

We’ll reopen for discussion within the next 12 hours


This thread has now been re-opened. Please, keep things cordial so has to help support a more fruitful exploration of the given topic. If you can’t find a constructive, non-combative, and preferable friendly way to express yourself, just set the thread aside and do something else.



Silly suggestion: if a population of monks and nuns developed who were used to seeing aggregates and sense bases, rather than gender based identity, we might get less of the above type exchange hopefully.

With metta

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It was pointed out earlier, the relative autonomy of different monastery’s, Buddhist society’s, Dhamma association’s etc. makes broad based collective change problematic. This impediment to meaningful change could also be overcome if there was sufficient collective cooperation.

We now have a progress oriented group in the fourfold assembly called the Ajahn Brahm tradition. We could easily undertake a democratic decision making process within this umbrella group and decide together if we would like to make this tradition a distinct form of Buddhism that completely abandons sexual discrimination in its practices on every level.

This new tradition has already been derided for its progressive actions that were necessary and morally justified. Why not orchestrate a further change - within this tradition - that finishes the job it started when it facilitated bhikkhuni ordination? This would be a natural progression? We could start a new religion - if it is required? Progressive Buddhism. org?

I believe the relevance of what we practice together - and share with others - would increase dramatically as a consequence of genuinely progressive change. We could become an enormous truth-force for good in the world if we took this ‘natural’ step forward?

All we would need to do is recognise in the Ajahn Brahm tradition that completely ending sexual discrimination is a good idea? Then, there would be a need for grass-roots organisation within the tradition.

The case can be made for justifiable change for ethical reasons. We could :star2:-t organising now by starting a network of Buddhists for progressive change.

We could prepare a submission for wise reflection? Right and ‘open letter’ to all the group’s within the tradition? Develop a method for collective decision making that is democratic? Organise a mail-out process as they did in Australia recently that created real and lasting progressive change? All of this can be done! People could remain anonymous if they wished - let’s talk?

We all know that rapid and fundamental change needs to happen in human behaviour if we are going to turn back the tide of destruction. When we become exemplars of progressive change we can then encourage and inspire collective change in every sphere of human activity.

We can say, we have achieved the impossible, can we help you to transition to a sustainable future together through networking and cooperation?

We would benefit from making an appropriate ethical decision and may assist in supporting everyone in the wider community to realise our shared aspirations. :sunrise:

Have you spoken with someone “in the Ajahn Brahm tradition” about your ideas? Such as maybe Ajahn Brahm himself? If not, why do you think they are the best starting point for your ideas?

The Ajahn Brahm monasteries are generally known for taking vinaya very seriously. It’s unlikely that they would be in favor of fundamentally changing it.
Ajahn Brahm participated in bhikkhuni ordinations because people convinced him that it was in line with the vinaya to do it. He would not have done it otherwise.


OK, so maybe he needs a bit more convincing? I find him amenable to logical persuasion. I am starting there because I believe in Ajahn Brahm as a fair man who has a keen sense of natural justice.

If Vinaya reform is exceedingly unlikely and those who are opposed to sexual discrimination are denied that option to bring about change then, they will need to find another way to get rid of the discrimination permanently.

If, there was the formation of a new school of Buddhism that was faithful to those aspects of the early teachings and monastic discipline that did not involve sexual discrimination then, why not network and create that kind of progressive and positive alternative?

Why would you stay with something inherently unfair and discriminatory if you could be part of the creation of something that is not morally offensive.

Why would anyone continue to practice in a Buddhist school that refuses to respect and honour their human rights and, the rights of others?

This is actually what is happening right here- right now - and somehow it is being rationalised and/or excused by people who do not support discrimination against women. This is incoherent behaviour that could have little to do with basic clarity - common sense.

We go from prerational children to rational adults - at least I hope so. We then go beyond rationality - the transrational - when we discover the truth that sets us free. If common sense is a challenge how are we going to wake up?

Hi Laurence,

I understand your frustration with this, I really do, as I have often felt similar anger towards the discriminatory practices present within the fourfold-sangha. However, you continue to classify the entire Theravada lineage within this discriminatory framework, which we know is certainly not the case. The Theravada lineage of Buddhism does not hold overarching discriminatory practices, there is no mandate that says women are or should be seen as inferior in the Tipiṭaka.

And further, the Theravada lineage is not the only school in which discrimination is present. The Tibetan lineage, for one, has been struggling for a very long time to see women as spiritually legitimate, and it is something they still haven’t quite achieved yet.

Your question of, “Why would anyone continue to practice in a Buddhist school that refuses to respect and honour their human rights and, the rights of others?” is a pivotal one and one that rests at the core of Buddhist Feminist Studies. I think the answer is not so straightforward and far more complex and full of challenges than simply creating a new lineage. For me, there is something far more meaningful in grappling with the patriarchy/misogyny already present in a tradition and seeing how those traits can be transformed into something affirming and actualizing.

I think it is also necessary to say that participation does not necessarily equal complicity. There are many people in the Theravada lineage who are working towards creating safe and productive spaces for women, both lay and monastic. It is easy to see all the negatives and to think that progress isn’t being made, but it is, and it’s lovely. :slight_smile:

Also, reading suggestion: Buddhism After Patriarchy by Rita Gross is an awesome text that deals with many of the issues you’ve been discussing. You might find it useful.


Thanks Brenna, I don’t want to give the impression that I am anti-advocacy i.e. against changing discrimination from inside the Buddhist world/worlds we inhabit. I just feel there is also room for activism as distinct from advocacy? Anything that can move us into a better place than we now find ourselves is a good thing. Best wishes for your study in your Dhamma journey to freedom!

I fail to see how this is not the case when I see how discriminatory practices - that are built into the monastic code of discipline - are unchangeable. There are Vinaya rules that discriminate against women in the Sangha - and hence, the human rights of females. It seems that advocacy cannot change this situation and, it does not even appear to be on the agenda as far as I can tell? The strategy seems to involve working around these discriminatory rules instead of ending them?

I am curious if the teachings on acceptance, forgiveness and, the endless encouragement to ‘not complain’ about anything and, appreciate/be grateful for what we have suppresses voices of dissent? I believe we should change the things we can, accept the things we can’t and, have the wisdom to know the difference. When there is a refusal to undergo meaningful and fundamental change in a tradition then we are faced with a choice: abandon the tradition and, create a positive alternative or, stay with the tradition and perpetuate the injustice. Faced with this choice it is obvious to me that the rights of females within the four-fold assembly - now and in the future - should take precedent over traditional practices.

“Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow” - T.S. Eliot

“It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.” - Voltaire

“Co-optation also refers to the process by which a group subsumes or acculturates a smaller or weaker group with related interests; or, similarly, the process by which one group gains converts from another group by replicating some aspects of it without adopting the full program or ideal (“informal co-optation”). Co-optation is associated with the cultural tactic of recuperation, and is often understood to be synonymous with it.” - Wikipedia