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BiSD3- Alone Rule Grey areas

Dear Venerables,
We are currently discussing the Sanghadisessa rules and have had a very extended discussion on SD3 and after many hours feel that it has many ‘grey areas’. So I am hoping to open a discussion on how this rule is practiced in reality by different communities, as well as updated thoughts from our bhikkhu friends @brahmali and @sujato.

To start the discussion I would like to here how people interpret the part of the rule with regard to ekā vā gāmantaraṃ gaccheyya. Some take this to be between ‘suburbs’ in which case you need to have a map with you and not cross to the wrong side of the street(!). Some say a whole metropolitan area. Other arguments I have heard are between major cities alone (ie walking/driving alone). Other interpretation take this as just walking. The most liberal I have come across is that there are nearly no ‘lawless areas’ and therefor not possible break this part of the rule.

The other area which a few people are curious about is ‘staying the night alone’, both in the context of what is determined a vihara for a solitary nun and in other situations, such as a family home (where one’s family are not home).

From reading @TathaalokaBhikkhuni’s unpublished 2012 paper I am trying to reflect how this rule a ‘grave offence’. The act of leaving a bhikkhuni travelling companion without notice, either overnight or while on a journey seem to be things which can cause serious disharmony in the Sangha and that would therefor warrant this level of gravity. However, I’m a bit lost as to how the first part of this rule, gāmantram, fits into this level of offence and not just a Pacittiya? Regardless, it is the case that it’s SD so I need to reconcile how to keep this in modern times when I am someone who is quite used to making journeys alone (by foot between residential areas- such as getting off public transport and walking to my final destination).

I am grateful for any thoughts from any of the venerables on this forum (@vimalanyani @Vimala @Charlotteannun and others.)

Much mettā :anjal:

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Dear Venerables,

I’m a navaka Bhikkhu and know basically nothing about Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies. I’m excited to be here and to learn about this topic with you. May those who are knowledgeable please correct my misunderstandings! :pray:

Considering that this rule is a SD, I’d opt for the most liberal (compassionate) interpretation possible (international waters, war zones, that kind of place), noting that this still allows individuals to take on a more strict (personal) interpretation as they see fit. Perhaps these personal, conservative interpretations could even be held as “Thullaccayas” — clearable with a simple confession. Would that “work” from a vinaya perspective? What do others think of this idea?

:pray::blush:

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Thank you for this. Your supportive comment reminded that we don’t really need to specially call upon compassion to rightly understand any one particular rule since the Buddha set down the whole Vinaya as an act of compassion, and he reminded us of his 10 reasons for rules before stating every rule. (Unfortunately the use of abbreviations - ellipses - makes us tend to overlook the 10 reasons that preceeded every rule.)

No time to elaborate on the Ten Reasons at this moment, but I want to point out that people who expect antipathy towards women by the Buddha like to read additional reasons into rules for the nuns’ side only, such as: (11) To discourage females from entering the Sangha; (12) To keep in bondage those females who have entered the Sangha. (Lol)

Will address @Pasanna’s question, soon.

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Hi Ven. Pasanna,

I think this rule is kept differently by each nun or community, so I can only share my personal practice.
Clearly the situation nowadays is very different from ancient India, and we don’t have dense jungles full of bandits between villages anymore. Nevertheless, women still experience sexual harassment, and women in robes tend to attract especially much unwanted attention. This can’t be totally avoided, even by following this rule strictly…

My understanding of this rule is that it mainly applies to nuns on tudong, i.e. traveling on foot on long journeys and staying overnight in unknown locations with strangers around, possibly outdoors or in publicly accessible places.

It does not apply to travels in vehicles, to just going for a walk during daytime, to walking from one suburb to another when there is no “wilderness” in between, or to staying overnight in safe places, such as any kind of designated sangha accomodation (monasteries etc.), with close family, or in buildings / apartments that can be locked and have been handed over to the monastic for the duration of their stay.

I have quite extensive experience with tudong and have found that it is very helpful to have a female companion. It gives you a sense of protection, and also the reactions from the general public, on whose support you depend on tudong, are much more positive if they see a group, rather than just one lone, rogue nun. If you go in a group, your activities seem more normal and acceptable, and there is less resistance. I also found that there is significantly less harassment, so the rule seems to do its job there.

There are plently of examples in the suttas and vinayas of nuns walking alone on foot during daytime, of meditating in seclusion in the wilderness, and even of visiting and staying with family overnight (although this last one is viewed a little ambiguously in different vinayas). So I think the rule should not be taken too strictly.

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Dear Ayya @vimalanyani,
Thank you for your reply. I have shared it with some of the others in the community and we found it very useful in clarifying in our minds what the rule might and might not encompass.
:anjal:
much metta

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So glad Ayya V expressed these truths, and said them so well! Thank you, now I don’t have to write a complete response.

The one aspect that I would describe differently is about travel in vehicles. Accounts from India in recent years of horrific assaults on lone female travelers on long-distance buses, including a brutal gang rape of a Buddhist nun, illustrate the need to firmly apply the rule to at least some vehicular travel.

But which? It is not yet settled among multiple bhikkhuni communities in the West, so far as I know, where that line should be drawn. Clearly it’s a matter of safety, but what vehicular travel do we consider dangerous?

A difference seems to have emerged between the practices of solitary bhikkhunis and bhikkhuni communities that have multiple residents and sufficient lay support such that these questions do not arise for them; the latter tend to be more rigid.

There are a few factors to the vehicle travel question: solo travel by commercial vehicles, solo travel driving a car - in town or on freeways, and accepting car rides with one or more men without a female chaperone. A significant question to settle 1st is whether a traveling bhikkhuni is always “alone” under the meaning of the rule whenever no other females are around, or whether trusted men count.

Some examples:

  • I know a solo bhikkhuni who drives alone, anywhere, freely, and has for many years now.
  • I know a bhikkhuni who initially drove freely on coming to USA from Asia, while still living alone, but soon decided that highways were too dangerous (if one were stranded on the side of the road); she now advises her junior nun companions not to drive at all at any time. They also accept rides only when a female is in the car. So my friend went from very loose when alone, to more strict over the years as her community grew.
  • I knew a bhikkhuni who lived alone in a remote place who accepted any car rides offered to her; she said that it would greatly inconvenience the lay community if she were to insist that she cannot ride alone with male drivers.
  • Another bhikkhuni drives her mother’s car around town when needed, but not on highways - in lay life she got stranded on the side of the road enough times to consider highway driving through remote places highly unsafe for a woman in robes. Her motto is “if I can (safely) walk it, I can drive it”.
  • I always abstain from riding with unchaperoned men, except that occasionally when I visit certain communities, one or more Sri Lankan monks may drive me to or from the airport - and what can I say to my respected & kind-hearted bhikkhu elders? As for driving, while I consider freeways too unsafe, having a cellphone with reception in the area could make a difference to my opinion; not sure.

All the nuns whose lifestyles I’ve observed in the West feel safe taking public transportation and do so freely. This leaves open the question how to frame following the rule so that we never take a dangerous bus in India.

A question that arises repeatedly these days is why won’t I accept a ride from an Uber or Lyft. We have no women-only ride share company or taxi company in my city, and no way to request a female driver. (Inevitably someone will offer to order then cancel rides with male drivers until we randomly gain a female driver, but I view this gaming of the system as inconsiderate towards all the rejected drivers.)

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Thanks for bringing up this additional aspect. :anjal:

I also live in Asia and I don’t travel alone in public transport after dark. This is a matter of common sense to me as a foreign woman alone and without money, who can’t speak the local language properly. I just don’t think it comes under this rule. So if by some circumstances I end up in public transport after dark, I don’t think I committed a sanghadisesa.

As for traveling in cars alone with men, I also don’t do that, but again, for me, it doesn’t come under this rule. It comes under the pācittiyas of being alone with men.

Where I live, it is generally considered not allowable for monastics to drive cars themselves. Again, this would be a pācittiya for nuns, not a sanghadisesa.

It seems quite important to make this distinction because pācittiyas are minor offenses that can be cleared by a simple confession. A sanghadisesa has much more serious ramifications. There are many things I would not do as a woman / nun alone, but not all of these should be considered a sanghadisesa.

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Thank you Ayya S and Ayya V,

The above was something I had a strong feeling about during our community discussion. Different nuns were bringing up different ‘safety issues’ and it really clouds the issue of what is Sanghadisessa, what is pacittaya and what is just good ol’ common sense.
:anjal:

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