Definition of Bhikkhuni

I’m currently going over the Bhikkhu Vibhaṅga’s translations by Ajahn @Brahmali and I noticed an inconsistency in how a Bhikkhuni is defined.

In Pārājika 5, the first rule that is mentioned especially for nuns in the Bhikkhuni Vibhaṅga, a nun is defined as:

Nun means: she is a nun because she is a beggar for alms, she is a nun because she submits to walking for alms, she is a nun because she is one who wears the patch-work robes, she is a nun by the designation (of others), a nun because of her acknowledgement, a nun (to whom it was) said, ‘Come, nun,’ a nun is one ordained by the three goings to a refuge, a nun is auspicious, a nun is the essential, a nun is a learner, a nun is an adept, a nun is ordained by both complete Orders by means of a (formal) act at which the motion is put and followed by three proclamations, irreversible and fit to stand. In this way is this nun one who is ordained by both complete Orders by means of a (formal) act at which the motion was put and followed by three proclamations, irreversible, fit to stand, and this is how nun is to be understood in this case. (Translation I.B. Horner)

However, in the Bhikkhu Vibhaṅga, a nun is defined as:

A nun: she has been given the full ordination by both monastic Orders.

So the Bhikkhuni Vibhaṅga mentions all ordination forms that have existed, including ehi bhikkhunīti bhikkhunī (i.e. ‘Come, nun’), which has been widely accepted as the first ordination form for Bhikkhus, the ordination of going for 3 refuges as well as the ordination by both monastic Orders. In the Bhikkhu Vibhaṅga this has been reduced to only the last ordination form and the one we still use today.

Next to that is of course the famous passage in Therīgāthā 5.9: ‘Ehi bhadde’ti maṃ avaca, sā me āsūpasampadāāsūpasampadā. (“Come, Bhadda”, he said and this was my ordination).

So can we conclude from this that the definitions in the Bhikkhu Vibhaṅga are from a later date when the order was more established and the first forms of ordination were no longer in use, but that those first forms of ordination did in fact exist for Bhikkhunis as well in the beginning?

But this also begs another question: why is the ordination by just the monks (one side) not mentioned in the definition?


Ven. Anālayo has the following to say about the definition of bhikkhus, which is also relevant for bhikkhunīs:

… here is the definition of the term bhikkhu as part of the canonical exegesis of the first pārājika regulation against a breach of celibacy (Vin III 24,3 to 24,12).

A ‘bhikkhu’ [means being called] a bhikkhu [because] ‘he begs’, a bhikkhu [because] ‘he has consented to the conduct of begging’, a bhikkhu [because] ‘he wears a patchwork robe’, a bhikkhu [because] of being called such [by others], a bhikkhu [because] ‘he acknowledges to be one’, a bhikkhu [because of having been ordained by the address] ‘come bhikkhu’, a bhikkhu [because] of having received higher ordination by way of going for the three refuges, a bhikkhu [because he is a source of] auspiciousness, a bhikkhu [because he is like that] in substance, a bhikkhu [because] he is in training, a bhikkhu [because] he has gone beyond training, and a bhikkhu [because] he has been higher ordained in a way that is unchallengeable and fit to stand by a complete community through a formal transaction with one motion and three proclamations.

Herein a bhikkhu who has been higher ordained in a way that is unchallengeable and fit to stand by a complete community through a formal transaction with one motion and three proclamations, this is what is meant in this case by the designation of a ‘bhikkhu’.

In Anālayo (“Cullavagga” 421 note 23) I already noted briefly that this definition could only have come into being once all bhikkhus ordained by the Buddha personally or by other bhikkhus by way of the simple procedure through going for refuge had passed away. At that time, the only bhikkhus to be taken into account were indeed just those ordained by a formal transaction with one motion and three proclamations. In other words, from a historical perspective this passage must stem from a time considerably later than the first saṅgīti at which, according to the traditional account, the Vinaya was recited. According to the Theravāda Vinaya account, by this time other aspects of the first pārājika had already been discussed in detail (Vin II 286,26). This confirms the assessment by the scholars quoted above of the evidently late nature of the padabhājaniya [word analysis].

The point Ven. Anālayo is making is that although becoming a bhikkhu can happen in a number of different ways it is in fact only the last one that counts as far as the Vinaya rules are concerned. This is the same situation as for the bhikkhunīs, and the definition of a bhikkhunī in the bhikkhu rules is therefore essentially the same as the definition of a bhikkhunī in the bhikkhunī-vibhaṅga. Hopefully that answers your first question.

As for your second question, it has been pointed out (I can’t remember by whom and where) that even the full definition of a bhikkhu is in fact not complete. Some of the ordinations describes in the suttas - such as the one of Mahākassapa, I believe - are not actually covered by the definition found in the Vibhaṅga. If we were to take the definition in the Vibhaṅga as final, we would have to conclude that one the Buddha’s most prominent bhikkhu disciples was not actually a bhikkhu. This would be absurd, and the only reasonable conclusion is that the definitions of a bhikkhu and a bhikkhunī are in fact not complete. This means that just because the ordination of bhikkhunīs by bhikkhus only is not mentioned in the definition of a bhikkhunī does not mean that this ordination is not valid.

I would suggest that the reason why the ordination by bhikkhus only is not mentioned is because the the definition of a bhikkhunī seems to be a cut and paste job based on the definition of a bhikkhu. This is what you would expect in an oral tradition where memorising is much aided by standardisation. Also, the ordination by bhikkhus only would no longer have been regarded as relevant and so nothing would be lost by leaving it out.


Thank you Ajahn for your very detailed answer. :pray:

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Because the text is not coherent or marked by “internal consistency” in the way a Western-trained mind presumes all texts to be! Pali literature doesn’t issue from Greek heritage! Even when you compare it with Greek oral tradition as well. The definition of nearly anything in the Canon, not just Vinaya, but also Dhamma terms, involve similar and worse discrepancies. Apparently this is how the language was used, not in the style of Seneca, for sure!

Pali has such uniqueness that makes its usage hard to equate even with Sanskrit. The more one resolves to ‘logic’, the more one gets perplexed! (& it will almost always end up being to the advantage of hardliners!). So ‘why’ is something present or lacking in the text?! I bet it’s only “chance” in the great majority of cases! And that no intention was ever entertained to hide or reveal some holy grail truth in the text! Though it will be difficult by now, in the midst of this academic renaissance, to convince anyone that this is a messy text!! Sigh!

The same old problem of “expertness”! Comparative literature rules! :sunglasses:

Disclaimer: I’m no scholar of Indian languages or literature, just a juggler turned monk! :man_juggling:


Just to throw another spanner in the works: here is an article by Bhikkhuni Kusuma on this topic:

“Ehi, Bhikkhuni” Ordination
The Highlight of Our Research

In the Pāli Vinayapiţaka we encounter a standard description of a bhikkhunī that reads thus:

One who is a mendicant; one who arrives on alms round; one who wears a robe made of cut-up patches; one who has the designation of a bhikkhunī; one who claims to be a bhikkhunī; a “come, bhikkhunī” bhikkhunī; a bhikkhunī ordained by going to the three refuges; an excellent bhikkhunī; a bhikkhunī by essence; a trainee bhikkhunī; a bhikkhunī beyond training (i.e. an arahant bhikkhunī); a bhikkhunī fully ordained by a dual sangha in harmony, through an act that is unshakeable and able to stand consisting of a motion and three announcements.” (Vin IV 214)

In this canonical standard definition there is no mention of ordination by accepting eight important rules (garudhamma). Three types of ordination for bhikkhunīs are mentioned;

  1. “come, bhikkhuni” ordination,
  2. ordination by taking the three refuges,
  3. and ordination by a dual sańgha (aţţha-vācika ordination).

This is conclusive evidence for the oldest forms of bhikkhunī ordination.
Mahāpajāpati was ordained by ehi-bhikkhunī ordination and not by tīņi-saraņagamana or aţţha-vācika ordination, because before her no bhikkhunīs existed in the world.
This standard description in the Suttavibhańga is obviously earlier than Cullavagga chapter X in its present form, where her ordination by accepting the eight ‘important rules’ (garudhamma) is recorded.

  1. The eight important rules (garudhamma) are not Buddha word.
  2. Cullavagga was compiled after the passing away of the Buddha.
  3. The description of the First Council is questioned by scholars.
  4. There were no codified Vinaya rules in the fifth year after reaching Buddhahood.
  5. Mahāpajāpati was ordained by the “come bhikkhunī” ordination (ehi -bhikkhunī)
  6. The five hundred Sakyan ladies were ordained by monks only by repeating the three refuges (tini saraņa-gamana).
  7. They all observed ājīva-aţţhamaka sīla precepts
  8. The vikāla-bhojana precept was not yet observed.