On Eight Precept Ordination

Hello, y’all

Does anyone know about the history of eight precept nuns? I’ve tried a little searching but haven’t found much. I imagine it was started after ordination for women in Theravada became more difficult.

My underlying thought here is that, as I’m pretty sure eight precept ordination isn’t mentioned in the EBTs, that it might be a first “foot in the door” for transgender and gender-nonconforming people to live as a monastic. That rules for the ordination might be less so and therefore less room for argument, more opportunity to live in various monasteries without incident.

Granted, I don’t know that much about the actual steps involved in eight precept ordination outside of the chanting section in Ven Thanissaro’s A Chanting Guide so maybe I’m missing something.


(Wasn’t sure if this was appropriate for watercooler or discussion)


Hi @Potato

I don’t know much about the history of how these different ordinations appeared. But just wanted to reach out and support your intentions for taking ordination. Sadhu! I hope you can find place that works for you. I think if you can firstly create a relationship with a monastery, then that would be really useful because then they would already know and understand you, so they are more likely to consider your needs and take these into consideration. I think. I hope!

Yes, youre right, it’s not. The eight precept ordination as it has come down to us today is a much later invention. It probably derives from the eight precepts kept by lay people on the uposatha, as the Buddha suggested that lay people should do from time-to-time.
These are the same precepts you see in the chanting guide, and are taken commonly when people:

  1. go to a monastery to take them especially for an uposatha day.
  2. undertaking a retreat which is in an environment (monastery or retreat centre) that asks people to follow these precepts.
  3. become ‘anagarikas’ (homeless ones) which can mean someone who gives up the householder life to follow a spiritual path, but who doesn’t take monastic ordination (like the famous Anagarika Dhammapala); or, someone who wants to practice at this precept level whilst living at home; but usually anagarika refers to monastery helpers, people who live and stay at the monastery, usually in white clothes or modified white robes. In some systems, like the Forest Sangha, an anagarika is a postulant, the first step on an ordination path. They serve the monastic community as an anagarika for a year, getting to know monastic life, then this is followed by novice ordination (ten precepts) for another year, and perhaps full ordination.

In that sense, the eight precepts are not gendered and are open to all. But in the senses I’ve indicated above it is not considered a monastic ordination.

The ‘going forth’, as it has come down to us (and there have been many changes since the Buddha’s time!) is usually interpreted as a ten precept ordination. Ten precept ordinations divide the 7th precept on entertainment and adornments into two to make the 7th and 8th precepts, and then adds the 10th precept on not handling money. As they don’t handle money they are considered alms mendicants and the ordination is a monastic one. This is usually considered a novice ordination for monks (samanera) or nuns (samaneri). Some people will take these precepts temporarily others might take them for a longer period, or as part of their journey to full ordination.

However, in the past, because there was no full ordination path for women in Theravada for so long, a system of eight and ten precept nuns has evolved in countries like Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. They have different names in different countries and also different levels of status and autonomy, some are considered monastics, others are considered anagarikas. They might enter the monastery as a young girl, or take vows temporarily or for life, or take up this life in their older age. Some become teachers and others take on important roles in the monastery. In Thailand, Maechee nuns often wear white robes and usually will handle money, but not always, they can sometimes be seen on the street, with modified alms bowls standing, but don’t go for pindapata. They also often live in male monasteries and do quite a lot of duties including cooking, cleaning and looking after the monks. In Myanamar they are called Sayalay or Thilashin might wear pink robes and go for pindapata where they receive uncooked food, like rice and vegetables, which they cook themselves. They might handle money or not. In Sri Lanka there are several types of female monastics on eight or ten precepts such as the Dasa Sila Mata.
A much later addition is the Siladhara Order, which was invented by Ajahn Sumedho’s community in 1983, based on the ten precept samaneri ordination but with additional rules based on the bhikkhuni vinaya.

It’s worth noting that in many Buddhist countries, there is a wide variety of views about the types of ordination for women since the revival of the bhikkhuni ordination. Some women monastics want full ordination, but also many women don’t, as it makes their lives less flexible and more onerous to follow more rules. They have a differnt idea of the type of equality the want, and see living in female only monasteries as bhikkhunis might erode their access to power, wealth and status of male monasteries, would limit their proximity to monk teachers and many other points I wont go into.

This is a fairly broad article that covers some of these types and gives some context.

Unfortunately I’m not sure that this is necessarily the case. :frowning_face: Whilst it’s true that for full bhikkhu/bhikkhuni, the ordination procedures specifically ask if a candidate is male or female, so this still seems a bar for non-binary and intersex people, but maybe not for trans people, depending on who you talk to! Although this is not the case for eight precept ordinations (where gender is not explicitly an issue), in very practical terms many 8/10 precept monastic communities fall pretty heavily along gender lines. Most communities will be designated entirely female, sometimes with the occasional monk thrown in. Even where there are eight precept nuns living in a monks monastery, there is often rigid separation based on gender, this includes accommodation and physical boundaries and no-go zones within the monastery, limited social interactions, and, regrettably; types of labour.

Whilst in some places, especially in the west, it might be possible for a non-binary/gender non-conforming person to take eight precepts and stay some time, monastic environments are very much a slave to the binary!! Further, this in itself would not be considered a monastic ordination. My advice would be to seek out some queer/trans* friendly monasteries, get to know them stay there for a while, and tell them you want to experience monastic life. Places like Tilorien Monastery in Belgium, or closer to you, Empty Cloud monastery in New Jersey, run by the Buddhist Insights group (I’m sure there must be more!). These places already have some literacy in queer and trans issues, will be more open and accepting, and less likely to misgender, and in general, will be an all round safer space to explore the possibilities for monastic life. Many other communities are still very much in their infancy of understanding trans issues and getting beyond the binary! This would be an added burden to deal with on a daily basis whilst also trying to make progress on the monastic path, which is often quite a lot to deal with as it is!

Feel free to message me if you want to discuss further. GOOD LUCK :smiley:


We use the term “ordination” when we are talking about Buddhist things, but the concept doesn’t track well with the Christian idea of ordination. In the Christian tradition, if I am not mistaken, ordination means that you are authorized to do things. In the protestant tradition you are ordained to preach and give the sacraments. This concept just isn’t present in Buddhism.

With what we call “high ordination” it’s really about joining a group, the sangha. That’s why you have to have a group to do it, whereas novice “ordination” is done by a single teacher.

This probably depends more on how well what you are doing fits in with what people expect of non-samanera, non-bhikkhu/bhikkhuni roles. And frankly what may be most important is what work you are willing to do at the monastery. :laughing:


For what my experience is worth, it was more difficult showing up to monasteries in a white anagarika robe. I was often met with skepticism and even hostility. Most monasteries forced me to change into “normal” lay clothes, “just so people won’t confuse you for a real anagarika, you understand.” :roll_eyes::roll_eyes::roll_eyes:

So yeah, if your goal is to feel welcome at more monasteries, presenting as just another lay person is generally a better option, even if you happen to keep 8 precepts assiduously. It raises fewer “red flags” for them, though, I must say, I got lots of good data from the experience about which monasteries were friendly and which were more concerned with sartorialism than soteriology.


Is this question regarding biological sex or gender identification?

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For what my experience is worth, it was more difficult showing up to monasteries in a white anagarika robe.

Well, shit. Should’ve kept this in mind before I gave away all my clothes! Thanks for the heads up anyway.


Hi Potato,

Just to complement what the others have said about bhikkhu monasteries with some of my experiences in bhikkhuni places…
I first ordained as a Burmese 8-precept nun (Sayalay / Thilashin) and had planned to stay in Asia then. But I got sick and had to return to Western countries where it is very difficult for 8-precepters. As it is not an ordination in the sense of the vinaya, you would be considered a layperson, not sangha. You won’t be part of the monastic community, won’t get a say in decision making, won’t have access to donations and support, and you’ll have to have your own resources for health care, traveling, and your daily needs. You’ll live with the laypeople and won’t have access to the sangha areas. In most places, you’ll also be asked to “disrobe” and wear lay clothes, or at least wear white jumpers over your robes. It doesn’t feel very welcoming and was the main reason why I “upgraded” to samaneri quite quickly.

That said, if you are interested in a monastic path, I’m not sure why anything should stop you from taking samaner-x ordination? There aren’t any questions about gender, and the ordination is very simple and can be done cross-gender (bhikkhus can ordain female candidates, and bhikkhunis male candidates). It’s a proper vinaya procedure and accepted everywhere. The most important thing is to find a community that is welcoming and where you feel comfortable.

And then just take it from there… in a supportive community, and depending on your specific situation, it might not be a problem to take full ordination.

Maybe it would be helpful for you to get in touch with Ven. @kaccayana, who is a non-binary resident at a monastery in the US. I think they have taken samaner? ordination there.


Thank you for sharing your experience being an 8 preceptor, @vimalanyani. I think before I had the impression there wasn’t actually any place open to ordain me based on a few bad experiences with some monasteries. Based on your and other people’s advice I’m planning to spend some time visiting monasteries (whenever this virus dies down…) and see if I can find an appropriate community.

Many thanks to the community for the guidance :pray:


Perhaps it’s the contrarian in me, but those stories only reinforce my wish that there would be more development of 8- or 10-precept options, and that they weren’t looked down upon. Going back to the Christian tradition for an example, they have orders that are cloistered and those that aren’t.
One would still be obliged to find, or create, a welcoming group. But it would be easier to do because of the relative amount of freedom.