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:
- go to a monastery to take them especially for an uposatha day.
- undertaking a retreat which is in an environment (monastery or retreat centre) that asks people to follow these precepts.
- 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. 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