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On the illegality of Bhik(kh/s)uni Ordination

There have been many studies over the years that point out that Bhik(kh/s)uni ordination is perfectly legal with regards to the Vinaya. Although there are still groups and governments that contest this conclusion, I feel this is something that will be more and more accepted over time.

There is however another authority that goes above the Vinaya that would apply in many Western countries, especially the countries where men and women (and all other genders) are 100% equal for the law.

That local laws prevail over the Vinaya we see in many different areas. In building a monastery or kuti for instance, it is quite normal that measurements and details as outlined in the Khandhakas are in violation with local building regulations. In that case, local building regulations take precedence.

Local laws

Here in Belgium, the Law of May 10, 2007 to combat discrimination between women and men prohibits any form of discrimination (or difference) based on sex. Discrimination on the basis of gender reassignment, gender identity and gender expression is equated with this. Both direct, and indirect discrimination, ordering discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment are explicitly prohibited.

The equating of a direct distinction on the grounds of gender reassignment with a direct distinction on the grounds of sex (art. 4 §2 of the Act), is in accordance with the European Directive 2006/54/EC. This Directive follows a judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Communities and provides that the scope of the principle of equal treatment between men and women cannot be limited to the prohibition of discrimination related to belonging to one or the other sex, and that the principle also applies to discrimination based on the gender reassignment of a person.

The equating of a direct distinction based on gender identity or gender expression with a direct distinction based on sex (Art. 4 § 3 of the Law) was established by the Law of May 22, 2014. Its objective is to extend protection against discrimination to all transgender persons and not only to provide protection to those who foresee, are undergoing or have undergone treatment to change gender.

To summarize: people of all genders are equal for the law and no difference is to be made between them whatsoever.

These local laws are in direct opposition with certain parts of the Vinaya, especially the differences between Bhikkhunī and Bhikkhu ordinations. I will limit my argument here to this difference but these local laws also underline the conclusion I drew in my work on transgender ordination; namely that transgender people should be able to ordain according to their gender-identity.

Antarayika-dhamma

We see two main differences between the ordination procedures for Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunīs. Firstly, there are the “Antarayika-dhamma”, which means impediments or obstacles to ordination. It concerns a list of 23 questions for Bhikkhunīs and 13 questions for Bhikkhus posed to the ordination candidate to ascertain whether or not they are eligible to take higher ordination.

Secondly, Bhikkhunīs need to have a dual ordination, before both Saṅghas. Bhikkhus only need to have ordination before the Bhikkhu Saṅgha. This difference is actually historically grown out of the first difference because some women felt embarrassed to answer the Antarayika Dhammas before the Bhikkhu Saṅgha.

Some of these questions for Bhikkhunīs that the Bhikkhus do not have are problematic:

Do you lack genitals?
Are your genitals incomplete?
Are you without menstruation?
Do you menstruate continuously?
Do you always wear a menstruation pad?
Are you incontinent?
Do you have genital prolapse?
Do you lack sexual organs?
Are you manlike?
Do you have fistula?

With regards to Belgian law, it is not just this obvious difference between men and women that is problematic, but also that the questions asked are discriminatory, private and degrading.

History of Bhikkhunī Khandhaka

The history of this difference is also interesting. Several scholars pointed out that the language used in the Bhikkhunī Khandhaka is more in line with the language used by the Jain. It is also fairly widely accepted that the Bhikkhunī Khandhaka is a later addition to the Khandhakas. I refer to Bhante Sujato’s excellent study on this topic and won’t go into detail about that here.

Ajahn @Brahmali pointed out that the Saṅgha might have established these rules in order to prevent them getting inundated with candidates seeking ordination for the wrong reasons, namely because they were unable to marry because bearing children was very important in ancient India. Women with genital medical problems might have been considered outcasts and in order to survive and for protection might have sought refuge in the Saṅgha.

Another possibility might be simply that the procedures laid out for Bhikkhunīs in the Bhikkhunī Khandhaka is the Jain Bhikkhunī ordination procedure (probably merged with the Bhikkhu ordination procedure). The obsession with bodily perfection, especially in the Digambara sect, would make ordination impossible for any woman with any of the above imperfections. Moreover, Jain nuns are subordinate to monks and are not permitted to handle any of the scriptures. In other words: the ordination procedure for women is laid down by monks. More research is needed to come to any definite conclusions with regards to this hypothesis.

There might be some truth in both standpoints and it might explain the difference in Antarayika Dhammas. However, none of the historical reasons for these Antarayika Dhammas still apply today in western countries.

I think it is also important here to point out that the Antarayika Dhammas at least in the Theravada tradition do not prohibit ordination, but they do in the Chinese Vinayas. Still, the fact that these questions are asked is in any case clearly against the law.

Next steps

As far as I know, no Bhik(kh/s)uni ordination has yet happened in Belgium (although I am not 100% certain of the Mahayana traditions and this is something I’m trying to find out). It is however important for the future to look into this, especially now Buddhism is on the verge of being recognized in Belgium. The Buddhist Union of Belgium is very supportive of doing more research into this, also with a wider scope of future ordinations with EU countries. I have also been in contact with the Institute for Equality of Belgium and are awaiting their findings. I hope that we can make necessary changes within Europe to allow a more equal treatment of all genders within Buddhist monasticism. Right now the barrier for ordination for women and transgender people is far higher than for men. I feel the time is right to start making some changes.

Just as we are able to adapt Khandhaka rules to be in line with local laws with regards to building, we can easily change the Bhikkhunī ordination procedure to be in line with local laws on gender equality by omitting the offending 10 questions.

Bhante @Sujato already suggested that ordination of Bhikkhus could be done in front of both Saṅghas so as to make this part of the procedures more equal. Personally I would rather see ordination done by a Saṅgha of mendicants from all genders rather than keep the binary split, but I think the Buddhist world is probably not ready for such a radical shift yet.

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I personally think it’s going to be up to us Westerners to continue to revive and advance the bhik(kh/s)uni lineage(s). I don’t think we can rely on the Asian Theravada countries or the Western branches of some of those institutions. In one thread, a woman said that bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka were having their land taken away from them because of some supposed discrepancy in the Dharmaguptaka ordination procedure. As long as there is centralized monastic power that belongs exclusively to monks, which is pretty much the case in all Theravada Buddhist countries, bhikkhunis will never be safe from such discrimination. I think we need to be ready and willing to cut ties with most of those male institutions, and the monks who are part of them, and either go it alone or build closer ties with Mahayana groups.

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I assume there’s an exception for religious organizations, no? Otherwise the Catholic Church is in real trouble! :joy:

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That’s so true! Here in Germany there are lots of exceptions for the churches—not for other religious organizations, though; and Buddhism doesn’t even count as a religion … :upside_down_face:

I recently came to know that the Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany are even exempted from GDPR, the European law for data protection! They have their own regulations that they follow, the details of which I don’t know.

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America is similar. Churches get all kinds of tax breaks and exemptions. I don’t know if other religious groups are also entitled to those, though.

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There is the “division between Church and State” but Buddhism will not be recognized as a religion but as a “life philosophy”, not as a “church” so this would most likely not apply. I discussed this with the relevant authorities of the Institute of Gender Equality and they agreed that this does not apply, also because the recognition is not complete yet. But I have recently also posed the question to the Buddhist Union to make sure. This is also why it is important to look into this before the recognition is completed.

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…us Westerners…

—> the majority of the world’s bhikkhunis live in Asia
—> the groundwork of the bhikkhuni revival from the late 80s onwards was a collaboration between Asians living in the West, Asian trained Asians living in Asia, and Asian trained Westerners.
—> many bhikkhuni networks are in Asia, connecting women in countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand Sri Lanka, etc…as well as the US Australia and beyond
—> some branches of SL Siam and Amarapura Nikayas in SL supported the revival officially since the 90s already, by 1997, one quarter of SL mahanayakas supported
—> there have been significant recent improvements for bhikkhunis in SL, including official government funding of bhikkhuni college
—> sri lankan bhikkhunis have recently received high level recognition through appointment to education director roles e.g. bhikkhuni Ven. Supeshala
—>bhikkhuni Ven Vijithananda of the Sakyadhita Centre was recently awarded prestigious rajakiya pundit award within SL Amarapura nikaya

There are some areas which still need attention like SL id card and Thai visa issues though (to let monks into Thailand to ordain bhikkhunis). And obviously the material standard is not as good in some parts of Asia as in some parts of the West. Reports of property issues are concerning but these affect sila matas too. Without going into details, monks taking over nuns’ places has happened in the West too, it’s not just an Asian thing.

I have an upcoming book which includes a very detailed study of the bhikkhuni revival, including previously unpublished info, and the thing that is very clear to me is its transnational character as not an Asian or a Western thing. Without Asian bhikkhunis, I wouldn’t even have nun teachers at all. While the West has many things to offer, personally, I cannot think of a future without the ties of love and support I have with Asian bhikkhunis.

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I think It depends on what vinaya you ordain to in theravada and Tibetan tradition you can’t ordain as nun because there are no enough nuns to ordain you and this is the reason why the mahasanghika tradition vanished from India because new monk/nun could not ordain due to lack of existing monks if I am not mistaken you need 4 monks or 4 nuns for ordination process

While in Chinese/dharmaguptaka tradition you can still ordain as nun

You mention gender equality but this is a Westerner concept, in theravada for example there are more precepts for nun than for monk and furthermore there’s no female buddha for example

Furthermore I don’t think buddhism needs to surrender to any western value I mean what’s your goal to ordain in the first place ? You need to surrender to buddha not some western values

Of course I can be wrong here I think someone can convince me that I am wrong if I am wrong

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Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu! I guess the event mentioned in this is an outlier. That’s great news.

I think you misunderstood my post. I wasn’t criticizing Asian bhikkhunis or saying we don’t need them. I was criticizing this:

and saying that we can’t rely on those (usually) sexist institutions, or the monks who are in thrall to them, to further the bhikkhuni cause. As much as we owe the various (male) Ajahns, Bhantes, and Sayadaws for transmitting Dhamma to the West, and despite how inspiring or dear they are to us, most of them are totally useless when it comes to helping with this.

The fact that Buddhism has always had to recognize and follow the laws of the country in which it exists, coupled with the fact that Buddhism isn’t even recognized as a religion in some Western countries, might in fact be a blessing in disguise. As Ven. Vimala pointed out, some of the more progressive Western countries have laws that help enshrine the right of a woman to a bhikkhuni ordination, albeit rather indirectly. Since we don’t have any centralized monastic institutions whose judgments on monastic matters are backed by the law of the land, bhikkhunis (Asian or Western) will never have to fear having their nunnery taken away or being jailed for going on alms round. Although I didn’t express it, what I was thinking was that Asian bhikkhunis would be better off in the West than in Asia.

You could ask Asian bhikkhunis what they think on that one.

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Just to come back to this, I was wrong. The “Separation of State and Church” will come into effect upon the recognition of Buddhism in Belgium. But failing an organization like the Church has, the Buddhist Union will take that role, and only for it’s members. Buddhist organizations that are not members of the Buddhist Union will still fall under the regular law. As @Sabbamitta said, in Germany Buddhism is not recognized and the last I heard from it it won’t be, so all organizations will fall under the regular law. I don’t quite know what that is in Germany but most likely it will affect the ordinations of women there. In Germany at least some ordinations happen.

The Buddhist Union here represents most Buddhist organizations, also non-monastic organizations, of all traditions and has a very flat, non-hierarchical structure where all the members have an equal vote. The few meetings I have attended had a very diverse group of people of all genders. Like I said, they are very keen to make sure that we do not fall into the same pitfalls as the Catholic Church and allow for equal representation, an ethical charter and a safety net where people can report abuse. This also includes having equal opportunities for all genders to ordain.

The above will have implications also for monastic organizations here that do not ordain women at all. For instance the Dhammakaya openly does not accept gay or transgender men. They will be unable to keep up such discrimanatory rules under the law and under the Union’s membership.

I recently contacted all nuns in this country. I found exactly 3. So that makes the ratio nuns : monks around 3 : 50 or so! While from my own experience the ratio of women : men in lay meditation centers is 6 : 4. Quite a difference.

The fact that certain groups of people are now unable to obtain monastic ordination or are discouraged from doing so creates a barrier for all women and transgender people who come to Buddhism seeking refuge from suffering. What we need is a Sangha that is more balanced if we want to spread the Dhamma in these countries.

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Yes, they do; but I don’t know if anybody already raised the question of these being legal under the country’s law … :thinking:

Congratulations to the Belgians to lead the way in this matter! :pray:

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Gender equality is compassion and wisdom in action. Compassion to allow equal opportunity for half of the human beings. Wisdom in recognising that to suppress half of humanity is to cripple the potential spread, practise of the Dhamma by so much more than half.

It’s good to keep abreast of the development of morality in the world and to respond in a compassionate manner, not to dogmatically be attached to the old values. Part of what I hope not to see is the last bastion of meat eaters are Buddhists who hides behind Buddha saying: “Buddha ate meat”.

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I think that so far with Bhikkhuni ordinations, everybody was mostly concerned to hold the ordinations in a way that make them unquestionable from the point of view of Vinaya, and rather would make things overly strict than even a little to free. And probably questions of local law have not been taken into consideration at all. But they are in fact an important aspect.

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Just to pop by and say, this is a really important area of inquiry.

When we did the bhikkhuni ordination in Oz, the question of abiding by local anti-discrimination laws came up, but it was not very germane, largely because Australia has few human rights laws and many religious exemptions. But the principle—that Vinaya must adapt to local laws—was certainly relevant and so far as I know, accepted on all sides.

Also relevant, tho lost in history, is the Thai Senate select committee finding on bhikkhuni ordination (of I think 2003) which, so far as I know, the highest-level legal statement in Thailand on the matter (unless there has been anything more recent.) They found that the opposition to bhikkhuni ordination contravened the Thai constitution on two grounds: it discriminated against women, and violated the right to religious freedom. They therefore recommended that the Sangha Council ruling against bhikkhuni ordination be revoked. The Sangha Council rejected this, and it has not so far as I know been tested in court, but it remains, I believe, the highest-level precedent in Thai law on this question.

Sadly, in Australia, our current government is bent on undermining human rights through its religious discrimination laws. So this is not likely to be much help here.

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I think, the Bhikkhuni (and Bhikkhu) ordination is entirely the right and duty of the religious group, i.e. the Buddhist Sangha. It has nothing to do with the idea of “discriminating against women, and violating the right to religious freedom”.

Currently, only Chinese Bhikkhuni ordination (based on the tradition of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism) is officially and historically recognised and presented.

But, I really think women do not have to be recognised by men for the ordination. In fact, it already has become a reality, which most of them are in the form or structure of Theravada or Tibetan style.

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Legal or Illegal, it does not matter. Legal or Illegal, its in the heart.
A Bhikkhu or A Bhikkuni, its in the heart not the gender.
A Monastic does not mean he or she can or try to control his or her mind for a layman can be better.
It is not the robe. A Robe is just a Robe. It is just a fashion. A Robe can be a mean of building ego.

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Interesting about Thailand; thanks for sharing that.

For those unaware of the situation in Australia, what is happening is that the right wing Aust government is sympathetic to passing laws that give religious bodies/organisations exemptions from the general Human Rights Laws passed earlier by more liberal dispensations. Sadly, I’m ignorant of what qualifies a group to be regarded as ‘religious’ in Australian laws or of the legal status of Buddhism or Buddhist organisations.

Recognised and presented by whom, do you mean?

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The Chinese nuns are recognised by and presented in the tradition of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. They are Bhikkhunis in the Chinese tradition.

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I had no idea. Has the Sangha Council ever rejected any other rulings from the Thai government?

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