I don’t think I could add anything more to Bhante’s already comprehensive post…only to add some random detail from some things on my mind:
Re: the Dipavamsa- I can only recommend Hema Goonatilake’s paper UnbrokenLineageOfSLBhikkhuniSangha—HemaGoonatilake.pdf (128.5 KB), see in particular the list of the names of female teachers extracted from the Dipavamsa. Dhamma, Dhammapala and Naramitta were experts in the vinaya…Sata, Kali and Uttara were master instructors to nuns, etc.
I’ve often thought this!!! I remember seeing some limited bhikkhuni material in “Ancient Inscriptions in Ceylon” by Edward Muller. It might be relevant that there are also several major sites associated with nuns, like Mahapajapati’s stupa (recorded as a major pilgrimage location the Chinese travelogues e.g. Xuan Zang, Faxian, Yijing etc) & Queen Anula’s stupa (???Ranjani de Silva tells me it exists on the basis of the Thupavamsa?) which are not yet identified/excavated. Sanghamitta Theri’s stupa at Anuradhapura was more recently excavated.
Just some general reading on Mahapajapati’s stupa:
So true…I like that in the Therigatha, we see a female vinaya teacher (Jinadatta) & the Dipavamsa also records female textual experts. But in the Bhikkhunikkhandaka, it seems like nuns are meant to be totally reliant on the bhikkhu vinaya teacher. There seems to be some contradiction [unless you just see the nuns as the mouthpiece of their bhikkhu teacher…hmm] & I think it would be reasonable to see the khandhakas as being the view of one particular interpretive community only.
The Theravada tradition in general seems to want women to be the passive recipient of rules that were laid down by the Buddha in the absence of the nuns/original offender…but the Mahasanghika vinaya, for example, shows Mahapajapati Theri being present with the offending nun and the Buddha when the rule was laid down (which Mahapajapati Theri then relays to the nuns). If we consider this idea (not saying that anyone has to accept it), we could easily imagine Mahapajapati Theri as being the first bhikkhuni vinaya transmitter and preserver. See also, Vens Kusuma and Akincana, Code of Conduct for Buddhist Nuns.
I don’t know about other pre-20th cent Chinese sources on female teachers, apart from the biographies mentioned (please let me know if you know anything!), although we see early vinaya masters like Daoxuan or Daojue commenting on the validity of the earlier Chinese bhikkhuni transmissions, etc. The Chinese tradition also has some discriminatory material that isn’t found in other traditions, like the 84 faults of women in the “Da Ai Jing”. But I feel that even the male Chinese tradition still seems to be more inclusive of women, because the bhikshu vinaya masters have learned the bhikshuni vinaya comprehensively & there are high quality materials available in the Nanshan tradition. Yijing gives some of the most comprehensive accounts of Indian & Javanese bhikshunis (7th cent) available.
I understand that women weren’t admitted to Nalanda, but Yijing had learned vinaya at Nalanda, and he still describes Mulsarvastivada bhikshunis in some detail in his travelogue…so they must definitely be there in 7th cent India…somewhere.