Dignity & Discipline - Selections
Female Ordination In Buddhism: Looking Into a Crystal Ball, Making a Future
By Janet Gyatso
Many of the issues surrounding bhikṣuṇī ordination in Tibetan Buddhism are shared by other parts of the Buddhist world. And while some regard the bhikṣuṇī ordination movement to be largely driven by Western Buddhist converts, efforts to revive the female order have actually been initiated by various progressive Asian monks and nuns over the last century. New bhikṣuṇī groups at various sites—Korea, Sri Lanka, and Thailand would be three examples—are now at varying stages of maturity. In dealing with the bhikṣuṇī issue, all of these groups are participating in an ineluctable movement across Buddhism, one that is ultimately to be connected to larger shifts in our contemporary global civil society. I am convinced that to look at the Tibetan case in such translocal terms will be pertinent even to quite local and particular features of the problem there. Indeed, it was a striking moment at the Hamburg conference when Bhikṣuṇī Dr. Myongsong Sunim of Korea baldly challenged the representatives of both Tibetan and Theravāda Buddhism to catch up with the rest of the Buddhist world in its recognition and support of bhikṣuṇīs. I think she is right on target to look at the Tibetan question in precisely that global perspective.
To look at the bhikṣuṇī question from a global perspective shifts the focus in the conversation on bhikṣuṇī ordination to the needs and benefit of human society as a whole, and the role of Buddhism therein. While some of what follows will also touch upon the subjective needs and desires of individual women and other actors in the Buddhist world—and indeed such questions remain of utmost concern—I would like to attempt in this introduction to construe the largest horizon of the female ordination question in terms of our global society. I submit that to do so will allow us to see dimensions of the question that a personal, subjective, or even exclusively “Buddhist” perspective alone will not yield.
What I would like to explore in the context of the bhikṣuṇī question is the potential of Buddhist leadership and influence beyond Buddhism’s own boundaries. How might a question within Buddhist communities in fact bear upon something outside of them? In asking such a question we are considering the possibility that developments in Buddhism have the potential to advance discussions about problems that are not exclusively Buddhist but concern the rest of the world as well. If that prospect is one that Buddhists would welcome, then what must come along with it is the recognition that not only does Buddhism have something to teach the world, it must also be the case that Buddhism has things to learn from the world around it. In trying to envision the best future for Buddhism, we are beginning to imagine a way that Buddhists rely not only on their past traditions but are also open to new insights and the contributions of other thinkers and leaders in the world as well.
To be sure, in referring to an “ineluctable movement” in Buddhism I am going out on a limb in predicting what will happen. My assumption is that, as has come to pass in other parts of the Buddhist world where initially there was strong resistance, we will see some Tibetan Buddhists conferring bhikṣuṇī ordination before long, although it is far from clear how many Tibetan women will seek it, and how many obstacles the innovation will face in the process. As for the claim that Buddhists who are working to foster bhikṣuṇī ordination are participating in a feministic world movement, that has its own complexities, to be touched upon in following chapters. And while the effort to determine the precedents and legality of the new ordination tradition for Tibetans is an extremely important part of recognizing what the growing bhikṣuṇī saṅgha holds for all of us, I am not going to address those questions myself, except briefly and in principle.
What I would like to do instead is to reflect on some of the larger moral and political issues related to the prospect of having a fully accessible bhikṣuṇī ordination in place throughout the Buddhist world and a fully developed bhikṣuṇī saṅgha in operation. While this might betray a certain impatience, and perhaps seem like a cavalier dismissal of the obstacles that still stand in the way, I think it is critical for us also to start to create the future toward which we are moving. I think it is important to envision how the Buddhist world—and indeed the world as a whole—will be different when we have a visible and powerful presence of esteemed women taking on the ancient Buddhist role of the fully ordained monastic, a role that stands for exceptional dignity, discipline, and wisdom.
My comments that follow are organized around three main themes: the challenges in forging a new bhikṣuṇī ordination; the question of status and prestige; and finally the promise that female monastics hold for the future of Buddhist moral leadership in our world. While in many respects the upshot of such a welcome development will be to create a new, genderless egalitarianism in Buddhism—one that has rarely been seen in Buddhist history, I might add—there is also a vision of this future that appreciates the genderspecific gains of having a fully ordained female saṅgha in place. There are some dimensions of this prospect that might trade on sex/gender difference, not for all times and places, to be sure, but specifically in the twentyfirst-century situation in which we all, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, find ourselves. I will speculate briefly on what some of those female-specific virtues of the bhikṣuṇī saṅgha might be at the close of the essay.
Building a New Ordination Platform
There can be no question that the earliest Buddhist communities supported the full ordination of women, even were we to take as historical—which most modern scholars do not—the Buddha’s role in the unflattering story of the first admission of women to the monastic order, with its attendant “eight heavy rules,” a set of precepts that directly address monk-nun relationships and interaction. That story aside for the moment, we see full provisions for the ordination of bhikṣuṇīs in all of the versions of the Vinaya as well as a flourishing of the bhikṣuṇī order in many parts of the world. While the reasons for the bhikṣuṇī order’s eventual decline and ultimate disappearance in many places are complex and historically specific, it is clear that the disappearance did not occur because of a lack of legal procedures to ordain women. Rather, we must look to cultural, social, economic, and political reasons for this unfortunate outcome.
Many scholars today believe that we can characterize the problem generally as a confluence of competition between the male and female orders for economic support and prestige, with androcentric cultural biases operating alongside patriarchal social structures. Epigraphical and literary evidence, as studied by Gregory Schopen, Nancy Barnes, and many others, suggests that such competition was already in full swing by the early centuries B.C.E. We can also easily trace a corresponding prevalence of androcentrism and misogyny in practices and literature in Pāli, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan sources, as has been demonstrated by scholars like Diana Paul and Liz Wilson.
If it is true that social and cultural issues determined the poor fortunes of the bhikṣuṇī order in Buddhist history, then it is likely that any revitalization of the bhikṣuṇī order today will also hinge on social and cultural forces. While a convincing legal argument based on historical precedents and analysis of the Vinayas will be key in this process, such arguments will ultimately be of service in building consensus and acceptance in Buddhist communities. That consensus trumps legality is already becoming clear in the case of Sri Lanka. There, against all odds, full ordination of bhikkhunīs has already begun to take place. There, despite the hesitancy of many conservative male saṅgha leaders, the real fate of the new female order is being decided by the lay community.
I was personally struck in this regard by the assertions of several Sri Lankan bhikkhunīs whom I met in Maharagama, outside of Colombo, in January 2005. These bhikkhunīs told me that Sri Lankan lay donors are increasingly skeptical of the corruption and worldliness of the male saṅgha, a situation that has allowed alternate kinds of Buddhist clerics to begin to flourish. One upshot is that the laity are coming to regard the new bhikkhunīs as especially devout, earnest, and pure adherents of Vinaya law. While we lack the ethnographic research to confirm this claim, it is interesting even as a sign of how some newly ordained women view what is at stake. One indication they report of changing sentiments is that the laity are increasingly asking female monastics rather than males to perform meritorious ceremonies (Sinhala pinkama; Skt. puṇyakarma) such as rites for the dead; they are also starting to trust nuns to better adhere to the ideals of a “field of merit” (Sinhala puṇyakṣetraya; Skt. puṇyakṣetra).
This is a canny observation on the part of these bhikkhunīs, and may well turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We should never lose sight of the fact that the flourishing of Buddhist monastic communities depends on the support of the laity; that dependence is built into the foundation of Buddhist monasticism from the start. Indeed the very Vinaya story to which I already referred, and which narrates the subordination of the female order to the male order, appears to be in large part about assuaging the prejudices of the lay community. It was primarily as a sop to the expectations of the laypeople that the Buddha is said to have placed nuns under the authority of monks, and to have worked to prevent the layfolks’ wrong impression that men and women might not be sufficiently separated to ensure their purity. On similar grounds, the question of whether the new bhikṣuṇī orders thrive will be determined by a process involving both consensus and political will. It will depend on whether a critical mass of the Buddhist community decides to support them, whether bhikṣuṇīs are deemed to be valuable to Buddhism.
Modification based on changing historical and cultural circumstances has always been possible in Buddhist monasticism. There can be no question that Vinaya rules and procedures have evolved over time, and new additions and subtractions were made on the basis of social pressures as well as inner debates and changing needs in the various saṅghas as they spread across Asia. Were that not the case, then all of the versions of Vinaya rules and vows would be identical, and they are not. What’s more, there is ample evidence that the Vinaya rules have been bent in any number of ways and in any number of circumstances historically. There is ample evidence of ad hoc monastic rulebooks cropping up throughout the Buddhist world and eclipsing the Vinaya in terms of what people actually use and follow. More specifically, and relevant to the effort to collect precedents in Tibetan Buddhism, we have evidence of a handful of cases of bhikṣuṇī ordinations in Tibet from the eleventh to at least the sixteenth centuries—including, among others, the first Rdo rje Phag mo, Chos kyi sgron ma, studied by Hildegard Diemberger; the early yoginī ’Ong jo; and the perhaps sixteenth-century Lca mo Dkon mchog mtsho mo, both studied by Dan Martin. And while there are few details of how the Tibetans who conferred those bhikṣuṇī ordination rituals modified the procedure, we know that they must have done so. There is no reason to think there were enough bhikṣuṇīs present at the time to have participated in these ceremonies, as is required under the “dual-ordination” system of bhikṣuṇī ordination. But it is clear that such a modification in order to ordain bhikṣuṇīs was the subject of considerable debate in Tibet for centuries.
But we need hardly turn to the murky case of female ordination in Tibet for examples where Vinaya rules have been bent in practice. Bhikṣus in Tibet regularly handle silver, eat dinner, spend time alone with women in rooms, and sow seeds of dissent in the saṅgha. They regularly do those things without censure or punishment.
Establishing a Tibetan Bhikṣuṇī Order
Beyond the question of legality and precedent, then, the more germane question has to do with desire, consensus, and will: whether monastics in the position to grant ordination are willing to take the steps to establish a new bhikṣuṇī order, whether sufficient numbers of the already existing saṅgha will accept those bhikṣuṇīs, and whether there are lay communities who will support them. If sufficient numbers from these various sectors in Tibetan Buddhist communities are amenable and willing to take the steps to make it happen, a new bhikṣuṇī order in Tibetan Buddhism will be created.
There is of course no clear answer as to whether such consensus exists, nor what exactly a “sufficient number” would be. To begin with, there is no one single group, nor one single sentiment, in the Tibetan Buddhist community today. Rather there is a multiplicity of views and agendas regarding female ordination, which might be mapped onto class, educational, sectarian, regional, age, and even gender differences, as well as mere difference of opinion. This multiplicity is complicated further by the heterogeneity of the very category of “Tibetan Buddhism” today, since those who participate in it include not only a variety of Himalayan and South Asian people who are not Tibetan, either culturally or linguistically, but also a range of converts from the West, East Asia, and other parts of the world, with various levels of membership in and interaction with Tibetan Buddhist communities. But even were we to try to catalog the different ideas regarding the issue in Tibetan Buddhism, we would be mistaken to take any of those positions as fixed or definite. As with any highly contested question, opinions and desires change as people understand a situation more fully, become more educated, and are influenced by leaders and teachers. It is too soon, for example, to assess the impact of the current Dalai Lama, who has been making considerable efforts to convince the Tibetan saṅgha of the desirability of initiating a new bhikṣuṇī ordination.
There are also shifting attitudes in many corners of the Tibetan Buddhist world toward feminist concerns, with far more institutions for the education of nuns today, both inside Tibet—including both the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other regions of China—and in exile, than could ever have been imagined even thirty years ago. An intense debate is in progress, and it is premature for anyone, even the actors themselves, to say with finality “what Tibetan Buddhists want.” What we can do best is to consider the issues in their specificity, with cognizance of the variety of forces that bear upon them and their shifting directions. All of us—that is, anyone who is interested in the topic at all, from the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan laity, and members of the Tibetan saṅgha, to modern academics, Western Buddhists, other Asian Buddhists, and a broad swath of educated readers across the globe who are not Buddhist at all—are in fact implicated in the process and have impact upon it. Not all of us have the same amount of impact, to be sure, but the fact that no one can describe a “state of affairs” or “what Tibetans want,” but rather can merely witness and to some degree participate in a process of negotiation and evolution, reminds us that we all have a modicum of responsibility in what we say. That means we need to be as educated as possible about the various factors at play. What is most important in that is for all of us to summon our most ethical selves, to summon a vision of a future that is for the most good of all, a vision that takes into account as best as possible the various constituencies and their needs.
Full Ordination and Feminism
One of the key issues about which many of the women involved are trying to decide “what they want” concerns the feminist question of whether full ordination is desirable after all. We do know massively from the historical record that one principal way that Buddhist women responded to the decline in the female monastic order was by forming alternate orders—the dasasilmātās of Sri Lanka, the Thai maechis, the Tibetan anis, and so on, some more or less modeled on lesser levels of ordination in the Vinaya such as the upāsikā, others free of any structure of committed vows at all.
What has been documented by ethnographers repeatedly is that the diminished, vow-less status actually has advantages. In the case of the socially minded maechis of Thailand, their reduced number of restrictions allows them to tend to prostitutes and other people in compromised environments where fully ordained women would not be allowed to enter. In other cases, maechis are taking advantage of new opportunities to gain higher education and academic degrees. In Tibetan communities too, anis now have advanced educational opportunities apart from the question of their eligibility for bhikṣuṇī ordination. Such advantages of operating outside the strictures of monastic jurisprudence have moved many female ascetics to resist the movement toward full ordination. If this is true, then the question becomes one of why other women desire full ordination.
It would certainly be correct to respond that the bhikṣuṇī movement is aligned with modern feminism, and that it is motivated at least in part by a desire to achieve equality and to break down gender stereotypes found in Buddhism, such as that women are softer and less disciplined than men. And while much of the current impetus to create a bhikṣuṇī order in Tibetan Buddhism is coming from Western converts to Tibetan Buddhism, such a feministic impulse is shared by a variety of Tibetan monks, nuns, and male and female lay leaders, just as it is opposed by many others. In other parts of Buddhist Asia, too, many of the first efforts toward revitalizing bhikṣuṇī orders began in the early to mid-twentieth century among small groups of women and the male saṅgha members who supported them, facing significant opposition by others in the same communities. In analyzing those various positions, it is not always clear exactly what is “feminist” about them, and even more so, what is “Western” in their inspiration and what is not. Moreover, it is possible that the women who have forged alternate renunciate communities, and are resisting the bhikṣuṇī option, are themselves informed by feminist sensibilities, if of a different variety.
One example of the variety of opinions even within the Tibetan Buddhist community, both about bhikṣuṇī ordination and its connection with an imputed “feminism,” was evident at a charged event that occurred during the conference at Hamburg. At an open evening discussion session attended by most of the participants in the conference, several young Tibetan and Himalayan anis under the umbrella of the Tibetan Nuns’ Project in Dharamsala read statements that they did not feel ready for bhikṣuṇī ordination at this time. The reasons for that sentiment were not fully explained, but what a few of the anis did say is that they do not wish to be associated with feminist agendas. Several added further that the questions at stake in the ordination debates should not be about issues of gender or sexual equality.
The reaction to these statements, especially on the part of the many Western nuns in the audience, was one of shock and dismay. At the same time, other Tibetan and Himalayan anis from the same group read statements that they very well might want to take bhikṣuṇī ordination if that becomes a possibility for them, while simultaneously disavowing this desire as feminist in principle. And so let us note first that even the group of anis present at the conference at Hamburg were far from unanimous on the issue of bhikṣuṇī ordination. But before turning to the prospects for those Buddhist women who do want ordination, it is necessary to dwell a moment longer on this question of the connection between the bhikṣuṇī movement, feminism, and its purported Western or secular nature.
While not wanting ordination is fully understandable, as already discussed, we need to exercise caution before identifying this as a sign of an incommensurability between Western and Asian values. Another very different kind of factor that might be over-determining the anis’ reticence toward what they think of as feminism would be their expectation that forces in Tibetan society—particularly the very male monastics under whose direction these Tibetan-tradition anis from Dharamsala and other parts of South Asia now live—are themselves ill-disposed toward (and indeed perhaps threatened by) the specter of feminism. Some women might reasonably want to avoid arousing the ire of their male mentors as a strategic move to remain in their favor, even while some might also try to argue for bhikṣuṇī ordination on other grounds.
It is essential to note, too, that the very occasion on which these anis were given the microphone to speak—an occasion that they very much desired, as evidenced by their deep disappointment when it appeared they might not get the chance to read the statements they had prepared—was made possible precisely because of the feminist commitments of the organizers of that evening session, and indeed the entire conference. These commitments include a conviction that it is important to encourage women to speak for themselves, in their own words. Even the anis who said they did not want to align themselves with feminism were benefiting from its gains during that session.
The Dalai Lama gave a powerful speech on the final day of the Hamburg conference in which he argued at length about the value of feminism in our world and for Buddhism. He admitted that women have not had equal opportunities in Buddhism. He also maintained that there are certain social virtues that women tend to develop better than men because of women’s greater ties to childbearing; these virtues, he said, can form a particularly strong basis for developing the high Buddhist value of compassion. He called on women to develop their potential as Buddhist leaders in the twenty-first century, when more than ever people of the world need to learn how to live together.
The Dalai Lama was acting as a world leader, a moral authority to whom people listen, on that day. Equally so, he was also acting as a leader of his own Tibetan Buddhist community. It would be mistaken and simplistic to contend that his speech was entirely motivated by his desire to please his Western supporters. He faces considerable opposition to his progressive vision about the future of bhikṣuṇī ordination from conservative leaders in his own order. He was doing exactly what he needed to do that day, to begin to educate his followers on the value of the aspirations of feminism. Or perhaps more precisely, what the Dalai Lama was trying to do was to define a kind of feminism in his own terms.
It is too soon to know how effective he will be in changing the minds of his most conservative saṅgha leaders, helping them to see both the legitimacy of forging a new bhikṣuṇī order and its value for the male saṅgha as well. But it is far too Orientalist and nearsighted to continue to insist that feminism is merely a Western concern in which traditional women around the world do not also have a stake. Exactly how the goals and means of feminism are construed, of course, remains very much an open question. In fact, we have every reason to expect to learn a new and inspirational variety of feminism from Tibetan women, be they anis, fully ordained bhikṣuṇīs, or simply lay female leaders.
It is also too soon to assess how much anis and other women in the Tibetan Buddhist community will be encouraged by the Dalai Lama’s support, and will take the opportunity that he is offering to consider more closely the value of feminist perspectives and insights. It is exactly the intervention of influential leaders and opinion-makers such as himself and the other powerful people in his entourage on this occasion, such as Samdhong Rinpoche and Rinchen Khandro, that will help create the necessary will to foster a new bhikṣuṇī order. The same leadership also needs to educate the Tibetan Buddhist community about the past: how Vinaya ritual has indeed been altered under certain conditions, how in fact women have been ordained in Tibet under exceptional conditions. It is exactly such leadership and education that can forge the cultural conditions for Tibetans to begin to recognize a new bhikṣuṇī order, and make room for them in the traditionally revered place that fully ordained clerics occupy in their world.
In any event there is much more to the bhikṣuṇī movement than feminism, regardless of our definition of the term. There is also an appreciation on the part of modern Buddhist women—indeed, including some of the Tibetan and Himalayan anis who spoke at Hamburg—for the power of the traditional life, as well as for the training and position of fully ordained, fully celibate Buddhist monastic figures. Some women simply want to partake of those dynamics themselves. While that desire need not be feminist in nature at all but rather located in the age-old dynamics of the role of Buddhist monasticism, there are steps that need to be taken in order to make its realization possible.
Status and Prestige
In addition to fostering the communal will to craft and sanction an ordination ritual for a new lineage of bhikṣuṇīs in Tibetan Buddhism, there is another critical task if Buddhist bhikṣuṇīs are to flourish. It is crucial to develop an intentional stance on the famous eight heavy rules, the provisions that institute patriarchy in Buddhist monasticism and upon which the Buddha supposedly insisted before granting women permission to take ordination. An explicit position on the status of these eight provisions today needs to be articulated publicly. Leaders of the Buddhist saṅgha— male and female alike—need to address and acknowledge them clearly, and specify how they are to be handled in the twenty-first century. The contingencies of our current world context require the formation of such an intentional position.
Some in the current Buddhist saṅgha, in Asia as well as the West, would like to disavow the eight heavy rules altogether. Recall, they require the unconditional deference by all nuns to all monks, regardless of merit or seniority; they call for the supervision of nuns’ living arrangements and ritual procedures by monks; and they prohibit nuns from reviling or admonishing monks, while explicitly permitting monks to admonish nuns. The eight heavy rules provision is a key part in the defining story of women’s original acceptance into the Buddhist monastic order.
While this enshrinement of patriarchy in the rules of bhikṣuṇīs is unfortunate and damaging, it poses a recalcitrant problem. We cannot easily write it out of the Vinaya. Not only is the story included in all versions of the Vinaya, but all of the eight provisions save one have been incorporated into the prātimokṣa governing the nuns’ rules of behavior and punishments for their infractions. They are intricately woven into monastic ritual and tradition; simply to wipe them out would entail so many changes that it might be difficult to claim that the new female order was indeed the same as the bhikṣuṇī tradition known from historical Buddhism. A similar question has long been debated in other religions, and especially in Christianity: is there a way to accommodate and reinterpret elements of one’s tradition that are patriarchal and/or androcentric, if not misogynist, or is it necessary to change the tradition radically, or even abandon it entirely? This complex debate is likely to develop among Buddhists too, unfolding gradually with different ramifications in different contexts. But it would be unfortunate to allow it to derail the quest by Buddhist women to reestablish the order in its traditional form. I would suggest that it be treated with restraint for now.
That is not to say that the eight heavy rules can be left in place without comment. They are a liability, not only to the success of the bhikṣuṇī movement but also to Buddhism as a whole. They damage the reputation of Buddhism as a religion of egalitarianism and equanimity. The eight heavy rules imply that in Buddhism, renunciant women are lower in status than men and also not deemed capable of managing their own affairs. Both fly in the face of the broad-based call for sex and gender equality that has been percolating throughout the world for the last century at least.
The eight heavy rules need to be addressed both because of their detrimental impact on the aura of the new bhikṣuṇīs and for the harm they do to the reputation of Buddhism among civilized nations everywhere. To do this would not mean that the Buddhist leadership is acquiescing to popular trends and public opinion. Rather, it is essential to realize that image, respect, and prestige underlie the very nature of Buddhist monasticism from the start. The Buddhist saṅgha was designed precisely as an exemplar of the optimum religious lifestyle. Its survival depends on the generosity of the lay, whose support fluctuates in exact proportion to their conviction that the monastic community is maintaining its purity and the highest standards of behavior and wisdom. Indeed, the eight heavy rules themselves are cast in the story as necessary precisely in order to assuage the concerns of the Buddhist lay community.
The same is true now, except that lay expectations have shifted. There are different sets of concerns in the global lay community. We need to have a public pronouncement stating that in the Buddhist saṅgha of the twenty-first century, despite the technical inclusion of the eight heavy rules in the Vinaya texts, bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs will be considered to have equal status and prestige, and be subject to the same rules of seniority; there shall be in practice no difference based on sex or gender alone. Buddhist leaders need to affirm that the eight heavy rules had their time and place but their conditions no longer remain. They need to do this to retain the respect and support of the lay Buddhist world.
But just as much, to work for gender equality is simply on the side of what is right. There can be no question that Buddhist doctrine, throughout its history, agrees. The patriarchy and misogyny that we do find in Buddhist sources is to be attributed to historical and social circumstances rather than reasoned or ethical principle. There is never a principled argument for gender inequality in Buddhist literature.
The Buddhist saṅgha needs to lead its own communities in fostering the best path, the best values—indeed, as it has always endeavored to do. The best path and the best values in the world favor gender equality and the elimination of patriarchy and misogyny. What is more, it is critical to the success of the bhikṣuṇī saṅgha that they have no shadows, no grounds to disparage their prestige and status; hence the necessity to confront and deal with the eight heavy rules.
One way to counteract the shadow cast by the eight heavy rules would be for the male saṅgha to deliberately and overtly show their respect for bhikṣuṇīs. Monks should go out of their way to display their respect for nuns at every opportunity, to put them on a high chair and to treat them as equals. Along these lines, it was extraordinary to hear the Dalai Lama proclaim in Hamburg that feminism is wonderful and important, celebrating the strong talents that women have for modeling Buddhist values. Hearing such an intentional statement of support from a figure like the Dalai Lama helps women to hold their heads high in the Buddhist world. Such support will help redress and reverse the prejudice that women have endured over the centuries in Buddhism. In particular, displays of such esteem toward bhikṣuṇīs by monks could be cast explicitly as a deliberate attempt on the part of the Buddhist saṅgha to show that it regards the eight heavy rules only as an archaic relic from a previous period in Buddhist history.
It is crucial to repeat again that prestige and status are essential to the success of the Buddhist saṅgha. It would be a grave mistake to conflate concerns about prestige and reputation with the kinds of problems of ego that Buddhism always warns us against. Regard and respect is at the bottom of the entire system of the Buddhist saṅgha; it is essential for the support of the laity, and that support is essential for the saṅgha to survive. It is a mistaken sense of the ascetic path to think that the bhikṣuṇī saṅgha can operate without proper facilities and resources. Without such support the bhikṣuṇī saṅgha will experience a second decline.
Those contemporary Buddhist women who have argued that the eight heavy rules should not be contested but rather regarded as providing a good opportunity for women to work on their egos are pursuing a mistaken strategy. Although it is certainly true that the situation is a good chance to work on one’s ego—most situations are!—we should hardly welcome the disparagement of an order whose entire purpose is to provide models of dignity and discipline. That would defeat the very purpose of everything we were doing at the conference at Hamburg.
The Promise of a Future with a Strong Bhikṣuṇī Order
The perception that full ordination confers status and prestige is at the heart of why Buddhist women today are seeking it. But this does not imply that they desire fame or fortune. Rather it is a prescient perception on the part of these women that full ordination allows a role for women in Buddhism that holds a special kind of promise for the future. I have already suggested one reason for this, albeit so far largely presented in negative terms: given the increasingly egalitarian sentiments in many parts of the world today, for the Buddhist saṅgha to maintain a bias against women’s ordination or status would mean to grossly undercut the credibility of Buddhism altogether in the modern world. This motivation alone is a decisive reason why the bhikṣuṇī order should be restored and supported at the highest level. Without it there is little chance for Buddhism to take up the role that it is poised to assume in the modern world. Without addressing the patriarchy, androcentrism, and misogyny that have cropped up in sectors of the Buddhist world, it is unlikely that Buddhism can maintain widespread respect in the international community today.
But more is at stake than the concern that without gender equality, Buddhism will be deemed too retrograde to assume leadership on the world stage. More important yet are the positive grounds for fostering a strong bhikṣuṇī saṅgha. There is the very exciting prospect of women taking a leadership role in ways that they have only rarely done in the past, even in China, where indeed the bhikṣuṇī order has been maintained since its first establishment there.
Envisioning the Future
The moment is ripe for envisioning what the new order of fully ordained women might become. For one, we cannot overestimate the importance of the perception we already see signs of in Sri Lanka: an appreciation that the women who are pioneering the full ordination movement are uncommonly dedicated and determined individuals choosing to live as celibate monastics according to the full Vinaya regulations. Women will be choosing this lifestyle carefully and with understanding of what it entails. The very fact that it is such an intentional effort on their part will exactly bestow on them the patina of moral fortitude that the Buddhist monastic order was designed to confer on its members in the first place. And given the current concerns in many parts of the Asian world about the corruption of the modern saṅgha, the exceptional personal resolve written on the body of the Buddhist nun will place her in a special light.
Pure Buddhist monastics—male and female alike—can have an exceptional role to play in the coming years in our global society. This opportunity is in no small part due to the special perception today of Buddhism among world religions. Buddhism is perceived—in the media, in advertising, in literature, in people’s imagination, in people’s fantasy, in many parts of the world today and cutting across class and race lines—as the religion of peace. To be sure, invoking such an image of Buddhism is to participate in a romantic conception. The actual historical record—including the last hundred years, with particularly troubling examples from Japan, Thailand, and Sri Lanka—shows both Buddhist monastics and laypeople sometimes engaging in warfare and violence, sometimes in the name of Buddhism itself. The same can be said of all world religions. But Buddhist leaders can make a virtue of the widespread belief in Buddhism’s commitment to peace and self-discipline and use it as a model for what Buddhist monastics and leaders can in fact be. While there is room for hypocrisy in every religion, there is also a way to capitalize on the promise of a positive image. By cultivating such models of excellence realistically, honestly, and deliberately, without falling prey to romanticism, and with full cognizance of the complexity of the record and the real difficulty in achieving such an ideal, Buddhist leaders stand to carve out a space for themselves to serve as exceptional exemplars of a moral life, exemplars who can have particular salience in our contemporary situation.
In short, Buddhist monastics have an opportunity to make their ideal image a reality, and thereby to make a real impact in our world today. Buddhism is often seen today as one of the few alternatives to an increasingly violent world caught up in power struggles, sectarian violence, and competition for scarce resources. Buddhism is seen in many parts of the world as the religion that can help us live happily with less. Buddhism is seen to have the resources to teach us how to conserve energy, to treat others with compassion, to avoid jealousy and ego, to reduce stress, to mediate difference. Buddhist monastics have the opportunity to present themselves as potent symbols of what it takes to achieve equilibrium and insight. Buddhist monastics represent the possibility of a life that can do those things. They have the chance to represent self-discipline in arguably the most self-indulgent global society that humanity has ever known. We might even say that Buddhist monastics represent the alter ego of militarism and violence; quasi-militarists in their own right, the monastic’s shaved head, minimalist clothing, and simple lifestyle can be intentionally configured to represent self-control, peace, and, especially, wisdom.
The Buddhist monastic in female form will make a startling impression on the world stage. People will be able to read in her demeanor an exceptional resolve and an exceptional accomplishment. And while in general we can say she is poised to model exactly the same virtues as male monastics can, it might also be worthwhile to ask whether there is something peculiar to the bhikṣuṇī order’s special history—not to mention another slew of stereotypes, this time relating to gender—that might similarly be turned around and intentionally cultivated to model special Buddhist virtues of value for our current global society.
If in fact the Buddhist order is meant to erase sexuality, it is yet to be determined how it relates to gender. It is yet to be understood whether the Buddhist monastic has a gender at all and, if so, of what that consists.
It has further yet to be contemplated whether female Buddhist monastics have had, or will have, a different gender footprint than male monastics. Certainly, the answer to such a question will vary over time and place; we should not expect any gender conception to be the same in all circumstances, and definitely not to be tied essentially to the sex of its representatives. What I think we can say with confidence about the bhikṣuṇī qua woman—that is, in this particular historical moment—is that she will represent a victory over patriarchy and misogyny. We can also expect that her spareness and lack of coyness or adornment of any kind will surprise even feminists. Perhaps her uncommon dignity will signify exceptional strength of character. Perhaps her lack of adornment will signal new heights in the pacification of ego.
If we can still attribute to woman special proclivities that stem from her close connection to maternity—as the Dalai Lama himself argued, and as has long been an integral part of Buddhist images of the female—perhaps we can suggest that the bhikṣuṇī order of the twenty-first century might strive to excel at modeling a new kind of enlightened community. Perhaps the new female order might work to separate the rhetoric of homelessness from the reality of monastic living communities. Perhaps members of the female order will realize that since they are a relatively new phenomenon, they have a chance to invent, and expressly to valorize, a model of community living that would specifically embody Buddhist virtues. Perhaps what the female order might contribute is a new self-consciousness of what has always been true, namely that communal life is one of the great opportunities for the Buddhist saṅgha to position itself as a model for the ethical life. Perhaps it could be a disciplined community that still understands itself as a circle of humans with human needs. Perhaps it could become a disciplined community that excels at empathy. Perhaps also the bhikṣuṇī order might strive to excel at peacemaking in the world, and at modeling the respectability and wisdom of compromise. And perhaps, having struggled through such a dilemma themselves, the new bhikṣuṇīs will lead the way in teaching us how to discern when to accept difficult circumstances and when to act against the grain to change them. Perhaps the new bhikṣuṇī of the twentyfirst century will teach the world how to eschew absolutes. And perhaps the new bhikṣuṇīs can also model for us how to be good listeners, with dignity.
I here offer my own hope that the leaders of Tibetan Buddhism, and indeed all the leaders of Buddhism, will have the fortitude to set the new orders of bhikṣuṇīs onto their paths with generosity, foresight, and care. This is a special moment in Buddhist history.