According to tradition, the order of Buddhist nuns (bhikṣunī sangha) began some five centuries before the common era, just five or six years after the order of Buddhist monks (bhikṣu sangha). Mahaprajapati, the aunt and foster mother of the Buddha, is said to have initiated the bhikṣunī sangha when she asked the Buddha for permission to join the sangha and, after some hesitation, he agreed. The lives of Buddhist nuns are regulated by the bhikṣunī prātimokṣa (Pali: bhikkhuni pāṭimokkha), a summary of the precepts or rules found in the bhikṣunī Vinaya, or monastic code for nuns. Like novice monks, a nun first undertakes the ten training rules of a novice nun (srāmaṇerikā): to abstain from killing, stealing, lying, sexual activity, intoxicants, untimely food, singing and dancing, cosmetics and ornaments, high or luxurious seats and beds, and handling silver or gold. Unlike a bhikṣu (fully ordained monk), the Vinaya stipulates that a nun live for two years as a siksamana, to receive further training and ensure that she is not pregnant, before undergoing the upasampada to become a bhikṣunī (fully ordained nun). The number of precepts for a bhikṣunī varies in the different Vinaya schools: 311 in the Theravada, 348 in the Dharmaguptaka, 364 in the Mūlasarvāstivāda, and so on. The lineage of bhikṣunī ordination was transmitted to China, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam, where it flourished. The lineage died out around the 11th century in India and Sri Lanka, but was revived in Sri Lanka in the late 20th century. The number of bhikṣunīs in the early 21st century was estimated at approximately 60,000.
Barnes 1987, Barnes 1996, and Findly 2000 provide introductions to the history of the bhikṣunī sangha, the procedures for ordination, the eight gurudharmas (“weighty rules”), the regulations that govern the lives of Buddhist nuns, and how those rules are to be implemented. Wijayaratna 2010 goes into considerably more detail about the practice of the precepts. Harris 1999 and Sponberg 1992 analyze the conflicting images of nuns that are found in the early Buddhist texts, based on the Pali canon. Tsomo 1988 includes articles on the potential of women in Buddhism, the current living conditions of nuns in different countries, and the debate over full ordination.
Barnes, Nancy Schuster. “Buddhism.” In Women in World Religions. Edited by Arvind Sharma, 105–133. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.
A very helpful introduction to the history of women in Buddhism that traces the roots of patriarchal domination of the sangha, despite the purportedly egalitarian nature of the Buddha’s teachings.
Barnes, Nancy Schuster. “Buddhist Women and the Nuns’ Order in Asia.” In Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. Edited by Christopher S. Queen and Sallie B. King, 259–294. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
Examines the historical development and current status of Buddhist nuns, focusing on the Thai, Burmese, Sri Lankan, Chinese, and Tibetan traditions, as well as contemporary efforts to revitalize the bhikṣunī sangha.
Findly, Ellison Banks. “Women Teachers of Women: Early Nuns ‘Worthy of My Confidence.’” In Women’s Buddhism, Buddhism’s Women: Tradition, Revision, Renewal. Edited by Ellison Banks Findly, 133–155. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.
An introduction to the status of nuns in Buddhism, drawing a distinction between the soteriological perspective, in which women are regarded as equally capable of enlightenment, and the sociological perspective, in which nuns face institutional and practical limitations.
Harris, Elizabeth J. “The Female in Buddhism.” In Buddhist Women Across Cultures: Realizations. Edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, 49–65. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
Analyzes contradictory attitudes toward women in Pali Buddhist texts: some are deprecating and others support the spiritual liberation of women.
Sponberg, Alan. “Attitudes Toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism.” In Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender. Edited by José Ignacio Cabezón, 3–36. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.
Discusses the ambivalence and variety of attitudes toward women in early Buddhist literature, ranging from soteriological inclusiveness and androgyny to institutional androcentrism and misogyny. Establishes that the Buddha acknowledged women’s capability to achieve the highest goal of enlightenment.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1988.
A collection of articles on women in Buddhism, based on the first Sakyadhita conference in Bodhgaya in 1987, which focused on nuns. Includes sections on ordination, nuns of the Buddhist traditions, nuns in the community, living by the Vinaya in the present day, the bhikṣunī issue, livelihood for sangha, and living as a nun in the West.
Wijayaratna, Mohan. Buddhist Nuns: The Birth and Development of a Women’s Monastic Order. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2010.
An annotated commentary on the origins and development of the bhikṣuni sangha. Describes key aspects of the life of the community, with English and Pali versions of the Bhikkhuni Pāṭimokkha. Translated from the French.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions and individuals. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
- Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)
- Abortion, Buddhism and
- Ajanta Caves
- Ambedkar Buddhism
- Ancient Indian Society
- Archaeology of Early Buddhism
- Art and Architecture In China, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in India, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Japan, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Nepal, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Tibet, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture on the "Silk Road," Buddhist
- Asceticism, Buddhism and
- Awakening of Faith
- Beats, Buddhism and the
- Bhāviveka / Bhāvaviveka
- Bodh Gaya
- Body, Buddhism and the
- Buddha, Three Bodies of the (Trikāya)
- Buddhism and Ethics
- Buddhism and Law
- Buddhism and Marxism
- Buddhism and Modern Literature
- Buddhist Art and Architecture in Sri Lanka and Southeast A...
- Buddhist Hermeneutics
- Buddhist Ordination
- Buddhist Theories of Causality (karma, pratītyasamutpāda, ...
- Buddhist Thought and Western Philosophy
- Buddhist Thought, Embryology in
- Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
- Cambodian Buddhism
- Canon, History of the Buddhist
- Caste, Buddhism and
- Central Asia, Buddhism in
- China, Esoteric Buddhism in, (Zhenyan and Mijiao)
- Chinese Buddhist Publishing and Print Culture, 1900-1950
- Colonialism and Postcolonialism
- Compassion (karuṇā)
- Cosmology, Astronomy and Astrology
- Culture, Material
- Dalai Lama
- Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism
- Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, The Philosophical Works and Influ...
- Drigung Kagyu (’Bri gung bKa’ brgyud)
- Dzogchen (rDzogs chen)
- Early Buddhist Philosophy (Abhidharma/Abhidhamma)
- Early Modern European Encounters with Buddhism
- East Asian Buddhist Art, Portraiture in
- Ellora Caves
- Emptiness (Śūnyatā)
- Environment, Buddhism and the
- Ethics of Violence, Buddhist
- Family, Buddhism and the
- Feminist Approaches to the Study of Buddhism
- Four Noble Truths
- Funeral Practices
- Gandhāra, Buddhism in
- Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa)
- Gender, Buddhism and
- Hakuin Ekaku
- History of Buddhisms in China
- Image Consecrations
- India, Buddhism in
- India, Mahāmudrā in
- Internationalism, Buddhism and
- Intersections Between Buddhism and Hinduism in Thailand
- Iranian World, Buddhism in the
- Islam, Buddhism and
- Japan, Buddhism in
- Korea, Buddhism in
- Laos, Buddhism in
- Linji and the Linjilu
- Literature, Chan
- Literature, Tantric
- Local Religion, Buddhism as
- Lotus Sūtra
- Mahayana, Early
- Mahāvairocana Sūtra/Tantra
- Malaysia, Buddhism in
- Mantras and Dhāraṇīs
- Merit Transfer
- Miracles, Buddhist
- Modernism, Buddhist
- Monasticism in East Asia
- Mongolia, Buddhism in
- Mongolia, Buddhist Art and Architecture in
- Music, and Buddhism
- Myanmar, Buddhism in
- New Medias, Buddhism in
- New Religions in Japan (Shinshūkyō), Buddhism and
- Śāntideva (Bodhicaryāvatāra)
- Nuns, Lives, and Rules
- Oral and Literate Traditions
- Pagan (Bagan)
- Perfection of Wisdom
- Perfections (Six and Ten)
- Philosophy, Chinese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Indian Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Japanese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Tibetan Buddhist
- Pilgrimage in India
- Pilgrimage in Japan
- Pilgrimage in Tibet
- Psychology and Psychotherapy, Buddhism in
- Pure Land Buddhism
- Pure Land Sūtras
- Religious Tourism, Buddhism and
- Saṃsāra and Rebirth
- Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity
- Shinto, Buddhism and
- Soka Gakkai
- South and Southeast Asia, Devatās, Nats, And Phii In
- Southeast Asia, Buddhism in
- Sri Lanka, Monasticism in
- Sōtō Zen (Japan)
- Stūpa Pagoda Caitya
- Suffering (Dukkha)
- Sutta (Pāli/Theravada Canon)
- Texts, Dunhuang
- Thai Buddhism
- Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)
- Tibet, Buddhism in
- Tibet, Mahāmudrā in
- Tibetan Book of the Dead
- Tri Songdetsen
- Uighur Buddhism
- Verse Literature, Tibetan Buddhist
- Vidyādhara (weikza/weizzā)
- Vietnam, Buddhism in
- Vision and Visualization
- Visualization/Contemplation Sutras
- Warrior Monk Traditions
- West (North America and Europe), Buddhism in the
- Wheel of Life (Bhava-Cakra)
- Women in Buddhism
- Women in the West, Prominent Buddhist
- Zen, Premodern Japanese