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.
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