In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhist Ordination

  • Introduction
  • Topical Overviews

Buddhism Buddhist Ordination
Jason A. Carbine, Patrick Kellycooper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0226


In Buddhism, ordinations are the ceremonies in which men and women become members of the Buddhist monastic order, or sangha. Such ceremonies often emphasize rules or precepts set forth in the Vinaya (monastic disciplinary code), but the degree to which ordained men and women commit themselves to such rules or precepts exhibits much variation across Buddhist traditions. There are also lesser ordinations for novices, and in some contexts, procedures for admission of women not given full ordination. The rites of ordination have undergone significant transformation since, it is believed, the Buddha first introduced them, and various texts include a number of different types of ordination (e.g., ordination by the Buddha saying “come, monk,” ordination by messenger). The evidence in the Pali Vinaya Piṭaka (basket of monastic discipline), the canonical basis for Theravada (“Way of the Elders”) lineages in South and Southeast Asia, suggests that, in part, an immediate, minimally ritualistic procedure that was used by the Buddha was eventually replaced by a far more complex community rite still used by them today. In East Asia, a number of changes have also taken place, such as a reinterpretation of traditional sīmā (boundaries for official acts of the community) and the development of ordination platforms, and the reenvisioning of ordination in light of bodhisattva precepts, including ordination ceremonies for lay people that do not confer status as a priest or monastic. With regard to women in Buddhist contexts where full ordination has been either lost or denied, the question of full ordination has become, for many, a crucial part of a contemporary debate about religious equality and acceptance. Throughout the history of Buddhism, ordination has been accepted, refashioned, and contested, and it has been a force in and product of various social, political, economic, and doctrinal debates and dynamics.

Topical Overviews

Materials that situate ordination within larger frameworks of communal, comparative, and historical understanding include McRae 2003. Tsomo 2003 summarizes issues related to the ordination of nuns. Other helpful materials include distillations of texts, such as the seminal Wijayaratna 1990. Explorations of historical textual and ritual traditions are exemplified by Bizot 1988 and Holt 1981. Frasch 2014 and Kieffer-Pülz 2007 look at issues across Theravada contexts, and Kieffer-Pülz 2000 discusses different types of ordinations for lay people, monks, and nuns. Clarke 2015 (cited under Vinayas (Monastic Discipline or Law Texts)) examines Vinayas (teachings concerning monastic discipline or law attributed to the historical Buddha) across traditions.

  • Bizot, François. Les traditions de la pabbajjā en Asie du Sud-Est. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1988.

    The legitimate continuity of many South and Southeast Asian monastic traditions rests on several factors: sīmā (monastic boundaries) for formal acts of the community, the rites of pabbajjā (admission) and upasampadā (higher ordination), and proper conformity to monastic disciplinary codes. This volume traces a history of pabbajjā and upasampadā lineages in Southeast Asia. See also Kieffer-Pülz 1997 (cited under Thailand). Translated as “The traditions of Buddhist admission in Southeast Asia.”

  • Frasch, Tilman. “The Theravāda Buddhist Ecumene in the Fifteenth Century: Intellectual Foundations and Material Representations.” In Buddhism across Asia: Networks of Material, Intellectual and Cultural Exchange. Vol. 1. Edited by Tansen Sen, 347–367. Singapore: ISEAS, 2014.

    Deals with reordinations through the various Theravada countries. See also Blackburn 2012 (cited under Sri Lanka).

  • Holt, John. Discipline: The Canonical Buddhism of the Vinayapiṭaka. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981.

    A study of monastic discipline based on the Pali Vinaya (Basket of Monastic Discipline). Chapter 7 discusses how, as a collective cultic celebration of monastic discipline, the higher ordination (upasampadā) ties together dual concerns of the Vinaya: the individual spiritual quest and the collective spiritual experience of the community. Offers a reading of canonical sources, with attention to notions of volition and action.

  • Kieffer-Pülz, Petra. “Die buddhistische Gemeinde.” In Buddhismus I: Der indische Buddhismus und seine Verzweigungen. Edited by Heinz Bechert, 368–380. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2000.

    A short description of the development of the various types of ordinations for lay people (pp. 368–371), monks (pp. 371–377), and nuns (pp. 377–380). See also Yao 2015 (cited under India). Translated as “The Buddhist community.”

  • Kieffer-Pülz, Petra. “Stretching the Vinaya Rules and Getting Away with It.” Journal of the Pali Text Society 29 (2007): 1–49.

    Discusses ordination and the exclusion of groups from it, especially slaves (pp. 7–35), with attention to variations within different branches of Theravada tradition. See also Gyatso 2003 (cited under Foundations) and Kieffer-Pülz 2013 (cited under Vinaya Texts and Translations).

  • McRae, John R. “Ordination.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. 2d ed. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 614–618. New York: Macmillan Reference, 2003.

    A discussion of the nature and significance of ordination in Buddhist traditions. Offers a description of the ordination ceremony (“based on the [now published] translation by Gregory Schopen of the ordination ritual found in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya”), as well as a discussion of historical variations in the practice of ordination. Special emphasis given to East Asian developments.

  • Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. “Nuns.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. 2. Edited by Robert Buswell Jr., 606–611. New York: Macmillan Reference, 2003.

    Discusses nuns in Buddhism, with attention to precepts, the lineage of full ordination for women, and contemporary practice.

  • Wijayaratna, Mohan. Buddhist Monastic Life: According to the Texts of the Theravada Tradition. Translated by Claude Grangier and Steven Collins. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511527500

    English translation of Le moine bouddhiste: Selon les textes du Theravada (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1983). A major distillation of Buddhist monastic life based on the texts of the Pali canon and commentaries. Pages 117–120 discuss the process of admission into the monastic community, with attention to both minor ordination (pabbajjā) and major ordination (upasampadā).

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