World Buddhists Affirm the Equality of Women
February 15th, 1998 marks the first time in history that Buddhists representing diverse traditions and schools from around the world will join together for a truly international and ecumenical ordination. This ceremony, which will take place in Bodh Gaya, India, is especially significant because it is a joint effort by Buddhist leaders to re-establish the order of nuns in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, and India, where no women have been ordained as nuns for over eight centuries.
For nine days, 140 novice monastics representing 23 countries and five continents will congregate near a descendent of the Bodhi Tree under which Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, attained enlightenment some 2500 years ago. In order to provide instruction to this polyglot assembly, the text of the Vinaya (Buddhist monastic precepts) will be provided in five languages: Chinese, English, French, Nepalese, and Sinhalese. The renunciation ceremony, organized by Master Hsing Yun and his Taiwan-based Fokuangshan Buddhist Order, has marshalled the cooperative efforts of Buddhist leaders worldwide, including the Dalai Lama, Maha Ghosananda Maha Thera (Sangha Raja of Cambodia), Thich Nhat Hanh (Abbot of Plum Village, France), Venerable Dr. M. Wipulasara Maha Thera (President of the Maha Bodhi Society of India), and Ven. P. Somalankara Nayake Thera (Chief Secretary of the Sarvodaya Bhikkhu Congress, Sri Lanka).
The legitimacy of ordaining women as bhikkhuni (nuns) has become a major topic of discussion within the Buddhist community. All Buddhists agree that the Buddha created an order of bhikkhuni after his foster mother, Prajapati Gotami, demonstrated a deep commitment to becoming his disciple. Buddhists disagree, however, about whether there can be such an order today. Sila, the laws of Buddhist discipline, stipulate that the ordination of women to become bhikkhuni requires the presence of both ordained monks (bhikkhu) and nuns. Since the 11th century, however, when the bhikkhuni order died out in India and Sri Lanka, conservatives have stymied any attempts to revive it in those countries by citing the lack of qualified nuns to legitimise the proceedings. Similarly, in Thailand and Tibet, where there have never been an order of nuns, efforts to institute such an order have faced difficulty for the same reason. Fortunately, in East Asian countries bhikkhuni orders have continued down to today.
To solve the ordination problem, the upcoming ceremony in Bodh Gaya will be officiated by both Buddhist monks from around the world and by 15 Buddhist nuns who received their ordination in Taiwan. This idea of bringing together bhikkhu and bhikkhuni from a diverse range of Buddhist traditions and schools gradually took shape during a series of annual international monastic seminars. At the conclusion of the fourth such conference, held in May, 1997, the participants requested Master Hsing Yun, the founder of the Fokuangshan Buddhist order, to organise a renunciation ceremony to reintroduce a bhikkhuni lineage in those countries currently lacking one. Fokuangshan was asked to spearhead this effort because it has branch temples worldwide, a large contingent of nuns, and extensive experience teaching Buddhist women from South and Southeast Asia.
The women from India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand who will be receiving ordination in February should not expect a warm welcome from all of their Buddhist brethren when they return to their respective countries. More conservative members of the Southeast Asian monastic communities may not even recognise the authenticity of their ordination. The sponsoring organisations are therefore doing all that they can to aid the nuns make a smooth transition into monastic life. Fokuangshan, for instance, is offering free education in any of its 16 monastic colleges to any of the nuns who wish to strengthen their knowledge of Buddhist practice. Efforts are also being made to provide long-term housing for those bhikkhuni who may require it. The Ladakh, India chapter of the Buddha’s Light International Association (BLIA) has already built a nunnery and the Ananda Buddha Vihara Trust of Andra Pradesh, India is currently constructing a temple which will include a dormitory for nuns.
The re-establishment of the bhikkhuni order in Southeast Asia is a significant advancement for women’s rights in that region. The hope is that the upcoming ordination will serve as a catalyst to spur not only all Buddhists, but all people, to awaken to the truth that the Buddha himself realised under the Bodhi Tree so long ago: that all beings are inherently equal and interdependent, and may attain enlightenment through cultivating a mind of compassion, equanimity, humility, and wisdom.