Update: Dialogue Concerning the Bhikshuni Issue

The following article is from the Summer, 1996 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

by Ven. Bhikshuni Tenzin Yeshe (Mary Teal Coleman)

In recent years, especially due to interest of both laypeople and ordained Tibetan Buddhists in the West, there has been much talk about the Bhikshuni issue. This plirase is often used to refer to whether or not women will be able to receive full monastic ordination in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. At present, both women and men in the Tibetan tradition are able to take Sramanerika (novice) vows, but only men may take the Bhikshu (full monastic) vows.

In 1995,1 wrote about many of the issues and questions related to this topic in a book entitled Monastic. In it, I suggested that perhaps some of the female Sangha members and I could meet with one or more of the monastic scholars in the Department of Religion and Culture in Dharamsala to discuss the possibility of establishing the Bhikshuni ordination in the Tibetan tradition. For a while, it seemed that we were going to go to Dharamsala in October 1996 for this purpose. In February 1996,1 received a letter (dated 12/26/95) from Ven. Tenzin Topgyal, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Religion and Culture, informing me that it would be best to cancel the proposed meeting because a group of lamas/scholars had been appointed as a committee which will make a decision regarding the possibility of establishing the Bhikshuni order in the Tibetan tradition. Ven. Tenzin Topgyal-la was not certain when the committee would meet.

When writing or speaking about this subject, I have been carefulas have the other female monasticsto regularly emphasize that it should and will be the higher lamas/scholars who make the final decision on this issue when and/or if it is made. Also, I have repeatedly suggested that if it does not seem that a positive decision can be made at this time, perhaps it would be better to defer the matter until a time when the Bhikshuni order could manifest.

Many think that the conditions presently exist to establish a Bhikshuni lineage in the Tibetan tradition if the scholars think this is advisable. There seem to be two main objections brought in this regard: one concerns the female monastics' training in the teachings themselves and the other their training in monastic ritual practices. Regarding our training with respect to teachings, it is important to remember that we are discussing the possibility of women taking monastic vows, not of their being launched as teachers. Tibetan Buddhist monastic women who are also teaching are doing so on an individual basis according to their years of learning and practice. Many Western female Tibetan Buddhist monastics have done three-year retreats. For example, most of the women with whom I took Bhikshuni vows (from Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh in 1994) have taken traditional three-year, three-month, and three-day retreats under Ven. Gendun Rinpoche at Dhagpo Kagyu Ling in France. Of course, when we wear robes people do ask us questions, but if someone asks a question of a female monastic that she does not feel qualified to answer, she can simply refer the questioner to a text or appropriate teacher. Simply because females are asking to take Bhikshuni vows does not automatically imply that they will be teachers, and I do not think these topics need be mixed while we consider the Bhikshuni issue.

Regarding the question of the female monastics' training in the monastic rituals: It is true that many of us do not know traditional monastic arts like making tormas, drawing mandalas, doing ritual dances, etc. On one hand, it is extremely important that these arts survive. On the other side, the most important factors in becoming a monastic are keeping the vows and doing our spiritual practice.

Of course, there have to be requirements. As the Dalai Lama and other excellent Tibetan teachers often point out, it is better to have a few well-qualified monastics than many who are not so well-qualified. Are the qualifications going to be related to living according to the vows or related to learning certain rituals, or both? It is my perception that some will be more interested in carrying out the rituals than others, as seems is the case with the already existing male Sangha members. One plan might be to allow female monastics to take the Bhikshuni vows with emphasis on immediate training regarding their observing the vows and with a stated goal that the monastic rituals will be learned in the future.

Both in the West and East there are now groups of us wishing to take higher ordination and be available to ordain other Bhikshunis, if that should ever be possible Either verbally or in writing, many of the Tibetan Buddhist female monastics who have taken Bhikshuni vows in other lineages (including Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Ven. Thubten Chodron, Ven. Pema Chodron and othersas well as myself) have stated they would be happy to participate in such an ordination if it ever were to happen. So, we currently have more than the required number of Bhikshunis. After taking Bhikshuni vows, usually women are asked to wait twelve years before being able to fully ordain other women. This situation might be changed if the . lamas decide that Bhikshus can ordain a Bhikshuni Sangha without senior Bhikshunis present. There seem to be some historical and textual precedents for this. For example, the master Gunavarman of Kashmir, an eminent teacher during the early days of the transmission of Dharma to China, said, At places where the conditions are complete, one must do things according to prescriptions.... It is an offense if Bhikshunis do not receive their full ordination from both a preceptor and preceptress at a place where the Bhikshuni Sangha exists. Yet, If the two orders of the Sangha are not found in one country at the same time, female applicants might receive their full ordination from the order of Bhikshus alone and it would be considered legitimate. (Sakyadhita, Daughters of the Buddha, Snow Lion, 1988, p. 248).

At this time, now that the newly formed committee of monastic scholars/lamas is embarking on seriously discussing the Bhikshuni issue, I urge its (as yet unidentified) members to consider that this type of ordinationof Bhikshunis by Bhikshus alonenot be overlooked. That female and male monastics could be ordained by one Bhikshu alone or without a preceptress and Bhikshuni Sangha present could at times prove crucial both to the existence and survival of the order.

May all beings achieve enlightenment and be free from suffering.

Ven. Bhikshuni Tenzin Yeshe (Mary Teal Coleman) founded Dharma Institute and wrote Monastic (available from Snow Lion). She can be reached by mail at RO. Box254, Ruckersville, VA, USA 22968 and by phone at 540832-5282. m

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