Buddhist Nuns

Nuns were an important part of the early Buddhist community. The story about the formation of the community of nuns is somewhat problematic to our eyes. I’ll tell it anyway and comment and ponder on it together.

The Origin of the Order

The Buddha’s aunt, Mahapajapati, asked one of the Buddha’s trusted followers if he will be willing to ordain her as a nun. Until this time he had only ordained men in his monastic organization. The Buddha initially refused. She pressed him again and again. He finally agreed to do it, but with a couple of restrictive stipulations.

One was that the nuns would have to abide by an additional series of regulations, over and above the regulations that applied to the monks. Another stipulation was that even the most senior nun would be junior to the most junior monk. The monastic system is hierarchically based on age. This meant that even the most senior nun would rank lower than the most newly ordained monk.

This tradition of nuns thrived in this early community and was an important part of the expansion of Buddhism on to South East Asia and into the rest of the world. There are now active communities of nuns, particularly in China, but the traditional practice of Buddhist nuns has died out now in South East Asia, although there are in some places attempts to reestablish that lineage.

If you want to study Buddhist nuns, it is probably easier to look at that community in the traditional Chinese context, such as Taiwan, or in Tibet, where Buddhist nuns are active.

The Stipulations

What should we think about these additional stipulations that the Buddha imposed on this early community of nuns? Was he doing a good thing?

I suppose it is difficult for us to judge this historical phenomenon that developed in a context very different from our own, but I think we should say two things. One is that in its time it seems this was quite radical, to open up the possibility of renunciation in a formal context to women.

The possibility of monasticism for women has been an important part of the Buddhist community, and it represents the commitment to the possibility of Nirvana for women within the community. It is important not to characterize the early Buddhist tradition as diminishing the ability of women to achieve awakening.

It is true that there had been these additional restrictions on the status nuns can acquire in the Buddhist community. They reflect, I suspect, the restrictions on the behavior and the status of women in the context of the time.

In any case, nuns were an important part of the early community. The monastic practice of women continues to be significant in the Buddhist community today.

This article is part of the series about The Early Sangha

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