‘LIKE STARS IN THE DAY’, THE DESCENT OF FEMALE ARHATIS: FULLY ORDAINED TIBETAN BUDDHIST NUNS IN TIBET, PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE (17th Karmapa Spring Teachings (Day 13)

“We can conclude that during the Early spread of the teachings in Tibet, there were both male and female fully ordained sangha members and that the ordination was given by the male sangha.”

“In the ‘Chronicles of Ba’, it says the Khenpo who first fully ordained Tibetan women is Bareyna. Yet, in the text from Dunhuang it says it was probably the Chinese Buddhist Khenpo Mahayana. Whomever it was does not matter, either one is fine. However, it is clear that the nun’s ordination was given by the male sangha. It was clearly not a dual, male and female sangha.”

“A few years ago, I invited a sangha of Bhikṣus from Taiwan to the sacred site of Bodh Gaya to give the novice nun vows, I performed that activity and it turned out well. In the future as well, when the epidemic is over and we all can travel easily again, I would like to invite a Bhikṣuṇī sangha from another country again to continue to do this.”

—17th Karmapa

“The rituals for women cannot be practiced these days, so if a woman wishes to take full ordination it is acceptable, to give the full ordination according to the ritual for men. The reason for this is that the Bhikṣuṇī vows primarily arise in dependence on the vows of the male Bhikṣu sangha.”

—8th Karmapa, Vinaya text

INTRODUCTION

On the final day of the Arya Kshema Spring teachings (named after one of the main female nuns of Shakyamuni Buddha) HH the 17th Karmapa ended with a fascinating and original consideration of the history of fully ordained nuns (Bhikṣuṇī/Gelongma) in Tibet and the way such vows were (and can be) given to them. Here is my write-up of it (based on the original Tibetan and English oral translation).

The Karmapa’s presentation consisted of three main topics:
1. The 8th Karmapa’s bestowal of Gelongma vows
The 17th Karmapa considered the possibility of the 8th Karmapa having given full ordination vows to Tibetan women. Citing Tibetan textual sources, the Karmapa explained that it was surprising if the 8th Karmapa had done that, but also possible as there is mention of how to give full ordination vows to women in a Vinaya commentary by the 8th Karmapa and other Tibetan texts.
2. Examples of fully ordained Tibetan nuns in both the Early and Later spread of the teachings in Tibet
The Karmapa also considered the question of the first Tibetan fully ordained nuns, with two women in particular who are named in the historical texts. The first being one of the Queens of King Trisong Detsen, Gyelmo Tri Jemo Tsen, who seems to have been the first Buddhist nun in Tibet The second woman being Rinchen Palmo (a student of the 8th Karmapa) who was a fully ordained nun.
This was followed by several examples (backed up with sources) of fully ordained nuns in Tibet from the 10th to the 17th Centuries. According to the Karmapa, there is clear evidence that there were fully ordained nuns in Tibet, during the Early and Later spread of the Dharma teachings in Tibet but that these women were all generally from high-status backgrounds. The Karmapa suggests that this may have been also been a reason why the lineage of Gelongma later broke down. He also asserts that all these nuns were ordained by male sangha. This contradicts some English language research on this issue, that state there were no fully ordained nuns in Tibet. For more on that see the footnote [i].

The Karmapa is the head of one of the four major Tibetan Buddhist lineages and, since 2004, has been very active in the issue and debates around Gelongma ordination[ii] as well as trying to bring it back within the Karma Kagyu lineage (in 2017, for example, he gave this speech on the history of ordained nuns in Tibet). For an overview I wrote previously on the outstanding activities of the 17th Karmapa for Buddhist women, see here.

3. Women being fully ordained as nuns by monks
The Karmapa also concluded, based on Buddhist historical sources, and the Buddha’s words, that as the Bhikṣuṇī vows arose in dependence on the male sangha of fully ordained monks, it became (and is) acceptable and part of past tradition in Tibet for the male sangha alone to give the fully ordained vows to women.

In this year’s teaching, the Karmapa re-iterated his support and commitment to making full ordination of Tibetan nuns a reality and that he hopes to invite Bhikṣuṇīs from other parts of the world again to give Tibetan women the vows.  Even though monks can give such ordination, he felt that it was sometimes better to have the two-fold sangha, fully ordained nuns and fully ordained monks giving the vows.

However, it was reported that the all-male Dharamsala conference panel on this issue (which the Karmapa attended), with nuns/women invited only as spectators, all voted unanimously against full ordination by Bhikṣuṇīs from other traditions, and only Nyingma and Kagyu representatives voted for the proposal that men could give the ordination (Gelug and Sakya representatives voted against that as well). It was also reported that published research for the conference was sent to two hundred key Tibetan figures (vinaya masters, lamas, nuns and scholars) with the request that they comment on them. However, in spite of repeated reminders, only thirteen responses were obtained. Also, Tibetan nuns in attendance were also reported to be fearful/wary of ‘offending’ the religious male leaders at the conference shows there is a long way still to go on this issue, and that it is not just about historical facts and tradition but about ingrained religious patriarchy (see endnotes for contemporary research on this conference).

Nonetheless, this original and scholarly presentation by the Karmapa is unprecedented as an important source of scholarship and research on the full ordination of nuns in Tibet and thus is worthy of preservation, study and analysis. For that reason, I have made a .pdf of this, available for free download here. Apologies for any errors, I completed this in a short space of time.

May any Dharma activities for the benefit of women and nuns flourish and be supported. May Buddhist women find places of retreat, sponsorship and respect wherever they go!  May their equal role as part of the Buddhist four-fold sangha be restored.

Music?  Bell meditation music, Ring My Bell by Anita Ward and She’s Leaving Home by the Beatles.

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 24th April 2022. 

 

THE FULL ORDINATION OF TIBETAN BUDDHIST NUNS

TRANSCRIPT (17th KARMAPA TEACHING 2022, DAY 13)

The Karmapa started by explaining that, since the last teaching, he had not been well and had not even been able to open his mouth and had some kind of sores in his mouth, so found it difficult to speak.  He explained that on the final day, he would not teach about the 21st Verse of the 8th Karmapa’s ‘Good Deeds’ which, unlike the previous verses which are about relative bodhicitta,  is about ultimate bodhicitta and that he would finish the’ Good Deeds’ next year and requested people to discuss what he might teach in the future.

“To discuss some of these events in Mikyo Dorje’s life, is difficult, on one hand because I have has some physical issues, but also one has to look through various texts, there is not one single summary of it. So it can be difficult to research them. Within Mikyo Dorje’s liberation story, I wanted to talk about the incarnation of the 4th Zhamar Rinpoche, I had got an old document about it, but I cannot find it anymore, no matter where I search for it. So I will try and speak about that next year.  Today, as it is related to Mikyo Dorje’s deeds and liberation and in particular, as the Spring teaching is for nuns, I would like to speak about the nuns.”

8TH KARMAPA ON THE  FULL ORDINATION OF NUNS AND BESTOWAL OF VOWS

“Now as many of you know, several years ago there were several conferences in Dharamsala about the topic of the  Bhikṣuṇī ordination (full vows). I received a document by Tsering Ngatso Rangdrol (sna tshogs rang grol 1605/8-1677)[iv] (from possibly a Legthong). As I looked through it, we were surprised by it because it describes how Mikyo Dorje gave Bhikṣuṇī (full ordination nun) vows.

The title of this text is The History of How the Texts Were Established at the Three Tse Le Monasteries. What it says is that:

Sister (lcam mo)[v] Jetsunma Konchog Tsomo (dkon mchog mtsho mo) received full ordination (gelongma) from Mikyo Dorje and became a Bhikṣuṇī. He observed all the rules meticulously and without any fault. She taught over one hundred nuns at the Zhongkha (Zhong kha) nunnery living over 100 years and perfected her practice. She became venerated by everyone in the region of Daglung (dwags lung)[vi].

So here, when it says Mikyo Dorje, there are many with that name in Tibet, but at this time, it should be understood as 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje, as the three monasteries of Tse le (rtse le) had a big connection to Mikyo Dorje and the previous Karmapas. Now what we need to understand is not just that Mikyo Dorje gave the full ordination we need to be surprised about the fact that other than this writing by Tsering Ngatso Rangdrol, there is not even a mention of this topic of him giving Bhikṣuṇī ordination in any other texts, not even in his own autobiographies or in texts by his students. So that is surprising, it is not something we have seen before.

When we saw this text about Tsele then we began to consider what the connection was between Mikyo Dorje and the Gelongma ordination, we had to think about it in a new way and do more research into it. In the past, we were not paying attention, but if we do pay attention, there are many points both major and minor about the Bhikṣuṇī ordination in Mikyo Dorje’s Collected Works.  Information about the vows of Bhikṣus and Bhikṣuṇīs are present in the Vinaya texts. Here, the important question is whether or not,  in the 8th Karmapa’s life he gave Bhikṣuṇī vows  to women.  In his Vinaya commentaries, there are discussions of the precepts of the Bhikṣus and Bhikṣuṇīs. Not in all. This is the most important thing we need to pay attention to.

In any case, around 2004, I am not quite sure, when we were reforming the codes of conduct of the Kagyu Monlam, we were reading a lot of texts on Vinaya rituals. Such as how to make offerings, how to put on Dharma robes, how to spread out your mat and so on. In Varanasi as well. We spoke about that quite a bit then. At that time, I was able to look ta text on Vinaya rituals by the 8th Karmapa and when I saw that, at that time, I first began to pay attention to and become interested in the topic of Bhikṣuṇīs. Likewise, within the Kagyu Monlam we prepared a special seating area for the Bhikṣuṇīs and also when we did the Kangyur procession we had both Bhikṣus  and Bhikṣuṇīs and when we had the alms procession they were both there. The main cause for doing that was this particular text, on the Vinaya rituals.

If I show you the title and a related passage (see image), you will get a good idea what this is about. The title says it is A Presentation of the Actions/activities of the Sangha, of Individuals related to the Sangha and of Individuals. This is called Accomplishing Meaning Through Seeing. The meaning of this is that:

The rituals for women cannot be practiced these days, so if a woman wishes to take full ordination it is acceptable to give the full ordination according to the ritual for monks. The reason for this is that the Bhikṣuṇī vows primarily arise in dependence on the vows of the male Bhikṣu sangha. When there is a ritual for the women, it is by gathering the dual sangha of the Bhikṣus  and Bhikṣuṇīs, this is the appropriate way according to the tradition. So this is to make sure things are good on the external level.

The reasons for this are as it says in the Sutra of the Minor Sayings:

Bhikṣuṇīs are fully ordained by the Bhikṣus.

This is explained in the long commentary by Chokyi Chenyen:

The gathering of the Bhikṣuṇī sangha has merely become exhausted. There is no breaking in the different activities of the Bhikshus and Bhikshunis.

Therefore the rituals of bringing women forth and giving them ordination on the basis of rituals for men, are mostly similar as those for men, the few differences may be filled in and stated. In any case, in this text on the rituals by 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje, the main point is that if there is no Bhikṣuṇī sangha in Tibet, yet there were women who wanted to take the Bhikṣuṇī vows, then the male Bhikṣu sangha was allowed to give the women the vows. The ritual should be based on the ritual for the monks but there are a few passages that would need to be altered slightly such as instead of saying ‘novice monk’ you say ‘novice nun’ and so on. You have to change a few points. Mikyo Dorje showed how to convert the male ritual into the one for women. This is actually present in this text on Vinaya rituals.

When I first saw this text, I had not yet seen the text by Tsele Ngatsog Rangdrol and at that time, I did not even have any thought in my head that Mikyo Dorje had given the Bhikṣuṇī vows However,  it did occur to me that he must have given some thought to this matter.  Later, when I saw this historical document by Tsele Ngatsog Rangdrol, Mikyo Dorje probably gave the same Bhikṣuṇī ordination with the Karma Kagyu rituals for monks that are in his Vinaya ritual text.

Other than this passage by Tsele Rangdrol, there are very few other sources about Mikyo Dorje giving Bhikṣuṇī vows, so we cannot definitively say 100 percent that he gave these vows. However, if we continue to pay some attention to it, it is probably very clear that there were students of the 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje who were Bhikṣuṇīs. This is very clear.

BHIKSHUNI RINCHEN PALMO – 8TH KARMAPA’S STUDENT

In the Karma Kamtsang, there is the Mahakala practice (mgon po’i gtor bsngo) we all do, and then the Madagma (ma dag ma) practice where the ‘impure world is purified into emptiness’ and so on. It is a strange name for this practice, some people joke, is the Kagyu lineage trying to accomplish madagma (impurity)?  Ma dag ma in Tibetan means ‘impure’, so it means the ‘impure prayer’ but there was a tradition of giving the prayers in Tibet the name from the first few words of it, such as here ‘madag’. Like the Vajradhara prayer and so on. If we look at the colophon of this Madagma text, what it says:

Taught by the Jetsun Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje at the request of Rinchen Palmo. 

Likewise, there is also a text called Selected Prayers (smon lam thor bu) in the Collected Works of Mikyo Dorje. What it says in the colophon for that:

Composed by the Karmapa, Zangpo Dorje Garwai Yang[vii] at the request of Rinchen Palmo.

So this student’s name, Rinchen Palmo (rin chen dpal mo), appears twice. The name Rinchen Palmo only indicates that it was a female student but there seems to  nothing else we can say about that. However, if we look at the colophons of other texts she requested, we can see that Rinchen Palmo was not an ordinary person.

There is a text called  Profound Suchness: The Uncommon Meditation of Guru Vajrasattva (see image) and this is in the Hundred Short Instructions . Its colophon say:

This tradition of the Uncommon Meditation of Vajrasattva of the incomparable Gyalwang Karmapa was written as a few notes as a reminder about the meditation by the Shakya Bhikṣuṇī with a clear faith, Rinchen Palmo. 

So it is clear that Rinchen Palmo was a Bhikṣuṇī. What is disappointing now is that we have not found any detailed account of Rinchen Palmo’s life.

COLLECTED SONGS OF PAWO TSUGLAG TRENGWA – RINCHEN PALMO’S NAME MENTIONED
Quote from the Collected Songs of Pawo Tsuglag Trengwa, The Garland of Secret Words, The Treasury of Vajra Songs

However, in the Collected Songs of Pawo Tsuglag Trengwa (dpa’ bo 02 gtsug lag phreng ba, 1504-1566),  The Garland of Secret Words, The Treasury of Vajra Songs it says:

Meditate on the main practice of Mahayana: the aspiring and applying Bodhicitta.  Pierce the main points of devotion guru yoga. Establish the clear appearances of the deity of the creation stage. Rest uncontrived and loosely in the essence of meditation. Whatever appears, purify it into the appearance, deity and mantra of great bliss. Do not be attached to the body or any possessions. Fling your consciousness as the letter AH into space. The pith essence of the Dharma teachings is contained in this. Thus  I thought to write these notes on instruction that I had given to Jetsunma Rinchen Palmo, although as I didn’t have time I wrote merely the seed.

When we look at this, it seems that Rinchen Palmo was first a noblewoman (dpon mo), and later became a Bhikṣuṇī. I think she was connected to the area Daglung but it is difficult to say that definitively. In any case, here it says Rinchen Palmo but in Tsele’s text it says Kongchog Palmo, so are these two the same person or not? This is something we need to examine.

In Sanskrit, there is the word ‘ratna’ , literally that translates as Rinchen (jewel). If it is translated according to the meaning, it is Konchog (precious, supreme). When we talk about the three jewels, we say Konchog Sum, the three precious, supreme ones. One can choose between either term, it is possible they may have sometimes called her Rinchen and sometimes Konchog Palmo. It is difficult to say that definitively though.

If 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje had given the Bhikṣuṇī Ordination then the question is was the Bhikṣuṇī ordination appropriately done and according to Vinaya? Generally, when we think about it in historical terms, there are two ways for women to become Bhikṣuṇīs: either during the ordination with a dual sangha or with a single sangha. There are these two different types. The Bhikṣuṇīs in Tibet were mainly ordained by single sangha. If I talk about the historical background for this, it will be useful.

THE HISTORY OF MONASTIC ORDINATION IN TIBET

KING TRISONG DETSEN  AND THE FIRST TIBETAN ORDAINED MONASTICS
King Songtsen Gampo (srong btsan sgam po, 569–649? 650) with two of his wives, Princess Wencheng (China) and Bhrikuti Devi of Nepal

“The first point, or proof, here is that when we think about the initial spread of Dharma and the first ordinations in Tibet. There are different explanations of it. When did the Dharma first spread in Tibet? The most reliable written sources come from the time of King Songtsen Gampo (569–649? 650). Some people say it was other Kings, but the most reliable sources say King Songtsen Gampo. This is the most reliable source. We have the edicts of Trisong Detsen as well as the inscriptions on pillars from the Karchen and Samye temples.So during the time of the King Songtsen Gampo, it is said Dharma spread in Tibet.  Once the teachings spread in Tibet, when did the monastic community develop? The inscriptions in Samye say,

‘Representations of the three jewels were built and people from Tibet were brought to Liberation.’

This was at  the time of King Trisong Detsen. When we talk about brought to liberation, it means made to go on the path of liberation, or they go forth/ordained. It means Tibetans were among the people who went forth.

King Trisong Detsen (khri srong lde btsan, 742-c.800/755-797 )

Likewise, in the Tengyur there is the section of Letters, in which there is a letter by Ba Pelyang called Summarising What to Cherish :

In the colophon (see image) it says:

In Tibet, in the past, even though the word Bhikṣu did not exist, the Lord Trisong Detsen found the true Dharma. The glorious Pal Lha Tsenpo roused faith and then went forth and was given the name Palyang. 

So it says that during the time of King Trisong Detsen, before Ba Palyang there were probably no Tibetan monastics.

Another proof of this is in an edition of the Old Chronicles of Ba found in Drepung (see above). These are very old Tibetan histories and there are different versions of it. This is one that was originally from the Kongpo Tselhagang. It says that:

“In some histories they say, during the time of King Songtsen Gampo, the translator Sambhota and Chokyi Zo went forth [became ordained] but this is nonsense from people who do not know about the ‘time of the seven men’ ( mi bdun gang gi tshe].”

So it is refuting the person who said that. If we look at this, it says there are no monastics prior to King Trisong Detsen. Even if there were some monastics, they were Chinese monks or from other regions, from Nepal and so on, but no Tibetan sangha had developed.”

SHANTARAKSHITA AND THE BESTOWAL OF VOWS
19th century painting depicting biographical episodes from the life of the Buddhist monk, Shantarakshita

So when is it accepted that monastics generally appeared in Tibet? It was during the time of King Trisong Detsen. The Khenpo who gave the vows then was the Bodhisattva Shantarakshita (Śāntarakṣita, zhi ba tsho, 725–788). There are different ways of explaining this as the time of the seven (or six) men to be tested (sad mi mi bdun):

According to the old Chronicles of Bashey (see image):

Bareyna, Chim Shakya Bha, Tsang Legdrub, Pawo Vairocana, Zhang Lhabu, Shobu Khonglen, Pa Yeshe Wangpo, these seven students went forth with Shantarakshita (Zhi ba ‘tsho).

This is probably in 767, that the seven men to be tested went forth and only then was the monastic community founded. The specific thing here is Bashey also gives a couple of stories mentioned there, he says that Shantarakshita was actually from the Dhamrashatriya school because he was from Dhamrashatriya it is generally accepted in Tibet that our lineage of vows is from the Mūlasarvāstivāda, but he was from the Dhamrashatriya school. So some say they actually took ordination from Dharnashila. And that the translator, Pelgi Yeshe was the earliest of the Tibetan monks.

Yet, the Chronicles of Ba refute that. However, we can see that there were people who had asserted that Shantarakshita was not the abbot who ordained them.   Whatever the case, when we actually know at what time this occurred, then we can say when the first six, or seven men of the monastic community was founded.

SEVENTH CENTURY – THE EXISTENCE OF NUNS IN TIBET

At that time, was it only men that became monastics and no women? No, there were both men and women. As I mentioned in this Chronicles of Ba, It says:

Then Karchen Za (‘khar chen za) went forth with 300 subjects.

So following that it quotes some scriptural citations and says that in some historical documents, after Samye was built, but before it was consecrated, Samye had been made but it was before the opening ceremonies. During that time, Ba Selnang went forth and was given the name Yeshe Wangpo. In the Year of the Sheep, that was this year I gave before, 767, after the year of the sheep while doing the great consecration rituals, Jomo Chen Trigyel and one hundred others went forth with Khenpo Barey (dba’ red).

So here, they are giving two different situations: in one they say Kachen Za with three hundred but it does not clearly say who the abbot was. In quoting some of the other documents it says the Khenpo was Barey. For this reason, later in Tibet, there were many people who said that the Khenpo who first gave full ordination to women was Khenpo Barey.

THE 8TH CENTURY QUEEN, TRI JEMO TSEN BECAME A NUN
Traditional Tibetan jewellry and head wear.

Later, there was an old Chinese manuscript found at the Dunhuang Caves and the title of it, which I translated into Tibetan, is called Ascertaining the Reasoning of the Mahayana Sudden Enlightenment which says:

The Queen Tri Jemo Tsen had great faith and devotion from the very beginning. She therefore cut off her deep black hair and wore the saffron coloured banner. The jewel of stainless discipline illuminated the mandala in her heart and through the clear water of samadhi she realised the nature of Samten (contemplation). This example cannot be stained like a lotus unstained by the mara. The master was skilled in means for taming beings so he always taught the King’s sister Tri  Nanamza and over 30 consorts and ministers. They all went forth on one occasion into the Mahayana Dharma. So what difference is there between her and Mahaprajapati?

Thus, it says that King Drisong Detsen’s Queen, Tri Jemo Tsen and his niece, her aunt Tri Nanamza and 30 others went forth into the Mahayana Dharma.  In this text, it is not clearly said that Khenpo Mahayana was the abbot who ordained them. He taught them the Dharma and because his Dharma teachings caused them to become nuns, there probably was a great relation between him and their ordination.

WHEN THE BELL TOLLS: ANCIENT INSCRIPTIONS RELATING TO BUDDHIST NUN, QUEEN TRI JEMO TSEN’S BELLS

So when we compare these two ancient historical Tibetan texts, it seems the first Tibetan woman to become a nun was the Queen, Tri Jemo Tsen. When we talk about this Queen Tri Jemo Tsen, there are two other pieces of historical evidence we need to know about.

The first is the inscription on the bell at the Samye Gegye (bsam yas dge rgyas) Temple.  There is an inscription written on the bell and it is very clear. The second is an inscription on a bell at Tragdrug Monastery. The bell at Samye Gegye temple was probably erected before Trison Detsen’s Queen became a nun, whereas the bell at Tragdrug was probably built afterwards.

Bell at Samye Gegye Temple sponsored by Queen Tri Gyelmo Tsen

This is the bell from the Samye Gegye temple (image). The bells of this size are called chong in Tibetan. This word was taken from the Chinese word for bell chung and the Tibetans translated it from that into chong.  The inscription says that:

The Queen, as an offering to the three jewels in the ten directions, erected this bell, by the power of this merit may King Trisong Detsen, his princes and their wives have voices of the sixty qualities and achieve unexcelled enlightenment. 

So the sponsor and founder of this bell was the Queen.

Then there is the bell from Tradrug Monastery (khra ‘brug dgon pa). This bell was also well-known at that time of King Trisong Tsen and the inscription says: “Like the appearance of the fierce sound of the deities, that encourages all sentient beings to virtue. It was sponsored by Jomo Jangchub.”

This says that the sponsor of the bell was Jomo Jangchub, after being ordained as a nun, Queen  Tri Jemo Tsen was given the name Jangchub Gyen. For that reason, we can say that this bell was made after she became a Biskhuni. So these two bells are evidence that the Queen Tri Jemo Tsen, or the nun Jangchub was a very important historical figure.

 In the Chronicles of Ba, it says the Khenpo who first fully ordained Tibetan women is Bareyna. yet in the text from Dunhuang it says it was probably the Chinese Buddhist Khenpo Mahayana. Whosoever it is, it does not matter, either one is fine.  However, whichever of the two, it is clear that the nun’s ordination was given by the male sangha. It was clearly not a dual sangha.

As for a source that says there were both male and female fully ordained monastics, there was  a Letter by Bel Payang. I’ve quoted from that before.  It says:

“Now give instruction to the Biskhus, novice and Bhikṣunis who have gone forth.”

 In particular, he says you should give advice to the novices and the Bhikṣuṇīs. He wrote that down. He said this to Tibetan subjects, then it is clear there were Bhikṣuṇīs in Tibet. If there were not any such nuns, then it would be pointless to tell people there were. So we can conclude that during the Early spread of the teachings in Tibet, there were both male and female sangha members and that the ordination was given by the male sangha.

As I was saying, there is an account of 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje giving full ordination and if he did give Bhikṣuṇī ordination they we need to know what is the background history behind this, about how the Tibetan male and female monastics became Bhikṣuṇīs. So first I have spoken about the existence of male and female monastics in Tibet during the Early spread of the Dharma teachings.

LATER SPREAD OF TEACHINGS IN TIBET

The second background and supporting topic  is regarding the later spread of the teaching in Tibet. It is probably in the 10th Century when the later spread of the teachings began there.

  • 10tH CENTURY –LHA LAMA YESHE OD

There was an ancient inscription by Lha Lama Yeshe Od which says:

If ladies and consorts are able to become Bhikṣuṇīs, instead of stopping them, they should be sent to liberation and a Dharma house should be built for them. 

The meaning of this is that the wives of ministers and so on, people of high status, if their wives wished to become fully ordained nuns they should not be stopped. Therefore,  nunneries and temples should be built for them. There is this inscription giving them this edict.

  • 10TH CENTURY – LOTSAWA RINCHEN ZANGPO’S LITTLE SISTER

Likewise, another important piece of evidence showing there were Bhikṣuṇīs at that time is there was a student of Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo called Khyi Tangpa Yeshe Pel who wrote a liberation story about the Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo. In that it says that Rinchen Zangpo had three siblings, including himself four, and that his little sister, Sherab Tsomo became a Biskhuni. She studied the tantric Dharma and because of her practice became known as the yogini of siddhis, Choki Dronma.  So this account shows that there were Bhikṣuṇīs at that time.

  •  13th CENTURY – 5TH SAKYA LEADER, DROGON CHOPHAG’S SANGHA

The third supporting story, moving forward to around the 13th Century, there was  a Drogon Chophag (‘gro mgon chos ‘phags, 1235-1280) ’s father, Zangtsa Sonam Gyeltsen had five or six wives. The third of these was called Lhachig Dzema and her oldest daughter was ordained by the master Sonam Bum. She founded a nunnery called Jomo Ling. It says that she had taken the Bhikṣuṇī vows.

Likewise, Drogon Chophag himself said:

From Nepal, India, China, Western Mongolia and Ke’ule (this is an old name, but means Korea), Jang, Yogur, Zhusen and other places he was the Khenpo of over 4425, Bikshus and Bhikṣuṇīs, novice monks and nuns and people who went forth.

Both of these are included in the collection of historical documents compiled by Peljor Zangpo called the Arrangements of Indian and Tibetan texts to  Delight Scholars (bsgrigs pa’i rgya bod yig tshang mkhas pa dga’ byed) compiled in 1434. In any case, this proves that in the 13th Century there were Bhikṣunis.

  • 13TH CENTURY: FIVE SCHOLARS FROM MINYAK – KAZHIPA RIGPA SENGE’S BHIKSHUNI STUDENTS

The fourth supporting account is in the 13th Century, there were the five scholars from Minyak (mi nyag mkhas pa mi lnga), as they are known. They are connected to the 5th Karmapa, Dezhin Shegpa and they were considered important scholars. Among them was  Kazhipa Rigpa Senge (bka’ bzhi pa rig pa Seng ge). Buton’s guru Jamkya Namkha Pel and Tsi Dul Dzin’s lineage that followed the lineage of Vinaya master called Sonam Drag, who not only spread the Dharma widely, but also his own place in western Minyag,  he extensively established the teachings of study and practice. In particular, he was said to have also had over 100 Bhikṣuṇīs among his students.  This is  according to the Liberation-Story by his direct disciple, Seng Zang.

  • 14TH CENTURY – VINAYA MASTER, NAMKHA SONAM’S ORDINATION OF BHIKSHUNIS

The fifth supporting story is in the latter part of the 15th Century, there was a Vinaya master called Namkha Sonam who was very well-known at that time. He was the Khenpo who ordained Chuwar Rangjung Ngomo as a Bhikṣuṇī. This event is described in Gorampa’s Dialogues The Blooming Lotus. This is the 5th background supporting event.

  • THE LADY OF YARDROG

The sixth supporting event, is toward the end of the 14th Century, there is a section of Letters in the collected works of Khepa Redawa Zhonu Lodro, there is one called The Advice to the Lady of Yardrog Bonmo, Chophel Zangmo. What is written in that is:

“The female Bhikṣuṇī, Yardrog Bonmo, Chophel Zangmo along with the cape, I, Geshe Yeshe Pel  rejoice.”

At the end of the letter  it says: “From Gang Bu ley to the Bhikṣuṇī Chopel Zangmo.” So when you look at these, even at that time there were Bhikṣuṇīs, particularly the one called Lady of Yardrog.

  • 15th CENTURY – THE BIKSHUNI ORDINATION OF 1ST SAMDING DORJE PHAGMO
Mural portrait of a Dorje Phagmo incarnation at Nyêmo Chekar monastery in Nyêmo County, Lhasa, Tibet

The seventh supporting statement is from the beginning of the 15th Century, there is Samding Dorje Phagmo, the first Vajravarahi recognition in Tibet, Chokyi Dronma (1422-1455). Sometimes, she was called Shelkar Do Dzomo and she became a student of Bodong Penchen. Not only that, she first took the novice vows from him and was called Adrol Chokyi Dronma.

Then later, she again took the Bhikṣuṇī vows from Bodong Penchen. At that time, he was himself the Khenpo and brought in another ten to have the full sangha and they gave her the Bhikṣuṇī ordination.  Her full ordination is explained in detail in Jetsunma Chokyi Dronma’s Liberation-Story. I do not need to say much about that now.

There is an interesting tale within it. The day after she became a Bhikṣuṇī, she was eating and having lunch with Bodong Penchen Rinpoche who had invited her to have lunch with him. At that time, she wore her full Dharma robes, brought her alms bowl and she also had an attendant who was a novice nun and they came to see him. From the moment he saw them, he said ‘this Bhikṣuṇī is really something and it was very inspiring to see her’. So Bodong Penchen when he saw her coming to visit him, smiled and said:

‘It is said like the arhat descends to the earth, and today, now it seems like an arhati (a female arhat) has descended to earth.’

It was like she had come down from the sky from the heavens. When he saw her, he was inspired to faith by it. This is described clearly in her Liberation-Story.

  • 15TH CENTURY – GELONGMA SHAKYA ZANGMO, THE MOTHER OF PENCHEN SHAKYA CHOGDEN

The eighth supporting story is at the beginning of the 15th Century, there was a woman, at first she was a lay practitioner, named Sangdawa Shakya Budrenma. She first went forth under the Master Lobzang Phugpa and was given the name Shakya Dze. Later,  she went to Khenpo Sangye Zangpo and took Bhikṣuṇī ordination and was given the name Shakya Zangmo.

When she took Dharma teachings from the Khenpo, her experience is that there was a crystal light that appeared repeatedly inside her body. She had  a kind of vision of this and she said’ I am having this vision’ and she asked the Khenpo about it, who rested in meditation for a few minutes. I think he did the practice of pacification. He said to her ‘you will bear a great being and will give birth to a great being who will uphold the teachings of the Buddha’.

In the past in India, there was the Brahmin Selwai Tsultrim who was first a nun and then became a laywoman for the benefit of beings and gave birth to Asanga from the Kshatriya class and Vasubhandu, the Brahmin. He said, ‘you have that same sort of virtue so you should not stay here, you should go back to your home.’ He gave this prophecy and sent her back. So she then gave back her vows and became the mother of Panchen Shākya Chokden (1428-1507).

This is described in the Detailed Account of the Shākya Chokden’s Liberation-Story, as well as the Illuminating Sun of the Buddhist teachings. That is the eighth supporting story.

Panchen Shākya Chokden (1428-1507)
  • 15TH CENTURY PANCHEN SHAKYA CHOG’S FULL ORDINATION OF GYAMA CHODRUB PELMO

The ninth supporting historical account is later 15th Century when Panchen Shākya Chokden was 62 years old, it is said that Gyama Chodrub Pelmo was ordained a Bhikṣuṇī with him as the Khenpo and Chen-nga Drupgyel was the ritual master, the private questioner was Sangtonpa Kungyel, and the discipline master’s assistant was Je Dragma, the time keeper was Drung Wangzang, his assistant was Choje Samtenpa and they had four other masters to fill the sangha to give the ordination ceremony. This is written in the liberation-story of Penchen Shākya Chokden called the Illuminating Sun of the Buddha’s Teachings.

So after that, as I said before, the historical documents provide support for the fact that Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje gave the Biskhuni vows, and this was in the 16th Century.

TRADITION OF GIVING ORDINATION TO ONLY NOBLE/HIGH-STATUS WOMEN

Anyway, these accounts we can read ourselves are related to Bhikṣuṇīs. It is understood that there must be many other accounts, but these have not yet come to our attention. So we need to continue to look for that.  In any case, when we research these accounts, we can understand from them is that in Tibet most of the women who had the Bhikṣuṇī ordination in the past were from a high status, whether from a noble lineage or a high family. That is primarily the type of woman it was. It was a tradition that people of noble lineages could take Bhikṣuṇī vows. But among the common people there were not so many coming for the Bhikṣuṇī. This is possibly one reason why later, the lineage of the Bhikṣuṇī vows the lineage was broken. That is one hypothesis we can give. It could be another situation why that happened though.  We cannot really say so we need to research this topic.

BY 16th CENTURY – EQUAL NUMBER OF FULLY ORDAINED MONKS AND NUNS

In any case before the 16th Century, there were not only Bhikṣuṇīs but also there was an equal number of monasteries and nunneries in the region of Central Tibet (U-Tsang). How do we know this?

In the text by Karma Chagme called The Important Dharma Teachings for Nuns For Being Self-Sufficient In the Dharma. It says:

 “In Central Tibet there are as many monks and nuns, and gurus and discipline masters, around 300 to 400 of them.  They established strong discipline and the nunneries were good. Thus most were able to become self-sufficient in the Dharma. I have not heard of such happening here in Kham and Ngomshi, protectors of Dharma are like stars in the daytime.”

The meaning of this is when Karma Chagme went to Central Tibet in the 16th Century, at that time, there was really no difference in numbers in the monasteries and nunneries. In the nunneries, in each of them there was three to four hundred nuns, not just a few. Also there were many discipline masters who were nuns in these nunneries. They kept good boundaries and had a list to prevent men from outside coming in to see them. So they were very strong nunneries. Yet in Kham and Ngomshi, the area where Karma Pakshi was from, nunneries with nuns in charge were said to be very rare there and they did not have that environment. So in U-Tsang at that time, the numbers of nuns and monks in U-Tsang were no different.

Later than that, up to the 17th Century, gradually there was probably an equal number of monasteries and nunneries. This is the situation before. Likewise we also see that many of the Kadampa monasteries were later converted to nunneries and so for this reason, for one time period there was no difference in the number of monks and nuns. The teachings of the nuns spread widely.

17TH CENTURY AND THE CHANGE OF POLITICS, GELUG TAKEOVER IN TIBET LED TO DEGENERATION OF NUNS
5th Dalai Lama. The degeneration of the status of nuns in Tibet is said to have occurred around the time of his reign onwards.

Later, there was  great change in the politics in U-Tsang [the Karmapa is referring to the period of the 5th Dalai Lama/Gelug takeover of Tibet] and then after that people started to look badly towards the fully ordained nuns and started to say that fully ordained nuns would harm the teachings. That was due to the political changes in Tibet.

Up to the 17th Century though, during that time, the nun communities were flourishing.  If we look at these accounts from before, from the introduction of the Bhikṣuṇī vows in Tibet, probably about 98% of the these Bhikṣuṇī ordinations were performed by the Bhikṣu sangha. That was the situation.

THE GENERAL WAY NUNS GET ORDINATION

“Generally, when we think about the vows of laywomen and going forth, novice nuns, they are not taken from the sangha but from individuals. For example, if you take the vows of a laywoman or a novice nun, they are taken from the female master/Acharya and the vows of going forth are taken from an Abbess/Khenmo. The nun-in training, the celibacy and Bhikṣuṇī vows are taken from the sangha though.  So, for example, the Bhikṣuṇī vows, the female students take them from the fully ordained sangha. The  celibacy vows are taken from the female sangha with an abbess.”

WAYS OF BECOMING ORDAINED AS A NUN
Elderly nun teaching young nun the mandala offering mudra. Photo by Olivier Adam.

In the Vinaya it says there are ten different ways to become fully ordained, and three are mainly for women:

1) by accepting the eight heavy Dharmas

2) by messenger

3) by the two-fold sangha (men and women)

Way of becoming ordained as a nun
CAN WOMEN BE GIVEN FULL ORDINATION BY FULLY ORDAINED MONKS?

In some regions, there was a Bhikṣu community but no Bhikṣuṇī community, there were such places. So, if the Bhikṣuṇī ordination is given by the male sangha, can we say this is correct?

In the Minor Topics of the Vinaya there is this quote:

The women went forth with the Bhikṣus  and were fully ordained and became Bhikṣuṇīs.  

So, first the request for ordination has to be made to the male sangha. So that is one reason why the vows can be taken from the male sangha.

Also, there was an extensive commentary on the Minor Topics by Master Gelek Shenyen (see image), which says:

When we say Bhikṣu, this excludes the Bhikṣuṇīs.

Basically that means that the Bhikṣuṇī ordination can only taken from the Bhikṣus and not from the sangha of Bhikṣuṇīs.  This is clearly stated.

Also in a Commentary on the Vinaya Sutras (see image) says:

If a nun in training is fully ordained with the ritual of Bhikṣus , as the Bhikṣu sangha is the primary sangha then the gathering of the Bhikṣunis is done merely in accordance with tradition.

For example, if you are fully ordained with the male sangha, is it a valid ordination? It is. Because in order to do the full ordination for the Bhikṣuṇī, you generally have to have both the male and female sanghas. However, the Bhikṣu male sangha is the primary one. For this reason, the sangha of male Bhikṣus alone can conduct the ordination and that becomes a valid action.

Also, in Tibet, the most well-known of the Vinaya commentaries is the one by Sutri(Sungawa?) This says (see image):

If the Khenmo and nuns-in-training wish, there is a well-known tradition of male sangha giving them ordination. 

So if there are no fully ordained nuns, it is acceptable to take the vows from the fully ordained monks. Likewise, it is commonly accepted in the traditions of all the four lineages, Nyingma, Sakya , Kagyu and Gelug for the masters to  give the going forth and novice vows to women.

 If women are unable to take the ordination from men, they can receive it but it would not be flawless and perfect, then there would be no way for women to be able to get ordination. So, if that were the case, then there would be the danger that we would have to say there were no nuns in Tibet. So that’s another point we need to keep in mind.

Also, there in the Basis of the Summer Tradition/precepts  (lung dbyar gyi gzhi)  that Bhikṣus  monks would go out to ordain nuns in training and give celibacy vows.

THE SUTRA OF MAHAPRAJAPATI
Depiction of Shakyamuni Buddha with his Aunt, the first ordained nun, Mahaprajapati

 

Similarly, in the 5th Century, there is an early translation into Chinese of the Sutra of Mahāprajāpatī (bDag mo chen mo’i mdo).  This is a very early Sutra that was translated from Sanskrit in China. The main point is in the future, after the Buddha passes away because Mahāprajāpatī accepted the eight heavy Dharmas and became ordained, in the future, if there are women who wish to become Bhikṣuṇīs, what should they do? The Buddha said they should be ordained by the Bhikṣunis but they also have to answer to the Bhikṣu sangha. There are many reasons why this was said. I don’t need to go through all of them.

GELONGMA VOWS GIVEN BY THE MALE SANGHA IS ACCEPTABLE

So, then Ananda asked him, ‘ if there are all these reasons, then if the Bhikṣu is a khenpo/abbott or master, then surely it is OK for them to be that for the nuns, isn’t it? They can be the master and abbott for those Bhikṣuṇīs?”  The Buddha said it was not OK for them to be that. However, in the end, the Buddha said if there are no Bhikṣuṇīs then it is logical for for the Bhikṣus to give the vows directly.  So this Sutra of Mahāprajāpatī is very important Sutra and an ancient one.

Now, as it is said in the Sutra of Mahāprajāpatī, in Tibet as well, it seems this practice was occurring previously. The reason is because the Kadamapa scholars of Narthang, Sherab Gyamtso the Kadampa master in our time, wrote in the Vinaya Commentaries:

 If there are no Bhikṣuṇīs, then it is suitable for the Bhikṣus to give all the vows. 

 In brief, if we want to summarise everything, if you have not previously taken the nun-in -training (Getsulma) vows but are ordained as a Bhikṣuṇī, you do get the fully ordained vows, it is not necessarily faultless and perfect but they do arise. After taking full ordination from the male sangha, then the faultless and perfect vows arise. Also, as Bodong Penchen Rinpoche said, the actual Gelongma vow arises from the male Gelong sangha. The actual basis or time of receiving the vows is when it is given by the male sangha. Basically, most scholars agree that the Bhikṣuṇī vows arise from the Bhikshu sangha.

So, it is saying the source of the Bhikṣuṇī vows is solely according to the male sangha, not because of the female sangha of Bhikṣuṇīs. Therefore, the lineage of the vows is transmitted from the male sangha, not from the female sangha. For that reason, even with a Bhikṣuṇī sangha, the Bhikṣuṇī vows only arise from the male sangha.  Even when there is a two-fold sangha, both male and females come together and give the vows, it is said that the vows arise from the sangha, right?  So when you have the two sanghas, the male and the female, among those two do they get the vows from both, or from the male or female sangha? It is said only from the male sangha.

Therefore, there are times when there are Bhikṣuṇī sanghas you get the vows only from the male sangha. Therefore, in a place such as Tibet, then if the vows were given by the male sangha, then how could they possibly be considered faulty, that is what I wonder about.

EARLIEST FULLY ORDAINED NUN IN CHINA – 4TH CENTURY
Towards Monastery (2010) by Min Wae Aung, Karin Weber Gallery

The Dharma first spread into China in the 4th Century. In Tibet, it was in the 8th Century. In China, the earliest Bhikṣuṇī was in the 4th Century and her name was Jingjian (292–361).

She was  probably ordained by a male sangha alone, I think.  It is difficult to find examples of this in India, when Buddha Dharma was flourishing, because at that time there were both Bhikṣus  and Bhikṣuṇīs there, so it is difficult to find any examples of that.

17TH KARMAPA’S ACTIVITIES ON GIVING FULL ORDINATION TO NUNS
17th Karmapa with nuns from Tilokpur Nunnery, the oldest Karma Kagyu nunnery in India outside Tibet. Some nuns from that nunnery received full ordination vows from nuns abroad.

These days, the world has shrunk and travel has become much easier. If there are Bhikṣuṇīs in other countries and regions, if we want to invite them we can. Therefore, if we invite some Bhikṣuṇīs from other regions to give the ordination then they can do that. I think there are greater benefits to doing so. Of course,  even though it is said that these vows can be given by the male sangha that does not mean it is always best to give it from the male sangha in all situations. If it is possible to have individuals who hold the Bhikṣuṇī vows, then if we can have the Bhikṣuṇī vows with both the male and female sanghas I think that would be fine. That is past history and when I consider this I think it is probably OK.

However, there is one thing there is a bit of a dispute about , if you have authentic Biskhunis from other countries, is it alright for them to give the the nun’s vows or not? A few years ago, I did invite a sangha of Bhikṣus  from Taiwan to the sacred site of Bodh Gaya to give the novice nun vows [vii]. I did that activity and it turned out well, in the future as well, when the epidemic is over and we all can travel easily again. I would like to invite a Bhikṣuṇī sangha from another country again to continue to do this. In particular, those who have taken the novice vows to give them the nun in training vows, and then in the future to give them the Bhikṣuṇī vows.  From my own side, I would like to do as much as I can to help this happen.

Within our practice lineage of the Karma Kamtsang, this topic of the Bhikṣuṇī ordination you might wonder if it is something I have decided all by myself. No I have not. In the past, during the Kagyu Guncho, in Bodh Gaya all the Khenpos, Geshes, students and all gathered together and had conferences on the Vinaya. We had several of these conferences. We had many pointed discussions about whether it was appropriate for the Bhikṣus  to give the Bhikṣuṇī vows and so forth. So at that time, these experts told us to do it and so I served them as I was asked to do so.

[Author’s Note: Interestingly, according to Schneider (2012: 132) it was the Nyingma and Kagyu representatives who voted for full ordination being given to women by Tibetan monks, whereas the Sakya and Gelug voted against it:

“Several months after the congress in Germany, on 28 and 29 April 2008, the Department of Religion and Culture organised the fourth conference on female ordination. Sixteen Tibetan religious dignitaries from all Buddhist schools were invited and a few nuns from the monasteries of Dharamsala were able to attend as spectators. The discussion focused on the two methods possible for instituting full ordination. The first, which consisted of involving Chinese nuns of the Dharmaguptaka tradition, was rejected unanimously. As for the second method, which relies on Tibetan monks alone, opinions remained divided: the eight representatives of the rnying ma and bka’ brgyud schools voted for and seven from the sa skya and dge lugs against; one of the dge lugs representatives abstained.”

Schneider also observed that the Tibetan nuns seemed overly concerned about offending male Tibetan monks than their non-Tibetan female counterparts. Religious male patriarchy may also be the reason why the option of having Chinese nuns bestow the vows was unanimously rejected! It is not clear if the lineage representatives were all male, but probably so. Nonetheless the 17th Karmapa made clear in this teaching that he supported the full ordination of Tibetan nuns by non-Tibetan Bhikshunis.]

WHY THE DURATION OF THE TEACHINGS WERE NOT SHORTENED BY FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AS PREDICTED IF WOMEN BECAME NUNS

Some people also say that when women go forth it would shorten the teachings by about 500 years. Everyone knows about this. As we say, often people don’t know about any of the good events, but when these bad things happen, then everyone hears about them but no one talks about the good things, but there is this discussion. We never have an opportunity to give an answer. We have a Tibetan saying which is “when you have an old statue you don’t need to build a new one”. So we think we already have an answer that was given in the second century, so why do we need to think up a new one? That answer is from the 183rd Verse from the Great Exposition:

From the Vinaya it says:

“My teachings should remain for 1000 years but their duration will be shortened by 500 years because of women going forth.”

This is said in the Vinaya, Buddha said the duration of the teachings will be shortened by 500 years. When we talk about this, what Dharma is this referring to in these 1000 years? There’s another thought/issue that if the second 500 years is supposed to be 500 years after this was said, why did the teachings continue to remain?  Dharma teachings were supposed to stay for 1000 years and so 500 years less would mean, at the time of the Great Exhibition, the teachings would not be present, but the teachings were still present.  So what happened? Buddha had said the teachings would be shortened.

There are two different answers that explain this. At that time, when Buddha  spoke about the teachings, he was talking about the period of attaining liberation/arhatship. He was not saying that the period of the teachings themselves would be shortened but that the time period for attaining arhatship would be reduced. Some people explain it like that.

Others say, and I think this explanation is better, is that at the time women became nuns Buddha told them they had to accept the eight heavy Dharmas. He said if you do not accept them, then it will be reduced by 500 years, so as they accepted them and that is why the teachings were not shortened.

So if we do not understand this point properly, then it is not in accord with the teachings of the scriptures. The point is, when saying that the teachings will be shortened when women become nuns, you need to be able to respond to that point properly. It is inappropriate to say that women becoming nuns would harm the teachings and so on. At that time, Buddha had no choice and women were looked down on at that time in society, and so Buddha understood that if he included women in the sangha they would not accept them, and that is why he said that women had to accept the eight heavy Dharmas.”

[Author’s note: as a conclusion, perhaps we might also consider the fact that the prophecy that the teachings duration would be shortened by 500 years may have been Buddha’s forseeing the degeneration of the status of fully ordained nuns and their inferior treatment by the monks, which itself would lead to the degeneration of the teachings? It was not the fact that women became nuns that was the issue, but that monks would treat them so badly?]

ENDNOTES

[i] This remarkable new research by the Karmapa, contradicts prior research on this topic by English language scholars such as Nicola Schneider (2012:112:n5) (see Further Reading below) who asserts that there were no fully ordained Tibetan nuns prior to the 1980s[i] . Even though her research is valuable, Schneider (2012) does not adequately consider the views of the 17th Karmapa in her paper, with only brief reference (p.132) at the end of her piece wrongly suggesting that the Karmapa was no longer in favour of full ordination for Tibetan nuns. Yet, The 17th Karmapa’s presentation also challenges the research completed and presented by Geshe Tashi Tsering (cited by Schneider) on the subject that concluded there was no prior successful Gelongma ordination of Tibetan nuns in Tibet.. According to Schneider (2012: 115) the 14th Dalai Lama has charged Geshe Tashi Tsering with researching the subject of female ordination. The later published, at that time, an article in English (Acharya Tashi Tsering and Russell, 1986). The results of this seminar were published in three volumes by the Department of Religion and Culture. 2 and Ócårya dge bshes Thub bstan Department of Religion and Culture 2 c).000b, 2000a, 2000byang chub, alias Geshe Tashi Tsering). … These publications were then sent to two hundred key Tibetan figures (vinaya masters, lamas, nuns and scholars) with the request that they comment on them. However, in spite of repeated reminders, only thirteen responses were obtained. They did not present a unanimous opinion.”

[ii] This is not the first time the Karmapa has given teachings on the full ordination of women, as I wrote about here. He also gave an interview for Lion’s Roar (2015) and said this:

“No matter how others see it, I feel this is something necessary. To uphold the Buddhist teachings it is necessary to have the fourfold community (fully ordained monks (gelongs), fully ordained nuns (gelongmas), and both male and female lay precept holders). As the Buddha said, the fourfold community are the four pillars of the Buddhist teachings. This is the reason why I’m taking interest in this.”

[iii] His teachers included 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje and Tsuglag Trengwa.

[iv] I have translated the Tibetan word lcam mo as Sister/Consort. The English word, ‘lady’ is old-fashioned and has some sexist connotations. It tends to be used more for royalty or aristocracy.

[v] cam mo rje btsun ma dkon mchog mtsho mo ni rje mi skyod zhabs las bsnyen par rdzogs pa dge slong ma’i dngos por gyur te ‘dul ba’i bcas pa phra zhing phra ba mtha’ dag dri bral du spyod bzhin pas/_zhong kha dgon du btsun ma brgya lhag pa’i dbus na chos ston cing sku tshe dang sgrub pa mthar phyin pas/ dwags lung pa kun gyi phyag mchod kyi gnas su gyur pa byung ngo

[vi] The text quoted does not say Mikyo Dorje though.

[vii] It was reported in Buddhist Door, that on  11 March 2017, the 17th Karmapa invited nuns from the Dharmagupta tradition, who came from Nan Lin Vinaya Nunnery in Taiwan, to give shramaneri (novice) vows in Bodhgaya to 19 nuns from six Kagyu nunneries. After a year of noviceship, a two-year traineeship would follow, starting with shikshamana (trainee) vows. And finally, in 2020, bhikshuni vows will be conferred to successful candidates by a twofold sangha of 10 Mulasarvativada monks and 12 Dharmagupta nuns.

The Karmapa explained that he chose this form because he did not want to repeat history by making the same mistakes, so he decided on a different path than was taken a hundred years ago in Tibet. Ven. Bhikshuni Jampa Tsedroen provides us with the explanation:

“The first approach, an ordination by [Mulasarvativada] bhikshus alone, no longer seems to be an option for him [because] at times when ordinations were given by monks only in the 13th–15th centuries, it led to harsh criticism.”

“Once we have bhikshunis, it will take another 10 years before they will be able to give anyone else the bhikshuni vows,” the Karmapa declared in March. “So this will take a long time, and I’ll be in my 40s when we get to the end of the process.”

He added with honest conviction and devotion: “I found that the nuns’ pure intentions are so wonderful, really incredibly good. Sometimes I think we monks should be a little bit abashed at our intentions when we take vows as they are not nearly as fine or pure as theirs are. So I rejoice in what the nuns have done.”

FURTHER READING/SOURCES

Diemberger, Hildegard. (2007) When a Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty: The Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hirakawa, Akira (1999). Monastic Discipline for the Buddhist Nuns: An English Translation of the Chinese Text of the Mahāsāṃghika-Bhikṣuṇī-Vinaya. Kashi Prasad Jayaswal Research Institute.

Havnevik, Hanna, (1989) Tibetan Buddhist Nuns: History, Cultural Norms and Social Reality (Oslo: Norwegian University Press).

Rongxi, Li; Dalia, Albert A. (2002). The Lives of Great Monks and Nuns, Berkeley CA: Numata Center for Translation and Research (T2063: Biographies of Buddhist Nuns)

Schneider, Nicola. (2012) THE ORDINATION OF DGE SLONG MA: A CHALLENGE TO RITUAL PRESCRIPTIONS?. Revisiting Rituals in a Changing Tibetan World, 2012.

Tomlin, Adele. (2020) ‘Actions Speak Louder than Words’: 17th Karmapa’ s outstanding activities for females . Dakini Publications

Tsomo, Karma Lekshe (1999). Buddhist Women Across Cultures: Realizations. State University of New York Press. 

Tucci, Guiseppe. (1962) The Wives of Sroṅ btsan sgam po. Oriens Extremus Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 121-126. Harrassowitz Verlag.

Abstract: A brief overview of the situation for nuns in the Tibetan Tradition Archived 27 February 2020,  by Bhiksuni Tenzin Palmo

Karmapa announces plan to restore nuns’ ordination Lion’s Roar. 1 February 2015.

Nuns in the Tibetan Tradition: Latest Developments and Future Prospects (Buddhist Door, 2017)

Daughters of the Buddha, Tricycle (2006)

Interview with the Dalai Lama about the Full Ordination of Women (Buddhismus Aktuell, 2011)

short film about a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery Dolma Ling, Dharamsala (where I studied from 2017-2019, until the COVID 2 year lockdown!).

Committee for Bikshuni Ordination in the Tibetan Tradition: https://www.bhiksuniordination.org/issue.html?

Bibliography provided by CBO

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