Bhikkhuni and Siladhara: Points of Comparison FAQ


Introduction

 This page has been written in response to the very many questions that have been being frequently asked now with both bhikkhunis and siladhara nuns present and in the process of developing monastic abodes and projects in the San Francisco Bay area in Northern California. 

The most common question is:

What are the differences between you? 

 This writing will attempt to give answer, not only to clarifying our differences, but also to illuminating the converse, what we share and have in common. 

 The writer understands that these questions are often a natural part of both seeking understanding in itself and seeking understanding of what is better, more beneficial or more worthy of support for ourselves and our world.  What this article does NOT purport to do is to answer that question, but rather simply to provide information for the reader to decide (or choose not to decide) this for his or herself. 

 "Consumer Beware!"  Meditative practioners and contemplatives of wisdom traditions often become aware of the dangers of the "shopping" or "consumer" mentality in the course of their practice.  That said, we also add that the Buddha was an advocate of wise reflection and making considerate and well-informed choices in one's practice of the Path.

Name and Form

 As name and form play so prominently in our world and they are the first things we often grasp at, we will begin with that.

Q: "Why the different name?  Or is it a title?  What do these Pali words "bhikkhuni" and "siladhara" mean anyway?"

   Bhikkhuni

 "Bhikkhuni" is the feminine form of the word "bhikkhu".  Bhikkhu literally means an almsman, bhikkhuni an almswoman.  The Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sangha are the fully-ordained men and women of the Buddhist monastic community established by the Buddha in his lifetime.  It is a tradition more than 2,500 years old that has continued to this day, first flourishing in India, then in South, Southeast and East Asia, and now in the West.  It is unclear when the Bhikkhuni Sangha died out previously in Southeast Asia, perhaps as recently as the 19th century.  It has never died out in East Asia, and is currently undergoing a revival in South Asia and now Southeast Asia as well, along with its contemporary development in the West.

    Other kinds of Theravada Buddhist nuns

 With the more recent or ancient disappearance of the bhikkhunis' lineage of fully ordained women in South and Southeast Asian Buddhism, other forms of non-ordained or partially ordained monastic life for women appeared and evolved.  The white-robed 8-precept maechees of Thailand, donchees and the pink-robed silashin of Burma all keep the 8-uposatha precepts and are classed as "lay nuns" or "religious laywomen" by the male Asian Bhikkhu Sangha.  The practice of the uposatha observance of "monastic retreat" for laypeople keeping 8 precepts and wearing white was developed from the Buddha's time.  With the lack of further ordination opportunities, women have undertaken and developed the uposatha-sila form for longer periods of time, sometimes for their entire lives.

 In recent years, to further provide for women's religious needs and aspirations in monastic life, new forms of women's monastic discipline have evolved in South and Southeast Asia, including: Sri Lanka's light yellow-robed 10-precept nuns or Dasa-Silamatas, Thailand and Vietnam's 10-precept grey- and dark brown-robed Silavati nuns, Burma's dark brown-robed 10-precept Silashin nuns.  Although none of these nuns have official status in the institution of the Monastic Sangha, the 10-precept discipline is considered a higher or deeper form of renunciation than that of the 8-precept nuns.  The 10 precepts are the same as for Buddhist novices, although 10-precept nuns are generally not accepted as having the inclusive status of novices (whether male or female) within the Sangha.

     Siladhara

 When Western men first began to arrive in Thailand to train with great Thai masters of the forest tradition such as Ajahn Chah, the only form of monasticism apparently available for women there was of the white-robed 8-precept maechees, although there were very occassional reports and sightings of solitary brown-robed or even gold-robed nuns (aka female monks).  When Ajahn Sumedho founded the monastic community of Amaravati in England at Ajahn Chah's direction, the first women aspiring to monastic life were also ordained with 8-precepts, wearing white robes similar to the Thai maechees.  Finding this form of disicpline inadequate after some time, at the nuns behest, Ajahn Sumedho ordained the first four women as dark-brown-robed novices or samaneris.  In later years, a further form and level of ordination was developed, in consultation with the Vinaya, the novice nuns and with a Thai-trained monk teacher in the Amaravati community, Ajahn Sucitto.  While still officially lay renunciates in the eyes of the Thai Sangha heirarchy, and thus not as controversial as bhikkhuni ordination, this form of discipline included a training and discipline in more than 100 precepts, and became known as the siladhara ordination, and the community of nuns in England following this discipline, the Siladhara Order.

 

Sila means moral virtue, ethical integrity or precepts, dhara means to hold or uphold.

 For the siladharas, the siladhara ordination is spoken of as their full or higher ordination.  Thus the male monastic path and female monastic path are staggered: White-robed men with eight precepts (anagarikas) are called postulants, while such white-robed women (anagarikas) are called novices.  Gold-brown robed 10-precept samaneras are called novices, while dark-brown robed samaneris are both (legally) novices and, with the adoption of the siladhara discipline, also fully ordained (as siladharas).  Gold-brown-robed men who are fully ordained are then called bhikkhus.  Siladharas are not called bhikkhunis and are not ordained as bhikkhunis within their community.

 The Siladhara Oangha has, over the years, considered bhikkhuni ordination for its members and continued to do so until recently.  Some of its members had wished to become bhikkhunis, others not, and still others were undecided.  Other members have chosen to leave the community to fully ordain as bhikkhunis or to train in other related communities where full ordination is or is becoming available such as Santi Forest Monastery or Dhammasara Monastery in Australia. 

 

    Ayya & Ajahn

 Friends notice that the bhikkhunis' and siladharas' names are sometimes prefixed differently.  Men often have the words "Venerable, Than, Ajahn, Bhante" or even "Loung Por" in front of their names.  For women we see "Venerable, Sister, Ajahn," sometimes even "Loung Mae" and also "Ayya". 

 

What do all these words mean??

 In Thai tradition, the title "Venerable" may be used from the time of a man's novice ordination.  He may also be called "Loung Pi" which means "Venerable Brother".  "Loung Pi" can also mean "Venerable Sister."  "Than" or "Tan" just means "Venerable".  "Ajahn" is Thai for the Pali word for teacher - "Acarya".  It is used for men and women equally.  In Thai Buddhism, "Ajahn" is normally used after a monk or nun has been ordained for more than 10 years and/or when they begin teaching.  Ajahn is also used for laypeople who are Buddhist teachers as well as for University professors.

 "Bhante" is Pali and means "Venerable Sir" or "Sir" which is short for "Master".  The title "Bhante" is normally only used for men who are fully ordained.  "Ayya" is the female equavalent, although in Pali "Ayya" can also be used for men.  "Ayya" is an honorific designation for a nobleman or noblewoman, much as saying Lord or Lady, Master or Mistress.  Thus, for women "Ayya" means "Noble Lady".  In Thai, people also say "Loung Pi" - "Venerable Sister" or "Loung Mae" - "Venerable Mother" (for an elder female monastic)  Sometimes there is even "Loung Yai" - "Venerable Grandmother".  "Loung Por" is the male equavalent, meaning "Venerable Father," or "Loung Ta" - "Venerable Grandfather."

 Both bhikkhunis and siladhara nuns may be called either "Ayya, Ajahn, Venerable, Venerable Sister," or "Venerable Mother."  The word "Sister" alone is often used for female novices, or for Siladhara nuns before they become teachers, that is "Ajahn"s.  Again, "Ayya" is Pali-language, the lingua-franca of Theravada Buddhism; "Ajahn" is Thai-language. 

 

Form

 Q:  I notice you don't look exactly the same... your robes are a different color... are they worn differently?  Why is that?  Does it have any meaning?

As mentioned above, originally, Buddhist laypeople wore white when undertaking periods of semi-monastic retreat or special religious observance or renunciation.  Postulants and aspirants to monastic life aka anagarikas, at least in Thai, Lao, Sri Lankan and Indian Buddhist traditions, also wear white.  The white symbolizes purity.  For those who are monastic aspirants, the white symbolizes an emptying of the past and a readiness to be clearly and purely dyed in the waters of the monastic life, training and discipline. 

 Novices wear most of the same robes as fully ordained Buddhist monastics.   In Vinaya, there is a whole spectrum of colors that are allowable for the monastic robe, what we often now call the "autumn leaf spectrum," which includes anything from yellow-gold to orange and dark rust, into brown and dark-brown.  Normally forest tradition monastics tend towards the darker colors due to practicality, whether darker gold, darker orange, dark rust or brown.  The old method of dying the robes was of boiling them with the heartwood of the jackfruit tree which naturally makes the full spectrum above, depending upon the strength of the coloring agent in the wood, the amount of cloth and the length of time boiling. 

 In modern times, in the Theravadan Buddhism of Thailand and Sri Lanka, the light-yellow and dark-brown colors have been excluded from what is allowed for the mainstream male monastic communities.  These two colors have however been allowed for and adopted by the 10-precept dasa-silamata, silavati and siladhara nuns to distinguish them by color from bhikkhus and male novices.  In Burma however, the dark-brown robes are used by the forest tradition bhikkhus (such as Taungpulu Sayadaw) as well as for some of the silashin nuns, although the cut of the Burmese nuns' brown robes is like that of the pink-robed 8-precept silashin nuns, again, to clearly distinguish the nuns from those men ordained as monks and novices. 

 Robe-wearing style varies somewhat from tradition to tradition, order to order.  Bhikkhunis wear their monastic robes in the same styles as the bhikkhus in Sri Lankan, Thai and Burmese traditions.  The siladharas have chosen to wear their robes similarly to the "relaxed" Thai style, which is commonly used by both Sri Lankan and Burmese monks as well.

  

Traditions & Lineages

 

Q: Are you of the same tradition or lineage, or is it different?  How so and why? 

 Since early on in the Buddha's teaching, monastics have travelled to different countries and cultures sharing the Buddha's liberating teaching.  In the Buddha's lifetime various groups arose within the Sangha that the Buddha condoned, although this doesn't mean that he condoned "group-ism".  Rather, he praised the monastics who were foremost in various areas distinguishing them as amongst his Foremost Disciples for their distinctive virtues and merits.  Such distinctions include having a special propensity for teaching, for memorizing the Buddha's teaching, for meditation, for wisdom, for teaching, for skilfullness in training others, for details of monastic discipline, for forest dwelling ascetism, etc...  To those entering the Sangha with various natural potentialities, the Buddha recommended they go to train with those excellent in that area to learn and master it.  To this day, we find different traditions in Buddhism that are both various in terms of ethnicity and culture, as well as various in terms of distinctive emphasis in practice, ie: forest traditions, education traditions, teaching traditions, ascetic traditions, various meditative traditions...  Additionally we find traditions arising, as they did in the Buddha's life, around various great, noble, and praiseworthy teachers. 

 In Buddhism, there are two main types of lineage.  Lineages are similar to rivers that may branch out into many streams, or any number of streams that may come together into one river.  The two types of lineages are ordination lineage and practice lineage (tradition).  The ordination lineage is related to who one's preceptor is when one is ordained, but may also refer to one's Vinaya tradition, Order or School.  The practice lineage relates to who one's Vinaya, meditation and Dhamma teacher is or who those teachers are.  There may be just one teacher, or there may be more than one.  Sometimes one's Ordination Master (preceptor = upajjhaya), one's Vinaya teacher, one's meditation teacher and one's Dhamma teacher are all the same person.  Sometimes these roles are filled by several teachers.  And this is completely fine.

 For bhikkhunis who are ordained by the dual ordination, that is, by both the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sangha, traditions hold that the lineage is passed to them by one or the other Sangha, or both.  In some traditions, for women, the emphasis is on the bhikkhuni teacher with the bhikkhu simply being seen as fulfilling a functional role; in others the emphasis is on the bhikkhu teacher or preceptor with the bhikkhuni teacher simply fulfilling the requirement.  In some traditions, for bhikkhunis, both the bhikkhu and the bhikkhuni preceptor and teachers are given great weight and importance. 

 Thus, for the Theravada Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sanghas, in one sense we are all one Sangha stemming for the same source, united by ordination.  In another sense there is a tremendous amount of diversity.  For the bhikkhus in the Ajahn Chah tradition, they may have had various preceptors, various Vinaya teachers, various meditation teachers... but there is a sense of unity and commonality.  For the reviving Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha this is also more or less the case.  There is great diversity, not just one teacher or lineage. 

 For the siladharas, up until recently, all had been ordained by their teacher, Ajahn Sumedho, at Amaravati  monastery in England.  Thus their ordination lineage, to this point, might be seen in some way as being not nearly so diverse or broad as is the case for their affiliated Bhikkhu Sangha.  Additionally, because of not undertaking bhikkhuni ordination, there is often not be the same sense of commonality, connectedness or structural compatability when relating to the greater International Bhikkhuni Sangha as there is for bhikkhunis.  Rather there might be more the sense of being a seperate and unique tradition with Buddhist monasticism.

 

Precepts

Q: Do the bhikkhunis and the siladhara nuns have the same precepts?

 The Bhikkhuni Sangha inherited about 60% of its precepts or monastic discipline from the Bhikkhu Sangha.  So about 60% is shared.  An additional 40% of the Bhikkhuni Sangha's precepts were developed uniquely within the Bhikkhuni Sangha for itself, according to the situations the bhikkhunis faced and their preceived needs for their wellbeing within their own monastic community.

 There are people who commonly say that undertaking more precepts means more merit.  However, the early arahants initially had no precepts, and the precepts developed gradual during the time that the Buddha taught.  Thus, there is also the idea that more precepts equal more defilements.  However, we cannot say that all bhikkhus are more defiled than all laypeople who have less precepts in number, thus we understand this also not to be necessarily true.  However, the change from training with the 5 lay precepts to the 8 uposatha precepts, and the change from the 5 or 8 to the 10 novice precepts, if kept, makes a truly substantial difference in lifestyle and training.  This is all the more so for the change from training with 10 precepts to the more than 250 for the fully ordained bhikkhu and 311 for the fully ordained bhikkhuni. 

 It is held by the Northern Schools that at one time the number of precepts for the bhikkhus became so large (over 500) that many of the lesser precepts were removed to return the recitation of the discipline and the ordination proceedure to a more managable size.  There is no record of this ever having happened with the Bhikkhuni Sangha.

 The siladhara nuns' discipline was modeled after the novice discipline, with inclusions from the Bhikkhu Vinaya and consideration of the Bhikkhuni Vinaya.  The siladharas thus train with more than 100 precepts.  Their general lifestyle and discipline is similar in many ways to that of the forest tradition novices and monks.  Compared to bhikkhus and bhikkhunis there are some elements of the siladhara discipline that are more similar to the novices, ie:  siladhara nuns may receive offerings of food and drink that are not handed to them directly, but rather offered by stated intention.  This does not mean that they cannot or should not be offered food in the way that bhikkhus or bhikkhunis are.  They certainly can and may, but are allowed this bit more leniency, as is the case for male or female Theravada novices. 

 There are many in South and Southeast Asian Buddhism, both leading monastics and laypeople, who have said that the full ordination and keeping the precepts of the bhikkhuni discipline is just too hard and strenuous for women who are by nature softer and weaker.  They may also suggest that, especially in this degenerate age, 8 or 10 precepts are much more comfortable and conducive to a woman's nature and practice.  However, we are left to wonder then, if this is true, why it is that women such as the siladharas most willingly undertook greater discipline.  And why the Buddha himself said nothing of this sort, but rather suggested that the bhikkhunis should train themselves related to the precepts as the bhikkhus train themselves.  Or why the Buddha would have instituted precepts for the bhikkhunis at their behest.  We are led to the conclusion that there are those women, just as those men, both ancient and modern, sincere in the monastic discipline, who have found a thorough and complete monastic discipline supportive, beneficial and conductive for their practice of the path as well as for the short-term and long-lasting welfare of the Sangha. 

 

Unification

  Q: Is it possible for the siladhara nuns to become bhikkhunis or for bhikkhunis to become siladhara nuns?

 A number of siladharas as well as women training with the siladhara community have left the Siladhara Order to become bhikkhunis in Tibetan, Chinese and Theravada traditions.   If the Siladhara Order comes to a consensus that they would like to undertake bhikkhuni ordination, there is no reason that they cannot ordain as bhikkhunis as a community.  However, there are significant reasons that they have not yet chosen to do so.  

 [Thus have I heard.] One such reason would be a concern for community harmony, as there are bhikkhus in their tradition who are opposed to bhikkhuni ordination, the tradition as a whole has not yet come to a decision about it, and it is controversial.  Another reason might be lack of consensus within the siladhara nuns' community itself.  A third reason might be loyalty, faithfulness to and/or contentment with the siladhara form that has been developed, both for the nuns themselves, as well as for associated bhikkhus. 

 As for bhikkhunis becoming siladharas: over the years there have been a few bhikkhunis who have expressed interest in this possibility, but upon further consideration, none have yet done so.  According to the previous decisions of the siladhara nuns' community, a bhikkhuni could no longer remain as a bhikkhuni when becoming a siladhara,  just as a siladhara no longer remains a siladhara when she becomes a bhikkhuni, as they are two seperate disciplines. 

 Thus, although there is a great amount of similarity between the siladharas', bhikkhus' and the bhikkhunis' discipline, there is also an amount of non-permeability inherent in the siladhara form, due to its uniqueness, when compared to the greater Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sanghas. 

 Still, certainly, siladharas can visit bhikkhunis, bhikkhunis can visit siladharas, and both can be great Path friends and sisters in Dhamma.

 

Q: Why do you need to have two seperate monasteries?? Why can't you unite and there be just one?

 America is a great symbol of something that has been one the hallmarks of the Buddhist Sangha from its inception: unity in diversity. 

 Asian Theravadan bhikkhus began arriving in the Northern California San Francisco Bay Area 35 years ago.  In the past three decades around 30 Theravada bhikkhu monasteries have developed in the greater Bay Area with more than 100 monks.  All but one of these monasteries are Asian, the exception being Abhayagiri Monastery north of Ukiah, founded by monks of the Ajahn Chah and Amaravati tradition a bit more than 10 years ago. 

 Although both bhikkhunis and siladhara nuns had come to stay and visit the Bay Area for more than a decade, and several siladhara sisters were resident at Abhayagiri for a time,  it was not until 2005 that the first Theravada women's monastery was founded in the Western United States, in the San Francisco East Bay.  This is our Dhammadharini Vihara, a small monastery founded by bhikkhunis, for bhikkhunis and samaneris and for those who find value in their presence and wish to be near them.  It was the second such vihara in the USA, the first being the Dhammacetiya Vihara founded by Thai Bhikkhuni Venerable Gotami (Dr Prem Suksawat) in Massachusetts.  Additionally, there was the Bhavana Society which was a men's and women's monastery in West Virginia founded by Bhante Gunaratana from Sri Lanka, which later developed a bhikkhuni residence as a part of the women's section of the monastery. 

 In recent years, particularly in the past 5 years, with the revival of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha in Asia, we have seen the establishment of more and more women's viharas, monasteries and hermitages in North America with bhikkhunis in residence, both American- and Canadian-born as well as from various Asian countries such as Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Vietnam...  There are currently around 20 Theravada bhikkhunis and samaneris in North America at nine different bhikkhuni establishments.  Some are more involved with the Asian immigrant Buddhist communities, some with the diverse and multi-ethnic non-Asian communities born in America.  Some are more contemplative and reclusive, others more active in teaching, pastoral care, or leading meditation retreats.  There is great diversity in the Bhikkhuni Sangha in America, just as there is in the Bhikkhu Sangha, however the number of places for women to train and ordain and the opportunities available to them, although now rapidly growing, is still far, far less, and far more limited than for men. 

 Thus, it seems reasonable, if there is a wish amongst both women and men in the United States that there be a siladhara nuns' community in the United States as well as in Europe, that there can might be such a thing.  There are currently 5 men's monasteries in North America for Western men's training connected with the Thai Forest tradition stemming from two different Thai-originated orders: the Dhammayutika Nikaya and the Mahanikaya.  It does not seem unreasonable that one, two or more monasteries, hermitages or even training centers might develop for aspiring women as well as for those who are long-ordained in this tradition. 

 Additionally, for those bhikkhunis in the United States whose hearts incline to the natural, reclusive forest way of life, whether for shorter or much longer term retreat, it does not seem unreasonable that there be such a space and time for such practice, in addition to all sorts of other beneficial activities in sharing the Dhamma.  This is the vision of Dhammadharini's Aranya Bodhi project that is currently in progress: the Awakening Forest Hermitage, for which 120 acres of land has been so very kindly and compassionately offered on the Northern California Sonoma Coast.

  Evam.

This article is written with the humble hope and dedication that it will contribute to further understanding, and through right understanding, to greater compassion, ease, and either to respect or to mutual upliftment and supportiveness, if not both. 

 Comments are welcome.  Please post comments to: tathaaloka [at] gmail [dot] com.

 

* For more on the siladhara nuns in the United States see www.saranaloka.org.

 * For more information on the Awakening Forest Hermitage click the Aranya Bodhi tab at the top of this page.  For more information on the Bhikkhuni Sangha in the United States, read the left hand sidebar here or go to www.bhikkhuni.net.