On the Bestowal of Bhikkhuni Ordination Tathālokā Therī
Written in commemoration of the lunar anniversary of our Venerable Foremother Sanghamitta Theri's arrival on Lankadvipa twenty-three centuries ago as an inquiry into the ordination practices of our early arahant forebears, particularly those great Dhamma emissaries who spread the Buddha's teaching beyond the central heartland of the Indian Madhyadesa to foreign lands far and wide in all directions.
~ the great activities of early arahants ~
We have heard and read that in the early days of the Buddha Sasana, while the Blessed One still lived and breathed and walked the dusty paths of India's ancient heartland, there were very many fully enlightened women, bhikkhuni Arahantis. The Buddha's most beloved former wife, foster mother, half-sister, and many more Sakyan daughters were amongst the ladies of the Madhyadesa who became the Blessed One's Foremost Disciples, preeminent in all good qualities and virtues.
For when the Sakyan ladies emerged en masse from their native home Kapilavastu, on foot, hair shorn, bereft of all but the humble robes of samanas, it was the Blessed One who received and ordained their leader, his foster mother, she already attained to the first stages of sainthood. And to his Bhikkhu Sangha he gave the honor and responsibility of bestowing ordination upon her many saintly and aspiring companions, uplifting and entering five hundred more of these daughters of the Sakyans into full communion in the monastic Sangha. Thus the Bhikkhuni Sasana arose in the world in this Fortunate Eon, although there are the rumors of other early solitary wanderers amongst women, quick to be enlightened, called directly to the Path by the Conqueror.
Not long after, in praise of the effectiveness of his teaching, the Blessed One, the Noble Lord Buddha himself, testified to the attainment in his twofold monastic Sangha, and to the complete enlightenment of five hundred of his monastic women disciples to the Noble reaches and heights of the Path, to Arahant.
But then there were more.
For amongst the women Elders, the Theris, there arose those who themselves excelled in leadership and teaching: Theris Khema and Uppalavanna, preeminent in leadership of the women's monastic Sangha; Theri Dhammadinna for her Buddhavacana, the words from her lips likened by the Blessed One to his own; and Theri Patacara preeminent in her deep knowledge and teaching of the monastic discipline of the Vinaya. It is said that the venerable Patacara herself had five hundred enlightened disciples, and likewise former queen Anoja Theri five hundred, and the great Theri Mahapajapati Gotami too, together with the thousands following the Theri Bimba Yasodhara, unequaled in Vision of the Ages.
But those were the early days of the Sasana, when Arahantis flourished upon the lands of Middle Earth; the Noble Path of the Ariyas and the banner of the Arahants blazing forth in all its glory in robed feminine and masculine form. But you may ask, what of the Arahants of later days, after the light of the Tathagata passed from the world into the great and final bliss of Parinibbana?
The years passed and the Dhamma spread, and then a great king emerged, who by bloody conquest terrorized and took for his own land after land, amassing an empire previously unknown until, upon seeing a gentle monastic recluse, Asoka the Black stopped, transformed, and became Asoka the Benevolent.
Two hundred and six years had passed between the Blessed One's Parinibbana and the birth of Asoka's noble daughter, the great Lady Sanghamitta, later remember as The Wise One. And upon this noble daughter's reaching the age of eighteen, ninety-six thousand bhikkhunis, the majority of them Holy Ones, converged upon the beautiful capitol city of the realm, Pataliputra, together with six kotis of such holy bhikkhus, for the dedication of 84,000 monasteries and reliquary stupas across the land, as called together by her father, now Dhamma-Asoka, the Emperor, Uniter of the Continent. And to fulfill his wish that he become true relative of the Sasana by gift of his own flesh and blood, with her father's blessing, she too went forth, received the Pabbajja ordination. With her Preceptor Dhammapala Theri and with Ayupala Theri as her teacher, the princess undertook the preliminary Sikkha training and then the full training of a bhikkhuni, no long time passing before she joined these Noble Theris in destroying the fetter of individual existence, entering and then fulfilling the Arahant Path.
Her blessed brother Mahinda also went forth and awoke, excelling in the Buddha's Path, and after the passing of a decade, joined with other excellent messengers of the Dhamma who went far and wide to foreign lands, sharing the word of the Blessed One's noble and liberating Doctrine, enlightening the multitudes everywhere. For the Blessed One had told the bhikkhus: "Go forth for the weal and welfare of the manyfolk..." "'There are those with little dust in their eyes'... the gates to the Deathless are open."
And then he called for her as well.
The great Thera, her brother the Noble Mahinda, sent word by messenger from that lamp of an island Sri Lanka, far to the South where he had traveled teaching. For there Anula Devi, queen of the king's noble brother, together with 500 of her retinue of royal virgin companions, assembled and whilst listening to the Discourse on the Noble Truths, the Sacca Samyutta, had attained Sotapanna, entering that most noble of all streams, opening the Dhamma eye, gaining vision of Nibbana. Then telling her king Tissa Beloved to the Devas, "Lord, I would go forth," she made known the inclination of her heart to renunciation. Faithful as he was to the Doctrine, the king in turn told this to the Noble Thera Mahinda, his teacher. For this the Great Thera called for the Great Theri, making it known: "It is not for a bhikkhu to do, when there are bhikkhunis such as this sister of mine, Noble and Enlightened, Friend of the Sangha, Sanghamitta. May she come here."
And then for Queen Anula, at his direction, the king built for her and the saintly ladies, noble in birth and Noble in Dhamma vision, the Upasika Vihara that they could live at ease with the dasasila ten precepts and await she who would ordain them.
Although reluctant that his daughter the Venerable Lady Sanghamitta too should leave his land, faithful in his dedication, Dhamma-Asoka, Lord of the Continent, then made ready for her both ship and company, and as the Thera Mahinda had named them, the Wise Theri's companions:
The Noble Ones: Uttara, Hema, Pasadapala (Masagalla), Aggimitta, Dasika, Phegu (Tappa), Pabbata[-cchinna], Matta, Malla and Dhammadasiya, bhikkhunis free from desire and firm, with pure thoughts and wishes, firmly established in Dhamma and Vinaya, their passions subdued, with senses under control, attained to the three knowledges and supernormal powers, and well grounded in the Highest Bliss.
With sapling of the winter blossom-covered Bodhi, southern branch of the fair and sacred fig under which the Blessed One awoke, she came with her bhikkhuni retinue across the land and sea, blessed and accompanied by both devas and nagas; calming storms, subduing the wilds of the ocean; until they could see the shore, and the Lankan King Beloved to the Devas, waist deep in the waters, hands held high in reverence above his head in welcome and exalted joy. It was the first full moon of the Indian cold season when they descended, came ashore and then up and into Anuradhapura, that most beautiful and beloved city, with streets clean-swept in anticipation, lined with banners and strewn with rain of flowers showered down by devas.
The five hundred royal virgins surrounding Anula and five hundred palace women, all free from passion and steadfast, received the Pabbajja ordination from the Great Theri, not long after fulfilling the Arahant Path in the illustrious Doctrine of the Conqueror. And from them arose a great history, the Dipavamsa, the Chronicle of the Lamp or Chronicle of the Island, and a great tradition of excellence in enlightenment, long lasting, undying, to this day.
~ analysis ~
In modern times, if we look back to the example of the Ancient Arahants we find a very interesting picture. It seems that in the very earliest days of the Buddha Sasana that the Buddha himself ordained bhikkhunis and that he himself instructed the Bhikkhu Sangha to do so, calling for them to fully ordain many hundreds of women. It also appears that the bhikkhunis themselves were active teachers both of lay people in all strata of society as well as teachers and leaders of their own monastic followings, numbering in several cases into the hundreds and even thousands.
When we study the women's monastic discipline of the modern Pali-text Bhikkhuni Patimokkha, we find that a bhikkhuni may not ordain more than one student every other year, ostensibly due to shortage of lodgings (Bhikkhuni Pacittiyas 82 & 83). It has thus been logically theorized that these precepts must have arisen late in the Buddha's lifetime, after the Bhikkhuni Sangha was very well established, with large numbers of women entering the Order, and the provision of lodgings a concern. For this theory to hold true, we would then expect to find, at least in records postdating the Parinibbana, particularly for those knowledgeable in Vinaya and for those who were Arahantas, that these precepts would be most excellently followed in both letter and spirit.
However, when we look carefully at the story of the international foundation of the Bhikkhuni Sasana in the 3rd century BC on the Isle of Sri Lanka by the Arahant siblings Elders Sanghamitta Theri and Mahinda Thera, as well as the extant records of all of the other Asokan Missions, we find that these Arahant Elders seem to have been either:
(1) unaware of these precepts because they had not yet been established, or
(2) aware of these precepts and aware of reasonable exceptions to them, that is, of variant cases where they applied and didn't apply - a knowledge now lost in modern renditions of the Vinaya.
This is interesting in two ways related to our modern circumstances.
If (1) were true, then this might lend credence to the theories that there were precepts established to control the Bhikkhuni Sangha and subjugate it to the Bhikkhu Sangha that were instituted at least several hundred years after the Parinibbana of the Buddha, and notably after the time of the Asokan Missions.
This would also importantly tend to not support speculations amongst some contemporary Theravada Buddhists that the Buddha himself established these precepts for the sake of controlling and even stifling the Bhikkhuni Sangha because he did not want it to exist, or wanted it to remain very small and ineffective, or to die out quickly.
If (2) were true, it would also prove, through the authoritative example of the early Arahants, that these precepts, in the way that they were practiced in the early days, as understood by fully enlightened Masters of Dhamma and Vinaya, were circumstantial in application, as other precepts also are, in details that are now lost to us. That is, these precepts were not meant to be kept under every circumstance, but rather that there were exceptions, such as when the women to be ordained were replete with offered lodging and requisite support, as well as support in good quality training and instruction in Dhamma and Vinaya, much as the case of Queen Anula and her large following of several hundreds of women.
It would also prove, once again, that according to the understanding of the Ancient Arahants who lived within the first five hundred years after the Parinibbana -- at a time that all traditions agree that the Dhamma was still present in its pristine purity in practice and realization within the Sangha -- that it was (and is) a desirable thing to ordain larger numbers of both men and women who faithfully aspire to the full and complete living of the Holy Life in the monastic Sangha.
This does seem to be the prevalent mood of both the early Sasana in the Buddha's lifetime up to the pre-missionary period Buddhism in India under the Emperor Asoka as well as in the ensuing period of the great missions, as evidenced by the early missionary records from this period which proudly relate the numbers of both men and women brought into the Sangha by the Dhammadhuta Arahantas who traveled and taught far and wide, ordaining both men and women.
The case of Sanghamitta and Mahinda is unique, however, as it is the only record in which the presence and the name of the ordaining female Arahanti is recorded for posterity. All other records show only bhikkhu Arahant emissaries ordaining both men and women, or ordaining what in some cases may have meant men alone, or in other cases such as that of Suvannabhumi meant simply ordaining "people" without distinction of gender in one record, the Mahavamsa, but with distinction of gender inclusive of both men and women in other records such as the Samantapasadika and the Sudassanavinayavibhasa.
The numbers below are of ordinations given by Arahant Dhamma emissaries of the Asokan Missions period resulting from their initial teaching in these lands.
- Mahinda Thera ordains 30,000 men and Sanghamitta Theri ordains 1000 noblewomen (Sri Lanka)
- Sona and Uttara Thera ordain 3,500 noblemen and 1,500 noblewomen in Suvannabhumi (mainland SE Asia)
- Rakkhita Thera ordains 37,000 persons in Vanavasa (South India)
- Yonaka Dhammarakkhita Thera ordains 2,000 persons, more than half being women, in Aparantaka (Indian West Coast)
- Mahadhammarakkhita Thera ordains 13,000 persons in Maharashtra (West India)
- Maharakkhita Thera ordains 10,000 of the Yonas (in the Greek lands along the Arabian Sea)
- Mahadeva Thera ordains 40,000 persons in Mahisamandala (Avanti)
- Majjhima with Kassapagotta, Dundubissara, Sahadeva and Mulakadeva Thera each ordain 100,000 (Himalayan Region)
The apparent uniqueness of the case of Sanghamitta and Mahinda is largely, if not completely, due to the uniqueness of there being an extant record, the Dipavamsa. This, in turn, may be largely due to the fact that the bhikkhunis of the tradition founded by the most venerable Sanghamitta, as recorded in the Dipavamsa, were highly educated and skilled in practice and teaching of both Dhamma and Vinaya, and for unknown reasons seem to have taken a particular interest, whether earlier or later in their tradition, in recording their own history over a several hundred year period. It was the authoring of the Dipavamsa - the "Lineage of the Lamp," "Chronicle of the Lamp" or "Chronicle of the Island" - that is thought to have inspired the later Bhikkhu Sangha authored Mahavamsa - the "Great Chronicle" - and perhaps even inspired other Buddhist histories of lineages and traditions such as the Chinese "Transmission of the Lamp". Or it may simply be that this one particular record has happened to survive the ages, while others have not, or have yet to be discovered.
It is important to acknowledge, however, that Northern and Southern records differ in their inclusion of Sanghamitta Theri in the history of the conversion of the Isle of Lanka, for the Northern records mention Mahinda (Skt: Mahendra) alone, and do not say how many people he ordained, but simply that he firmly established the Sangha in that land. This suggests the tendency in at least some branches of the tradition to record only the names of the great male leader for posterity.
Nonetheless, these early records, fully half of which record both very large numbers of men and women being ordained by early Arahanta Dhamma teaching emissaries, whether by bhikkhus alone or by bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, do show one thing: They show an attitude of tremendous positivity to the ordination of women alongside the ordination of men in this early original period of the Buddha Sasana, within the first five hundred years following the Parinibbana. And significantly, for the Theravada tradition, it is useful and important to acknowledge that Sanghamitta Theri and Mahinda Thera are the co-founders of the International Theravada tradition that has been passed on and lasted until this present day, in the Theravada traditions of Thailand, Laos, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Burma. Thus, the example of the attitudes and behaviors of the founding Arahants of this tradition, in its early and pristine days, might be considered most excellent precedent and example for those who would like to conserve and perpetuate the authentic and original Theravada Buddha Sasana.
~ post script ~
The most important question, that of the prevelent attitude within the very early Theravada tradition on the ordination of women, both in the Buddha's lifetime and in the early missionary period within the three hundred years following the Parinibbana, is answered here clearly. However, there are further technical clues related to the possible later development of the Pali text Vinaya over time which emerge from analysis of the Dipavamsa records of Sanghamitta and Mahinda that may be worthy of consideration.
(1) The presence (mention) of the sikkhamana training stage in the lifetime of Sanghamitta Theri from her ages 18-20 - suggesting the sikkhamana training for underage women may be an earlier Vinaya practice, already in place in the Asokan period;
(2) The apparent absence (or non-mention) of restriction on the number of women (and men) to be ordained at one time - suggests this restriction might be of later addition to Vinaya (post-Asokan period), or appropriate exceptions to the restriction where known then;
(3) The apparent absence (or non-mention) of dual ordination by both the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sanghas, with ordination mentioned for women by the Bhikkhuni Sangha only - suggesting the requirement of dual ordination might be of later post-Asokan period addition to or adaptation of Bhikkhuni Vinaya under later circumstances.
- Anguttara Nikaya: Book of the Ones
- Khuddhaka Nikaya: Therigatha, Theri Apadana
- Vinaya: Culavagga, Bhikkhuni Vibhanga
- Samantapasadika, Sudassanavinayavibhasa
Chronicles and Histories
- The Dipavamsa: An Ancient Buddhist Historical Record, translated by Hermann Oldenberg
- Mahavamsa: The Great Chronicle, translated by George Turnour
Contemporary Publications on the History of Buddhism
- Light of Liberation: A History of Buddhism in India, Nyingma Crystal Mirror Series VIII
- History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Saka Era, Lamotte
Originally published 19 Dec 2009, Hemanta 2552; edited 7 Dec 2019, Hemanta 2562
The author expresses gratitude to the venerable Bhikkhu Analayo for his review of the original draft of this article and to the venerables Ajahn Brahmali, Bhikkhuni Sudhamma and Bhikkhuni Sobhana for their helpful editorial suggestions.
Private Copyright by the Author, 2009. Contact the author at tathaaloka [at] gmail [dot] com if you wish to quote from or link to this publication