Bhikkhuni Buddhism


A bhikkhuni (Pali) or bhikshuni (Sanskrit) is a Buddhist nun who has received full ordination (upasampada), following a novitiate (shramanerika then shikshamana) of at least two years.

The order of bhikkhunis was founded five years after the order of bhikkhus, with the somewhat reluctant approval of Gautama Buddha, who imposed eight specific rules subjecting them to the monks.

The first nun is said to have been Mahaprajapati Gautami, his aunt and adoptive mother.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the order of bhikkhunis existed only in China, Korea and Vietnam. In the Theravāda stream and in Japan, nuns are technically lay people who devote themselves to the ascetic life by following the rules of novices.

In the vajrayāna stream of Tibetan Buddhism, women do not normally receive full ordination and remain novices throughout their career, with the exception of a few Western nuns.

Attempts to resurrect the women's order in the Theravāda regions and to establish it in Tibet have been undertaken in the last twenty years. The Dalai Lama spoke in favor of female ordination at the Hamburg conference in July 2007.


The rules governing monastic life or vinaya diversified gradually after the Buddha's death, while remaining fundamentally similar.

Theravāda Buddhism follows the Vinaya Pitaka, the Mahāyāna stream follows the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya or Dharmagupta Vinaya (Chinese: 四分律, sìfēnlǜ), and Tibetan Buddhism the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya. The summary below corresponds to ordination according to the current Dharmagupta.

The specifics of female ordination are the longer duration of the mandatory novitiate and the double ordination by sanghas of both sexes. According to tradition, the novitiate of at least two years was imposed to allow them to determine with greater certainty whether or not they were suited to the monastic life.

Nuns theoretically begin by being shramanerika and observe the ten precepts. In principle, they must obtain the consent of their parents and their husbands, although this is no longer always the case when this requirement contravenes local laws concerning freedom of religion.

At eighteen, they enter a second stage of novitiate and become shikshamana for two years, adding six rules to the original ten precepts. In fact, many people today enter the orders at the age of eighteen and thus become shikshamana directly without going through the shramanerika stage.

During these two years, the novice is under the responsibility of a trainer called upadhyayini. Once she has successfully completed her training, she is normally ordained by ten nuns with at least twelve years of seniority, then by monks.

Nevertheless, the lineages of Chinese origin consider ordination by monks alone to be equally valid, although not recommended if nuns are available.

This specificity may have contributed to the survival of the bhikkhunis in China during periods of eclipse of Buddhism, whereas in the Theravada countries where it is impossible to ordain a woman without ten experienced nuns, the disappearance of the last Sri Lankan bhikkhunis during a war in the tenth century led to the extinction of the order.

The rules imposed on the nuns, defined by the patimokkha, are more numerous than for the monks (from 84 to 111 more). The Vinaya Pitaka imposes 311, the Dharmagupta 348 and the Mulasarvastivada 364.

Birth of the female sangha

Although the Buddhist sangha is officially the first monastic community to appear in India whose rules are preserved, other traditions must have had female ascetics.

Some of them are given the bad role of temptress of the Buddha in stories of plots to sully the school of the Shakyas sage. The Jain tradition, in particular, claims to have had nuns before Buddhism, whose tradition continues today.

The women's monastic community was officially born when the Buddha first returned to Kapilavastu after his enlightenment. His adoptive aunt mother Mahaprajapati was waiting for him to ask him to receive her as a bhikkhuni along with five hundred Shakya and Koliyas ladies whose husbands were about to become disciples of Gautama.

At first reluctant, the Buddha would have finally accepted in view of the insistence of the women who followed him on foot to Vaisali, and the encouragement of Ananda before whom he recognized the total equality between the two sexes in attaining enlightenment.

However, Gautama is said to have predicted that his teaching would die out earlier because of the presence of women. Legend has it that Bhadda Kaccana (Bhadra), one of the first five hundred bhikkhunis, is the Buddha's wife (probably wrongly).

See : Birth of the female sangha

He made it a condition that they accept the following eight rules:

A nun always bows to a monk, even if she has been a bhikkhuni for one hundred years and he has just been ordained.

A nun should not spend the rainy season retreat in a district where there is no monk.

The dates of the uposathas are determined by the monks; during the half-month uposathas, the nuns must ask the monks to preach to them.

At the end of the rainy season, the nuns must confess before the assembled monks and nuns.

A nun who has committed a serious fault must be disciplined (manatta) by the monks and nuns.

A nun must observe the (novice) precepts for two years [instead of one for monks] before she can be ordained by the nuns and monks.
A nun may never speak ill of a monk or insult him.
A nun may not reproach a monk, but a monk may reproach her.

While some rules can be explained by the need to protect the nuns or to give their sangha more social weight by linking it to that of the monks, others, particularly the first and last, have led to accusations of sexism by Gautama.

The explanations generally proposed by those who refuse to consider a Buddha guilty of discrimination are that they may have been added or modified by misogynistic monks during councils, where women were not admitted, or that Gautama felt that without them, the bhikkhunis would not be accepted by a society convinced of female inferiority.

First bhikkhunis

According to the sources, many women joined the sangha and became arahants. The Khuddaka Nikaya contains the Therigatha, a collection of religious poems recounting the circumstances of their enlightenment, and the Theriapadana, a collection of biographies.

Among them we can mention Prajapati Gautami, Uppalavanna and Khema, mentioned as the two main bhikkhunis, Kisagotami, Patacara, Soma, Ubbiri, Vasitthi.

Like the monks, they came from different backgrounds: courtesans (Ambapali and Vimala), princesses (Sumeda and Sela), daughters of nobles or rich merchants (Bhadda Kundalkesa, Sujata and Anopama), daughters of poor brahmins (Chanda) or even serves (Punnika).

A list cites twelve of them, each with its strong point:

Khema, the first scholar and sage;
Bhadra (sometimes identified with Yashodhara), first for miracles (mahasiddhi);
Gautami, first for holiness;
Sakula, first for clairvoyance;

Dharmadina, first teacher and missionary;
Uppalavanna, first for realization;
Bhadra Kundali, first for psychic faculties;
Nanda, first of the forest nuns;

Bhadra Kapila, first for the recall of past lives;
Patacara, first for maintaining vinaya (discipline);
Sigalakamatra, first of those who have attained enlightenment by faith;
Sonya, the most diligent; having raised ten children, she entered the orders late and practiced day and night, repeating, "I must strive to catch up."

Establishment in Sri Lanka and disappearance

Around 250 B.C., during the time of Ashoka, his son and missionary Mahinda founded a community of men in Sri Lanka. Queen Anula and her followers wanted to enter the orders, so Mahinda sent for his sister Sanghamitta, who arrived with eleven other bhikkhunis.

They ordained the first nuns on the island, and the community took root. However, in the tenth century, the nuns were exterminated along with the monks by the invading Cholas. The Indian bhikkhunis, already very few in number in the second century, had meanwhile disappeared with the retreat of Buddhism.

After the Cholas were driven out, the Srilankans sought to reconstitute their monastic community. They succeeded in bringing a few monks from Burma, but no nuns. Since the ordination of women by sanghas of both sexes was forbidden in the vinaya, it became impossible to ordain new bhikkhunis, and so they disappeared from Theravada Buddhism.


The female sangha of the Mahayana regions developed in China, then spread to Korea and Vietnam, with a sporadic presence in Japan. It is the only sangha that still has a significant number of authentic nuns, the majority of whom are currently in Taiwan.

There have been very few authentic bhikkhunis in Japan, and the nun communities there are almost entirely lay people who have taken a vow to follow the ten precepts and the bodhisattva precepts.

According to the Brief History of the Monks of the Song Dynasty, the first Chinese nun mentioned lived under the Hans and was named Apan, but since the Vinaya monastic codes had not yet been translated, she cannot have been a bhikkhuni.

Jingjian (淨檢), the first bhikkhuni, daughter of a magistrate and a young widow, was born in 291; she had taken the monk Fashi (法始) as her master and was accepted as a novice along with twenty-four companions by Jnânagira of Kashmir.

The latter had not wanted to go any further because without nuns, full ordination seemed impossible. However, the mention of a double ordination by sanghas of both sexes was not considered an obligation by all Chinese monks, many of them taking advantage of the example of Mahaprajapati Gautami who had been ordained by the Buddha alone.

So Jingjian finally obtained her upasampada of single monks, along with three other young women.

First double ordination

In 429, a foreign ship landed in Jiankang (建康), present-day Nanjing, capital of the Southern Song. On board were eight Sri Lankan bhikkhunis who took up residence at the Monastery of the Clear Blessing.

When they learned how the local nuns were ordained, they expressed their surprise to the bhikkhuni Sengguo (僧果) and offered to do an upasampada for her according to Srilankan rules.

Sengguo discussed this with his vinaya master Gunavarman, who reaffirmed the validity of the Chinese ordination, while conceding that getting ordained a second time could only benefit him.

He nevertheless requested that the foreign nuns first learn Chinese. Four years later, the ship returned with eleven bhikkhunis who ordained Sengguo and her companions in 434 at Nanlin (南林寺) monastery.

The Narrative of the Ordination of the Nuns for its part brings fifteen bhikkhunis from India, stating that five of them died while crossing the mountains, three from cold and two fell into a precipice. However, this is an isolated account from the seventeenth century, and the Sri Lankan version is favored by historians.

The work Biographies of the Nuns attributed to Baochang (Buddhist monk) (en) (寶唱) (495-528) contains the records of sixty-five nuns. Although less numerically important than the male community (one nun for every five monks according to a census dating from the Song), the female sangha continued to grow in line with the progress of Buddhism.

Only the male masters had their biographies in the official annals, but there are frequent mentions of nuns in the documents of successive centuries; it is known that some were masters in schools of the Chan current.

In the 20th century, between the 1950s and 1960s, the Buddhist orders disappeared almost entirely from China with the coming to power of the Communists. The nuns were the first to withdraw to Taiwan at the end of the 1940s, which allowed them to be well established on the island.

They helped the monks to settle in when they in turn immigrated, reversing for a time the usual situation of the female sangha being assisted by the male sangha. In the early 2000s, there were over 60,000 Mahayana nuns in Taiwan, three times as many as their male counterparts.

One third of them are under thirty-five years old and have a professional or university degree. They are active in various fields, from the purely religious to the social.

Among the pioneers are Master Zheng Yan (證嚴法師), founder of the NGO Tzu-Chi (1966), a hospital and a medical school, nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1993, and Master Xiao Yun (曉雲法師), founder of Huafan University (華梵大學).

The Chinese transcription of bhikkhuni is bǐqiūní (比丘尼); they are also called nígū (尼姑), a more general term that also includes novices and unordained nuns. Women's monasteries were often called ān (庵).

Other nuns


In Tibetan Buddhism, there have been nuns for centuries who do not receive full ordination, as bhikkhunis had already disappeared from India and Nepal when Buddhism entered Tibet.

The reintroduction of full ordination for nuns in Tibetan Buddhist schools was on the agenda of an international congress held in Hamburg in July 2007. There is a range of status between pure laypeople and nuns.

There are yoginis and ngakmas (Nyingmapa and Bön currents) who are married, but also kandromas (dakinis). Recently [When?], some western gelongmas (bhikkhunis) ordained by nuns of the Mahayana current have been accepted into Tibetan lineages.

Among the preeminent or famous Tibetan nuns, we can mention Ngawang Sangdrol strongly committed to the freedom of Tibet, Khandro Rinpoche, daughter of Mindroling Trichen, head of the Nyingmapa school and director of Samten Tse monastery (India), Khandro Tinley Chodon, granddaughter of the master Kagyu Shakyasri and Jetsun Kushok Chimey Luding Rinpoche, sister of Sakya Trizin, the current head of the Sakyapa school, or Shugsep Longchen Rinpoche.

For example, in Tibet, before the Chinese invasion in 1959, the number of nuns was 27,000,while there were approximately 592,000 monks. There is a form of feminist movement in Buddhism, and the 14th Dalai Lama has stated that There is a form of feminist movement in Buddhism, and the 14th Dalai Lama has stated:

"There is a real feminist movement in Buddhism that is connected to the Tārā deity. Following her worship of bodhicitta, the motivation of the bodhisattva, she observed the situation of beings striving to attain full enlightenment and noticed that few people were attaining the Buddha state as women. So Tārā made a promise (she said to herself), "I have developed bodhicitta as a woman. For all my lives along the path, I swear to be reborn as a woman, and in my last life, when I reach the Buddha state, there too I will be a woman."


In Japan, nuns are overwhelmingly non-ordained women who have vowed to follow the Ten Precepts and Bodhisattva Precepts.

Despite humble and difficult beginnings, they have nevertheless been able to settle in monasteries, acquire training and gain support from the laity, especially since the Japanese state allowed monks to marry, turning many men away from diligent religious practice to become temple patrons. Some even became Zen masters.

Theravada regions

In the countries of South Asia (Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Thailand) and among the Theravadas of Vietnam and Nepal, where bhikkhunis are non-existent, one finds, particularly since the nineteenth century, women who turn to the life of an ascetic and take a vow to follow a variable number of rules, living either in community or in isolation.

They are called anagarikas (wanderers) or thilashins (morals) in Myanmar and Nepal, dasasilmatas (wanderers) in Sri lanka and maechis in Thailand, and wear different colored robes depending on the region.

In most countries, their status is uncertain because they do not belong to any of the four categories of the great sangha defined by the Buddha (monks and nuns, lay people of both sexes).

Unlike monks, they receive no assistance from the state, and very little from the laity who prefer to support confirmed monks. Thus, Thai maechis, who numbered 14,700 in 1997, find themselves not only deprived of the right to vote like monks, but also deprived by the Buddhist authorities of the right to teach the dharma and to perform rituals.

Trained Theravada nuns who are socially oriented find it easier to support themselves by setting up nursery schools, kindergartens or women's welfare centers. Those who would like to concentrate on religious practice, however, face many difficulties.

They live independently in great poverty, or become dependent on the temples where they provide stewardship services. The lack of official status makes it easy for beggars to pose as nuns, further degrading their image. Some efforts have been made in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to address this problem.

Re-creation of the order


The proposal to ordain bhikkhunis (gelongmas) in Tibetan Buddhism meets with little open opposition. The Dalai Lama has suggested that the quality of teaching in women's monasteries should be improved first, and that bhikkhunis from Western countries may be best placed to bring about change.

A committee composed of Carola Roloff (Jampa Tsedroen), Tenzin Palmo, Pema Chödrön, Karma Lekshe Tsomo and Thubten Chodron (en), advised by Heng Ching Shih, a Taiwanese nun, began its work in spring 2006. Around an international women's association, Carola Roloff is involved in the development of women in Buddhism.


In the Theravada regions, there is strong opposition to the resurrection of the female order. It is true that historically, the bhikkhunis only had a real presence in Sri Lanka, which was the first country to readmit them.

The objections are partly religious, based on a fatalistic vision of Buddhism, which considers that it is in a phase of decline, of which the early disappearance of the nuns is a natural manifestation; the monks will disappear in their turn, bringing about the eclipse of the doctrine, followed by its revival signaled by the advent of Maitreya, the next Buddha.

From this point of view, resurrecting the order of women would go against this inevitable course of events and would constitute bad karma that would only delay the arrival of a new era.

The other reasons are primarily social, based on a reluctance to question a male privilege, and, ironically, the observation that the quality of the male sangha is generally inadequate, with many inferring that it would be even more difficult to guarantee the quality of a female sangha subject to eighty-four additional rules.

Aspiring bhikkhunis can hardly count on the support of women, who are little mobilized by a demand that naturally concerns only a minority. As for the nuns, they think they have a better chance of improving their situation by demanding recognition of their status with rights than by resurrecting the bhikkhuni order.

Sri Lanka has distinguished itself by accepting bhikkhunis since 1998. That year, twenty women were ordained at Bodh-Gaya by Mahayana and Theravada monks and Mahayana nuns whose lineage can be traced back to Sri Lankan bhikkhunis.

Ten had preceded them in 1996, but opposition remained strong, with the Sri Lankan government even making it a condition of an international conference on Buddhism in Colombo in 1998 that the issue of women's ordination not be raised.

The situation could be changed through negotiations and the support of important monks. In 2004, there were 400 bhikkhunis and 800 shramanerikas in Sri Lanka. In Burma, two nuns ordained in 2003 were accepted.

In Thailand the opposition remains very strong. Already in 1927, the progressive politician Narin Bhasit (Narin Klueng) had his two daughters Sara and Chongdi ordained and built Wat Nariwong to be a female monastery.

The government quickly ordered its closure and the return of the nuns to civilian life. Refusing to obey, the daughters of Narin Klueng were arrested and defrocked in prison.

A law prohibiting the ordination of women was passed in 1928. Nevertheless, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, whose mother had already scandalized by proclaiming herself a bhikkhuni, was recently ordained (2001) under the name of Dhammananda, causing a new wave of protests.

Western women interested in Theravada monasticism also find it difficult to be integrated in the same way as male candidates. Some have started an independent path, like the German Ayya Khema (1923-1997), founder of the Buddhist Women's House in Sri Lanka, or the Englishwoman Aree Chaisatien.

Nevertheless, since the appearance of Sri Lankan bhikkhunis making ordinations possible, some monastery projects have started, such as Metta Vihara, a German forest monastery.

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