Key note speech I by Bhiksuni Jampa Tsedroen

Ladies and Gentlemen, Venerable Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis, Venerable Mae-jis, Ven. Bhikkhuni Rattanavali, dear Dr. Tavivat Puntarigvivat,

The Outstanding Women in Buddhism Awards Committee has asked me to speak for about 20 minutes on
The Birth of the “Vajrayana Bhikkhuni” movement
and also, since you are working within a southeast Asian context plagued by prostitution and AIDS epidemics, to offer a brief reflection on
The Role of a Bhikkhuni in addressing an improved status for Women in Society
Before I speak on
The Birth of the “Vajrayana Bhikkhuni” movement
and summarize 25 years of efforts to revive the bhikkhuni ordination in Tibetan Buddhism, please allow me to make some general comments on the term “Vajrayana Bhikkhuni.”

In actual fact, Tibetan Buddhists would never refer to themselves as “Vajrayana bhikkhus” or “Vajrayana bhikkhunis.” I remember that my teacher, the late Ven. Geshe Thubten Ngawang (1932-2003), spiritual head of Tibetan Centre Hamburg in Germany,  was quite disconcerted when he first heard the term “Mahayana monks and nuns.” I think in Tibetan circles the reaction may be similar to that of Theravadin bhikkhus if they are referred to as “Hinayana monks.”

Why is this?
Tibetan Buddhism was transmitted directly from India to “the region formerly known as Tibet” between the 7th and 11th century. This is much later than the transmission from India to Sri Lanka (3rd cent. B.C.) and from there to Myanmar (3rd cent. B.C. to 6th cent.) and Thailand (6th cent.). Naturally, Indian Buddhism as a living tradition had undergone further development, especially from the point of view of philosophy.
Tibetan Buddhism includes not only the Sravakayana, but also the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings, which are ascribed to the Buddha and his Tripitaka too, if not literally, at least with regard to content. This means that the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings are considered to be in accord with the thoughts of the Buddha and not to contradict the Buddha's basic teachings.

Every qualified Tibetan Lama will tell you that you cannot practise Mahayana and Vajrayana without observing the basis, which is the Sravakayana.

In scholarly circles, all the different Vinaya versions that have survived until today are considered to belong to the canonical scriptures of the Buddhist schools of early (conservative) Buddhism. The three living Vinaya traditions in the world today are those of

  •  the Dharmaguptakas (practised in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Buddhism)
  •  the Theravadins (practised in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) and
  •  the Mulasarvastivadins (practised in Tibetan Buddhism)

All three reach back to the Sthaviras, who are the early followers of our common teacher Buddha Sakyamuni (ca. 5th cent. B.C.).  

Each of the three living Vinaya traditions - the Dharmagupta, the Theravada and the Mulasarvastivada - belong to the same, more strict line of tradition, which is different from that of the Mahasanghikas, which has died out. There does not exist any vinaya in the world that is Mahayana. All monastic lineages go directly to the Sthaviras.

The terms “Mahayana bhikkhus and bhikkhunis” or “Vajrayana bhikkhus and bhikkhunis” are a contradiction in itself. There are only  Sravakayana bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. They received ordination according to the Vinaya of their respective early Buddhist traditions. The rules of monks and nuns, whether they practise Theravada, Mahayana or within Mahayana additionally the Vajrayana, are nearly identical. But there are different interpretations as to how to implement them. There is no international standard available as of yet.

Now I come to my actual first topic
The Birth of the Bhikkhuni movement in Tibetan Buddhism

In August 2005 during the 1st  Conference on Tibetan Buddhism in Europe, which took place in Zurich (Switzerland), H. H. the Dalai Lama gave hearty support to reviving the Bhiksuni precepts, and donated CHF 50,000.00 as a pilot fund to be used to realize this goal. At that time, he suggested that the Western nuns should take the lead in exploring ways to conduct more study and research in consultation with Buddhist leaders in some of the Asian countries where Buddhism is the major religion.

His Holiness asked me as the only female speaker during that conference in Switzerland to establish a Committee of Western Buddhist Nuns. Some of the committee members are recipients of the Outstanding Buddhist Woman Award and the most senior members of the Bhikkhuni movement in Tibetan Buddhism. Many of us went in the early or mid-1980s with the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and our spiritual teachers for full ordination (upasampada) to Hongkong, Korea or to the Republic of China, also known as Formosa.

The bhikkhuni lineage,
which we received, goes back to the lifetime of Buddha Sakyamuni. It started with Bhikkhuni Mahapajapatti, who was ordained by the Buddha himself. As Prof. Dr. Peter Skilling clearly shows in his article on the history of the Bhikkhuni-sangha, published in honour of H.H. the Supreme Patriarch on his 80th birthday anniversary celebration,  the bhikkhuni order existed in India up to the 11th century.

In the 3rd century B.C. the bhikkhuni lineage was transmitted from India to Sri Lanka by the famous king Asoka's daughter Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta (206-285 B.C.), who went with eleven sisters to the island. There, she ordained Bhikkhuni Anula and five hundred lady attendants.
In the 5th century Bhikkhuni Tessara (Skrt. Devasara; Chin. Chin. Tieh-so-lo) and other senior bhikkhunis left in two groups by ship to Nanking in China, where they assisted Chinese Dharmaguptaka monks in re-ordaining and newly ordaining Chinese nuns. Up to the time of Bhikkhuni Tessara’s arrival, due to the lack of bhikkhunis, nuns in China had been ordained by bhikkhus only.

In the Chinese chronicles it is mentioned that the Chinese Vinaya masters stressed that although an ordination by bhikkhus alone is sufficient if no qualified bhikkhunis are available, in order to remove the doubts of nuns who had earlier been ordained by bhikkhus only, a dual ordination ceremony was conducted in 434 A.D.. The first Chinese bhikkhunis were Bhikkhuni Ching Chien (Jing-jian) ordained in 357 A.D. by bhiksus only and Bhikkhuni Hui-kuo (Hui-guo) and others ordained by a Chinese Bhikkhu Sangha led by Ven. Sangavarman and a Singhalese Bhikkhuni Sangha led by Ven. Tessara in 434 A.D..  This bhikkhuni lineage still exists up to today, not only in Chinese Buddhism, but also in Korean and Vietnamese Buddhism.

The forthcoming 1st International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha will take place at the University of Hamburg from July 18-20th, 2007.
The Congress will be attended by

  • H. H. the Dalai Lama, who will be a guest of the City of Hamburg for ten days on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Tibetan Centre Hamburg, a Centre for Buddhist Studies and Meditation;
  • Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government in Exile;
  • Leading Buddhist monks and nuns of all Buddhist traditions;Scholars on Buddhist Studies, especially on the Vinaya, such as Prof. von Hinüber (Germany), and on the history of the Bhikkhuni Sangha, such as Prof. Peter Skilling (Bangkok).

All of you are most welcome to participate in this historic gathering. The congress aims at the re-establishment of the full ordination of bhikkhunis within the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism and a world-wide consensus on the re-establishment of the Bhikkhuni ordination. You can easily register online at You can also find additional background material on our website.
Let me resume the facts once more: Taking the bhikkhuni precepts from monks and nuns who are philosophically following Mahayana Buddhism does not mean that the bhikkhu or bhikkhuni precepts are Mahayana precepts or tantric precepts. On the contrary they belong to the Sravakayana, totally based on the Vinaya, and are considered by Tibetan Buddhists to be the best means to attain personal liberation from the cycle of existence, samsara. The early Dharmaguptaka Vinaya differs only in minor points from the Pali Vinaya of the Theravadins and from the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya that is followed in Tibetan Buddhism. The main rules of the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are all the same. Only the minor rules slightly differ in number.

Now I come to my second and last topic:
The Role of a Bhikkhuni in addressing an improved status for Women in Society
Nowadays everybody will certainly agree that the opportunities for women renunciants in the various traditions should be improved. This means they should have access to better facilities, better educational opportunities and better training. With regard to the formal ordination as a bhikkhuni, there still seems to be some uncertainty.

From a Western point of view the main question is not: Can we or should we have bhikkhunis in all three traditions? That question has already been answered by the Buddha himself, who gave full support for the women’s Sangha.

The question is: How can we develop the existing bhikkhuni Sangha in the best possible way? Bhikkhunis have existed throughout history and they will remain in this world. So the question for those traditions where they do not exist, is: How to cope with this? To become a bhikkhuni means to develop renunciation and enter the path to liberation. Such a decision is a personal one, and does not need any official recognition. Any woman who has the strong wish to become a bhikkhuni can do so. Especially nowadays it is very easy to travel to a place where ordination is available. Everybody is free to do so, if they have the proper education. According to the Vinaya, one only needs a sangha of ten qualified bhikkhus and ten or twelve bhikkhunis, depending on the Vinaya tradition. However, to follow this path requires not only a lot of inner strength, but should also be accompanied with the support of the respective society and should meet with the cooperation and support of the bhikkhu sangha.
Recently a Tibetan Vinaya scholar composed a book on the bhikkhuni ordination. He proved that  according to the Tibetan Mulasarvastivada Vinaya it would even be a fault, if the bhikkhu sangha is requested to grant bhikkhuni ordination, but does not grant it.

Bhikkhunis are mentioned throughout Buddhist history since Buddha's lifetime, first in India, then in Sri Lanka, then in China, and now in the West and again in Sri Lanka. Highly educated Thai women, whom I know to be very sincere followers of Theravada Buddhism, have gone to Sri Lanka for ordination. I am sure that all of them would have preferred to become ordained by the Most Venerable Thai bhikkhus in their native country. The best would be if leading Thai bhikkhus would take the initiative and grant ordination to well educated Maejis in the most careful and faultless way. Qualified Thai women want to share the responsibility for giving religious education, especially to Thai girls, and counseling Thai women. This would be of great benefit for society.

In ancient India women were always protected by men - by their father, their brothers, their husbands or sons. Accordingly, due to those social circumstances, the Buddha asked the bhikkhu sangha to protect the bhikkhuni sangha. Meanwhile more than 2,500 years have passed.

It cannot be that 2500 years ago, during Buddha's lifetime, Bhikkhuni ordination was possible, and nowadays when everybody speaks about the equal rights of men and women – rights that are guaranteed by the Human rights and the Charter of the United Nations, ratified by Buddhist countries like Thailand in the year 2000 -  it is no longer possible to become a bhikkhuni.

Religious and cultural traditions have a strong influence upon women's social status. Women need female role models. As Emma Tomalin mentions in her paper “The Thai bhikkhuni movement and women's empowerment:”

Many advocates of the bhikkhuni ordination consider that there is a direct relationship between the low status of women in Thai Buddhism and the inferior status of women in society, which places them at risk of abuses such as domestic violence and sex trafficking, as well as increased vulnerability to HIV.

It is even said “that Buddhism reinforces the understanding that women are a lower rebirth than men because of kamma acquired in previous lives” (Owen 1998).

I do not know much about Pali Buddhism, but I am pretty sure that it would be a wrong view to think that rebirth as a woman is a lower rebirth than that of a man. Where did the Buddha himself say that to be born as a woman is a lower rebirth and happens due to negative kamma? I haven't seen such a canonical source so far, although I am aware that such accounts can be found in commentaries. As far as I know the Buddha taught that all of us have attained a precious human rebirth due to positive kamma. However, even if the Buddha had said such a thing, we need to see such statements in the context of a particular time and place. Women at that time played a very different role in society than nowadays. Moreover the Buddha did not give separate teachings for men and women as to how to train one's mind, but rather taught that in one life we may take rebirth in a male body and in another life in a female body. The Buddha even explained already 2500 years ago that women can attain arhatship in the body of a woman. In Cullavaga X it is clearly stated,  when Ananda asked:

Now Lord, are women, having gone forth from home into homelessness in the dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Truth-finder, able to realize the fruit of stream-attainment or the fruit of once-returning or the fruit of non-returning or arahantship?

the Buddha said:

Women, Ananda, having gone forth are able to realize the fruit of stream-attainment or the fruit of once-returning or the fruit of non-returning or arahantship.

It was because the Buddha is omniscient and full of compassion, and not because Ananda pushed, that the Buddha decided in accord with his own prophecy given just after his enlightenment, that women may become bhikkhunis. This permission is still valid and is a right he gave to women. Nobody but the Buddha himself can deny this right to women. Whoever is familiar with the legal acts of the Vinaya knows that there are legal ways to ordain bhikkhunis even today.
It is just a matter that needs some thought, because it is nowhere literally ruled as to how to do it in the best way in the 21st century, when the lineage in one's own tradition is broken.

We need to ask ourselves, ‘What would the Buddha say today?’

The teachings of the Buddha need to be interpreted in the light of his social-historical context. The Vinaya is a living tradition that must cope with the needs of today’s society. Buddhism must respond to today’s problems and answer the question: Can one follow Buddhism on the one hand and keep the Human Rights on the other hand?

Violence, prostitution and so on are definitely not in accord with the teachings of the Buddha. Non-violence (ahimsa) is one of the main pillars of Buddhism, and prostitution is not only harmful for one's health and one's own spiritual development, but also harming relationships in their families, and therefore are not in accord with the five precepts of upasakas and upasikas.

Yes, there were women in Buddha's lifetime who had been prostitutes and became bhikkhunis, but this does not mean that we can tolerate that young girls are made prostitutes and are sold into the slave trade. It would be wonderful to hear the voices of protest from the male Sangha against such degenerative developments, but it seems that such issues have not garnered much attention. Here too we see an important function that could be performed by a female bhikkhuni sangha.

Reviving the Bhikkhuni Sangha does not mean that we modernize Buddhism or simply adjust it to secular needs. To revive the Bhikkhuni Sangha means that we go back to the roots and follow the attitude of the Buddha.

I am very sure that the revival of the bhikkhuni sangha in today’s times, where women take leadership in all fields of society, will strengthen the Buddha-Dhamma and help make it last longer in these degenerative times.  I am confident that if leading Buddhist monks in this country take up the issue bravely and seriously, they can guide the bhikkhuni movement in the best possible way. May this become true.

Thank you very much!