History in the Making: The First Step Toward Full Ordination for Tibetan Buddhist Nuns
At the Mahabodhi Stupa, it is the morning of the first full moon in the Tibetan year. In the shade of the Bodhi Tree, nineteen nuns sit near the Vajra Seat, site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. On the path to full ordination, eighteen took the shramaneri vows in the same place the day before, and one remains to take them on this auspicious fifteenth day of the Month of Miracles.
Soon the Karmapa arrives at the main gate, and led by a senior nun carrying a long incense holder and wearing the yellow cockade hat, he walked straight down the red carpet leading into the main temple and its famous statue of the meditating Buddha. Inside, the Karmapa offered shimmering golden robes to the Buddha along with alms bowls full of jars of honey and fruits.
The procession then moved outside and around the great stupa to the back where a throne and altar had been arranged under the spreading limbs of the Bodhi Tree. The Karmapa took his seat, and behind him, placed above rows of offerings, was a special painting of a standing Avalokiteshvara. He held a lotus flower in his left hand and from the palm of his right hand emanated an image of Ananda, close disciple and cousin of the Buddha. As the Karmapa has explained elsewhere, Ananda is known for his great compassion in requesting the Buddha numerous times on behalf of Mahaprajnapati to grant vows to women. It is due to his success that women have been able to go forth and take ordination.
In recognition of his pivotal role, Ananda is supplicated and praised in the Ritual Practice for the Dharma to Flourish in Women’s and Especially Nuns’ Communities, Based on the Inseparability of Avalokiteshvara and Ananda, composed by the Karmapa. In addition to sections with language inclusive of women newly written by the Karmapa, the text includes the traditional refuge, bodhichitta, and Seven Branch prayer as well as a beautiful praise of Avalokiteshvara, the mahayana sojong vows, the story of Mahaprajnapati’s requests, and the Dharma Blaze Aspiration, a supplication for the Dharma’s flourishing taken fromThe Sutra of the Essence of the Moon.
The heart of this morning’s ceremony was the recitation of this Ritual Practice for the Dharma to Flourish. On either side of the Karmapa’s throne, rows of yellow and burgundy robed nuns flowed in rows interspersed with the grey and tan robes of nuns from more than seventeen countries; the wide stairs leading to the Bodhi Tree and the areas nearby were filled with women from east and west, delighted to be a part of this historic event and grateful for the Karmapa’s wholehearted support of women practitioners.
After the ritual practice, three speakers brought three different perspectives to the history of how the vows were instituted. The first speaker, Tsunmo Tsultrim Sangmo, was one of the nineteen nuns who took vows:
As a representative of all the shramaneris who have now taken the vows in the Dharmaguptaka tradition, I would like to thank HH the Gyalwang Karmapa for giving us this opportunity…. During the second Arya Kshema Winter Gathering in 2015, His Holiness spoke of the fact that in most Buddhist countries, there are exclusively bhikshus while the tradition of bhikshunis is followed in only a few countries. In particular, he said that this tradition should be reinstituted within Tibetan Buddhism. If it were, there would be the four-fold community of bhikshus and bhikshunis and of laymen and women with the five precepts. His Holiness stated that having the complete four-fold community would bring great benefit. At that point, many of the nuns were inspired, and on their behalf, I offered a request to be able to train in these vows.
Tsultrim Sangmo then spoke of the great responsibility that the nineteen nuns have assumed:
We should never be separated from the three Dharma robes; we should never be parted from the three trainings; we should always keep the precepts in our mind and keep them as purely as we can. It is our responsibility to do this in order to be able to restore the bhikshuni ordination within the Tibetan Mulasarvastivadin tradition, and this is a responsibility for all the nuns. It is something that His Holiness and all the masters of the great traditions have spoken of, and it is important for all of us to take the inspiration and responsibility seriously.
She also noted the great benefit of taking the vows:
They are a foundation that will allow us to serve the teachings and living beings and do a little bit of benefit. They also give us the opportunity to fulfill the wishes of His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa and Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche [her teacher].
She closed her talk with aspirations:
On behalf of all the shramaneris, I would like to say that we have the great hope that we will be able to take the shramaneri, shikshamana, and bhikshuni vows in succession and be able to restore the bhikshuni vow within the Mulasarvastivadin tradition. We hope that through this, His Holiness will have a long life, that his activity will flourish and spread, and that he will be able to bring living beings temporary happiness and the ultimate benefit of liberation.
Tsultrim Sangmo was followed by Khenpo Kelsang Nyima, the dean of the Rumtek Monastic College in Sikkim. He recounted that it was not just the Karmapa who had supported the reinstitution of full ordination for nuns:
During the thirteenth Kagyu Winter Debates in 2009, there were discussions of the vinaya, and His Holiness spoke of the lineage of the gelongma vows, about which he had conducted considerable historical research. He especially referred to the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje’s writings about giving full ordination to women as well as other lamas….
Not only this, while discussing the Buddha’s teachings, the Karmapa stated that both men and women are able to do the practice of the three levels of vows…. And further, in the world today, more women than men have an interest in the Buddha’s teachings. Therefore, if women could have the chance as men do to engage in the three trainings, it would benefit the flourishing of the Buddha’s Dharma.
In 2013 at the seventeenth Winter Debates, while discussing the three essential practices of the summer retreat, —the ending of summer retreat, and sojong vows—all the khenpos present had the same thought: the transmission of the gelongma vows has few supporters and it needs to flourish. They felt that His Holiness should give the vows and supplicated him repeatedly. Then one day during the first Arya Kshema Winter Gathering, a group of nuns came to see him.
“We want to request His Holiness to grant us the transmission of the gelongma vows,” they said. The nuns asked earnestly for the khenpo’s help with this and referred to the time when Prajnapati requested the Buddha to allow women to become ordained and Ananda had helped her. So I responded, “Write all of your thoughts down and bring that paper to me. We will put your case strongly to His Holiness.” We took this request with their thoughts and hopes to the Karmapa.
So the bestowing of the full ordination was due 1) to the great compassion of His Holiness; 2) to the continued supplications of the Kagyu nuns; 3) to the fact that among the followers of Buddhism in the world today, there are many more women than men; and 4) to the nuns wanting to take the vows affirming that they would follow carefully the precepts as they had been given.
Therefore, the Karmapa made plans and also researched where in the world the lineage of gelongma vows had been maintained. Khenpo Kelsang Nyima concluded his talk saying that today we are seeing the results of everyone’s efforts: the nineteen nuns representing all the nuns of the Karma Kagyu have had this excellent and fortunate opportunity through the great compassion of His Holiness. “With heart-felt joy and delight, from the depths of my being, I offer my thanks.”
Finally His Holiness spoke, beginning with his thanks:
At the sacred site of the Bodhi Tree, the Ritual Practice for the Dharma to Flourish in Women’s and Especially Nuns’ Communities and the ritual of bestowing the shramaneri vows have been successfully completed. On this wonderful occasion, I would like to welcome our special guests, the gelongmas from Taiwan, and especially, the new shramaneris.
In general, the shramaneri vow is available in all four Buddhist traditions of Tibet, but this morning, a special shramaneri vow was given. Why is it special? Because this vow is the preliminary step to restoring the bhikshuni ordination in our tradition. And the reason it is so important to restore these vows is that according to the standpoint of the vinaya, all of the vows that women can take should be given by bhikshunis andall the vows that men can take should be given by bhikshus.
In Tibetan Buddhism, however, we have not had a continuous lineage of bhikshunis, so bhikshus have taken their place and given vows to women. It is rather difficult to say that this is completely in accord with the meaning and intent of the vinaya. For that reason, so that women can actually take vows, bhikshunis are indispensable. We need women to become bhikshunis. This is why it is so important to restore the bhikshuni vow.
The complete teachings of the Buddha are contained within the three superior trainings (discipline, samadhi, and prajna or wisdom), and the training in discipline forms the foundation for the two other trainings of samadhi and prajna. With a female body, however, women cannot attain the full training in discipline, making it difficult to practice the teachings of Buddhism in their entirety.
Out of his great compassion, our teacher the Buddha gave teachings to men and women, allowing them all to enter the Dharma. Without any difference, men and women could fully practice the three trainings. It is beneficial and important for all of us to make sure that everyone can practice in the same way. It is our responsibility and something that all of us who follow the Buddhist teachings should pursue and make happen.
My giving the Tibetan nuns the opportunity to practice the complete discipline of the pratimoksha is not something that came out of the blue. It’s not something I thought of by myself or did all on my own.
Actually, at first I did not take much interest in this question and did not think about it much. We first began to discuss it when we developed the new codes of conduct for the Kagyu Monlam. At that point, we discussed how we would have the seating and the conduct for the bhikshus and the novices. As we continued to talk, we came to the bhikshunis and wondered how to handle their situation. From that point onward, I began to take an interest in the issue of full ordination.
The Karmapa also mentioned His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s support of women:
HH the Dalai Lama has often spoken about the need for the nuns to receive the same education and opportunity as the monks. He has encouraged the institution of the geshema degree and has spoken often of the need to revive the bhikshuni tradition. Likewise, the upholders of the vinaya from many different Tibetan traditions have held numerous meetings on this topic and I have attended a few of them. Through all of this, I began to comprehend how important and significant these vows would be. Only through seeing this did I think I should do all I could to make them happen.
Then he reprised his thanks to the nuns:
I would like to thank the bhikshunis who came from the Nan Lin Vinaya Nunnery in Taiwan on our invitation to give the shramaneri vows. I would also like to thank the nineteen nuns from the six different nunneries, who at their own wish have voluntarily taken these vows. They have spent the last weeks in numerous conversations and discussions with the Dharmaguptaka nuns and each other. While talking with them, I found that the nuns’ pure intentions and bodhisattva resolve 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.
This is the first time we have offered these vows. It is important that we preserve the lineage and the transmission of the Buddhist teachings so that they do not decline or wane. I think that through the power of our compassionate Buddha and all the great beings of the past, through the power of Mahaprajnapati and all the great female arhats, the opportunity to give the vows has happened, and we now need to maintain them so they are not lost.
In closing, the Karmapa gave his essential advice to the whole Sangha:
The most important thing, whether we are monks or nuns, is that we remain harmonious. This is the foundation for everything. Based on harmony, we can have good discipline and everything else. It is important that we all get along with each other, respect each other, and be mindful of each other. If we do this, then the teachings of the Buddha will flourish. I would like to thank everyone very much. [For the Karmapa’s clarification and expansion on this talk.
As the applause died down, the nineteen nuns rose and offered their long white scarves to the Karmapa who gave them his warm blessing and a blessing cord. Following the dedication, the Karmapa stepped down from his throne and walked around the main stupa to the famous image of Green Tara, carved in a side wall of the stupa and framed today in a curtain of brilliant yellow and orange marigolds. He stood on a platform before her and with great care, gilded her face and body with a fine brush. It was a fitting end to these extraordinary days that have the opened doors for women to practice as fully as they wish.