Why is 2 or 3 OK?

Ajahn Brahmali provides another response to Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s letter. Several of these points are also elaborated upon at more length in Sudhamma bhikkhuni’s response.
Reposting all these letters from Facebook is exhausting, so I must continually thank Sobhana Bhikkhuni for the time set aside to share these.

A Response to Ajahn Thanissaro’s Letter on the Simultaneaous Ordination of 2 or 3 Bhikkhunis

In his recent letter to Ajahn Nyanadhammo (posted on the dhammalight website) Ajahn Thanissaro makes the case that ordaining 2 or 3 bhikkhunis simultaneous is invalid, and consequently so is the recent ordination in Perth. I am not persuaded by Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument, and the rest of this letter is an attempt to substantiate why.

First of all, I agree with Ajahn Thanissaro (see part 12 of his letter) that sanghakamma should be done without defects and that it is not satisfactory to deviate from the Vinaya on grounds of compassion. One can perhaps interpret the Vinaya in a compassionate way, but not altogether ignore its statutes. It follows that if the ordination performed in Perth can be shown to be invalid, I would certainly accept that. (Ajahn Brahm has specifically told me that this is his position too.) From the point of view of the newly ordained bhikkhunis, they would clearly be in an untenable position if they had serious doubts about the validity of their ordination. Further, since it seems that a large number, perhaps most, existing Theravada bhikkhunis have been ordained by the same procedure as the one used in Perth, the issues brought up by Ajahn Thanissaro are clearly of great importance.

Given the above, I have read through Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument carefully. My conclusion is that, as his argument stands, he has not shown that a bhikkhuni ordination in which 2 or 3 candidates are ordained simultaneously is invalid. I will now examine Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument, starting with his point 11 where he argues directly from the Canonical Vinaya.

In subpoint 11b Ajahn Thanissaro states that “There are no examples of transaction statements authorized in the Canon where the sheer form of the statement would intrinsically entail breaking a rule”. Actually, on careful consideration, there are several such examples. According to Mv I 70.1-3 a bhikkhu incurs a dukkata for ordaining someone without a bowl and/or robes. The ordination itself, however, seems to be valid, since this section (i.e. Mv I 70) stands in direct contrast to the immediately preceding one (Mv I 69.4) where the ordination is not valid. The commentary supports this interpretation by stating outright that the ordination is valid. Now, regardless of whether the ordinand has a complete set of bowl and/or robes, the sanghakamma statement of the ordination always states that he/she does (Mv I 76.10). In the case where the candidate does not have a complete set, everyone who partakes in the ordination would know that this was the case (in an earlier part of the ordination procedure (Mv I 76.3) the bowl and robes are pointed out to the candidate) and thus the ordination statement would amount to a conscious lie. Thus, although it is clear that this ordination is valid, the sanghakamma statement involves a deliberate lie, which of course is a pacittiya offense under pacittiya 1. And, contrary to Ajahn Thanissaro, in the case where it is known that a candidate for ordination does not have a bowl and/or robes, “the sheer form of the statement would intrinsically entail the breaking of a rule” and it would still be valid. It follows that, because Mv I 70 implicitly allows the ordination of someone without a bowl and/or robes, it also establishes a situation where the procedure intrinsically entails the breaking of a rule.

And this is not the only case. The same passage at Mv I 70 also states that the bhikkhus involved in ordaining someone without a bowl and/or robes incur a dukkata offense. The monks involved would be performing a sanghakamma that intrinsically entails breaking a rule but which nevertheless would be valid. Another example is the declaration in the ordination statement, whether this in fact is true or not, that the candidate is “free from obstructing things”. Again, the ordination is valid in most instances even when the candidate is not free from these obstructions. 

Ajahn Thanissaro then states, in point 11c, that “Thus the allowance at Mv I 74.3 – allowing a single proclamation to mention two or three candidates for bhikkhu ordination – cannot be extended to bhikkhunis, for such a statement would intrinsically be ‘apart from the Vinaya … apart from the Teacher’s instruction’.” But since I have just shown that it is possible to perform a valid ordination and at the same time incur a pacittiya or dukkata offense, this part no longer holds. It is clearly undesirable to perform an ordination while committing an offense, and one should obviously avoid this if at all possible, but it does not void the procedure. As a consequence of this, the rest of Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument, 11c-11f, also fails.

There is another reason why Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument does not hold. The Vinaya is quite clear about the grounds on which any sanghakamma is invalid, and these do not include the situation where the “form of the statement would intrinsically entail the breaking of as rule”. The sort of factors that are required to make an ordination valid include the following:

  • The candidate to be ordained is present;
  • The candidate is 20 years old or more;
  • The candidate is not one of several types of ‘unqualified’ persons, or an animal;
  • The quorum for performing the ordination is complete;
  • The Sangha is united (vagga); that is, all the monks within the sima are present at the ordination, or they have given their consent;
  • The ordination statement contains exactly one motion (ñatti) and three announcements (kammavaca), in that order;
  • Nobody present speaks out against the ordination;
  • The procedure performed is an ordination, not some other sanghakamma.

It is only if such requirements – that is, requirements that are specifically mentioned in the Vinaya – are not met that the ordination fails, and only in these cases is the ordination considered “apart from the Vinaya … apart from the Teacher’s instruction” and “not a transaction and should not be carried out”. Any supposed grounds for failure that fall outside of what is specified in the Vinaya are a matter of personal opinion only, and cannot be a universally accepted standard. Since, in my view, Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument is a matter of personal opinion, it cannot be accepted as universally valid. 

In general, according to the Vinaya the following circumstances need to be satisfied for any sanghakamma to be valid:

“And how, monks, is a (sangha-)kamma united and in accordance with the Dhamma? … If, monks, concerning a (sangha-)kamma with one motion and three announcements, the motion is established first (and) then the (sangha-)kamma is performed with three announcements; the bhikkhus who should be present are present; consent has been received from those who should give consent; those who are present do not speak against the act – then the (sangha-)kamma is united and in accordance with the Dhamma.” (Mv IX 3.9)

Again, there is nothing here about the validity of sanghakamma depending on its being performed without breaking other Vinaya rules, or indeed that it depends on “the sheer form of the statement” not intrinsically entailing the breaking of a rule (see Ajahn Thanissaro’s point 11b).

At this point I would like to return to Ajahn Thanissaro’s point 5 where he declares that “This sort of transaction statement, because it intrinsically entails the breaking of a rule, would thus be totally unauthorized.” The words “totally unauthorized” are unclear and emotionally loaded. It is certainly true that nowhere in the Canonical Vinaya is such an ordination statement explicitly “authorized”, and if this is what Ajahn Thanissaro means by “totally unauthorized” then I have no problem with it. But when he goes on to state that this means that the ordination is “apart from the Vinaya … apart from the Teacher’s instruction” and “not a transaction and should not be carried out” he goes too far. As I have already shown, it is quite possible to break a pacittiya rule while performing an ordination and for the ordination still to be fully valid.

I have already responded to Ajahn Thanissaro’s point 6 (in my response to his point 11) but to recapitulate: in Mv I 70 there are good reasons to believe that the ordination is valid even though the ordinand does not possess a bowl and/or robes. The ordination ceremony in this case entails an intrinsic breaking of a rule, that is, pacittiya 1. If this argument and the ones above are accepted, then Ajahn Thanissaro’s further discussion in points 7-10 becomes irrelevant since it hinges on what had been established in his points 5 and 6. In particular, it may well be true that not mentioning the upajjhaya in the ordination procedure makes the ordination invalid, but this is beside the point. The lack of an upajjhaya can arguably be considered a breach of the conditions given in the Parivara, but no such breach exists in the case of ordaining 2 or 3 bhikkhunis at the same time. In contrast to the case where there is no upajjhaya, for which Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument may be valid, an ordination of 2 or 3 bhikkhunis at the same time does not breach any of the stipulations made in the Canonical Vinaya for a valid sanghakamma. His points 8-10, then, do not add anything to what he has already stated in points 5 and 6, which I have already discussed.

A final and important point is that bhikkhu pacittiya 65, which concerns the invalid ordination of someone less than 20 years old, specifically states in the rule itself that the ordination is invalid. No such statement is found in bhikkhuni pacittiyas 82 or 83, and thus it is reasonable to assume that the breaching of these rules cannot in itself invalidate the ordination. Even the commentary (Sp IV 945,4-10) does not say anything about the ordination having failed.

In conclusion, I cannot see that Ajahn Thanissaro has established what he claims to have established, that is, that “a bhikkhuni ordination in which the transaction statements mentioned more than one candidate per statement would not be considered valid, and the candidate would not count as accepted” (Ajahn Thanissaro’s point 10).

Sudhamma Bhikkhuni’s Response

This text spanned nine pages when I pasted it into my word processor! Sudhamma Bhikkhuni directly and politely dissects the legal theory raised in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s letter on bhikkhuni ordination. Her analysis is divided into two main parts that answer two related questions—Was there a flaw? Would a flaw invalidate an ordination?—followed by some concluding thoughts. I hope you get a chance to read this piece in full.

November 23, 2009

Dear Venerables and Friends,

Following is my urgently drafted response to Ven. Thanissaro’s letter criticizing the October 22, 2009 bhikkhuni ordination ceremony.

His critique would undercut not only these ordinations, but most modern bhikkhunis’ ordained status. Bhikkhuni ordination is rare to obtain in samsara, and precious. Although prior to becoming a bhikkhuni, I had lived as an 8-Preceptor for extensive periods, and then as a 10-Preceptor for four years, the higher ordination rocked my world. From that day, the holy life has given me protections and benefits exactly as I had hoped and yet also beyond my wildest dreams; but it is not something a layperson or insincere monastic can grasp.

To divest from hundreds of virtuous and sincere bhikkhunis the world’s respect for their robes on the basis of Ven. Thanissaro’s obscure legal theory would be tragic even if the theory were technically correct, which it is not.


Sudhamma Bhikkhuni
Carolina Buddhist Vihara
Greenville, SC

Response to Ven. Thanissaro’s letter of November 13, 2009

A challenge has arisen to the validity under the Vinaya of the October 22, 2009 ordination of four bhikkhunis in Perth, Australia, organized by their teacher, the well-known Dhamma lecturer and Vinaya master Ven. Ajahn Brahmavamso. Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu of Metta Forest Monastery, well-known Vinaya scholar, author and translator of Dhamma books, and author of the Buddhist Monastic Code, was asked by detractors of the ordination to examine the ordination procedure’s script. He cooperatively did so and offered a lengthy analysis of the only error he perceived, concluding with seeming reluctance that the ordinations to be invalid; his report was shared in a letter dated November 13, 2009.

The well-known abilities of our highly respected elder Venerable Thanissaro, including his unquestioned knowledge of Vinaya and related commentarial material, may cause some readers to accept his conclusion without reflection. However, key points of his letter are not spelled out in the Vinaya. Understand, therefore, that the Venerable Elder’s opinion is not straight “black letter law” Vinaya. He put together a creative theory regarding an obscure, previously unexamined point of Vinaya; his letter is more like a newspaper’s editorial than straight news. We can accept or reject his interpretation based on the soundness of the reasoning used.

Following is my detailed analysis of the reasoning used. I offer this document with trembling awareness of my far junior status and lesser education than that of the great Elder, and with fear that some of my words may be taken as disrespectful; if so, may I please be forgiven. With humble respect, I make this response in hopes of helping towards an eventual peaceful welcome –particularly by him and other notably conscientious elders– of the female gender in robes. We desperately need their protection and help.

PART ONE: Was There a Flaw?

The flaw that the Venerable Elder perceived involved the implications of a Pacittiya (Confessable) rule for bhikkhuni preceptors, which caused him to determine that the “transaction statement” used in the ordination shouldn’t apply to bhikkhunis. His argument rests on a premise that we cannot ascribe to bhikkhunis an allowance given to bhikkhus to ordain multiple candidates at one time with shared proclamations, as no specific wording grants to bhikkhunis this privilege.

Here we must digress to consider why questions may arise as to what protocols bhikkhunis may follow. While it would be convenient for a modern bhikkhuni to have a separately laid out comprehensive document entitled Bhikkhuni Vinaya, one that lacks reference to the male monks’ protocols and rules, that is not what we have inherited. In trying to create or re-create such a document, we should not jump to any conclusions hastily. We inherited the one set of Vinaya books that primarily focus on bhikkhus and contain special portions in which some differing rules and procedures for bhikkhunis were noted. Much of this hefty material is clearly to be shared by both genders, some of it is obviously not, and some may be a little unclear, despite the help of Commentaries. To understand how bhikkhunis can make sense of all this material, we rely upon the Buddha’s advice that the bhikkhunis should train as the bhikkhus do regarding rules held in common: unless otherwise noted, bhikkhunis generally follow the same procedures and protocols given to bhikkhus. (CV. 10.4) Where conflicts seem to arise between text otherwise applicable to both genders and what is thought to be accepted (or not) for bhikkhunis, we bhikkhunis rely heavily upon our common sense. (That is, we apply simple logic, tempered by bearing in mind the entirety of one’s learning of Dhamma and Vinaya, with full mindfulness of its underlying trends and principles, as well as the general standards or trends in its application.)

Returning to the critical allowance that the Venerable Elder would deny bhikkhunis, he wrote:

2) Mv.I.74.3 places a special condition on applying this principle [of allowing multiple people to be handled in one transaction] to the Acceptance (full ordination) of bhikkhus: “I allow a single proclamation to be made for two or three if they have the same preceptor, but not if they have different preceptors.”

Yet much of bhikkhuni protocol comes from instructions given to bhikkhus, also with no special mention directing them towards bhikkhunis; why should this allowance be any different? The Venerable Elder sees a reason why this allowance cannot belong to bhikkhunis. He reasons that because a female preceptor (pavattini) is not supposed to have multiple students in one year, this single-proclamation allowance for multiple students never applied to bhikkhunis. The crux of his argument is that we can’t ascribe to our (re-created) Bhikkhuni Vinaya an allowance (letting multiple students ordain by shared proclamation) which never come up unless the bhikkhuni preceptor were to break a Bhikkhuni Pacittiya rule (No. 83 against ordaining multiple students in one year).

He then further proposed, again going into uncharted waters with this second theory, that if they make a single proclamation despite lacking permission to do so, it must invalidate the ordination. The four bhikkhunis recently ordained in Perth shared one bhikkhuni preceptor, Ven. Ayya Tathaaloka of the USA, and at the end of the ceremony their proclamations were made in pairs. For this, alone, he calls the otherwise flawless ordination invalid. (Let those sympathetic to nuns please set aside any feelings of moral outrage at the idea of rejecting these excellent nuns’ long awaited and hard-gained entry to fully living the holy life, due to a petty-looking legal technicality, and examine this issue with dispassion.)

His two theories―that there was as flaw and that such a flaw would be fatal―assume some unproven factors. Most surprisingly, he assumes that the allowance was predated by Pacittiya rule No. 83 (the rule against bhikkhuni preceptors ordaining multiple students in one year). We have no reason to believe it so. In fact, it makes more sense to assume that the bhikkhuni preceptors’ restriction came later, at a time when the female Order was flourishing beyond its means.

Common sense suggests that this allowance was intended for any co-students whether pupils of bhikkhus or bhikkhunis, for nothing stood in the way of the female gender following it, until Pacittiya 83 was set down. Nothing special about the bhikkhuni ordination script suggests that the debated allowance shouldn’t apply; the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni ordination scripts are essentially identical, differing only by slightly different qualification questions and the bhikkhunis’ additional part of going to the male Sangha to repeat the motion. (The ordination procedures are spelled out in detail at Cv.X.17 for bhikkhunis and Mv.I.76 for bhikkhus.) The allowance appears in the scripture alongside with other allowances obviously shared by bhikkhunis; for example, the statement directly before it is the one allowing a preceptor to be named by clan during ordinations; the one directly after it instructs (allows) to calculate a candidate’s age counting from the time of conception instead of birth, another practical instruction which bhikkhunis should follow.

Perhaps many bhikkhunis availed themselves of the allowance before the mentoring restriction came down; why not? In fact, the scriptures tell of large numbers of bhikkhus or bhikkhunis who ordained together and trained together under a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni teacher, such as “Patacara’s Five Hundred” (“Pancatasata Patacara”) who went forth together under Bhikkhuni Patacara Theri (see Thig 127-132 and related Commentary). Thus we can surely ascribe to the bhikkhunis an allowance that they simply ceased to avail themselves of later (due to Pac. 83). The flimsiness of the Venerable Elder’s theory has been revealed. The assumption that the bhikkhunis’ Vinaya never included this allowance is untenable. It would be wrong to criticize a bhikkhuni ordination for making use of it when the occasion arose.

~ Although the debate has been won, for the sake of education let’s continue to pull apart all of the letter’s reasoning, step-by-step. ~

A bhikkhu ordination ceremony culminates in a motion and three proclamations by the Advocate identifying the candidate and his preceptor, and asserting that the candidate seeks ordination and is qualified; if all remain silent, the proclamations become the decision of the group, and the ordination is a completed legal transaction. Permission came for lumping together proclamations for multiple candidates, when two men planning to ordain under one preceptor quarreled over whose proclamations would be spoken first (Mv.I.74.2). Being first presumably would determine not only who felt more favored but which student would become the more senior of the two, a matter greatly impacting the co-students’ daily lives. The Buddha brought peace by letting the two mens’ ordination proclamations be combined, apparently to let them enjoy equality together as co-students. He stated, “I allow you, monks, to make two proclamations together.” (Later he allowed up to three. Mv.I.74.2).

This allowance was not an essential ingredient in ordinations, but simply a convenient procedural strategy for smoothing away potential quarrels of power-struggles or jealousy; it may also serve to save time, particularly when large numbers ordain. The Buddha later chose not to extend the joint procedure to cases of multiple preceptors, and hence amended it by adding, “but not if there are different preceptors.” (Mv.I.74.3).

The odd description by the Venerable Elder of this rule being a “special exemption” to a “principle” of transaction statements gives the erroneous impression that the Buddha made this rule in order to set ordinations apart from other examples in which Community transactions involving multiple people can be bundled together. His wording also creates the impression that this rule carries more weight than it does. The Buddha wasn’t trying to specially protect transaction statements when he originally formulated the rule, but to protect the untrained people’s egos.

At Point (4) in his letter, our Venerable Elder sketches out an obstacle to the natural assumption that the convenient quarrel-preventing allowance would have been ascribed to bhikkhunis as well as to bhikkhus. He introduces the interesting idea that we must fill in blank areas of Bhikkhuni Vinaya by using the Great Standards (a moral analysis comparing what is desired with what already is or isn’t allowable, to determine whether it should be allowed). The Great Standards can be part of our common sense approach to questions of filling in Bhikkhuni Vinaya, but cannot displace common sense. For example, one time Ananda expressed concern that in an upcoming ordination he would be expected to name a preceptor who happened to be his own teacher. (He felt embarrassed because calling one’s own teacher by name would be rude.) The Buddha responded with an allowance for bhikkhus to identify preceptors by clan name rather than personal name (Mv.I.74.1). In a case like this, common sense would say that bhikkhunis, too, may make use of the allowance, without need to resort to a moral analysis using the Great Standards. (This will become relevant because of the Venerable Elder’s subsequent assertion that the Great Standards cannot be used as a way to give bhikkhunis this allowance, due to the moral glitch of a rule being broken.)

Point (4) of the letter also introduces the reader to the Bhikkhuni Pacittiya rules 82 and 83, which together limit the numbers of students a female preceptor can ordain to merely one every other year. Why did the Buddha set down this limitation? The scripture mentions the nuns’ crowded housing, but Ven. Thanissaro adds a convincing point that this rule for bhikkhuni preceptors gave each new bhikkhuni the full attention of her preceptor during the brief two years of her training period. In other words, the Buddha set down this rule, like so many other rules, because he wanted ordained women to thrive.

Nowadays, however, Bhikkhuni Pacittiya No. 83 can pose an impediment actually preventing the newly re-emerging Theravada Bhikkhuni Order from thriving. At this fragile point in the Theravada bhikkhunis’ revival while we have very few qualified preceptors, this rule, though set down to benefit the Bhikkhuni Order, could instead strangle it. For this reason, the rule was deliberately ignored during the October 22, 2009 ordination. (Don’t worry, the newly ordained bhikkhunis will not end up neglected, but will continue to receive good training by their venerable teacher Ajahn Brahm and the senior bhikkhu teachers of his monastery who he has provided for to instruct the bhikkhunis.) We hope in future, once we have gotten beyond these pioneering days for Theravada bhikkhunis, to enjoy a large, thriving Order with many available bhikkhuni preceptors, and with Pacittiya No. 83 being properly observed once again. (If the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order fails, the whole package of the bhikkhuni training and livelihood rules fall back into disuse, a vastly greater harm than temporarily setting aside one little organizational rule intended to help bhikkhunis.)

Our Venerable Elder’s application of Great Standards brings him to conclude that the expected violation of a Pacittiya rule would morally obstruct us from ascribing to bhikkhunis the availability of the allowance. If guided by common sense, however, the Great Standards would cause us to conclude that the preceptor’s status could not prevent any co-students from benefiting from the peace-keeping allowance. Maybe female candidates “shouldn’t” be co-students, but when they sometimes are, this allowance belongs to them. (Unless anyone wishes to make the case that women seeking higher ordination are so superior that the Buddha would not expect them to quarrel over something so foolish as who gets seniority.) Nor is the Kammavacacarini (Advocate) prevented from making simultaneous proclamations during the ordination ceremony, to bring peace to a preceptor’s students or for some other good reason. Thus we have ample reason to believe that if bhikkhuni preceptors were to ordain multiple students the debated allowance would be available to her students.

Given this, and indications that large numbers of bhikkhunis made use of the allowance prior to Pacittiya 83, we can safely conclude that when the need arises, bhikkhunis can make use of the allowance. Thus the October 22, 2009 ordination ceremony had no known flaw.

PART TWO: Would A Flaw Invalidate an Ordination?

Although we have seen that there was no flaw, let us ask what a flaw would mean.

First let us get clear on what the Venerable Elder is not trying to claim, by setting aside a simplistic argument not under discussion. A bhikkhuni preceptor who sponsors multiple nuns would incur a Pacittya offense, which means that it would be naughty for her to do so―she should indeed hesitate―and that she would need to later confess her offense to another bhikkhuni. It does not mean that she harms the ordination by stepping into that role, nor is the Venerable Elder trying to say that she does. Even if the bhikkhuni preceptor were a parajika (defeated one) or a matricide / parricide, her participation would not undermine the candidate’s ordination (Mv.I.69.4); hence her status as a Pacittiya-breaker (which is not such a big deal) should pose no harm. The Venerable Elder does not try to claim that it would, for he is attempting to make a more subtle argument.

In Point (5) of the letter, the Venerable Elder apparently made up a new general principle of monastic protocol when he stated,

“This sort of transaction statement, because it intrinsically entails the breaking of a rule, would thus be totally unauthorized.”

This must be his unique idea, for does he not next inform us, two sentences later (in Point (6)), that there are no examples of this in the Canon? If the situation is unprecedented, then from where did he get this mightily impressive non-authorization formula? He wrote,

“6) It bears noting that there are no examples of transaction statements authorized in the Canon where the sheer form of the statement would intrinsically entail the breaking of a rule.”

(This wording, that the “sheer form of the statement would intrinsically entail…” makes it sound very important. Yet, rule Pac. 83 is not broken by the form of the transaction statement. If multiple candidates ordain under one female preceptor, the little rule is broken, regardless of the use or non-use of a single transaction statement; these two issues are unrelated. Whether to do a single statement is a separate question that depends on the needs of the candidates. The Point (6) assertion is sheer hyperbole.)

In Point (7), our Venerable Elder asserted that flawed transaction statements generally invalidate legal acts. (Legalese wording alert: “generally” means not-in-all-cases. Hence he has just stated that flawed transaction statements do not always invalidate legal acts!) Therefore, he continued, this principle applies to ordination transaction statements; and hence if flawed, the ordination becomes invalid. But this is simply another theory.

Dozens of much more substantial ordination flaws were declared by the Buddha to be mere “wrong-doings” that do not invalidate the ordination or cause the candidate to be expelled. Even the act of―for examples―ordaining a candidate lacking a preceptor or who takes the entire Order as his preceptor (two examples mentioned in the letter) (Mv.I.69.1-2); or who has a matricide or parricide as a preceptor (Mv.I.69.4), or who is severely crippled (Mv.I.71.1), or has a dreaded communicable disease (Mv.I.39.7), would be considered a mere wrong-doing that is not fatal to ordained status, despite the potential long-term negative impact upon the Sangha.

The supposed error of a bhikkhunis’ students’ names being proclaimed together (rather than sequentially) rather pales by comparison to these mistakes. Someone’s opinion that this minor error would invalidate an ordination does not substitute for a solid argument. As of the end of Point (7), ordinations being rendered invalid by simultaneous proclamations has not been proven.

Returning briefly to Point (5), we find a most fascinating comment:

“In the words of Mv.X.3.2, it [the supposedly unauthorized transaction of shared proclamations] would be ‘apart from the Vinaya…apart from the Teacher’s instruction.’ As Mv.X.3.2 further states, any transaction of this sort is ‘not a transaction and should not be carried out.’ ”

This statement fascinates not because it seems almost bombastic, but because of the citation given, Mv.X.3.2 (the Mahavagga section of the Khandhaka portion of the Vinaya, Chapter Ten, Section 3, paragraph 2), a location immediately recognizable to anyone well familiar with the Vinaya. This citation does not give us the quoted words. (And I did not manage to track them down.) Rather, what we find at Chapter Ten is the account of the infamous bad behavior of the monks of Kosambi. At the cited section and paragraph, we find the Buddha begging these quarrelsome bhikkhus to cease their angry words and open their hearts by letting their “light shine forth” and becoming forbearing and gentle. He pleads, “Enough, monks; no strife, no quarrels, no contention, no disputing.” But when the monks repeatedly tell him to mind his own business, the Buddha thinks: “These foolish men are as though infatuate; it is not easy to persuade them,” and he leaves. Then he proclaims verses that begin, “When many voices shout at once / None considers himself a fool; / Though the Sangha is being split / None thinks himself to be at fault.” The Buddha continues, speaking verses that would become among the most beloved words in the Canon, including, “Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world;/ Through non-hatred alone they cease; / This is an eternal law.”

Thus does Ven. Thanissaro gently offer some beautiful subtle advice relevant to this very situation, in which the Buddhist world watches with dismay the clamor arisen among senior bhikkhus in the wake of the recent ordination of bhikkhunis into their lineage. Perhaps his reference will encourage these venerables to reflect upon their behavior, lest more Kosambi-like righteous divisiveness lead to their own harm and the non-benefit of many increasingly disillusioned devotees, for a long time. (Or, maybe it was just a slip.)

The rest of the letter’s arguments depend upon hypotheses that we have already dismissed, so need not be addressed further, except for one more that may need clarification:

Point (9) attempts to prove that naming bhikkhuni candidates together in one transaction statement instead of individually invalidates the ordination because the transaction “doesn’t touch on the individual.” Failure to touch upon the individual is reportedly one of a short list of reasons that a Community transaction may be deemed invalid; proper individual naming is said to be required for being properly touched upon.

The argument here would have us accept the far-fetched idea that male candidates named together in a joint proclamation are “touched upon” whereas females are not, simply due to a rule for bhikkuni preceptors (Bhi.Pac. No. 83) unrelated to ordination procedures of proclaiming and naming. Nothing is lost from the ceremony by naming people jointly, as demonstrated by male candidates’ free use of the allowance. Here the argument has overreached, to the point of silliness. How can a mere technical lack of permission to do what would normally be permissible for others be called a fatal flaw in an ordination? Obviously, it must be a trivial, harmless breach, if a breach at all.

Nonetheless, to be absolutely clear on this point, we can affirm that in the October 22, 2009 ordination in question, each ordinee was indeed literally, individually “touched upon” during the ordination ceremony, both physically and verbally. Her ordained name was pronounced to her, and her bowl and each of her five robes were physically touched on her body by her pavattini together with the naming. The preceptor (pavattini) Ven. Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni affirmed this by email (Nov. 22, 2009), writing, “Actually, as part of the ordination proceedure, i, as pavattini, noted (named) each individual (and her requisites) individually. i physically touched the bowl and each of the five robes of each candidate, one by one, after naming her and while naming her requisites. this was part of my part of the ordination kammavaca.”

Ven. Sobhana Bhikkhuni of the Bhavana Society in West Virginia, USA, who acted as the second Kammavacacarini (a kind of an Advocate) for the candidates during the ordination, offers a brief comment:

“Examining the entire [Vinaya] section on ordination, one can see that only a few specific faults are said to invalidate an ordination. Many other mistakes are said to merely be faults of the preceptor. It must be considered as the great standard that ordinations cannot be invalidated for minor faults. The Buddha must have foreseen the danger of broken ordination lineages undermining the entire sangha.”

PART THREE: Conclusion

The ceremony was not flawed by a lack of permission to make joint proclamations, as claimed. Bhikkhunis received this allowance long ago, and simply stopped using it when a new rule, Pacittiya 83, made it irrelevant. Even if the ordination had been flawed that way, it would go against the norm to invalidate ordinations based on such a minor issue, and its harmlessness is highlighted by the fact that joint proclamations are acceptable in other ordinations.

The opinion that the October 22, 2009 bhikkhuni ordination was invalid does not withstand reasonable scrutiny. The ordination was a valid legal act of Sangha; later criticisms or efforts by Sangha members to reopen a valid legal act should be dealt with according to Vinaya rule.

Ven. Thanissaro once wrote,

“[N]ow that Buddhism is coming to the West, I feel it is time to stop and take stock of the tradition and to check the later traditions against the earliest sources. This is especially important in a way of thought and life that, from the very beginning, has appealed to reason and investigation rather than blindly accepted authority. In doing this, I am simply following a pattern that has repeated itself through the history of the Theravadin tradition: that of returning to the original principles whenever the religion reaches an historic turning point.” (BMC I p. 16)

The October 22, 2009 ordination of four women into the reluctant Ajahn Chah lineage and the explosion of reaction and debate that swiftly followed from around the world suggest that an historic turning point has been reached in Theravadin Buddhism. The continued resistance to womens’ ordination may be the one of the worst cases we have ever seen in Buddhism of abandoning “reason and investigation” to “blindly follow accepted authority” of dubious origins. Making recourse to the “earliest sources” to which (according to Ven. Thanissaro’s example) we should now turn, what do they show us, particularly when compared to current trends?

We find, on investigation, that the Buddha followed a principle of working hard to ensure women receive the best conditions for success in the holy life, from ease of ordination, to high quality mentoring, to staying focused. (But what about his oft-mentioned hesitation to ordain women in the first place? He hesitated only until the right reason was presented: not for the sake of his personal relation with his aunt/foster mother, but for the sake of womens’ enlightenment.) The Buddha readily changed ordination procedures whenever obstacles for women arose: When shy female candidates were unable to answer questions posed by bhikkhus prior to ordination, the Buddha compassionately intervened by instituting procedures for bhikkhunis to do the questioning, giving rise to the practice of dual ordination (Cv.X.17.1.2). When a former courtesan tried to fully ordain, but depraved men wanting to abduct her obstructed her from going to meet with the Bhikkhu Sangha, the Buddha made a dramatic change to Community transaction principles to accommodate her need, allowing female candidates to be ordained without actually presenting themselves to the Bhikkhu Sangha for the dual ordination, in times of danger (Cv.X.22). Such flexible effort to make bhikkhuni ordinations more accessible is the original principle demonstrated by the Buddha.

The Buddha’s hard work for bhikkhunis did not stop there. The Buddha set down numerous rules to protect bhikkhunis from all kinds of dangers (the travel rule, no talking alone with men, etc.), from distractions (no picture galleries, etc.), and from being taken advantage of by bhikkhus (no carding wool, etc.) or householders (no doing household work for them). According to Ven. Thanissaro’s letter, as mentioned previously, the Buddha limited the number of students bhikkhuni preceptors could ordain in order to make sure the new bhikkhunis received good mentoring. He forced bhikkhus to help the bhikkhunis in various ways, even requiring reluctant elder bhikkhus enjoying forest seclusion to meet with the Bhikkhuni Sangha to give them needed Dhamma talks (ovaada) (Cv.X.9.5).

Contrary to the usual requirement to stay put during Vassa, the Buddha encouraged bhikkhus to leave their Vassa residence to assist other members of Sangha―including the women. He stated specifically that a bhikkhu should go to help a bhikkhuni or female novice if, for examples, she is ill, she suffers from dissatisfaction with the holy life, she suffers remorse, or she has gotten into trouble and needs rehabilitation or an advocate; in such cases, the Buddha said, with the thought of being of help, “you should go, monks, even if not sent for, all the more if sent for.” If a bhikkhuni candidate wishes to be ordained during Vassa, the Buddha said, and she sends a messenger to monks saying that she wishes them to come, then “you should go, monks, even if not sent for, all the more if sent for,” with the intention of participating in the ordination. (The same is true if a novice nun wishes to start the training towards ordination.) (Mv.III.6.12-29).

Listen to how the Buddha described bhikkhunis: “[A] bhikkhuni is auspicious, a bhikkhuni is the essential, a bhikkhuni is a learner, a bhikkhuni is an adept, a bhikkhuni is ordained by both complete Orders by means of a (formal) act at which the motion is put and followed by three proclamations, irreversible and fit to stand.” (Vin iv 213.) There can be no doubt as to original principals regarding women entering and finding support in the holy life.

Yet despite all the evidence, some people still believe, perhaps due to blindly following more recent authorities, that obstructing women from the fullness of the holy life that he established for them does the will of the Buddha. Some greatly beloved elders even resort to disingenuous picky legalistic arguments to keep women bound to household life, with all its sorrows and dangers to life and virtue, its heat and constant distractions, and its lack of virtuous companions; a poor vehicle for inner development leading to freedom. Many devout virtuous women have died with their longing to live the holy life unfulfilled, and this continues, even though most Vinaya experts acknowledge that ordaining women as bhikkhunis is correct within the Vinaya. This is how current tradition compares with original principals.

Oh when will all of our beloved and respected elder venerable bhikkhus work so tirelessly as the Buddha to help women everywhere ordain, and use their great authority and enormous skills to encourage, protect, and help their sincere Dhamma sisters to succeed in their wish for liberation?

Minor changes (typos & irretrievably lost formatting) have been made for the sake of presentation on this blog. Many thanks to Sobhana Bhikkhuni for posting this piece in its entirety on Facebook.

Update: You may notice that the browser path of this post includes suddhana in lieu of sudhamma. I must apologize for this error—I don’t believe I can undo this typo, bar deleting and reposting this piece with the correct title. But if you have the technical know-how, please do let me know.

Public Letter from Sobhana Bhikkhuni

Sobhana Bhikkhuni has been posting some responses to Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s opinion on Facebook. Below is her public letter.

November 20, 2009

Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Metta Forest Monastery
PO Box 1409
Valley Center, CA 92082 USA

Dear Bhante,

I am writing in regard to your letter of November 13, which is posted at DhammaLight.com.

犀利士 Thanissaro Bhikkhu on the Validity of the Bhikkhuni Ordination_13-11-09.htm”>http://www.dhammalight.com/vinaya/Thanissaro%20Bhikkhu%20on%20the%20Validity%20of%20the%20Bhikkhuni%20Ordination_13-11-09.htm

With this letter you have declared that my bhikkhuni ordination is invalid, along with several hundred bhikkhunis ordained at Dambulla, Sri Lanka. I was ordained at Dambulla in 2006 upon the advice of Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, who considered that ordination to be the cleanest and most sound ordination form available.

Also with this letter, you attack the ordinations of the majority of bhikkhunis throughout the world, including in the Dharmagupta. You are opposing the vinayadharas and vinaya committees who spent many months and years analysing the issues, prior to ordinations at Sarnath in 1996, at Bodhgaya in 1998, in Perth in 2009, and many more. You are creating disruption and conflict between yourself and a significant part of the Buddhist sangha worldwide.

I request that you disavow this letter and reconsider your analysis.

With metta, Bhikkhuni Sobhana

Bhavana Society
Rt 1 Box 218-3
High View, WV 26808 USA

Many thanks to Sobhana Bhikkhuni for sharing her letters as well as others. Besides, it’s a delight to post some words from a bhikkhuni on this issue.

Letter from Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Thanissaro Bhikkhu is a prominent translator and scholar of Theravada Buddhism in the West, having paid particular attention to the Vinaya. Ajahn Nyanadhammo, former abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat, apparently asked Ajahn Thanissaro for a judgment on the transaction statements used at the bhikkhuni ordination ceremony in Australia. The response has therefore attracted significant interest. The letter focuses on “the use of a form in which two candidates are mentioned in a single proclamation.” The following points are made towards the end in section 11.

  1. Bhi Pc 83 does not allow a bhikkhuni to act as a sponsor for more than one candidate for ordination in a year. This rule is in force regardless of the number of residences available for bhikkhunis.
  2. There are no examples of transaction statements authorized in the Canon where the sheer form of the statement would intrinsically entail the breaking of a rule
  3. Thus the allowance at Mv.I.74.3—allowing a single proclamation to mention two or three candidates for bhikkhu ordination—cannot be extended to bhikkhunis, for such a statement would intrinsically be “apart from the Vinaya… apart from the Teacher’s instruction.”
  4. As Mv.X.3.2 states, any transaction using this sort of statement would be “not a transaction.”
  5. There are no cases where the Canon explicitly states that an unauthorized form of a transaction statement might be used for an Acceptance transaction and yet the candidate would count as validly accepted. In other words, there are no exemptions for the ruling at Mv.X.3.2.
  6. Thus a bhikkhuni ordination in which the transaction statements mentioned more than one candidate per statement would not be considered valid, and the candidates would not count as bhikkhunis.

He goes on to discuss his opinions on the importance of following the Vinaya with relation to the integrity, even if only the perceived integrity, of one’s conduct.

Of course, not everyone takes even the most authoritative Vinaya texts in the Canon as totally authoritative, but there are those who do. Any Community that wanted its transactions to receive universal recognition from other Communities would be well advised to give these points serious consideration and stick strictly to the authorized forms.


Admittedly, the fact that a group follows the authorized forms when conducting Community transactions may provide only a minimal guarantee of its trustworthiness, but it is at least an outward sign that the members of the Community know something of the Buddha’s teachings, respect what they know, and are behaving in good faith. If a Community were to deviate from the authorized forms, that fact would immediately call their knowledge and motives—their fitness to carry on the Dhamma and Vinaya—into question. This is why the forms are so important for mutual respect, harmony, and trust—all qualities of the heart—in the Community at large.

As usual, I found out about this over at Ajahn Sujato’s blog. He mentioned several follow up responses from the likes of Ayya Tathaaloka, Ayya Suddhamma, Ajahn Brahm, Bhikkhu Bodhi and more. I found on most of these articles on Facebook, and I’m happy to repost them here.

Nun Est Facta

The controversy surrounding the Australian bhikkhuni ordination has provoked quite a bit of discussion and ad-hominem attacks towards various Buddhists. (Other developments include the globalization of WPP as an acronym for Wat Nong Pa Pong!) I’ve provided below a selection of related posts I’ve found interesting.

  • Shravasti Dhammika opines that “Theravada Buddhism in its traditional homelands is, for the most part, spiritually moribund, tradition-bound and retrograde”—and provides his own ideas of what a “Buddhism relevant to the West” (Buddhayana) would look like. [November 7, 2009]
  • Lim Kooi Fong at the Buddhist Channel explains the editorial decision to place a hold on discussion of the controversy surrounding the Australian bhikkhuni ordination. [November 8, 2009]
  • You can find Bhikkhu Bodhi’s revised response on Ajahn Sujato’s eponymous blog. [November 8, 2009]
  • Ajahn Sujato also discusses what the 1928 Bhikkhuni Ban really said, and what it amounted to. [November 9, 2009]
  • Phra Cittasamvaro gives his own two cents regarding the events and context. [November 10, 2009]
  • For the youthful Kester Ratcliff, recent events further demonstrate that Thai Buddhism actually isn’t Buddhist and that “the time has come to let go of our Thai heritage.” He writes well, and I look forward to seeing what sort of work he’ll produce when he grows up. [November 10, 2009]

Several pieces from the key actors are cross-posted at multiple locations, including the Buddhist Channel, the Buddhist Society of Western Australiaand Ajahn Sujato’s blog. I must note that although I always refer to this in the context of the bhikkhuni ordination… whatever the nuns involved have to say has gotten barely any publicity at all—at least on the sites that I’ve been reading. A bit sad.

Bhikkhuni Legality

Ajahn Sujato blogs on the Thai legal claims surrounding bhikkhuni ordination.

While it is often said that bhikkhuni ordination is illegal or banned in Thailand, this claim rests on a very slender thread. There have been no formal pronouncements on the matter by the current Mahatherasamakhom, the governing body of Thai Buddhism, whose authority stems from the Sangha Act of 1962. Those seeking an ‘official’ position must fall back on a ruling issued in 1928.


The legal status of the ruling is obscure. No-one, so far as I know, has tried to test this in court. When Voramai Kabilsingh was accused before the Mahatherasamakhom in 1956, her ‘crime’ was allegedly imitating a bhikkhu(!), not the fact that she had ordained as a samaneri. She was excused because her preceptor was a member of the Mahatherasamakhom(!) The same monk, Phra Prommuni, was also the teacher of the current king when he was ordained(!) Phra Prommuni argued that her light-yellow robe was a different color to that of the bhikkhus, so she was excused(!)

As usual, he has gone out of his way to provide reference and context. Read it in full.

This Is Not A Schism

I was stunned to view the Buddhist Channel headline: “Ajahn Brahm excommunicated for performing Bhikkhuni Ordination in Australia.”

Then on Phra Noah Yuttadhammo’s blog, he writes: “An interesting topic, and indeed history in the making; new Bhikkhunis in Australia and a schism in the Thai forest sangha… I’m not sure which is of more significance.” What schism?

The Australian bhikkhuni ordination has generated some hard feelings in the many different corners of the Wat Nong Pa Pong lineage. There’s also quite a bit of hand-wringing on the sidelines. But use of the terms excommunication and schism constitute a reckless characterization of recent events.

These words embody very serious religious implications. While Ajahn Brahm (and the world) has been notified that he is now a persona non grata in the Wat Nong Pa Pong network, he has not been excommunicated. They neither formally disputed his status as a Theravada monk nor his authority to officiate and participate in religious ceremonies—they rather informed him that he is not welcome in their club. It’s not playing nice, but it’s not excommunication.

Phra Noah’s use of schism should likewise be avoided. Anyone raised on stories of Lord Buddha is well aware that schism is often a direct reference to the Bhagavan’s scriptural antagonist Devadatta. This word ought to be used with caution. The expulsion of Bodhinyana monastery from the WPP network is no more a schism than the suspension of a nation from the Commonwealth.

This post is not meant to trivialize current events. The bhikkhuni ordination and subsequent backlash are both significant and newsworthy events. But they shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.

The gravity of this situation is more political than religious. This fracas is very much a Buddhist issue, but we mustn’t confuse it as being a spiritual quarrel. I can expect more bitter words and much awkward silence to ensue. A formal schism of the Theravada sangha, however, is unlikely.

Are Asians Against Nuns?

On his blog, Ajahn Sujato was asked if the sexism he described in the English Sangha Trust reflected an Asian British mentality—“That’s the only configuration that I can imagine would create this governing body. The women’s rights movement took birth in England.” Ajahn Sujato responds:

The EST is not comprised of Asian British, it is an old-school organization which has, so far as I am aware, always been made up primarily of ‘English British’.

This is an important point, for it is often misunderstood that ‘Asians’ will be less interested in a fair go for women, and that the socially progressive movement will be stimulated by the West. This is very far from the case. I know several Asian women whose active support for bhikkhuni ordination was stimulated by their shock at seeing how discriminated the nuns in England were.

For most of the Asian Buddhist world, bhikkhunis are a normal part of life. They are an integral part of Buddhism in lands east and north of Thailand, and have become widely accepted by the Sri Lankan people (who, may I add, are among our major supporters here at Santi).

There is a popular racist argument that assumes that the West couldn’t possibly be sexist, that the bhikkhuni issue is really an Asian problem. This notion can be defended by anecdote. I have personally witnessed sexism as an entrenched issue within several Asian societies, and I also recognize the great advances in the West towards gender equality over the last century. My mother was raised to find a husband and pop out kids—when she retired, she was making more money than my father. But that’s not to say that Asia is sexist while the West is post-gender. (Tell that to Hillary Clinton!) There are anecdotes, there are trends, and there are racist conclusions—it is important not to confuse these. Best to steer clear of the latter.

When Monks Go Bad… (Speak Up!)

The Phnom Penh Postreports that “Buddhist intellectuals and civil society groups have called on the government to address a recent outbreak of offences ranging from drunkenness to rape and a deadly beating all allegedly committed by monks.”

Tep Vong, supreme patriarch of Cambodia, said he was aware a monk had been charged with killing a nun earlier this week in Banteay Meanchey province and welcomed the legal action.

“I do not have any particular advice on the issue because Buddhism already takes a clear position against killing animals and human beings,” he said, adding that anyone who committed a crime should be brought before the courts. 

He also insisted that his adviser, Kiet Chan Thouch, chief monk of Wat Leu in Preah Sihanouk province, was not guilty of getting drunk and attacking fellow monks in his pagoda, as was recently alleged. 

“I already investigated [Kiet Chan Thouch’s] case, and the accusations against him are untrue,” he said. The supreme patriarch is now pursuing legal action against Kiet Chan Thouch’s accusers, who he said had deliberately set out to damage the man’s reputation.

previous post here cited a UPI article, which addresses this very case. It’s important to understand the context surrounding these episodes—not just regarding the near annihilation of the Khmer sangha in the late 70’s, but also regarding who exactly today’s saffron-robed perpetrators are. Erik W. Davis wrote a thoughtful piece on this topic at his (former) blog.Nevertheless, a little more enforcement of the Vinaya might be overdue.