The four pillars
The Buddha granted Bhikkhus (fully ordained male Buddhist monks), Bhikkhunīs (fully ordained female Buddhist nuns), upāsaka (layman) and upāsikā (laywoman) a fundamental position in Buddhism. The Buddha himself, before passing away (parinibbāna) addressed Ānanda, who was his attendant, that Buddhism will survive so long as these four congregations exist. They are often regarded as the four pillars of Buddhism, if one is missing, the whole structure fails.
Bhikkhunī and her origins
Bhikkhunī is a fully ordained female Buddhist nuns. The literal meaning of the words Bhikkhunīs and Bhikkhus is „the one who begs“. They are both disciples of the Buddha as genders are perfectly equal according to the Teaching.
The Bhikkhunī order was established by the Buddha five years after the first bhikkhu order. The Buddha’s stepmother (Mahāpajāpati Gotamī) was a devoted practitioner and, realizing that that was the path to liberation. She then asked the Buddha if women could walk the same path as monks, and thus be ordained. After some initial hesitation, the Buddha allowed Bhikkhunī ordination after having positively answered a crucial question posed by Ānanda: “ Can women reach Nibbāna?” (different texts report this question in different translations). She then became the first ordained Bhikkhunī.
The Buddha then dictated a set of rules for both Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunīs, which are contained in the Vinaya. The equal treatment of both genders provided in the Vinaya raised some turmoil among the lay community at the time. In fact, the social status of women in India 2500 years ago was extremely low. Nevertheless, the Buddha made it possible for Bhikkhunīs to practice the very same way as male monks.
We have seen that Bhikkhunīs have the same rights and duties as the Bhikkhus, in fact, during the Buddha’s time both the Saṅgha communities were entitled to share each donation equally.
A story is remembered from the Buddha’s time when a gift of eight robes was offered to both saṅghas. The Buddha divided the robes evenly between the male and the female order even if the women Saṅgha housed only one Bhikkhunī at the time, whereas there were four Bhikkhus. Four of the robes were given to the Bhikkhunīs monastic community and four to the Bhikkhus.
Re-establishment of the Bhikkhunī order
Some of the theravāda tradition scholars believe that the bhikkhunī line vanished between the eleventh and the thirteenth century. They then argue that no female monastic should have been ordained Bhikkhunī from that moment on. However, the issue is treated differently in various geographical areas of the world.
On one side there is the front representatives of the Theravāda Bhikkhu Saṅghas in Burma and Thailand who are united as one party against the legitimate recognition of any of the new Bhikkhunī ordination.
On the other side, a great number of scholars reject such opinions having proven historical facts supporting their position. They fully support the Theravāda Bhikkhunī ordination as it was supported by the Buddha himself.
In 1996 the International Association of Women in Buddhism Sakyadhita formally re-established the ordination of nuns, theravāda bhikkhunīs. Eleven women from Sri Lanka received full ordinations in the Indian state of Sarnath during the ceremony led by Dodangoda Revata Mahāthera and later on Mapalagama Vipulasāra Mahāthera from the Mahā Bodhi society in India together with Bhikkhu monks and Bhikkhunī nuns from Jogye Order from the Korean Seonu.
In July 2007, the international congress "Women role in Buddhist Saṅgha" was held in Hamburg. International scholars met together from various traditions to mutually find a consensus on the re-establishment and reintroduction of the Bhikkhunī ordination. Sixty-five delegates of Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunīs, scholars, experts in Vinaya and seniors and Nestors from the traditional Buddhist countries and western educated experts in the sphere of Buddha's Teaching have claimed that:
“all of the delegates have unanimously agreed on that Mūlasārvastivāda bhikkhunī ordination can be reintroduced“
Together with this proclamation they recited the Dalai Lama's full support and endorsement for the bhikkhunī ordination. Already in 1987 the 14th Dalai Lama requested the reintroduction of the full bhikkhunī ordination in Tibet.
Although the Bhikkhunī ordination has been internationally recognised, some countries remain reluctant to welcome the idea of ordaining women as Bhikkhunīs. While Thailand has been walking some steps forwards in the acceptance process, Laos and Burma are two of the few countries that do not yet admit any Bhikkhunī in the Saṅgha community. We know that the cultural background has a crucial impact on this issue. However, we are confident that with time and patience Bhikkhunīs will be fully recognized all over the world without exceptions. At the present, Sri Lanka is the most welcoming and open country regarding Bhikkhunī ordination.