Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Revival of the Bhikkhuni Order and the Decline of the Sasana

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Revival of the Bhikkhuni Order and the Decline of the Sasana

Article excerpt


My presentation begins with the contrast between the positive evaluation of the existence of an order of bhikkhunis in early Buddhist discourse and the "prediction of decline," according to which the establishing of this order would result in a decline of the Buddha's dispensation (sasana). Next I survey modern-day apprehensions that the revival of the bhikkhuni order constitutes a "Mahayana threat"; and then explore the "Theravada sense of identity." In an attempt to cover the legal issue of reviving bhikkhun ordination in detail, I examine the alternatives of "dual ordination" and "single ordination." Finally I turn to the current situation of nuns who have not received full ordination in the Theravada traditions as instances of an "actual decline." (2)

The Prediction of Decline

As a way of getting into my subject of the relationship between the establishing of an order of bhikkhunis and what according to early Buddhist texts leads to a decline of the sasana, I begin by translating a short discourse from the Samyukta-agama. This discourse has a parallel in the Ahguttara-nikaya and another parallel in the Ekottarika-agama. (3) The three versions describe the role of the four assemblies--bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, male lay followers and female lay followers--as part of the Buddhist community (sahgha) in general.

   Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was staying at
   Savatthi in Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's Park. (4) At that
   time the Blessed One said to the bhikkhus: "There are four
   types of well disciplined assemblies. (5) What are the four?
   That is, [they are] a disciplined bhikkhu, a disciplined bhikkhuni,
   a disciplined male lay follower, and a disciplined
   female lay follower. (6) These are reckoned the four assemblies."

At that time, the Blessed One spoke in verse:

   "Capable at discussing without fear,
   being learned, they have penetrated the Dharma,
   they practice the Dharma, following the Dharma,
   these are, indeed, the good assemblies. (7)
   A bhikkhu who maintains his virtue pure,
   a bhikkhuni who is learned,
   a male lay follower who has pure faith, (8)
   and a female lay follower who is like that,
   these are reckoned the good assemblies,
   like the light of the sun, they shine on their own. (9)
   Indeed, like this the community is well,
   indeed, this is what is excellent in the community.
   This condition leads to the excellence of the community,
   like the light of the sun, shining on its own."

   When the Buddha has spoken this discourse, the bhikkhus,
   hearing what the Buddha had said, were delighted and received
   it respectfully. (10)

The three versions of the above discourse present the role of the four assemblies as what illuminates the community in closely similar ways; in fact they even agree in highlighting virtue in the case of a bhikkhu in contrast to learnedness in the case of a bhikkhuni. (11)

Another discourse in the Ahguttara-nikaya clarifies that a bhikkhun would of course also illuminate the community through her virtue. (12) Yet, the learnedness of the bhikkhunis was apparently outstanding enough for the concluding verse of the above-translated discourse to draw attention to this particular quality. There can be little doubt that the agreement among the parallel versions in this respect reflects an appreciation of the presence of learned and virtuous bhikkhunis, considering them to be a considerable asset to the Buddhist community.

The same theme of the importance of the four assemblies continues with other discourses. (13) The Pasadika-sutta in the Digha-nikaya and its Dirgha-agama parallel indicate that the completeness of the holy life taught by the Buddha can be seen in the accomplishment of the four assemblies of his disciples. (14) The Mahavacchagotta-sutta and its Chinese parallels in two Samyukta-agama collections make a similar statement. …

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