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Resources on Women's Ordination

Nuns from 'Tibetan Voices'Resources on this page:

little green button  Non-monastic ordination for women
little green button  Monastic ordination for women in modern Buddhism
little green button  Projects in support of nuns
little green button  Resources on nuns and ordination
little green button  Books about ordained women

Non-monastic ordination for women

Khandro Déchen Tsédrup Yeshé wearing the robes of a ngakma The ngak'phang sangha, also known as the White Sangha, exists primarily in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.   A woman with this ordination is known as a ngakma and wears special robes (see left).  Holders of this ordination observe strict vows and commitments, however they are not obliged to practise celibacy and usually choose to live the life of a householder.   To quote The Sangha of Ngakpas and Ngakmos, "You can often easily spot which is the Ngakpa or Ngakma because of their commitment never to cut their hair which is often worn wound into a bun on top of the head!  Ngagmas and Ngakpas wear white shamtags (skirts), white, red and blue shawls of the yogic lineage and conch-shell spiral earrings; all of which represent specific aspects of the teachings. They never wear yellow which is associated with the Vinaya of monks and nuns."

For more information on this ordination, see The Sangha of Ngakpas and Ngakmos and The Aro Tradition (especially Ngak'chang Rinpoche's article Tantric Ordination: The Ngak'phang Tradition).

(And watch this space for more information...)

Monastic ordination
for women in modern Buddhism

There are currently three forms of monastic ordination available to women:

1. The full ordination, known as Bhiksuni (Sanskrit) or Bhikkhuni (Pali), has survived only in the Mahayana countries of China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea, although it is now being introduced into the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for the first time.  Sri Lanka has also seen its first few bhikkhuni-s thanks to the pioneering efforts of the late Ven. Ayya Khema.
2. The novice ordination, Sramanerika, was until recently the highest ordination available to women in Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism), as the bhiksuni ordination appears never to have been transmitted to Tibet.  It also exists in all the schools where the bhiksuni ordination has survived.
3. The bhiksuni ordination once existed in the countries where Theravada (the southern school of Buddhism) is most practised, but it died out around the 10th century.  The novice ordination has also disappeared in these countries.   Women who wish to live as nuns do so by taking eight or ten precepts.  Neither laywomen nor formally ordained, these women do not receive the recognition, education, financial support or status enjoyed by their male brethren.  These "precept-holders" live in:  Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand (Siam), and in Vietnam within the Theravadin tradition.   Japan is a special case as, although it has neither the bhiksuni nor sramanerika ordinations, the precept-holding nuns who live there do enjoy a higher status and better education than their precept-holder sisters elsewhere, and may even become Zen priests.

Monastic ordinations for women

Country Tradition Bhiksuni (full) ordination Sramanerika
novice ordination
No formal ordination (i.e. precept holders)

Colour of robes

Burma Theravada No No 10 precepts:  the nuns are known as anagarika-s (homeless ones) or thilashin (possessors of morality). orange
Cambodia Theravada No No 8-10 precepts white
China and Taiwan Mahayana Yes Yes No grey
Japan Mahayana No No Bodhisattva precepts plus celibacy (similar to 10 precepts of novice) black or white
Korea Mahayana Yes Yes No grey
Laos Theravada No No 8-10 precepts. white
Nepal Theravada No No 10 precepts:  the nuns are known as anagarika-s (homeless ones). orange
Sri Lanka Theravada No No 10 precepts:  the nuns are known as dasasil mata-s (homeless ones). saffron/ochre
Thailand (Siam) Theravada No No 8 precepts:   the nuns are known as maeji-s or maechee-s. white
Tibet and the Himalayas Mahayana (Vajrayana) No (a few bhikshuni ordinations have been introduced via the Chinese tradition) Yes (known in Tibetan as getsulma-s; full-ordination nuns are called gelongma-s) No burgundy with
yellow accents
Vietnam Mahayana Yes Yes No grey or brown
Vietnam Theravada No No 10 precepts. white

Information from Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha, edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo (Snow Lion, Ithaca, 1988).  See also Sakyadhita's page on nuns' robes, with photographs of nuns in every tradition!

Projects in support of nuns

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Amaravati Monastery (Theravada) is a Thai-style forest monastery in Hertfordshire, UK.  It includes a community of women living as alms-mendicant nuns in the tradition of Thai Theravada.
Buddhist Nuns at Chuchikjall Buddhist Nuns at Chuchikjall - Tibetan Prayer Chants is a fundraiser recording by the nuns of Chuchikjall Nunnery (Gelug) in Zanskar, north India.  This nunnery is located in a particularly bleak part of India where the nuns struggle hard to survive.  I actually initiated the Chuchikjall sponsorship program at Gaden Relief Projects of Toronto (see below), so I know personally how hard life is for these nuns - and how dedicated they are to the Dharma!  This recording is also available through Snow Lion Publications.
Samten Tse Retreat Centre for Nuns The Samten Tse Retreat Centre for Nuns (Kagyu) in Mussoorie, North India is now in the third and final phase of construction. Samten Tse is a women's retreat centre for individual retreats and for resident nuns founded by Ven. Khandro Rinpoche.  The third phase of construction consists of a temple, and housing for western women retreatants.
A nun at Shugsep Nunnery Shugsep Nunnery (Nyingma) has been re-established in Gambhir Ganj, India.  The original Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet was the spiritual home of Jetsün Lochen Chönyi Zangmo (d.1953).  While she received teachings of all the Tibetan schools, Jetsün held a particularly strong lineage of Chöd, the meditation practice of offering one's own body for the benefit of others. When she was the abbess of the Shugsep nunnery, 450 women meditators lived there, many as hermits in caves.  In exile in India, the nuns of Shugsep are now determined to maintain the identity and traditions of their nunnery, and they continue the practices for which they were famous, particularly those of Longchen Nyingtig and Chöd.
Nun performing ritual at Tara Abbey Tara Abbey (Kagyu), a monastic educational center for Himalayan women, was established by H.E. Thrangu Rinpoche in Kathmandu, Nepal in 1992.  At Tara Abbey, the older women will receive the full bhikshuni (gelongma) ordination when they are ready and will be trained in meditation and in Buddhist philosophy. Those who are qualified will enter into a five-year monastic college program (shedra) for training leading to the degree of Khenpo.  Upon completion of their three-year retreat, some of these bhikshuni lamas will be sent to centers in the West and the Far East to teach.
Nun from Zanskar hauling rocks Gaden Relief Projects is an ecumenical programme supporting Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns through the efforts of in India and Nepal.  Gaden Relief Projects supports the Chuchikjall Nunnery in Zanskar, India.  Sponsors may support individual nuns or donate money to support projects that benefit all the nuns.

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Dhammasara (Theravada) is to be the first monastery in Australia for female Sangha in the Theravadin forest tradition!  The Nuns' Monastery Building Fund has already acquired land at Gidgegannup, Western Australia where the monastery will be built, and an abbot -- Ven. Sister Ajahn Vayama -- has already been appointed.  The project is under the spiritual direction of the Ven. Ajahn Brahm of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia.
Tenzin Wangmo and Jampa Tsedrön The Sakyapa Nuns' Project (Sakya), based in Dickson, Australia, is raising funds for the first Sakyapa nunnery outside Tibet, to be built near the residence of H.H. Sakya Trizin in Dehra Dun, India.  The Project is organised by Australian nuns Tenzin Wangmo and Jampa Tsedrön (left).  Additional information can be found on the Sakya World site.
Ven. Tenzin Palmo Dongyu Gatsal Ling (Kagyu) is a new nunnery founded by Ven. Tenzin Palmo, the English-born nun who recently concluded a traditional 12-year retreat in the Himalayas (see Vicki Mackenzie's book Cave in the Snow: A Western Woman's Quest for Enlightenment).  The nunnery will be filled with young women from the Himalayan border region.  At this nunnery, Tenzin Palmo also plans to re-establish the extinct lineage of togdenmas (yoginis) within the Drukpa Kagyu tradition.  (For more details, see Tenzin Palmo is watering the nuns, a superb interview with Tenzin Palmo in the online edition of Ascent Magazine.)   Donations can be sent to Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, Tashi Jong Po Taragarh, District Kangra, H.P. 176081, India. NEW Support the nunnery and meet Tenzin Palmo during her 2001 speaking tour of Canada and east Asia!

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The Hartridge Buddhist Monastery (Theravada) in Honiton, Devon is a training venue, for nuns only, with a two-year programme.  "The first Theravadan community for Western nuns clearly echoes the increasing confidence of the elders of the Sangha in the capability of nuns to live and practise independently."  The nuns' monastery is affiliated with the more famous Amaravati Monastery in Hertfordshire.  Read more about the monastery, its community and its continuing struggle to exist in the Newsletter of the Forest Sangha, a world-wide Buddhist community in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chaa.  The Devon Vihara - Hartridge Buddhist Monastery, Upottery, Honiton, Devon EX14 9QE, tel (01404) 89-1251, fax (01404) 89-0023.
Khachoe Ghakyil Nunnery Nuns from Khachoe Ghakyil Nunnery (Gelug) in Kathmandu, Nepal, presented Women’s Freedom and Spiritual Liberation:  An Evening of Sacred Performance in numerous cities across North America in 1999, and again in Europe in autumn 2000.  The North American tour of the nuns of Khachoe Ghakyil Nunnery (KGN) was the first time that a troupe of Tibetan nuns have gone on tour in the West to stage performances of sacred music, dance, theatre and debate, and to introduce audiences to the central role women have played in the spiritual life of Tibet.  The 11 nuns demonstrated the art of the sand mandala and performed sacred dance, theatre and monastic debate - religious practices previously unavailable to women.  (These not-for-profit tours raised funds to expand the nunnery to accommodate the many women who wish to join.)

Kopan Monastery now offers details of their sponsorship program for the Khachoe Ghakyil Ling Nunnery on the Web as well as an online sponsorship pledge form!  People who would like to help but cannot manage regular support of a single nun may instead  make a single donation to the nunnery's Food Fund -- actually a general maintenance fund which benefits the whole community.  Note: North American would-be sponsors should follow the instructions on the sponsorship page on the nuns' tour site.

Jamyang Choling Jamyang Chöling (Gelug) is an innovative education project for Himalayan women. It aims to help women pursue learning that is harmonious with their personal interests and unique Buddhist cultural background.   There are currently six Jamyang Choling study programs throughout northern India. The 165 students, aged 11 to 52, are women from remote Himalayan areas.  They have had little, if any, schooling.  However, ater completing their studies, these women will serve as teachers, health care workers, community workers, and mentors to others.   They will create similar study programs in their homelands and other needy areas, and will help their people to revitalize their special cultural heritage.
A nun of Dhammacarini Vidaya The Thai Maechi Institute (Theravada) is a much-needed organization to support Thai nuns.  Maechi-s are the Thai Theravadin equivalent of novice nuns, as the nuns' ordination died out some centuries ago in the southern Buddhist countries. These women take the ten precepts of a nun, observe celibacy and simplicity, and live a monastic life of meditation and service.   Nunneries on the program include Dhammacarini Vidaya North, Sathira Dhamma Community and Khao Phra Dhamma Center.  The TMI also offers an archive of newspaper articles for more information on the status and situation of maechi-s in Thailand, as well as information on Western nuns in Siam (Thailand).
Tibetan Nuns Project 2001 calendar The Tibetan Nuns' Project (Vajrayana) is dedicated to providing support and education to Tibetan nuns living in exile through its sponsorship program.  Money is also raised through the sale of calendars, helping to support nuns at Dolma Ling, Shugsep Nunnery, Geden Choeling, Dama & Orgyen Chokhorling Nunneries, as well as some 35 "free-floating" nuns.  Contact Meg Moser, Development Director at (510) 647-3423, or by e-mail at tnpusa@igc.org, or by post c/o Tibetan Nuns Project, 2288 Fulton Street #312, Berkeley, CA 94704 USA.
Tibetan Voices Tibetan Voices is a photographic book and calendar fund-raising project shared jointly by the Seva Service Society and three Tibetan refugee relief projects, including the Tibetan Nuns' Project (see also below).  The photograph at top is one of many lovely images of Tibetan women taken by photographer Brian Harris (used here with permission).

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The Tsogyal Shedrub Dargyeling Nunnery (Nyingma) in Byalakuppe, South India (affiliated with Namdroling Monastery) was established by H.H. Penor Rinpoche.  Over 200 nuns study and practise Dharma there; many of these nuns are also enrolled in the nine-year course offered by the Ngagyur Nyingma Institute.  "The study program qualifies graduates to become khenpos and it is expected that the first ani [nun] khenpos will graduate soon."  Together, Tsogyal Shedrub Dargyeling Nunnery and its brother monastery Namdroling form the largest Nyingma teaching centre in the world.

Resources on Nuns and Ordination

Sakyadhita logoSakyadhita (the International Association for Buddhist Women) includes amongst its concerns the question of nuns' ordination, including the development of the full (bhikshuni) ordination in countries where it has died out.  Consult their information page on ordination for more details!  (Interested in what nuns' robes of the various Buddhist traditions look like?  They have that too!)

"Pen, Paper and Mouse, Inc." offers a personal look at nuns which includes interviews with Ven. Sangye Khadro (Kathleen McDonald) and Ven. Tenzin Konchog (Lena New) of the Amitabha Buddist Centre in Singapore, as well as Sister Josephine Sim of the Canossian Sisters Order in Singapore.

Steve's Vipassana Page includes a remarkable Women's Resources page with translations of texts about the earliest ordained nuns (bhikkhunis).   Included on this wonderful site are selections from the classic Therigata (Verses of the Female Elders -- see Murcott, Norman, and Rhys-Davids in the bibliography below), as well as translations of numerous suttas about individual nuns from the Samyutta Nikaya.   Inspirational, poetic, and highly readable!

Life as a Buddhist Nun reports on the remarkable, first-of-its-kind conference of the same name held in Bodhgaya, India, in February 1996.  The event's purpose was to provide teachings on monastic discipline; to discuss questions and issues facing Western Buddhist nuns; to establish a feeling of community and support among Western Buddhist nuns; and to enable the Dharma to flourish in the West by training nuns, many of whom will become Dharma teachers, counselors, hospice workers and so forth.

On-line articles on women's ordination:

little green button Three articles on ordination from the FPMT teachings archive:
little green button After a Millennium, World Buddhists Affirm Equality for Women.  "February 15, 1998 marked the first time ever in Buddhism’s history that Buddhists representing diverse traditions and schools from around the world joined together for a truly international and ecumenical ordination. It was especially significant because it was a joint effort by Buddhist leaders to re-establish the order of nuns in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, and India, where no women had been ordained as a nun for over eight centuries...."

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Preparing for Ordination: Reflections for Westerners Considering Monastic Ordination in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition is a series of articles by Asian and Western monastics for non-Tibetans who are considering monastic ordination in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  This book of essays, also available in printed form from editor Thubten Chodron (contact Tchodron@aol.com), may be read in its entirety at the Sakyadhita website.
little green button Inspiration from Enlightened Nuns by Susan Elbaum Jootla. "In this [article] we will be exploring poems composed by the Arahat bhikkhunis or enlightened Buddhist nuns of old, looking at these poems as springs of inspiration for contemporary Buddhists."
little green button Gassho includes the article "The Significance of Ordination as a Buddhist Nun" by Ven. Ayya Khema (must be downloaded and opened to be read)

Books about ordained women

Boucher, Sandy. Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism (387pp). San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988. An extensive and highly fascinating series of interviews with women active in North American Buddhism. Contains interviews with ordained women.
Ching, Yu-ingMaster of Love and Mercy: Cheng Yen.  Nevada City: Blue Dolphin Publishing, inc., 1995.   A biography of Cheng Yen (Chen Yuan -- see above), the founder of the Tzu-Chi Foundation.  ISBN 0-931892-27-9, list $24.95.
Coleman, Rev. Mary Teal (Ven. Tenzin Yeshe). MONASTIC: An Ordained Tibetan Buddhist Speaks on Behalf of Full Ordination for Women (99pp).
Friedman, Lenore. Meetings with Remarkable Women: Buddhist Teachers in America. Boston: Shambhala, 1987. Includes interviews with ordained women.
Grimshaw, Anna. Servants of the Buddha: Winter in a Himalayan Convent. London: Open Letters, 1992. A woman from Lancashire visits a Ladakhi Buddhist convent.
Havnevik, Hanna. Tibetan Buddhist Nuns. Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1990. The definitive work on the subject.
Kabilsingh, Chatsumarn. A Comparative Study of Bhikkhuni Patimokkha. Chaukhambha Oriental Research Studies, vol. 28. Varanasi: Chaukhamba Orientalia, 1984. On the vows and rules of fully ordained nuns (bhikkhuni [Pali] or bhikshuni [Sanskrit]).
King, Sallie B., trans. Passionate Journey: The Spiritual Autobiography of Satomi Myodo. Boston: Shambhala, 1978.
Murcott, Susan. The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentaries on the Therigata (219pp). Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991.
Norman, K.R., trans. The Elders: Verses II: Therigatha. London: Pali Text Society and Luzac & Company, 1971.
O'Halloran, Maura. Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind. Riverhead Books (Tricycle), 1994. Lovely story of a young Irishwoman who became a recognised Zen master in Japan.
Pao-Ch'ang, Shih. Lives of the nuns: biographies of Chinese Buddhist nuns from the fourth to sixth centuries. Trans. by Kathryn Ann Tsai. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1994. ISBN 0824815416 (188pp).
Paul, Diana Y. Women in Buddhism: Images of the Feminine in Mahayana Buddhism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985; formerly Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1979. Includes some discussion of the role of the bhikshuni sangha.
Rhys-Davids, C.A.F. and Norman, K.R., translators. Pitakas/Khuddaka: Poems of Early Buddhist Nuns (Therigata). Headington, Oxford: Pali Texts Society, 1989. ISBN 0860132897 (233pp).
Shaw, Miranda. Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism. Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-691-03380-3 (291pp). A riveting look at the little-known role of female teachers and lineage-holders in the Vajrayana tradition. Some discussion of ordained women, e.g. Bhikshuni Lakshmi (Palmo), who founded the purification practice known as Nyung-ne.
Shin, Nan (pseud.). Diary of a Zen Nun: Every Day Living. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1988.
Sidor, Ellen S. A Gathering of Spirit: Women Teaching in American Buddhism. Cumberland (R.I.): Primary Point Press, 1987.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe, ed. Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha. Ithaca (NY): Snow Lion Publications, 1989. Lekshe is a bhikshuni (fully ordained nun) in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and is Secretary of Sakyadhita International. She founded the Jamyang Chöling Institute for Buddhist Women in India and is currently in the Philosophy Department at the University of Hawai'i. This book is a collection of essays and presentations by women who attended the first international conference of Buddhist women, with significant content relating to the ordination of nuns.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. Sisters in Solitude - Two Traditions of Buddhist Monastic Ethics for Women - A Comparative Analysis of the Chinese Dharmagupta and the Tibetan Mulasarvastivada Bhiksuni Pratimoksa Sutras. New York: SUNY Press, 1996. ISBN 0-7914-3090-1 (paperback) or 0-7914-3089-8 (cloth), 192 pp. This landmark book is the first translation into English of two versions of the Bhikshuni Pratimoksha Sutra, the precepts and rules of conduct for fully-ordained Buddhist nuns.
Willis, Janice D., ed. Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet. Ithaca (NY): Snow Lion Publications, 1989; reprinted 1995. A wide-ranging collection of papers which includes an excellent essay by Karma Lekshe Tsomo on Tibetan Buddhist nuns.

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