Abstract: Bhikkhuni irestoration in Theravada Buddhism: grounds of authenticity for newly ordained bhikkhuni

by Dr. Tomomi Ito

One of the essential questions regarding the restoration of the disrupted Theravada bhikkhuni orders is where to seek the grounds for authenticating newly ordained bhikkhuni bhikkkhun´. Among many concerns, the initial highlight of related discussions has been the commonality of the texts of the bhikkhuni vinaya in Mahayana traditions in East Asia and those in Theravada, which suggests that the vinaya inherited in the lineage of Korean and Taiwanese bhikkhuni could be passed on to women practicing Theravada Buddhism.

Based on this understanding, in 1996 the historical ordination ceremony for ten women from Sri Lanka was held in Sarnatha by the Korean order. In 1998 in Bodhagaya another ordination ceremony was hosted by Fo Guang Shan Monastery of Taiwan, at which time twenty Sri Lankan women were ordained. The bhikkhuni sangh has been developing steadily in Sri Lanka; at present it counts several hundred members. The ordination of Sri Lankan further stimulated Thai women in another Theravada tradition to become ordained as sramaneri and bhikkhuni. When these noteworthy events were reported in the mass media, public discussion was unavoidable. Particularly, skeptical critics liked to raise detailed questions about rules in the procedures of ordination ceremonies, such as the gender of the preceptor and the number of ordained members required to witness the ceremony, and negatively concluded that bhikkhuni ordination was no longer feasible.

In my presentation paper I would like to suggest that it is not some “right” procedure that can verify the authenticity of contemporary women’s ordination as bhikkhuni, but it is rather the establishment of the consolidated bhikkhuni sangha that can formalize their new tradition and pass it on to the next generation as an “authentic” dhamma lineage.
First, I will support this argument by referring to a recent reform of ordination procedures in the Korean bhikkhuni sangha, which never undermined the nunhood of either those who ordained before or after the reform. Second, I will consider the difficulties faced by Thai bhikkhuni who are still pursuing the establishment of a consolidated saºgha. Under these circumstances, where no formal approval is given by the authority of the Bhikkhu sangha of Thailand, individual bhikkhuni have to face many social difficulties, no matter how “correct” were the procedures they went through for their ordination. They are in need of support which leads to the development of the authority of the new tradition.