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Fifth Century Chinese Nuns: An Exemplary Case

Ann Heirman (UGent)
(2010) Buddhist Studies Review. 27(1). p.61-76
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Abstract
According to tradition, the first Buddhist nun ever to have been ordained was the Buddha’s stepmother, Mahaprajapati. Her story appears in most vinayas, as well as in some other early Buddhist texts. As it is well know, the Buddha only accepted Mahaprajapati as a full member of the monastic order when asked by his disciple Ananda whether women could obtain arhat-ship. After having answered in the affirmative, he allowed women to enter the Buddhist order, on condition that Mahaprajapati accepted eight fundamental rules (gurudharma) which make the nuns’ order (bhiksunisamgha) dependent upon the hierarchically superior monks’ order (bhiksusamgha). In all vinayas, these rules are seen as a reference point for the further development of the nuns’ order, and when the vinayas spread over the Asian continent, Mahaprajapati’s story went along. One of the eight fundamental rules continues to play a particular role in today’s Buddhist communities. The rule says that after a woman has been trained as a probationer (siksamana) for two years, the full ordination ceremony must be carried out in both orders, this is first in the nuns’ order, and then in the monks’ order. It implies that in the absence of a nuns’ order, women cannot be fully ordained. Today, this is the case in two of the three active vinaya traditions, the Mulasarvastivada tradition based in Tibet, and the Southeast Asian Pali Theravada tradition. Only in the Dharmaguptaka tradition, mainly followed in China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea, a full ordination as a nun is still possible. However, in several parts of the world, Buddhist groups try to revive a full ordination ceremony for women in the two traditions only active for men. This procedure involves several technical vinaya questions, all linked to the fact that in order to be legally valid, a full ordination ceremony in principle has to be carried out in the presence of an adequate quorum of fully ordained witnesses of both the nuns’ and the monks’ order, and coming from the same tradition. The present-day discussion is, however, not the first one of its kind. Already in early China, a similar discussion arose. When in the beginning of the fifth century, as many as four vinayas were translated into Chinese, Chinese Buddhist monastics got more and more aware of all vinaya rules, including the story of Mahaprajapati. Nuns, formerly ordained only in the presence of a chapter of monks, started to doubt about the validity of their ordination, and solutions were sought. The present article focuses on the early discussions on the introduction of a nuns’ ordination in China, showing how similar arguments are used again today. In the first part, the Biqiuni zhuan 比丘尼傳, a compilation of biographies of Buddhist nuns traditionally attributed to the monk Baochang 寶唱 (ca. 466-?), will be examined. Secondly, we analyse the reactions upon it by some of the most prominent early Chinese vinaya masters. As we will see in the third and final part, many of the questions raised in the early centuries of Chinese Buddhism are parallel to the questions raised today, while also the reactions and solutions that were proposed many centuries ago do not differ substantially from those put forward in recent discussions.
Keywords
Buddhist nuns' ordination in China, vinaya

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Citation

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Chicago
Heirman, Ann. 2010. “Fifth Century Chinese Nuns: An Exemplary Case.” Buddhist Studies Review 27 (1): 61–76.
APA
Heirman, Ann. (2010). Fifth Century Chinese Nuns: An Exemplary Case. Buddhist Studies Review, 27(1), 61–76.
Vancouver
1.
Heirman A. Fifth Century Chinese Nuns: An Exemplary Case. Buddhist Studies Review. 2010;27(1):61–76.
MLA
Heirman, Ann. “Fifth Century Chinese Nuns: An Exemplary Case.” Buddhist Studies Review 27.1 (2010): 61–76. Print.
@article{1043675,
  abstract     = {According to tradition, the first Buddhist nun ever to have been ordained was the Buddha{\textquoteright}s stepmother, Mahaprajapati. Her story appears in most vinayas, as well as in some other early Buddhist texts. As it is well know, the Buddha only accepted Mahaprajapati as a full member of the monastic order when asked by his disciple Ananda whether women could obtain arhat-ship. After having answered in the affirmative, he allowed women to enter the Buddhist order, on condition that Mahaprajapati accepted eight fundamental rules (gurudharma) which make the nuns{\textquoteright} order (bhiksunisamgha) dependent upon the hierarchically superior monks{\textquoteright} order (bhiksusamgha). In all vinayas, these rules are seen as a reference point for the further development of the nuns{\textquoteright} order, and when the vinayas spread over the Asian continent, Mahaprajapati{\textquoteright}s story went along. One of the eight fundamental rules continues to play a particular role in today{\textquoteright}s Buddhist communities. The rule says that after a woman has been trained as a probationer (siksamana) for two years, the full ordination ceremony must be carried out in both orders, this is first in the nuns{\textquoteright} order, and then in the monks{\textquoteright} order. It implies that in the absence of a nuns{\textquoteright} order, women cannot be fully ordained. Today, this is the case in two of the three active vinaya traditions, the Mulasarvastivada tradition based in Tibet, and the Southeast Asian Pali Theravada tradition. Only in the Dharmaguptaka tradition, mainly followed in China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea, a full ordination as a nun is still possible. However, in several parts of the world, Buddhist groups try to revive a full ordination ceremony for women in the two traditions only active for men. This procedure involves several technical vinaya questions, all linked to the fact that in order to be legally valid, a full ordination ceremony in principle has to be carried out in the presence of an adequate quorum of fully ordained witnesses of both the nuns{\textquoteright} and the monks{\textquoteright} order, and coming from the same tradition. The present-day discussion is, however, not the first one of its kind. Already in early China, a similar discussion arose. When in the beginning of the fifth century, as many as four vinayas were translated into Chinese, Chinese Buddhist monastics got more and more aware of all vinaya rules, including the story of Mahaprajapati. Nuns, formerly ordained only in the presence of a chapter of monks, started to doubt about the validity of their ordination, and solutions were sought. The present article focuses on the early discussions on the introduction of a nuns{\textquoteright} ordination in China, showing how similar arguments are used again today. In the first part, the Biqiuni zhuan \unmatched{6bd4}\unmatched{4e18}\unmatched{5c3c}\unmatched{50b3}, a compilation of biographies of Buddhist nuns traditionally attributed to the monk Baochang \unmatched{5bf6}\unmatched{5531} (ca. 466-?), will be examined. Secondly, we analyse the reactions upon it by some of the most prominent early Chinese vinaya masters. As we will see in the third and final part, many of the questions raised in the early centuries of Chinese Buddhism are parallel to the questions raised today, while also the reactions and solutions that were proposed many centuries ago do not differ substantially from those put forward in recent discussions.},
  author       = {Heirman, Ann},
  issn         = {0265-2897},
  journal      = {Buddhist Studies Review},
  language     = {eng},
  number       = {1},
  pages        = {61--76},
  title        = {Fifth Century Chinese Nuns: An Exemplary Case},
  volume       = {27},
  year         = {2010},
}