September 20, 2011

Professor Ute Hüsken on Bhikkhuni Ordination

Not long ago we were intrigued by the following brief comment in Richard Gombrich's What the Buddha Thought:

I am convinced by the arguments of Ute Hüsken that the story of the Buddha's reluctance to allow nuns into the Sangha does not date from his lifetime. (WTBT, p.53)

And then there was this further comment, stemming from a discussion of ordaining Jain nuns into the early Sangha:

This is corroborative of Ute Hüsken's thesis that the story that nuns were allowed into the Order only at a late stage is a forgery. (WTBT, p. 54)

As Gombrich himself notes, "This is utterly fascinating."

We reached out to Professor Hüsken, who is a teacher and researcher at the University of Oslo (and whose work also appears in Dignity & Discipline, a book on bhikkhuni ordination from Wisdom Publications) for more. We're very grateful for Professor Hüsken's generosity and patience in responding to these questions.

The stories concerning the foundation of the order of Buddhist nuns have struck many Buddhists as being at odds with the remainder of the tradition, and of other egalitarian positions held by the Buddha, such as his rejection of the caste system and the largely democratic organization of the Sangha. What has your research told you about the foundation of the order of bhikshunis (bhikkhunis)?

I am surprised that the Buddha’s positions towards socio-religious matters are perceived to be “egalitarian”. While it is certainly true that he rejected the caste-based hierarchy for the Sangha, this was replaced by other explicit hierarchies, based e.g. on gender and on ordination age. Thus, each nun, even if she has been ordained for many years, is hierarchically placed below each newly ordained monk. Moreover, while in principle members of all castes were allowed into the order, it is less well known that the Buddha is supposed to have explicitly excluded for example people with missing limbs, or people suffering from certain diseases, or soldiers from membership in the order. In addition, many passages in the Pali canon reverse the Brahminical hierarchy based on caste, placing the Kshatriya (the Buddha’s caste) above the Brahmins, and are thus far from rejecting a caste-based hierarchy altogether.

My research - based largely on the Pali canon and its commentaries and subcommentaries in Pali – taught me that the expectation to find a uniform view on any of the issues you mention (women, caste, structure and organization of the Sangha) is misled. I can clearly say that the canon is NOT a collection of the words of the Buddha, or of any single person, but a sometimes carefully, sometimes not so carefully edited collection of diverse texts by different authors with differing opinions and intentions. If you are looking for passages that seem to imply that the Buddha was in favor of ordaining women, you can find them, and if you are looking for passages that indicate that the Buddha wanted to keep women out, you will find them, too. This holds true even for the short passage in the monastic discipline, which retells the events that led to the foundation of the nuns’ order. The Pali scholar Oskar von Hinueber’s close investigation of the terminology used in this passage even suggests that the nuns’ order might have been established after the Buddha’s demise.

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Giuliana Martini's picture

Dear Prof. Hüsken & Tricycle readers,
re. “The Pali scholar Oskar von Hinueber’s close investigation of the terminology used in this passage even suggests that the nuns’ order might have been established after the Buddha’s demise.”, I would like to bring to your attention a response to Prof. von Hinüber’s conclusions that the order of nuns came into being only after the Buddha had passed away given by Ven. Bhikkhu Anālayo, “Theories on the Foundation of the Nuns’ Order, A Critical Evaluation”, Journal of the Centre for Buddhist Studies, Sri Lanka, vol. 6 (2009): 105-142.
The article can be freely downloaded from the website of the University of Hamburg:
With best wishes,
Giuliana Martini

Philip Ryan's picture

Thank you very much for your comment!