Fully ordained Buddhist nuns – people & concepts
A bhikkhunī or bhikṣuṇī is a fully ordained female monastic in Buddhism.
Male monastics are called bhikkhus. Both bhikkhunis and bhikkhus live by the Vinaya, a set of rules.
Table of Contents
- 1 - Origin of the order of bhikkhunis
- 2 - Development of Vinaya in the West
- 3 - People, organisations & places
- 3.1 - Mahapajapati Gotami
- 3.2 - Sundari Nanda (half-sister of Buddha)
- 3.3 - Śikṣamāṇā
- 3.4 - Pema Chödrön
- 3.5 - Bhikkhunī
- 3.6 - Khema
- 3.7 - Uppalavanna
- 3.8 - Dhammadharini Vihara
- 3.9 - Pema Trinle
- 3.10 - Myokyo-ni
- 3.11 - Maura O’Halloran
- 3.12 - Karma Lekshe Tsomo
- 3.13 - International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha
- 3.14 - Freda Bedi
- 3.15 - Eight Garudhammas
- 3.16 - Sister Uppalavanna
- 3.17 - Vajira (Buddhist nun)
- 3.18 - Chi Kwang Sunim
- 3.19 - Therīgāthā
- 3.20 - Chime Tenpai Nyima
- 3.21 - Suba Theraniyo
- 3.22 - Sister Vajirā
- 3.23 - Phuntsho Choden
- 3.24 - Siladhara Order
- 3.25 - Daughters of Dolma
- 3.26 - Kung Fu Nuns
- 3.27 - Dharmachari Guruma
- 3.28 - Miranda de Souza Canavarro
- 3.29 - Buddhamitra
- 3.30 - Martine Batchelor
- 3.31 - Lesley Lebkowicz
- 3.32 - Yeshe Khadro
Origin of the order of bhikkhunis
Until recently, the lineages of female monastics only remained in Mahayana Buddhism and thus are prevalent in countries such as China, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam but a few women have taken the full monastic vows in the Theravada and Vajrayana schools over the last decade.
According to the Buddhist Canon, women are as capable of reaching nirvana as men.
The Canon reports that the order of bhikkhunis was first created by the Buddha at the specific request of his aunt and foster-mother Mahapajapati Gotami, who became the first ordained bhikkhuni.
A famous work of the early Buddhist schools is the Therigatha, a collection of poems by elder nuns about enlightenment that was preserved in the Pāli Canon.
Development of Vinaya in the West
Until recently, Western nuns have traveled to Asian countries to receive Vinaya training in a foreign language and with limited translation.
It is the case of Pema Chödrön, well-known author and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada, who received full monastic ordination in 1981 in Hong Kong.
Today, a growing amount of nunneries in the West allow women to receive the textual teachings and the lived experience of ordained Buddhist sangha community locally.
This is a crucial rooting of the Buddha’s teachings among nuns in Western communities.
In this short video Pema Chödrön explains with humor how she became a Tibetan Buddhist nun.
People, organisations & places
This is a glossary of people, organisations and places related to fully ordained Buddhist nuns around the world.
Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī was the foster-mother, step-mother and maternal aunt of the Buddha. In Buddhist tradition, she was the first woman to seek ordination for women, which she did from Gautama Buddha directly, and she became the first bhikkhuni.
Sundari Nanda (half-sister of Buddha)
Princess Sundarī Nandā of Shakya, also known simply a Sundarī, was the daughter of King Suddhodana and Mahaprajapati.She was the half-sister of Siddhartha Gautama, who later became a Buddha. She became a nun after the enlightenment of her half-brother and became an arhat. She was the foremost among bhikkhunis in the practice of jhana. She lived during the 6th century BCE in what is now Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in India.
In Buddhism, a śikṣamāṇā is a female novice trainee. This training period is to be two years long, supervised by both a monk and a nun. After this period, the trainee may attempt full ordination as a bhikṣuṇī.
Pema Chödrön is an American Tibetan Buddhist.
She is an ordained nun, acharya and disciple of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
Pema currently teaches in the United States and Canada and plans for an increased amount of time in solitary retreat under the guidance of Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche.
Pema is interested in helping establish the monastic tradition in the West, as well in continuing her work with Buddhists of all traditions, sharing ideas and teachings.
She has written several books: “The Wisdom of No Escape”, “Start Where You Are”, “When Things Fall Apart”, “The Places that Scare You”, “No Time to Lose” and “Practicing Peace in Times of War”, and most recently, “Smile at Fear”.
A bhikkhunī (Pali) or bhikṣuṇī (Sanskrit) is a fully ordained female monastic in Buddhism. Male monastics are called bhikkhus. Both bhikkhunis and bhikkhus live by the Vinaya, a set of rules. Until recently, the lineages of female monastics only remained in Mahayana Buddhism and thus are prevalent in countries such as China, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam but a few women have taken the full monastic vows in the Theravada and Vajrayana schools over the last decade. From conservative perspectives, none of the contemporary bhikkuni ordinations are valid.
Khema was a Buddhist bhikkhuni, or nun, who was one of the top female disciples of the Buddha. She is considered the first of the Buddha’s two chief female disciples, along with Uppalavanna. Khema was born into the royal family of the ancient Kingdom of Madra, and was the wife of King Bimbisara of the ancient Indian kingdom of Magadha. Khema was convinced to visit the Buddha by her husband, who hired poets to sing about the beauty of the monastery he was staying at to her. She attained enlightenment as a laywoman while listening to one of the Buddha’s sermons, considered a rare feat in Buddhist texts. Following her attainment, Khema entered the monastic life under the Buddha as a bhikkhuni. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha declared her his female disciple foremost in wisdom. Her male counterpart was Sariputta.
Uppalavanna was a Buddhist bhikkhuni, or nun, who was considered one of the top female disciples of the Buddha. She is considered the second of the Buddha’s two chief female disciples, along with Khema. She was given the name Uppalavanna, meaning “color of a blue water lily”, at birth due to the bluish color of her skin.
Dhammadharini Vihara is a Buddhist women’s monastic residence (vihara) in the Sonoma Hills of Santa Rosa, California. The name “Dhammadharini” is interpreted as a “holder” or “upholder” of the Buddhadhamma as a “flowing” or “streaming” reality, teaching and practice. A “vihara” is a monastic residence, and place of Dhamma and meditation teaching and practice.
Jetsun Pema Trinle (1874-1950) was a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, and was one of only a few women authorized to teach the general and esoteric presentation of the Path and Result in the Sakya tradition, known as Lamdre Tsokshe and Lobshe respectively. As a child she received teachings from her paternal great-aunt Jetsunma Tamdrin Wangmo, her elder brother, her father Kunga Nyingpo Sampel Norbu, and the abbot of Ngor, Ngawang Lodro Nyingpo. She rarely gave public teachings. She did tour eastern Tibet to give and receive teachings, and her main teacher there was Tenpai Wangchuk, who himself was a disciple of her great-aunt Tamdrin Wangmo. She also received Lamdre teachings from Jamyang Loter Wangpo, and gave teachings to the 3rd Dezhung Rinpoche.
Ven. Myokyo-ni was a Rinzai Zen Buddhist nun and head of the Zen Centre in London.
Maura “Soshin” O’Halloran was an Irish Zen Buddhist monk. She is known for her book Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind, which was posthumously published, and for being one of the “first of few Western women allowed to practice in a traditional Japanese Zen monastery”.
Karma Lekshe Tsomo
Karma Lekshe Tsomo is a Buddhist nun, scholar and social activist. She is a professor at the University of San Diego, where she teaches Buddhism, World Religions, and Dying, Death, and Social Justice. She is co-founder of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women and the founding director of the Jamyang Foundation, which supports the education of women and girls in the Himalayan region, the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, and elsewhere. She took novice precepts as a Buddhist nun in France in 1977 and full ordination in Korea in 1982.
International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha
The International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha: Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages was an historic event that took place July 18–20, 2007. It was a meeting of internationally recognized Buddhist scholars specializing in monastic discipline and history, as well as practitioners. It was expected to be the final discussion of a decades-long dialogue about re-establishing full bhikshuni ordination in Buddhist traditions. Papers and research based on Buddhist texts and contemporary practice traditions in China, Korea, Taiwan, Tibet, and South Asia were presented, between them the Abstract: The Eight Garudhammas. The fourteenth Dalai Lama attended the final day of the conference and conclusions. His letter of support is available to the public.
Freda Bedi was a British woman who was the first Western woman to take ordination in Tibetan Buddhism, which occurred in 1972. She was born in Derby, England.
In 1959, when the Dalai Lama arrived in India after an arduous trek across the Himalayas followed by thousands of his Tibetan devotees, she was asked by India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to help them and spent time improving facilities for refugees at camps in Assam and West Bengal.
She became an observant Tibetan Buddhist and she followed the guidance of the 16th Karmapa of the Kagyu School.
She worked, with the support of the Dalai Lama, to establish the Young Lamas Home School.
The Eight Garudhammas are additional precepts required of bhikkhunis above and beyond the monastic rule (vinaya) that applied to monks. Garu, literally means “heavy” and when applied to vinaya, it means “heavy offense that entails penance (mānatta) consisting of 2 weeks” as described in garudhamma rule No. 5. The authenticity of these rules is contested; they were supposedly added to the (bhikkhunis) Vinaya “to allow more acceptance” of a monastic Order for women, during the Buddha’s time. They are controversial because they attempt to push women into an inferior role and because many Buddhists, especially Bhikkhunis, have found evidence that the eight Garudhammas are not really the teachings of Gautama Buddha.
Sister Uppalavannā was a German violinist who converted to Buddhism, becoming the first European Buddhist nun since the time of Greco-Buddhism. She lived as an ascetic in Sri Lanka from 1926 until her death.
Vajira (Buddhist nun)
Vajira was a Buddhist nun mentioned in the Samyutta Nikaya (I.134-55). She was confronted by Mara while meditating and asked about the origin and creator of her “Being”, i.e., her soul. She responded by comparing one’s “Being” to a chariot, showing that it had no permanent existence but was made up of constituent parts.
Chi Kwang Sunim
Venerable Chi Kwang Sunim is a Zen Buddhist nun. She is currently the leader of a small community and forest retreat in Kinglake, Victoria.
The Therigatha (Therīgāthā), often translated as Verses of the Elder Nuns, is a Buddhist text, a collection of short poems of early enlightened women who were elder nuns. The poems date from a three hundred year period, with some dated as early as the late 6th century BCE. According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the Therigatha is the “earliest extant text depicting women’s spiritual experiences.” in Theravada Buddhism.
Chime Tenpai Nyima
Jetsunma Chime Tenpai Nyima was a Tibetan Buddhist master, the only female master of the Sakya Vajrayoginī lineage. She is also considered a great siddha and an emanation of Vajrayoginī. She was born in Tibet and originally had the name Chime Butri. She was part of the prominent Sakya Khon family, which established itself by the 11th century in Sakya, Tibet. She studied with her uncle Kunga Lodro, who had had a vision prophesying, among other things, that she would be one of the closest disciples who would carry on his teachings. He transmitted to her the core Sakya Lamdre and the Vajrayogini teachings, among others. In 1782, she took novice vows from the twenty-fifth abbot of the Sakya Lhakhang Chenmo, Jampa Chokyi Tashi, who gave her the ordination name by which she has come to be known, Chime Tenpai Nyima.
Suba Theraniyo, theatrically as Jivakambavanika Hewath Suba Theraniyo, is a 2019 Sri Lankan Sinhala Buddhist epic biographical film directed by Sumith Kumara and co-produced by Bisara Chanakya and Ananda Samarasinghe for S.A.S Entertainments. It stars Ruwangi Rathnayake and Roshan Ranawana in lead roles along with Sriyantha Mendis and Dilhani Ekanayake. Music composed by Rohana Weerasinghe. It is the 1331st Sri Lankan film in the Sinhala cinema.
Sister Vajirā was a dasa sil mata, a Buddhist ten precept-holder nun in Sri Lanka.
Ashi Phuntsho Choden (1911–2003) was the Queen consort of Bhutan.
The Sīladharā Order is a Theravada Buddhist female monastic order established by Ajahn Sumedho at Chithurst Buddhist Monastery, England. Its members are known as Sīladharās.
Daughters of Dolma
Daughters of Dolma is a feature-length documentary about spirituality, modernity and gender issues as embodied by Tibetan Buddhist Nuns. It is directed by Adam Miklos and produced by Alex Co.
Kung Fu Nuns
The Kung Fu Nuns are an order of Buddhist nuns who belong to the Drukpa Kagyu lineage, a thousand-year-old sect led by the Gyalwang Drukpa. Their name comes from the order’s proficiency in Chinese martial arts, which they began learning in 2008 after the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa authorised training for them despite centuries-old Buddhist laws banning exercise for nuns.
Dharmachāri Gurumā was a Nepalese anagarika who was an influential figure in the revival of Theravada Buddhism in Nepal. She was expelled from Kathmandu by the government for her religious activities.
Miranda de Souza Canavarro
Miranda de Souza Canavarro (1849-1933) was a wealthy American theosophist notable as the first woman to convert to Buddhism in the United States, in 1897. She later moved to Ceylon and became a Buddhist nun. She became known as Sister Sanghamitta, while in America she was often known as Marie.
Buddhamitrā was a Buddhist nun from India during the Kushan Empire. She is remembered because of dated inscriptions on images of bodhisattvas and the Buddha that she erected in three cities near the Ganges river. They mark her success in attracting money and patronage to the Sarvāstivāda, the sect of Buddhism to which she belonged.
Martine Batchelor, a former Jogye Buddhist nun, is the author of several books on Buddhism currently residing in France. She and her husband, Stephen Batchelor, work mostly in the United Kingdom and occasionally in the United States. In addition to writing books, she leads meditation groups with her husband that incorporate aspects of Zen, vipassanā, and Tibetan Buddhism. Batchelor also blogs frequently for the U.S.-based Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. She studied Jogye Zen Buddhism for ten years at Songgwangsa with her former teacher Master Kusan Sunim, being ordained as a nun in 1975. Batchelor served as Kusan’s interpreter on speaking tours of the United States and Europe from 1981 to 1985, the year she left monastic life, married Stephen Batchelor, and returned to Europe. There she became a member of Sharpham North Community and served as a guiding teacher at Gaia House, both of which are based in Devon, England. She has also led a Buddhist studies program at Sharpham College in Totnes, Devon. As a multilingual individual, Martine speaks English, Korean, and French and can read Chinese characters.
Lesley Lebkowicz is an Australian poet.
Yeshe Khadro is an Australian ordained Buddhist nun who studied under the Dalai Lama.