The 9th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Chinese bhikshuni ordination
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The Buddha’s purpose of establishing precepts is to regulate the monastic sangha so that the three poisons—ignorance, attachment, and anger—will be uprooted and the Dharma will be forever sustained in the world.
After the Buddha’s parinirvana, the Buddhist community split into various sects. Buddhism was transmitted into China, and the first bhikshu appears in the Cao-Wei Dynasty during the Jia Ping years of 249-253 AD.
Meanwhile, during the era of Zheng Yuan, 254-255 AD, Bhikshu Tandi, from Parthia (today’s Iran), came to the Baima Temple in Luoyang where he translated the ordination sanghakarma of the Dharmaguptaka school.
The first dual sangha ordination in which both bhikshus and bhikshunis participated took place in the 11th year of the Yong Jia era, 434 AD, in the Liu-Song Dynasty, with Indian Bhikshu Sanghavarman and Sri Lankan Bhikshuni Devasara and her colleagues granting the ordination.
After 250 AD, during the Dynasty of the Three Kingdoms, various schools of Vinaya came to China at about the same time. The translation of the texts of the four major Vinaya schools along with the five Vinaya commentaries were completed.
At first, the Sarvastivada Vinaya and Mahasanghika Vinaya were practiced and circulated, but only one school succeeded in becoming a living lineage over time; that was the Dharmaguptaka School, which was promoted by Vinaya Master Daoxuan4 and became known as the Nanshan Vinaya School.
5 From that time onwards until today, without interruption, the Dharmaguptaka ordination procedure has been used and the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya has been followed. Vinaya Master Daoxuan used the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya as the base, checking it against all other schools.
He cited references extensively, combined the Mahayana motivation with the practice of keeping Pratimoksa precepts, and developed a structured approach to Vinaya study which involves examination of the four aspects of the precepts:
II. The Ordination of Bhikshunis
Since in the bhikshuni ordination the precept body is formally generated while the karma is being performed in front of the bhikshu sangha, even though (the candidates) have not been first certified by the bhikshuni sangha, the ordination is not hindered by that.
Therefore, it is impossible to have a precept that says the opposite.
It is reasonable to apply the situation of a bhikshu ordination given with insufficient monks to the situation of a bhikshuni ordination given with insufficient bhikshunis because when the Buddha established a precept and its various degrees of transgression for bhikshus, it was usually applied to bhikshunis too.7
Vinaya Master Daoxuan said that it is acceptable to adopt an explanation from another Vinaya school if nothing on that particular topic can be found in our school. Let us apply this to the issue of bhikshuni ordination.
In the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya, volume 13, (Taisho v24, p597c), it says, “In a remote area where it is possible to find ten monks, only five are present at an ordination. The candidates are fully ordained, but the sangha commits a transgression.”
If this rule—having sufficient number of participants—is violated, judging from the Sarvastivada Vinaya and the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya, the conclusion is that the candidates still receive the precepts, but the preceptor commits a transgression.
Similarly, when the rule—dual sangha bhikshuni ordination—is violated, although it is against the Buddha’s instruction, its result should be similar to the case of insufficient monks in a bhikshu ordination.
In the Ming Dynasty, Qing Dynasty and even the modern era, ordination with a single sangha was commonly seen. To avoid being labeled as someone who just looks like a bhikshuni, many nuns seek ordination by a dual sangha.
When focus is put on the ordination procedure, since each Vinaya school has its own view on what is important and what is not, what can be adopted and what cannot, how can we determine whether one particular procedure is legal or not?
When we come to a point and encounter a certain situation, some portions of the map describe the situation while others do not.
Since one portion of the map does not include all the details, if we only consult it the problem cannot be solved.
To determine which direction to take, we have to consult other portions of the map. As stated in Mahisasaka Vinaya, “Although something is regulated by my school, if all other schools deem it impure, it should not be adopted.
If something is not regulated by my school and all other schools say it is to be practiced, I must also adopt it.” Based upon this thinking, the guidelines for consulting other Vinaya schools can be determined. There are two main points in doing this.
Although one sect may differ from another in terms of the doctrines and practices, the goal that they want to achieve—nirvana—remains the same. It is just like a golden stick that has been broken into pieces: each piece is still gold.
2. To set up a standard that remains consistent within a school:
(1) Regarding determining what to observe and what constitutes a transgression, generally speaking, if the sanghakarma of a certain school is used for ordination, the Vinaya of that school should also be used to determine the different degrees of observation or transgression of the precepts.
By the same token, we should not use the Vinaya of our own school to criticize other schools or to say their procedures are illegal because each school has its own detailed explanations. (2) However, there are some exceptions.
If (a) one’s own Vinaya is not clear or (b) an incident happens, but no clear explanation related to it can be found within one’s own school, it is permissible to use the Vinaya of other schools to make a decision; we can borrow ideas from other schools to supplement one’s own.
Nevertheless, since the way to conduct a sanghakarma is already prescribed in one’s own school, we should follow that instead of other schools.
According to Vinaya Master Daoxuan, asking monastics from other Vinaya schools to assist in an ordination or following Vinaya explanations of other schools should be done only if they cannot be found in one’s own school.
If a group of monastics agree to invite monastics from another school or use the explanations of another school to supplement their own, they should not later criticize the other school or regard it as not being in line with the rules.
For example, if the original procedure involves only an announcement, it can be increased to one announcement followed by one proclamation, or one announcement followed by three proclamations.
However, the steps cannot be decreased. According to the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, sanghakarma procedures were established by the Buddha, so any decrease or increase to the procedure would make the ordination invalid.
Therefore, Vinaya Master Daoxuan set up guidelines regarding when to follow the explanations of other schools so that the lineage of one’s school as well as its sanghakarma are in accord with that school’s fundamental belief and the observation and transgression of the precepts can be clearly distinguished according to one’s school.
These guidelines enable practitioners to receive the precept body according to the Vinaya school whose ordination procedure is used and to act in accord with the precepts so that all their actions reveal the characteristics of the precepts.
They also ensure that members of one school will not criticize other schools or argue about who is right and who is wrong. In this way, all the various Vinaya schools can be harmonious, and the Dharma will not decline in the world.
This paper has briefly introduced the history of the Chinese Buddhist tradition and discussed the guidelines set by Vinaya Master Daoxuan when adopting explanations or inviting monastics for a sanghakarma from other Vinaya schools.
Since the study was done within a limited time, I fear that errors might have been made.
Please extend your kindness and point them out to me. Thank you.
Dharmakala was also the first monk to give bhikshu ordination in China in the third century ↩
It is said that they were re-ordained because previously they had been ordained in a single sangha ordination.
Subsequent to that, many bhikshunis arrived from Sri Lanka, thus giving them the opportunity to receive bhikshuni ordination from a dual sangha. ↩
These for are the Dharmaguptaka, Mahāsāṅghika, Mahīśāsaka, and Sarvāstivāda ↩
Master Daoxuan (596-667) is regarded as the first Chinese patriarch of the Vinaya School.
He composed many important and highly respected Vinaya works that are still used today and laid a solid foundation for Vinaya practice in China. ↩
It received its name because Nanshan was the location of Master Daoxuan’s monastery. ↩
In Chinese his name is Qiu Na Ba Mo. He lived 367-431 and is regarded as an arhat. ↩
While not all bhikshu precepts apply to bhikshunis, most due. In the case of there being insufficient number of monastics for an ordination, the situations of bhikshus and bhikshunis is so similar that it is reasonable to apply the ruling for the bhikshus to the bhikshunis. ↩
Xing Shi Chao (Guide to Various Sanghakarmas Explained in the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya) is one of the three renowned works by Vinaya Master Daoxuan. In it the details of performing various sanghakarmas are discussed. ↩
Shan Jian is a Chinese translation of the Pali Vinaya. ↩
Since a layperson is disqualified for being the preceptor, if a layperson tries to act as one, it is the same as no preceptor present. ↩
Thus the monks followed the Pratimoksha of the other school. However, in general when one is ordained according to the sanghakarma of one school, one should follow the precepts as presented in that school.