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For the last twenty years, discussions on the institution of full ordina¬tion for women have been recurrent in the Tibetan exile community. The controversial debate and consecutive works of research show the importance Tibetans attach to ritual prescriptions, notably when it is a matter of rituals governed by the code of monastic discipline ('dul ba; Skt. vinaya) attributed to the Buddha himself. In this article I propose to examine some of the attitudes held and arguments put forward by the different protagonists over the years. These raise a number of questions

pertinent to the ‘Tibetan tradition' since the latter has come into con¬tact with other cultures and by means of this with ‘modern' ideas. In Tibetan monasticism, nuns (a ne, jo mo, chos lags or dge ma) are only semi-ordained, that is, they take only the thirty-six vows of a dge tshul ma (literally ‘one who has virtuous behaviour'; see Table 1). It is commonly accepted that full female ordination—the taking of the 364 vows of a dge slong ma (literally ‘one who inspires virtue')—has never existed in Tibet, since Indian nuns never came to transmit a lineage of fully-ordained women. However, in the texts of the monastic discipline of the Mulasarvastivadin school (gzhi thams cad yodpa smra ba’i sde), which Tibetans adopted when monasticism was introduced to Tibet in

the 8th century, we find all the ritual rules and procedures for conferring full female ordination. According to these rules, ordination must be preceded by a ‘two-year training period' during which the candidate observes twelve preliminary vows (six ‘“root” tenets' [rtsa ba'i chos drug] and six ‘“associated” tenets' [rjes mthun gyi chos drug]) in addi¬tion to the vows of a dge tshul ma. She is then called dge slob ma, female religious trainee (literally ‘one who studies virtue'). In the Tibetan tradition, the minor ordination of a woman is conferred by a fully

ordained monk and in this way the candidate joins the monastic community. Full ordination, on the other hand, according to the vinaya rules of the Mulasarvastivadin, requires the intervention of the “dual monastic community” (dge 'dun sde gnyis), that is to say, monks and nuns. In the absence of fully-ordained nuns, the full ordination cannot, therefore, take place. A question then arises: how is it possible to insti¬tute the ordination of dge slong ma for Tibetan nuns? Can the ritual pro¬cedures be modified? And if so, how can such a change be legitimised?

In the last twenty years, important changes have taken place in the religious life of Tibetan nuns both in exile and in Tibet proper. Thus, and contrary to the past, nuns today have access to higher studies, they participate in rituals formerly reserved for the male clergy, such as the ‘Great Prayer' (smon lam chen mo) and the bimonthly ‘confession cer¬emony' (gso sbyong), and most of their institutions now function

inde¬pendently from those of monks. To achieve this step and to obtain a sta¬tus genuinely equal to that of monks, some Tibetan nuns in exile, encouraged by their Western ‘sisters', wish to institute full ordination for women in the Tibetan tradition. They are supported by the Dalai Lama, who has continually repeated that full female ordination would be beneficial for Tibet, since this would realise the ‘fourfold Buddhist community' (lay followers of the two sexes, dge slong and dge slong ma) that would make Tibet a ‘central land' (yul dbus) of Buddha's teachings. However, he has also emphasised the necessity to conduct preliminary investigations to find a means to accomplish this in accor-

Women Men
Ordination Designation Number of precepts Requisite
age Ordination Designation Number of precepts Requisite age
Minor ordination dge tshul ma ‘one who has vir¬tuous behaviour’ sramanerT 36 12 years Minor ordination dge tshul
‘one who has virtuous behaviour’
sramanera 36 15 years or ‘is capable of frighten¬ing away crwos’
‘Two-year training period’
‘Probation period’ dge slob ma female religious trainee ‘one who stdies virtue’ siksamdnd 36 + 12 18 years
Full ordination dge slong ma ‘one who inspires virtue’
‘one who is bound by precepts’ bhiksum 364 20 years Full ordi-nation dge slong
‘one who inspires virtue’
‘one who is bound by the precepts ’ bhiksu 253 20 years
Stages that do not exist in Tibet
Table 1: Stages of the monastic life according to the code of rules for monks and nuns (so sor thar pa; Skt. pratimoksa) of the Mulasarvastivadin


dance with monastic discipline, and then to hold discussions with Tibetan and other Asian monastic dignitaries in order to secure their approval. Such a decision, he maintains, cannot come from him alone but must be reached by consensus.
The present article is based on my research at Sgrol ma gling, a nun¬nery and institute of higher studies for women located near Dharamsala, in India, where I conducted fieldwork on several occa¬sions between 1996 and 2005. Built in 1992, it is today the residence of around two hundred nuns, most of them originally from Tibet. For com¬parison, I will also refer to the nuns of Bkra shis dgon gsar, a nunnery in eastern Tibet (Mi nyag, in the Chinese province of Sichuan).

===I. CONTEXT===

Western nuns were the first to ask for full ordination. As they could not do this in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition they had adopted, from the 1970s on some of them went to Hong Kong to receive ordination in the Chinese tradition, that of the Dharmaguptaka. On the advice of Si tu Rinpoche (one of the great karma bka' brgyud hierarchs), a few Tibetan nuns, supported by the Hong Kong Kagyu Dharma Centre, followed their example: four made the journey to Hong Kong in 1984, followed by four more in 1987. Both the Western and Tibetan nuns were sup¬ported in their undertaking by the Dalai Lama, who in 1983 began pub¬licly show his interest in female ordination. On several occasions dur¬ing his visits to various nunneries in exile he encouraged nuns to con¬tinue on this path. However, success was only partial. Even though some Tibetan nuns were now fully ordained, they have achieved their goal in a tradition other than their own, and therefore do not have the right to officiate alongside Tibetan monks and nuns at times of impor¬tant rituals, such as the bimonthly confession ceremony or the summer retreat (dbyar gnas); theoretically they must follow different ritual pro¬cedures. It is not very surprising that other nuns have not immediately followed their example and a solution had to be found to reintegrate into the Tibetan tradition these nuns who had been fully ordained in the Chinese Dharmaguptaka lineage.

In 1987, a few Western nuns of the Tibetan tradition organised the first large international gathering of Buddhist nuns at Bodhgaya. This gathering gave birth to an association called Sakyadhita (‘Daughters of the Buddha'). The Dalai Lama, who had been invited, made known his desire to discuss more generally women's rights and to “explore the potential of women within Buddhism”. Since then, this association has become an important international Buddhist feminist movement, with the goal of raising the social status of Buddhist women, and to institute full ordination in every country where it does not exist. It has subse¬quently organised other conferences, in Thailand (1991), Sri Lanka (1993), Ladakh (1995), Cambodia (1997/1998), Nepal (2000), Taiwan (2002), Malaysia (2006), Mongolia (2008) and Vietnam (2009/2010). Numerous national and regional branches have been founded in Asia, the United States and Europe, each arranging its own meetings and con- ferences. In 1998, members of this movement took part in an interna¬tional ceremony of full ordination at Bodhgaya, organised by a Taiwanese monastery and conducted under the auspices of three mas¬ters of the Chinese tradition, assisted by twenty-two masters from all the various Buddhist traditions.

The Buddhist feminist movement started by Sakyadhita is complex in nature and the members' priorities differ according to their national¬ities. I will cite only a few examples: in Asian countries, activities tend towards improving the status of women essentially by raising awareness of existing inequalities and by opening up education for women. For many Westerners, on the other hand, it is a question of putting into practice the ‘egalitarian' teaching of the Buddha: Buddhism and femi¬nism are perceived by some as ‘two sides of the same coin', insofar as both tend towards liberation and change. The members of Sakyadhita, and notably the Westerners, are also particularly prolific in their writ¬ing: several conference proceedings have been published by the presi¬dent of the association, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a Hawaiian nun of the Tibetan tradition and founder of a nunnery in exile. A newsletter is published on Sakyadhita's website, as well as many other articles, either online or in journals and in the press.

Western nuns have exercised a certain influence over Tibetan nuns. Through their founding and financing of several nunneries in exile, they have conveyed some of their feminist ideas. It is in this context that the Tibetan Nuns Project (bod kyi btsun ma'i las 'char) was born in 1987. Founded by Rinchen Khando Choegyal (Rin chen mkha' 'gro chos rgyal), the sister-in-law of the Dalai Lama, Lobsang Dechen (Blo bzang bde chen, a Tibetan nun), and Elizabeth Napper, an American Buddhologist—all three former members of the Tibetan Women's Association (bu med tshogs pa)—this new association first of all direct¬ed its efforts towards the improvement of the living conditions of Tibetan nuns in exile, mostly those recently arrived from Tibet. Two new nunneries were founded in India: Sgrol ma gling and Shug gseb. The association then helped to introduce new study programmes in almost all the nunneries in exile in order to allow nuns to obtain degrees traditionally reserved for men, like the prestigious dge lugs pa title of dge bshes, ‘doctor of traditional (Buddhist) philosophy' or that of the rnying ma pa, mkhan po.

Supported by the Dalai Lama and with the backing of some Western nuns, those in charge of the association have at the same time begun to tackle the subject of full ordination by first addressing the Department of Religion and Culture (bod gzhung chos rig las khungs), the official authority of the Tibetan government in exile that administers religious affairs. From the beginning, reluctance was great: a circular sent to fifty-five Tibetan hierarchs asking them to express themselves on the institution of full female ordination elicited only eleven responses, five in favour and six against. Likewise, two religious conferences organ¬ised under the auspices of the Department of Religion and Culture in 1993 and 1995 proved to be unsuccessful, the participants being insuf¬ficiently acquainted with the subject and lacking reliable sources. The Dalai

Lama then decided to create a committee of scholars charged with collecting materials and references necessary in order to take a decision. However, only Geshe Tashi Tsering (Dge bshes Bkra shis tshe ring), who at that time was working in the Department of Religion and Culture, took the subject to heart and continued to pursue his research on full female ordination. He went to Taiwan in 1997 to gather infor¬mation on the Chinese lineage and attended the ordination ceremony at Bodhgaya in 1998. He then presented the results of his research at a seminar which took place in August 1998 at Nor bu gling ka (Dharamsala). Religious dignitaries from the three vinaya schools (the Mulasarvastivada, the Theravada and the Dharmaguptaka) participated. The results of this seminar were published in three volumes by the Department of Religion and Culture.

The essential points were as fol¬lows:

1. No dge slong ma lineage was transmitted to Tibet when monastic lin-eages were introduced;

2. Several attempts to ordain women in Tibet have taken place in the past, for example those of 'Gro mgon chos rgyal 'Phags pa (1235-1280) and Pan chen Shakya mchog ldan (1428-1507), but they were subsequently challenged;

3. In the Vinayamulasutra (’dul ba’i mdo rtsa ba), an extensive treatise on the monastic discipline which summarises the essential meaning of the four Vinayasutra, it is stated that full ordination for women must be preceded by a ‘two-year training period';

4. Finally, the other two Asian lineages were also examined, with the conclusion that there is no uninterrupted Theravada lineage of fully ordained nuns. On the other hand, there is a living lineage among the Dharmaguptaka in China, Taiwan and Korea, but its validity remains to be determined.

These publications were then sent to two hundred key Tibetan figures (vinaya masters, lamas, nuns and scholars) with the request that they comment on them. However, in spite of repeated reminders, only thir¬teen responses were obtained. They did not present a unanimous opin¬ion.


Faced with the silence of the Tibetan dignitaries, the Tibetan Nuns Project decided to rethink its strategies and to prepare the nuns better. When the various exchanges were taking place, it became clear that to succeed, the nuns would first have to demonstrate exemplary behaviour, as much in the strict observance of monastic discipline as in the pursuit of their studies. Their level of studies still being insufficient at that time, it seemed more judicious to pursue their training before taking up the discussions again.

At Sgrol ma gling, the leading institute for the Tibetan Nuns Project—which, as such, serves as its seat—the rhythm of studies was accelerated from that time. The distinctive feature of this institute is that it offers a non-sectarian approach to Buddhism in integrating into its curriculum teachings stemming from all four of the great Tibetan traditions. Its main objective, however, consists of preparing nuns one day to obtain the title of dge bshes (dge bshes ma in the feminine) through a proposed programme modelled on that of the great Tibetan monastic universities (Dga' ldan, 'Bras spungs and Se ra).

Most of the nuns at Sgrol ma gling have already received minor ordi¬nation before joining this nunnery, either in Tibet proper or in exile. Ordination ceremonies are not celebrated at Sgrol ma gling, as in most other nunneries in exile. Not only are there no monks competent to con¬duct the ritual, most of the candidates these days wish to take their vows from the Dalai Lama: once or twice a year, he personally confers ordi¬nations (minor as well as full) during collective ceremonies organised by his private office, and the directors of Sgrol ma gling then organise the travel for the candidates who wish to participate.

Although candidates for minor ordination are not expected to have an experience of religious life or thorough knowledge of the rules of discipline to follow, many Tibetan monasteries today consider it desir¬able to prepare their new recruits. For this reason, many offer teachings in the rules of discipline. At Sgrol ma gling the nuns study the ‘instruc¬tions for the dge tshul' in the form of a course in the first year. The text they use has been devised by and for monks, but since the number and the content of the rules are the same at this level, they consider that the nuns can also conform to them. Moreover, even students who have already received ordination some years previously think this course is useful because it allows them to better understand how to match their behaviour to the monastic statues. Others have confided to me their dif-ficulty in integrating certain rules into their daily lives, such as the pro¬hibition against taking meals after midday, or the requirement to

sleep in the position of the Buddha—that is, on the right side—without ever turning during the night. Because the studies at Sgrol ma gling require a great deal of effort, concentration and perseverance, some obligations have not been applied to the letter by the nuns. Some nuns have admit¬ted for this same reason that the observance of the rules of a fully- ordained nun could prove to be a further constraint, not only in the pur¬suit of studies but also for their daily life in general: as one nun explained, it would be difficult to travel using public transport if one wanted to abide by the rule forbidding contact with the opposite sex.

Generally speaking, the nuns of Sgrol ma gling do not have a good knowledge of the rules that fully-ordained nuns must follow. Not hav¬ing received the ordination themselves, theoretically they do not have the right to undertake an in-depth study of the code of conduct of a dge slong ma.

Since the end of the 1990s, the Tibetan Nuns Project has established contacts with women's organisations from other Buddhist countries in order to inquire into and learn about measures taken elsewhere. Lobsang Dechen, co-director of the association, accompanied in turn by nuns from Sgrol ma gling, has taken part in conferences organised by Sakyadhita and has expressed her wish on these and other occasions to institute full ordination in the Tibetan tradition. She also initiated exchanges with a Thai movement, the International Women's Partnership for Peace and Justice, when a conference was organised by the latter in Bangkok in 2002. Two Thai trainers from this organisation were subsequently invited to different Tibetan nunneries in exile to lead workshops with the objective to prepare nuns to ‘assume a position of leadership in the field of spirituality, social activity and feminism'.

These various exchanges have allowed Tibetan nuns in exile to enhance their knowledge of the outside world and to understand the issues from a feminist point of view, both Western and Asian. However, this is not to say that they share completely this vision or that they have adopted the more militant attitudes and claims of their sisters. Brought up to present themselves as obedient, humble and modest vis-a-vis their masculine superiors, many nuns do not wish to press them on these matters but deem it more desirable to obtain their consent and their sup- port.
Interestingly, there is no debate on the institution of full ordination for women at Bkra shis dgon gsar, the nunnery in Mi nyag where I was able to stay in 2002 and 2003. This can be explained by the fact that this monastery follows the rnying ma school, for which monastic

disci¬pline generally plays a less important role. But the principal reason is that the nuns there are too preoccupied with the re-establishment of the religious life and by the constant concern for safeguarding what they have regained thus far. In this regard, they are in contact with nuns and monks of surrounding monasteries. In this way, also, they have learned that their exiled sisters today have the possibility of pursuing higher studies, a goal that they share. Their lama, A khu 'Brug grags rgya mtsho, regularly travels to mainland China to give teachings, and two Chinese monks live with him in the monastery. But these contacts are unilateral: they are aimed solely at spreading Tibetan Buddhism—in return

for donations, sometimes considerable—and not to integrate ele¬ments of Chinese Buddhism. Nevertheless, if one looks closely at the history of Mi nyag, it is also one of the rare Tibetan regions where there is proof of the existence of fully ordained nuns: in the 14th century, a group of dge slong ma were among the disciples of a great local schol¬ar, Mkhan chen Bka' bzhi pa chen po Rig pa'i seng ge. But this remains little known locally. It is interesting to note as well that reli¬gious authorities, such as Gzan dkar Rinpoche Thub bstan nyi ma, spir¬itual head of the region and an internationally-known researcher, and 'Jam dbyangs grags pa, monk and professor of Tibetan medicine, do not regard this dge slong ma community as a precedent with any mod¬ern relevance.

Let us now return to the nuns of Sgrol ma gling and to the immedi¬ate utility that the institution of full ordination would have for them. In the framework of their studies intended to lead them to the title of dge bshes ma, they are supposed to study monastic discipline in its entire¬ty. For that, as we have seen, they would first need to receive full ordi¬nation, which confers the necessary authorisation to go more deeply into the study of these texts. At the end of 2003, the most advanced stu¬dents successfully undertook the study of the Perfection of Wisdom (phar phyin). The following year, they started on that of the Middle Way (dbu ma), which takes about two years and which precedes the

section on the vinaya ('dul ba). It was then that those in charge of the Tibetan Nuns Project worried about the organisation of the continua¬tion of their training: it became urgent to resolve the problem of the institution of full ordination. In view of the difficulties encountered, the question also arose of knowing if the study of the vinaya might not be shortened or replaced by something else. But this idea was then rejected because of the risk that a dge bshes diploma obtained in this way would be depreciated by both the clergy and the laity.
As far as the nuns of Sgrol ma gling are concerned, a significant number of them have left the nunnery at that time. Some chose to pur¬sue their studies on another religious path, like meditation; others left for an institution that allowed them to become teachers or to work in a secular field, and some decided to leave the monastic life altogether. Thus the enthusiasm which has led the nuns, throughout the 1990s and to the beginning of this century, to hope that they might one day obtain the title of dge bshes was considerably dampened.


Those in charge of the Tibetan Nuns Project, however, remain positive. The director and sister-in-law of the Dalai Lama, Rinchen Khando, explained to me in a conversation in April 2005 that, for her, the oppor¬tune time to restart the debate had come because nuns had shown by their determination to pursue the studies and to conform to the disci¬pline, and that they were not only ready to obtain full ordination but that they also merited it. A little earlier, the Tibetan Nuns Project was contacted by Tenzin Palmo (Bstan 'dzin dpal mo) and another Western nun, both being in charge of the nunnery Dga' tshal gling, who also considered that the time had come again to tackle the subject of female ordination. They decided to set up a study committee consisting of Tibetan and Indian nuns, as well as few Western nuns from eight nun¬neries in exile. Their objective was to resume discussions with the Department of Religion and Culture, several members of which had changed in the meanwhile. Tibetan dignitaries from various schools, such as Pad nor Rinpoche, Sa skya khri 'dzin, 'Dri gung skyabs mgon Che tshang Rinpoche and Mkha' 'gro Rinpoche gave them moral sup- port.

After several exchanges, a third seminar of vinaya specialists was organised in Dharamsala from 22 to 24 May 2006, and all the high Tibetan dignitaries and some representatives of the Tibetan government in exile were invited. But this meeting was again unsuccessful: the quo¬rum necessary to adopt a resolution was not attained. Of those invited from the high clergy, only the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, Zam gdong Rinpoche (then Prime Minister of the government in exile) and Geshe Tashi Tsering were present; the others apologised or sent a representa¬tive. In view of this meeting, a group of fully-ordained Western nuns who had set up their own committee (the Committee of Western Bhikshunis) had circulated a text requesting, in the name of all nuns of the Tibetan tradition, the re-establishment of full ordination.

They also proposed a three-point discussion programme aimed at speeding up the taking of a decision:

1. Whether or not it is possible to establish full bhiksum ordination in accordance with the Mulasarvastivada lineage that flourished in Tibet?

2. Whether or not there is a way for Tibetan nuns to get full bhiksum¥ ordination within the Dharmagupta vinaya tradition that flourished in China?

3. Whether or not there is an unbroken lineage of transmission within the system of vinaya that spread to Vietnam, as was told to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

In the introduction to their proposal, the authors justified their action with the statement that “Buddha gave equal opportunities to men and women” and “never made any discrimination between them” (ibid.), a declaration that seems to have been badly received. In his inaugural address, Zam gdong Rinpoche stated that on no account was it a mat¬ter for approaching the issue of ordination from the angle of redressing gender prejudice. Other participants reproached the Dalai Lama for being under the influence of Western nuns. The meeting then took a virulent turn when the representatives of Sa skya khri 'dzin threw the whole project back into question, recalling that the full ordinations ini¬tiated by sa

skya hierarchs in the past (and taking place exclusively before monks) had all been refuted at the same time by their contempo- raries. With this intervention, they disagreed with their spiritual head, who had previously appeared favourable to the institution of female ordination.
For lack of finding a consensus, this seminar revealed, above all, two opposed attitudes prevalent among some Tibetan dignitaries: a distrust of what was perceived as meddling on the part of Western nuns and the refusal to discuss a subject classified as closed. In these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the Dalai Lama, principal defender of the nuns' cause, encouraged the Western nuns of the Committee of Western Bhikshunis to organise an international conference.

From 18 to 20 July 2007, the ‘International Congress on the Role of Buddhist Women in the Monastic Community' took place in Hamburg, Germany. Organised by Jampa Tsedroen, a Western nun, and held at the University of Hamburg, this congress gathered together for the first time Buddhist dignitaries, followers and researchers from nine¬teen countries. The objective was to discuss with the present experts the different possibilities of instituting the dge slong ma lineage in the Tibetan tradition, and possibly inducing the Dalai Lama to reach a deci¬sion in favour of one of them. Without entering into the details of this conference, which I was unable to attend—some publications about the event have appeared in the meanwhile —it is, however, worth under¬lining the fact that there were not many Tibetan participants. It is also significant that most of those present had previously pronounced them¬selves in favour of the institution of full female ordination, such as the Dalai Lama, Geshe Tashi Tsering, Rinchen Khando and Lobsang Dechen.

At the end of the congress, two trends prevailed: while the digni¬taries from the Theravada tradition advocated the ordination of Tibetan nuns by Tibetan monks and nuns of the Chinese lineage, some Tibetan nuns expressed their desire to receive ordination by a congregation comprising only dge slong of the Mulasarvastivada tradition. In this way they sided with the proposal made by Geshe Tashi Tsering and Rin chen dngos grub which, as we shall see, is strongly criticised by other Tibetan vinaya specialists.


Before entering into the detail of different opinion, we should note the almost unanimous refusal of the Tibetan monastic community to involve nuns of the Chinese tradition, a solution nevertheless favoured by the international Buddhist community. For the Tibetans, the prohi¬bition against mingling traditions goes back to the introduction of monasticism under the emperor Khri Srong lde btsan in the 8th century, when the latter authorised the sole tradition of the Mulasarvastivadin in Tibet. Their argument is based on the refusal to allow the Indian Atisa to establish his school, that of Mahasamghika, in 11th century Tibet. However, recent research seems to indicate that this rule has not always been applied. During the congress in Germany, the American nun Thubten Chodron pointed out that in the 9th century, at the time of the so-called persecution of Buddhism, three Tibetan refugee monks in Amdo solicited the aid of two Chinese monks to ordain the Tibetan Dgongs pa rab gsal. This act allowed them to continue their lineage, otherwise threatened with extinction. According to Thubten Chodron, this ordination could constitute a precedent which would authorise the intervention of nuns from the Chinese tradition. But at present her pro¬posal is rejected by the majority of Tibetan dignitaries.

1. The defenders of full ordination for women

If we trust the declarations done by Tibetans in English, it appears that besides the Dalai Lama, many religious dignitaries and politicians have come down in favour of female ordination. This is the case of the Karmapa, several ministers of the Tibetan government in exile, as well as some heads of religious lineages. At the inauguration of the Sgrol ma gling temple in 2005, bka’ blon (Minister) Blo bzang nyi ma also gave assurances of his support and that of the Department of Religion and Culture. However, Geshe Tashi Tsering and Rin chen dngos grub seem, for the time being, to be the only Tibetan dignitaries to have pronounced themselves of a concrete solution on the institution of full ordination for women: both defend an ordination conferred by an assembly composed of monks only.

As a Tibetan researcher, Geshe Tashi Tsering has certainly made the most detailed analysis of the vinaya and of its commentaries written by Indian and Tibetan scholars. He advances several arguments in favour of ordination conferred by monks only. First, he notes that the Buddha does not seem to have had the intention to lay down an exclusive method of ordination but that, quite the contrary, there were different means, of which three were practised for women. None of them, how¬ever, can be practised today: two necessitate the presence of dge slong ma, a status which, as we have seen, does not exist currently in the Tibetan tradition; and the third is an exceptional case because it was the very first female ordination, that of Mahaprajapat¥ Gautam¥, the aunt and adoptive mother of the Buddha, and her entourage of five hundred women who were ordained by adhering to the so-called ‘eight heavy rules' (lci chos brgyad).

Geshe Tashi Tsering's main argument is that women could be ordained by the way of the dge slong ordination ceremony. This point was suggested, he says, by the Buddha himself when he responded to questions posed by the nun Upal¥:

“Noble One, if a male novice (dge tshul) is ordained [as a dge slong] by the dge slong ma ceremonial rite, is it considered being fully ordained?” “Upal¥, it is called fully ordained; however, the performers of the ordina¬tion have infractions ('das pa).”
“Noble One, if a probationary nun (dge slob ma) is ordained by the dge slong ceremonial rite, is it considered being fully ordained?”
“Upal¥, it is called fully ordained; however, the performers of the ordina¬tion have infractions.”

According to Geshe Tashi Tsering, this dialogue was interpreted by some commentators of the monastic discipline as an authorisation given to monks to ordain nuns by the way of the monk rites and vice versa. “It is not [an invalid act] if dge slong and dge slong ma perform each other's rites”, one reads, for example, in a passage of the Vinayasutra (’Dul ba’i mdo). A commentary adds the following explanation:
“It is not [an invalid act] if dge slong and dge slong ma perform each other's rites” means if a dge slong is ordained by the dge slong ma rite, it is not unaccomplished [i.e, not invalid] and if a dge slong ma is ordained by the dge slong rite, it is not unaccomplished. Neither the rite for the full ordination of dge slong nor the rite for the full ordination of dge slong ma is ultimately the exclusive rite to be used for [its respective ordination alone]....

Geshe Tashi Tsering has not been able to find in the Indian accounts an example where such a procedure has been followed. But in Tibet, there were few cases, such as the ordinations conferred by 'Gro mgon chos rgyal 'Phags pa and by Shakya mchog ldan mentioned above, as well as that of Chos kyi sgron ma, a Tibetan princess of the 15th century who renounced the world and was subsequently considered as an emanation of the deity Rdo rje phag mo. However, because of harsh criticism, none of these ordinations has given rise to an ordination lineage.

Most of the critics in the past, like today, have been concerned by the ‘two-year training period' and the subsequent rite (tshangs spyod nyer gnas), the pre-ordination rite requested for nuns, which should be con¬ferred solely by a community of fully ordained nuns according to ritu¬al prescriptions. yet, those ritual masters like Shakya mchog ldan who have given full ordination to women considered that applying the dge slong rites to women allowed the ‘two-year training period' to be waived. In order to discuss this particular point,

Geshe Tashi Tsering proposed first to resolve the three points that long ago gave rise to the problem:

1. Whether or not it is appropriate to bestow the dge slong ma vow accompanied by an infraction through performing the dge slong ceremo¬nial rite.

2. Whether [in this case] the tshangs spyod nyer gnas ordination is required beforehand.

3. Whether the tshangs spyod nyer gnas ordination can only be bestowed by the dge slong ma community or whether it may also be bestowed by the dge slong community when a [Mulasarvastivada] dge slong ma com¬munity cannot be found.

Geshe Tashi Tsering thus proposes a pragmatic solution without ignor¬ing the instructions given in the Buddhist doctrine, according to which important matters should be resolved through discussion among vinaya holders. If Tibetan dignitaries could come to an agreement through dis¬cussing these questions, a new lineage of dge slong ma in Tibet could be introduced without any external intervention.
Recently, the young dge bshes Rin chen dngos grub has shown inter¬est in finding a solution to the institution of a lineage of dge slong ma. Having taught at Sgrol ma gling for a year, he then pursued his own studies at the tantric college of Rgyud stod. In June 2007, he published a book on the subject of dge slong ma. Drawing inspiration from the research of Geshe Tashi Tsering, he also refers to a quotation from the

‘summer retreat manual' (lung dbyar gyi gzhi) in which he sees a fur¬ther justification for conducting the ordination ceremony with an assembly made up of monks only. It is written that the Buddha allowed dge slong to leave the summer retreat for seven days—after requesting permission in an appropriate manner—if they were asked to ordain a dge tshul ma or a dge slob ma, in spite of the usual prohibition on inter¬rupting the retreat. According to Rin chen dngos grub, this passage implies that dge slong performed women's ordinations on their own, and thus corroborates the references revealed by Geshe Tashi Tsering, according to which ordination by monks alone is not an invalid act. Further, he considers that a refusal by the community of dge slong to perform full ordination for women would be an offence to the vinaya rules as well.

The participation of Rin chen dngos grub at the congress in Germany (2007) was badly received by some dignitaries who did not attend. They criticised him for having spread a slanted interpretation of the vinaya and, by extension, the Buddhist doctrine, which constitutes a serious offence according to the doctrine itself. Some of these criti¬cisms have been published in the journal Tibet Express (Bod kyi bang chen) and have in this way triggered a controversial debate. The question is far from being settled and we do not yet know who is going to prevail. Nonetheless, it is possible even at this stage to present some of the arguments advanced by the opponents.

===2. The opponents' criticism===

Most of the opponents of full ordination criticised Rin chen dngos grub, and Geshe Tashi Tsering as well, for sowing discord by spreading false interpretations of the vinaya texts. They accuse them of using references taken out of context, just as Shakya mchog ldan did in his time, ignoring the ritual apparatus required for full ordination. According to them, Go rams pa Bsod nams seng ge, one of the contem¬porary opponents of Shakya mchog ldan, is the authoritative master on the subject. They conceive the transformation from postulant to fully- ordained nun to be valid only if the order of ordination rituals and the associated ritual procedures (cho ga) are respected: on the one hand, they refuse the idea of excusing the nuns from the two-year training period; on the other hand, they insist on the presence of fully-ordained nuns who, according to them, have an essential role in the performance of both, the tshangs spyod nyer gnas (literally ‘approaching chastity') and the full ordination (bsnyen par rdzogs pa) ceremony.

Theoretically, the two-year training period and the taking of vows that accompanies it concern only the community of dge slong ma. Under the responsibility of a preceptor (dge slob ma yi mkhan po) and after the approval of the community, the candidate, eighteen years old minimum, is received as ‘(female) religious trainee' (dge slob ma) and commits herself to respect the preparatory vows (dge slob ma'i sdom pa)—the six ‘root tenets' and six ‘associated tenets'. According to Wijayaratna (1991: 45-54), who has studied the Pali texts, this proba¬tionary period allows the candidate to receive the necessary instruc¬tions and to familiarise herself with the monastic community before taking the final decision to join the order.

The opponents stress the fact that the rules clearly stipulate the obli¬gation of this procedure and that full ordination would no longer have any meaning if this preliminary step were skipped. They therefore sup¬port the necessity of continuity between this stage and complete ordi¬nation. Generally, Tibetan tradition emphasises the necessity of succes¬sion in both the domain of transmission of ordination lineage and in that of knowledge. In order for a lineage to be considered valid and authentic, and therefore pure, it must be continuous, that is, transmitted in an uninterrupted way (tshigs snga ma sngon du song ba, literally ‘having previously gone through preliminary links'). And, as some authors underline, if one excuses nuns from the two-year training peri¬od and if the dge slong ma are not present, the transmission will be bro¬ken and it will not be a pure lineage of vows (sdom rgyun rnam dag).

If one follows the texts, at the end of her two-year training period, the candidate must solicit her ‘female preceptor' (mkhan mo) in order to receive full ordination. If her request is agreed to, it is then necessary to assemble the ritual performers who must be made up of twelve dge slong ma and ten dge slong, themselves ordained for a minimum of twelve and ten years respectively. The first ritual ceremony (tshangs spyod nyer gnas) involves only the presence of dge slong ma. It is an intermediate stage during which the postulant pronounces the vow of pure conduct (tshangs par spyod pa; Skt brahmacarya). Philosophically speaking, it is of the same substance as those pro¬nounced by a dge slob ma. Then the same day, the dge slong join the assembly of dge slong ma to perform the full ordination ceremony. Three officiants occupy the role of

preceptors (mkhan po; Skt upad- hyaya) and seven that of ritual assistant (las slob; Skt karma acarya), according to Thub bstan zla ba, abbot of the Rnam rgyal monastery. More precisely, among the preceptors, there must necessarily be a dge slong ma: the ‘preceptor of the two-year training period' (dge slob ma yi mkhan po); the other two—the ‘preceptor of the renunciation cere¬mony' (rab byung gyi mkhan po) and the ‘preceptor of the full ordina¬tion' (bsnyen rdzogs kyi mkhan po)—can be either dge slong or dge slong ma. According to Thub bstan zla ba, among the ritual assistants two must necessarily be dge slong ma: the ‘ritual assistant of dge slob ma' (dge slob ma'i las slob) and the ‘ritual assistant of tshangs spyod nyer gnas' (tshangs spyod nyer gnas kyi las slob); the third—the ‘ritu¬al assistant of full vows' (bsnyen rdzogs kyi las slob)—is a dge slong.

Thub bstan zla ba also emphasises that it is not through the presence of officiating monks (pha tshogs) and nuns (ma tshogs) that the vows become real, but by their ‘combined legal act' (las tshigs). More pre¬cisely, it is through the crossing (bsnol) of the two assemblies' legal acts, that the (pure) vows of a dge slong ma are engendered.

Finally, some Tibetan authors specifically oppose the feminist dis¬course advocated by certain Western nuns. They describe it as aggres¬sive and consider it a criticism of the Buddha, and therefore destruc- tive. Several of them also recall explicitly that the Buddha predicted the rapid decline of the order if women were accepted into the monas¬tic community, alluding to his ambivalent attitude towards women.
The usefulness of the feminist discourse has also been called into question. According to Lhun grub chos ldan, librarian at Se ra byes, if one wants to turn the institution of female ordination into a debate on inequalities, one should take into account the number of vows—many more for women—and the ‘eight heavy rules' imposed on women by the Buddha himself; but according to the same author, only a second Buddha would be able to change the rules laid down by Sakyamuni.

Finally, some say explicitly that “the idea of modernising Buddhism must come from inside and not be imposed from the outside”.
The writings of the opponents to full ordination reveal a certain ambiguity between the doctrinal reasons referred to above and those that could be described as ideological because of their opposition to the feminist discourse. It is difficult to determine the real motives of each party. For their part, the Tibetan nuns also reject feminist ideology, which is too politicised in their eyes. At the congress of 2007 in Germany, some declared in private that they did not want to turn the debate on full ordination into a feminist issue; others expressed their satisfaction with the present conditions of religious practice. They even “read statements that they did not feel ready for dge slong ma ordi¬nation this time”. This caused a feeling of annoyance among the par-ticipants, and specially the organisers who were convinced that their Tibetan sisters shared a common goal. In short, not only do Western and Tibetan nuns not agree on the reasons that motivate their demand for full ordination, but the latter seem to want at all cost to avoid a con¬flict with the male clergy.


The debate on the institution of full ordination for women in the Tibetan tradition, far from being closed, shows that there is little flexi¬bility when it comes to modify the ritual prescriptions stemming from an important corpus like the vinaya. The reluctance is considerable in spite of repeated exhortations from the Dalai Lama to find a solution that will be acceptable. For the hierarch the opposition is due to the narrow minds of certain Tibetan dignitaries. In the eyes of Western nuns, the conservative dignitaries are little inclined to open Tibetan

monastic hierarchy to nuns. But we can probably see in the full range of reactions a self-protective attitude: the rejection of foreign feminist ideology, just like the recourse to concepts of ‘purity' and ‘authentici-ty' of the ordination rites, show that there is a wish to preserve Tibetan religious practices. We could therefore speak of an identity fallback— mainly from representatives of the dge lugs and sa skya schools— opposing the contribution of ‘modern' feminist and ‘progressive' Buddhists ideas. Thus the Karmapa, who was at the beginning in favour of female ordination, explained several months after the congress:

These days many friends from abroad with a modern viewpoint are giv-ing help and direction to Tibetan nuns and laywomen and I would like to thank them for their help. But I think we need to begin from within our own Tibetan society to find a particular Tibetan way of being modern. The reason for this is that other viewpoints and Tibetan culture are some¬times incompatible, and as Tibetan culture is already endangered, insist¬ing too strongly on imposing other ways of doing things could very well weaken what we are working hard to preserve.
The ambivalent attitude of Tibetan nuns shows that they have little room to manoeuvre. They know that the approval of their clergy is nec¬essary for the achievement of female ordination. Their hesitation seems to indicate that they prefer (at least for the moment) to fall in behind their religious hierarchy, while at the same time keeping distance from their Western sisters. They seem currently to have allied themselves with the opinion of those dignitaries who want to find a solution with¬in their tradition.


Several months after the congress in Germany, on 28 and 29 April 2008, the Department of Religion and Culture organised the fourth con¬ference on female ordination. Sixteen Tibetan religious dignitaries from all Buddhist schools were invited and a few nuns from the monas¬teries of Dharamsala were able to attend as spectators. The discussion focused on the two methods possible for instituting full ordination. The first, which consisted of involving Chinese nuns of the Dharmaguptaka tradition, was rejected unanimously. As for the second method, which relies on Tibetan monks alone, opinions remained divided: the eight representatives of the rnying ma and bka’ brgyud schools voted for and seven from the sa skya and dge lugs against; one of the dge lugs repre¬sentatives abstained. Some months later, in October 2008, the Cabinet
of Ministers of the Tibetan government in exile (bka’ shag) reiterated its wish to establish the lineage of dge slong ma.


References in Tibetan

Acarya dge bshes Thub bstan byang chub (alias Geshe Tashi Tsering), 2000a. Gzhi smra’i lugs kyi dge slong ma’i las chog gcig tu btus pa thub dbang zhal lung zhes bya ba, New Delhi: Indraprastha Press.

2000b. Bod du dge slong mar bsgrubs pa’i dpyad gzhi rab gsal me long, New Delhi: Indraprastha Press.
2000c. Dge slong ma’i ’byung khungs dpyad gzhi, New Delhi: Indraprastha Press.
'Ba' pa Skal bzang 'phrin las 'Bras blo gling, 22/08/2007. Dge bshes ma las 'phros pa'i dran rtogs thung ngu, Bod kyi bang chen 138, 3.
'Bras sgo mang bya bral Chos grub, 12/09/2007. Nga'i lta ba dang ma mthun na lta log zer gyi med, Bod kyi bang chen 141, 2.
Rdza chu kha mkhan po Tshe ring bkra shis, 15/08/2007. Dge slong ma'i skor gyi bsam gzhig, Bod kyi bang chen 137, 2.
'Jam dbyangs grags pa, 1986. Mi nyag mkhas pa'i mi lnga'i lo rgyus rags bsdus, Gangs dkar ri bo 2, 64-76.
Rnam grwa Thub bstan zla wa, 04/07/2007. Bud med bsnyen rdzogs bsgrub par dge slong pha ma gnyis tshogs tshang dgos, Bod kyi bang chen 131, 5-6.
Ser byes bya bral 'Jam dpal blo shor, 25/07/2007. Dge slong pha kho nas ma bsnyen par rdzogs chog pa'i yig don la bltas pa'i bsam 'char, Bod kyi bang chen 134, 2.

01/08/2007. Dge slong pha kho nas ma bsnyen par rdzogs chog pa'i yig don la bltas pa'i bsam 'char, Bod kyi bang chen 135, 2, 5.
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