Buddhist leader in Bhutan fully ordains 144 women, resuming ancient tradition
By Haley Barker
Damcho Diana Finnegan, an American Tibetan Buddhist nun, called the ordination ceremony ‘a major step towards ending the institutionalized inequality between men and women in Tibetan Buddhism.’
(RNS) — On Tuesday (June 21), the Je Khenpo, the senior Buddhist authority in Bhutan, began ordaining a group of 144 women as bhikshunis, or female monks, at the Ramthangkha monastery in the tiny Himalayan country.
The ceremony “is of historical importance for all women in Buddhism and brings Tibetan Buddhism into the 21st century,” said Bhikshuni Jampa Tsedroen, a German Tibetan author. “For these nuns, it is a major opportunity to demonstrate their abilities to contribute to Buddhism.”
Many of the new bhikshunis are Bhutanese, but some came to Bhutan from other countries in Asia. They are all being ordained in the Tibetan lineage.
A Facebook post on the central monastic body of Bhutan page posted the news, which was confirmed by Damcho Diana Finnegan, an ordained Buddhist nun and co-founder of the Dharmadatta Nun’s Community in Virginia.
Asked about the ceremony, Finnegan called it a “major step towards ending the institutionalized inequality between men and women in Tibetan Buddhism.”
The ceremony is the culmination of a decades-long movement for full ordination for women in the Tibetan lineage, which has faced heavy resistance from top-level monks, scholars and political leaders across Asia. The bhikshuni movement has picked up steam in recent years as women worldwide have sought to restore a practice of ordaining women established, they say, by the Buddha himself, but which slowly disappeared from much of the Buddhist world until now.
After the death of the Buddha, female monks were commonly considered one of the key elements of the four-pronged ideal Buddhist community, consisting of lay men, lay women, male monks and female monks. However, over time, war, famine and disease took the lives of bhikshunis across Southeast Asia and Tibet.
Women have continued to live ascetic lives as nuns but have been barred from taking the next step to full ordination. Officially their status was held back by rules of the monastic code that require bhikshunis to be ordained by other bhikshunis, who didn’t exist.
To break this bind, some women have taken other routes to full ordination. In 1996, a group of Sri Lankan nuns was ordained with help from Korean bhikshunis of the Mahayana lineage, which has never been broken. Since then, hundreds of bhikshunis have been ordained in Sri Lanka, in what Tsedroen describes as an “ecumenical ceremony,” essentially reviving the population.