Is it Possible to Change the Buddhist Vows for Nuns?

Jul 27, 2020

QUESTION

Hi Ven. Robina

I’m having a massive crisis. During the recent Discovering Buddhism class I found out that in this tradition there are different vows for monks and nuns. The teacher couldn’t provide further detail but from what I saw, nuns have additional pratimoksha vows and there exists probationary nuns but no probationary monks. Can you confirm if this is still the case? And can you provide a list of the actual vows? And any further details? 

From having researched I’ve seen one that states “any nun, no matter how long she has been ordained, must stand and show respect when any monk enters a room,” so if this is true then obviously these vows have no legitimate basis (anymore) and just serve to subjugate women. 

I’m heartbroken and devastated. I knew gender inequality was still an issue in many Buddhist schools but I was hoping this one would be different (probably in denial because it’s the only group accessible to me in my area). Can I ask why you chose this particular Buddhist school? And how do you deal with the inequality? I can sort of understand why these sexist policies were originally put in place in the cultural context of ancient India but I don’t understand why they are still in practice now. I know it was revolutionary at the time to even allow women to be ordained but the fact that the Dalai Lama or whoever it is with the authority to change these outdated rules has not done so really reduces their credibility to me. I have lost trust in their teachings. 

Please help. I turn to Buddhism to overcome my misery, not to have it fuelled. Normally I would boycott anything remotely tinged with sexism but I’ve tried to leave Buddhism and I can’t. I don’t know what to do, I feel like this is the only path for me but this is such a huge barrier.

With love,
H

ANSWER

Dear H,

There are three levels of vows in Buddhism: the vows of individual liberation, which include the five layperson’s vows and the vows for monks and nuns. Then there are the bodhisattva vows, and finally the tantric vows.

These are the same in all Buddhist traditions, not just Tibetan Buddhist.

It’s true, many of the vows would seem not relevant these days. The way I see it, as a woman who has taken the vows of full ordination, I can find the way to honor the integrity of the vows without feeling restricted. All the nuns I know feel the same.

But the main point is, because we are part of the Mahayana tradition and thus have both bodhisattva vows and tantric vows, which are the same for men and women, there is a different perspective. For example, in the bodhisattva vows there is permission to break a vow of individual liberation if it is for the sake of sentient beings. So, with respect for my individual liberation vows I can sincerely, let’s say, handle money when it’s part of my work to be of benefit to others.

What do you think?

Love to you,
Robina

QUESTION

Thank you for your response. Did you go through the same conflict as me? Even if you don’t feel restricted, there must be/have been some recognition/feelings of injustice and oppression? How did you get to a place of being ok with it? And how do you justify those with seniority not updating the policies?

Love, 
H

ANSWER

For sure! It was huge for me when I first heard the Dharma back in 1976 when I was 31.

I jumped in the deep end. I did a one-month intensive lam-rim course with Lama Zopa Rinpoche and then a one-month Chenrezig retreat with Lama Yeshe at Chenrezig Institute in Australia, the first FPMT centre outside Asia.

For the twelve years before that I’d been going through a very intense process of looking for a way to see the world. I gave up being a Catholic when I was 19, then I became a hippie, then when I moved to London from Australia when I was 23 I was a serious radical left activist, which moved to supporting the black political movement. Then I was a feminist and, not being poor or black, that was the most intense of my involvements, externally and internally. Being extreme in my nature, I went from being a feminist to a radical feminist to a radical lesbian feminist to a radical lesbian separatist feminist! 

So when I got to Chenrezig Institute — I knew I wanted a spiritual path again — it was a total culture shock! Two hundred hippies, the men were running the show, the women were called ladies, the nuns sat behind the monks, etc. etc. But I knew this was my path and I had to really think it through. It was quite shocking!

What became clear was that if we’re all the creators of our own reality from past lives — and the idea of karma made total sense to me — then there was no one to blame for anything. Sexism is real, suffering is real, racism is real, but we all create it. That helped hugely in giving up the victim mentality, in learning to become accountable. I mean, this is the essence of being a Buddhist.

And what came from that was the logic that if we’ve been women in countless lives, and men, and white, and black — not to mention animals, etc. — then it’s clear the mind, consciousness, is not in its nature any of these things. Mind in its nature is the same for all beings. That really helped. Male, female, race are all conventions that we create karmically. They are not our intrinsic nature. I realized that if being female was innately inferior, then it was not possible for me to be a Buddhist. That would have been schizophrenic!

And then, of course, there’s the patriarchal nature of the vows. You can’t just change those; they’ve come from the Buddha. But what I’ve seen over the years among Westerners, as I mentioned, there’s a way to understand where those vows are coming from, the cultural context, and then to try to respect the meaning of them, and then to adjust our behavior to our own current cultural context.

In the FPMT, it was clear from the beginning, with Lama Yeshe who was the boss then, that he saw his students for who they were so if you were qualified, whether you were male or female, you got the job. It’s like that with Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who took over when Lama died in 1984.

And it’s very comfortable among us monks and nuns — of course, you’ve going to always meet individual men who are sexist — and we can be together in a very easygoing way. And usually when we are all together for teachings, lets’ say, we don’t follow the usual procedure of monks sitting in front of nuns; the nuns sit on one side of the hall and the monks on the other.

So, there are a few more thoughts for you!

Love,
Robin

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