his holiness the karmapa and women's issues

audience with hhgk april 2010

A Pillar is Missing from our House:
Gyalwang Karmapa on Full Ordination for Women

Article by Dharmadattā Nuns' Community member Lhundup Damcho, originally written for publication in German in Dharma-Nektar Magazine.

An abbreviated version of this article will appear in the Spring 2010  edition of Buddhadharma Magazine. Download a pdf of this and the accompanying articles on women's place in Buddhism.

Last winter, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa stunned an international audience in Bodhgaya by making an unprecedented declaration of commitment to ordaining women as bhikshunis in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Responding to a question as to when there would ever be bhikshuni ordination in the Tibetan tradition, His Holiness leaned forward and spoke directly in English. “I will do it,” he said. As enthusiastic applause broke out across the large assembly hall, Gyalwang Karmapa cautioned against expecting quick results. “Be patient,” he said. “Be patient.”

“As to when it will begin, and when there will be bhikshuni ordination,” His Holiness stated, during his annual winter teachings at Tergar Monastery in Bodhgaya last December. “I cannot say when exactly the right time will be. But I am making every effort, with a sincere motivation, and I believe there is great hope. So please rest easy. The bhikshuni vows that lead to liberation and enlightenment are extremely important, and are in a sense the root of the Buddha’s Dharma. Therefore I do not believe it is wise to act hastily. So please relax, and please be patient.”

Despite the warning that full ordination was not imminent, Gyalwang Karmapa’s statement in Bodhgaya was nevertheless ground-breaking, for it constitutes the first time that any spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism has publicly committed to making bhikshuni ordination available. His Holiness’ declaration marks the culmination of intensive research into the feasibility of establishing full ordination for women according to the monastic code that regulates Tibetan Buddhism. More broadly, it reflects Gyalwang Karmapa’s intense commitment to women’s issue and to nuns in particular.

At present, women in Tibetan Buddhism may take a lower level of ordination, as novice nuns (Tibetan: getsulmas) or (Sanskrit: shramanerikas), but they do not have the opportunity to take the highest level of ordination that Buddha Shakyamuni initially created for women: bhikshuni or gelongma ordination. Full ordination for women is available in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Buddhist traditions, and has recently been re-established for nuns in the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Sri Lanka. Tibetan Buddhism still lags behind these traditions in the movement towards offering equal spiritual opportunities to women.

For the past several decades, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has consistently spoken out in favor of establishing bhikshuni ordination in the Tibetan tradition. To date, progress toward that goal has been incremental, consisting mainly of inconclusive conferences and discussions. Gyalwang Karmapa’s acceptance of a personal role in extending the opportunity of full ordination to women thus marks a decisive step forward on a path that His Holiness the Dalai Lama first asked Tibetan Buddhists to traverse.

         Not Just a Women’s Issue

During a stay in Sarnath, India, Gyalwang Karmapa granted an interview to discuss his views on bhikshuni ordination. His Holiness began by describing his reasons for taking such a strong stance on the matter.

“There are several issues and several purposes,” he said.“If something is missing — such as gelongma vows, which do not exist in the Tibetan community—this affects the getsulmas and rabjungmas as well.… It affects the basic ordination of women. This means it is a very important issue.”

But His Holiness went on to point out that the issue of bhikshuni ordination in Tibetan Buddhism is not only an issue of concern to women: “It also affects the whole teachings,” he added. “There are two types of people who practice the teachings, women and men. There are two types of holders of the teachings, male and female. So what affects women automatically affects the teachings, and impacts the flourishing of the Dharma.”

Just days before his public statement in Bodhgaya, Gyalwang Karmapa presided over a five-day vinaya conference that he himself had convened during the Kagyu Winter Debates. High on the agenda of that conference was the question of bhikshuni ordination. His Holiness spoke at length to the large gathering of Kagyu khenpos, monks and nuns on the importance of establishing bhikshuni ordination in Tibetan Buddhism.

His Holiness pointed out that Buddha Shakyamuni himself offered bhikshuni ordination to women as a means to bring about their liberation from samsara. The need to offer women all the conditions to achieve liberation is particularly clear from a Mahayana perspective of compassion and sense of responsibility for the well-being of others, he added. Nowadays the majority of those who seek the Dharma in Dharma centers outside India and Tibet are in fact women, he noted.

Along with the need for bhikshuni ordination to support women on their path to liberation, bhikshuni ordination is needed for the benefit of the Dharma, to allow the teachings to spread and become fully accessible to people throughout the world, His Holiness explained. He commented that the four circles of disciples that Buddha created were like four pillars in a house. (The four pillars are bhikshus, bhikshunis, female holders of lay precepts and male holders of lay precepts.) Since the bhikshuni order was one of those four pillars, and is now lacking in Tibetan Buddhism, the house of Buddha’s teachings is missing an important condition needed to remain stable.

His Holiness suggested that while there are procedural issues to be resolved, any obstacles need to be weighed against the great need to offer bhikshuni ordination to qualified female candidates. As such, research into the issues surrounding ought to take place with an appreciation of the need to offer women the opportunity to follow the complete path to liberation that Buddha created for them, he stressed.

         Grappling with Procedural Issues

Earlier in 2009, Gyalwang Karmapa  summoned khenpos from the major Karma Kagyu monasteries for several months of study and research under vinaya experts at his residence in Dharamsala. Gyalwang Karmapa himself was directly engaged in exploring the various options for conferring valid full ordination of women. According to the Mūlasarvāstivāda vinaya followed by Tibetan Buddhism, standard ordination practices stipulate that a sangha of bhikshus as well as a sangha of bhikshunis be present at the ritual ceremony to fully ordain new women. Yet a bhikshuni order does not appear to have been brought to Tibet from India. This absence of bhikshunis in Tibetan Buddhism has posed a stumbling block to the modern efforts to establish full ordination for women.

However, a number of great Tibetan masters of the past did fully ordain some of their female disciples. Such masters include no less authoritative a figure than the Eighth Karmapa, Je Mikyö Dorje, one of the greatest vinaya scholars in Tibetan history. In the end, these isolated instances of ordinations did not result in the formation of a bhikshuni order in Tibet. Nowadays, two major options have been considered in Tibetan monastic circles. One is ordination by a bhikshu sangha alone, which would consist of monks from the Tibetan Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition. Another is what is known as “dual sangha ordination,’” in which the sangha of Tibetan bhikshus conferring the ordination would be joined by a bhikshuni sangha from a separate vinaya lineage, the Dharmagupta lineage preserved in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Buddhism.

While the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje and other great masters in Tibet held bhikshuni ordinations using this first option—a bhikshu sangha alone—such a method was not universally accepted among Tibetan Buddhist schools. “Although perhaps in the vinaya we can find sources for ordination by the bhikshu sangha alone, this is something disputed and controversial,” His Holiness said. “I do not want to make more controversy, because nowadays Tibetan Buddhism is all together in exile, and if one lineage acts on its own, for example, if I give the ordination in our school alone, then other schools may be uncomfortable with that, and that is not good. But there are other ways and methods available to do so.”

Asked which method he favors, Gyalwang Karmapa said: “I think the best way is dual sangha ordination, with the Dharmagupta tradition and Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition acting together. This is a more profound way. It would mean not only that we can offer gelongma vows, but also if we did this, we would create a relationship between Dharmagupta and Mūlasarvāstivāda. This would also be beneficial for the harmony between Buddhist schools.”

A major objection lodged against dual sangha ordination has been that it would entail a “mixing” of traditions, potentially raising questions as to which vinaya lineage the bhikshunis would then hold, or which procedural rules should prevail during the ceremony itself. But His Holiness dismisses the gravity of this concern. “I do not think this is a major problem,” he said. “Why? There are many sources, but basically Buddhism evolved into 18 different sects, but they are all pure. They all proceed according to the Dharma. Each school has a different vinaya, and according to their own vinaya and rituals, the vows can be generated. This means it is not a problem to hold dual sangha ordination with different vinaya lineages.”

In such a scenario, the vows that the new bhikshunis receive would be Mūlasarvāstivāda, the tradition followed by Tibetan Buddhism. According to Mūlasarvāstivāda ordination procedures, “the bhikshuni vows actually come from primarily the bhikshu sangha, not the bhikshuni sangha,” His Holiness explained. “Since in the dual sangha ordination, the bhikshu sangha will be from the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition, this means the bhikshuni  vows will be from the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition.”

During the teachings in Bodhgaya, Gyalwang Karmapa had stressed that results would not come overnight. “I do not think there are major obstacles or challenges,” he told Dharma-Nektar. “But we do need to develop our views on the matter. There are some old views and old ways of thinking, and people who hold them are not prepared to accept bhikshuni ordination. But I do not think this is a big obstacle. The main need is for some leader to take a step, to move beyond conferences and discussions. What is needed is to take full steps.”

Thus far, many Tibetan Buddhists have looked to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to take the initiative in organizing bhikshuni ordinations. When Gyalwang Karmapa was asked why he himself was now willing to accept the responsibility for doing so, he said: “His Holiness the Dalai Lama always takes responsibility. But he has lots of activities and is very busy, so he cannot devote a great deal of his attention to this issue and try to find sources and join every conference himself. He cannot simply focus on this issue. …Maybe I have more time, and so more opportunities to find some sources and hold conferences. And I also have some sort of personal interest in it myself.”

Gyalwang Karmapa added, “I just want to be a simple Buddhist practitioner. I just want to give some suggestions or information to Tibetan nuns, to encourage them and increase their confidence. This is very important. I can’t take bhikshuni vows. Some Tibetan nuns will take these vows. They need encouragement and they need to know the benefits and the importance of bhikshuni vows.”

          Working for the Welfare of Women

In the end, what is perhaps most noteworthy about Gyalwang Karmapa’s stance is precisely the degree of his personal involvement. In an extraordinary articulation of his concern for nuns’ welfare, Gyalwang Karmapa concluded a series of teachings he gave at Tilokpur Nunnery in India in 2007 by stating: “My body is male, but my mind has lots of feminine qualities, so I find myself a little bit both male and female. Therefore although of course I have high aspirations to be of benefit to all sentient beings, I especially have a commitment to work for the welfare of women and especially of nuns. As long as I have this life, I would like to work one-pointedly and diligently for their cause. I have this responsibility as the head of this school of Buddhism, and from that point of view also, I promise that I will try to do my best to see that the nuns’ sangha will progress … I will do my very best.”

Indeed, Gyalwang Karmapa’s willingness to work for the welfare of nuns extends well beyond settling procedural policy or issuing statements. His Holiness himself has undertaken to translate a volume of biographies of Chinese nuns from Chinese into Tibetan. While that translation project is ongoing, he is next planning to translate a collection of narratives of the lives of Buddha’s direct female disciples from the classical literary language of the Tibetan canon into colloquial Tibetan, in order to make the examples of these early nuns’ lives more available to modern Tibetan readers.

His Holiness himself traces his early involvement with the bhikshuni issue in particular to the time when he instituted new discipline rules for monastics attending the Kagyu Monlam Chenmo. “We were deciding how to organize the gelongs and getsuls, and there were some gelongmas from the Chinese tradition. Then we needed to think: Where do they sit? How do we make arrangements for them?” Since that time, bhikshunis have been given a prominent place at the annual Kagyu Monlam events in Bodhgaya, with special invitations issued to bhikshunis to attend.

At a later point, His Holiness added, he came across an important source from the Eighth Karmapa, Je Mikyö Dorje. “We rediscovered an old text in the collected works of Mikyö Dorje on rituals,” His Holiness said. “In that text, he said that in Tibet there was no bhikshuni lineage, but that we can give bhikshuni vows using the bhikshu rituals. I thought, ‘Oh! This is news!’ I thought, okay, maybe… This was a sort of small beginning.”

From that small beginning to the historical moment of establishing full ordination for women in Tibetan Buddhism may be a long journey. But it will not be the first long journey this exceptional lama has completed in order to benefit beings and the Dharma. And given his youthful age and his remarkable determination, it will surely not be the last.


“All beings throughout the reaches of space
must have happiness, be free from suffering,
and quickly attain unsurpassable, perfect and complete awakening.

For that purpose, until buddhahood, I will employ
my body, speech and mind in virtue.
Until death, I will employ
my body, speech and mind in virtue.
From today until this time tomorrow, I will employ
my body, speech and mind in virtue.”

- From our morning prayers