Ongoing progress in the full monastic ordination of women: Theravada

Big things are afoot in the world of Buddhist women, especially for those that seek equal opportunity for women to enter into the full ordination of a bhikkhuni/bhikshuni in the three vehicles.

In England, the first forest monastery in the Theravada tradition in Oxford, Anukampa Grove Bhikkhuni Monastery, opened in spring this year (led by Ven. Candavisuddhi or Ayya Canda, who has the support of Ajahn Brahm and the backing of the Dhammasara bhikkhuni community in Western Australia). In Australia itself, the numbers of Theravada bhikkhunis continue to grow steadily, in both larger monasteries like Dhammasara and smaller viharas. The first Theravada Dual Sangha monastery (a community of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis) in Newbury, which is supported by the Buddhist Society of Victoria, is flourishing.

Let us take a look at Southeast Asia. First, the unfortunate news in Myanmar and Laos: there are no new developments in regard to Burmese or Lao bhikkhunis that have made rounds on online or news platforms. But in Malaysia, this past month of April saw the formal public establishment of the First Theravāda bhikkhuni sima (boundary), which is enormous news given the historical import of a sima in monastic law. The land was gifted by the Malaysian government for a bhikkhuni training and ordination center. Similarly in Indonesia, the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha continues to slowly grow, with a new bhikkhuni arama sima inaugurated this past winter.

In 2014 in Thailand, there was a “public” ordination of women in the country’s south, which prompted a legal crackdown. At the grassroots level, the bhikkhuni community continues to spread, with Thai bhikkhunis often going to Sri Lanka to ordain, and spreading into new provinces when returning home. As if reflecting this transnational progress, a variety of successful new Thai bhikkhuni communities have appeared. The Nirotharam bhikkhuni community has survived the death of its founder, and its 7th branch in Thailand一its first international branch, named Mahavana Dhamma Sanctuary一opened today, on the 6th of May.

In another milestone, the Cambodian Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha came into existence in 2023, when the fourth Khmer bhikkhuni received higher ordination in Germany. These four Khmer bhikkhunis observed the monastic yearly communal rituals of vassa and pavarana together for the first time at Dhammadharini in the US last year. An international bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka that was originally planned for 2020, and postponed due to the pandemic, is currently on track to be held around the Poson holiday in June 2024.

Furthermore, there may be a multifaceted bhikkhuni-initiated forest monastery for all genders being developed in Italy, led by Italian bhikkhuni Ayya Soma of Empty Cloud Italia, which in turn is supported by Empty Cloud in the US.

In Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, and the US, we are seeing, according to Ven. Tathaloka Theri, “the decade of the Mahatheris,” bhikkhuni communities led by senior Theravada bhikkhuni teachers and preceptors.

The work of gender equality remains an incomplete work, and it is important to stress that the empowerment of women actually brings empowerment and benefit to the whole community, including men. It is also important to remind that all the old Sravakayana Vinayas, contain dual ordination systems for women. The Vinaya in today’s Theravada and Vajrayana traditions and several related commentaries contain authorization and injunction for male monks to give women ordination.

In our next post on this subject, we will look at developments in the Himalayan region, and in particular, how the constitutional Buddhist monarchy of Bhutan is leading the way in nurturing a new generation of female leadership.

See more

Tathaloka Theri Facebook page
Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project

Related features from BDG

Buddhistdoor View: Reawakening Awareness – Commemorating a Supreme Woman Arahant, Ven. Yasodhara (Bhaddakaccana Theri)
Book Review: The Gathering: A Story of the First Buddhist Women

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