A young nun at the Buddhist Monastery Ani Tshamkhung in Lhasa, Tibet.
Photo : Luca Galuzzi
A young nun at the Buddhist Monastery Ani Tshamkhung in Lhasa, Tibet. Photo : Luca Galuzzi

Arguing ordination

The debate over full ordination of nuns in Tibetan Buddhism remains unsettled.

"Oh, so Rinpoche you are still a novice?"
– Tenzin Palmo

It's circa 5th century BC. North Indian plains. The prince-turned-charismatic-leader of a significant social and philosophical movement is laying on his deathbed. Buddhism has by this point claimed hundreds of healthy and employable men and women, who have deserted their royal and civic lives for an existence of community-facilitated introspection. Now, moments before attaining parinirvana or ultimate enlightenment, the Buddha has a sudden change of heart about certain 'minor' rules guiding his community, the sangha. But his attendant monk, the distracted and overwhelmed Ananda, can't make sense of his gasping and mumbling. And so the master passes away without having his final will known, and without – at least – something akin to a self-help manual to his name. These two would've been breakaway bestsellers even today: 30 Steps to Successfully Run the Sangha in the CE and 300 Things Every Aspiring Nun Should Know (the latter, perhaps, proverbially subtitled 'It's Better to Know and Be Disappointed, Than Not to Know and Always Wonder', in case the Buddha wasn't the feminist we'd like to think he was.)

The same Ananda, Buddhist records tell us, was instrumental in getting women admitted into the sangha in the first place. When his stepmother Mahaprajapati, together with other women from the same Shakya clan begged the Buddha to let them join the sangha, he waved them off like flies. But then Ananda interceded, tricking the Buddha with some savvy reasoning into complying: "Don't you think women are capable of achieving nirvana?"

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