Since the time of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the historical Buddha, women have been an integral part of the Buddhist tradition. While still alive, the Buddha was asked to allow women into the monastic group of his followers. Though he initially turned down this request due to the societal views of women in India at the time, he eventually changed his mind and created a monastic Order for Women with observants throughout India for nearly 1200 years. For the last approximately 800 years, however, women had been prevented from taking full monastic vows and becoming nuns in the Theravada tradition. In 1987 this changed, and in 1996 it was proclaimed that women were officially given the right to be equals to their male counterparts in the levels of commitment they could reach within the Buddhist tradition. Since this time, convents have formed throughout the Eastern countries where Buddhism is a major religion, and the path to becoming a nun has been re-institutionalized and solidified.
How Women Became Nuns in the Time of the Buddha
While the Buddha was still alive, his requirements for ordination were limited. Anyone who desired to hear his teachings and follow the path to enlightenment was required only to renounce the secular life and make vows in the eight precepts. These vows were to refrain from: killing; stealing; lying; sexual misconduct; consuming intoxicants; eating between noon and dawn; pleasure acts like singing, dancing and listening to music and from any personal ornamentation, such as perfume, that bears relation to seduction. Though the Buddha originally only formed this order for men, upon request by his foster mother Maha Pajapati-Gotami he reconsidered and allowed women to become an ordained part of his followers as well.
The Vows All Buddhists Must Take
The most basic vows that any Buddhist practitioner, regardless of sex, must take are the five precepts. At a ceremony called taking refuge, a person chooses to devote themselves to the Buddhist path by taking vows in the five precepts and undergoing a formal ceremony that dedicates their life practices to the Buddha, the dharma (the Buddha's teachings) and the sangha (the worldwide community of Buddhists). These precepts are the first five of the eight required in the time of the Buddha for ordination but can be extended to the full ten precepts taken as a first step toward ordination, which include the additional vows of refraining from determining oneself as in a higher position than others and accepting any monetary gifts.
Prerequisites for Becoming a Buddhist Nun
While the requirements to become nuns and monks were the same in the time of the Buddha, there were already differences in expectations. For example, the Buddha required monks to meditate alone in the forest, but he deemed this practice unhealthy for women's safety. Aside from the differences after ordination in the time of the Buddha, present differences between men and women on the path to ordination resulted from the Buddha's teaching in Vinaya law that women "need to be ordained gradually." Because of this, a woman must take specific steps and vows to enter monastic life. The first of these is the renunciation of secular life. At this primary stage of ordination a woman must prove she is healthy in body and mind and give up all of her material goods. The primary vows taken at this stage are the full 10 precepts.
Vows Taken by Women to Enter the Monastic Life
For women, full ordination comes in two additional steps after the giving up of secular life. She passes from a novice ordination to probationary ordination and to full ordination. The probationary period is a time when many vows can be taken, such as the Bodhisattva vows, which were taken by a well-known Buddhist nun named Thubten Chodron. These vows remind monastics of the 62 downfalls that are barriers to practicing true compassion and staying on the Buddhist path and are designed to express that the practitioner is not seeking enlightenment simply for herself but also for the benefit of all living beings. For full ordination, women take vows in a total of 311 precepts that address everything from moral discipline to generosity, which is 24 more vows than are required of male ordained monks.
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