Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist? Submit your question online or fill out the form below.
Q. Why do female Buddhist monastics have so many more rules to follow than the men?
A. I’ve wondered the same thing myself, so I appreciate a reader asking this question. Soon after the question arrived, I had the opportunity to spend the day with the nuns from nearby Sravasti Abbey. I made sure to ask this question of Venerable Thubten Chodron, the abbess and a senior monastic in the Tibetan tradition. Much to my surprise, she seemed rather delighted by the question.
Her answer was remarkably ordinary and sensible and definitely not the tempered rant concerning patriarchy in Buddhism that I had expected. The Buddha had an order of male monastics (bhikkhus) before female monastics (bhikkhunis). Over time, he developed more than 200 monastic precepts to guide the men in harmlessness and virtue while living communally. If you can envisage yourself as a penniless mendicant living harmoniously with a large group of unrelated people who are also consciously limiting their access to sense pleasures, you’ll have an inkling of the multitude of complicated situations that might arise. Eventually, protocols will be needed to address them, and that’s just what the Buddha discovered and instituted.
As Venerable Chodron explained to me, six years after the founding of the monks’ order, when women asked to be ordained as monastics under the Buddha, they didn’t arrive with the same kind of societal freedoms the men did. Naturally, the surrounding 5th century BCE society expected different behaviors from women than from men outside of the monastic setting — attention to conventions as simple as not walking alone in a town. As the Buddha provided an historic opportunity for women to choose a life of monasticism, the customs of the time had to be considered for women renunciates to be physically safe and to be seen as chaste and virtuous. Female monastics — nuns — not only had to incorporate the precepts developed for the monks, but also a number of additional rules, so that the safety and integrity of the females could not be challenged.
In an article on patriarchy in Buddhism soon to appear on the on the Alliance for Bhikkhunis webpage, Venerable Suddhamma, a nun in the Theravada tradition, states: “With only a few exceptions, every rule that the Buddha placed onto bhikkhunis alone (each rule not shared by bhikkhus) was requested by conscientious bhikkhunis for the welfare of the female sangha.” Furthermore, she adds, “reading the rules and living with them prove to be very different matters. Living with the Patimokkha rules does not crush one’s spirit but gives a liberating effect. Western people who read the bhikkhunis’ rules without this understanding tend to get the wrong impression.”
A few other monastics — present and former — have spoken with me about the ironically liberating experience of following a multitude of monastic precepts. “Love your precepts,” one said. “They are constant reminders of the joy that skillful action brings about. They steer you away from harmful action and speech.” Lay Buddhists are urged to follow at least five fundamental precepts of harmlessness for the same reasons.
In a certain sense, a monastic gives up his or her autonomy as it was once understood in lay life (as 1000 mostly insignificant decisions to be made daily) for a more meaningful horizon of choices and the communal support to persevere. As Venerable Chodron ended our discussion on this topic, she added that in the Buddhist tradition she follows, there is room to adapt how monastics follow certain minor precepts to modern circumstances. In her view, the more precepts, the more opportunity for the purification and joy that the Buddha’s path provides.
Sarah Conover is a writer and teacher who, despite a fierce wanderlust, calls Spokane home. She has an MFA in poetry, and is the author of seven books on world wisdom traditions and spirituality. She and husband Doug Robnett are parents of two remarkable children long-ago nicknamed: “Swaminathan and the Material Girl.” Conover, getting old now, has enjoyed multiple careers. The best one yet is the latest: teaching creative writing, a course called “Making it Matter,” to the eldering through Spokane Community College ACT 2 program. She hosted the Ask a BuddhistFāVS column for several years.