Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

What is a Buddhist nun?

The Buddha himself decided, not without hesitation, to institute a female counterpart to male membership in the monastic Sangha. Nuns, called bhikshunis or “female mendicants,” had from the start to defer to monks and were required to abide by over a hundred additional disciplinary regulations. Many scholars note that the formal lineage of the order of Buddhist nuns has long since been disrupted. Still, groups of women throughout Asia live in communities and consider themselves members of the Sangha. Most shave their heads, wear monastic garb, and live according to traditional norms and engage in practices such as scriptural recitation. Representatives of several Chinese lineages are perhaps the most numerous. Like their male counterparts, nuns also undergo a period of training as novices before they can be considered for higher ordination to full monastic membership. Once presented by her sponsor, the candidate submits to an in-depth questioning as to her suitability. If she passes, a senior nun proposes acceptance. Then the candidate is questioned again by a panel of monks. Passing that, the candidate is sent back to her sisters for further training and acceptance into the higher initiation.


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