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Introduction to Bhikṣu and Bhikṣuṇī Saṅgha

(Buddhist Orders of Male and Female)


During Buddha’s time, Sangha was taken to mean political groups and trade guilds. The term
was also understood as a religious order and thus the Buddhist order was called a Sangha.
In its very broadest sense the term Sangha might be used to imply all eight groups of
Buddhists; however when it was used in early Buddhist texts and times, it usually indicated only
the two orders of mendicants. When the monks assembled, they were called the order of monks
(Bhiksu Sangha); the nuns were called the order of nuns (Bhiksuni Sangha). Both orders together
were usually referred to as “The Two Orders.”.
As for the Buddhist meaning, the Sangha is the community that communicates the Buddha’s
presence in the world, upholding the model of mindful action and a harmonious way of life.
Founded by the Buddha, governed by his teaching, supported by generations of realized masters,
the Sangha is a refuge from the attitudes and actions that bind beings to suffering. United by
shared purpose & values, the Sangha is at once the community that supports the study and
practice of the Dharma and a source of protection from the desires and attachments that intensify
human suffering. Its specific objective is providing a refuge from the distractions of worldly life;
to create an environment conducive to the growth of self-knowledge and spiritual understanding.
Traditionally such communities have been monastic in nature and usually self-regulating.

According to Hirakawa,

The Sangha is referred to as the “harmonious order” to indicate that it is organized to promote
peace and harmony among its members. The religious goal of individual Buddhists is to realize
enlightenment and to live a life that is in agreement with and contributes to their religious
objectives. Such individuals should be able to assemble and live together peacefully and
harmoniously. When unenlightened people are members of the Sangha, they are expected to
strive to maintain peace in the order while each person strives to realize enlightenment for
himself. The individual’s efforts to live in peace and harmony with his fellow practitioners should
be in complete agreement with his efforts to realize his spiritual goals.

According to Wikipedia Website,

Sangha (Pali: saṅgha; Sanskrit: ;+3 saṃgha) is a word in Pali or Sanskrit that can be
translated roughly as "association" or "assembly," "company" or "community" with
common goal, vision or purpose. It is commonly used in several senses to refer to
Buddhist or Jain groups. Traditionally, in Buddhism Sangha almost always has one of

two meanings: most commonly, Sangha means the monastic Sangha of ordained
Buddhist monks or nuns. In a stricter sense, Sangha can mean the assembly of all beings
possessing some high degree of realization, referred to as the arya-sangha or "noble
Sangha". This article deals primarily with the subject of the monastic Sangha. Buddhists
traditionally consider monastic life to provide the environment most conducive to
advancing toward enlightenment, and the Sangha is responsible for maintaining,
translating, advancing, and spreading the teachings of the Buddha. According to the same
tradition for a country or nation to be considered as truly Buddhist, the majority of the
nation must be Buddhist and include at least a fourfold sangha of bhikkhus, bhikkhunis,
upasakas and, upasikas. That is why there is also a tradition of yogic tantric practitioners
who are laypeople but still Buddhist practitioners. 1

The original Pali source Anguttara Nikaya defines the Sangha which is taken to mean Arya
Sangha as:

The Sangha of the Blessed One's disciples who have practiced well... who have practiced
straight-forwardly... who have practiced methodically... who have practiced masterfully
— in other words, the four types [of noble disciples]2 when taken as pairs, the eight when
taken as individual types3 — they are the Sangha of the Blessed One's disciples: worthy
of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable
field of merit for the world.4

More specifically, however, the Buddhist Sangha is the community of beings who have taken
refuge in the Three Jewels (triratna) – The Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. In taking refuge, the

According to Majjima Nikaya, Four types of noble disciples are enumerated and described as follows:
One: “In this community of monks there are monks who are arahants, whose mental effluents are ended, who have
reached fulfillment, done the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, totally destroyed the fetter of
becoming, and who are released through right gnosis: such are the monks in this community of monks. cx{t
Two: “In this community of monks there are monks who, with the total ending of the first set of five fetters, are due
to be reborn [in the Pure Abodes], there to be totally unbound, never again to return from that world: such are the
monks in this community of monks. cgfufdL
Three: “In this community of monks there are monks who, with the total ending of [the first] three fetters, and with
the attenuation of passion, aversion, & delusion, are once-returners, who — on returning only one more time to this
world — will make an ending to stress: such are the monks in this community of monks. ;s[bfufdL
Four: “In this community of monks there are monks who, with the total ending of [the first] three fetters, are stream-
winners, steadfast, never again destined for states of woe, headed for self-awakening: such are the monks in this
community of monks.” ;|f]tfkGg
According to Udana, “Just as the ocean is the abode of such mighty beings as whales, whale-eaters, and whale-
eater-eaters; asuras, nagas, and gandhabbas, and there are in the ocean beings one hundred leagues long, two
hundred... three hundred... four hundred... five hundred leagues long; in the same way, this Doctrine and Discipline
is the abode of such mighty beings as stream-winners (;|f]tfkGg kmn) and those practicing to realize the fruit of stream-
entry (;|f]tfkGg dfu{); once-returners (;s[bfufdL kmn) and those practicing to realize the fruit of once-returning (;s[bfufdL
dfu{); non-returners (cgfufdL kmn) and those practicing to realize the fruit of non-returning (cgfufdL dfu{); arahants
(cx{t kmn) and those practicing for arahantship (cx{t dfu{)... This is the eighth amazing and astounding fact about this
Doctrine and Discipline.”

individual expresses confidence in the wisdom of the Buddha and the truth of his teaching, and
acknowledges the necessity of the Sangha as a support for the spiritual life. At the heart of the
Sangha are those who have fully realized the meaning of Dharma and act in accordance with
their knowledge. Such masters are living examples to the larger community: by virtue of their
awakened insight, they are able to inspire confidence and guide others less advanced on the
spiritual path.

The Earliest Sangha

Ordained by a look, a gesture, or a few words, the Great Arhats, the Buddha’s spiritual sons,
formed the heart of the earliest Sangha

After Sakyamuni Buddha had attained supreme Enlightenment, he withdrew into solitude and
pondered how it might be possible to communicate the Dharma to living beings. He considered
that the Dharma is profound, subtle, and ultimately clear; yet it is difficult to understand and to
investigate analytically. Would there now be beings capable of understanding the dharma that he
had discovered?
After much reflection on how to offer enlightened knowledge to the world, the Buddha
resolved to first teach beings with less desire, hatred or ignorance. He thought of Rudraka and
Arada Kalama, his former teachers, but through his power of omniscience, he saw that both of
these masters had already passed away. Then Buddha’s thoughts turned toward his five former
companions; he saw that they were meditating in the Deer Park at Sarnath, near Varanasi. When
the Buddha reached the Deer Park, his five former companions saw him from afar. Considering
the Buddha to be weak for abandoning his ascetic practices, four of the ascetics resolved among
themselves to have nothing to do with him, while the fifth, Kaundinya held his peace. But so
irresistible was theTathagata’s radiance that they could not refrain from rising to meet him.
Overwhelmed by his transformation, they requested him to teach the Dharma.
Kaundinya was the first to understand these teachings and the first to become Arhat. As the
Buddha continued to explained the four noble truths, the other four listeners also became Arhats.
The Five first Arhats also known as Pancabhadra Vargiya in Sanskrit were Kaundinya, Vaspa,
Mahanama, Vadriya and Asvajit. With this teaching to the first disciples, the Three Jewels –
The Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – came into being.
The Sangha that followed the Buddha’s teachings and example grew steadily from that
moment, attracting people from all walks of life; rich and poor, Brahmins, warriors, merchants,
townspeople, and villagers.
Yasa, a wealthy youth from Varanasi, crossed the river in the dark of night to become the
first upasaka or lay follower. Next was his father, who came searching for his son and found
peace within the Sangha. The wife and mother of Yasa met the Buddha, and both became lay
disciples. Then came Purna, Vimala, Gavampati and Subahu, all friends of Yasa who requested
full ordination into the Sangha. All became Arhats after listening to the Dharma. At that time,
according to the Pali source like Mahavagga, the Buddha had to pronounce only this phrase “Ahi
Bhikkhu” or “Bhiksus, come here” to ordain the people, then the latter came into the form of

Bhiksu, heads shaved, clad in tricivara, wearing radiance. Hearing of the Buddha, fifty more
young men from the leading families of Varanasi entered the order. They soon became Arhats,
bringing the number of Arhats to sixty.
According to most traditions, Sakyamuni Buddha passed the first rainy season after the
enlightenment in Sarnath with these sixty disciple. When the rains ceased the Buddha sent his
sixty disciples to transmit the Dharma with this instruction which according to Mahavagga,
Vinayapitaka runs thus:

r/y leSvj] rfl/s+ ax'hglxtfo ax'hg ;'vfo nf]sfg'sDkfo cTyfo lxtfo ;'vfo b]jdg':;fgf+ df
Ps]g å] culdTy . b];]y leSvj] wDd+ cflbsNof0f+ dIf]sNof0f+ kl/of];fgsNof0f+

Go, ye now, O Bhiksus! and wander for the gain of the many, for the welfare of the many (ax'hg
lxtfo, ax'hg ;'vfo), out of compassion, for the world for the good, for the gain and for the welfare
of gods and men. Let not two of you go the same way. O Bhiksus, proclaim that Dhamma which
is gracious at the beginning, at the middle and at the end.

Mahavagga I. II.I

From Varanasi, those Bhiksus traveled north to Ayodhya and Sravasti, the major cities of the
kindom of Kosala; west to Prayaga and Kausambi, and from there to Ujjayini; and east to
Rajgrha and Vaisali, the capitals of Magadha and the Vrji confederacy (ganarajya).
Then the Buddha traveled east to Uruvilva, where he had practiced austerities before his
enlightenment. At that time, Uruvilva Kasyapa, the most venerated ascetic in Magadha, was
staying nearby on the bank of the Nairanjana River, accopanied by his five hundred disciples.
Not far away were his two brothers, Gaya Kasyapa and Nadi Kasyapa, both also ascetics, each
with 250 followers. Knowing that Uruvilva Kasyapa was capable of understanding the Dharma,
the Buddha approached him. But Kasyapa, considering himself already fully enlightened, would
not request teachings from the Buddha. Only when the Buddha demonstrated his greater powers
did Kasyapa accept him as his master. Uruvilva Kasypa then requested ordination and entered
the Sangha together with his five hundred followers, who threw their old clothes into the river
and clothed themselves as Bhiksus. Shortly afterward, Uruvilva Kasyapa’s two brothers, seeing
the cast-away staffs and implements floating down the river, came with their disciples to see
what disaster might have befallen their brother. Upon meeting the Buddha, they also joined the
order together with their followers, bringing the number of disciples to one thousand.
Then they went to Magadha. On the summit of Gayasirsa (Mt. Gaya), a short distance north
of Bodh Gaya, the Buddha gave these one thousand disciples the teaching known as the
Gayasirsa sutra. Gazing at the firelight from the distant hearths of the city of Rajagrha, he also
gave the fire sermon (Pali: Aditti-pariyaya). In this Sutra, he explained how everything –
consciousness, senses and sensations – is on fire, aflame with the fire of greed, the fire of anger,
the fire of ignorance. In seeing how these fires consume life and happiness, beings can sever
attachments to that which perpetuates suffering and attain wisdom.
King Bimbisara came to know of buddha’s presence on Gaya Mountain and invited him to
Rajgrha where he offered Kalantaka Nivapa Bamboo Groove (Pali: Veluvana) named after

Kalantaka birds who had once saved the king’s life. The Buddha spent the second Varasavasa or
rainy season retreat at Rajgrha. The rainy season retreat soon became an annual custom; a time
of reflection and meditation, the Varsaka observance became a strong unifying force for the
Sangha. According to Mahavagga, the first sixty disciples then returned from their travels to join
this convocation. Within a few years, the Sangha had established a number of other viharas in the
vicinity of Rajagrha, including one located on the summit of Grdhrakuta.
During the Sangha’s first year at Rajgrha, the Buddha established the Arya Sangha, the
community of Arhats that exemplies the benefits of following the Buddha’s teachings. Among
those who joined the Sangha at this time were Sariputra and Maudgalyana, two of the Buddha’s
foremost disciples. Previously Sariputra and Maudgalyana were called Kolita and Upatissa.
Kolita was born in Nalanda and Upatissa was born in a neighboring village, both in the Brahmin
family. Both of them were good friends and disciples of Sanjaya studying with 250 fellow
students. At the time of death, Sanjaya who was a prominent teacher of the Ajivika (agnostic or
skeptic) tradition advised Kolita and Upatissa to become disciples of Sakyamuni Buddha. Soon
Kolita or Sariputra encountered the Bhiksu Asvajit. Impressed by Asvajit’s appearance, Sariputra
asked him about who his teacher was and what his teaching was. Asvajit replied with a single

o] wdf{ x]t' k|ejf x]t'it]iff+ tyfutf] Xjjbt t]iff+ rof] lg/f]wf] Pj+ jfbL dxf>d0f+
Meaning: All things come into being and pass away through causation; the
Tathagata has explained the causes and the way to end them.

These words were sufficient to convey the essence of the Buddha’s teaching to Sariputra who
brought this teaching to his friend Maudgalyana who had immediate insight into its meaning.
Accompanied by Sanjaya’s 250 disciples, Sariputra and Maudgalyana went at once to the
Bamboo Grove where the Buddha was teaching and became part of the Arya Sangha and soon
became Arhats. Sariputra became known as the disciple unsurpassed in wisdom and
Maudgalyana as the disciple unsurpassed in psychic attainments. The Sangha then numbered
1250 bhiksus: the thousand disciples of the Kasyapa brothers and the 250 disciples of Sariputra
and Maudgalyana. When the Sutras name those assembled to hear the teaching, the mention of
1250 bhiksus refers to this core group of the Arya Sangha.
Then Mahakasyapa, then known as Pippalayana, named after his birth under the Pipal tree
near Rajagriha was very much inclined to asceticism. He was married to Bhadra Kapilani who
was similarly inclined to asceticism. Despite being married, they decided to live as brother and
sister; eventually they agreed to renounce worldly life completely and began the search for a
teacher. Mahakasyapa left home the day of Buddha’s enlightenment. When he heard that the
Buddha was residing at Bamboo Grove, he immediately went there and became the Buddha’s
disciple. Soon his wife also renounced and become the Buddha’s disciple. Mahakasypa became
Arhat in eight days.
As for the time of the Buddha’s return to his homeland in Kapilavastu, there are two major
views, according to the Theravadin tradition (related in the Jataka-nidana and other sources), the
Buddha went to Kapilavastu from Rajagrha in the first year after his enlightenment, after he had

been away from his homeland for six years. But Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya, narrates that the
Buddha first returned to Kapilavastu some six years after the Buddha’s enlightenment, after
teaching in Sravasti and converting Prasenjit, King of Kosala, to the Dharma. Shortly after his
conversion, Prasenajit sent word to Suddhodana, the Buddha’s father about the Buddha’s
presence in Sravasti. King Suddhodana invited the Buddha to Kapilavastu and offered him
Nyagrodha Vihara, or Banyan Grove, the site identified now as Kudan, some kilometers away
from Kapilavastu. To mitigate the pride of Sakyas, the Buddha first ordained the royal barber
Upali. Then his cousins Aniruddha, Bhadrika and Raivata also joined the Sangha. The Buddha
ordained Devadutta also fearful that he would become a king. But Devadutta’s motives were
extremely harmful even as a Bhiksu. In the Nyogrodha grove, Rahula, the Buddha’s son also got
ordained. Ananda, son of the Buddha’s uncle also joined the order and became the personal
assistant of the Buddha. The Buddha also converted his cousin Nanda who was very attached to
his wife. (Nandagarbhavakranti nirdesa sutra).

Formation of Bhiksuni Sangha

After enlightenment, the Buddha taught and tamed a number of women, like Ksema, the queen
of Rajgriha and Bimbisara’s wife, Mallika and so on but not in the fashion of creating a female
sangha then. So the Bhiksuni Sangha had not been formed then.
When the Buddha first returned to Kapilavastu, Suddhodana wouldn’t permit the Sakya
women to visit the Buddha in the Nyogrodha grove where he was staying then and listen to the
Dharma. But Queen Mahaprajapati greatly wished to hear the teachings and invited one of the
Buddha’s new disciples, her kinsman Mahanama to teach her and her attendents about the
Dharma. After hearing the teachings, the Queen did not rest until she received permission to
attend the Buddha in person. At once she and five hundred Sakya women went to hear the
Buddha. It was then that Mahaprajapati, inspired by the wish to become a bhiksuni, implored the
Buddha three times to accept women into the order. The Buddha advised her to seek perfection
as a laywomen: “Be pure, chaste, and live virtuously and you will find a lasting reward,
blessings, and happiness.”
While the king lived, Mahaprajapati patiently observed this advice. But after her husband’s
death, she again sought to enter the order as a fully ordained Bhiksuni. When the Buddha left
Kapilavastu, she and Yashodhara (Buddha’s wife when he was leading a princely life as
Siddhartha), together with five hundred other women, shaved their heads, dressed themselves as
mendicant monks, and travelled after the Tathagata and his disciples.
Exhausted and covered with dust, they met the Buddha again in Natika, in the land of Vrjis
on the road to Rajagrha. After hearing the Buddha teach the Dharma, Mahaprajapati again asked
to enter the order and went away weeping when her request was refused. Seeing the women’s
fervor, Ananda sought to persuade the Buddha to change his mind. Three times he made this
request, each time with greater urgency.
At length the Buddha agreed to admit women into the order, if they would agree to eight
special conditions (ci6 u'¿ wd{) which were as follows:

1. A Bhiksuni, though she has been ordained for a hundred years, has to bow down to a
newly entered Sramanera when she meets him.
2. To study for two years prior to upasampada ordination.
3. Admonition of another’s offenses (vacanapath)
4. Not to receive donations before bhiksus (bhatagra)
5. The Half month long manatva
6. Reporting the Uposadha (Observance Day) and seeking instruction every half-month.
7. A Bhiksuni should not pass the rainy season by living along without relying upon a
8. When the rainy season is over, the Bhiksunis should observe the ceremony of repentance
of their offences (pravarana) in the two Orders: Bhiksu and Bhiksuni Order.

These Dharmas were meant to protect women from harm and gossip in a society where
women were considered little more than chattel. These conditions required Bhiksunis to
adhere to conduct that the society of the day would recognize as virtuous. In outward
appearance they would defer to the privileged position of men, while working toward
liberation on an equal basis: The Vinaya and other sources relate many instances of women
gaining the higest enlightenment. What appears to have been unique for the times was the formal
establishment of full ordination for women and provisions for a female religious order within the
community of wandering monks.
But today, this has become a hot issue for the Feminists who claim that eight special
conditions are not something laid down for women by the Buddha himself, but the proud and
domineering male dominant society of the day. Seen from outward, this may sound correct but as
has been clear already, during Buddha’s time and even now in some cases, women were down
trodden and always seen as somebody inferior to men by the caste conscious brahman society.
The Buddha’s compassion encompassed both male and female sentient beings. The Buddha
made no gender distinctions when discussing the goal of human perfection. In fact, he
specifically stated that women are fully capable of attaining nirvana. Liberated women and men
were plentiful in his day. It was Buddha’s skillful means (pkfosf}zNo) to plug the mouth of the
then society that the Buddha at first seemingly was reluctant to admit women into Sangha and
when admitted, enforced Eight Guru Dharmas. So that women also now freely could join the
Sangha without the Society’s objection and practiced Dharma and attained liberation like monks.
Had it not been for that, the Brahmin society would have allowed no women to enter the Sangha.
This was the peaceful skilful means. But in Mahayana and Vajrayana case the things are totally
As the Sangha expanded, the Buddha instructed his disciples on how to receive novices into
the order and how to ordain those who were prepared to become full bhiksus. Although the
Buddha was the guide for the Sangha, the Sangha had no equivalent of a ‘head monk’. The
Buddha therefore established procedures for electing two senior bhiksus and five kinds of
teachers to carry out the preparations and ritual of ordination.
Members of the Sangha of bhiksus shaved their heads, a traditional mark of renunciation, and
retained nothing in their appearance that tended to establish caste or encourage pride. For this
reason bhiksus did not wear the sacred cord that denoted social standing in brahmanic society.

The senior disciples became the model for the Sangha, and the Buddha’s teaching established a
clear foundation for how to live the religious life and attain the fruit of the Arhat’s path.
Recognizing that not everyone drawn to the Dharma would have the circumstances, motivation,
and stamina to live the mendicant’s life, the Buddha gave guidelines for evaluating an
applicant’s readiness to enter the order and expalined what procedures to follow for ordination.
These guidelines became more detailed over time to address specific situations that arose.
Guidelines for ordination and the code of conduct that governed the Sangha’s way of life
form the substance of the Buddha’s Vinaya teachings, given to develop Sila, or moral discipline.
Sila is the special quality of the Bhiksu.
As already, the early Sangha is taken to mean only Arya Sangha consisting of four levels of
people. But the Buddha established the Sangha with two major components and eight levels of
participation. The first component was the monastic Sangha, which included those who received
some degree of ordination. The second component was the Lay Sangha. Of the eight levels, six
comes within the monastic communities and two within the communities of laymen: The
eightfold Sangha is as follows:

1.1 Monk -leIf'_

1.2 Nun -leIf'0fL_
1.3. Novice ->fd0f]/_
1.4 Female Novice ->fd0f]l/sf_
1.5 Underaged trainee -lzIfdf0f_
1.6 Fasting person -pkjf;:y_
2.1 Laymen -pkf;s_
2.2 Laywomen -pkfl;sf_

The precepts or rules to be followed by monks and nuns differ in numbers in various vinaya
schools which are given in the table below:5

Vinaya School Bhiksuni Precepts Bhiksu Precepts

Pali (Theravada) 311 227
Dharmagupta 348 250
Mahasanghika 290 218
Mahisasaka 380 251
Sarvastivada (Chinese) 355 257
Sarvastivada (Sanskrit) unknown 263
Mulasarvastivada (Chinese) 354 245
Mulasarvastivada (Tibetan) 371 262

The Vinaya specifies that one of three motivations must be present to insure applicant's
success in living a renunciate’s life:

Karma Lekshe Tsomo (ed.), Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha, (New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1988), p.

1. Disillusionment with Samsara (j}/fu)
2. A Desire for realization (1fgfsf+Iff)
3. A recognition of suffering (b'Mv ;+j]u), the most important

In accord with Pratimoksa, they wear the robes of a bhiksu and bhiksunis, lives a celibate
life, give up all but the most essential possessions, such as begging bowl, razor and staff.
The rules followed by Bhiksus and Bhiksunis in their daily life were established by the
Buddha on the basis of his interactions with numbes of the earliest Sangha.
Whenever patterns of behaviour emerged which disrupted the life of the Sangha or interfered
with practice, the Buddha publicly examined the origin of the problem and pointed out the
underlying attitudes it reflected. Only when the Sangha had understood the need for regulation
was an appropriate rules set.
In the early days of the Sangha, when the Sravakayana was the most widely-known form of
the teachings, spiritual practice was fully engaged in primarily by those who became bhiksus and
bhiksunis. The householder’s life was considered vulnerable to the confusions and attachments
of samsara while the life of the bhiksu offered freedom to devote oneself completely to study and
practice of the teachings.
Lay Sangha members who had taken refuge in the Three Jewels were encouraged to direct
their efforts toward virtuous acts and toward accumulation of merit through support of the
Sangha. The Vinaya also specified five precepts appropriate to the life of the householder.
Members of the lay community were taught to cultivate the virtues of giving and moral conduct,
benevolence and patience, respect for all life and personal responsibility. Modelling their
conduct on that of bhiksus and bhiksunis, the lay Sangha could strengthen their practice of sila
awaiting a time when they could renounce the commitments of their daily lives to follow the
teachings more intensively.
Many laymen throught Buddhist history have been influential in supporting the spread of the
Dharma. In the Buddha’s lifetime and for several generations thereafter, the laity had many
opportunities to hear the teachings which were usually spoken in vast assemblies. When the
monastic communities began to establish permanent settlements, they continued to rely on the
lay Sangha’s support, but also tended to dismiss the significance of lay practice. Later, as
Mahayana teachings become more widely known, life in the lay community was once more
accepted as offerint the potential for realization, although it posed greater difficulties to be


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