A Response to Ajahn Thanissaro’s Letter on the Simultaneous Ordination of 2 or 3 Bhikkhunis

By Ajahn Brahmali, The Buddhist Channel, Nov 30, 2009

In his public letter of 13th November 2009, Ajahn Thanissaro makes the case that ordaining 2 or 3 bhikkhunis simultaneously is invalid and, consequently, so was the recent ordination in Perth. I am not persuaded by Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument, and the rest of this letter is an attempt to substantiate why.

First of all, I agree with Ajahn Thanissaro (see part 12 of his letter) that sa?ghakamma should be done without invalidating defects and that it is not satisfactory to deviate from clearly established principles of Vinaya on grounds of compassion. It follows that if the ordination performed in Perth can be shown to be invalid in such a way, I would certainly accept that. (Ajahn Brahm has specifically told me that this is his position too.) From the point of view of the newly ordained bhikkhunis, they would clearly be in an untenable position if they had serious doubts about the validity of their ordination. Further, since it seems that a large number, perhaps most, existing Theravada bhikkhunis have been ordained by the same procedure as the one used in Perth, the issues brought up by Ajahn Thanissaro are clearly of great importance.

Given the above, I have read through Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument carefully. My conclusion is that, as his argument stands, he has not shown that a bhikkhuni ordination in which 2 or 3 candidates are ordained simultaneously is invalid. I will now examine Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument, starting with his point 11 where he argues directly from the Canonical Vinaya. I will go through his reasoning step by step.

At sub-point 11a Ajahn Thanissaro says that “This rule (bhikkhuni pacittiya 83) is in force regardless of the number of residences available for bhikkhunis”. This is the only step in his deductive sequence in point 11 that I agree with without reservations.

Ajahn Thanissaro continues in point 11b by stating that “There are no examples of transaction statements authorized in the Canon where the sheer form of the statement would intrinsically entail breaking a rule”. Actually, on careful consideration, there are several such examples. According to Mv I 70.1-3 a bhikkhu incurs a dukkata for ordaining someone without a bowl and/or robes. The ordination itself, however, seems to be valid, since this section (i.e. Mv I 70) stands in direct contrast to the closely preceding ones at (Mv I 61-68) where the ordination is not valid. The commentary supports this interpretation by stating outright that the ordination is valid. Now, regardless of whether the ordinand has or doesn’t have a complete set of bowl and/or robes, the sa?ghakamma statement of the ordination invariably states that he/she does (Mv I 76.10). In the case where the candidate does not have a complete set, everyone who partakes in the ordination would know that this is the case (in an earlier part of the ordination procedure (Mv I 76.3) the bowl and robes are pointed out to the candidate), and thus the ordination statement would amount to a conscious lie. Thus, although it is clear that this ordination is valid, the sa?ghakamma statement involves a deliberate lie, which of course is a pacittiya offence under pacittiya 1. Since it is known beforehand that the candidate for ordination does not have a bowl and/or robes, this is a case where “the sheer form of the statement would intrinsically entail the breaking of a rule” and, contrary to Ajahn Thanissaro, it would still be valid. In other words, because Mv I 70 implicitly allows for the ordination of someone without a bowl and/or robes, it also establishes a situation where the procedure intrinsically entails the breaking of a rule.

And this is not the only such case. As I have already mentioned, the same passage at Mv I 70 also states that the bhikkhus involved in ordaining someone without a bowl and/or robes incur a dukkata offence. Again, the monks involved would be performing a sa?ghakamma that intrinsically entails breaking a rule but which nevertheless would be valid. Another example is the declaration in the ordination statement, whether this in fact is true or not, that the candidate is “free from obstructing things”. Although the ordinand may not be free from these obstructions, and the ordination statement therefore would involve an intentional lie, the ordination is still valid in most instances.

Ajahn Thanissaro then states, in point 11c, that “Thus the allowance at Mv I 74.3 – allowing a single proclamation to mention two or three candidates for bhikkhu ordination – cannot be extended to bhikkhunis, for such a statement would intrinsically be ‘apart from the Vinaya … apart from the Teacher’s instruction’.” But I have just shown that, given certain types of knowledge about the candidate to be ordained, the form of any ordination statement does intrinsically entail the breaking of a rule, and yet the ordination is valid. Thus it does not follow that such an ordination statement is “apart from the Vinaya”, in the sense this phrase is used at Mv IX 3.2.

Further, Ajahn Thanissaro’s logic in point 11c hinges on his interpretation of the phrases “apart from the Vinaya” and “apart from the Teacher’s instruction”. He seems to understand these phrases to have a very broad range, where any infringement of the Vinaya potentially would make a sa?ghakamma invalid. But as I have already pointed out, it is possible to deviate considerably from the Vinaya, including the breaking of Patimokkha rules, and for a sa?ghakamma still to be valid. I would suggest, therefore, that a more congruent understanding of Vinaya here is that it refers to the rules pertaining to the valid performance of sa?ghakamma. Alternatively, it might not be unreasonable to follow the commentarial interpretation, which states that “but here Vinaya means admonishment and making remember (i.e. admission).” Admonishment and admission are preliminary acts in certain types of sa?ghakamma, in particular those involving the punishment of someone for especially bad behaviour, but they are not relevant for ordinations. As for the phrase “apart from the Teacher’s instruction”, the commentary explains this as a sa?ghakamma where the motion and announcement(s) are not properly performed. Thus, “apart from the Vinaya” only has a narrow scope in the context of Mv IX 3.2, and there are really no grounds for taking it to include cases where one commits an offence as part of the ordination statement.

In point 11d Ajahn Thanissaro says that “As Mv X 3.2 (sic) states, any transaction using this sort of statement would be ‘not a transaction.’” Presumably, “this sort of statement” refers back to the ordination statement. If that is indeed the case, then Ajahn Thanissaro is misquoting Mv IX 3.2, for this passage contains no direct link between any type of ordination statement and the phrase “not a transaction”. What it does contain is a link between “apart from the Vinaya” and “not a transaction”. But, as I have argued above, “apart from the Vinaya” only has a very narrow sense in the context of Mv IX 3.2.

At point 11e Ajahn Thanissaro argues that “there are no exemptions for the ruling at Mv X 3.2 (sic)”. Perhaps this is true. But in light of my argument above it is irrelevant, because no direct causal relationship can be found between the simultaneous ordination of 2 or 3 bhikkhunis and the ruling that a sa?ghakamma is “not a transaction”. It follows that Ajahn Thanissaro’s conclusion, at point 11f, that “the candidates would not count as bhikkhunis” does not hold.

There is another reason why Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument is weak. The Vinaya is quite clear about the grounds on which any sa?ghakamma is invalid, and these do not include the situation where the “form of the statement would intrinsically entail the breaking of a rule”. The sort of factors that are required to make an ordination valid include the following:
• The candidate to be ordained is present;
• The candidate is 20 years old or more;
• The candidate is not one of several types of ‘unqualified’ persons, or an animal;
• The quorum for performing the ordination is complete;
• The Sangha is united (samagga); that is, all the monks within the sima are present at the ordination, or they have given their consent;
• The ordination statement contains exactly one motion (ñatti) and three announcements (kammavaca), in that order;
• Nobody present speaks out against the ordination;
• The procedure performed is an ordination, not some other sa?ghakamma.
It is only if such requirements – that is, requirements that are specifically mentioned in the Vinaya – are not met that the ordination fails, and only in these cases is the ordination “not a transaction and should not be carried out”. Any supposed ground for failure that falls outside of what is specified in the Vinaya is a matter of personal opinion, and cannot be a universally accepted standard. Since, in my view, Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument is a matter of personal opinion it cannot, and will not, be accepted as universally valid.

In general, according to the Vinaya the following circumstances need to be satisfied for any sa?ghakamma to be valid:
“And how, monks, is a (sangha-)kamma united and in accordance with the Dhamma? … If, monks, concerning a (sangha-)kamma with one motion and three announcements, the motion is established first (and) then the (sangha-)kamma is performed with three announcements; the bhikkhus who should be present are present; consent has been received from those who should give consent; those who are present do not speak against the act – then the (sangha-)kamma is united and in accordance with the Dhamma.” (Mv IX 3.9)
Again, there is nothing here about the validity of sa?ghakamma depending on its being performed without breaking other Vinaya rules, or indeed that it depends on “the sheer form of the statement” not intrinsically entailing the breaking of a rule (see Ajahn Thanissaro’s point 11b).

At this point I would like to return to Ajahn Thanissaro’s point 5 where he declares that “This sort of transaction statement, because it intrinsically entails the breaking of a rule, would thus be totally unauthorized.” The words “totally unauthorized” are unclear and emotionally loaded. It is certainly true that nowhere in the Canonical Vinaya is such an ordination statement explicitly “authorized”, and if this is all Ajahn Thanissaro is saying then I would have to agree with him. But when he goes on to state that this means that the ordination is “apart from the Vinaya … apart from the Teacher’s instruction” and “not a transaction and should not be carried out” he goes too far. As I have already shown, it is quite possible to break a pacittiya rule while performing an ordination and for the ordination to be fully valid.

I have already responded to Ajahn Thanissaro’s point 6 (in my response to his point 11) but to recapitulate: in Mv I 70 there are good reasons to believe that the ordination is valid even though the ordinand does not possess a bowl and/or robes. The ordination ceremony in this case intrinsically entails the breaking of a rule, that is, pacittiya 1. If this argument and the ones above are accepted, then Ajahn Thanissaro’s further discussion in points 7-10 becomes irrelevant since it hinges on what had been established in his points 5 and 6. In particular, it may well be true that not mentioning the upajjhaya in the ordination procedure makes the ordination invalid, but this is beside the point. The lack of an upajjhaya can arguably be considered a breach of the conditions given in the Parivara, but no such breach exists in the case of ordaining 2 or 3 bhikkhunis at the same time. In contrast to the case where there is no upajjhaya, for which Ajahn Thanissaro’s argument may hold, an ordination of 2 or 3 bhikkhunis at the same time does not breach any of the stipulations made in the Canonical Vinaya for a valid sa?ghakamma . His points 8-10, then, do not add anything to what he has already stated in points 5 and 6.
A final and important point is that bhikkhu pacittiya 65, which concerns the invalid ordination of someone less than 20 years old, specifically states in the rule itself that the ordination is invalid. No such statement is found in bhikkhuni pacittiyas 82 or 83, and thus it is reasonable to assume that the breaching of these rules cannot in itself invalidate the ordination. Even the commentary (Sp IV 945,4-10) does not say anything about the ordination having failed.

To summarize, it is clearly undesirable to perform an ordination while committing an offence, and one should obviously avoid this if at all possible, but it does not void the procedure. I can only conclude that Ajahn Thanissaro has failed to establish what he claims to have established, that is, that “a bhikkhuni ordination in which the transaction statements mentioned more than one candidate per statement would not be considered valid, and the candidate would not count as accepted” (Ajahn Thanissaro’s point 10).


1. One can perhaps interpret the Vinaya in a compassionate way, but not altogether ignore its statutes. Ajahn Thanissaro doesn’t actually use the word compassion, but employs the term “heartlessly legalistic”.

2. Of course, it is the bhikkhunis themselves who have to decide whether they have serious doubts and their position is untenable.

3. Kamma? pana na kuppati, “but the (sangha-)kamma does not fail”, (Sp V 1025,23).

4. It is clear that not having a bowl and/or robes quite literally means not being the owner or in possession, even temporarily, of such requisites. This is so because the relevant section states that the newly ordained monk would collect alms with his hands and/or walk naked on pi??apata (Mv I 70.1-3). Moreover, the next section (Mv I 70.4-6) concerns a monk who borrows a bowl and/or robes (for the duration of the ordination procedure, says the commentary, Sp V 1025,24) but then collects alms with his hands and/or naked. It follows that in Mv I 70.1-3 the person to be ordained must have been completely without a bowl and/or robes.

5. In actual practice it may well be that the final ordination statement (Mv I 76) came into being after the rules about ordaining someone without a bowl and/or robes. This would explain the apparent contradiction. However, this sort of argument is difficult to sustain, and we are therefore compelled to use the text as we have it, disregarding any possible historical evolution.

6. Or perhaps only the upajjhaya; the Pali just says “whoever should ordain, there is an offence of dukkata”, yo upasampadeyya apatti dukkatassa.

7. Parisuddho antarayikehi dhammehi, (Mv I 76.10-11).

8. For example, if the candidate has not received his parents’ permission (Mv I 54.6), if he has one or more of five types of illness (Mv I 39.7), if he is employed by the king (Mv I 40.4), if he is a criminal (Mv I 41-45), if he has debts (Mv I 46.1), if he is a slave (Mv I 47). In all these instances the ordination is valid. But since the ordination statement always declares that the candidate is free from obstructions, it follows that the sanghakamma reciters would be uttering a deliberate lie.

9. Ajahn Thanissaro refers to Mv X 3.2 throughout his letter, when in fact it should be Mv IX 3.2.

10. Notice that the phrases we are concerned with are both found in a chapter (Mv IX) that deals exclusively with the question of the validity of sa?ghakamma.

11. Ettha pana vinayoti codana sara?a ca. (Sp V 1146,11)

12. Satthusasananti ñattisampada anussavanasampada. (Sp V 1146,12)

13. Or any other sa?ghakamma statement for that matter.

14. This is so for the ordination of bhikkhus. For the ordination of bhikkhunis the situation is more complex, but in effect there seems to be two distinct minimum ages, 12 and 20.

15. The elided text concerns sanghakamma with one motion and one announcement, and this is not relevant for an ordination. In any case, the rules are virtually identical.

16. Whether in fact the absence of an upajjhaya makes the ordination invalid is not entirely clear. It may be that the commentary here is going beyond what can be inferred from the Canonical Vinaya. In any case, this argument does not relate directly to the point I am trying to make. (For the record, Ajahn Thanissaro’s translation of paccha va ñatti? ?hapeti as “or if it later sets aside the motion” is incorrect. The phrase actually means “or he establishes (i.e. speaks) the motion afterwards (i.e. after the announcement or kammavaca).”
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