Female Buddhas: A Revolution for Nuns in the Plum Village Tradition

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In 2005, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Khong, and a large delegation of monastics and lay practitioners traveled to Vietnam for the first time after Thầy's thirty-nine years in exile. During the Lunar New Year celebration, Thầy stood up in the first row with many venerable monks, while the nuns sat still with joined palms. One monk read aloud a text recognizing the presence of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, in every nun, and declaring the vow to practice their precepts properly to protect themselves and the nuns.

To the great surprise of Venerable monks at Thầy’s side, Thầy then prostrated three times in front of the nuns. It would never have occurred to these monks to show such a sign of reverence to nuns, but they followed Thầy’s example. Although this was standard practice in Plum Village monasteries, prostrating before nuns was an incredibly powerful, humbling and transformational moment for the monastic tradition in Vietnam.

Thầy, Sister Chan Khong and many other Plum Village monastics have made many revolutionary changes and cultural shifts for nuns in Plum Village, creating for them equal status, voice and influence to that of monks. Some of these major changes include:

  • While in many Buddhist communities nuns cannot be fully ordained, Plum Village nuns are ordained to the same level as their monastic brothers.

  • All responsibilities are shared by Plum Village monks and nuns, both within and outside the monasteries. Monks and nuns are equally responsible for teaching, planning, cooking, cleaning, finances, etc.

  • In monastery decision-making, nuns’ and monks’ views are equally valued through a democratic Sanghakarman procedure.

  • Traditionally, the oldest nun is positioned behind the youngest monk in sitting and walking meditation, in ceremonies and in processions. At Plum Village monasteries, nuns and monks sit, walk and touch the earth (prostrate) side by side.

  • Traditionally, only monks gave Dharma talks, and very rarely addressed nuns or women. At Plum Village monasteries, nuns and monks alternate giving Dharma talks, and all talks are addressed to the whole community. When monastics do not yet have enough experience to teach alone, they teach in groups with equal numbers of nuns and monks. 

  • The first three disciples ordained by Thầy were nuns: Sister Chân Không, Sister Chân Đức and Sister Chân Vị. Today, more than half of all Plum Village monastic practitioners are women.

  • Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings are inclusive. His teachings and practices for monastics are intended equally for monks and nuns, just as his Dharma talks, books and practices offered to lay people are for everyone. Thầy is always careful to interchangeably use “he” “she” and the neutral “the person,” and “they.”

  • While most traditions do not have monks and nuns practice together, Thầy has set up Plum Village monasteries such that monks and nuns regularly practice, learn, work and play together. This arrangement encourages monastics to see one another as Brothers and Sisters of one same family, reduces fantasy and wrong perceptions that may be created through distance, and helps monastics deal with sexual energy directly rather than avoiding or suppressing it.

  • In the practice of Touching the Earth, through which we pay respects to ancestors and elders, Thầy has incorporated several venerable female figures: Mahagotami, the first ordained bhikshuni, Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, and Mother Earth.

  • Thầy’s teachings, ceremonies and calligraphy center around Mother Earth, recognizing her as a bodhisattva and emphasizing the Buddha nature and teacher are contained within her.

  • Thầy has created 8 “Gurudharmas” for monks, a parallel to a set of guidelines created by the Buddha on how nuns should interact with monks. The 8 Gurudharmas for monks can be accessed through the Mindfulness Bell here (page 19).

  • For the first time since the time of the Buddha, Thầy helped to revise the Pratimoksha, the monastic codes of conduct for fully ordained monks and nuns.

  • Traditionally, nuns and lay friends are not allowed to read the Bhikshu precepts of the fully ordained monks. In Plum Village monasteries, Thầy has made the Bhikshu and Bhikshuni precepts available to the public.

  • According to the Pratimoksha (monastic precepts), a monk may disrobe seven times. If a fully ordained nun disrobes, she can only return as a novice and cannot again receive full ordination. In the Plum Village tradition, Thầy has allowed nuns to re-ordain as Bhikshunis.

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Overall, Thầy and Sr. Chan Khong have emphasized that members of the Fourfold Sangha be valued and respected because of our practice, not because of our gender. This revolutionary position has attracted many women to ordain in the community. Plum Village practices and ways of life have empowered young Sisters in their practice and have shifted how they view themselves. These practices will influence the way future disciples are trained, offering more space, trust and voice to women.

Thank you, dear Thầy and dear community, for your continued efforts to support our monastic sisters. A deep bow of gratitude to Sister Dang Nghiem and Sister Hien Nghiem for their contributions to this list.