Monday, December 15, 2008

Female Monks

I received a long and appreciative letter the other day and it happened to refer to the former Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, now ordained as Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, as 'a female monk'. Now I don’t think I am particularly fussy about words or word usage but this term and its ugly sister 'female priest' annoys and baffles me. I can well understand why Christians use the term female priest; the proper usage 'priestess' sounds just a little too pagan. But why do we Buddhists refer to nuns as 'female monks' when the correct, universally understood, still not dated, without negative connotations and seven-letters-shorter word 'nun' is available? We readily refer to someone being an actresses, a princess, a seamstresses or an heiress, so what's wrong with calling someone a priestess, or if they are a woman ordained in the Buddhist tradition, a nun?
I suspect that that insidious American disease political correctness is at work here and indeed it is mainly in American Buddhist publications that I see these terms. But if it is political correctness then it is a poorly considered expression of it. 'Female monk' clearly still tips the balance towards the masculine gender; you are merely a female version of the male. If you genuinely wanted to redress the gender prejudice and add a bit of affirmative action language as well, you should actually start calling priests male priestesses and monks male nuns.
The picture shows a female bull. I wanted to add some pictures of a male hen, a female ram and an anatomically complete eunuch but I thought I had already made my point.


Konchog said...

Keep digging at Americans if you like, but in every American center I've been to with female ordained, they're called nuns. We also use the affectionate Tibetan term "Ani," though I've heard that some nuns consider this a bit pejorative.

Not sure your choice of graphic for this topic is going to win you any popularity contests either...

Ken and Visakha said...

All these expressions have baggage primarily of a Christian sort.
If we want to avoid those connotations (of either obedience in the case of a monk, or a performer of ceremonies, in priest) why not use bhikkhu and bhikkhuni for those who have had higher ordination, or samanera, samaneri for novices?

ene.due said...


I think that the idea that stands behind expression "female monk" is that "a monk" is one who has received full ordination. As you know, there are Buddhists nuns in Thervada Buddhism, but they generally are 10 precepts nuns. So to distinguish one from the other people started to call bhikkhunis by "female monks".

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Konchog,
I was delighted to receive your earlier comment, the first I have ever got from Mongolia. I was also interested to see that like me you have an interest in birds.
In my post my jibe was at political correctness, not at Americans, and the whole was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I'm sorry you didn’t read it that way. Could it be those cold Mongolian winds?

Konchog said...

Venerable -- my comment actually came off as snippier than I intended, sorry. I recently highlighted your blog on my own as one I recently found that I think is truly excellent.

And yes, the winds up here are a bit chilly; it's -21C at the moment!

OK, rock on.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Konchog,
So it was the wind. Good. I'm back to feeling happy again. I would be most interested to know what you are doing in Mongolia and what the state of Buddhism is like there. I will leave my address on your blog.

Barry said...

In the Korean Zen tradition, both monks and nuns are addressed in an identical way: sunim. This term is appended to the person's dharma name (Dae Kwang Sunim, Myo Jin Sunim, etc.) as an indication that they have ordained.

Not all traditions find it necessary to distinguish between genders when it comes to the dharma. Indeed, we might ask ourselves if the dharma is gendered?

Justin Choo directed me to your wonderful blog and I've put up links to it from Ox Herding ( and my other blogs. Thanks for your efforts in reaching out to others!


Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Barry,
'Sunim' is good but it would not be immediately meaningful to non-Koreans. Even my spell-check doesn't respond to it. Dhamma is not, as you correctly say, gendered, but people are. So again I ask, 'What's wrong with 'nun'?
I read your blog and enjoyed some of your posts. Your 'Truth' post of Nov 20 made me smile, especially the first one.