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Sisters in Solitude: Two Traditions of Buddhist Monastic Ethics for Women.  By Karma Lekshe Tsomo.  Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1996.  Pp.  xii + 198.  ISBN 0-7914-3089-8 (Cloth). $59.50; 0-7914-3090-1 (Paper),  $19.95.

Reviewed by
Charles S.  Prebish
Religious Studies Program
Pennsylvania State University


This volume, published in the "Feminist Philosophy" series of the State University of New York Press, presents translations of the Bhik.su.nii Praatimok.sa Suutras of the Dharmaguptaka and Muulasarvaastivaadin schools of Buddhism, along with a comparative analysis of their contents.

The author, christened Patricia Jean Zenn, became interested in Buddhism as a young child, eventually earning a Bachelor's degree in Oriental Languages from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Master's Degree in Asian Studies at the University of Hawai'i (in 1971).  In 1977 she took the vows of a novice nun ("sraama.nerikaa) in the Tibetan tradition in southern France, and in 1982 completed her full ordination by taking the bhik.su.nii precepts at Beomeo Temple near Pusan, Korea. The details of her life are presented as a short spiritual autobiography in the Preface to Sisters in Solitude.  For many years she studied at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala.  Throughout her career she has been interested in the role of women in modern Buddhism.  She was a founding member of Sakyadhita ("Daughters of the Buddha"), an international alliance of women devoted to Buddhist practice, and has been instrumental in facilitating conferences in Thailand (1991), Sri Lanka (1993), Ladakh (1995), Cambodia (1997), and California (1998).  Previously, she edited Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha (Snow Lion) and Buddhism Through American Women's Eyes (Snow Lion).  Her motivation in publishing Sisters in Solitude falls clearly in line with the sentiment expressed in a passage near the end of her Preface:

Since receiving the bhik.su.nii precepts myself, I have been involved in a burgeoning international Buddhist women's movement and have worked to gain acceptance for the bhik.su.nii ordination in countries and traditions where it does not now exist.  Despite serious educational and economic disadvantages, Buddhist women in Asia, both lay and ordained, are becoming increasingly aware of their spiritual and social worth.  In this fertile climate of awakening feminist consciousness, fostered through continual networking, publications, discussions, and conferences, the potential exists for reinstituting an order of fully ordained nuns in all Buddhist countries.  The restitution of the Bhik.su.nii Sa"ngha would stand as a symbol of women's spiritual power and equality and serve as a bridge linking women in Buddhist cultures with women's movements in other countries (p. xi).

To be sure, the above statement suggests that Karma Lekshe Tsomo's volume will be very different in style and content from the vast majority of research on nuns' Vinaya that has preceded her work.  It is of course widely acknowledged that I. B.  Horner's landmark work in translating the Paali texts of both the monks' and nuns' Vinaya tradition (published in six volumes between 1938 and 1966), as well as her important early book Women Under Primitive Buddhism (1930), are pioneering efforts at recognizing the importance of the role of women in Buddhism.  Nonetheless, Horner's translations and interpretations are certainly more fully characterized by her impressive philological skills than her feminism.  Additionally, until quite recently nearly all the subsequent research on nuns' Vinaya reflected philology more than feminism.  As such, Akira Hirakawa's Monastic Discipline for the Buddhist Nuns (1982), which translates the Chinese version of the nuns' Vinaya of the Mahaasaa.mghika school, Gustav Roth's Bhik.su.nii-Vinaya: Manual of Discipline for Buddhist Nuns (1970), an edition of the Sanskrit version of the nuns' Vinaya of the Mahaasaa.mghika-Lokottaravaadin school, and Chatsumarn Kabilsingh's A Comparative Study of the Bhikkhunii Paa.timokkha (1984), are all known to her, but rarely utilized due to their almost exclusively philological, historical, and text-critical content.  There is no indication she is aware of Édith Nolot's important Règles de Disciplinedes Nonnes Bouddhistes: Le Bhik.su.niivinaya de l'École Mahaasaa.mghika-Lokottaravaadin (1991) or my own A Survey of Vinaya Literature (1994), each of which might have informed her study.

The book is organized into five chapters.  The first chapter contextualizes the place of the nuns' Praatimok.sa in the development of Buddhist history and literature.  It progresses from a consideration of Vinaya as the foundation of Buddhist monastic life to a short presentation of the role and function of Buddhist monastic life.  She then briefly reviews some of the major studies of Buddhist monastic life, moves ahead to an explanation of the structure and function of the Praatimok.sa,and concludes the chapter with a summary of the historical background of the Bhik.su.ni Praatimok.sa Suutra.  Although Tsomo seems to understand the profound difference in meaning and function between the terms Vinaya and "siila, this distinction is seriously underdeveloped. Moreover, she sides with Jotiya Dhirasekera, author of Buddhist Monastic Discipline (1982), in presuming that once the Praatimok.sa became ritualized as part of the Po.sadha ceremony, "its disciplinary function was severely weakened" (p. 15).  My own work suggests that this conclusion is wrong.  As I wrote in "Vinaya and Praatimok.sa: The Foundation of Buddhist Ethics" (published in A.K.  Narain [ed.], Studies in the History of Buddhism [Delhi: B.R.  Publishing Corporation,1980], p.  248):

With the maturation of the monastic order in Buddhism, it also became critically apparent that pragmatic considerations had to be reckoned with.  By having all offenses...confessed and dealt with before the actual Po.sadha ceremony, more time was freed for other monastic concerns.  Thus, the ritualized recitation of the Praatimok.sa becomes intensely meaningful. It seems to become the formal embodiment of a tradition, by this time long in practice, of expecting and demanding the highest cultivation of ethical life by practitioners of Buddhism. In so doing, the ritualization of the Praatimok.sa reveals not that ethics and morality were overlooked, but rather that they continued as strongly as ever, simply recast into the formalistic mould that Buddhist monastic life had adopted.  Considered in this perspective, Praatimok.sa is not just monastic "glue," holding the sa.mgha together, but the common ground on which the internally enforced life of "siila is manifested externally in the community.

Tsomo's section on the Bhik.su.nii Praatimok.sa Suutra is very useful, not only for outlining the various versions of the text in the various nikaaya Buddhist schools, but because she emphasizes the critical importance of the Chinese and Tibetan versions, thus highlighting why they were selected for translation in this volume.  A bit of sectarian history relating the nature and development of the Dharmaguptaka and Muulasarvaastivaadin schools would have further accented why these texts were chosen, but in fairness to the author, such a discourse might also have been seen as ancillary, and especially so since it has been examined by many other scholars.

Chapters Two ("The Bhik.su.nii Praatimok.sa Suutra of the Dharmaguptaka School) and Three ("The Bhik.su.nii Praatimok.sa Suutra of the Muulasarvaastivaadin School") follow, presenting the translations of the respective texts. Like all Praatimok.sa texts, each of the categorical sections is presented as a bare compendium of rules pertinent to that category. As such, even when combined with the preliminary and concluding verses to the Praatimok.sa recitation, each text is compact, with the Dharmagupta text occupying forty-eight pages and the Muulasarvaastivaadin text occupying fifty-five pages.  In keeping with the purpose of the book, Tsomo's notes are kept to a minimum, avoiding lengthy philological arguments, and instead offer useful commentary on the meaning and application of technical terms.

Chapter Four, "A Comparison of the Chinese Dharmagupta and the Tibetan Muulasarvaastivaadin Bhik.su.nii Praatimok.sa Suutras," is a slimchapter of thirteen pages outlining the structure of each text, and comparing the texts in a highly superficial way in the paaraajika, sa"nghaava"se.sa, ni.hsargika-paayantika, pratide"saniiya, and "saik.sa categories of offenses, as well as a short statement about the adhikara.na-"samatha section of the text.  She notes the Dharmaguptaka text to have 341 rules and the Muulasarvaastivaadin text to have 365, excluding the adhikara.na-"samatha portion of the text, which contains an additional seven items in each case. It is here that a highly fruitful comparative examination might have been made, with interesting conclusions drawn.  In the monks' Praatimok.sa much could be learned about the specific behaviors and values of each sect from the textual disparities, particularly in the "saik.sa dharma section.  A cursory examination of the translations of each nuns'text suggests similar findings.  For example, the Dharmaguptaka text includes twenty-six regulations for proper worship at a stuupa, while the Muulasarvvastivaadin text posits no stuupa regulations. It is also highly interesting that both the monks' and nuns' Praatimok.sa texts present precisely the same number of stuupa regulations. As I have speculated elsewhere (see "Saik.sa-dharmas Revisited: Further Considerations of Mahaasaa.mghika Origins," History of Religions 35, 3 [1996], 258-270), it may be possible to postulate that it is the incorporation of these stuupa regulations that explains why the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya was the most widely accepted Vinaya in China. This is no small point.  In the 1989 issue of the Journal of the Pali Text Society, Gregory Schopen wondered creatively about the absence of stuupa regulations in the Paali Vinaya in his article,"The Stuupa Cult and the Extant Paali Vinaya" (pp. 83-100), prompting Richard Gombrich to respond in the following year's issue with "Making Mountains Without Molehills: The Case of the Missing Stuupa." One can only presume that matters not germane to the issue of feminism were excluded from detailed consideration here.

Chapter Five, "Linking Past and Future," is a short six-page conclusion. Tsomo is absolutely accurate when she comments that "The regulations date to a time when the nuns and monks were reclusive mendicants and some had to be adjusted when the Sa"ngha became settled in monastic communities" (p. 149).  She acknowledges that although the regulations may not be applicable in modern society they provided a comprehensive ethical basis for Buddhist women who were courageous enough to undertake the profoundly rigorous training of a nun in an often less than supportive environment. At the end, Tsomo concludes:

The challenge now for the new generation of Buddhist women practitioners is to capture the spirit behind the precepts and interpret them in an authentic yet viable way, conducive to personal growth. It is doubtful that nuns today will feel bound to a simply legalistic interpretation of the precepts;more likely their approach will be to awaken and renew the spiritual life force of the tradition (p. 150).

It is here that the book disappoints me.  Although there are now likely in excess of 100 nuns from Western countries who have received bhik.su.nii ordination, none is better equipped to reflect on this future challenge than Karma Lekshe Tsomo.  Yet she ends the book just as one's appetite for more reflection is thoroughly whetted and one's intellect provoked. No doubt, the book offers much in its translations, presented in an easily accessible fashion, and in its important contribution to continuing studies of nuns' Vinaya.  This reviewer hopes that Karma Lekshe Tsomo's next book will pick up where this one concludes and offer her understanding of the shape of that "new generation of women Buddhist practitioners" and the way in which it might "awaken and renew the spiritual life force of the tradition."  


Updated: 3-5-2000

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