Male and female disciples followed the Buddha until his death.
Male and female disciples followed the Buddha until his death.

When Buddhism was first initiated around 500 B.C.E., the Buddha, born Siddhartha Gautama, allowed women to become part of his monastic order of disciples. At that time, requirements for becoming a nun, or bhikkhuni, were the same as those for becoming a monk, or bhikkhu: simply dedicating oneself to the Buddhist path and taking vows in the five precepts of not to kill, steal, lie, consume intoxicants or participate in sexual misconduct. Over time, Buddhism has split into several different forms with different followers and rites of passage. Currently, two of the main Buddhist sects, Theraveda and Mahayana, both give women the right to become nuns, but this was not always the case; nuns were missing from the Theraveda tradition for nearly 800 years.

Committing Yourself to Buddhism

The path to monasticism begins with taking refuge in the Triple Gem.
The path to monasticism begins with taking refuge in the Triple Gem.

For women and men, the first step to becoming a Buddhist practitioner, monk or nun is taking refuge. This requires followers to commit themselves to what is known as the Triple Gem: the Buddha, the dharma (the Buddha's teachings) and the sangha (the worldwide group of Buddhists). In the refuge ceremony, the postulant takes vows in the five precepts (or up to 10 if the full precepts are requested), goes through a physical worship practice and is given a Tibetan or Buddhist name if she is not of Eastern descent.

Requirements of Health and Government

In order to become ordained, any person, male or female, who wishes to become an ordained member of the Buddhist tradition must meet certain health standards. The requirements state that you must be in good health, physically and mentally. You must be free from contagious, chronic and venereal diseases as well as any mental disorders; this is probably because of the close quarters and interactions with other monks and nuns that occur with this lifestyle. Proper health is established through a series of 24 questions before any ordination can take place. Additionally, as the candidate for ordination is normally presented by her parents, you must have your parents' permission and not be bound to any government service.

Relinquishing the Secular Life

Full devotion to the minimalistic monastic life is required of all nuns.
Full devotion to the minimalistic monastic life is required of all nuns.

While men only have two levels of ordination, Buddhist women have three; however, the first step for both is the same -- relinquishing of secular life. This step away from a householder's path and onto the monastic path is essentially a novice ordination for women. For both men and women, renouncing secularism involves the relinquishment of all material goods except for eight items that the Buddha found necessary for living: a food bowl, three robes, a belt, a sewing needle, a razor and a water filter. Additional vows are taken at this step, the head is shaven and study and practice of the Buddha's teaching are implemented as the essential components of the postulant's days. A small difference between the vows of Mahayana and Theraveda Buddhists occurs at this step in the path of ordination for women. Mahayana Buddhists take vows to follow the path of the Bodhisattva, suggesting that their attainment of enlightenment is for the good of all beings. Though this is not required in the Theraveda tradition, which focuses on each individual reaching an enlightened state, nuns can elect to take these vows regardless of their secular affiliation.

How to Become Ordained

A woman must be 20 years old to be fully ordained.
A woman must be 20 years old to be fully ordained.

Following the renunciation of secular life, there are two additional stages of ordination for women. The second stage, sikkhamana, prepares the novice for full ordination, which is called upasampada. A woman in the Theraveda tradition must remain as a sikkhamana, or trainee, for a period of two years while she observes, learns and practices with and in the same way as fully ordained nuns and monks. The last requirement for full ordination is agreement of the sangha, or monastic community, that she is ready. At that time, a woman may be fully ordained as a nun by taking the entirety of the 311 vows, which is in contrast to the 277 required of men. She is ordained in the presence of at least five nuns and five monks on the same day.