How Nuns May Scold Monks

 Bhikkhu Sujato

There seems to be feeling that it is improper for a nun, specifically a bhikkhuni, to teach or admonish monks. This idea is based on an interpretation of the eight ‘rules of respect’, which the traditions tell us were laid down at the inception of the bhikkhuni Sangha. It is a difficult question as to whether that rule should be seen as authentic, and if it is, how it should be interpreted. But here I simply wish to offer a few examples where nuns have given monks a good old talking-to.

Perhaps the earliest example occurs in the ‘Verses of the Elder Nuns’. (Therīgāthā 204-212. Translation adapted from K. R. Norman, Elder’s Verses II) Here is the dialogue between the bhikkhu Vaḍḍha and his mother, a bhikkhuni.

‘Do not, Vaḍḍha, ever have craving for the world

Do not, my son, share in craving again and again.

Happy indeed are the sages, unperturbed, with doubts cut off

Cooled, tamed, they dwell without defilements.

That path practiced by the seers, for the attaining of vision

And for the ending of suffering: Vaḍḍha, you should devote yourself to that.’


‘Mother, you speak of this matter with confidence indeed

I think, mother, that craving is not found in you.’


‘Whatever activities there are, Vaḍḍha, whether low, medium, or high,

Not a skerrick or a jot of craving is found in me for them.

All my defilements are ended, as I diligently practice jhana

I have obtained the three realizations – done is the Buddha’s teaching.’


‘Amazing, indeed, was that goad my mother applied to me,

With those verses connected with the highest goal, because of her compassion.

When I heard that teaching, the instruction of my mother,

I was enthused for the Dhamma, the attainment of rest from exertion

So I, resolutely striving, not lazy by day or night,

Being urged on by my mother, experienced the supreme peace.’


The Vinayas contain several stories of bhikkhunis criticizing bhikkhus, often with good reason. Here is one example. The arahant bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā sees some thieves placing meat on the ground, saying that any ascetic who sees it may take it. So she picked it up and the next day flew to where the Buddha was staying. She saw Venerable Udāyin in the monastery and asked him where the Buddha was. Udāyin said that he had gone for alms. Uppalavaṇṇā asked Udāyin if he would offer the meat to the Buddha on her behalf. Udāyin replied: ‘The Buddha will be pleased with your gift. And I too will be pleased if you gave me your lower robe!’ Uppalavaṇṇā begged to be excused, saying it was her only lower robe, and requisites were hard to come by for women. But Udāyin insisted, so she gave it to him and returned to her monastery. When the other nuns saw her they asked where her robe had gone. When she told them, they criticized Udāyin for taking a bhikkhuni’s robe.

Another example is found in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, which I retell here from Schopen’s translation. (Buddhist Monks and Business Matters, pg 341) This occurs as part of a story, found in various forms in several Vinayas, about the destruction of nuns’ stupas by monks. In the Mūlasarvāstivāda version, the group of twelve nuns build a stupa for Venerable Phalguna, despite the fact that Phalguna had been a very naughty monk. The stupa becomes a popular pilgrimage site, leading to the following unseemly events.

Once the Venerable Udakapāna was moving through the countryside with a retinue of five hundred and arrived at Sāvatthī. Now, since arahants do not enter into knowledge and vision without focusing their minds, when he saw that stupa from a distance he thought to himself: ‘Since this is a new stupa for the hair and nails of the Blessed One, I should go and pay reverence!’

They went there, and the two attendant nuns gave them earth and water for washing their hands and feet. Then the monks paid reverence to the stupa by presenting flowers and incense and the singing of verses. Having paid reverence there, Udakapāna left.

Not very far from that stupa a nun, the Venerable Uppalavaṇṇā, was sitting at the root of a tree for the purpose of spending the day. Having watched them, she said: ‘Venerable Udakapāna, you should focus your mind when you pay reverence to someone’s stupa!’

The Venerable Udakapāna thought to himself: ‘Why would the Venerable Uppalavaṇṇā say, “Venerable Udakapāna, you should focus your mind when you pay reverence at someone’s stupa?”’ Having thought that, he said: ‘There is something here I should concentrate on.’ When that thing entered into his mind, and he saw that the stupa was a stupa for the bones of the monk Phalguna, he was infected with a passion that was totally engulfed by hostility. He went back and said to the Venerable Uppalavaṇṇā: ‘When an abscess has appeared in the teaching, you have sat there and ignored it!’ She sat there, saying nothing.

This story raises too many questions to even begin to go into them here; and the rest of it gets even more colourful. Anyway, Uppalavaṇṇā is clearly admonishing an arahant – even if he is an irascible one – and the admonishment itself does not seem to be a problem. The problem is, rather, that she was too slow in making the unacceptable situation known.

There is another example in the Dharmapāda-avadāna Sūtra (T 211, 584a, translated by Willemen as The Scriptural Text: Verses of the Doctrine, with Parables). Here the issue is complicated by the remarkable fact that the nun is really the Buddha in disguise. He takes the form of a bhikkhuni wandering through the mountains, replete with powdered face and painted eyebrows and bestrewn with golden necklaces, in order to admonish a straying monk. This monk had taken for his own a treasure left by travellers who had died crossing the mountains. When he meets the tarted-up bhikkhuni the monk, unsurprisingly, admonishes her, giving her the perfect chance to make her retort:

‘Is this then the way of an ascetic? He leaves his relatives, applies himself to the path, dwells in the mountains, and appeases his mind. Why then take what is not yours? In your greed you are forgetful of the path and quick to leave your noble intentions behind. You do not reckon with impermanence. Your birth in the world is like a journey, but the retribution for your evil is long-lasting!’

The Buddha then revealed himself in his true form, and the monk was, of course, saved. Again, although the story is rather more kinky than historical, there is no suggestion that admonishment of a bhikkhu by a bhikkhuni was in any way unusual or improper. By the standards of the time it would seem to have been perfectly acceptable for a bhikkhuni to wander alone, and to admonish bhikkhus.

Here’s another story, this time from the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa (CBETA, T25, no. 1509, p. 129, c1-19). This concerns the famous patriarch Upagupta, who was regarded as the chief monk of all India. At that time there was a bhikkhuni who was 120 years old, and in her youth she had seen the Buddha and his great disciples face to face. Upagupta was enthusiastic to see her and question her regarding the Buddha and the monks of old. When the bhikkhuni heard of this, she decided to teach Upagupta a lesson. She filled a bowl full of sesame oil and placed it behind the door. Upagupta, though he tried to enter carefully, could not help spilling a little oil. Thus the events unfold:

Sitting down, he eagerly questioned the bhikkhuni: ‘Did you really see the Buddha? Was his appearance as splendid as they say?’ The bhikkhuni replied: ‘When I was a young girl I saw the Buddha go into a house. Everybody said: “The Buddha has come!” With all the people I went out and bowed to the Buddha. While bowing, my hairpin fell off, and was hidden in the darkness under the couch. But the Buddha straightaway saw with his clear insight and retrieved the hairpin. And after that, I ordained as a bhikkhuni.’

Upagupta asked: ‘But while the Buddha was alive, how impressive was the conduct and bearing of the monks?’ She answered: ‘In the Buddha’s time, the group of six monks were the most shameless and badly conducted of all the monks – but even they had better conduct than you! When I tested them with the bowl of oil, they entered the door without spilling even a drop. Thus even the bad monks had good deportment. Whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, they did not forget their postures. Yet even though you may be an arahant with the six higher knowledges, still you spill my oil!’

When Upagupta heard this he was deeply embarrassed. For this reason it is said that with our whole mind we should revere carefulness.

Let us take the time for one last example, this time from the Aśokarājasūtra ( T 2043, translated by Li Rongxi as The Biographical Scripture of King Asoka).

There was then living in that country an arhant bhikkhuni. She observed in her meditation whether Devarakita would safely return from the seas or not, and she saw that he would safely return. She also saw that after his return he would sponsor the quinquennial assembly of the Buddha-dharma. She again tried to see how many monks would join in the assembly, and she saw that the number would be eighteen thousand arhants, twice as many learners, and innumerable ordinary persons. Who would be the Presiding Elder of the assembly? She saw that the Elder would be named Asadha. Then she observed whether the Elder Asadha would be an arhant, an anāgamin, a sakadāgamin, or a sotāpanna, and she saw that he would be an ordinary person. She again observed whether that person would be energetic or indolent and saw that he would be energetic. Then she contemplated with the intention of inquiring whether he was acting for his own benefit or for the benefit of others, and she saw that he was acting for his own benefit.

So she went to the monk’s monastery, and after arriving there she worshipped the monks in due order and said to the Elder, ‘Most Virtuous One, you are not in strict propriety’. The Elder thought to himself. ‘Why am I deemed to be not in strict propriety?’ When he looked at himself and saw that his beard and hair were long, he asked a young bhikkhu to shave his beard and hair.

When he had been shaved, the bhikkhuni thought, ‘Does this Most Virtuous One understand my words?’ Then she saw that the most virtuous monk did not understand the meaning of her words, and so she went again to the monastery, worshipped the monks in due order, and said, ‘Most Virtuous One, you are not in strict propriety.’ The Elder reflected, ‘I have shaved my beard and hair. Why am I still not in strict propriety?’ He looked at himself again and saw that his garments were coarse and shabby, and so he asked a young disciple to have them washed and dyed. After having his garments dyed and tidied, he wore them and sat straight.

The bhikkhuni thought again, ‘Does the Most Virtuous One understand my words?’ And she saw that the most virtuous monk did not understand what she meant. For the third time the arhant bhikkhuni went to the monastery, worshipped the monks in due order, and said, ‘Most Virtuous One, you are not in strict propriety.’ The most virtuous monk said angrily, ‘I have shaved my beard and hair and have washed and dyed my garment. Why do you say I am not in strict propriety?’ The bhikkhuni said to the most virtuous monk, ‘How can you think that these are the proprieties of the Buddha-dharma? If you can attain the four fruitions, then they are the proprieties of the Buddha-dharma. Furthermore, Most Virtuous One, the master merchant Devarakita has made an announcement like a lion’s roar: “When I return safely from the seas, I shall sponsor the quinquennial assembly of the Buddha-dharma.” Have you heard that?’ The most virtuous monk said in reply, ‘I have heard it.’ She asked again, ‘Most Virtuous One, do you know the number of monks who will join in the assembly?’ ‘I do not know,’ was the reply. Then the bhikkhuni said of her own accord that the number of monks would be eighteen thousand arhants, twice as many learners, and innumerable ordinary persons. ‘Most Virtuous One, an ordinary person will be the Presiding Elder and will be the first to receive offerings in the assembly of arhants. Will this be fitting behaviour?’ Upon hearing these words, the most virtuous monk wept sorrowfully. The bhikkhuni said, ‘Why do you weep?’ ‘Sister’, answered the monk, ‘I am getting old. I am not competent to do anything.’ The bhikkhuni uttered the following stanza:


The Tathagata’s Dharma can be perceived

At no fixed season and occasion.

If one wishes to obtain liberation,

He may get the fruit at any moment.


Again, Most Virtuous One, you should go to Naabhaika Monastery, where lives the bhikkhu Upagupta, whom the Buddha predicted would be the foremost in edification among his disciples.’

The Elder monk, rather than criticizing the nun for admonishing a monk, takes her good advice, seeks out Upagupta, and becomes an arahant. When he returns, the nun comes to see him again and says:

‘Most Virtuous One, you are today in strict propriety.’ The bhikkhu said in reply: ‘Sister, it is all due to your effort.’

While these stories may not all be strictly historical, they tell us about how Buddhist monastics lived at different times. It is unnatural for people to live without being able to admonish one another. What is most remarkable is that I cannot find a single example where a nun is criticized or disciplined for admonishing a monk. The Vinaya lays down a heavy penalty for bhikkhus or bhikkhunis who refuse to be admonished, saying: ‘Thus there is growth in the Blessed One’s following, that is, with mutual admonishment and mutual rehabilitation.’ It seems that this principle has been followed by bhikkhus and bhikkhunis of the past, regardless of what we imagine the ‘rules of respect’ to mean.