One of the most critical challenges facing all religious traditions in the new century will be the issue of gender equality. This is certainly true of Buddhism. At the outset of any discussion about women's rights in Buddhism the point needs to be made that gender is not an enlightenment factor, women and men have an equal capacity for spiritual liberation. The Pali scriptures mention by name many highly attained women, and there is one entire book of verses by fully enlightened nuns.
It is to be admitted, however, that this doctrinal equality may be seen as cold comfort in light of the practical reality of female inequality in most Buddhist countries and institutions. In all Theravada (Southern School) Buddhist countries the status of the nuns is very much lower than that of the monks. There are a few exceptionally good places for women to practice, but in most situations the nuns have a difficult time finding support, and all too often are relegated to the role of kitchen help. The situation in the Tibetan tradition is not much better.
One of the critical factors in maintaining this inequality is the lack of a bhikkhuni, or full ordination nuns' order in both Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism. Around the year 1000 AD Theravada Buddhism was nearly destroyed when the Cholian Empire invaded Sri Lanka. The monk's order barely survived, the nuns were less fortunate. When the Theravada form of Buddhism spread to South-East Asia, it already lacked a bhikkhuni order and so Thailand and Burma have never known fully ordained nuns. Likewise, the bhikkhuni order never made the demanding passage across the Himalayas into Tibet. Instead, all these Buddhist countries have women living as nuns without full ordination, in one or another semi-formal arrangement.
Restoring the legitimate nuns' order is more than just a question of good-will. In Buddhism a large part of the value of ordination rests in the continuity of a lineage going back to the Buddha. If the transmission of ordination is broken, it cannot be restored. Further, according to the Vinaya, or rules for monastics, a quorum of at least five bhikkhunis are required to ordain a new one.
Nevertheless, the situation for a restored bhikkhuni order is far from hopeless. In fact, the last few years have seen a renewal of effort in this direction in several quarters. The Bhikkhuni Sasanodaya Society has been established to re-institute the nuns order in the Theravada school by cooperation with nuns of the Chinese Mahayana tradition who still have an unbroken line of ordination. In 1996 an historic turning point occurred when eleven women were ordained in a ceremony in Saranath India. In the intervening years, several further ordinations have followed, mostly in Sri Lanka and these have been given credibility by the participation of many well known senior monks.
There are still many problems outstanding. The validity of the revived bhikkhuni order is not universally accepted. Even among those who welcome the restoration of the female order, there is some controversy around the rules which the new nuns should follow. We should be cautious about being too impatient; the monastic order is a body that has survived for two and a half millennia and operates on a long time scale. This makes for inherent caution and conservatism.
Most importantly, the position of women within Buddhism will not be immediately transformed by the restoration of the bhikkhuni order, although this will certainly help matters. More importantly, attitudes need to be changed, and not just the attitudes of men. It may be that as Buddhism spreads into the west, this will be the one big contribution of western civilization to the universal body of the Buddhist tradition.