History of the Mulasarvastivada Ordination Lineages in Tibet By Alexander Berzin
Although lines of Mulasarvastivada bhikshu ordination were established in Tibet on three occasions, a Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni sangha never became firmly established. Consequently, women following the Tibetan Buddhist tradition within the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya tradition and who have wished to ordain have become shramanerikas or novice nuns.
The first time the Mulasarvastivada bhikshu ordination was established in Tibet was with the visit of the Indian master Shantarakshita, together with thirty monks, and the founding of Samyay (bSam-yas) Monastery in Central Tibet in 775 CE.
However, because neither twelve Indian Mulasarvastivada bhikshunis came to Tibet at that time, nor did Tibetan women subsequently travel to India to receive higher ordination, the Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination lineage was not established in Tibet during this first period.
According to a Chinese source preserved among the Dunhuang documents, however, one of the secondary wives of Emperor Tri Songdetsen, Queen Droza Jangdron (‘ Bro-bza’ Byang-sgron), and thirty more women did receive bhikshuni ordination at Samyay.
Since the Chinese Tang Emperor Zhong-zong had decreed in 709 CE that only the Dharmagupta ordination lineage be followed in China, the bhikshuni ordination in Tibet must have been from the Dharmagupta lineage.
Presumably, the ordination was given by the single sangha method and its lineage did not continue after the defeat of the Chinese faction at the Samyay debate (792-794 CE) and its expulsion from Tibet.
During the reign of the Tibetan Emperor Tri Relpachen (Khri Ral-pa can, 815 – 836 CE), the Emperor decreed that no Hinayana texts other than those within the Sarvastivada fold could be translated into Tibetan.
Three surviving Mulasarvastivada bhikshus, with the help of two Chinese Dharmagupta bhikshus, revitalized this bhikshu ordination lineage with the ordination of Gongpa-rabsel (dGongs-pa rab-gsal) in Eastern Tibet.
In Western Tibet, however, King Yeshey-wo (Ye-shes ‘od), at the end of the tenth-century CE, turned to India to establish, or perhaps re-establish, the Mulasarvastivada bhikshu ordination in his kingdom.
In either case, it is also unclear whether Mulasarvastivada bhikshunis were invited to Guge to confer the ordination, and there is no evidence that a Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni sangha became firmly established in Western Tibet at this time.
In 1204 CE, the Tibetan translator Tropu Lotsawa (Khro-phu Lo-tsa-ba Byams-pa dpal) invited the Indian master Shakyashribhadra, the last throne-holder of Nalanda Monastery, to come to Tibet to escape the destruction wrought by the invading Guzz Turks of the Ghurid Dynasty.
While in Tibet, Shakyashribhadra and his accompanying Indian monks conferred Mulasarvastivada bhikshu ordination on candidates within the Sakya tradition, thus starting the third such ordination line in Tibet.
It has two sublineages, one deriving Shakyashribhadra’s ordination of Sakya Pandita (Sa-skya Pan-di-ta Kun-dga’ rgyal-mtshan) and the other from his ordination of a community of monks that he later trained and which eventually divided into the four Sakya monastic communities (tshogs-pa bzhi).
In the early fifteenth-century CE, the Sakya master Shakya-chogden (Sha-kya mchog-ldan) convened a single sangha Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination specifically for his mother. Another contemporary Sakya master, Gorampa (Go-ram-pa bSod-nams seng-ge), however, strongly criticized the validity of this ordination and, subsequently, it was discontinued.