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The revival and survival of Buddhist nuns
Ven Bhikkhuni Gotami
Bangkok Post, 18 February 2001Making their dreams come true seems all but impossible for Buddhist nuns, particularly those in the Theravada tradition. After some women gain experience practising and studying the dhamma, they wish to be ordained as bhikkhunis (Buddhist nuns). They search for a teacher who will be able to teach and guide their practice, as well as for a place where they can be prepared for the future. Many move from place to place, experiencing great disappointment because they do not receive what they are looking for.
They encounter new traditions, new languages for chanting, different English dialects and lifestyles. I remember how an American friend of mine spent about two years with a dhamma teacher from Asia, and how her friends complained that she was no longer speaking English. I admired her courage to explore the Buddha's path, even though the language and the culture were unfamiliar to her. Being a Western woman, she was taught to express her opinion, to do what she likes, to be brave, assertive and individualised. Many Western men, though, still think men are superior.
As for Asians, teachers may relax some customs to help such students, but lay supporters and others may not be as helpful. Asian women who seek ordination also run into difficulties. For example, there are men who have never seen a bhikkhuni or who have little or no knowledge of bhikkhuni issues. They think it is wrong for women to be bhikkhunis. The more that women move about, the greater is their pool of knowledge and experience - and the keener their disappointment.
One bhikkhuni I know is a very highly educated, professional woman, very successful and well known in her profession and community. She is honest, friendly, patient and down to earth. She is well accepted by people who interact with her. When she realised that she really wanted to be a bhikkhuni, a disciple of the Buddha, she studied, practised and explored ways to achieve this goal.
We don't always get what we want, though. Sometimes we have good jobs but no place to study Buddhism as we would want. And most of the time, women must have a job in order to have the funds to find an appropriate Buddhist study centre.
Anyway, this bhikkhuni moved from one dhamma centre to another, from temple to temple, and even from one ashram to another. She did this because she discovered that either she was having to spend money to support the business (of that temple or ashram) or that she had to work so as to have money to demonstrate her gratitude to a teacher or a place. My friend was ordained and is now waiting for a higher ordination. Like other Western bhikkhunis, she is struggling to find a place to live and resources to live on. Almost all her savings have been spent on shelter and health insurance.
She has difficulty finding support even within her own sect. When she was told she must be in a temple for a few years to prepare herself for ordination as a novice, she asked why so many men were ordained as monks without any preparation at all. When they wish to become monks, they merely arrange the date and time. They celebrate the announcement of their ordination as if it were a wedding ceremony.
Some cannot even recite homage to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. Some are drunk and almost unable to repeat the precepts during their ordination. After ordination these monks stay in a temple where everything is prepared for them. We never see any monk who has to a rent place to stay, as bhikkhunis must do. There are always temples for them.
Things are not the same as they were 2,500 years ago - things and beings have changed. New innovations and technology have become a part of daily life. Should we tell monks to stop using cars, aeroplanes and computers, reading newspapers, answering telephone calls, watching television and so on and so forth? If some of the Vinaya or discipline has been relaxed in order to suit life in this century, shouldn't it also be relaxed as regards women who want to be ordained as bhikkhunis?
The Buddha allowed women to be ordained because he believed that gender was not a factor in enlightenment.
In addition, it appears that women don't receive emotional support before their ordination or while working to meet their wishes. However, since they work very hard for their goals, they pursue the ordination and still insist on higher ordination. In this world, things seem to be unfair for people who are honest and have good intentions. Some of those people are self-made individuals, humble and ashamed to ask for assistance. They think that if they have difficulties, others may have the same problems.
They believe that if they wait, one day some people will be able to help them. If those people were dishonest, they would do anything to gain personal benefits such as using the robe to ask for donations or taking advantage of kind lay Buddhist supporters. However, they have 'Hiri Otappa, shame and fear of doing worng." As usual, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. Therefore, people seem to neglect their needs In this case, I can understand the situation, because when we look at the world "Revival" it means that you have to start from scratch. A revival means we have to start over, and that is what Buddhist nuns must do.
The bhikkhuni order in Theravada Tradition died out almost 800 years ago. Fortunately, in December of 1996, the Sri Lankan Sangha conducted the first "Restoration of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order". There have been other bhikkhunis ordained in other traditions, such as the Mahayana in Asia, and later in the US and other Western countries.
Teachers must find a place for newly-ordained women to live, study and practise in a safe, appropriate environment. However, sometimes, side tracks cause their plans to fail. Nuns, though, have difficulty finding such places, as well as female teachers who can counsel younger nuns, and resources to support and provide security for practitioners. The students who don the saffron robes are no longer able to work.
Thus having a Bhikkhuni Vihara, or a centre for Buddhist nuns is in the best interests of women who wish to study Buddhism, and will also be helpful to working women and young women who wish to explore whether the Buddha's path is right for them.It can also be a place for girls and boys to learn to respect and accept their mothers, grandmothers, aunts and other females.
It is not easy for many educated women to give up a luxurious life and turn to a nunnery-not unless they really want to practice dhamma correctly. Finding a place where they can meditate regularly takes a lot of time, energy, emotion and money. Think about those who try to understand the Dhamma in Pali, Sanskrit, or English. Although it is not easy to acquire the concepts they study and spend time for this diligently. They learn to let go of worldly life style and worldly habit even before they decide to live in a temple for a few years to assure that they really want to be bhikkhunis.
There is a saying, "We don't get anything for free." Some meditators work very hard just to save money for a 10-day retreat. Although some meditation centres do not charge for anything, many people have to travel a long way to get to them. For women who would like to live the Buddha's path, it can be far more difficult. I give such women credit for their good intentions, courage and the effort they make in enduring all the obstacles they encounter.
Although they have decided to "go forth into homelessness", this should not mean that they have to live under bridges, or in train stations or on mountains. If we can help them to use their saving just for basic needs, it would promote Buddhism, particularly "Bhikkhuni Revival." These Bhikkhunis will have less difficulties, tension, frustration and anxiety and able to practice Dhamma correctly. I strongly believe that if they don't use their savnigs for themselves, it will be donated to the temple where they belong to.
If they don't realise that they cannot take anything with them when they die, I think these women would rather enjoy themselves with luxurious things in a worldly lifestyle instead of having a few set of robes, eating only two meals a day and cut off from the temptations in the community. The revival of female ordinations - "Bhikkhuni Revival" - will not succeed if the women cannot "survive" both during the training for ordination, and after the ordination itself. How many women would succeed, like the late Ven Bhikkhuni Khema, who helped propagate Buddhism in many countries, if only given the chance?
The Buddha taught that the us "Sabbadanam dhammadanam jinati, the gift of truth, or dhamma, excels all other gifts". On behalf of all women who seek Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha for refuge, I thank all lay supporters and our friends of Buddhist for their generosity and concern about this issue. A bhikkhuni Vihara or a Centre centre will allow women, nuns or otherwise, to study, practise and promote Buddhism correctly and appropriately. There is an ancient saying: "Children will turn out according to the way their parents raise them." I have high confidence that your support will be rewarded with Dhamma Seeds for the future. [^]
* Inquiries and donations for a bhikkhuni centre can be sent to Ven Bhikkhuni Gotami (Dr Prem Suksawat), PO Box 58, Muang district, Nakhon Pathom 73000
Source: The Bangkok Post, http://www.bangkokpost.net/
A path less travelled
Bangkok Post, 17 April 2001
The ordination of prominent Buddhist scholar Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh early this year promises a resurgence of religious women in Buddhism, if Thai society will come forward and support it
For Dhammananda, bhikkhuni ordination is a best way for women to carry on the Buddha's spiritual heritage. Her ordination also epitomises an increasing demand for full participation of women in Buddhism -- a worldwide movement which she insists Thailand can't simply reject.The earth didn't shake. But when former Thammasat lecturer and leading Buddhist scholar Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh took the lifetime vow during her ordination to become a bhikkhuni (female monk) in Sri Lanka early this year, it was momentous in the development of Buddhism in Thailand.
Dr Chatsumarn, who received the ordained name of Dhammananda, now assumes the status of a Theravada samaneri (novice). Within two years, if she maintains the novice's six rules (the five Buddhist precepts plus the prohibition on eating after noon), Dhammananda can apply to be ordained as a bhikkhuni.
By committing herself to the sacred status of female Buddhists, which unfortunately has yet to be recognised by Thai law, Dhammananda is paving the way for women interested in realising the Buddha within themselves.
Until now, the only road open to women who wish to develop their spirituality is to become a mae chi (nun). Although the precept-holder standing allows a monastic lifestyle, generally it is not considered a serious platform for Dhamma study.
On a more personal basis, Dr Chatsumarn's entrance into the monkhood attests to a spiritual continuation from one generation to the next. Her mother, Mrs Voramai, is the first Thai bhikkhuni with full ordination. Voramai, known among her many followers as Luang Ya (Grandmother monk) is now 93. She has been sick recently and spends most of the time in bed
"After (my) ordination, I went in to see her. I asked her what she thought of it. She simply stroked my face, playing with my head as if to confirm that it really was shaved. After a while, she let me go as she always did. Since I have worn the holy robes, however, she wais to me," Dhammananda said.
Luang Ya sponsored the construction of Wat Songdharmakalayani in Nakhon Pathom province, where Dhammananda now resides. A leading Buddhist scholar, Dhammananda has had a distinguished career. With a Ph.D in Buddhism from Magadh University in India, she taught Buddhist philosophy at Thammasat University and Maha Chula Sangha University.
She has published many books about Buddhism, both in Thai and English and is a regular speaker at international conferences. She was also a founder and former director of Thammasat University's Indian Studies Centre.
Academically, Dhammananda is more than accomplished in Buddhist study. But the real reason she decided to enter the monkhood was her boredom with secular existence. The world, she said, just turned her off.
"I grew up in religious surroundings and in fact, I was quite confident I would be ordained one day. But the real calling came about two years ago. What I used to care and work for, the personal glory or success, does not mean anything to me anymore. I have been quite successful in my profession. I have been to many places. I have seen the world. I thought it was time to devote my life to the service of Buddhism."
Dhammananda, who is 57 now, thought she would be too old if she waited until her retirement to embark upon the religious path. She sought early retirement and started preparing herself for the transition.
One of the first things she did was file for a divorce.
"My husband had known before we were married that I would follow the Buddha's way one day. Now that my children have grown up and settled down well, my job is done. I have no concern left." For Dhammananda, what was more difficult was to choose where to be ordained.
The bhikkhuni ordination requires dual ordinations by both the bhikkhuni and bhikkhu sangha (monks council). Since Thailand has never established a bhikkhuni sangha, the ordination is impossible here.
There are a few other Asian countries with an active bhikkhuni sangha, however. Taiwan, Dhammananda noted, has always been the strongest advocate for women. The bhikkhuni order there is very well-established and actively engaged in both academic and social welfare activities.
Even the Taiwanese supreme patriarch remarked that: "Buddhist education in this country is in the hands of bhikkhunis." Dhammananda's own mother was ordained there in the Dharmagupta lineage in 1971.
Some people reject the bhikkhuni ordination from the Taiwanese lineage on the grounds that the lineage belongs to the Mahayana Tradition. Dhammananda explained that this belief is unfounded because the Dharmagupta lineage is in fact a sub-branch of Theravada Buddhism.
Historically speaking, the bhikkhunis who revived the ordination of women in China came from the Theravada Tradition in Sri Lanka. A devout follower of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dhammananda herself was more interested in the Tibetan lineage. But Tibetan ordination is available only at the novice level.
Although the Dalai Lama suggested she could seek a higher ordination in the existing Chinese lineage in Taiwan or Hong Kong, as many women who joined the Tibetan lineage do, Dhammananda hesitated to do so.
Fortunately, Sri Lanka began to revive its bhikkhuni ordination. In 1996, the Korean bhikkhu sangha hosted an ordination of 10 Sri Lankan precept-holders. Two years later, the Sri Lankan sangha, led by Ven Sumangala from the Siam Sect, began to give ordinations to women. According to Dhammananda, the revival of bhikkhuni order in Sri Lanka is a turning point in Buddhist history.
It was the Sri Lankan bhikkhuni who travelled to India and established the bhikkhuni order in China. The lineage still continues until today but in the Mahayana tradition. When Sri Lanka wanted to revive the long-defunct Theravada bhikkhuni order, the Mahayana bhikkhunis returned to start the fire back where it began, making it possible for women in Theravada Buddhist countries to be ordained once again.
Sri Lanka is the only Theravada Buddhist country with a history of bhikkhuni ordination. "So when it is revived on that soil, it takes root," she said, adding there are more than 200 bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka at present.
In April last year, she flew to Taiwan to receive the lay bodhisattva precepts as a way to formulate her mind. She became a vegetarian soon after. The last secular job she did as Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh was to be an emcee for a Buddhist fellowship conference. "I still got dressed up and wore make-up at that time," she noted.
On the first full moon night of the first month of the year, she took the eight precepts. She stopped decorating herself and having dinner after that.
On February 6, one day before the Buddhist's holy Makhapuja Day, Dr Chatsumarn had her head shaved and received ordination as a Theravadan samaneri.
"For me, the most important preparation before the ordination was to understand the importance of bhikkhunis and to prepare my mind. Unlike the smooth path of male ordination, being a bhikkhuni is to walk against the tide. If my spiritual foundation is not solid enough, I might become distracted or unhappy when faced with resistance. And if I lose my calmness, it would defeat the whole purpose of my ordination.
"I do not choose to be ordained because I want people to recognise me. I did it because I want to carry on the heritage of the Lord Buddha. I am trying to revive the four pillars of Buddhism-bhikkus, bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen-that will sustain the religion into the future. I don't mind if some people reserve different opinions about bhikkhunis. The public will be the ones to judge our worth."
Dhammananda added that there were two ideals she strove towards but could never accomplish before the ordination. The first one was to stop eating meat. "As a Buddhist, I received the first precept of 'do not kill'. Still, I ate what other people killed and I could tell that meat was more delicious than vegetables," she said. The second was to lead a celibate life. "Celibacy is a blissful state. It improves meditation and spiritual development. I only achieved this after taking the bodhisattva precepts."
Now on the monastic path, there are immediate transformations. The first she noticed was physical, related to the new eating habits. "Before, I consumed for my own pleasure. But now, I eat whatever is offered to me. I eat merely to sustain my life. There is no more question whether I like it or not," Dhammananda explained.
"Also, I was an academic by nature. I considered talking to people a waste of time. I would rather shut myself in, reading and researching. But now that I am a monk, I listen to everything visitors have to discuss, be it their illnesses or their conflicts with relatives. I have discovered that most people don't need a tangible solution, they just need someone to listen.
"The changes are sudden and full. It is so clear to me that a monk must serve other people, not his or her self. Even the robes we wear," she touched her brick-coloured robes, "are strictly practical, not aesthetic." Dhammananda has two sets of long-sleeve shirt and robes and she thinks the austere uniform is a wonderful creation.
"With basically nothing to choose from, the mind is less concerned. The only thing I have to consider is if one set of robes is wet, the other must be dry. This frees my mind from distractions. I always think what an amazing thing these robes are," Dhammananda said, with a smile.
In terms of reaction from the people around her, Dhammananda said they can be split into two groups. The first group consists of admirers who are overjoyed at seeing a woman in religious robes. The other are those who simply don't know how to react or interact with her.
To a certain extent, these small-circle reactions reflect trends in the outside world. On the one side, bhikkhuni ordination is praised as a means to empower women in Buddhism-to return to them the previously denied access to enlightenment.
On the other side, it is viewed by some scholars as further adding to the already problematic power structure of the sangha. Dhammananda is aware of the criticism.
"Bhikkhuni ordination is an option that is simply not available for Buddhist women in Thailand. The door is closed. The lock is rusted. And the key is lost. Internationally, however, the demand for full participation of women is very strong. It is a worldwide movement and Thailand can't reject it," Dhammananda said
If the Thai sangha is far-sighted enough, it should take this matter into its own hands instead of allowing women to seek an ordination by themselves. Bhikkhunis are potential human resources that could strengthen many aspects of the sangha's mission.
As for her plan for the future, Dhammananda said that apart from running Wat Songdharmakalani and Baan Santi Rak for unwed mothers and discussing dhamma with visitors, she is learning every aspect of her ordained life and trying to understand it as completely as possible.
As a novice, she is required to study Dhamma with her preceptor for two years. Since the preceptor is in Sri Lanka, she does it via the Internet. Building a religious community for women is next on her agenda.
"I would be satisfied if I could serve as a refuge for women. I am not aiming at a big market. I don't think Thai women will rise up and get ordained en masse. A monastic path is not a comfortable lifestyle. I am thinking of a small religious community which helps women develop their own spirituality and contribute something to society.
"I know there is some resistance out there. It is not my intention to stick out and provoke anybody. I will try to honour everyone. I will try to be a supatipanno, to be a female monk with good conduct. Time will tell. If society believes this is a worthy role, then people will support it and consider it another alternative for women."
What is the status of bhikkhuni in Thailand?
The attempt to introduce the bhikkhuni sangha to Thailand dates back to 1927. During that time, politician and progressive social critic Narin Bhasit, commonly known as Narin Klueng, was critical of the laxity of the sangha.
He, then, challenged the institution by having his two daughters, Sara and Chongdi, ordained as bhikkhunis. Narin also donated a piece of land and had Wat Nariwong built as a residence for bhikkhunis. The sangha and state authorities opposed his initiative. His daughters, along with seven or eight bhikkhunis at Wat Nariwong, were ordered to be disrobed. The two bhikkhunis resisted. They were put in jail and physically had the robes removed from them.
The incident prompted the Sangha Supreme Council to pass an order forbidding any monks to give bhikkhuni, samaneri or sikkhamana (a female novice during a two-year training before receiving a bhikkhuni ordination) ordination to women in 1928. The rule still exists.
Dhammananda, however, argues that the order contradicts Article 5 of the Constitution, which stipulates that Thai people, regardless of their origin, gender, or religion, are entitled to equal protection under the Constitution.
"I consulted some judges and they said there is no need to nullify the order because any law that is in conflict with the highest law of the land is automatically null and void. The reason this rule remains is because nobody has ever challenged it. That means the validity of this order has never been questioned or re-examined," the samaneri explained.
Is gender a factor in enlightenment according to the Buddha?
Some people have lingering doubts about the Buddha's acceptance of women because when Queen Maha Pajapati, the Buddha's aunt and stepmother, asked for his permission to be ordained, the Buddha refused. But Queen Maha Pajapati did not give up. She, along with 500 Sakya women, shaved their heads, donned the saffron robes and followed the Buddha on foot.
Ananda, the Buddha's personal attendant, found them waiting at the entrance, covered with dust, in torn robes and bleeding feet. He learned of their dilemma and approached the Buddha on their behalf. Again, the Buddha forbade Ananda, telling him: "Please, do not ask so."
Ananda persisted in an attempt to understand the Buddha's refusal. He asked whether it was because women were not capable of spiritual enlightenment that religious life is available only to men. To this, Buddha made it clear that both men and women have the same potential to reach Nirvana.
He, then, allowed the women to be ordained. The Buddha's statement broke new ground because during that time, according to Hindu beliefs, a woman could reach salvation only through bhakti (devotion) to her husband. A woman was not permitted to read nor recite the Vedas, the Hindu's sacred text, nor was she allowed to lead a religious life.
What are the requirements for bhikkhuni ordination?
Bhikkhuni ordination requires dual ordinations, one in the presence of a minimum of five bhikkhunis and the other in the presence of a minimum of five bhikkhus. A woman who requests a bhikkhuni ordination must be at least 20 years of age, having permission from her parents and have no illness that will pose an obstacle to leading an ordained life. She must have completed a two-year training as a sikkhamana and be able to obtain basic material requirements, such as a bowl and robes.
During the training period, the sikkhamana must observe six anudharmas without transgression. If she violates any of the precepts, she has to start all over again. [^]
- Based on excerpts from Women in Buddhism: Questions and Answers, by Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University, 1998.
Source: The Bangkok Post, http://www.bangkokpost.net/
Bangkok Post, 30 May 2001
A fervent debate has erupted in the wake of the ordination of Buddhist scholar Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh as a novice monk. The controversy has generated a lot of heat-but little light and, as yet, no solution.Those who study the Tripitaka, the Buddhist scriptures, know that the path to becoming a bhikkhuni (female monk) is not a smooth, easy one. The circumstances surrounding the ordination of the first bhikkhuni, Queen Maha Pajapati, the Buddha's foster mother, is a case in point.
Maha Pajapati and the 500 Sakyan women she led had to walk until their robes were torn and their feet were bleeding to catch up with the Buddha to ask for ordination. Even so, when Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and personal attendant, approached the Buddha on their behalf, the Buddha turned down Maha Pajapati's request as he had done several times before.
It was only when Ananda asked him whether his refusal was because women were not capable of achieving spiritual enlightenment that the Buddha made it clear that men and women had equal spiritual potential, and allowed the women to be ordained on condition they accepted the Eight Garudharmas. (See The Eight Garudharmas.)
More than 2,500 years have passed, and yet the difficulty facing women who wish to follow the Buddha's path has not lessened with the passing of time. Currently, it is not the Buddha's permission that matters, but interpretation of his rules.
To a certain extent, Buddhist scholar Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh had expected some resistance when she decided to be ordained as a Theravadan samaneri (novice female monk) in Sri Lanka earlier this year. After all, Thailand has never had a bhikkhuni sangha (order of nuns). Thai law prohibits monks from ordaining women as samaneri or bhikkhunis.
The backlash from senior monks over Dr Chatsumarn's ordination has been daunting, while the Sangha Supreme Council has been silent.
Dr Chatsumarn, who received the ordained name of Dhammananda, has explained that the surviving bhikkhuni sangha in China, which helped revive the Sri Lankan lineage where she received ordination, was established by bhikkhunis from the Theravada tradition. Despite this explanation, the Council has kept quiet.
A few senior monks, however, have come out to voice dissent. Reaction has ranged from a lukewarm, wait-and-see attitude to completely denying the possibility of having a bhikkhuni sangha in Thailand. The bhikkhuni lineage in the Theravada tradition was terminated a long time ago, some say. There is no need to further investigate or reinterpret existing rules to accommodate the demands of women who wish to lead a religious life. End of conversation. "The bhikkhuni ordination requires a dual ordination from both the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni sangha" (according to the Vinaya, or monastic prohibitions and allowances, a set of rules devised by the Buddha).
Since there is no bhikkhuni in Thailand, the ordination is simply impossible.
"If we allow women to be ordained as bhikkhunis and to establish their own monasteries, they can be attacked, even raped. Such a thing will weaken Buddhism," Phra Dhepdilok, deputy abbot of Wat Bovornives, reportedly said.
Ironically, Phra Dhepdilok is the author of the book, The History of Bhikkhunis, which explains how many bhikkhunis excelled in the study of dhamma and helped promote Buddhism during the time of Buddha. The book is used as a supplementary text on Buddhism and ethics for high school students.
Many Buddhist scholars disagree with the Council's citing of the Vinaya as a barrier against female ordination.
Dr Tavivat Puntarigvivat, chairman of the Comparative Religions Graduate Programme at Mahidol University, argued that the most important thing in this case was the Buddha's permission for women to be ordained as bhikkhunis. Besides, the bhikkhuni sangha prospered for more than a thousand years, both in India and Sri Lanka. During the 10th and 11th centuries, Buddhism in India was eclipsed by Islam while political turmoil and war wiped out both the male and female sanghas in Sri Lanka. Fortunately, the Sri Lankan monk order was revived by inviting monks from the lineage in Thailand to give ordination. The bhikkhuni order, however, died out and was not established again because of the rule requiring an existing order to ordain new members. It was, however, recently revived with assistance from Taiwan.
In an article for the book, What Men Owe to Women: Men's Voices from World Religions, Dr Tavivat argues that the bhikkhuni order is not like a "biological species that cannot be revived".
"The bhikkhuni sangha still exists in the Mahayana tradition in China, whose original lineage came from the Dharmagupta subsect of the Theravada tradition in Sri Lanka," he wrote.
Dr Suwanna Satha-anand, from the Philosophy Department of Chulalongkorn University, goes beyond the surface of the controversy to delve further into the philosophy behind the Council's cold-shoulder response to the possibility of introducing bhikkhunis to Thailand.
"I think the Council's silence is a matter of allowing one accident in history-in this case the war that terminated Buddhism and the bhikkhuni order in Sri Lanka-to triumph over the Buddha's decision (of allowing women to be ordained)."To understand the issue, we need to analyse the circumstances surrounding the first female ordination. In her article, Truth Over Convention: Feminist Interpretations of Buddhism, Dr Suwanna explained that Buddhism accepts two categories of truth, one ultimate the other conventional. The lecturer believes that the truth of convention-awareness of social and cultural conditions-prompted the Buddha to turn down the first three requests for ordination from his foster mother Maha Pajapati. The Indian social norm at that time was patriarchal. Women were not supposed to pursue a religious life. Salvation was available only through devotion and service to one's husband.
However, Ananda's question prompted the Buddha to ascertain that men and women possess the same Buddha nature and are thus equally capable of enlightenment. If the Buddha continued to decline offering women access to the spiritual life, that would have meant that Buddhist truth was not universal, that the Buddha's truth could not be applied to half of humanity.
"Viewed in this light, the Buddha was faced with a conflict between conventional truth, which were the cultural constraints of that time, and the ultimate truth, which was the universality of his dhamma. The Buddha must have realised that the existence of a bhikkhuni order would make everything more complicated for the religious community, both in terms of psychological difficulties and possible tension between the two orders. The fact that he allowed women to be ordained in spite of all these anticipated difficulties meant he wanted to uphold the ultimate truth over convention," Dr Suwanna explained.
If the principle of truth over convention is applied, then the Thai Sangha must reconsider its rejection of the re-establishment of the bhikkhuni order.
"Many rules in the Vinaya were established so that the Buddhist religious community could be at peace with conventional practices in society at that time. By citing the Vinaya as an obstacle to female ordination, the Council is then basing its judgement on conventional limitations, which is against its duty to propagate Buddhist truth."In this case, the Sangha should follow in the spirit of the Buddha by overcoming conventional constraints and letting Buddhist truth prevail.
Put in more concrete terms, the Sangha is duty-bound to respect the Buddha's will and support bhikkhuni ordination, Dr Suwanna said.
Phra Maha Jerm Suvaco, general director of the Buddhist Research Institute of the Maha Chula Buddhist University, insisted that further study into the feasibility of reviving the bhikkhuni order in Thailand was needed.
"At this moment, both lay people and monks are very much in the dark. There is no research-based information about the validity of the lineage. I think we need a comprehensive study that will answer all the questions from the public before we can say we agree or disagree with the movement." However, Phra Maha Jerm noted that as far as he knows, there is no initiative on behalf of Maha Chula Buddhist University or any religious organisation to begin researching the matter.
Although the monk endorses the revival of the bhikkhuni in principle, he does not feel comfortable with the "feminist" disposition he perceives from the movement's supporters.
"According to Buddhism, dhamma is to fulfil your rightful duty. If you could do so, there is no need to demand your rights because they will be yours naturally." Phra Maha Jerm, who is considered progressive, cautioned that changes in gender equality in the male-dominated society of Thailand always came slowly. "It is no use for the movement to jump ahead and demand that society recognise it. Besides, if the bhikkhuni movement remains immersed in the rights-oriented western mind-set, it will alienate monks, some of whom have already shown animosity and a refusal to cooperate," Phra Maha Jerm said.
He added that a bhikkhuni order could be developed only with support from the monks, as evident in the successful case of Taiwan.
Prof Nithi Eawsiwong, a well-respected historian, dismissed the monk's concern. "This is not about rights. It is about justice. Why, when a woman wants to be ordained, does it mean she is demanding more rights, but when a man wants to be ordained, he is seen as doing his duty? Besides, this logic does not work with Dr Chatsumarn. She has fulfilled all her worldly duties. There is nothing left to be achieved. It is time for her to fulfil her religious duty by pursuing a spiritual path. Why can't she do that?" Neither does Prof Nithi agree with the belief that the future of the bhikkhuni rests with monks or the establishment.
"The Sangha's job is to find a solution to the problem, not to point at an impasse. If the Sangha keeps refusing to honour the aspiration of women and does not try to understand what is happening and adjust themselves to changes in society, they will risk becoming an obsolete and meaningless organisation. At present, millions of people treat Phothirak [the founder of the strict Santi Asoke sect] as if he was a monk, even though the Sangha proclaimed he was not. If I happen to meet Dr Chatsumarn, I would pay respect to her the way I would do to a monk. Can the Council arrest me for doing that?" Prof Nithi warned that if the Sangha continues to resist changes and to let its authority falter, the future of the Sangha and Buddhism in Thailand would be up for grabs. "The public will not listen to the ruling organisation, neither will monks. It will be the end of unity as monks or cult groups are free to operate and satisfy public demand. Do you believe we will still have good monks if all of them have direct access to a profitable market?" All things considered, Dr Tavivat believes Thai society has much to gain from a revival of the bhikkhuni institution.
"First, it will prevent scandals between monks and women, which lately have become increasingly prevalent. At present, many women have become interested in studying dhamma. If they could study dhamma with learned bhikkhunis, they wouldn't have to gather around monks, thus avoiding a situation that is conducive to sexual abuse or possible scandal. Structurally, the existence of a bhikkhuni order could provide a new opportunity for poor rural girls who otherwise would end up in sweat shops or brothels.
"Thanks to the male ordination tradition, both as novices and monks, poor, rural boys have an opportunity to receive education and training. Unfortunately, the same opportunity is denied to poor, underprivileged girls. Without an alternative, many are pressured to become labourers in factories or to enter the sex business." Dr Tavivat admitted that a host of other factors besides poverty were involved when poor rural girls were pulled into the flesh trade. Still, he said he was confident that introduction of the bhikkhuni order here would be a positive cultural factor that would help alleviate the problem.
While insisting that the bhikkhuni order is an important institution that should be developed, Phra Mettanando from Wat Raja-Orasaram pointed out that it is only one of the four Buddhist pillars, which are the bhikkhu (monks), bhikkhuni (nuns), upasaka (laymen) and upasika (laywomen), that are destined to sustain Buddhism into the future.
"To strengthen the religion, we need to reform the order of monks and develop a community of engaged laymen and laywomen. These people can help do the religious works that are not quite appropriate for monks, such as canvassing. We might as well learn from other religions. In Catholicism, for example, priests are allowed to lead a contemplative life while brothers and sisters are engaged in social work, serving God by serving other people." There is one part in the Tripitaka that is worth noting. One monk asked the Buddha what would be the factors that would erode Buddhism after he passed away? To this, the Buddha said: "It is when the bhikkhu, bhikkhuni, upasaka and upasika do not respect or obey the Buddha, Dhamma or Dangha. When they ignore education and fail to respect one another. All these are factors that will shorten the life of the ultimate truth after I die."
A revival of the bhikkhuni order is a whole new episode in the history of Thai Buddhism. As with any unprecedented occurrence, scepticism and resistance are to be expected, Dr Nithi said: "But if we are to sustain Buddhism into the future, isn't the duty of Buddhists to respect the Buddha and start educating ourselves about this new phenomena?" [^]
Source: The Bangkok Post, http://www.bangkokpost.net/
A nun's life has limited appeal
Bangkok Post, 05 July 2001Now that Sri Lanka has revived female ordination in Theravada Buddhism, one would have thought that nuns in Thailand would jump at the chance to become bhikkhunis. Wrong.
Of the estimated 13,000 nuns here, only Jamnian Rattaburi has decided to seek ordination, making her only the second Thai woman to do so. The first was Buddhist scholar Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, and it has brought her under fierce attack by conservative monks and laypeople. Chatsumarn, now samaneri Dhammananda, will become a full bhikkhuni after completing her two-year novicehood.
Many Thai nuns have worked hard and selflessly to improve the status of the nunhood. So why are they shutting themselves off to the bhikkhuni opportunities now open to them? Imagine you were in their shoes.
You are committed religiously and want to live a monastic life. But you must struggle on your own because the nunhood is disdained as a refuge of the heart-broken or poor women with nowhere to go. The law does not even recognise nuns as clerics.
Despite the social and monastic structures that put women down, some monks have offered help. Although it is not much, it can make a big difference in your pursuit of education, spiritual practice and social work. Is it grateful to antagonise them in any way? Or to place them in trouble with their superiors? Moreover, you are brought up to see patriarchy as a part of life which is full of suffering anyway. But you are doing your best within this system to improve your spirituality and to help others. It's not perfect. But is it realistic to look for perfection in an imperfect world? Meanwhile, the bhikkhuni path is strewn with many obstacles.
The clergy is against female ordination. Theoretically, female ordination in the Theravada tradition remains debatable and the bhikkhuni revival in Sri Lanka is not without its critics. And legally, the clergy's ban on bhikkhuni ordination is still in effect.
You must also ask yourself who will support you if you take the plunge. Society? What can you expect when mainstream society still feels it inappropriate for women to dare to act as equal to monks, which views women who want to become bhikkhuni as greedy for status.
The clergy? Forget it. Even Phra Dhammapitaka, a scholar monk who has won wide respect from the intelligentsia, cautions against bhikkhuni ordination, suggesting that society help nuns improve their institution instead.
To survive as a bhikkhuni in such a hostile environment needs not only courage and moral support. It needs a lot of resources. The majority of nuns are from rural backgrounds and are uneducated; they are not blessed with plentiful resources. For the handful who are educated, who have left worldly matters behind, spiritual practice is their top priority.
For nuns active in social work, it is difficult to discard the little space they now have and the fruits of their hard work when the there is little to offer but more sweat and tears along the bhikkhuni path. Also, you must think of what will happen to those under your care if an angry clergy boycotts your work.
Female ordination is possible in Sri Lanka because the people already respect nuns as the equal of monks, said nun Sansanee Sathirabutr. Senior monks are supportive. Nuns also receive rigorous training for the bhikkhuni ordination. Such factors do not exist here.
Seeing the world through the eyes of a nun helps us realise the weight of oppression they shoulder. And their fears. If we want nuns to take the path of equality, we have an equal responsibility to help them through organised support. If not, we have only ourselves to blame. [^]
Source: The Bangkok Post, http://www.bangkokpost.net/
The Dhammananda controversy
Bangkok Post, 22 September 2001Help women get what they want-but keep the Buddha's rules intact. That should be what the Thai Buddhist clergy should do regarding female ordination, says monk scholar Phra Dhammapitaka (P.A. Payutto).
"We should find a way to help women gain-but not at the loss of the Vinaya," he says, referring to the Buddha's rules governing monastic conduct.
The controversy over female ordination was recently rekindled when Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a feminist and Buddhist scholar, was ordained in Sri Lanka where the Bhikkhuni order in the Theravada tradition has been revived.
Dr Chatsumarn, now Dhammananda Samaneri, was harshly attacked by senior monks who also dismissed the possibility of female ordination within the Thai clergy.
Bhikkhuni must be ordained by both the Bhikkhuni and Bhikkhu orders, says the Vinaya. Since Bhikkhuni in the orthodox Theravada tradition was extinct, it is not possible to revive the Bhikkhuni clergy.
Dhammananda, meanwhile, argues that the lineage was never extinct and the clergy must give women their rightful place in Buddhism as allowed by the Buddha.
How does Phra Dhammapitaka, the authority in Thai Theravada Buddhism, view all this?
The clash represents two extreme views, he says, blaming both sides for stirring antagonistic feelings for each other.
The clergy cannot just turn a blind eye on women's religious needs, he says. Meanwhile, Dhammananda's demand that the Thai clergy accept the Bhikkhuni order in Sri Lanka as part of Thai Buddhism is impossible.
"It's like you graduated from a different university and then demand that you are approved by another establishment. The clergy doesn't have any right to grant that kind of approval. Only the right to recognise," he says.
Recognition leads to cooperation, he says. Unfortunately, that does not happen either.
If the Bhikkhuni Sangha is not possible, the clergy should set up another institution to support women who want to live as ascetics. Or the clergy should improve the status of white-robed nuns and support their education as well as social work, he says.
At present, nuns receive little support from the clergy and society. They are not legally recognised as ascetics in Thailand. Many who live in temples are often treated as temple hands.
The clergy's lack of interest in nuns' education is not unusual, he says. The elders are not interested in monks' education either.
The aim of Buddhism is to educate or train people-men and women-so that they transcend suffering and consequently devote themselves to society, he explains.
But the clergy is preoccupied with only power and temple property, not monastic education, as evident in the newly drafted Sangha Bill.
An indifferent clergy has caused many problems, not only about lack of support for women's religious lives. "That's why I am worried about Buddhism in Thailand," he says.
On the Dhammananda controversy, he suggests Dhammananda Samaneri accept the fact that she was ordained in the Sri Lanka's new Theravada Bhikkhuni order. The order was revived by a group of Sri Lankan monks with cooperation from Mahayana Bhikkhuni.
The new Bhikkhuni order insists that it is legitimate for Mahayana Bhikkhuni to perform double ordination as required by the Vinaya for their Theravada sisters because their lineage actually can be traced back to Sri Lanka itself.
Historically, it was the Sri Lanka's Theravada Bhikkhuni who started the female monk order in China which later spread to Taiwan and other parts of the world. If that is the case, then Dhammananda Samaneri should make this history of female ordination clear to the public, Phra Dhammapitaka said.
"Prejudice exists. But don't pay attention to it. Pay heed to facts only."
He suggests Dhammananda be forthright about the background of her ordination and her order so that people can decide based on facts and information if they want to accept it or not. The clergy and the rest of society should pay attention to the issue of female ordination, he says, adding it is not right "just to feign indifference and turn a blind eye".
Phra Dhammapitaka, however, dismisses a suggestion from Dhammananda that monks can ordain women when there are no Bhikkhuni to perform double ordination.
When the Buddha established a rule that a Bhikkhuni must have double ordination from both the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni clergy, it replaced the previous rule that allowed monks to ordain women, he says.
Nonetheless, the Thai clergy should look at women's religious needs with compassion and should find ways within the Vinaya framework to help women realise their spiritual potential, aiming for the public good.
"I feel sympathetic. But things must be done step by step. If we have a bad start, we will end up with antagonism and mere form, not the essence." [^]
Source: The Bangkok Post, http://www.bangkokpost.net/
Women in Buddhism: Planting the Seed of Peace
Bangkok -- Nine years have passed since an American doctor of philosophy took the vows of a bhikkhuni. But a recent stay in the Kingdom by this US ordained female monk has served to highlight once again the male- dominated thinking that still prevails in this country.
Her hair is shorn, her blue eyes crystal clear and her smile friendly and wide. Yet the most striking thing about her, at least to Thai eyes, is the yellow robe she wears. Even today, Thais are unable to associate a monk's robes with a woman.
Greeting the Venerable Bhikkuni Dr Leaura Naomi, aka Bhikkuni Lee, I cannot find the words of protocol to address a female monk. But her friendliness makes me feel comfortable and so I dispense with the protocol.
Even though our meeting took place two months ago, the day before she was due to was to leave Thailand after more than a year here as a guest of the Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, her gentle presence and peaceful attitude remain with me today.
She begins the interview with a very simple question, yet one that is difficult to answer : "What makes you happy?" asks the 41-year-old Bhikkuni Lee.
To her, happiness is love, interpersonal understanding and living harmoniously. Born in New York to a family with a Christian background, Dr Lee was exposed to several different cultures and religions from an early age.
"My cousins and relatives include Jews and Buddhist Chinese. They consider love as a high priority, they have tolerance and learn from each others," she says quietly. "We all knew love before religion."
Why and how did she become so deeply involved in Buddhism?
"Perhaps there is a good reason why we are here. Since I was very young I have known that I would become a nun. I didn't know when or where. I just felt it deep in my heart.
"The first time I came into contact with the Buddhist world was in New York. I was seven at the time. My family and I went to Chinatown. As we walked in front of a gift shop, I remember being mesmerised by a religious image in the window display. My family didn't even realise they had left me behind," she recalls.
"The elderly shopkeeper started talking to me. I asked her about the image that was on display. And she told me that he is the Lord Buddha and that he loves all children. I have never forgotten this incident. The memory is embedded in my mind. It was like a natural seed had been planted in my heart."
The young Leaura was also exposed to different cultures during her school years.
"One day, while looking down from the fifth floor of my university building, I saw a woman with a shaved head wearing a grey robe. Her gait was so serene. I was so excited, I ran down the stairs immediately, jumped on my bicycle, trying to catch her but the nun had gone to the bus stop," she says with alacrity.
Her heart dropped when she saw the bus coming. She had missed a chance to meet a Buddhist nun.
"I didn't know if I would ever have a chance to see one again. Then, one day I was sitting in the park watching the sunset and meditating with some friends. I asked the others if they had ever seen a Buddhist nun in the city. And that was how I was finally introduced to the ChineseBuddhist nun I had seen walking through the university grounds."
After this meeting, there was no turning back for the young student. She became even more determined to pursue Buddha's path.
Dr Lee was ordained as a bhikkhuni nine years ago at an international Buddhist centre in Colorado.
Asked what Buddhist sect she belongs to, she replies: "I don't see any separation between Hinnayan (or Theravada) and Mahayana sects. The search for spiritual fulfilment is universal."
Although the State of Colorado boasts somewhere between three and six Buddhist nuns Bhikkuni Lee was the only one in her adopted home town. Following the advice of the serene nun dressed in grey, she began her search for Buddhist teachings in English in seven countries, including Thailand, where she stayed for more than a year. Why was Thailand so special?
"I saw Khun Ya ( literally grandmother) in an English-language TV documentary called The Best of Us, The programme featured the seven most kind-hearted lay people in the world. One of them was former US president Jimmy Carter. He was not ashamed to don jeans and join his fellow men in doing menial work."
The Khun Ya in the documentary was Mae Chee Khunying Kanitha Wichienchareon.
Bhikkuni Lee was impressed by Khun Ya's sacrifices for women and children in distress, as well as her lack of attachment to her social position.
"She works from the heart. I felt there was a very deep connection. It was like a spiritual awakening. There are different levels of spiritual awakenings that come at different times in our lives."
But the documentary was over before Bhikkuni Lee managed to catch the full name of the Khun Ya she had so admired. She intensified her search and, in the meantime, tried to learn as much as she could about the Thai people.
She wrote to the TV station but to no avail. Then she made her way to a Thai temple where she began teaching English to Thai monks.
Eventually one of the monks, who was aware of her search for Khun Ya, found a magazine in the library and pointed to a woman in one of the photos. "Is that the woman you saw on TV?", he asked.
"I said 'yes! That's her'," she recalls with a fond smile.
Not long after, Bhikkhuni Lee finally met Mae Chee Kanitha and it is thanks to sponsorship of the Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, founded by the kindly Khun Ya, that she was able to stay on in Thailand and become involved in the pilot project for Southeast Asia's first College for Buddhist Nuns and Laywomen.
"I trust intuition. The Buddhist teachings and traditions speak to my heart more than any others. It's spiritual intuition, not Western logic or rational thinking," says the Venerable Dr Lee, who holds a doctorate degree in geographical peace studies. "Sometimes spiritual intuitions protect us from something or lead us to something."
She says her primary concerns are women and children, in particular the HIV/Aids-afflicted in Thailand and, since joining the Association early last year, has worked both in Bangkok and upcountry and spoken at several conferences and seminars.
Most recently she inspired a Thai nun to fulfill her dreams by being ordained as a bhikkhuni in Sri Lanka.
Seven years ago this island country saw a revival of theBhikkhuni issue, the subject of controversy for four decades. There are now more than 200 Bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka.
As a Bhikkhuni, Dr Lee's daily activities are similar to those of a monk.
"It is a beautiful and intimate experience," she says of the offerings of alms every morning, "I have life because of their love for me. If I don't have the food, I don't have life. Their loving kindness goes into my soul and into my bones. It's because of their kindness that I am alive. And that's about life. It doesn't matter what skin colour you have, the language you speak or the country to which you belong. It's the nature of human beings. It's a blessing to live life and feel that everyday."
She is particularly pleased to have become so much part of the local community. "When someone died in the family, or when they had conflicts in the community, they talked to me. When their child was sitting a major exam at school, or their daughters were studying very hard, they let me know."
Most people were delighted to see her, a female monk in a yellow robe. "Women are the backbone of Buddhism in Thailand. The majority of alm-givers in Thailand are women," observes Venerable Lee. "But the sight of a female monk has made some people furious."
Her yellow robe made her feel a little secure while in the Kingdom. One afternoon, while she was having lunch, she was picked up by the police and taken to the station. "On no grounds," she says softly.
As no female is regarded by the Thai Sangha as a monk, the police could obviously not charge her for violating the vinaya (the discipline that demands that monks must not eat meals after midday).
We are eating as she recounts the story and instinctively I glance at my watch. My gesture does not go unnoticed. "I don't think the Lord Buddha had a watch," she says, adding that she sees the interpretation of vinaya as a convenient arrangement to fit in with the routine of lay people.
The vinaya of the Theravada school that dominates Buddhism in Thailand states that a woman who wishes to become a monk must be ordained by both the bhikkhu (male monk) Sangha and the bhikkhuni Sangha . Since the latter body has never existed in Thailand, it is not possible for women to be ordained as monks.
"I am not fighting. I place emphasis on the positive. Just do what you believe is true," she says with a gentle smile.
Since our conversation, the female monk has moved to Sri Lanka, where she hopes she can contribute something to society. "I want to plant seeds of the positive kind and let them grow naturally." [^]
Source: Nation Multimedia, Buddhist News Network, http://www.ukmba.org.my
A New Dawn for Women’s Rights
After a Millennium, World
Buddhists Affirm Equality for Women
Hsi Lai Temple's Web Site,
February 15, 1998 marked the first time ever in Buddhism’s history that Buddhists representing diverse traditions and schools from around the world joined together for a truly international and ecumenical ordination. The ceremony took place in Bodhgaya, India. It was especially significant because it was a joint effort by Buddhist leaders to re-establish the order of nuns in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet, and India, where no women had been ordained as a nun for over eight centuries.
For nine days, 140 novice monastics from 23 countries (including India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the Congo, Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Denmark, Spain, Canada and the United States) congregated near a descendant of the Bodhi Tree under which Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, is said to have attained enlightenment some two and a half millennia ago. In order to provide instruction to this polyglot assembly, the text of the Vinaya (Buddhist monastic precepts) was provided in five languages: Chinese, English, French, Nepalese, and Sinalese. The renunciation ceremony, organized by Venerable Master Hsing Yun and Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order, marshaled the cooperative efforts and support of Buddhist leaders, including the His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Maha Ghosananda Maha Thero (Sangha Raja of Cambodia), Thich Nhat Hanh (Abbot of Plum Village, France), Venerable Dr. M. Wipulasara Maha Thero (President of the Maha Bodhi Society), and Venerable P. Somalankara Nayake Thero (Chief Secretary of Sarvodaya Bhikkhu Congress, Sri Lanka). (See list of patrons and organizers at the end of this article)
The legitimacy of ordaining women as bhikkhuni (nuns) has become a major topic of debate within the Buddhist community. All Buddhists agree that the Buddha created an order of bhikkhuni after his foster mother, Mahaprajnapati, and 500 other women displayed a deep commitment to becoming his disciples. Buddhists disagree, however, about whether or not there should be, or even can be, such an order today. Sila, the laws of Buddhist discipline, stipulate that the ordination of women to become bhikkhuni requires the presence of both ordained monks (bhikkhu) and nuns. Since the 11th century, however, when the bhikkhuni order died out in India and Sri Lanka, conservatives have stymied any attempts to revive it in those countries by citing the lack of qualified nuns to legitimize the proceedings. Similarly, in Thailand and Tibet, where there has never been an order of nuns, efforts to institute such an order have faced difficulty for the same reason. Fortunately, in such places as mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, bhikkhuni orders have continued down to today.
To overcome this obstacle, the ordination ceremony in Bodhgaya was officiated by both Buddhist monks from around the world and by 15 Buddhist nuns who received their ordination in Taiwan. The idea of bringing together bhikkhu and bhikkhuni from a diverse range of Buddhist traditions and schools to solve the ordination problem gradually took shape during a series of annual international monastic seminars. At the conclusion of the fourth such conference, held in May of 1997, the participants requested Venerable Master Hsing Yun, the founder of Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order, to organize a renunciation ceremony to reintroduce a bhikkhuni lineage in those countries currently lacking one. Fo Guang Shan was asked to spearhead this effort because it has branch temples worldwide, a large contingent of nuns, and extensive experience teaching Buddhist women from South and Southeast Asia. Subsequently, during the Dalai Lama’s visit to Taiwan in the Spring of 1997, which he undertook primarily to learn more about the island’s thriving bhikkhuni order, he too endorsed the plan, a support he has reaffirmed several times hence. Unfortunately, His Holiness was unable to personally attend the Bodhgaya ceremony.
The women from India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand who received ordination in February did not expect a warm welcome from all of their Buddhist brethren when they returned to their respective countries. More conservative members of the Southeast Asian monastic communities were not expected to even recognize the authenticity of their ordination. This was expected as a result of the historical treatment given to Buddhist nuns from East Asian countries who go to Thailand to conduct religious work. Unlike Buddhist monks, who can receive work visas from the Thai government to carry out their special tasks, Buddhist nuns can only enter the country as tourists, having no status as religious professionals.
The sponsoring organizations continue to do all that they can to aid the nuns in overcoming obstacles that they might encounter after ordination. Fo Guang Shan, for instance, fully paid the expenses for their transportation, room and board for the ordination ceremony, and also offered free education in any of its 16 monastic colleges worldwide to any of the nuns who would wish to strengthen their knowledge of Buddhist practice. Efforts were also made to provide long-term housing for those who might have required it. The Ladakh, India chapter of Buddha’s Light International Association (BLIA) has already built a nunnery and the Ananda Buddha Vihara Trust of Andra Pradesh, India is currently constructing a temple which will include a dormitory for nuns.
The American Buddhist scholar Rita Gross has recently published a book entitled Buddhism After Patriarchy, in which she examines how best to reshape the Buddhist tradition so that it provides equal opportunity and dignity to women and men of all races. What Gross has done in theory, those gathering in Bodhgaya in February intended to realize in practice. The nuns of Taiwan, who played a role in organizing the Bodhgaya event, regard renunciation as a potent means for women to express their capabilities and leadership qualities, allowing them to make great contributions in social, philanthropic, cultural, and educational pursuits. They therefore see the re-establishment of the bhikkhuni order in Southeast Asia as a significant advancement for women’s rights in that region. Their hope is that the ordination will serve as a catalyst to spur not only all Buddhists, but all people, to awaken to the truth that the Buddha himself realized under the Bodhi Tree so long ago: that all beings are inherently equal and inter-dependent, and may attain enlightenment through cultivating a mind of kindness, compassion, equanimity, gratitude and wisdom.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. -Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights: United Nations
Nepal Venerable Bhikkhu Sumangala -
Venerable Bhikkhu Sumangala -
France Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh -
Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh -
Buddha’s Light International Association, World Headquarters, Los Angeles, CA. USA.
Bodhgaya International Full Ordination Committee
Source: Hsi Lai Temple's Web Site, California, http://english.hsilai.org/english2/newdawn.htm
Revival of the Bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka
D. Amarasiri Weeraratne
It is well known that the Bhikkhuni (nuns) order was introduced to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa. (BC 250 - 210) Since then this order flourished at Anuradhapura for about 1200 years. With the fall of Anuradhapura to the Cholian invaders in AD 1017 and the annexation of the Aunradhapura Kingdom to the Cholian empire the Bhikkhuni order disappeared and became defunct. The Order of Monks (Bhikkhus) also met the same fate. But was later revived after King Vijayabahu drove away the Cholian invaders. For this revival the King had to get down monks from Burma. But there were no nuns in Burma, Siam, Cambodia or Laos the other four Theravada countries. Hence the monks maintained that the Bhikkhuni order should be considered defunct and not restorable. During the time the Bhikkhuni order existed in Sri Lanka it proved to be an asset to the religion and rendered yeoman service to the Sasana. Details can be found in the Dipawansa on which was modelled the Mahavamsa - the great chronicle in Sinhala history.
After 50 years of Cholian rule, King Vijayabahu coming up from Ruhuna expelled the invaders and assumed rulership over the whole island. He shifted his capital to Polonnaruwa. During the Polonnaruwa period which followed Sinhalese Buddhism came more and more under Tamil, Hindu influence. The Tamil caste system of South India was adopted and the monks took the names of their villages as a prefix to their Pali names given at ordination. The Sangha became the preserve of one caste monopolising the temporalities in imitation of Hindu priesthood. The study of Sanskrit and secular sciences associated with it came into vogue. Anti feminism and casteism were features entrenched in the Manu laws of Hinduism.Anathema
These features found their way to Sinhalese society and its religion. Therefore, in this milieu the revival of the defunct Bhikkhuni order became anathema to Sinhalese Buddhism. There is permission in the Vinaya Chullavagga for monks to ordain nuns. This permission could easily have been made use of if the monks were willing to restore the Bhikkhuni order. But since their wishes were otherwise and they were more interested in maintaining their monopolies, it suited the to take the casteist and anti feminist line. They enabled them to avert rivalry from low caste men in the Sangha and women in to Bhikkhuni order.
Therefore, from the Polonnaruwa period right up to the British conquest of the island in 1815 no one took up the issue of admitting ‘low caste’ men to the Sangha and women to the Bhikkhuni order. Priestcraft saw to it that the Buddhist Sangha was the preserve of the high-caste and that women were debarred from leading the holy life of a Bhikkhuni as advocated by the Buddha. The majority of people were ignorant and illiterate. They took their Buddhism from the priestcraft of the Sangha and the Kings who took their advise in matters of religion from the Sangha hierarchy.
Thus, a tradition to the effect that the Bhikkhuni order is defunct and cannot be restored until the appearance of Martie Buddha in a future aeon became accepted. Thereby the teachings of the Buddha on appamada (diligence), samanatmata (egalitarianism), Karuna, Metta, Artachariya etc were lost sight of. An anti-feminist dogma prevented women from taking to holy orders in Buddhism. This was the situation from the Polonnaruwa period right up to the time the Sangha - King combine lost their control of the nation in 1815 with the betrayal of the last King to the British.
During the colonial period, under British rule, it was Anagarika Dharmapala who was the pioneer of the Buddhist revival. He opened the first nunnery in modern Ceylon at Darley Lane, Colombo. It was not a success. He was followed by Miss Catherine de Alwis who went to Burma and got ordained there as a Junior Nun without Higher Ordination. She came back to Sri Lanka in 1903 and founded the Dasa Sil Mata order of Buddhist nuns. Thus from 1903 onwards these D.S.M nuns were the vestige and the representatives of the Bhikkhuni Sangha of old. They seemed to believe in the theory that half a loaf is better than no bread. Therefore they had to be satisfied with observing the ten precepts of Junior Nuns or Samaneris.
Many Buddhist leaders among the clergy and the laity realised that the DSM status for nuns was really incongruous and incompatible with the Buddha’s concept of a four-fold division among his disciples and devotees.
He recognised only Bhikkhus, Bhikkhunis, male lay devotees and female lay devotees. There is no room for a half way house between lay women devotee and Bhikkhunis such as a Dasa Sil Matas. The later term is an invention by apostates in the Sasana who wish to keep down women renunciates from their proper place as Bhikkhunis.
Among the advocates for the revival of the Bhikkhuni order was Ven. Pandit Narawala Dhammaratana Thero. He had led a delegation to a peace conference in Peking, China. He studied the Bhikkhuni order in China and found that it had been established on a firm Vinaya footing by Sinhalese nuns from Anuradhapura in AD 429.Chinese nuns
Therefore, in his writings and teachings he advocated the revival of the Bhikkhuni Order with assistance from Chinese Nuns. Other advocates of the revival among our Maha Theras were Ven. Pandit Hedipannala Pannaloka of the Vijalankara Pirivena, Ven. Pandit Henpitagedera Gnanaseeha, Ven. Banbarende Seevali and several other progressives. Among lay Buddhist leaders, Anagarika Dharmapala, Sir D.B. Jayatillaka, H. Sri Nissanka, Dr. G.P. Malalasekera, J.R. Jayewardene and many others encouraged the movement and spoke for it. Among the living sympathizers and advocates were Ven. Mapalagama Vipulasara. Principal, Paramadhamma Chetiya Pirivena, Ven. Pandit Inamaluwe Sumangala of the Dambulla Raja Maha Viharaya, Ven. Talalle Dhammaloka, Anunayaka Thero of the Amarapura Sect, Ven Dr. Kirinde Dhammananda, Ven. Pandit Pathegama Gnanarama retired Principal Sudharmakara Pirivena, Panadura, Ven. Porawagama Soma, Ven. Deegala Mahinda, Tembiliyane Ariyadhamma etc.
While the progressive monks called for and advocated the revival there were reactionaries, conservatives and obscurantists who took the traditional stand in Sinhalese Buddhism as a dogma, equating it with ‘pure Theravada Buddhism’. Thus there was division of opinion in the two camps, the conservatives sticking to traditional anti-feminism and the progressives calling for a revision of the traditional stand and a restoration of the Bhikkhuni Order.
As a sequel to the public interest created on this question Ven. M. Vipulasara, Principal, Parama Dhamma Chetiya Pirivena and President Mahabodhi Society came forward with the assistance of the World Sangha Council and Sakyadhita International Organisation of Buddhist Women and held an ordination ceremony on 8.12.96 at Saranath Temple, India. This was a grand and historic ceremony - a red letter day in the annals of Theravada Buddhism. At this ceremony 11 selected Sinhalese DSM nuns were ordained fully as Bhikkhunis by a team of Theravada monks in concert with a quorum of Korean Nuns. Thus for the first time after 980 odd years the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order was revived in India.Sasanodaya Society
For the first time since the disappearance, the Bhikkhuni Order was restored at Saranath India on 8.12.96. The Sinhalese Nuns who received their Bhikkhuni Ordination there came back to Sri Lanka after one year and two months at the invitation of the Bhikkhuni Sasanodaya Society, Dambulla. On Medin Poya Day (12/3/98) they ordained 23 selected Sinhalese DSM Nuns into the Bhikkhuni Sangha.
This ordination was confirmed and ratified by a quorum of the Theravada Sangha as required in the Vinaya. Ven. Inamaluwe was the director of the function and the master of ceremonies. He was assisted by Ven. Mapalagama Vipulasara, Galkadawela Punnasara, Pandit Tallalle Dhammananda Anu Nayakam, Ven. Prof. K. Vajira and Porwagama Soma and a few others.
Thus for the first time since the Anuradhapura days the Bhikkhuni Sasana has been revived in Sri Lanka According to full Theravada ceremonial. Sinhalese DSM nuns, Buddhist women feminists and other advocates of the restoration of the Bhikkhuni Sasana will have the satisfaction that one of their cherished dreams for the Buddha Sasana has been realised.
Sri Lanka became the caretaker and headquarters of Theravada Buddhism since it was expelled from India. Other Theravada countries such as Siam, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia has never had a Bhikkhuni Order. There are movements in these countries for the admission of women to the Bhikkhuni Sangha in the Theravada tradition to which they belong. These countries border China and they see that in China Bhikkhunis have been existing from the earliest days of the introduction of Buddhism to that land.
Hence, their aspiration for entry to the Bhikkhuni Sangha will receive a fillip on hearing and seeing that the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order has been established in Sri Lanka. Though the Bhikkhuni Order had never been introduced to any country except Sri Lanka, Burma is an unusual exception. It had originally been a Mahayana country. Therefore during the Mahayana days there were Bhikkhunis in Burma. But once it was converted to Theravada Buddhism the Bhikkhuni Order there became unrecognised. Hence there continued to be the nuns with only Samaneri Ordination under the Ten Precepts. Even today the position is the same. It is from these Samaneri nuns (called Ma-Theelas) that Sri Lanka received its DSM order of nuns.
Now that the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order has been established in Sri Lanka it should be a matter of time for women renunciates in these countries to come to Sri Lanka, or get down Sri Lankan nuns to their countries and establish the Bhikkhuni Order in their lands. Admittance to the Bhikkhuni Order to women was granted by the Buddha himself. Womens' rights are a part of human rights in the modern world.
Therefore, the Bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka should be the spearhead for the movement to establish the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order in these lands. The Bhikkhuni Order cannot function properly in poor and backward cultures which do not recognise women’s rights. That is why even in some backward Mahayana countries such as Mongolia, Kirghizia and Tibet there never has been a Bhikkhuni Order. Now that Sri Lanka is emerging from a backward Third World country with a poor record of human rights to a modern democracy which recognises women’s rights the prospects of the Bhikkhuni Order gaining its rightful place as in the Anuradhapura period are bright and full of promise. [^]
From :"The Island" Newspaper, Colombo, Sri Lanka (4th April, 1998)
Source: BuddhaNet, http://www.buddhanet.net
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 women¹s 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 monk¹s 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. [^]
Source: Arrow River Community Center, Canada, http://my.tbaytel.net/arfh/
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