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12213 TUESDAY LESSON 832 Ven Bhikkhuni Gotami Bangkok Post, 18
The revival and survival of
(Dr Prem Suksawat)
Ven Bhikkhuni Gotami
Bangkok Post, 18
Making 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
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
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
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
* Inquiries and donations Source: The Bangkok Post, http://www.bangkokpost.net/
for a bhikkhuni centre can be sent to Ven Bhikkhuni Gotami (Dr Prem
Suksawat), PO Box 58, Muang district, Nakhon Pathom 73000
* Inquiries and donations
Source: The Bangkok Post, http://www.bangkokpost.net/
Atiya Achakulwisut Bangkok Post, 17 The ordination of prominent For Dhammananda, bhikkhuni
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
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.
Bangkok Post, 17
The ordination of prominent
For Dhammananda, bhikkhuni
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
What are the requirements for bhikkhuni
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
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 Source: The Bangkok Post, http://www.bangkokpost.net/
Buddhism: Questions and Answers, by Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, Faculty of
Liberal Arts, Thammasat University, 1998.
- Based on excerpts from Women in
Source: The Bangkok Post, http://www.bangkokpost.net/
Atiya Achakulwisutu Bangkok Post, 30 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.
Bangkok Post, 30
A fervent debate has
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
Source: The Bangkok Post, http://www.bangkokpost.net/
Sanitsuda Ekachai Bangkok Post, 05
nun’s life has limited appeal
Bangkok Post, 05
Now 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
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
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
Source: The Bangkok Post, http://www.bangkokpost.net/
Sanitsuda Ekachai Bangkok Post, 22
Bangkok Post, 22
Help 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.
“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
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
“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’
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
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/
Nation Multimedia, October 5, 2001
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
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
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
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
After this meeting, there was no turning
back for the young student. She became even more determined to pursue
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
After a Millennium, World
Buddhists Affirm Equality for Women
In Unprecedented Internal Ordination Ceremony Under the Tree of
February 15-23, 1998 - Bodhgaya, India
Hsi Lai Temple’s Web Site,
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
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
Everyone has the right to
Venerable Khamba Lam Choi-Jamts -
Gandan Monastery, The Center of Mongolian Buddhists
Venerable Pandith M. Vajiragnana -
Sangha Nayake of Great Britain
Venerable Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche - Abbot of Kagyu Samye Ling
Tibetan Center, Scotland
Venerable Pandith Henepola Gunaratana -
Chief Sangha Nayaka of the United States and North America
Venerable Phra Kru Phiphit Prachanart -
Abbot of Samakki Temple
Venerable Phra Maha Somchai Prohmsuwan - Assistant Abbot of Maha
Chula Buddhist University
Venerable Phra Maha Nibhon Subhadhammo - Abbot of Dhammasopit
Venerable Phra Khru Sangha Wichai - Abbot of Plukmailai Temple
Venerable Bhikkhu Sumangala -
President of Religion and Peace Academy
Venerable Bhikkhu Ashwaghosh - Editor in chief, The Dhammakirti
(a Buddhist Monthly)
Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh - Zen
Master, writer, lecturer, Founder and Abbot of Plum Village Meditation
Center and The Order of Inter-being.
Venerable Thich Huyen-Yi - President of the World Linh-Son Buddhist
Lama Denis - Chairman of European Buddhist Union
Sarvodaya Bhikkhu Congresss, Moratuwa, Sri
All India Bhikkhu Congress, India
The Maha Bodhi Society of India
Dambulla Rock Temple, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order, Kaohsiung, Taiwan
International Buddhist Council, Bodhgaya,
Gaya, Bihar, India
Maha Bodhi International Meditation Center, Ladakh, India
International Brotherhood Mission, Assam, India
BLIA Delhi Chapter, Delhi, India
BLIA Bodhgaya Chapter, Bodhaya, India
BLIA Calcutta Chapter, Calcutta, India
Buddha’s Light International Association,
World Headquarters, Los Angeles, CA. USA.
International Full Ordination Committee
Venerable Tep Vong - Supreme Patriarch
of Maha Nikaya, Cambodia
Venerable Pandith Talalle Dharmaloka
Anunayaka Thero -Chief High Priest of Justice (Adhikorana Nayaka) for
Western Province Deputy; Prelate of the Amarapura Sect
Venerable Prof. Kumburugamawe Vajira Maha Thero - Vice Chancellor
of Pali and Buddhist University, Sri Lanka
Venerable Kamburupitiye Nandarathana Nayaka Thero - Chief High
Priest of Western Province
Venerable Dr. Waragoda Pemarathana Thero - Vice Chancellor,
Buddhasravaka Bhikku University Anuradhapura
Venerable Porawagama Somalankara Nayake Thero - Deputy Sangha
Nayaka Thera of Southern Province, Chief Secretary, Sarvodaya Bhikkhu
Venerable Mahagalkadawala Punnasara Nayaka Thero -
Nuns Education Center, Dambula
Venerable Inamaluwe Sumangala Nayaka Thero - Chief Secretary of
Rangiri Dambulla Sangha Chapter
Venerable Dr. Mapalagama Wipulasara Maha
Thero - President, The Maha Bodhi Society of India
Venerable Dr. Rastrapala Mahathera - Founder,
President-Cum-Meditation teacher of International Meditation Center,
Venerable Dharmapala Mahathera - President of All India Bhikkhu
Venerable Nyanainda Mahathera - Abbot of the Burmese Temple,
Venerable Sanghasena - President of Mahabodhi International
Meditation Center, Ladakh, India
Venerable Master Hsing Yun - Founder
of Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order, Taiwan
Venerable Ching Hsin - President of Chinese Buddhist Association,
Venerable Ching Ming - Ex-President of
Malaysia Buddhist Association, Malaysia
Venerable Chi Huang - President of Malaysia Buddhist Association
Venerable Dr. Kirinde Dhammananda Maha Nyaka Thero - Chief Prelate
Venerable Wol Ha - Supreme Patriarch,
Korea Buddhist Chogye Order
Venerable Ka San Seak - Chancellor of Korean Buddhist University
Venerable Tong Joo Won Myuong - Sila Committee of Korean Chau-See
Source: Hsi Lai Temple’s Web Site, California,
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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)
Arrow River Community Center, Canada
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
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,
Mount Lavinia Fax :- 0094 11 2730726 / 0094 11 2738228
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|Jagatheesan Chandrasekharan||Feb 11 (2 days ago)
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