by Barbara Yen
Malaysia, 17 September, 2011
September 17 is designated as International Bhikkhuni Day. On this day, let us remember and honour the courage of the five hundred women, led by Maha Pajapati Gotami who were so determined to renounce that they shaved their heads, donned the robes and walked about 350 miles barefoot, from Kapilavastu to Vesali to seek permission from the Buddha for ordination.
The Buddha believed that women were capable of being enlightened but is reported as being initially reluctant, if this was so he may have felt that the social and cultural climate of India at that time and the constraints in his young ministry were challenging factors for their going forth.
Ultimately, did the Buddha regret making this decision? From the facts of the case, it does not appear to be so. From these bhikkhunis, the Buddha singled out thirteen outstanding ones, all of whom were arahats, to be foremost in various aspects in Buddhism.
Misconceptions about the Bhikkhuni Order
Through the ages, some misconceptions or myths have crept in over the Bhikkhuni Order in various countries and cultures, particularly in Asia. Many genuinely believe them to be true. Some of these myths are:
Myth: The Bhikkhuni Sangha had gone extinct after the Buddha’s parinibbana as no bhikkhuni was mentioned in any of the Buddhist Councils.
We do not have to look very far. Even in our daily speech or in written word, there is gender bias in that the masculine gender is often used (he, his, mankind, man-power) to depict both genders. Our descendents could also be mistaken and believe that there are no women existing in this century!
Yet bhikkhunis and lay women found in King Asoka’s Edicts; they were often mentioned to be donors of viharas and stupas; and the Chinese pilgrim, Fa Hsien, noted that there were thousands of monks and nuns in Sankasya, India in the fourth century CE.
In Amaravati, India, which is considered a centre for Theravada Buddhism, the word ‘bhikkhuni’ was mentioned in about 18 sites and dates back to the 11th century CE which shows that both sanghas survived till then and were probably wiped out by the Muslim invasion in that period.
Myth: Ven. Sanghamitta, daughter of King Asoka, is the last of the bhikkhunis.
In fact there was even doubt that she brought enough bhikkhunis for the ordination of Princess Anula, King Tissa’s sister-in-law in the third century BCE. However, the Sri Lankan Chronicle, Mahavamsa 17.1 recorded Sanghamitta Theri came with ten other bhikkhunis to ordain her. Recent archaeological findings discovered an area between Anuradhapura and Mahintale, where Ven. Anula and her five hundred followers had their nunneries. The royal families also built aramas for the bhikkhunis.
In 433 CE, Ven Devasara of Sri Lanka led a group of bhikkhunis in a ship called Nandi and gave ordination to three hundred Chinese women in the Southern Forest Monastery in Nanking, China. (see Edward Conze: Buddhist Texts Through the Ages).
Dr Hua Chee Min, a Chinese professor, in his book written in Sinhala, Theravada Buddhism in China, cited 40,000 Theravada Buddhists from 5,000 temples, many of which were in Yunnan. The lineage therefore has not been broken and it later spread to Korea, Japan and Taiwan. In the Mahavamsa bhikkhunis are still mentioned up and till the 10th century.
In 1988, Fo Guang Shan of Taiwan organized the First International Ordination for women at Hsi Lai Temple, LA, USA and helped give the bhikkhuni lineage back to Sri Lanka, which was the country they got it from.
Myth: Women cannot come into contact with the robe. Her menstruation will soil it.
This is a Brahministic cultural and social belief. The Buddha was trying to discourage this kind of thinking. It is a biological process without which humans will go extinct. Not only are nuns ordained during the Buddha’s time but there was a nun who was pregnant. The Buddha called a royal commission to investigate the case with Ven Upali and a lay woman Visakha in the committee. When it was found that she was pregnant before she was ordained, not only was she not required to disrobe, she was allowed to go through with the pregnancy and breast feed her baby, whom she named Abhaya (Fearless) until he was one year old. The bhikkhuni’s is known as Abhayamata (the mother of Abhaya). The other nuns shared their alms food with her. Such was the compassion and deep understanding of the Buddha. Abhaya who was adopted by a prince, was later ordained as Ven. Kum?ra and became an arahat. His mother also had a similar attainment.
Uppalava???, a beautiful woman was raped by her cousin who was one of her many suitors. She did not need to disrobe as the Buddha disclosed that she was already an arahat and was beyond sensual pleasures. She is the most prominent bhikkhuni in psychic powers and one of the two Great Femail Disciples.
This incident reminds me of an unfortunate case of a Tibetan nun who was raped by Chinese soldiers. She disrobed, thinking that she was defiled and not worthy of wearing the robes.
The recent case of the Nepali nun who was raped by a bus driver and his companions is another example of ignorance about the Order and its rules. She was apparently disowned by a Nepali Buddhist organisation for similar reasons which caused an international outcry.
Myth: A Burmese woman once told me that women are of lower birth, and have to be born as men to be able to achieve Buddhahood.
There is a seed of Buddhahood in everyone one of us. It depends on whether we want to nurture it and how we nurture it. According to Ven. Anandajoti, “in the early sangha anyone who attained arahatship was also called a Buddha, only later was the term restricted to a Sammasambuddha. In line with the original interpretation of the word, therefore, males and females could be Buddhas.
But according to tradition only males become Sammasambuddhas, this is based on mythological thinking, which says that what happened in the exemplary case is the way it always happens. We don’t really think in this way anymore, and I personally can’t see any reason why women couldn’t become a Sammasambuddha.”
Myth: With the ordination of women, the life of the Dhamma will be shortened by 500 years.
If it is true, the Dhamma would have disappeared around 1st CE. If the Buddha had foreseen this with his divine vision, He would certainly not have agreed or have given in to Ven. ?nanda’s pleas.
In fact, the Buddha said, “The good Dhamma declines when Four-Fold Assembly (Bhikkhus, Bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen) dwells without respect for the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, the Training, Sam?dhi & Mindfulness” (A?guttara Nik?ya).
Myth: Ordination of women needs the Dual Sangha.
The Dual Sangha Ordination was first introduced when the bhikkhus in a single Sangha Ordination, asked a nun to answer the questions about the obstructions to ordination which are areas related to a monastic’s sexuality which might be obstacles to ordained life. She was embarrassed to answer and upon consultation with the Buddha, senior nuns were requested to ask these questions. This really reflects the Buddha’s sensitivity, compassion and flexibility in difficult situations. Nevertheless, the Single Sangha Ordination by Bhikkhus was never abolished.
Myth: Ordination of women done in the Mah?yana tradition is not valid.
The ordination for both sanghas is based on Vinaya rules which are similar in all three traditions. The difference is in the Dhamma, not the Vinaya, which is what the lineage is all about. Even in this, the difference is in the letter, not in spirit.
Myth: Ordination is a sign of failure in social life especially for women whose countries prohibit full ordination. Their status as eight or ten preceptors is low and they often serve as helpers in temples.
This perception is slowly changing especially in Thailand where some of the maechees have doctorates in Buddhism and teach in universities or nuns’ colleges. Some live as nuns in the forest tradition and one of them literally brought the forest back by planting about ten thousand trees to the amazement of the community and the state. After the 12th Sakyadhita Conference in Bangkok in June, 2011, a few of us had the opportunity to visit this peaceful hermitage.
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, a former professor in Buddhism in Thammasat University, received full ordination in Sri Lanka in 2003 and is now Abbess of Songdhammakalyani Bhikkhuni Arama, willed to her by her mother. She teaches Dhamma and conducts samaneri and temporary novitiate ordinations each year. On 24 June, 2011, she has five fully ordained bhikkhunis with her.
In 2005, she was among four Buddhist nuns to be selected for the 1,000 Peace Women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The others are Ven. Tenzin Palmo (UK), Ven. Rurui Shih (China) and Maeji Pratin Kwan-On (Thailand).
Perhaps the person who inspired her most is her mother, Ven. Voramai Kabilsingh who braved all odds to be the first woman in Thailand to be fully ordained in 1971, which she obtained in Taiwan after being a Maeji for 15 years, and afterwards she built her own monastery.
On this day, we also salute bhikkhunis for their strong perseverance and courage like Ven. Santini and Ven. Susilvati of Indonesia who braved strong opposition, and to Sara Narin (Thailand) and Saccavadi (Myanmar) who faced imprisonment. The former was kidnapped in 1928 and the latter disrobed in 2005 and is now married and resides in the USA.
Myth: Women can only disrobe once.
For a detailed discussion of this belief, please refer to Ven. Sujato’s chapter: Can a Bhikkhuni Ordain Again? in his book on Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies.
Myth: Women are obstacles to the purity of the bhikkhus.
Evidence from other traditions in Taiwan, Vietnam, France, USA, Australia and others shows an ever expanding and healthy dual sangha, both joyfully working side by side to serve the community and spread the Dhamma.
These myths, if allowed to perpetuate from century to century, will not only be a great hindrance to the progress of Buddhism but they reflect very negatively on the religion which claims to enable us to achieve wisdom and liberation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can use all this energy instead to spread the Buddha Sasana?
We need to deconstruct these myths and the tools for it are facts, information and wisdom. It is the responsibility of all Dhamma protectors and propagators to help disentangle this web of delusion and remove this shroud so that the light of Truth can shine through and illuminate the world.
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh), Women Strengthening Buddhism, Buddhasavika Foundation. Published by Thai Buddhist Centre, Bangkok, 2010
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, A Different Voice, Buddhasavika Foundation. Published by Thai Buddhist Centre, Bangkok, 2010
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, Bhikkhunis In Thailand, Buddhasavika Foundation, 2009. www.thaibhikkhunis.org.
Edward Conze: Buddhist Texts Through the Ages, Harper & Rows
Dr Hua Chee Min, Theravada Buddhism in China, Colombo
Sujato Bhikkhu, Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies: Can a Bhikkhuni Ordain Again?