The Urban Dharma Newsletter - September 14, 2008


In This Issue: Buddhism and Ordained Women

1. Binara Poya and the Bhikkhuni Order / Premasara EPASINGHE
2. Mahāpajāpatī Gotami / An eminent Therī
3. Bhikkhuni / From Wikipedia
4. Whither Theravada Bhikkhuni Order ? - by Hong Yew Chye
5. A Radiance of Nuns - by Charlotte Sudhamma Bhikkhuni



This newsletter is focused on the Bhikkhuni (Bhiksuni) Sangha, the nun’s of Buddhism... I hope you find it useful and interesting.

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If you live in the Los Angeles area, I have a class starting up next month at Loyola Marymount University on "Integrating Buddhist Practices Into Everyday Life" from October 9 – November 6, 2008... For more info please visit:


Peace... Kusala

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1. Binara Poya and the Bhikkhuni Order / Premasara EPASINGHE Daily News 11/8 2008 Sri Lanka


Out of the Poya days, which falls during the rainy season, Binara is of special significance as far as Buddhist Order is concerned. Binara Poya begins according to the English Season in Autumn (Sarath in Sinhala) between Summer and Winter from September to November in the Northern hemisphere.

During this period, members of the Maha Sangha, observe the Disciplinary Code laid down by the Blessed One. They stay indoors during this rainy season and perform special monastic rituals and attend to many religious ceremonies, meditate and deliver sermons.

There is a very close relationship between the Buddhist monks and lay - ‘dayakas’. Temples get filled with large number of devotees observing “Sil” on Binara Poya day. Youth play a prominent role in Buddhist activities on Poya days.

The Bhikkhuni Order

When the Blessed One was residing at Nigrodharamaya in the City of Kapilavastu, Queen Mahāpajāpatī, approached the Enlightened One, and requested permission for women to enter the Order. The Buddha turned down her kind request thrice.

The Buddha left Kapilavastupura, proceeded to the City of Vesali and resided at Kutagara Hall.

In the meantime, Queen Mahāpajāpatī, the chief of the Bhikkhuni Sasanaya, who played a lead role, with five hundred wives of the princes, shaved their heads, wore yellow robes, met Venerable Ananda Thera and humbly requested him to speak to the Blessed One to grant permission for them to enter the Bhikkhuni Order.

Once again, the Buddha turned down their request, made by Ven. Ananda. Again and again Ven. Ananda appealed to the Buddha to grant permission for Prajapathi Gothami and her 500 companions to enter the Order.

Considering the request of Queen Mahāpajāpatī the Buddha granted permission to womenfolk to enter the Sasanaya on Binara Poya day and requested them that they should strictly follow and honour the eight important principles (Garu Dharma Ata) laid down by the Buddha. It was called as the Code of Conduct for Bhikkhunis.

Some of the highlights of this “Garu Dharma” are:

a) A Bhikkhuni (Nun), although she had attained the Higher Order, eVen. hundred years ago, She should worship and honour a Bhikkhu who had attained the Higher Order on that very day. Here the date of the seniority does not matter.

b) No Bhikkhuni should be engaged in Retreat in an area where there are no Bhikkhus. (Monks)

c) Bhikkhunis should take the advice of Bhikkhus. (Monks)

d) At the end of the Retreat a Bhikkhuni should ceremoniously end the “Retreat” in the presence of Bhikkhunis and Bhikkhus.

e) A novice Bhikkhuni, should gain higher ordination in front of Bhikkhunis only after one year of study.

f) Bhikkhunis should not advise Bhikkhus, although Bhikkhus may advise Bhikkhunis.

Venerable Ananda, described these condition to Queen Mahāpajāpatī and stated “If you accept these conditions, the Blessed One will grant permission to initiate the Bhikkhuni Order.

Queen Mahāpajāpatī facing the direction of the Blessed One made this announcement. “Ven. Ananda, just as young men and women would bathe and adorn themselves with garlands of Jasmine flowers, so do I accept those conditions laid down by the Blessed One.

Thus, was the beginning of the Bhikkhuni Order (Sasanaya) on a Binara Full Moon day.

With the advent of Buddhism to Sri Lanka during King Devanampiyatissa’s reign, the daughter of the Great King Emperor Asoka’s daughter Sanghamitta brought the Bo-sapling Jayasiri Maha Bodhi and there began the Bhikkhuni Sasanaya in Sri Lanka.

In a very silent manner sans publicity, the Sri Lankan Bhikkhunis, contribute their share for the propagation of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. They also play a leading role in spreading the Message of Buddhism. We are ever grateful to them.

May the Triple Gem Bless you.

2. Mahāpajāpatī Gotami / An eminent Therī. She was born at Devadaha in the family of Suppabuddha as the younger sister of Mahāmāyā.


Ap.ii.538 says her father was Añjana Sakka and her mother Sulakkhanā. Mhv.ii.18 says her father was Añjana and her mother Yasodharā. Dandapāni and Suppabuddha were her brothers; cp. Dpv. xviii.7f.

At the birth of each sister, interpreters of bodily marks prophesied that their children would be cakkavattins. King Suddhodana married both the sisters, and when Mahāmāyā died, seven days after the birth of the Buddha, Pajāpati looked after the Buddha and nursed him. She was the mother of Nanda, but it is said that she gave her own son to nurses and herself nursed the Buddha. The Buddha was at Vesāli when Suddhodana died, and Pajāpatī decided to renounce the world, and waited for an opportunity to ask the permission of the Buddha.

Pajāpatī was already a sotāpanna. She attained this eminence when the Buddha first visited his father's palace and preached the Mahādhammapāla Jātaka (DhA.i.97).

Her opportunity came when the Buddha visited Kapilavatthu to settle the dispute between the Sākiyans and the Koliyans as to the right to take water from the river Rohinī. When the dispute had been settled, the Buddha preached the Kalahavivāda Sutta, and five hundred young Sākiyan men joined the Order. Their wives, led by Pajāpatī, went to the Buddha and asked leave to be ordained as nuns. This leave the Buddha refused, and he went on to Vesāli. But Pajāpatī and her companions, nothing daunted, had barbers to cut off their hair, and donning yellow robes, followed the Buddha to Vesāli on foot. They arrived with wounded feet at the Buddha's monastery and repeated their request. The Buddha again refused, but Ananda interceded on their behalf and their request was granted, subject to eight strict conditions.

For details see Vin.ii.253ff.; also A.iv.274ff. There was some question, which arose later as to the procedure of Pajāpatī's ordination, which was not formal. When the nuns discovered this some of them refused to hold the uposatha with her. But the Buddha declared that he himself had ordained her and that all was in order (DhA.iv.149). Her upasampadā consisted in acquiescing in the eight conditions laid down for nuns (Sp.i.242).

After her ordination, Pajāpatī came to the Buddha and worshipped him. The Buddha preached to her and gave her a subject for meditation. With this topic she developed insight and soon after won arahantship, while her five hundred companions attained to the same after listening to the Nandakovāda Sutta. Later, at an assembly of monks and nuns in Jetavana, the Buddha declared Pajāpatī chief of those who had experience (rattaññūnam) (A.i.25). Not long after, while at Vesāli, she realized that her life had come to an end. She was one hundred and twenty years old; she took leave of the Buddha, performed various miracles, and then died, her five hundred companions dying with her. It is said that the marvels which attended her cremation rites were second only to those of the Buddha.

It was in the time of Padumuttara Buddha that Pajāpatī made her resolve to gain eminence. She then belonged to a clansman's family in Hamsavatī, and, hearing the Buddha assign the foremost place in experience to a certain nun, wished for similar recognition herself, doing many good deeds to that end. After many births she was born once more at Benares, forewoman among five hundred slave girls. When the rains drew near, five Pacceka Buddhas came from Nandamūlaka to Isipatana seeking lodgings. Pajāpatī saw them after the Treasurer had refused them any assistance, and, after consultation with her fellow slaves, they persuaded their several husbands to erect five huts for the Pacceka Buddhas during the rainy season and they provided them with all requisites. At the end of the rains they gave three robes to each Pacceka Buddha. After that she was born in a weaver's village near Benares, and again ministered, this time to five hundred Pacceka Buddhas, sons of Padumavatī (ThigA.140ff.; AA.i.185f.; Ap.ii.529 43).

It is said that once Pajāpatī made a robe for the Buddha of wonderful material and marvellously elaborate. But when it came to be offered to the Buddha he refused it, and suggested it should be given to the Order as a whole. Pajāpatī was greatly disappointed, and Ananda intervened. But the Buddha explained that his suggestion was for the greater good of Pajāpatī, and also as an example to those who might wish to make similar gifts in the future. This was the occasion for the preaching of the Dakkhināvibhanga Sutta (M.iii.253ff.; MA.ii.1001ff.; this incident is referred to in the Milinda p.240). The Buddha had a great love for Pajāpatī, and when she lay ill, as there were no monks to visit her and preach to her - that being against the rule - the Buddha amended the rule and went himself to preach to her (Vin.iv.56).

Pajāpatī's name appears several times in the Jātakas. She was the mother monkey in the Cūla Nandiya Jātaka (J.ii.202), Candā in the Culla Dhammapāla (J.iii.182), and Bhikkhudāyikā (or Bhikkhudāsikā) daughter of Kiki, king of Benares (J.vi.481).

Mahāpajāpatī was so called because, at her birth, augerers prophesied that she would have a large following; Gotamī was her gotta name (MA.i.1001; cp. AA.ii.774).

There is a story related of a nurse employed by Pajāpatī and born in Devadaha. She renounced the world with Pajāpatī, but for twenty five years was harassed by thoughts of lust till, at last, she heard Dhammadinnā preach. She then practiced meditation and became an arahant. ThigA.75f.

3. Bhikkhuni / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


A Bhikkhuni (Bhikshuni (Sanskrit) , Bhikkhuni (Pāli) is a fully ordained female Buddhist monastic. Male monastics are called Bhikkhus. Both Bhikkunis and Bhikkhus live by the vinaya. Bhikkhuni lineages enjoy a broad basis in Mahayana countries like Korea, Vietnam, China and Taiwan.

According to Buddhist scriptures, the order of bhikkhunis was first created by the Buddha at the specific request of his foster-mother Mahapajapati Gotami, who became the first ordained bhikkuni, relayed via his attendant Ananda. The bhikkhuni order spread to many countries.

For a country or nation to be considered as truly Buddhist, there must be the fourfold sangha of bhikshu, bhikshuni, upasaka, upasika. [1].


According to Theravada tradition, the bhikkuni order of nuns came to be 5 years after the bhikkhu order of monks.

Buddhism is unique in that Buddha, as founder of a spiritual tradition, explicitly states in canonical literature that a woman is as capable of nirvana (enlightenment) as a man, and can fully attain all four stages of enlightenment in the Dhamma and Vinaya of the Buddha Sasana.[2] [3] There is no equivalent, in other traditions, of the Therigatha or Apadanas which record the high levels of spiritual attainment by women.[4].

In a similar vein, major canonical Mahayana sutras such as the Lotus Sutra,chapter 12, records 6000 bhikkhuni Arahants as receiving predictions of Bodhisatvahood and future Buddhahood by Sakyamuni Buddha. In Buddhism, women can openly aspire to and practice for the highest level of spiritual attainment.

The Eight Precepts

According to the available canon, Buddha was quite reluctant to ordain women into the Sangha. Only after several requests made by his stepmother and aunt, Mahapajapati Gotami, and his attendant and half-brother Ananda (Mahajapati Gotami's son) was the request granted -- but only on condition that the women accept eight garudhammas, or eight heavy rules. The Buddha is quoted by Thannisaro Bhikkhu with saying: Ananda, if Mahapajapati Gotami accepts eight vows of respect, that will be her full ordination (upasampada).[5].

According to the scriptural accounts, the reason the Buddha gave for his actions was that admission of women to the sangha would weaken it and shorten its lifetime. Some modern Buddhist scholars explain this reluctance because these women (many who were mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, cousins of many of the bhikkhus) might be subjected to rape, assault, sexual harassment and being termed "prostitutes and thieves", which in fact, did later occur as recorded in the Vinaya. One example as told in the Vinaya in which a Brahmin calling the bhikkhunis "strumpets" (i.e. prostitutes), tries to set fire to the Bhikkhunis dwelling:

Then that Brahmin . . . spread it about, saying:
These shaven headed strumpets are not true recluses. How can they
let a pot fall on my head? I will set fire to their dwelling,
Ó and having taken up a fire brand, he entered the dwelling.82

In Young Chung noticed that society as recorded in the Vinaya always criticized the bhikkhunis more harshly using "shaven headed strumpets or whores" whereas the bhikkhus were simply called "shaven headed". This harsher treatment (which also included rape and assault) of Bhikkhunis by society required greater protection, "Within these social conditions, Gautama Buddha opened up new horizons for women by founding the Bhikùni sangha. This social and spiritual advancement for women was ahead of the times and, therefore, drew many objections from men, including bhikùus. He was probably well aware of the controversy that would be caused by the harassment of his female disciples."[6]

Early Buddhism did not have monasteries and it was a requirement of the Bhikkhus and early Bhikkhunis to spend a lot of time in the forests alone, but due to the consequent rape and assault of some of the bhikkhunis by outsiders recorded in the Vinaya-- Buddha eventually forbade women from wandering in forests away from society. Bhikkhunis eventually resided in more fixed residences near populated areas than the Bhikkhus.

According to some modern Buddhist apologists, most of the rules (including the more controversial 8 Garudhammas) of the Bhikkhuni Vinaya are more for the protection of the Bhikkhunis by association with the more senior Sangha of the male Bhikkhus and thus the homage for protection and teaching the newer Bhikkhuni Sangha and not "sexual discrimination". Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh writes, "Nuns at the time of the Buddha had equal rights and an equal share in everything. In one case, eight robes were offered to both sanghas at a place where there was only one nun and four monks. The Buddha divided the robes in half, giving four to the nun and four to the monks, because the robes were for both sanghas and had to be divided equally however many were in each group. Because the nuns tended to receive fewer invitations to lay people's homes, the Buddha had all offerings brought to the monastery and equally divided between the two sanghas. He protected the nuns and was fair to both parties. They are subordinate in the sense of being younger sisters and elder brothers, not in the sense of being masters and slaves."[7]

Many of the more controversial rules were clarified or amended, implying that these rules were not unalterable:

1) A nun who has been ordained even for a hundred years must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, do proper homage to a monk ordained but that day.

* clarification: The Vinaya recounts the story of six monks who lifted up their robes to show their thighs to the nuns. When the Buddha learned about this, he made an exception to that rule and told the nuns not to pay respect to these monks. A nun, then, does not have to bow to every monk, but only to a monk who is worthy of respect. [8]

* Pajapati's later request: "I would ask one thing of the Blessed One, Ananda. It would be good if the Blessed One would allow making salutations, standing up in the presence of another, paying reverence and the proper performance of duties, to take place equally between both bhikkhus and bhikkhunis according to seniority." [9]

2) A nun must not spend the rains in a residence where there are no monks. [See Bhikkhuni Pac.56: Vin.IV. 313 ]

3) Every half month a nun should desire two things from the Order of Monks : the asking as to the date of the Observance [ uposatha ] day, and the coming for the exhortation [ bhikkhunovada ]. [See Bhikkhuni Pac.59: Vin.IV. 315 ]

4) After the rains a nun must 'invite' [ pavarana ] before both Orders in respect of three matters, namely what was seen, what was heard, what was suspected. [See Bhikkhuni Pac. 57: Vin. IV.314 ]

* amended: However, practical considerations soon necessitated amendments to these and we see in the revised version of these conditions the sanction given to the Bhikkhunis to perform these acts, in the first instance, by themselves. [10]

5) A nun, offending against an important rule, must undergo manatta discipline for half a month before both Orders.

* another translation: "(5) A bhikkhuni who has broken any of the vows of respect must undergo penance for half a month under both Sanghas... (by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

6) When, as a probationer, she has trained in the six rules [ cha dhamma ] for two years, she should seek higher ordination from both Orders.

* note contradiction: One of the gurudhamma mentions sikkhamanas, probationary nuns who train for two years in preparation to become bhikkhunis. It says that after a probationary nun has trained with a bhikkhuni for two years, that bhikkhuni preceptor has the responsibility to fully ordain her. However, when the Buddha ordained Mahapajapati, there were no probationary nuns. He ordained her directly as a bhikkhuni. So how do we explain that within the eight important rules, one of them states that before becoming a bhikkhuni, a woman must be a probationary nun? "[11]

7) A Monk must not be abused or reviled in any way by a nun.

8) From today , admonition of monks by nuns is forbidden. [ Book of the Discipline, V.354-55 ] [12]

* note Buddhist Laywomen can: This is in contrast to the rules for Buddhist Laywomen who can single handedly accuse a bad monk:

"Equality of bhikùni and bhikùu, men and women, can be inferred in
several of the rules groupings. The penalties for offenses against those
aniyata dharmas written only for bhikùus, for example, point up a landmark
of female-male equality. Here, in a gesture of trust in women most
unusual for the time, a trustworthy female lay follower can bring a charge
against a bhikùu based only on her personal eyewitness testimony, in order
to force an investigation of that bhikùus conduct. Additionally, equal abilities
of men and women are presumed in the regulations for settlement of disciplinary
matters in the seven Adhikaraõa øamatha Dharmas, which are
exactly the same, in both numbers and contents, for both the Bhikùu and the
Bhikùni Sanghas."[13]

Nuns were also given the right to select the monk who would be allowed to give counsel to the order of nuns (he had to be acceptable to all the nuns) and the selection criteria was quite stringent:

There seems to be little doubt about his anxiety and his
foresight regarding the safety and well-being of the female
members of his Order. [Vin.IV.51].[14]

These eight qualities were: the teacher of nuns must be virtuous; second, have comprehensive knowledge of the Dhamma; third he must be well acquainted with the Vinaya, especially the rules for nuns; fourth, he must be a good speaker with a pleasant and fluent delivery, faultless in pronunciation, and intelligibly convey the meaning; fifth, he should be able to teach Dhamma to the nuns in an elevating, stimulating, and encouraging way; sixth, he must always be welcome to the nuns and liked by them — that is, they must be able to respect and esteem him not only when he praises them but especially when there is an occasion for reproach; seventh, he must never have committed sexual misconduct with a nun; eighth, he must have been a fully ordained Buddhist monk for at least 20 years (AN 8.52).[15]

Some scholars argue that these 8 rules were added later since:

1) there is a discrepency between the Pali Bhikkuni Vinaya
2) the fact that these same rules are treated only as a minor offense (requiring only confession as expiation) in the Bhikkuni Payantika Dharmas.

In Young Chung clarifies, "Hae-ju Chun, a bhikùni and assistant professor at Tongguk University in Seoul, Korea, argues that six of the Eight Rules (#1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8) belong to the Bhikùni Pàyantika Dharmas, as they are the same as or similar to rules found there. We may compare the differences in the punishment for any offense of the Eight Rules with that for an offense of the pàyantika dharmas. Violation of any of the Eight Rules means that women cannot be ordained. The Eight Rules must be observed throughout the bhikùuõãs lives. However, the pàyantika dharmas (#175, 145, 124 or 126, 141, 143, 142) require only confession, as there offenses of bhikunis are considered to be violations of minor rules. Based on the differences in the gravity of offenses between the Eight Rules and the pàyantika dharmas, she also asserts the probability that the Eight Rules might have been added later. The first of the Eight Rules does not appear in the Pàli Bhikùni Vinaya. [16]

Most of these rules are also found in the Bhikkuni Payantika Dharmas as minor rules since they only require confession:

Theriya tradition, which at some stage, seems to have accommodated the idea that the Buddha conceded the abrogation of the minor rules [D.II.14 & VIn.II.287]. [17]

Other scholars argue that questioning canonical sources is a slippery slope. Buddha's main concern was about the rest of society, which was the main supporter of the Sangha, and how they would view the ordination of women -- something quite revolutionary at the time. There were many men who even after the apparent success of the Bhikkuni Sangha, were opposed to its formation[Vin.II.289]. However, we have Buddha himself admit that the social factors were foremost in his mind when making these rules:

the Theriya tradition attempts to make out that in the organization of the Sasana social considerations, as much as moral and ethical values, loomed large in the mind of the Master. In the Cullavagga he is reported as saying: ` Not even the Titthiyas who propound imperfect doctrines sanction such homage of men towards women. How could the Tathagata do so?'

This agrees with the fact that rival sects such as the Jains also had the first rule according to the Svetambara rules.[18]

Ian Astley argues that under the conditions of society where there is such great discrimination and threat to women, Buddha could not be blamed for the steps he took in trying to secure the Sangha from negative public opinion:

In those days (and this still applies to much of present Indian society) a woman who had left the life of the household would otherwise have been regarded more or less as a harlot and subjected to the appropriate harassment. By being formally associated with the monks, the nuns were able to enjoy the benefits of leaving the household life without incurring immediate
harm. Whilst it is one thing to abhor, as any civilized person must do, the attitudes and behavior towards women which underlie the necessity for such protection, it is surely misplaced to criticize the Buddha and his community for adopting this particular policy.[19]

The socalled Eight rules of respect (which are vows) are still in force, they are part of the process of full ordination.

The fourteen Precepts

In buddhist Order of Interbeing established in 1964 there are fourteen precepts [20] to be observed by nuns and monks equally. They are written by Vietnamese monk and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh giving words to what he felt carried the deepest teachings of the Buddha and would be fit for our time.

Nhat Hanh and Chan Khong about the Eight Observations of Respect

* Yes, but in Plum Village, we do not observe them ["the Eight Observations of Respect that nuns have to observe towards Buddhist monks"] because Thay says that these Eight Observations were invented to help the stepmother of the Buddha only. He says you need to keep the 14 precepts properly. That's all. But of course he doesn't despise the traditional precepts. And I can accept them just to give joy to the monks who practice in the traditional way. If I can give them joy, I will have a chance to share my insights about women with them, and then they will be unblocked in their understanding. [21]

The traditional appearance of Theravadan bhikkhunis is nearly identical to that of male monks, including a shaved head and saffron robes. White or pink robes are worn by Theravadan nuns who are not fully ordained, in some counties nuns wear dark chocolate robes or sometimes the same colour as monks.These nuns are known as dasa sila mata in Sri-Lanka, Silashin in Myanmar(Burma) and the siladharas of Amaravati monastery in the United Kingdom and its branch monasteries.

In the Theravada tradition, some scholars believe that the bhikkhuni lineage became extinct in the 11th to 13th centuries, after which no new bhikkhunis could be ordained since there were no bhikkhunis left to give ordination. For this reason, the leadership of the Theravada bhikkhu Sangha in Burma and Thailand deem fully ordained bhikkhunis as "untrue."[22] Other members support the ordination of woman as bhikkhunis.[23] Dr.Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, now known as Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, is a female Thai scholar who took bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka and returned to Thailand, where bhikkhuni ordination is forbidden and can result in arrest or imprisonment for a woman.[24] She is considered a pioneer by many in Thailand and a "devil" by others.


In Indochina Theravada tradition, many women who are not allowed to ordain, continue as dedicated practitioners, following the spirit and often the letter of the bhikkhuni vows. They are considered mae jis, laywomen or “semi-ordained,” since they are not officially recognized by the Theravada Sangha. These women attempt to lead a life following the teachings of the Buddha. They observe 8-10 precepts, but do not follow exactly the same codes as ordained Buddhist monks. They receive popular recognition for their role. But they are not granted official endorsement or the educational support offered to men. They spend most of their time as temple maids and cooks for monks.

Re-establishing Bhikkhuni Ordination

In July 2007 a meeting of Buddhist leaders and scholars of all traditions met at the International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha,[25] in Hamburg, Germany to work toward a world-wide consensus on the re-establishment of Bhikshuni ordination. 65 delegates, bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, Vinaya masters and elders from traditional Buddhist countries and Western-trained Buddhologists attended. The Summary Report from the Congress[26] states that All delegates "were in unanimous agreement that Mulasarvastivada bhikshuni ordination should be re-established," and sites the Dalai Lama's full support of bhikkhuni ordination (already in 1987 H. H. XIVth Dalai Lama had demanded the re-establishment of full ordination for nuns in Tibet). The only transmission line of ordination that still exists is the Dharmagupta transmission line, which allows the ordination of nuns in China, Taiwan, Korea and Vietnam.

The aim of the congress has been rated by the organizers of utmost importance for equality and liberation of Buddhist women (nuns). "The re-establishment of nuns’ ordination in Tibet via H. H. XIVth Dalai Lama and the international monks and nuns sanghas will lead to further equality and liberation of Buddhist women. This is a congress of historical significance which will give women the possibility to teach Buddha’s doctrines worldwide." [27]

To help establish the Bhikshuni Sangha (community of fully-ordained nuns) where it does not currently exist has also been declared one of the objectives of Sakyadhita [28], as expressed at its founding meeting in 1987 in Bodhgaya, India.

The former wife of Lord Buddha, Yashodhara - Yasodhara, mother of his son Rahula, according to legend also became a nun and an arahant.

4. Whither Theravada Bhikkhuni Order ? - by Hong Yew Chye


Thai Bhikkhuni Rattanavali, the recipient of the outstanding woman in Buddhism award in 2002 visited Than Hsiang on 17 of April 2008. It is rare to meet a fully ordained nun of the Theravada tradition. What we normally have are the Mae Chee , clad in white or pink robe, who follow the eight or ten precepts, rather than the 311 rules of the bhikkhuni patimokkha. Theravada Bhikkhuni order is a controversial issue in Theravada Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. Buddha is reported to have allowed women into the Sangha only with great reluctance and further forecasting the ending of the dharma period after 500 years. It is open to debate on the interpretation of his prophesy, but historically the Bhikkhunis order did die out in India and Sri lanka over 1000 years ago. In another word, the lineage is broken, and for 1000 years there were no Theravada Bhikkhunis anywhere.

Lately there are movements in Sri Lanka and Thailand fighting to gain the right to be ordained as a“Bhikkhuni”, a higher ordination that place them on par with the Theravada monks. Spearheading the movement, we have prominent and outspoken pioneers , Ven. Dhammananda , American Bhikkhuni Dr. Lee and Ven. Ratanavali.

During a discussion I have with Ven . Ratanavali she lamented that Bhikkhunis in Thailand are fighting an uphill battle to get the order accepted. At times, the pressure could be extremely daunting and demoralizing. A senate sub-committee in 2003 proposed to the Thai Sangha council that permission be given for the ordination of women, but to date the permission has been denied. The reason for the rejection of Bhikkhuni is based on the monastic code (vinaya) that five Bhikkunis and five Bhikkhus must be present at ceremonies marking novitiate, ordination and confirmation of ordination. Therefore, with the disappearance of Bhikkhuni order, the quorum can not be met and hence the institution is doomed.

In response to the claim by the Thai Supreme Sangha that Thailand never had female ordination in the past and it can not start doing it now, Dhammananda retorted,“ that Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia never had Buddhist monks and the lineage was introduced from Sri Lanka. As such, if monks can do that, I don’t see why women can’t do it.”

Bhikkhunis in these countries are facing immense pressure from the monastic community as well as lay society in their fight for recognition as well as in their social works. Women in Thailand are becoming more supportive of Dhammanda’s quest, maintaining that nuns are in better position to attend to women’s needs and problems when monks are restrained by training to avoid women.

The dispute over bhikkhuni order also bring into focus the question of gender equality or inequality in Theravada Buddhist countries. . Emma Tomalin in her paper , the Thai bhikkhuni movement and women’s empowerment (2006), highlights the relationship between the low status of women in Thai Buddhism and the inferior status of women in Thai society. The concept of patriarchy is very entrenched in Thai Buddhism. To transform the mind-set is a big challenge, though possible, but unlikely in the near future. The high levels of female found in the sex work in Thailand lent credence to this fact. Whereas male siblings enjoy the privileges of education and monkhood to repay gratitude to their parents and the parents in turn gain merits. Females, on the other hand, often face a bleak future by becoming maids, factory workers or prostitutes to support their family. It is common knowledge in poor rural areas that young girls have been sold to pay off family debts. Patriarchy within Buddhism is a controversial subject in Thailand with regards to the role of women in religion, and the right of laywomen as opposed to men, which Ven. Ratanavali fervently vowed to change.

1. Emma,T. (2006). Gender & Development, 14 (3), 385-397

5. A Radiance of Nuns - by Charlotte Sudhamma Bhikkhuni


This account of the ordination of nuns in Sri Lanka comes from a private letter sent by one of the participants to her family and friends. She has consented to our printing exerpts from that letter. Some names have been deleted to protect privacy.

The moon, full, pauses
In coconut tree branches
Crickets sing their bliss.

Greetings from Sri Lanka!

I write to you now no longer as a novice (Samanera)—but as a fully ordained Theravada Bhikkhuni nun! My new name is Charlotte Sudhamma Bhikkhuni. (Because many monks in Sri Lanka have shared common ancient names, they need to distinguish among them. Thus it became a tradition to add the name of one’s hometown; my hometown is “Charlotte,” which now becomes part of my name.) My higher ordination ceremony took place on Feb 28th. I apologize for not informing you about this joyful event in advance, but it had to be kept secret due to international politics!!

The adventures I have been having are beyond description! I shall give some details below. Since coming to Sri Lanka, I have been going here and there, visiting various Bhikkhuna nunneries. The nuns receive me with open arms everywhere I go, and they all urge me to “stay longer” at their centers. My home base remains the Sakyadhita Center, about 20 miles from Colombo.

Sri Lankan Nuns

There are three kinds of nuns now in Sri Lanka: the newly restored Order of Bhikkhunis (women monks), the Ten Precept Samanera (novices), and Ten Precept nuns called “Dasa Sil Matas” (meaning “Ten Precept Mothers”). Although Dasa Sil Matas keep the same precepts as novices, and though many have been nuns for decades, they are considered junior to novices. They cannot directly receive the Bhikkhuni ordination, for they did not Go Forth (receive pabbajja) in the proper way like novices do, and are not considered in training to become Bhikkhunis. Some lay women now go forth as novices and two years later become Bhikkhunis, thus quickly becoming far senior to even elderly Dasa Sil Matas who have lived as nuns for forty years. This seems painful for everyone.

I recently saw a couple of very senior Dasa Sil Matas receive the novice ordination from Bhikkhunis; they both wept. Because this was too long in coming? Because they are now at the bottom of a hierarchy after having been very senior for so long? Or did they weep with joy? I do not know. It can be a scary move, if only because the government of Sri Lanka gives financial support to ordained people, including the Dasa Sil Matas, but not the Bhikkhunis(!), who most monks do not yet acknowledge as existing.

Another time I witnessed a beautiful 15-year old girl receiving novice ordination and putting on the Robe. I observed this girl novice for a few days afterwards; with her apparently flawless personality and her beauty she surely would have been married before long. It struck me how good it is to provide this option for someone such as her: a life of profound virtue. (Sri Lankans ordain for life.) As one monk said in a speech after my ordination, quoting the great Ven. Ananda Maitreyya, “These women are not asking for a fancy life, they are asking us monks to give them virtue—and we should give it to them!“

Why The Secrecy?

A great lady and very talented activist in Sri Lanka named Ms. Ranjani de Silva is the one person most responsible for resurrecting the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order. Ms. Ranjani not only organizes things on a large scale, setting up ceremonies and getting monks to participate and so forth; she also tends to the little details, right down to attendees’ bus fare and purchasing safety pins to keep the candidates’ outfits from slipping during the ceremony. All the Sri Lankan Bhikkhunis look to her as their mother. She treats them as her daughters, helping them in every way and scolding them when she deems it necessary.

Last fall Ms. Ranjani and the Bhikkhunis were planning for a large ordination ceremony this spring, to ordain many novices to become Bhikkhunis, as they did last spring. However, for Bhikkhuni ordination to be valid, senior monks must also take part; the monks who had committed to this year’s ceremony backed out, for various reasons, so the group ordination got postponed to 2004.

Yet one novice nun could not wait for 2004. This was the former Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a very famous professor of Buddhism and Buddhist activist in Thailand, now Ven. Dhammananda. A couple of years ago she came to Sri Lanka and received the novice ordination, making headlines around the world for her bold move in the face of fierce opposition of the united brotherhood of Thai monks. She counted on receiving higher ordination in Sri Lanka at this time. She also intended to bring a Thai lay woman with her to receive the Going Forth and The Robe as a novice nun. Even sympathetic Thai monks won’t give novice ordination to women, due to fear of the other monks.

Ven. Dhammananda intends to get the Bhikkhuni Order going in Thailand, despite the extreme opposition she faces. This is one brave and determined woman! I’ve gotten to know her well from close association during the past couple of weeks. She does this not to be a feminist troublemaker, but out of her vision for the future of Buddhism. She wants to strengthen the foundations through which the teachings may continue over the coming centuries.

Waiting another year would have caused this Thai nun problems, for she has a lot of plans in the works and everything depended upon this ordination. Therefore Ms. Ranjani went to work, brilliantly overcoming every obstacle, including internal politics among supportive monks and nuns, to create a small, “quiet“ ceremony just for this one novice.

Ms. Ranjani and I had made plans for her to host me here in Sri Lanka; she had told me of the planned group ordination, and then told me the sad news of its cancellation. Later, to my surprise and joy, she confided to me about the private ceremony and suggested that I may join Ven. Dhammananda. Increasing my joy, Bhante Gunaratana (the master who gave me novice ordination in America several years ago) sent his blessings. We kept the ceremony secret so that the news would not reach the populace of Thailand and perhaps cause so much pressure on the venerable monks giving the ordination that they might reconsider. The secret got out anyway but did not stop the ceremony after all.

The whole thing got even more controversial than anticipated, for in the last week before the ceremony the monks ushered in a couple of Burmese novice nuns to join us for Bhikkhuna ordination. Ms. Ranjani and her people did not want to take on Burma! —not yet anyway, and certainly not in Ven. Dhammananda’s personal ceremony. Already she may face excessive negative press in Thailand; outrage coming from Burma seems unlikely to help Ven. Dhammananda’s cause in Thailand. The brotherhood of Burmese monks opposes Bhikkhuna ordination passionately.

However, the great compassion of our senior Sri Lankan monks who give ordination to women, knows no bounds. They remain fearless even of the power of Burmese monks. (Burmese and Sri Lankan monks have close ties of friendship, which is less common among Thai and Sri Lankan monks.) Since the monks seemed willing to go ahead with the ceremony, these Burmese nuns were allowed to join us.

One Burmese nun is elderly and will return to America, where she has citizenship, so she remains safe. The other nun, however, is a pretty, young-looking, extremely learned nun whose name is well known in Burma. Police and government officials harassed her terribly after she returned to Burma from Sri Lanka as a novice; her Bhikkhuna ordination may provoke more forceful confrontations. Let us all send her our blessings!

The Ordination Ceremony

The night before the ceremony we had an all-night blessing chanting (paritta chanting) by a group of about a dozen Bhikkhunas at the home of Ms. Ranjani de Silva. The event marked both the ordination ceremony and the 5th year anniversary of Ms. Ranjani’s husband’s death. The chanting event happened in grand traditional style, with drummers, and a little special hut made of decorative paper (exquisitely cut into lacy designs) that the nuns sat inside while chanting. The beautiful little hut sat in the center of Ranjani’s living room; devotees sat on mats on the floor around it. There were coconut flowers in vases on the floor beside the hut, with little oil lamps balanced on top of the flowers; delicate branches of betel leaves, hanging down, decorated the top of the hut.

Usually only monks do this kind of important ceremony, but now that the Bhikkhuna Order has been revived, these nuns have authority to do such things too. How impressive the Bhikkhunas looked as they walked in ceremoniously, single-file! They entered following a fellow who carried on his head a cloth-covered golden stupa (a bell-shaped casket) containing sacred relics, with drummers beating shockingly loud drums. (I did not dare cover my ears—surely an insulting act by a nun in such a formal setting—so I just resigned myself to donating some of my hearing ability to the cause.)

Ordination day started with the conclusion of the chanting ceremony. Then we Bhikkhuna candidates donned lay persons’ white clothing and drove to the monastery for the ceremony. We had to start all over, beginning with Going Forth from lay life to novicehood again! I felt vulnerable, almost naked, without the Robe on, after nearly four years of constantly wearing it. When our van stopped en route to let someone purchase a needed item, I watched people passing by on the crowded sidewalk with great interest. Would they stare at me as they do when I am in robes? Usually Sri Lankans gape at me, from up to 100 feet away, even when I zip by in a speeding bus or van. But as I sat there in traditional white clothes, even with my head bald, folks walked right alongside the van without much interest in my appearance. Amazing difference.

Ordination involved three separate ceremonies. First the Going Forth as novices, then ordination by the Bhikkhunas, then ordination by the Bhikkhus. All of it took tremendous exertion, with reciting memorized lines in the Pali language; many bows down to the floor and back to standing position again and again; a difficult crouching position held for long periods, with hands in prayer position (anjali) above the head; in sweltering heat; in a crowded room (the sima). And, after the initial part conducted in the white clothes, it was all done wearing unbelievable layers of robe clothing! We wore the bathing robe underneath the under-robe, a long-sleeved blouse, the upper robe, and the remarkably heavy double-layer outer robe folded over the left shoulder.

My arms shook and I contemplated the non-self nature of this suffering body, thereby succeeding in overcoming the intense temptation to drop my arms at the wrong times to rest them. I did not give in even once, no matter how the arms shook. I viewed them as not “my” arms; not “my” problem that the body protested so much. Sweat dripped from my face and hands. The mat upon which I bowed became visibly drenched.

The four of us received ordination together, at the same time, but because I sat in the “senior” position, to the right of the other three, they became junior to me. Last week we debated this seating order. I insisted to Ven. Dhammananda that she should become senior to me, for she has been a university professor of Buddhism for many years, and a Buddhist activist, she is famous in her country, she is the master of a temple, and she is visibly older than I. For these reasons I find it unsuitable that when I will visit her temple she must bow to me in front of her disciples. She countered that I have been a novice nun for nearly four years whereas she went forth only two years ago, thus I should keep seniority. She added that it will be “good for (her) ego” for me to remain senior to her; I cried out “What about MY ego?!” which made everyone laugh, and there the discussion ended.

Ten Bhikkhunas and a dozen Bhikkhus gave us our ordination. When finished I could hardly believe it. There were four of us new Bhikkhunas, and we all seemed dazed. Also there was the newly ordained novice from Thailand, looking resplendent in her newly gained gold robes. We walked as a group straight from the sacred boundary to a large hall filled with supporters, seating ourselves in front. There a couple of the monks gave us exhortations, reminding us not to do any of the eight deeds that will ruin our nunhood, and so forth.

One very venerable monk who came from overseas to attend our ordination begged us not to be aggressive feminists, and especially not to openly reject the eight garudhamma rules (a set of nuns’ rules to which most Western women react badly, and which some scholars reject as not having come from the Buddha.) He said that we may view the eight special rules as not having come from the Buddha, but as more like an Amendment to the US Constitution: something that did not come from Founding Fathers but to be followed nonetheless. He asked us to please follow them and not openly speak against them, at least until we Bhikkhunas have gained acceptance from the Theravada monks. His points were well taken.

Afterwards A…What?

We five and the other nuns and our supporters piled into vans and headed to a reception at Sakyadhata. Ms. Ranjani had hinted excitedly that she planned something special, and I heard that it involved drummers, but no one told me what it would be. I almost did not want to know. I thought I may die of embarrassment if it would turn out to be some kind of ostentatious ceremony.

En route to the center, the van stopped at the village turn-off, about a mile from Sakyadhata, and people ordered us to get out. Mystified, we complied. We encountered a large crowd, and people came up to us, bowing. Someone thrust a great, decorated fan in my hands, and the other new Bhikkhunas also received one each. (The novice got a smaller fan.) The handle of the fan seemed heavy in my hands. Then a senior nun came along calling out orders, sending a mass of schoolchildren carrying colorful Buddhist flags down the road towards the village, walking in formation. Then it finally dawned on me: a parade! Omigod! We are heading up a parade!!

Someone tried to place our famous Ven. Dhammananda ahead of me, but she scooted behind me, reminding everyone that I am “senior” to her—yikes! Suddenly I realized it is not us but it is I who shall lead the nuns in the parade!! Cameras pointed at us. Then the senior nun cried out to us, “Go! Go!” We marched forward, with some dancers and drummers just ahead of me. A small boy carried a long, decorative pole immediately in front of me; people held large, gaily decorated yellow parasols over each new Bhikkhuna.

A large group of Bhikkhunas, novices and Dasa Sal Matas followed us new Bhikkhunas — about forty five nuns total (wearing monk-robes of varying shades of orange, yellow or gold). What a great sight this long line of nuns must have been!
The whole village turned out of course, and others came too I imagine. As I walked I dwelled upon thoughts of blessings for these poor but good villagers, wishing them prosperity, freedom from violence, and every kind of blessing I could think of—blessings for them, their land, even for their animals... I felt the power of the good things that had happened that day like a wave of light pouring through me, and outwards, all around. I barely smiled, which is unusual for me, but my face, my eyes, crinkled upward with joy. I felt absolutely radiant.

The parade went down the main street, then down our dirt road… I myself saw nothing of the parade. I just saw the active feet of the dancers and drummers ahead of me, and gold sparkles from the costumes of the dancers; my gaze stayed low as I concentrated on sending blessings. I barely even looked up towards the people gathered along the sides of the road, I just saw them from the corner of my eye. We would walk about ten feet to a casual drum beat, then the drummers would break into mad thunderous drumming, and the dancers would go wild with their dancing, for about a minute. Suddenly the drumming would drop off to a relaxed walking beat, and we would resume walking as before.

The parade carried on, all the way up to the entrance to the Sakyadhata compound, where a crowd awaited us, and right up the steps into the meditation hall. I kicked off my shoes and, still not looking around, continued forward to the very front of the room, then paused, uncertain, until someone waved me into a seat at the front. My new Bhikkhuna sisters and the new novice sat up front beside me, and the other nuns sat all along the sides and back of the room. The great monk who led our ordination ceremony (who, at age eighty five, is a formidable, sharp-minded master), gave a talk. The new Bhikkhuna Dhammananda also gave a talk, explaining the significance of the day’s events in terms of the history of the nuns’ Order.

Then Ms. Ranjani asked me to give a short speech, so I did. The hall was crowded with women, mostly older lay women, all seated on mats on the floor. So I gave a talk aimed at them. I started off saying I feel joyful today, so I want to talk about joy. I mentioned that most of them probably had breastfed their hungry babies; then I used the sweetness and wholesomeness of breast milk as a metaphor. I pointed out that their children, when older, remain hungry—as do these ladies’ husbands and other relatives—and these hungry relatives look for “food” in unwholesome activities such as watching TV and drinking alcohol. I said that the ladies need to “feed” their families something sweet and wholesome like breast milk, but what? “Joy!” I said.

Then I reminded them of the joy that they feel from offering flowers and so forth to shrines (truly I never saw such pious people in my life!), and said to keep that joy going through mental cultivation (bhavana) and morality (sila). This way they can come home still vibrating with that joy, and thus feed it to their families, who are so hungry for love and joy. Regarding morality I emphasized the need for right speech since these good ladies probably do not engage in other unwholesome activities. Whenever the ladies appreciated what someone said they cried out, “Sadhu! Sadhu! Saaadhuuu!”

But really I thought that our good elderly monk was going to faint when I started talking about breast milk! He seemed a bit, well, green, for a few moments. The villagers pressed gifts into our hands afterwards, mostly bars of soap—all they can afford, and apparently considered auspicious. I have been given enough soap in Sri Lanka to wash an army for a month.

Walking For Alms

The next day a few of us nuns went on alms round through the village. The village had not seen an alms round in decades. The tradition of going for alms has pretty much died out in this country. Elderly lay folks remember it fondly.

The village is mostly arranged along just a few long roads, with all the houses facing the road. Sakyadhata center is at the end of one of these, so we could simply walk forwards up this long road. People at the first few houses quickly came out at the sight of us, which we had expected, since a neighbor had organized them.

Then something happened that took my breath away as it unfolded before me: the word spread. People came hurrying out of their houses bearing food and bowing to us. After some time we began to ask each other, “Should we keep walking, or turn back now?” Then one of us would say, “Look, there are more people ahead waiting for us; we have to keep going.” We had to keep going. And going, on and on. The further we went, the further word spread, and more people came hastening out with some bits of food to give us. These are poor people. They have little to offer, but what they had, they wanted to give. Some friends followed along and put food into bags as our bowls filled. Still, we could see more people coming out of their houses. Finally we realized that there would be no end to it, so we stopped in the street and let everyone in sight come to us as we waited there; then we turned back, retracing our steps. More people came out with food on the return route.

I still weep to think of the pious old ladies forcing their aged bodies to bow down to the street before us. I also feel greatly moved to consider that we saw not only the old people along the route, but also some children. Thus even fifty years hence, at least some people will remain alive who once witnessed an alms round, seeing such profound piety in action, and there will remain the potential for revival of this ancient and beautiful tradition.

Enough for now.

May you be well, and happy and peaceful! May you receive your every wholesome wish!


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