When the Buddha was asked by his chief disciple the Venerable Ananda whether a woman could attain enlightenment, the Buddha’s reply was a definite yes. Thus emboldened by the Buddha’s unequivocal answer that both genders possessed the same potential to become Arahaths and that the Savaka-Bodhi status of arahathship was not the exclusive preserve of [...]


No, Mr. Minister, women cannot wait for the next Buddha


When the Buddha was asked by his chief disciple the Venerable Ananda whether a woman could attain enlightenment, the Buddha’s reply was a definite yes.

Thus emboldened by the Buddha’s unequivocal answer that both genders possessed the same potential to become Arahaths and that the Savaka-Bodhi status of arahathship was not the exclusive preserve of men but that women too had every right to aspire to that exalted state and attain it, Venerable Ananda persevered in his aim to see established a monastic Order for females even as an Order had been established for males.

By convincing with argument, persuading with reason and championing equal rights of the sexes with justification he won over the Buddha’s initial hesitancy to make come true the dearest dream of the Buddha’s foster mother Maha Prajapathi Gothami who had striven assiduously to form and join a female Order of Buddhist nuns to follow the path revealed to all by the Enlightened One.
Thus did the Buddha create the Bhikkuni Sasana, thereby freeing women trapped in the seraglios of society which had hitherto dictated that the tyranny of male supremacy was not confined to the arena of muscle and strength but demanded and held monopolistic sway over the sublime regions of the human mind as well.

Creation of the Bhikkuni Sasana: The highest recognition of the equality of the genders ever accorded in the history of the world. (File pic)

This was the highest recognition of the equality of the genders ever accorded in the history of the world. The male stranglehold on religious enlightenment was at an end. The zealously guarded citadel had been stormed. The male bastion had been breached. The Buddha had ruled: Women could be Buddhas too.

But today this radical and revolutionary departure from male prejudices — rife in the then male dominated world which regarded women as mere chattels born but to serve and worship at the altar of incarnate masculinity — made two thousand five hundred years ago by the Enlightened One when he recognised the intrinsic right of women to the Dhamma he expounded and the inherent right to take refuge in the Order of Bhikkunis he established, stands on the brink of being reversed due to ill conceived notions borne and inexplicable motives harboured by an influential few who shroud their objections with dubious reference to Buddhism’s constitutional conventions that are meant to guide the disciplinary lives of monks, not to subvert and negate the intent and purposes of his teachings and his exemplary actions.

Thus today on this Vesak Sunday, when it seems Lanka’s willed fate to return to a primitive era pre dating the Buddha, spare a compassionate thought for those amongst us who remain ignorant of the basic dictum of equality and still hold fast to the antediluvian belief that it is the ordained right only of those born male to be ordained in the Order of Monks; who fail to grasp the meaning of the enlightened action of the Buddha when he opened closed doors and set free the human spirit to aspire to the highest good.

Cast your loving kindness upon those who, irrespective of the high office they hold, be in lay society or in the religious order, cannot escape from the binding creepers of male chauvinism that have laid siege on their mental set up, with each held prisoner to the collective prejudices born of dark ages; and, fed by selfish interests, blinded by misconceptions and damned by convoluted thinking remain, in the face of all enlightened reason, doggedly determined not to let the last remaining Bastille fall.

Shed a tear of karuna in sympathetic sorrow for them to whom the night of ignorance is genuine and will not admit a single ray. And with benevolent equanimity consider without rage the startling, odious nature of what Buddha Sasana Deputy Minister K. D. S. Gunawardena told Parliament last Wednesday when asked by an opposition MP whether and when the much demanded Bhikkuni Sasana will be re established in Lanka.

“The women of Lanka will have to wait till the next Maithree Buddha is born for a Bhikkuni Sasana to be reestablished,” he told the House without a blush.” A new Bhikkuni Sangha order cannot be established until the next Buddha. Even the Mahanayake Theras have stated that a new bhikkuni order could not be established without violating the Vinaya rules and Conventions of the Sangha postulated in Theravada Buddhism.”

When the Buddha gave his assent to the formation of the Bhikkuni Order he laid down eight conditions which were held as the higher ordination and which were gladly accepted by Prajapathi Gothami who became the first member of the Noble Bhikkuni Order.

The sixth condition dictates that a female novice who is trained in the Six Rules for two years should receive the higher ordination from the Order of both Bhikkus and Bhikkunis. And therein lies the crux of the matter, the bone of contention.

The problem is that since there is no Bhikkuni Order existing presently, the requirement that members of both Orders must be present cannot be fulfilled and this has been the convenient excuse dished out by the Order of monks to adamantly refuse the restoration of the Order of Buddhist Nuns. The Catch 22 situation touted brazenly to foil resurrection.

The Bhikkuni Order that existed in Lanka was established by Emperor Asoka’s daughter the venerable Sangamitta when she brought the sapling of the sacred Bodhi Tree to Lanka during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa. The Order flourished for over a thousand years. But in the upheavals that followed the flight of the Sinhala kingdom from the stronghold of Anuradhapura in 1017 AD to pitch temporary camp at Polonnaruwa for a mere 152 years and thereafter to move on to Yapahuwa and Dambedeniya, the Order of Buddhist Nuns became extinct.

Now take the Bhikku Order and consider the same doom that fell upon it. From the 13th century onwards even the Buddhist Order of Monks became extinct not once but thrice. The Order of Monks was re-established in the reigns of Vimala Dharma Suriya I (1591-1604) and Vimala Dharma Suriya II (1687-1707) as well. But these resurrections were short lived and soon, once more, the Sassana ceased to exist in Lanka.

It was not until the 18th century that it was once again established on more solid ground. The Ven. Weliwita Saranankara (1698-1778) took the initiative to reestablish the Sasana in Lanka and invited a Thai monk named Upali who visited Kandy in 1753 during the reign of king Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1782). The venerable monk performed upasampada, higher ordination to a group of Kandyan monks.

Thus was the Siyam Nikaya born on the 19th of July 1753 , named after Siam, now Thailand, having a mere 262 year history to date compared to the thousand year history that the Bhikkuni Order had till it ceased to exist. Given the Govigama caste exclusivity held by the Siam Nikaya which refused to ordain monks of lower castes, a revolt broke ensuing in the establishment of two other nikayas the Amarapura Nikaya in 1803 at Velitota, Balapitiya and the Ramannya Nikaya in 1864 by Ambagahawatte Saranankara, when he returned after being ordained in Burma.

But the Order of monks which comprise these three nikayas, instead of sympathising with the Bhikkunis having suffered the same plight thrice, now refuse to recognise the right of Lanka’s females to re establish the Order of Bhikkunis on the ground that there is no existent Theravada Order of Bhikkunis to grant ordination to a woman as required by the aforementioned sixth condition and hold that to do so would be to violate the Vinaya Rules.

But what of the Vinaya Rules itself? Have none heard it said thus that though the Buddha laid down the Vinaya Rules that guide the conduct and life of all those who seek the shelter and shade of the monastic order in Buddhism’s glade, and decreed it should be revered and respected, he declared, before he passed away, to Ananda that if the members of the Sangha so desired, they could abolish or modify minor rules after his death.

In fact the Buddha himself had modified the Vinaya Rules on many occasions to suit the changing times. When the original rules for the granting of higher ordination to male samaneras required the presence of ten bhikkus to form an essential quorum, it was reduced to five bhikkus when a bhikku named Sona from the province of Avanti appealed to the Buddha to amend the rule on the ground that it was difficult to find ten bhikkus in the said province. Another rule which held that footwear containing more than one layer of leather could not be worn was also amended and frequent bathing was also allowed when it had been held to be once a fortnight. In another instance the rule on communal eating was modified by the Buddha seven times to suit seven different circumstances, even as the rule which forbade a monk from keeping, and cooking food in his residence or storing food for himself was lifted when a famine raged in the city of Rajagaha.

Yet, though the Buddha issued a licence for the sangha to modify or abolish minor rules, none has dared to do so. But in order to meet changing circumstances, the sangha has resorted to ways and means which, without changing the letter of the law, has enabled them to interpret the Vinaya Rules to achieve their desired goals. These interpretations were first made at the Mahaviharaya at Anuradhapura and are known as palimuttaka-vinicchaya which means decisions not found in the original canonical text. The desired aim is achieved but the rule remains ostensibly the same. The façade is faithfully maintained. Behind it, though, the practice has changed.

This was the device that was resorted to ‘religionise’ lands gifted to the temples and the monks soon agreed upon a new Vinaya convention known as ‘labha-sima’, income boundaries. As can be seen, where there’s a will, there’s a way and the sangha did not tarry when it came to accepting the land donated, even tanks or irrigational reservoirs. But today when there is a mounting massive clamour to restore the old Theravada Bhikkuni Order and permit women to participate in monastic life as Bhikkunis, Lanka’s monks stubbornly refuse to shift from their stance, religiously pointing to the vinaya code and holding it inviolable.

The Vinaya Code is not the Ultimate Truth. Truth is absolute. It does not and cannot change. The Vinaya Rules are different. It is a legal system. It must be interpreted, it must evolve, it must meet the challenges of change and adapt accordingly. It cannot like any other legal system function in a static state. Like life itself, a conventional code designed in the main to ensure a harmonious and orderly conduct and functioning of a particular community, be it religious or otherwise, is subject to change. The Buddha, in his infinite wisdom, recognised it. The community of monks in temples today cannot or refuse to fathom its dynamics.

They little realise that when they cling to rules, rites, ceremonies and customs they are clinging to attachments which are regarded as one of the ten fetters; and that Dhamma-thanha which is attachment to ideas, conceptions and traditions serve to perpetuate sorrow and prolong their own samsaric journey.

When the Buddha himself declared the right of women to enjoy the fruits of his philosophy and blossom in full bloom in Dhamma’s true light without any form of discrimination, when he gave his blessings to Ananda’s proposal spurred by Prajapathi Gothami’s agitation and established an order for women, doesn’t the present objections put forward to prevent the so called weaker sex from joining the sisterhood of a bhikkuni order, smack of deceit and foul play and rank as an insidious instance of the devil quoting scripture and verse and throwing the rule book to further an injustice for selfish gain, lest the ‘dane’ become divided and the material spoils diminished?
There are many instances which reveal how the rules affecting the community of monks were changed as a consequence of social change and economic reality. And thus it is within the power of the Sangha today to modify this minor rule which has given rise to a major injustice, a situation not envisaged at the time of its inclusion. The mechanism of palimuttaka-vinicchaya already exists and along with the force of precedents can be invoked to justify modification. All that need be done is to replace the rule which requires both Orders to grant ordination to a female with one requiring only the Order of the Bhikkus in the self same manner the Buddha, acting with enlightened pragmatism, reduced the quorum of ten monks to five when the Bhikku Sona of Avanti brought the difficulty of finding ten monks in Avanti to the Buddha’s notice.

Here it must be noted that both Orders ceased to exist approximately during the same period after the fall of Anuradhapura. This was mainly due to the volatile situation in the country, with chola invasions causing havoc, with the Sinhalese kings repeatedly on the run. It was not the best of times for civil society to maintain a community of bhikkus or bhikkunis.

Had there been in the vinaya code a requirement that both Orders must grant ordination to a Bhikku, then, in the absence of a Bhikkuni Order which had ceased to exist, we would be now left bereft of both Orders if the present dogma is followed with a Minister telling us that the Sasana is dead and cannot be revived for to do so would be to flout the rule in the vinaya code and that, hard luck, we would have to all wait for the next Buddha to start all over again.

If down the ages the bhikku-sangha did not show any tardiness to modify vinaya rules when it came to issues material, like land, then why should they now tarry and refuse to do likewise when it comes to matters spiritual, like the restoration of the Bhikkuni Order?
The raison d’être of Buddhism is to attain enlightenment. Is that enshrined right granted to all mankind to be singularly denied to the women of Lanka solely because the pontiffs of Lanka’s Buddhist Vatican deem it fit to interpret vinaya rules to serve their own undisclosed ends, with the Buddhist Sasana Deputy Minister having the stupendous audacity to pontificate at his Parliamentary Mass his total agreement and callously declare that the women of Lanka will have to wait till the advent of the next Buddha many millennia away while the men can sup their fill to the full this very instant?

In the Buddhist concept of rebirth Karmic descent is possible and one has no guarantee that one will be born a human in the births ahead. Thus it is why the Buddha exhorted mankind not to waste the priceless attainment of human life but to use it to end the cycle of woe. Thus the right of women to seek refuge in the Bhikkuni Order founded by Gautama the Buddha, their right to emancipation must be available in this birth itself. Why should they wait for the next Buddha and prolong their sufferings when the present Buddha has shown them the way to end it right here and now?

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