15th June 1997


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It’s time to claim their lost heritage

Although Sri Lanka boasts of a constitution
that allows women the freedom of
expression and assembly, until recently
even a public discussion on the restoration
of the order of Buddhist nuns was a taboo
topic. But with the steady build up of
public support Buddhist women are now
steadily gaining ground
By Mallika Wanigasundara

Sri Lanka’s Buddhist women from all levels of society - the educated, the less educated, the professionals, the housewives, some dasa sil mathas, fortunately some monks and some university dons are giving thought to the restoration of the Bhikkhuni Sasana in Sri Lanka.

Dasa sil mathas: a need to upgrade their status
Not today, tomorrow or next month, but sometime in the foreseeable future, they see it as a distinct possibility. Not also as the great opposition to the restoration sees it, as being possible only with the birth of the next Buddha, which according to Theravada tradition will be millions of years hence.

Until quite recently even a public discussion on the restoration of the order of Buddhist nuns was a taboo topic. When the Sakyaditha conference was held in Colombo in 1993, one of the conditions on which the authorities endorsed the holding of the meeting was that there should be no discussion on the re-establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sasana.

Even a resolution passed at the conference had to be watered down so as not to displease powerful Buddhist sections of the Sangha and the public. It is astonishing that women in a country which has enjoyed several decades of the freedom of expression and assembly, a right enshrined in the Constitution, should face such an eventuality.

Not any more. Buddhist women are now in open country, not speeding, not rattling, not crudely rustling towards this goal, but a critical mass is being built up and the momentum is gathering force.

Women have begun to openly discuss this topic at small gatherings and big. In April this year the Women’s Services Committee of the Sri Lanka chapter of the world Fellowship of Buddhists held a conference at which the restoration of the Bhikkhuni Sasana was discussed. This was preceded by much media publicity.

Ms. Indrani Iriyagolle, who is President of this Women’s Committee has this to say: "Everywhere we are promoting the economic and social empowerment of women. So why is it that some people are opposed to the total spiritual development of Buddhist Women?" There are ‘dasa sil mathas’, but the Buddha never established any such institution on a permanent basis. In that neither here-nor-there-state these dasa sil mathas, some of them wandering mendicants with no fixed abode or no known means of sustenance, can hardly be expected to break away from the bonds of Sansara.

"Which is why the Buddha ordained that monks and nuns should spend a period of spiritual training and apprenticeship in a suitable environment, before they receive full ordination," Ms. Iriyagolle said.

So the restoration is now a vision which casts its light on the present and beckons to the future. There are educated women like Dr. Hema Goonatilake, who feel that this great hiatus in Buddhist society should be bridged some time in the future. There should be Bhikkhus, Bhikkhunis, upasakas and upasikas to complete it.

Dr. Goonatilake addressing a group of women at Vikasha hall, at the centre of the ‘Voice of Women’ and other NGOs explained the strong emotional attachment of Sri Lankan women towards the restoration of the Bhikkhuni sasana, which collapsed between the 10th and 11th centuries.

Women in Sri Lanka do have an emotional attachment to this lost heritage. No other Theravada country had a Bhikkhuni Sasana and no such demand has surfaced in any one of them because they lost nothing, she said.

If it is universally recognised that nations, races, communities, tribes have the right to claim lost heritages and are doing so, why not the Buddhist women of Sri Lanka.

It is recognised by these women that the right climate has to be created, when perhaps the strong opposition of the conservative hierarchy of monks and sections of Buddhist society has become less, when simultaneously with the training of novices, the infrastructure is created both for samaneris and for Bhikkhunis.

Says Indrani Iriyagolle: "After our conference I did not receive one single letter or telephone call expressing disapproval. But I received many messages of approval and encouragement. Even now, there are a few women who wish to receive higher ordination.

"If we have just five good nuns as a core, we would have achieved something great," she said.

Dr. Goonatilake has been doing a great deal of research on Bhikkhunis in the last decade. At the Institute of Buddhist Affairs in Cambodia she is a senior adviser and she is engaged in the collection, collation, restoration of Buddhist literature at the Institute, and organising and training of students in Buddhist studies. The whole library of the Institute was burnt down by the Pol Pot Regime.

Incidentally, when she is in Thailand she speaks to the Buddhist monks who do not speak in English, in Pali, in resurrecting from the dead, the language of Buddhist learning.

Her thesis for her doctorate was on "Mahayana Buddhism in Sri Lanka" and she has studied both Mahayana and Theravada in a succession of Buddhist countries such as Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, China, Japan South Korea, Taiwan and even in the Philippines.

Dr. Goonatilake has lived like a nun in nunneries in Korea, Japan and Taiwan. She has been in countries where Buddhists are meat eating; where they are strictly vegetarian; where they follow the Vinaya strictly; where they make Buddhism a family business and temples are handed down from father to son; where monks cook their own food; where others go on pindapatha; where dasa sil mathas cook and meekly stand at the service of monks; where 800 eggs are cooked a day at monasteries; where monks have all the worldly luxuries; where others meditate in austerity and where nuns follow the Vinaya very strictly.

Sri Lankan Theravada nuns have been the most adventurous in ages past, she says. In those days of hazardous sea journeys in 429 AD and 433 AD they made the arduous journey to China. They conferred higher ordination on Chinese nuns who had already been ordained by monks. The Chinese did not seem to worry about the fact that these were Theravada nuns. They would rightly have realised that this was the same Dhamma preached by the Buddha who condemned schisms and sectarianism.

That line of pupillary succession continues to this day in China and Taiwan, says Dr. Goonatilake. When the Communist and Cultural Revolutions created severe disruption in China many nuns and monks fled to Taiwan. There pupils continue to follow the teachings still.

So Chinese or Taiwanese nuns can ordain nuns here asserts Dr. Goonatilake.

But those nuns who are of the Mahayana tradition, counter those who oppose the restoration. But when Dr. Goonatilake was in these countries she says that she made a comparison between the Vinaya followed by the two traditions. In the Mahayana countries they follow the Dharmagupta Vinaya, which is no different from the Theravada Vinaya. Dharmagupta was a sub-sect of Theravada.

Although interpretation of the doctrines and modes of practice do differ, in the Vinaya there are only minor differences and they relate to climatic conditions and local social needs she says.

Buddhism itself is very flexible and one can remind oneself that the Buddha did permit the amending of minor rules. After all , says Dr. Goonatilake, the observance of ‘patimokka’, the core of behavioural discipline for Buddhist monks is being followed in Sri Lanka only once a year, when in fact it should be recited once a fortnight.

Somehow it sounds like a veto for all time to be told that the Bhikkhuni sasana cannot be restored because these are Mahayana nuns, because there are no Theravada nuns in the world and it is just too bad, but all novices will have to wait till the birth of the next Buddha in aeons to come!

This kind of inflexibility even Prajapathi Gotami would take from the Buddha we are told. If she did protest at one of the eight garudhammas then it could have been one of the first protests by the women against male supremacy.

She protested against the rule which the chronicles say the Buddha made- that even a nun of one hundred years standing should show respect to a monk who has been just ordained. To many women and scholars this sounds like a monkish rule which crept into the Vinaya, than an injunction of the balanced and Enlightened Buddha who treated all human beings alike. Prajapathi Gotami is said to have demanded that monks and nuns be treated alike according to seniority and not according to sex.

The same Buddha is said to have told Prajapathi Gotami: "O Gotami, perform a miracle in order to dispel the wrong views of those foolish men who are in doubt with regard to the spiritual potentialities of women.

So could the same Buddha have made that discriminatory rule about nuns? There are other contradictions. About this guru dhamma, it was the scholar Oldenburg (1879 Dipavamsa - London Pali Text Society) who said: Not even the Titthiyas ( a heretic religious sect) who propound imperfect doctrines could sanction such homage of men by women? How could the Tatagatha do so?

Did the Buddha reject at first the request for the ordination of women? Perhaps he was accommodating existing social conventions and mores.

It was Dr. G P Malalasekera who was President and founder member of the World Fellowship of Buddhists who advocated in 1934 the restoration of the Bhikkhuni sasana. He, among others, has said that women could be ordained by monks. He quoted a statement attributed to the Buddha and recorded in the Cullavagga of the Vinaya Pitaka which says: I permit you monks to confer higher ordination on nuns.

Bhikkhunis have a historical role to play in our society, says Dr. Goonatilake. They would be very acceptable to ordinary people, particularly women, with whom they establish easy rapport. This can be seen from the readiness with which they give alms to the dasa sil mathas. Bhikkhunis could offer spiritual, social and religious services to the people. They could teach children, recite pirith for pregnant women and act as confidantes to women, she says.

The figures 17,000 and at other times 35,000 have been mentioned as the number of monks in the country today. There is room for services of Bhikkhunis. There are temples which are almost deserted. People from the villages say that sometimes when they take alms to the temple, there are no monks to partake of the food, or at most there would be one solitary monk.

It is true that some dasa sil mathas bring discredit to the religion by their rootlessness and mendicancy. This is the very reason why they should be found fixed abodes, given stable means of sustenance and their status upgraded. They need education in the Vinaya and better general education. Some of them would still prefer to wander, as some women Buddhist workers have found, but then this is a free country.

But there are and there have been many dasa sil mathas who are a credit to the sasana such as Sudharmacari, Panadure Sumanawathie, Ambala Rohana Gnanaseeli, Ampitiya Anula, Mithra Gnaneswari, Panadure Vajira, Nawala Dhammika, Sudharma etc. Some of them head nunneries, write or translate books, publish journals booklets and newsletters.

Efforts are being made to upgrade their learning. The Sakyaditha organisation is planning to hold training sessions for them. A reputed Pirivena is conducting English classes for them. A small Buddhist women’s organisation called Dharmacarinis has as one of its objectives the upgrading of the status of dasa sil mathas.

In 1983 the Department of Buddhist Affairs started a programme to provide education for dasa sil mathas at monastic institutions. This in itself conferred some kind of recognition on them.

When the order of monks became extinct after the Chola invasions of the tenth century King Vijaya Bahu brought monks from Burma for the conferment of higher ordination on Sri Lankan monks. Siamese monks conferred upasampada again between 1580 and 1773 when the Bhikkhu sasana declined again.

And later Burmese monks conferred higher ordination on our novices in the modern era.

But no thought was given to the restoration of the Bhikkhuni order at the time.

I hear the message of peace

So serene is this morning
Yonder! on the hills of Mihintale
The temple bells are pealing,
Devotees clad in snow-white garb
With jasmine flowers in hand
For the Master’s lotus feet
Fervently praying
Away from the chores of household life
At least for a few hours.
Behold! I perceive...
A pious monk in saffron robe
With a retinue of five,
sailing across the blue waters
From Jambudipa
Landing on the Ambastale
On the Missaka Rock.
Below, at the foot of the hill
The king of Sri Lanka, Devanampiya Tissa
Standing upright, with bow and arrow in hand.
Now - I hear the message of Peace...
The Culahaththipadopama Sutra
Vibrating in my ear
So melodious, so enchanting
A splendid sight!
Young and old, of every caste and creed
Embracing the Dhamma
With cries of "Sadhu, Sadhu."
Let us all now revive,
This message of Peace in full
At this crucial hour.
For the "olive branch" to flourish
And bring Peace and Harmony to our motherland.

-Amara Samaratunga

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