Binara Poya falls tomorrow, September 20.  It is an important Poya as the Bhikkhuni Sasana (nuns order) was established in India during the time of the Buddha.  At that time when women had a low status in Indian society, the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sasana was the first step to release them from the fetters [...]


Beginnings of the Bhikkhuni Sasana and Binara Poya


Section of a mural being painted by Avanti Sri Nissanka Karunaratne of Theri Sangamitta’s arrival in Sri Lanka

Binara Poya falls tomorrow, September 20.  It is an important Poya as the Bhikkhuni Sasana (nuns order) was established in India during the time of the Buddha.  At that time when women had a low status in Indian society, the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sasana was the first step to release them from the fetters that had bound them to home,  hearth and child bearing.

Binara Poya falls during the Vassana (rainy) season, which starts on Esala Poya when Bhikkhus are confined to their abodes for three months.

Maha Prajapathi Gothami, sister of the mother of the Buddha, Queen Maha Maya Devi, cared for Prince Siddhartha after the Queen passed away. After the death of King Suddhodana, Siddhartha’s father, Prajapathi Gothami was desirous of renouncing lay life and becoming a Bhikkhuni (nun).  She met the Buddha and expressed her desire but on three occasions the Buddha refused her. Finally, she went with 500 Sakyan ladies with shaven heads and wearing yellow robes to meet the Buddha and the Buddha’s Chief Attendant, Ven. Ananda Thera conveyed Maha Prajapathi’s wish to the Buddha.

Again the Buddha declined.  Ven. Ananda posed many questions to the Buddha asking as for reasons – whether women cannot achieve margapala  (sovan, sakadagami, anagami and rahat).  Buddha replied that they can achieve these states. Ven Ananda pleaded with the Buddha to reconsider and finally, the Buddha said he would permit ordination for women subject to eight Ashta Garu Dharma.

Prajapathi Gothami agreed to these conditions and she, with the 500 women were ordained as bhikkhunis on a Binara Poya. The Ashta Garu Dhamma rules were imposed explaining how the bhikkhunis should respect the bhikkhus and also for good conduct and no conflict between the two groups.

With the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sasana, women had the freedom to be ordained, follow the dhamma and attain margapala. Ven. Ananda Thera was greatly supportive in establishing the Bhikkhuni Sasana but there was  disharmony as a result in society and some men blamed him.

However, the revolution was a huge blessing for women and the Bhikkhuni Sasana flourished. Although the Buddha had initially refused ordination of women, it is believed that he had waited until it was the proper time for the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sasana. With this the Buddha Sasana was complete with Bhikkhu, Bhikkhuni, Upasaka and Upasika.

Buddhism came to Sri Lanka when Emperor Dharmashoka of India sent Mihindu Maha Rahathan Wahansa to Lanka with the message of the Buddha Dhamma, to King Devanam Piya Tissa. Buddhism flourished and many became bhikkhus. Thereafter, the need arose to establish the Bhikkhuni Sasana and arrangements were made to send Sangamitta Maha Theri with a sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree to Lanka. Queen Anula and around 500 women attained the stage of sovan after listening to the Dhamma and were ordained on the day the Sri Maha Bodhi was planted in Anuradhapura.  From this first group, some became arahants.

Thereafter, many women were ordained under the guidance of Sangamitta Maha Theri.  The King was very supportive and built aramas and provided alms and other necessities for them. Many women from various parts of the island arrived in Anuradhapura to receive higher ordination and the Meheni Sasana progressed very rapidly during the Anuradhapura era and spread to Ruhuna with many temples and aramas being built.

The Mahawamsa and the Dipawamsa describe the progress of the Bhikkhuni Sasana. It is mentioned that eight Theravada bhikkhunis from Lanka visited China and initiated and promoted ordination among women there.

The Bhikkhuni Sasana flourished for about 1000 years but faced decline thereafter, mainly due to invasions by foreign forces and conflict among local kings.  The invaders burnt temples, destroyed aramas, and burnt Buddhist books. Many Sangha were killed and others fled or were forced to disrobe. Under these life threatening circumstances it became impossible for the Buddha Sasana followers to survive. The bhikkhunis’ lack of discipline was another reason for the decline and centuries passed without any sign of the Bhikkhuni Sasana being revived.

One who pioneered the revival of the Bhikkhuni Sasana was Katherine de Alwis of Bentota.  Although born into a Catholic family, she met bhikkhus and started learning Buddhism, Pali and Sanskrit. When she expressed her desire to be ordained, there was no Bhikkhuni Sasana and her request was declined. But having befriended a Burmese Buddhist nun whom she had met worshipping in the Dalada Maligawa, Katherine later travelled to Burma where she was ordained with ten precepts and became Ven. Sudharmachari.

She spent a further 11 years in Burma learning the Burmese language, Pali and the Buddha Dhamma, before returning to Sri Lanka in 1905 with other Buddhist nuns.  Then Governor of Ceylon, Sir Henry Blake and his wife welcomed them and supported them to establish themselves, giving them a block of land in Katukelle, Kandy where an arama was built for them.  It was named Lady Blake Aramaya, now re-named Sri Sudharma Upasikaramaya. At present the Chief Sil Matha, Kothmale Sudharma and three other sil matha are in residence.  Many women renounced their lay life and sought ordination under Ven. Sudharmachari.

Anagarika Dharmapala, the founder of the Maha Bodhi Society also worked for the revival of the Bhikkhuni Sasana.

In 1996 Bhikkhuni Kusuma was ordained with ten others in India, amidst controversy regarding their ordination. Yet, she established the Ayya Khema International Meditation Centre in Horana, Sri Lanka and ordained over 1000 Bhikkhunis.  Ven. Dr. Bhikkhuni Kusuma passed away last month.

At present, the Ministry of Buddha Sasana register ordained groups as ‘Dasa Sil Matha’.  “It appears as if we have not renounced the worldly life,  as even a lay person can be called a Dasa Sil Matha!  If not a bhikkhuni, a somewhat suitable title could be ‘Mehenin’ to address the ordained group,” said a Dasa Sil Matha. “A section of the Buddhist clergy is in favour of reviving the Bhikkhuni Sasana but there are some who oppose it,” she noted.

How long will women have to wait until they are recognized as bhikkhunis? Do they have to wait for the next Buddha?

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