issue 19 winter 02
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Bold Step for Nuns

Vishvapani reports on the revival of the Bhikkhuni Sangha in Asia

'Ordination is an option that's simply not available for Buddhist women in Thailand. The door is closed, the lock is rusted and the key is lost.' Dhammananda was speaking after she had become a samaneri, the first step to becoming a Bhikkhuni, a Buddhist nun 'fully ordained' in the terms of Theravada Buddhism. The ceremony, which took place in Sri Lanka, was a large step towards reviving the Bhikkhuni Order in Thailand, and was followed in February 2002 by one for Dhammarakkhita, which was the first such ceremony in Thailand itself.

Dhammananda and Dhammarakkhita work together in the newly established but poorly funded Songdharmakalyani Temple outside Bangkok, which is a focus for lay Buddhist women. 'The presence of nuns makes it easier for women to discuss social issues like abortion and prostitution,' explains Dhammananda. 'Monks don't see the need to help women on social issues and the temples are not geared to make women feel comfortable.'

Before setting out on the path to Bhikkhuni ordination Dhammananda was Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, an academic who has written and translated 40 books on Buddhism and eastern philosophy, and has edited a journal on Buddhist women's issues. Now she has divorced her husband, withdrawn from her career and family, and cut off her hair. Dhammananda says her ordination marked a spiritual commitment to Buddhist practice: 'We don't get ordained to gain acceptance, but to sever attachments and to pursue a spiritual path'. It was also a political statement, and part of a movement to change the place of women in established Asian Buddhist circles.

Until now it has been impossible for women to receive 'full ordination' as a Bhikkhuni in the Theravada – the Buddhist tradition that prevails in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. There have never been Bhikkhunis in Thailand, and the religious establishment there strongly upholds the traditions it considers to be the basis of its authority. According to the Pali scriptures, Bhikkhuni ordination was established by the Buddha following the petition of his aunt, Mahaprajapati Gotami. However, tradition relates that he agreed to this only reluctantly, and insisted on extra measures to regulate the place of nuns in the monastic community. Nuns have to follow extra rules (311 rather than 227) and – in a community where matters of protocol operate according to seniority – the most senior nun is considered subordinate to the most junior monk.

Procedure and precedent are of paramount importance in both Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni ordination, and to be acceptable those who conduct the ordinations must themselves have been properly ordained. The monastic code (Vinaya) dictates that five Bhikkhunis must be present at ceremonies marking noviciate, ordination and confirmation of ordination. So once the number of Bhikkhunis in a region falls below five the institution is doomed. The Bhikkhuni Order disappeared from India as Buddhism declined in the country of its birth, and Sri Lanka and Burma were the only Theravadin countries outside India where it had been established. But following the collapse of Sri Lanka's Anuradhapura civilisation in 1017CE the Bhikkhuni Order died out there too, and it ended in Burma two centuries later. The lineage was broken, and for 1000 years there have been no Theravadin Bhikkhunis anywhere.

In the absence of officially recognised options for women wanting to commit themselves to a monastic life, several new orders for women developed in most Buddhist countries. These include the white-robed maechi of Thailand and the yellow-robed dasa sil matas of Sri Lanka. These orders do not fit in easily to the categories of Theravadin monasticism, and the status of the ordination these nuns receive is often considered in their societies to be far lower than the 'full' ordination of Bhikkhus. But the nuns have struggled hard to establish conditions for training and practice and have made considerable progress: there are nunneries in Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Burma.

Women in these orders follow eight or ten precepts, which give them far more flexibility in how they live and practice than do the hundreds of Vinaya rules (many of which end up simply being ignored). Indeed, some argue that their low status is paradoxically a spiritual advantage, as it keeps the nuns clear of the corrupting influence of lavish donations and involvement with politics. (There have been many difficulties and controversies in Thai Buddhism in recent years.)

None the less conditions for the nuns in these new orders are often hard, and in many cases they lack recognition, education and financial support as well as the status of monks. In recent years Buddhism has spread to the West, where women want and expect equal opportunities; the roles and expectations of Asian women have also been changing. A substantial movement (of which Dhammananda is a leading member) developed to improve the situation of women Buddhists in Asia.

One might question the importance they attach to official sanction of ordination as, in practice, over-emphasis on the status of ordination can be a distraction from spiritual commitment to the Buddhist path, while political concern for social equality is at odds with the renunciatory aspect of ordination.

But for many women in Asia it is important that the closed door of monasticism be opened, and the international character of Asia's network of Buddhist women suggested a way through. Women from Buddhist traditions where female ordination has died out met women from traditions where it exists. Many Mahayana nuns (known by the Sanskrit title Bhikshunis) are prominent in the flourishing Buddhist orders of Taiwan and Korea. In fact Dhammananda was following in the footsteps of her mother, Voramai Kabilsingh, an outspoken and enterprising woman who took Bhikshuni ordination in Taiwan in 1974 and became the first Thai Bhikshuni of modern times.

In 1988 a few dasa sil matas received ordination in Los Angeles, and in 1996 10 more were ordained in Sarnath, India. The culmination of this movement came in 1998 when 140 women from many countries gathered in Bodh Gaya to receive novice ordination from 15 Taiwanese nuns and monks representing many Buddhist traditions. The occasion was historic in bringing together diverse Buddhist traditions, and in marking the start or revival of Bhikkhuni ordination in several countries. Twenty-three dasa sil mata nuns from Sri Lanka represented Theravadin countries.

When the Sri Lankans returned home, opinion was split about the status of their ordination. Theravada and Mahayana have been separated for thousands of years and many doctrinal differences divide the two traditions. However, Chinese Bhikshunis trace the introduction of their ordination back to Sri Lankan nuns who travelled to China in the fifth century. The opposition of some monks to the new ordinations was overcome by these ancient connections and the ordinations were confirmed by a gathering of senior Sri Lankan Bhikkhus later in 1998. These women are by no means accepted by all Sri Lankan Bhikkhus – or even by all Sri Lankan women – but they have ordained others in their turn. And it was from these Sri Lankan nuns that Dhammananda received her own ordination.

Opposition has been more intense in Thailand where, according to one report, 'all hell broke loose' when Dhammananda returned from Sri Lanka. Religious-affairs officials threatened to close her small temple. The Thai military suspended interviews with her on their TV station, and the Supreme Sangha Council refused to recognise her ordination. Even sympathetic monks concluded that her ordination made her a Mahayana nun, not a Theravada one.

When Voramai returned to Thailand from Taiwan in the 1970s she was ostracised and had to struggle for many years. But times have changed. Crises facing Thai Buddhism are forcing it to reconsider time-honoured methods in the light of changes in the modern world, such as increased gender awareness and the breakdown of traditional society. In any case Dhammananda is confident that she will be able to function with or without official recognition. 'The recognition comes after trust. I will prove that Bhikkhunis are a boon to Thai Buddhism. This is my mission in life.'