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Re-establishment of Theravada Bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka

by Samaneri Suvimalee, Daily News (Sri Lanka), Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sakyadhita International was set up by very educated women, both lay as well as Buddhist nuns such as Dr. Ms. Frigiedgard Lottermuser, Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Ven. Ayya Khema, Ven. Tenzing Pallmo, Professor Chatsumarn Kabilsinh (now Ven. Bhikkhuni Dhammananda of Thailand), Kusuma Devendra (now Ven. Bhikkhuni Dr. Kusuma), Ven. Jampa Tsederon, Dr. Rita Gross, Ranjini de Silva and our very own Dr. Hema Goonetillake. It will be tedious to mention the whole list.

Suffice it to say that the organisation has among its membership very distinguished women. The organisation came into being in about 1987. A few years later the Sakyadhita Sri Lanka Branch was established.

An International Conference of Sakyadhita was held in Colombo in 1993 organised by Mrs. Ranjini de Silva, President of the Sri Lanka Sakyadhita Branch who later became the International President The keynote address at the International Conference in 1993 was made by Kusuma Devendra (now Ven. Bhikkuni Kusuma).

She is a among the trail blazers of Sakyadhita International. During her lay life she had been interested in the Dasa-Sil-Matas and had done a research study about them.

This study had made her realize what a life of hardship they led and how marginalised they were by society. After the study she had made many visits to the Ministry of Buddhist Affaires to bring some relief to them.

Her visits bore results in that the Dasa-Sil-Matas were registered as a first step and given an allowance for travelling and a programme initiated for them to access education".

One of the main objectives of the organisation was to re-establish the Bhikkhuni Order in Theravada countries.

As we Buddhists in Sri Lanka know, the Bhikkhuni Order was established in Sri Lanka by arhant Saghamitta in the 3rd century B.C.E. However, it died out in about the 10th or 11th century.

Many people thought it was not possible to re-introduce it because according to the Vinaya rules there has to be already ordained Bhikkunis along with Bhikkhus to ordain prospective candidates.

This is, of course, a subtle point of law because in the Culavagga of the Vinaya Pitaka which contains the section on Bhikkhuni Ordination, the Buddha has stated that he gives permission to Bhikkhus to ordain Bhikkhunis.

That statement was made apparently before elaborate ceremonials evolved with regard to Higher Ordination. Fortunately, Dr. Hema Goonetillake's research into Chinese records in China revealed that a group of Bhikkhunis from Sri Lanka, headed by Ven. Devasara, was invited to China to establish the Bhikkhuni Order there.

This was in the 5th century A.C.E. they did so with two Theravada Bhikkhus, one being a Sri Lankan Bhikkhu. It is this lineage which still persists in mainland China, Taiwan and Korea.

The Theravada Bhikkhuni Order was re-established in 1998 in Bodh Gaya with the help of Bhikkhunis from Fo Guan Shan, Taiwan, a paying back, as it were, of a debt to Sri Lanka for having given the Bhikkhuni Order to the Chinese in the first place.

We are grateful to a pioneer group of trail blazers which obtained Higher Ordination in Saranath from the Korean chapter. The Chinese Bhikkhunis follow, as do the Korean Bhikkhunis, the Dharmagupta Vinaya which is almost identical to the Theravada Vinaya with very few minor differences.

If at all the Dharmagupta Vinaya has more rules for Bhikkhunis than the Theravada but the newly re-established Bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka, of course, follows the Theravada Vinaya.

Since the initial-establishment of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order, there have been several more batches of prospective candidates who have been receiving Higher Ordination with the assistance of Bhikkhunis in Taiwan or Korea.

Now the Sri Lankan Bhikkhunis themselves train and give Higher Ordination to novice Buddhist nuns (Samaneris) along with Sri Lankan Theravada Bhikkhu Upadyayas.

The Sakyadhita training and Meditation Centre, Gorakana, Panadura, was established in the year 2000. Its buildings and training programmes were financed by a philanthropic organisation in Berlin, the Heinrich Boll Foundation.

The initial training programme for Bhikkhunis included not only Vinaya studies but various other aspects of monastic administration and social work. These originally trained Bhikkhunis returned to their own aramayas (they were mostly drawn from the existing Dasa-Sil-Mata community) to train their pupil nuns along the same lines.

There are about six hundred or more Bhikkhunis now in Sri Lanka. Some of them have university degrees and post-graduate degrees as well.

Some of them have followed and are following courses in psychological counselling conducted by the Damrivi Foundation. These trained Bhikkhunis render an invaluable service to society by counselling the villagers residing round and about their aramayas.

They proved their worth in the flood relief work they did in 2003, during the tsunami disaster in December 2005 and the disaster relief work they undertook recently in Walapone at the beginning of this year.

The Sakyadhita Training and Meditation Centre at Gorakana is situated in a cul-de-sac which ends overlooking the Bolgoda Lake where the Centre's Simamalake is. There is discipline with a capital D at this centre. The wake-up bell is at 4.30 a.m. and chanting in the Viharage (shrine room) begins at 5 a.m.

At 6 a.m. the vathpiliveth (work that must be done in and around the aramaya) commences by the various groups assigned to sweeping and cleaning the shrine room, the residential area including toilets, the garden, Bo tree precincts and also cooking on the days there are no danas. Saturdays are set aside for a thorough cleaning of the entire premises including the upstair library.

The Heel (morning) dana is at 7 a.m. after the ceremonial offering of dana to the Buddha in the shrine room. From 9 a.m. the Pirivena (monastic school) on the premises begin its classes.

After evening vathpiliveth, chanting begins at 5.45 p.m. Student nuns study till 9.30 p.m. Pirivena studies emphasise a lot on memorising and during vathpiliveth and study hours one can hear young voices intoning in gatha style the verses of the Dhammapada or Sanskrit slokas or Pali or Sanskrit conjugations of verbs and declensions of nouns.

The Pirivena subjects are Buddhist doctrine, Pali, Sanskrit, Sinhalese, English, History, Social Science and Mathematics.

These are the subjects offered for the Pirivena final examination which is about the same standard as that of the G.C.E. 'O' Level. Three subjects are offered for the next examination which is of the G.C.E. 'A' Level.

If the candidate is successful in this examination she may sit the diploma of the Buddhist and Pali University, Homagama and if successful can enter the B.A. Degree course.

Those who have the necessary qualifications to enter other universities may do so.

Besides the Pirivena classes and vathpiliveth, the student nuns must attend the meditation classes held every Sunday, go out in response to invitations for dana, bana or pirith recitation for the sick or pregnant mothers.

Usually the Head Nun or a senior nun is kept busy with regard to these extra curricular activities. The young nuns go out on Pindapatha on Saturdays and Sundays also. Counselling falls mostly on the shoulders of the Head Nun.

During the Rains Retreat the schedule is busier because every evening during the 3-4 months there are pirith recitations, bodhi poojas and meditation sessions. Bhikkhunis are accessible to the villagers always for counselling. Everyday, practically, is a 'public' day for counselling.

How does one become a Bhikkhuni? First, one has to be ordained as a Sammaneri, a ten precept novice nun, under the guidance of an Achariya Bhikkhuni. After a minimum period of two years of training, the special training begins for the Bhikkhuni candidate under the guidance of an Achariya Bhikkhuni and Upadyaya Bhikkhu.

The Sakyadhita Training and Meditation Centre in Gorakana comes under the tutelage of the Head monk of the Naugala Samasthalanka Sasanaloka Bhikshuni Sangama Mulasthanaya, Galigamuwa.

Applications are entertained there and the final examination is held with their concurrence. The syllabus includes memorising the first twelve vaggas of the dhammapada, ten suttas of the Digha Nikaya text and of course, knowledge of the Buddhist doctrine.

The ceremony requires much physical discipline and stamina. It is the culmination of the aramaya discipline and special training which the novice nun has received, sometimes over several years in the case of those who have become samaneris very early in life. One has to reach the age of twenty to be eligible for Higher Ordination.

source: http://www.dailynews.lk/2007/01/31/fea10.asp

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Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa.
Buddha sāsana.m cira.m ti.t.thatu.