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The Order of Bhikkhunis

In the Buddha’s dispensation there are four categories of people: they are Bhikkhus (Brethren), Bhikkhunis (Nuns), Upasakas (lay brothers) and Upasikas (lay sisters). Mention has been made about this in the Sutta pitaka, Vinaya pitaka and in numerous other places wherein the history of the dispensation is elaborated. Ven.Dr.Kirinde Dhammananda had said that if the order of the Bhikkhunis were to go out of existence, the Buddha Sasana would be like a table with only three legs.

At times when deliberating on the concept of emancipation in Buddhism, it becomes evident that man has been more predisposed to attain emancipation from the ever recurring cycle of births and deaths (Samsara) than the woman, for the woman has had less opportunity for independent thinking; she has to be a mere hireling of her parents while a child, of her husband in adulthood and finally of children when old and decrepit. Thus she has less of a free and unfettered life.

Though the women is more obstructed on the path to redemption than the man, yet when considering the maintenance of Buddhist temples and monasteries, 80% of the contribution has come from women. If it were not for the Upasikas (lay sisters) who throng the temples, there would perhaps have been no persisting bhikkhus following the rules of monastic life enjoined for them.

It is true that the Buddha initially hesitated when called upon to provide ordination for women. When Prajapati Gotami accosted Buddha with the request for ordination, Buddha said, “Gotami, this is not the time for it.” It is clearly evident from this that Buddha who knew thoroughly the three-fold time of past, present and future did not grant ordination for women until it was the right time for doing so. On the 8th year after attaining Buddhahood, five hundred women including Maha Prajapati Gotami were granted ordination. It is true that this was done with the mediation of Ananda thera and by his direct influence. However it is far from truth to state that Bhikkhuni order was begun because of the insistence and pleading by Ananda thera on behalf of women. By instituting the order of the Bhikkhunis, Buddha was not merely agreeing with Ananda thera who was the Buddha’s attendant at the time. When a Buddha is called upon to resolve a contentious issue or something controversial, he looks into the past through his divine eye to see how other Buddhas, his predecessors, resolved a similar issue; accordingly it could be surmised that the Buddha too granted ordination for women by imposing on them a framework of eight special rules that stipulate the manner in which they should relate to Bhikkhus and the rest of the society as would have been done by the previous Buddhas.

Upon exploring the Tripitaka, the Buddhist canon, one can find that Bhikkhunis formed an indispensable part of the dispensations of the previous Buddhas. During the dispensation of the present Buddha Gautama, it was arhant bhikkhuni Sanghamittha who brought the branch of the Jaya Srimaha Bodhi tree to Sri Lanka and initiated the order of the bhikkhunis there.

In the current Maha Bhadra Kalpa (great pleasant eon), first Buddha to appear was Kakusadha. During his dispensation an arhant bhikkhuni by the name Rupa Nanda had come to Sri Lanka with the southern branch of his Bodhi-tree “Mahari” to initiate the order of the bhikkhunis. Next similarly during the time of the Buddha Konagamana, an arhant bhikkhuni by the name Kanakadattha had arrived in Sri Lanka with the southern branch of his Bodhi-tree “Udumbara”. In the same eon thirdly during the time of the Buddha Kashyapa, an arhant bhikkhuni named Sudharma had come to Sri Lanka with the southern branch of his Bodhi-tree “Nigroda”. Thereafter it was theri  Sanghamittha during the dispensation of the present Buddha Gautama as has already been mentioned. On each of those occasions the bhikkhuni who arrived with the branch of the Bodhi-tree initiated the establishment of the order of the bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka. This highlights the fact that in the orders of the previous Buddha’s too there were the four groups of disciples including the bhikkhunis. How the bhikkhuni order was established during the dispensation of the Buddha Gautama by ordination of Maha Prajapati Gotami has been explained above.

On the fifth year after attaining Buddhahood, when the blessed one was dwelling at Nigrodharama in Kapilavasthu, though some women of royal clan coming along with Prajapati Gotami at the head requested to be ordained, the blessed one thrice consecutively rejected their plea. Nonetheless in the eight year of Buddhahood while dwelling at the Kutagara hall in Vaishali, when thera Ananda mediated on behalf of all womenkind the Buddha granted them ordination on condition that they take up eight special rules of conduct. Women thus received ordination in the Buddha Sasana when five hundred of them including Prajapati Gotami solemnly urged for it by donning yellow robes and getting their heads shaved showing their willingness to take up the proposed eight special rules of conduct (Ashta Garu Dharma).

Some bhikkhunis had not received higher ordination from both a bhikkhu and a bhikkhuni as laid out in the special rule number six. For this reason they entertained the doubt that their higher ordination was yet incomplete and this was put to the Buddha as a query through thera Ananda by bhikkhuni Prajapati Gotami. In reply the Buddha was quoted as having said that the acceptance of the eight special rules itself was their higher ordination.

The order of the bhikkhus in Sri Lanka was ceremonially inaugurated with the ordination of prince Aritta subsequent to the arrival of arhant thera Mahinda in Sri Lanka, while that of the bhikkhunis was similarly inaugurated by the ordination of queen Anula by theri Sanghamittha.

Owing to the successive waves of enemy invasions, the Buddhist dominion in Sri Lanka became weaker with the lapse of time and the order of both bhikkhus and bhikkhunis disappeared from its soil. They were replaced by a class of priests-cum-exorcists who used to tie a yellow thread round their wrists and maintain families while inhabiting the monasteries. The famine Baminithiya Saya was also one of the causes that led to the disappearance of the bhikkhu-bhikkhuni orders from Sri Lanka. Eventually only upasakas and Upasikas were left behind.

In the 18th century by the mediation of Welivita Sri Saranankara Sangharaja thera, who emerged on the scene much like a blossom in marsh land from among the aforesaid class of priests, and by the invitation of his majesty Kirthi Sri Rajasingha, ten maha theras headed by Ven.Upali maha thera were sent to Sri Lanka by the king of Siam (Thailand) to re-establish its defunct order of the bhikkhus. The ordination ceremony was held auspiciously in the chapter house of the Malwatta monastery on the Esala poya day of Buddhist Era 2296. The order of the bhikkhunis however did not receive anybody’s attention and nothing was done to revive it then.

In the late nineteenth century although Miss. Catherine De Alwis who was born of an aristocratic Christian family in Southern Sri Lanka sought permission from the bhikkhus at the time to get ordained as a bhikkhuni by renouncing Christianity, she was not even initiated into the ten precepts meant for a lay women. Consequently Miss. Alwis had gone to Burma and got ordained as Sudharmachari. Returning to Sri Lanka in 1905, she had lived in a temple at Katukale, Kandy. Nonetheless, Sri Lankan womanhood once again got the benefit of ordination owing to the services rendered by Ven.Inamaluwe Sumangala thera and the Sangha council of Dambulla on 12th March 1998 in the chapter house of Rangiri Dambulla monastery. Ven.Inamaluwe Sumangala thera got twenty Dasa Sil Mathas who were trained in the Bhikkhuni Educational Institute in Dambulla to participate in the ordination ceremony organized by Forgu An Shen vihara in Taiwan at Buddhagaya on February 1998. With it Bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka was systematically reinstated.

There is a tendency among present day women in Sri Lanka to enter the bhikkhuni order with understanding and reflection. Several decades ago even the sight of a Dasa Sil Matha was a rarity. Nevertheless today we can see women of all age groups seeking ordination. So also we can see monasteries meant for them being constructed and developed.

Background is being set for the good ladies seeking ordination to obtain higher ordination in accordance with the disciplinary rules of Buddhism and thereafter work for the welfare of the Buddha Sasana. Today we can see as well as hear some bhikkhunis delivering sermons very fluently over the National Radio and Television. They do so with as much fluency as their bhikkhu counterparts. It is pleasant to see that bhikkhunis have also got involved in performing the customary rites of Pirith ceremonies and alms givings supplying the deficiency of qualified bhikkhus. This is to be understood as a wholesome tendency in view of the existence of the Sasana.

We’ve also heard of the involvement of the bhikkhunis in the fields of writing books, teaching in schools and even lecturing in universities. However we are yet to hear of an educational institution solely catering to their needs – an institution that would train them to face boldly the manifold tasks they are to accomplish. In supplementing this deficiency in Buddhist education, the foundation was set to establish the Bhikkhuni Training Centre and International Faculty of Buddhist Studies in the premises of Dekanduwala Dhamma Training and Meditation Centre, Kananwila, Horana, which is affiliated to the Buddhist Cultural Centre Nedimala, Dehiwala. We firmly believe that it would usher in a fruitful tomorrow for both local and foreign bhikkhunis destined to graduate from its hallowed portals.