Status of Nuns in Theravada Buddhism in Nepal
Study of Buddhism from the perspective of women’s equality is getting extremely popular in the world. And, studying the status of nuns in Buddhism is again another challenging task. This small observation attempts to figure out where nuns stand in entire Theravada Buddhism sasana in Nepal’s context. The findings of this paper are based mainly on primary research work of the present study, based on interviews with several Buddhist nuns, who do not want to be personally identified.
Before going to the subject matter, it is commendable to distinguish two words — “state” and “status”. Dictionaries show the differences between these two words in this way: State means the mental, emotional or physical condition that a person or thing is in. On the other side, status means the legal position of a person, group or country; the social or professional position of somebody or something in relation to others; the level of importance that is given to something; that situation at a particular time during a process. In this article, physical or mental condition, that the nuns, either in the name of anagarikas, bhikkhunis or simply gurumans in relation to the whole process of development of Theravada Buddhism, will be discussed.
Women have reputable positions in Buddhism that one might not locate in other religions. In this regard, it can be said that women’s status in Buddhism is contented. There are plenty of instances, which attest that the Buddha, the enlightened one, had a high esteem for women. This indicates state of equality of gender in Buddhism. Buddhist scholars often present instances, anecdotes and analyses, which present Buddhism as a gender-friendly or gender-conscious religion or philosophy. K Sri Dhammananda says that the Buddha did not place any restrictions on the nuns in the matter of teaching and preaching of the dhamma. However, the present day reality is different from the scenario of the Buddha’s days.
It is not unusual in religious contexts that women are praised in theory but in practice they are discriminated, most probably, due to the age-old tradition, prevalent in most of the South Asian regions. This ambivalence is also reflected in Theravada Buddhism in Nepal. It has been almost a century since Theravada Buddhism is revived in Nepal but it is seen that the notion of women’s equality in Buddhism is still controversial and paradoxical. So much so, even nuns (anagarikas) have to face multiple instances or stages of discrimination. Life sketches of prominent nuns of Nepal like Anagarika Dhammachari, Anagarika Dhammavati and Anagarika Anoja in Nepal reveal some facts, which show that despite of the glorious history of women in Buddha sasana, the status of nuns in Theravada in Nepal is not highly satisfactory at present from the perspective of gender equality. Howsoever, it is agreed unanimously that after going through a long journey of ups and downs, along with that of the revival of Theravada Buddhism itself, the nuns are now in search of their status in the whole process of dissemination of Buddhism in Nepal.
The Buddha’s order recognizes four councils or parishads – of bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen. The much-quoted stories reveal how the Buddha first ordained women and the sangha of the bhikkhunis. Another equally quoted story says how the Buddha pacified King Pasenadi of Kosala that the daughters are as good as sons. Still, the Buddha himself had high respect and confidence that women also are equally competent to attain the highest level of wisdom in Buddhism. The enlightened one himself, or the Buddhist scholars of the Buddha’s time, or those who are responsible to scribble Buddha’s words might be accused of what the nuns had to face in those days.
It is true that the nus as anagarikas of present day are not full-fledged bhikkhunis, but their status in comparison to the monks needs to be examined. This might also bring some unexpected answers to the questions, often asked on effectiveness of the Buddhist movement being guided by the monks and nuns in Nepal.
Education of nuns
It has been a fortune for nuns today that unlike in the past, most of Theravadi nuns at present in Nepal are educated. They have opportunity to pursue formal secular education from the government schools as well as Buddhist studies in Nepal and abroad.
In the past, it was difficult for Nepali women to study and having an opportunity studying Buddhism used to invite bigger problems. On the top of it, only a few among the nuns had opportunity to study Buddhism aboard. Till the days of Dhammavati Guruma, in the 50s, going abroad for women was severely prohibited. In later days, broadly after the political change of 1990, women’s education was promoted widely and their studying in foreign universities was open. Nuns, too, had opportunities to go mainly in Myanmar for further studies. Many of Nepali women went to Myanmar for ordination as well as for further studies in Buddhism. In comparison to the past, nuns have great opportunity to study Buddhism these days.
However, it is seen that in comparison to monks, a very few nuns have opportunity to win scholarships for studies abroad. The recent data shows that only 17 nuns are studying abroad out of the total 318 ordinands. In Thailand alone, for example, a total 113 monks, shramaneras and nuns are studying in 2014 but out of them, only 3 are nuns. That must be the reason that LeVine and Gellner found discrimination in this facility for monks and nuns. Although samaneras might initially spend several years in the Valley, in due course almost all went aboard to study in monasteries in Burma or Sri Lanka. By contrast, the nus might go abroad on pilgrimages but very few stayed abroad.
Recently, the nuns of Nepal are found doing further studies in many Buddhist countries. The following list shows there are 17 nuns altogether currently studying abroad:
- In Myanmar – 8
- Sri Lanka – 6
- Thailand – 3
However, it is found that nuns studying aboard are quite less in number, in comparison to the monks and novices. The following table shows the differences between the number of the monks/sramaneras and nuns studying abroad.
This shows that only 17 nuns are studying abroad out of the total 318 ordinands, who are presently studying Buddhism from Nepal. More strikingly, the number of nuns studying abroad has fallen drastically in last eight years. The list of 2006 has list of 26 nuns studying abroad.
Howsoever, despite of this discrimination, a practical problem also hinders nuns from going for studies abroad, when they have chance to study Buddhism abroad. Dhammavati Gurma often urges young nuns to go to Myanmar and study Buddhism under scholarship seats. But the nuns first want to complete official/secular education here and going abroad for studies is not easy after they get older. So, few of them pursue dhamma education from abroad.
In addition studying after becoming a nun is not easy. Veeryavati Guruma’s goal of becoming a nun was to meditate and minimize one’s drawbacks and also to have chance to teach others. But she does not find the minimum time even to meditate. Vihara is not a place to study, she says — we have to live for others; we have to be ready to go anywhere as per the invitations to the vihara. She also says is difficult to continue Buddhist studies after becoming a nun. Before renouncing she secured top position in Pariyatti examination but she could not even attend the exam after becoming a nun. She specially has to engage herself with the Dharmakirti magazine. She says, “There should be a rule for compulsory daily meditation. There should be at least two hours a day.”
The basic qualification to become a Buddhist nun is hardly not discussed in contemporary literature too. Till the date, the writers have been appreciating those who renounce and take refuge at Buddhism. And, the write-ups also encourage the laywomen, of any age, to realize the suffering and come to the nun’s circle to be happy forever, perhaps, even after the death. That is why, the motives of the nuns, so far ordained, are not clear.
Sarah LeVines analyses: Though they do not expect that virtuous conduct(sila), concentration (Samadhi)or wisdom (pragya), the three pillars- and goals- of the religious life, will be easily constructed, they are confident that overtime adherence to monastic discipline and the performance of merit-earning work will produce a mental disposition favorable to spiritual progress leading if not to the attainment of nirvana, to better rebirth.
In general, it is found that those women, who had to suffer from widowhood or not being married, came to renounce their homes, or those who wanted to escape married life also had taken refuge in nunneries. They were mostly uneducated in the initial stage of the revival period. In the later period, it is also seen that opportunity to free education or even studying abroad has also become a cause for some girls to renounce.
On the other hand, the Anagarika Sangha does not accept all applications of ordination these days. Looking at the trend of coming to the nunnery with other interests, they have made a provision of keeping the applicants in observation as “rishini” for three months to two years, before granting ordination.
Tasks of nuns
There are no written duties or tasks for nuns. They generally do all things what monks do in the viharas. The tasks of nuns in the viharas can be named as:
- Nuns prepare or clean the damma hall for daily or occasional Buddha puja. It is their duty in all nunneries. They can go for studies or meditation only after accomplishing all these kinds of assignments. They are also supposed to serve tea to the lay persons as well.
- Offer five precepts: This is now considered as the major task of the nuns. When they organize Buddha puja or when they visit a lay person’s home, they help the lay persons in taking refuge to the triple gems, chanting Buddha vandana and taking five precepts .
- Chant Parittana suttas: Nuns chant Parittana suttas when, either the donors come to the viharas to offer jalapana or invite the nuns to their residences for the same, on the occasion of birthdays, birth or death anniversaries of their passed away relatives.
- Conduct punyanumodana: After completing the chanting programme, the nuns help the donors to practice punyanumodana, that is, wishing to spread the merit of that particular deed to the all near and dear ones.
- Visit laypersons’ home: They are invited mainly during birthdays of the donor or also to commemorate dead anniversary of family members. Laypersons generally invite the nuns for either breakfast or for lunch.
- Funerals: The nuns are supposed to go to funerals of laypersons. When a family member dies, the relatives, if they are acquainted to Theravada order of the monks or nuns, they invite the monks or nuns, beside their traditional rituals. The nuns quietly sit in a corner of the house and start chanting major suttas of the Pali literature.
- Nuns also participate in religious rallies, for instance, that on being celebrated to commemorate Buddha Jayanti or the birth anniversary of the Buddha.
- In addition, a few families prefer to invite nuns on other occasions like birthdays or similar other events of family gathering.
They are preoccupied with the daily chore from the morning to the night. Young nuns specially have duty to serve the seniors with water, tea and food as well. So much so that they don’t find time to sit for a while and read dhamma books. At times, they feel it is better to be in the family to have time to read books and meditate.
The mindset of some monks that nuns are there in the vihara first to serve the monks, is still there. Some monks think that they are superior and nuns renounce their home just to serve the monks. Once, a monk from Anandakuti telephoned at Dharmmakirti Vihara and openly ordered the nun who received the phone to send some gurumas at Anandakuti to cook food for the monks. It was Anoja Guruma, known for her outspokenness, who picked the phone. She directly replied him back that nuns in Dharmakirti were not made to cook foods for monks and nobody from there would be assigned for that.
Health services for nuns
There is no institutional set up to take care of the nuns when they are sick. The responsibility of treatment of nuns generally falls upon the respective family. Or the nuns of the same vihara have to help one another. Lack of well-managed health service for nuns is a big problem. Recently, Sumana Health Fund was initiated by Dr. Keshari Laxmi Manandhar in 2006. A member nun deposits Rs. 600 annually or Rs. 10,000 for lifetime and she receives up to 70 percent facility in medical expenses at Model Hospital in return. This is a kind of medical policy. Anagarika Sangha collects money from the member nuns and deposits in the hospital and it provides them with subsidy. Apart from this, there is no reliable source to support the nuns. And at least for one’s medical expenses, the nuns have to collet some money. Or, they have to depend up their family members.
Means of survival for nuns
Nuns basically live by alms begging (bhikshatan). They are supposed to collect alms every day, which is not pratical in Nepal’s context at present. They, hence, live by the donations they or their vihara receive from the lay persons. Though they are not supposed to collect their donation money, no mechanism disallows them from doing this. In addition, they occasionally, several times a year, go for bhikshatan in the condition that the collected amount of money or other goods this will be used for common benefit of the nuns sangha.
The problems nuns face
- They do not find themselves equal to the monks
- They have less chances of higher education, in comparison to monks
- They cannot find chance to go aboard for Buddhist education, in comparison to monks
- Along with their normal chore, they are supposed to serve the monks as well.
- They are taught to respect even younger monks
- They are not allowed to think about, talk about equality
Levine quotes a real problem of a young and educated nun. Subha, who holds a Masters in Commerce, worked for some years in her family’s business. A devout Buddhist and since childhood a lay disciple of Dhammavati Guruma, she never wanted to marry and envisaged living with her parents indefinitely.
Limitations of nuns
A woman becomes a nun after renouncing the home and also going through the process of ordination, just like men. Though the monks are said to have been following rules of the Vinaya, in general, they are living as simple life as a nun does. Still there are limitations of nuns. The nuns are not supposed to conduct the following actions in Nepal’s context:
- Ordain monks
- Give five percepts to lay persons (it is nowadays open for them)
- Conduct meditation courses without help from monks
- Enter the seemagriha
- Sit on the chair or seat at the same height of that of the monks.
- Share table for the lunch with monks
Relationship between monks and nuns
Generally speaking, there is a praiseworthy harmony and cooperation between the monks and the nuns. They work together and help one another. Still, a subtle, unspoken problem is felt by some nuns, concerning their relation. What is seen is that the young, educated nuns feel that they are constantly being dominated by the monks, in a way or another. And the nuns of this age are not ready to accept it. There reason behind this is the age, qualification and dominating tendency of some monks.
To analyze the gradual change in the relation between the monks and the nuns, the gurumas should be categorized in three:
- Dharmachari Guruma and her contemporary nuns. They had no other option than following the monks. The monks were dictating and the nuns were also submissive.
- Dhammavati Guruma and her contemporary – this was the period of harmony. They were working as siblings. Gurumas were not very much educated and monks were helpful; the relation was still honorable. So they did not search their status or identity, they were just following the monks. Monks of that period too had affection for the nuns and supported in all the way possible for them.
- Anoja Guruma and contemporary. This generation is educated and have a wide vision.. They are not ready to follow the monks blindly and obeying them at every stage. And monks of this period do not have respect and affection for the nuns. In this context the nuns do not readily obey or follow anything the monks of this generation requires them to do. This kind of relationship might creat a conflict between them which not admirable.
Apart from this, a silent internal conflict is seen between the nuns of the second period and the third period. Some nuns belonging to the second period say that nuns should keep numb and should not retaliate the monks. Even after understanding the problem, they feel reluctant to raise the issue lest the unity of the small circle of the monks and nuns would be broken. While, other young nuns say that keeping silence means promoting the monks to continue domination.
To resolve this, the monks have to accept the qualification of the nuns and the nuns too have to search for the way to convince the monks that they are no longer ready to be subservient in the present era of equality. We all should remember that monks and nuns are two of the four wheels of the Buddha sasana and the continuation will not be smooth, unless the two wheels treat each other on equal footing.
Buddhism is more gender-sensitive in comparison to other religions. In those days when women were very much oppressed socially and religiously, freedom the Buddha granted to women is appreciable. It has opened the door to women’s liberation in contemporary sense.
On the base of primary information collected from selected nuns, it is seen that most of monks, not disregarding some exceptions, who are quite encouraging to promote equal status of the nuns, consider nuns as inferior, incapable and unauthorized to come to equal setting with the monks. The nuns need promotion exclusively from monks to make them ready to come up with full zeal to study, practice and to teach the dhamma analytically. Hardly any document is found written or published to portray the ongoing inquality or domination. Nuns and lay persons should document the issue and make the future generation perceive the depth of the reality of this 21st century Buddhism in Nepal.
To resolve this, the monks have to accept the qualification contribution of the nuns and the nuns too have to search for the way to convince the monks that they are no longer ready to be submissive in the resent era of equality. We all should remember that monks and nuns are two of the four wheels of the Buddha sasana and the carriage will not be smooth, unless the two wheels treat each other on equal footing.
 A S Hornby, Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 1266.
Ibid, p. 1268.
 https://archive.org/stream/StatusOfWomenInBuddhism#page/n3/mode/2up (Access date: 2016. 04. 04)
Bhikshu Bodhijnana (ed.), Theravada Buddhist Directory – Nepal, Kathmandu: Heradevi Shakya, 2014, p. 59.
Sarah LeVine and David N. Geller, Rebuilding Buddhism, New Delhi: Esha Beteille and Orient Blackswan, (2008), p. 72.
Ibid, p. 59.
Ibid, p. 59.
8Bhikkhu Kondanya, “Theravadi Bhikkhu, Shramanera, Anagarika ra Viharaharu”, Jyoti Udaya, Issue No. 13 (2006) p. 88.
 Bhikshu Bodhijnana (ed.), Theravada Buddhist Directory – Nepal, Kathmandu: Heradevi Shakya, 2014, p. 59
Based on interview with Veeryavati Guruma
Sarah Levine, “Nuns in Kathmandu Valley”, Buddhist Himalaya, Vol IX, No. 1&2 (1998), p. 23.
Based on interview with Jnanvati Guruma
Based on interview with Veeryavati Guruma
Based on the interview with Dr Anoja Guruma
Annual Report 2071, Kathmandu: Yuva Anagarika Sahayog Samiti, 2071 BS, p. 55.
Based on interview with Veeryavati Guruma.
 Based oin interview with Jnanavati Guruma.
Sarah Levine, “Nuns in Kathmandu Valley”, Buddhist Himalaya, Vol IX, No. 1&2 (1998), p. 32.
Based in interview with Veeryavati Guruma and Anoja Guruma
Based on interview with Jnanvati Guruma, Anoja Guruma and Dhammavijaya Guruma.
[Note: This paper was presented at at the international seminar on “Strengthening the Buddhist Root : Theravada Buddhist Nuns of Nepal”, organized by Aksheshwara Mahavihara and Central Department of History, Tribhuwan Univeristy on 2017 08 28]