On Bhikkhuni in Theravada, Bhikkhuni Dhammananda


Bhikkhuni Dhammananda is  also known as associate Prof.Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh at Songdhammakalyani Monastery, Thailand. She has been working for introducing nuns “Bhikkhuni” in Thailand and in other Theravadian countries as well. Razen Manandhar interviewed her at Aksheshwar Mahavihara, Lalitpur, Nepal. Here is an excerpt of the interview.


What is the Buddha’s opinion on women?

I would like to tell you from my own experience. I was most impressed by the Buddha’s words when he accepted women to be ordained on the reason that women can be enlightened. He said that they can enter Sotapanna, Sakadagami, Anagami, Arahant. “Sacchikatunti” They can see with their own eyes. That is the golden phrase that the Buddha said. And that is the reason why he allowed women to be ordained.


How did the Bhikkhuni Sangha disappear?

Well, this goes according to the Buddha’s teaching, Aniccam. Dukkham. Anatta, thing that rises also falls. That’s happened not only Bhikkhuni Sangha but also Bhikkhu Sangha. In India it disappeared around 12 th century AD with the invasion of the Turk Muslim who came to invade India at that time. Same time in Sri Lanka, the year was exactly 1017 AD, the South Indian King went over and invaded Sri Lanka, so the two countries who were supporting each other, when both Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis died out, they could not support each other. In Sri Lanka, they finally got the lineage from Thai monks, so they could revive Bhikkhus but not the bhikkhunis, that’s how the Bhikkhunis disappeared.


How can we revive Bhikkhuni Sangha again?

Where we got stuck? We misunderstood the text by saying that if you want to ordain a woman to be Bhikkhuni, you have to have Bhikkhuni Sangha and then Bhikkhu Sangha. When you start like this, they can not start because we don’t have Bhikkhuni. In fact when you go back and read the text, the ordination of Bhikkhuni was given by the Bhikkhu Sangha. So it can be done again as long as you have Bhikkhu Sangha. In Nepal you have a Theravada Bhikkhu Sangha, they agree together. Suppose you have 300 of them, may be 100 of them do not agree yet. But if 200 of them agree, Sangha is only 5 to 10 monks can go ahead and train the women, give samaneri ordination first, let them practice for 2 years. And then after that when they are well trained, give them full ordination to become Bhikkhunis.


How the campaign for revival of Bhikkhuni Sangha has been successful in different countries?

In Thailand, the movement to become Bhikkhuni start as early as 1928. But it was not successful. The women who were ordained at that time were even put into prison. They could not wear the robe. They pulled the robe from her body. Can you imagine? So very drastic. 1971 my own mother was ordained. But at that time there was no Theravada ordination. So she went to Taiwan. The ordination she got was from Dharmagupta vinaya which is not Theravada. So when she came back to Thailand, she was a bhikshuni but she could not give ordination to the next generation and I realized that if you get the lineage from Taiwan you can not start Theravada ordination in your country.

So when my turn come, Theravada ordination started to be accepted only after 1998. This is when Fo Kuang San organized in Bodhgaya and 20 of the nuns from Sri Lanka went there. Sri Lanka was the only country that the senior monks were prepared to be involved. This is very unique character. Senior monks involved from very beginning. They screen the most capable nuns from Sri Lanka and the monks took these nuns to be ordained. When they were ordained, the monks thought  that if they come back to Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan people will not accept because the lineage is Dharmagupta, not Theravada. So the senior monks took them to Sarnath and gave them Theravada ordination. This is how Theravada lineage got started in the modern time 1998. So I was ordained from the Bhikkhuni who took this ordination. My full ordination was done in 2003. I was first ordained as samaneri in 2001. So this is possible now.


What do they need now?

Starting from this 1998. It is acceptant by academic and by dhamma vinaya. We checked vinaya and we find that this vinaya is correct. I am academic waiting for the right ordination to happen. So I agree and study 1998 ordination that’s why I took ordination from the teacher who was ordained in 1988. Then there were candidates from Thailand Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia started to become ordained also from this Theravada Bhikkhuni lineage. We start forming network of Theravada Bhikkhuni in Asia, we have to depend on each country.

I started with Vietnam first. Majority of the nuns in that country is Mahayana. Actually they have the largest Mahayana nuns in the world with 22,000 Bhikkhunis as oppose to 12,000 monks. But that ‘s in Mahayana.

The Theravada started very recent. The first batch was ordained in 2002. After ordination, she was still doing her Ph.D. so she has to go back and finish her work and then she came back. She was supported by her teacher who is a senior Theravada monk in Vietnam. So when she came back, she already has a temple for her to continue. So in the begining to keep the vinaya very strict to vinaya, when you receive the Kathina you have to have Bhikkhuni Sangha stay together  for the vasa, only then you can receive Kathina. But they were just two of them. So what they did?  They invited us. So we send the Thai Bhikkhuni to Vietnam to stay together to complete five. Then I went there three years  every Kathina I would go and help them because there should be one to make pronounce in Pali that this year the Sangha decided to give this robe to this particular person. This is how we try to keep the vinaya intact. And very important first thing we have to think about is Sima. Sima is the consecrated boundary. Once you become a bhikkhuni, you must be five together. Then you recite the patimokha and the reciting patimokha must be done in Sima. So it’s not just ordination and then come back. You have to know what need to be prepared before hand.

Indonesia is a Muslim country. You imagine 300 million Muslims, only 1 % are Buddhists. But among this 1%, four of them became Bhikkhunis in the year 2000. But when they went back there, there is 50 of the Theravada monks in the whole country. The Theravada monks did not accept them. So two of them disrobed. Only  two remain. But this two continue on. The lay people thought this is wonderful. So they get together, bought a piece of land for them to start the temple. And now very interesting, this land is in the middle of Muslim neighbors. But the Muslim ladies supported the nuns because the nuns would open the space and the Muslim women can come and sell vegetable. So it’s very supportive setting. Two years ago, they gave International ordination. Now they have about eight Theravada Bhikkhunis in Indonesia.


What is the situation of nuns in Nepal according to your reading?

I was very concerned because as I told you earlier, my mother was ordained in 1971 and she was ordained in Dharmmagupta Nikaya from Taiwan. Ven.Dhammavadi, the leading nun here, she was also ordained by the Taiwanese group in 1988. I was there at her ordination. So I kept in touch with all the records coming from Nepal and I know that when she came back to Nepal she practiced according to Theravada but the ordination is Dharmmagupta. So if she want to remain as a Bhikkhuni , she has to wear Dharmmagupta robe, which is Chinese. Of course she is not trained to be a Chinese nun. When she came back she would like to be Theravada Bhikkhuni. But the lineage she got was not Theravada lineage. So that is difficult. When she came back so far that I heard, I might be wrong, the monks did not agree. So she went back and putting on anagarika robe, the pink one. The pink one is the statement  that you are upasika, you are not ordained. The pink color is associated with being one who’s still in a home. But in Nepal, I see many of anagarikas. They are very capable, very efficient. Why not move up to the stage of Bhikkhuni?  That was my question? But of course when I come here, I realized that there are many intricate many sensitive issues that’s why I said Nepali nuns have to decide what they want to do. Again, please put the button right. When you start the first button you have to put it right, otherwise you end up having to redo it again.


How can this campaign for Bhikkhuni be more successful?

I would suggest that they have to take Theravada ordination. Because at that time in 1988, Theravada ordination was not there. But now ordination is already there. Let’s start even though you may lose many years but losing many years is your practice.


What role the lay persons play to strengthen Bhikkhuni Sangha in Nepal?

I think the Bhikkhunis themselves cannot live alone. We have to depend on the lay people. So this is working together. I think it’s important that the lay people themselves also have to study. Someone like you may study focus on academic. You need academic back up to be Theravada Bhikkhuni. You need to go back to the text and try to understand that what we have understood as it is, is not what the Buddha said. We have to come back and talk much about deconstruction, deconstructing the common belief  to see that the real massage is not like that. So maybe we should bring out another book about deconstructing the Buddhist belief in Nepal.


Have you talked about the situation of Bhikkhunis in Nepal?

Not in Nepal but in general we have been moving so many seminar s, conferences. Actually the World Council of Churches sponsored a conference so that the leading academics of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism came together and discussed about the women’s issue. They have done that and we learn from each other. I remembered one time we talked about where did we derail. In all the three major religions, we realized that we have been derailed from very early period.


You have been the coordinator of the organization of Buddhist women, “Sakyadhida”. What has it been doing so far?

That is one of the reasons to strengthen Buddhist women wherever we go to organize conference. The very first one started in Bodhgaya in 1987. That was, when I also was co-founder, three of us, Ven.Karma Lekshe Somo, Ayya Khema, a German and myself. At that time I was still a lay person. Ayya Khema passed away in 1997. So only Ven.Karma Lekshe Somo continued on. She is very capable. Now she is also a professor in San Diego. This conference itself provide a space where people come and tell the stories, the difficulties and success of the women in different parts of the world. So that how the Nepali nuns can get the space to talk about. And Ven.Dhammavadi actually started at Lumbini. One time Sakyadhita had a conference there at her Arama.


What massage Nepals’ Bhikkhuni Sangha will give to the world?

I would love to see that. I feel so connected. This is the place where Buddha was born. And the place where the Buddha was born should have the four fold Buddhist communities. It is call a Majjhimadesh; central country, only when you have a four-fold Buddhist communities and this is where Nepali are still lacking, the second one. So when you sit on a chair with three legs, it’s wobbly. You are afraid that you might fall. So as a mother takes care of her children, Bhikkhuni can also take care other half of society and society will come to the full.


What do you think about development of Lumbini in recent years?

The pilgrims from Thailand, when  they come to Nepal, it’s only that Border. You just cross Sonaoli and then turn to Lumbini, that’s all. Then they would go back. They don’t come to Nepal as a whole country like this. My paper that I thought I might present here but I changed my mind. I talked about the female energy in Nepal. One of the topic I mentioned is Lumbini is the place where the queen Maya gave birth to her son but now people said this is the place where the Buddha was born. Why don’t you talk about his mother. At that time he was not even a Buddha yet. The focus is shifted. The focus should be this is the place where Maya Devi gave birth to her son. When you say that, people go and pray, they are praying to mother energy. And this mother energy, everyone of us need mother energy. I think that we should not shift only to the Buddha. At that time he was only  a baby, not yet the Buddha. He became the Buddha 35 years after that. So Lumbini should be kept to Maya Devi, the person who gave birth to the Buddha. And it was Maya Devi Vihara for long time. I had an opportunity in 1962 to actually see the old small Maya Devi Vihara where people go. There is so much religious energy but now it has become archaeological museum, that religious part is lost.

(This interview has been kindly transcribed by Dr Kanjana Suthikul. )