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Gender Equality Gathers Momentum Among Asian Buddhists

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By Kalinga Seneviratne

This article is the 11th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

BANGKOK (IDN | Lotus News Features) – The first ASEAN Buddhist Conference held on September 22-23 at Nakhonpathom Rajabhat University, about 100 km from Bangkok, brought together Buddhist Bhikkunis (nuns), Bhikkus (monks) and lay Buddhists from across Asia in a bid to form alliances to empower the increasing community of Bhikkunis in Asia.

Buddhism is unique, in comparison to many other religious traditions, because Gautama Buddha himself said (according to canonical literature) that like men, women could also attain all four stages of enlightenment (nirvana). Thus, on the request of his aunt and stepmother Mahaprajapati Gotami, he set up the order of Bhikkunis during his lifetime. 

At the time the Buddha set up his order of monks, there was in Indian society the widespread but groundless belief that a woman is inferior to man. This is therefore seen as a revolutionary step.

The Bhikkuni order set up by the Buddha was wiped out from India by the Turkic Muslim invaders between the 11th to 13th centuries when they almost detroyed Buddhism in its homeland. The South Indian Hindu Chola invasions of Sri Lanka around the same time also wiped out the Bhikkuni order there.

After a lapse of many centuries, the revolution the Buddha began in giving equal status to women in the monkhood is now being revived across Asia, led by an energetic Thai woman Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, now known as Dhammananda Bhikkuni, a scholar who took Bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka in 1998 and returned to Thailand. She was instrumental in organising the First ASEAN Buddhist Conference and before that she has helped to set up the Asian Theravada Bhikkuni Network.

“We have been working among Bhikkunis and we have realized that it is wonderful to support each other. (But) this support could be extended to larger community of Buddhists. So we (Bhikkunis) organised this conference because we would like to expand to include our brothers. This conference includes both Bhikkunis and Bhikkus, and lay men and women as well,” Bhikkuni Dhammanada told Lotus News.

The two-day conference bought together Bhikkunis from Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia and Vietnam, along with a number of senior Theravada Buddhist monks from the region. There were also many Buddhist scholars from Asia and outside who spoke during panel discussions.

When asked how Sri Lanka has led the revival of the Theravada Bhukkuni order when the two leading Buddhist prelates of Asgiriya and Malawatta chapters of Sri Lankan Buddhism are against it, Bhikkuni Dhammnanda said that there are many Mahanayaka’s (senior monks) of all four sects of Sri Lanka Buddhism that have supported her and the re-establishment of the Bhikkuni order.

“Some mahanayakas support, some don’t, it’s not official policy,” she explained. “The one who ordained me as Bhikkuni is a Mahanayaka from Siam sect. Asgiri and Malwatta haven’t officially declared their support, but mahanayakas from Siam, Malwatta, Amaparpua, Ramayana sects have given ordination to Bhikkunis,” she added.

A book distributed at the conference on Theravada Bhikkuni Lineage explains the women’s long struggle to re-establish the order and many hurdles they had to cross. But it also acknowledges the support they have acquired from many senior monks in Asia.

The book points out how the Chinese pilgrim Fa Hien helped Chinese women to take the Sri Lankan lineage to establish the order of nuns in China in 433 AD, then it returned via China to Sri Lanka to re-establish the Theravada Bhikkuni Order in 1998 when some 147women received full ordination as Bhikkunis. A second ordination ceremony took place in Saranath India few months later presided over by 10 Mahanayake’s to give it the Theravada tradition’s blessings.

Dhammananda Bhikkuni was among the first batch of ordained Theravada Bhikkunis and in 2014 she was appointed as the first ‘pavattini’ (teacher) by the Theravada tradition in Thailand.

Though Thai Bhikkunis still do not have official status in the constitution, they are protected by it. There is now a growing network of over 1,000 Buddhist nuns in Thailand and across Asian Theravada Buddhist countries. Most of them are involved in what is termed as Engaged Buddhism such as community teachers, health workers and counsellors especially to girls.

Some in Asia may have the image of a Buddhist nun as someone who has spent her life raising children and wanting to enter a nunnery in her old age. In other words, someone, who may not be highly educated. But, the women who are coming forward to be ordained are now well educated and younger.

Dhammavanna Bhikkuni from Thailand pointed out in a presentation that about 50 percent of the candidates who apply for ordination have BA degrees and some even MAs and PhDs. Dhammanada Bhikkuni for example was an Associate Professor before she ordained as a Bhikkuni. She writes regular newspaper columns in English and Thai and hosts TV talk shows in Thailand. In 1983 she spoke at Harvard University on Women and Buddhism.

Bhikkuni Tri Lie, a lecturer at Vietnam Buddhist University told the conference that there are over 1,200 Bhikkunis in her country (still officially under community rule) and over 40 of them are studying at universities in India, China, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, while hundreds more have received degrees from Colleges of Buddhist Studies in Vietnam.

“There are 15 nuns who are teaching at Vietnam Buddhist University and many more are delivering the Dhamma to nuns and lay-people in monasteries across the country,” she said. “Nuns clearly realize that today’s world is rich in all kinds of advanced knowledge, so they focus on the study of the Dhamma, and improve their worldly knowledge in order to catch up with the present trend in the world.”

The role of nuns in education and the problems associated with educating nuns were both a common theme of the conference. As Bhukkuni Dr Molini, the first nun from Myanmar to get a PhD explained, since 1990 many monks have got the opportunity to go overseas to study but this is not available to nuns.

Thus, she set up the Dhammamoli International Buddhist Education Centre (DIBEC) to help Myanmar nuns to get an education beyond merely studying the Pali texts. Since 2006 this has become the first academic centre for nuns in the country.

With Myanmar opening up to the world she argues that it is important to educate a new generation of nuns who can communicate in English. Thus her centre has recruited English teachers from the United States from contacts she established during her PhD studies there, to teach English to nuns in Myanmar.

DIBEC through the training of nuns with an international outlook aims to use their skills to protect girls and young women from human trafficking, helping orphaned girls to be educated and then become valuable members of the monastic community. They are also helping young nuns to learn English after obtaining a teaching degree.

Dhammananda Bhikkuni believes that for the order of nuns to expand and make an impact they need to be intimately involved with the community. “Nuns are very engaged because . . . we get food from people; they support us materially and we support them with spiritual guidance,” says the Thai nun who is pioneering a women’s empowerment movement within Asian Buddhism. [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 October 2016]

Photo: A group photo of the participants of the conference of nuns and monks. | Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-INPS





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