FEATURE: December – month of significance to Sri Lankan Buddhist women
COLOMBO (The Island/ANN) - The month of December in Sri Lanka is designated as that of women because women gained equal status, in the newly introduced Buddhist religion.
In Sri Lanka we designate the month of December as that of women because women gained equal status, as it were, in the newly introduced Buddhist religion. As we well know Sanghamitt? Theri arrived in Lanka facilitating the ordination of women of the country. She was the eldest daughter of Emperor Ashoka (304 BC – 232 BC) and his first wife, Devi. Together with her brother Mahinda, she entered the Buddhist Sangha. Mahinda Thera traveled to Lanka to introduce the teachings of Buddha at the request of King Devanampiya Tissa (250 BC – 210 BC). With him came a young samaners – son of Sanghamitta. Emperor Ashoka was initially reluctant to send his daughter on an overseas mission. However, because of the insistence of Sangamitta herself, he finally agreed. She was sent to Sri Lanka together with several other nuns at the request of the Lankan king whose sister-in–law, Anula Devi desired ordination.
Because of Sanghamitt? Theri’s contribution to the propagation of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and her establishing the Bikhhun? Sangha or Meheni Sasna, her name became synonymous with Buddhist Female Monastic Order of Therav?da Buddhism that was established not only in Sri Lanka but also in Burma, China and Thailand, and has now spread worldwide. The poya day in December also commemorates the day a sapling from the most revered tree, the Bodhi tree in Buddha Gaya, was brought by her to Sri Lanka and planted in Anuradhapura. Thus the full moon poya in December is ‘Uduvapa Poya’ and named ‘Sanghamitt? Day’ by us in Sri Lanka. This year it falls on Dec. 11 and on that day we specially remember Sanghamitta Theri, who renounced her royal life, shifted home and took residence in Anuradhapura and lived to a very ripe old age.
Personal recollections of bhikkhunis
We lay Buddhist women, whether we observe sil for the Uduvap Poya or lead our usual lives, should and would, remember with great appreciation and gratitude Theri Saghamitta and other local bhikkhunis.
Ayya Khema (August 25, 1923 – November 2, 1997) was an American German Jew who was born Ilse Kussel in Berlin. Just prior to World War II she was sent to Glasgow with other children of Jewish origin while her parents migrated to Shanghai. She married when 23 a much older man and traveled the world, when her interest in Buddhist meditation took root. Her husband did not share her interest, so the couple divorced. She lived in Bangkok studying the Dhamma plus meditating. She became a ten preceptor under the guidance of Ven Narada Mahathera and chose to make her home in Sri Lanka. She got built Nuns’ Island in the Ratgama Lake in Parappuduwa, Dodanduwa. She had foreign women arriving for meditation courses of, sometimes, three months. Local women too were fortunate to receive her invitation of residence for a couple of days. She introduced so many to meditation and conducted ten day retreats in Colombo, Kundasale, Peradeniya and Bentota. I became a devotee, introduced to her by my kalyana mithra, Ratna Dias with whom Ayya Khema lodged whenever she was in Colombo.
Ayya Khema was a wonderful person: strong in personality, very effective in her teaching, almost evangelical. She authored several books and ran a very efficient nunnery with kutis built for novices and a Sinhala nun she invited to reside with her. Visitors slept in a long dormitory of six rooms housing two in each, just by the lake’s shore. The focal point of Nuns’ Island was the large meditation hall with a skeleton hanging in it.
Ayya Khema went to San Francisco to receive higher ordination. She stayed on in Sri Lanka as a Bhikkhuni being of great service to Buddhism here at home and abroad. When the JVP insurrection was at its height in the late 1990s, the Head Monk of The Island Hermitage, who always helped Nuns’ Island, advised the island be barb wired, as insurgents were known to take shelter in the Island Hermitage premises and would, he felt, intrude to Nuns’ Island. Bhikkhuni Khema said she could not live again fenced and wary, so she left for Germany where she resided in her new aranya - Buddha Haus, Uttenbühl, Germany. She died after fourteen years of battling cancer, which never stymied her. Remembered is how she would not take dane or gilampasa, only water for a couple of days, but continue her teaching and leading meditation. That was her way of keeping the disease at bay. She planned her programmes of teaching and retreats years ahead. Her ashes are in a stupa at Buddha Haus.
One of her pupils who was ordained here as a ten preceptor and in Australia as a Bhikkhuni who I am fortunate to claim as friend, resides in Perth and built and supervised an aranya for laywomen and nuns as directed by Ven Brahmavamso. (I do not name her as she prefers anonymity).
Ven Bhikkhuni Dr Kusuma is also deserving of much praise and reverence. She was the first Sri Lankan ten preceptor to be granted higher ordination on 8 Dec 1996 in Sarnath at the Mahabodhi premises by a Taiwanese monk of the Mahayana tradition and Ven Vipulasara Thera, then President of the Mahabodhi Society of India and Founder, Member and Secretary of the World Buddhist Sangha Council. Her’s was a hard won victory. She is a pioneer as she revived the Bhikkhuni Sasana in this country which had died down during the early colonial period. For long the highest prelates in the Sangha decreed a nuns’ order could not be re-instituted with no Theravada nun to give others higher ordination. Monks can do the needful as it is found in the suttas that Buddha pronounced this possibility. The first nun of all, Prajapati Gotami was ordained by Ven Bhikkhuni Dr Kusuma is 90 plus but active in propagating the true word of the Buddha. There are many more educated nuns and those who give service to their devotees.
Four supports of Buddhism
The Buddha pronounced that for the stability and continuance of the doctrine He preached – the Buddha Dhamma and thus the religion Buddhism, four supports are needed: the Sangha (bhikkhus), Mehini Sasna (bhikkhunis), laymen and laywomen devotees. Thus we now have these supports in place and it is with gratitude we look on bhikkhunis, since their religious life is even harder than that of monks, them having to observe more vinaya rules.
Another benefit of having nuns with higher ordination stares us in the face, at least of those who are interested. I have written, even as recently as Sunday December 1, 2019 about some Sri Lankan monks who have brought disrepute to the religion and the Sangha. But apart from mendicant women who don yellow robes to better beg in places like Anuradhapura, there are those who are dedicated to the Dhamma and observe strictly their vinaya. They are also more accessible to families and in certain regions of Sri Lanka are more willing to chant pirit and visit homes for dane than monks. I have heard of people living in villages fearing that they would not be able to have monks chant pansakula at a funeral. This ceremony conducted before burial or cremation is absolutely necessary. I do not believe bhikkhunis can step in here to better help people who are discriminated against. They ought to be able to. Even without this boon they are of great benefit to people in this country.
Hence this month, with all its Christian festivities and ending the year, is also very significant to us Buddhist women, who are justly proud of their sisters who have taken the major step to follow Sanghamitta Theri who followed Prajapathi Gotami, foster mother of Gautama Buddha.