Origin of Buddhist Nuns in Sri Lanka

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Origin of Buddhist Nuns in Sri Lanka

Binara Pasalosvaka Poya occupies a significant place in the history of Buddha Sasana. It is on this Poya day, Bhikkhuni Sasana was founded. When the Buddha was residing at Nigrodharamaya in the city of Kapilavasthu, Mahaprajapathi Gothami requested permission for women to enter the Order.DSCN5255
Buddhist scriptures tell us that after an initial reluctance, he decided to grant permission, but after laying down eight tenets of the code to be followed by the Bhikkhunis. The Queen and the 500 Sakyan princesses who accompanied her agreed to follow. Ordination was conducted thereafter. The Bhikkhuni Order in India however, lasted not more than 5 centuries as it went into extinction with the decline of Buddhism from the late Gupta period.
Today, therefore, it may be appropriate for us to take a brief journey through the history of the Bhikkhuni order in Sri Lanka.
Higher ordination was not given to dasasilmathas (ten preceptors) in Sri Lanka because the Sangha led by the three Mahanayaka Theras decreed that the Order of Nuns (Bhikkhuni Sasana) died down centuries ago in the country and cannot be revived except by a Bhikkhuni of the Theravada unbroken lineage. This was not possible since the lineage, even in remotest Chinese Buddhist territory, had gone extinct.
Every Buddhist knows that it was during the 3rd century BC, the Bhikkhuni order was established in Sri Lanka under the guidance of Sanghamitta Theri.
The Princess Anula, wife of the younger brother of King Devanam Piyatissa, along with 500 other women, joined the higher ordination of Buddhism as Buddhist nuns.DSCN5254
Within a short period of time, the Buddhism earned many followers in Sri Lanka. During that time, the island had a large Buddhist religious community of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis who advocated the Buddhist teachings across the country.
The Bhikkhuni Sasana lasted till the end of the Anuradhapura Era. The final mention of a Nunnery in the Chronicles was during the reign of Mihindu the fourth (956-972) who built Mahawallaka Nunnery for Theravada bhikkhunis.
Visits to China and Tibet
History tells us that in 429 CE, Bhikkhuni Devasara took a cutting from the Sri Lankan bodhi tree at Anuradhapura, and travelled to China with a group of bhikkhunis to establish a bhikkhuni sangha there.DSCN5229
At the same time the mission left to China, Bhikkhuni Chandramali led the second group to Tibet, described as a greatly hazardous journey. In Tibet, they translated six Tibetan texts from Sanskrit to Tibetan including the Tibetan Tripitaka which was called the Kanjur.
Bhikkhus in China politely asked the visiting group whether some of them would be willing to return home and bring more bhikkhunis so they would have enough quorum for an ordination. While some of the original bhikkhunis stayed behind, others Returned to Sri Lanka. They gathered the requisite number of bhikkhunis to make a quorum for the ordination and four years later, arrived back in China. It is said that over 300 Chinese nuns were ordained at the Nan Lin Southern Forest Monastery in Nanjing.DSCN5215
Unlike Sri Lanka, China’s bhikkhuni lineage, has continued to the present day in an unbroken upasampada (ordination) lineage. And, in between, the bhikkhuni order was transmitted to Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam from China. There are now thousands of Taiwanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese bhikkhunis.DSCN5253
Extinction
Around the 11th century, however, the Order of Buddhist nuns slowly began to lose its place among Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka. There is a number of reasons for this catastrophe.
In 1017 Cholian tribes, who were extremist Hindus, came down from India and conquered the Anuradhapura Kingdom and as a result, the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni orders disappeared and became defunct. After 50 years of the Cholian rule though, Vijayabahu the First (1055-1110) expelled the invaders. During this half century, the local Buddhist practices became more and more under Tamil and Hindu influence.
Since the fall of the Anuradhapura kingdom, fewer women were inclined to join the Buddhist clergy. There were only a few Buddhist nuns left to perform the higher ordination for the novices. Only a senior bhikkhuni can perform the ordination of bhikkhunis. It cannot be performed by a Buddhist monk.
DipavamsaDSCN5214
Vijayabahu the First wanted to revive the Bhikkhu and BhikkhuniOrders. He got down Bhikkhus from Burma for the ordination of Sri Lankan bhikkhus. However, there is no indication that he got the services of senior Bhikkhunis from Burma.
According to Professor Ranaweera Gunawardene, there was a Burmese inscription which speaks of the existence of Theravada Bhikkhunis in Burma in 1196CE. Even in 1279CE according to inscriptions, nunneries had existed in Burma.
So, the bhikkhuni order died out in the Theravada tradition. However, women continued to practice. Women’s monasticism took different forms, for example, eight and ten-precept nuns.
Dr Hema Goonetilake, a renowned Buddhist scholar and researcher, gives us interesting insights into the Bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka. He says that Dipavamsa of the fourth century BC a work authored by Bhikkhunis, and it was the first Chronicle to have been documented in Sri Lanka. It gives in detail the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Order, its history, development, expansion and the spiritual and intellectual successes of the bhikkhunis.
This is in contrast to the documentation in the Mahavamsa written in the sixth century CE based on the Dipavamsa where Bhikkhu scribes had ignored the services of Bhikkhunis except for the initial events and brief references. Dr Goonetileke’s contention is that Mahavamsa which gives the “male history” of the Theravada fraternity appears to be a deliberate effort to delegitimize the services of the bhikkhunis.
Dr Goonetilleke brings up the argument which is made today by many among the Sangha in Theravada countries that there is no possibility of resuscitating the Bhikkhuni Order as the traditional requirement of an appropriate lineage does not exist. However, she points out that it is not possible to strictly adhere to the rules and regulations as set out earlier for the reestablishment of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order.
Revival
In the latter part of last century, there were attempts to revive Bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka.
Higher ordination was not given to dasasilmathas (ten preceptors) in Sri Lanka because the Sangha led by the three Mahanayaka Theras decreed that theDSCN5259 Order of Nuns (Bhikkhuni Sasana) died down centuries ago in the country and cannot be revived except by a Bhikkhuni of the Theravada unbroken lineage. This was not possible since the lineage, even in remotest Chinese Buddhist territory, had gone extinct.

Yet, in 1996, a group of dasasilmathas led by Sister Kusuma went to Buddha Gaya and received higher ordination from a South Korean senior Bhikkhuni and later received ordination again from Sri Lankan Theravada monks led by Sumangala Thera in Rangiri Dambulla Vihara. Thus, some believe, the lineage or Order of Bhikkhunis was restored. The event was organised by Venerable Mapalagama Vipulasara Thera.
Six months later, Sumangala Thera got these 20 bhikkhunis to confer ordination on 22 samaneris of Sri Lanka along with many from other countries. Most of the bhikkhunis have gone to other countries to build the bhikkhuni sangha.
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