Becoming Bhikkhunis, Becoming Theravada
Becoming Bhikkhunis, Becoming Theravada
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on the category of “Theravada” in relation to questions of monastic seniority and power in the debates about Theravada bhikkhunī upasampadās. Using the work of Ananda Abeysekara, and interviews with Sri Lankan monks and nuns since the 1980s, it proposes that competing claims about the Theravada authenticity of recent upasampadās of Sri Lankan nuns are inseparable from claims about power. Monastics participating in Sri Lankan Buddhist missions outside the country as well as Sri Lankan bhikkhunī ordinations throughout the world may assert a distinctively Theravada identity in connection with upasampadās of Sri Lankan bhikkhunīs. Yet, this chapter seeks not to assess the authenticity of those ordinations but rather to consider the conjunctures in which they occur. Ultimately, it argues that the category of Theravada cannot figure into the everyday life of practitioners apart from the debates in which that category is rooted.
In introductory texts on Buddhism, “Theravada” characteristically denotes an “early” Buddhism that is associated with Pali texts and practiced in specific countries (e.g., in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar).1 Theravada Buddhism is essentially differentiated from Mahayana in terms of divergences in specific doctrines and practices. Such differences similarly surface in discussions of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, where Theravada is often contrasted to Mahayana. When I refer to Theravada in general throughout this book, and for want of a clearer terminology, I also do so in that broad sense. Nevertheless, with reference to contemporary practices, what “Theravada” connotes is not so easy to determine.2 Gombrich and Obeysekere, in their book Buddhism Transformed, provide definitions of different expressions of Buddhism (Sinhalese Buddhism, Protestant Buddhism, etc.) and identify Theravada Buddhism as one that is connected with a specific textual tradition and monastic and religious practices (3).3 They describe it as a doctrinal and ethical Buddhism imbued with a specific soteriology (242, 274, 422). Heinz Bechert, whose work Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellshaft in den Ländern des Theravāda Buddhismus has become a classic in defining the history of Theravada Buddhism, suggests that the “ordination tradition” is a central marker of Theravada (vol.1, 43). Gombrich and Obeyesekere, however, consider the Theravada/Mahayana distinction in terms of differences in “doctrinal currents” rather than “monastic traditions” (274); they suggest that the distinction lies in various interpretations of the doctrine (dhamma) rather than in ordination lineages and monastic rules (of the Vinaya).4 Most often, in keeping with our textbook understanding of Theravada (with which Bechert’s work would agree), (p.150) they view Sri Lankan Buddhism in comparison with Buddhisms of other countries. According to them Theravada in Sri Lanka is either distinct from Mahayana (and other schools) or similar to a Buddhism found elsewhere, as in Thailand or Myanmar (254, 289, 302, 340, 350).5 The historical identification of Theravada as a distinct form of Buddhism is a large question that I do not have the space to fully address here.6 But how Theravada is defined has figured prominently in debates about recent bhikkhuni ordinations of Sri Lankan nuns, so it is only appropriate to ask what monastics themselves mean by “Theravada.”
The question of the Theravada identity of bhikkhuni ordinations was a conspicuous feature of debates in Sri Lanka throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.7 At that time opponents of the bhikkhuni ordination vigorously disputed its validity, claiming that because the bhikkhuni ordination lineage in Sri Lanka had been discontinued centuries ago, there were no Theravada bhikkhunis who could perform the upasampada ritual according to the Pali (Theravada) Vinaya. Supporters of the ordination suggested that despite the cessation of the bhikkhuni ordinations in Sri Lanka, it was possible to conduct a valid Theravada ordination of Sri Lankan bhikkhunis with the assistance of bhikkhunis from East Asia. They argued that because the fifth century ordination of bhikkhunis in China had involved the participation of bhikkhunis from Sri Lanka and was directly related to the Dharmaguptaka ordination lineage in China (and other East Asian countries, such as Korea and Taiwan), the Dharmaguptaka lineage was de facto Theravada. Consequently, East Asian monastics ordained in the Dharmaguptaka lineage could effectively provide the uninterrupted line of succession necessary to perform a valid upasampada of Theravada nuns from Sri Lanka.8 As one bhikkhuni from Taiwan who was involved in promoting the upasampada of Sri Lankan nuns asserted, “We received the lineage from Sri Lanka….It is our intention to return [to Sri Lanka] what the Sri Lankan nuns have given to China.” It was that argument about the continuity of an East Asian bhikkhuni lineage that was first used to support an ordination of Sri Lankan bhikkhunis in Sarnath, India (henceforth called the “Sarnath group”), in December 1996 and later of Sri Lankan bhikkhunis in Bodhgaya, India (henceforth, called the “Bodhgaya-Dambulla group”),9 in February 1998. The former ordination involved the participation of Mahayana sangha members from Korea, and the latter, the participation of Mahayana sangha members from Taiwan. Some monks and nuns in Sri Lanka have disputed the “Theravada” character of those ordinations. Among other things, they suggest that introducing Mahayana monastics (p.151) into an ordination ritual of Theravada nuns is detrimental to the practice of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka.10
My discussion about Theravada identity is indebted to Ananda Abeysekara’s Colors of the Robe: Religion, Identity, and Difference. Abeysekara suggests that “the questions of what it means to be Buddhist and the answers to them are made possible and centrally visible by altering conjunctures of discourses and debates” (17). In other words, what seems to “define”—conjuctures that make things “visible” hardly define any thing—and an identity such as “Buddhist” or “non-Buddhist” should not be taken as self-evident. Rather, we should attempt to understand how particular competing debates seek to make authoritative claims about what can or cannot count as Theravada Buddhism. It is easy to miss the import of what is being said here. On the one hand, the conjunctures producing those debates render the determination of what constitutes Buddhism questionable. That is what Abeysekara says when he argues that “particular authoritative narratives that contend to represent Buddhism cannot be taken as readily available ethnographic examples of the relation between religion and society because they are to be found in those altering ideological conjunctures” (25; emphasis added) Yet, if one seeks “empirical examples,” one can find in Abeysekara’s discussion how Buddhist householders come to debate and evaluate differently the conduct of two “rival” monks who have supposedly violated the same monastic rule concerning celibacy in particular networks of power (52–56). The supporters of one monk ignore his infraction—even when pressed—and continue to provide for him; but they condemn the rival monk for the very “same” offense. Again, this is not a matter of focusing on people holding “different” opinions that change but “conjunctures”—that name for the networks of power—producing them, making questionable the idea of some objective reality of a “Buddhism” that can change. One should not, of course, consider those views hypocritical on the part of the monks’ supporters; to do so would be to mistake one assumed reality against another desired reality. As Abeysekara contends, what is important to note here is that “debates and disputes are not self-evident ethnographic examples that enable us [to have] any privileged disciplinary access to Buddhism, monasticism, and difference” (64).The argument about what constitutes a “good monk” within such conjunctures extends to other seemingly incontrovertible categories, such as Buddhism versus non-Buddhism and Theravada versus Mahayana. If we think of those categories in the way Abeysekara suggests, we can begin to dispense with certain assumptions with which we usually (p.152) approach them. Again, Abeysekara’s general argument helps us understand not only how discourse and power authorize particular competing claims about religious identity but also why such debates which are taken by scholars (and others) to constitute some reality find recourse in liberal modes of analysis of religious life and are grounded in certain moral norms of identity. The pitfalls of such liberal assumptions are many. In the previous chapters, I have attempted to show that liberal narratives about nuns rely on precisely such analyses of nuns’ lives. Those narratives risk privileging (as accurate and authentic) one claim over another, thereby presuming that some claim (as opposed to another) ultimately constitutes an incontrovertible normative truth about nuns’ lives. Now, broadly put, according to Abeysekara’s argument, the affirmation of the category of Theravada identity, for example, is not centrally about whether one follows Pali texts, even though texts may be cited to make such an assertion about Theravada. Rather, that affirmation is about a claim to an identity that is made possible by those conjunctures—and one which can mislead us into thinking about an identity that is separable from the conjunctures themselves.
I follow Abeysekara’s argument by assuming that the category of Theravada in contemporary Sri Lanka is contestable and involves a claim to its authorization in the context of competing debates as described earlier. Closer to the argument of this book, it is in terms of the relation between conjunctures and the claims they produce that one may want to understand what it means for a nun to become a “Theravada” bhikkhuni. I suggest that the recent bhikkhuni ordinations have introduced new questions about monastic precedence or seniority and that those are generally inseparable from claims to Theravada identity and power. That does not mean—again, following Abeysekara—that Theravada as such does not “exist.” Rather, the question of “Theravada” and how it comes into “view” tends not to figure into everyday life apart from the competing claims and debates about it. To think otherwise is to make the mistake of separating such claims (discourse) from power. Nevertheless, scholars of Theravada Buddhism still persist in separating “discourse” from “power,” thereby seeking to determine an authentic identity in terms of a “difference between what is done and what is said, and between what is actual and what is ‘rhetoric’” (Abeysekara, “Buddhism, Power, Modernity” 496). Ultimately, such a difference implies that “power” (i.e., as something political) remains apart from or external to an “authentic” life (and religion) itself.
In August 1997, when I visited the bhikkhuni training center in Dambulla, I took a group picture of the twenty-six nuns who were training there for the bhikkhuni upasampada. The photographer in me suggested that the taller nuns stand behind the shorter ones and that some nuns move to the flanks so as to ensure a photogenic group portrait. The nuns, however, seemed to be either deaf to my requests or simply unwilling to comply. Eventually, one of their teachers (an ex-monk) indicated that the nuns were probably reluctant to move because of considerations of monastic seniority that would be upset if they did so. Without further ado, I quickly snapped the photo. That incident, seemingly trivial at the time, is one on which I have often reflected. To what extent is the image that scholars want to produce of nuns an image that they themselves would subscribe to? To what extent is the image that nuns create one that scholars accept at face value? In this case, the nuns’ perspectives on their proper “placement” (according to seniority) did not fit with the image I attempted to construe. Whereas I was concerned with the aesthetics of a picture, their attention was focused on appropriate physical positioning in terms of seniority. Such a recognition of seniority is significant in the everyday interrelations of nuns. Processing in line from one place to another, sitting down to partake of alms that are served by practitioners according to the seniority of renunciants, greeting each other, and welcoming guests to the hermitage and engaging in other public functions involve observing proper precedence.11 The placement in line of seniority is recognized in everyday activities when junior nuns (poḍi mä-ṇiyōs) defer to nuns senior to them.
Such seniority is well understood among monastics themselves and is generally clear-cut. It is typically determined by the date and time of ordination; for example, a nun would be considered senior to another if her ordination preceded that of the other by even a minute. Monastic precedence is meticulously observed by sil matas. The same proved true at the bhikkhuni training center I visited at Dambulla.12 Such precedence, which has been countered by new attempts at authorizing seniority among sil matas and recently ordained bhikkhunis, is my focus in the following pages. The emergence of upasampada training for sil matas—who had already accepted a certain precedence that had been established in their sil mata ordinations—introduced complications that would upset the usual order of seniority: junior sil matas received the upasampada before more-senior sil (p.154) matas (who may even have been their teachers or ordaining sil matas). This chapter considers how nuns articulate their own understanding of monastic precedence concerning seniority. I focus on the meaning of monastic precedence and seniority in some detail, not just to delineate how the bhikkhuni ordinations have introduced apparent confusion into the everyday lives of some nuns but also to point out how claims to Theravada authenticity are embedded in the question of monastic precedence.
I first met Citta when she was a junior sil mata in 1984. I have maintained contact with her hermitage over the years and visited it intermittently. After conferring with the other nuns at the hermitage, as well as with their householding supporters, Citta decided to train for the upasampada. She eventually received the higher ordination in Sri Lanka from Sarnath-group monastics. When I met Citta, about five months after her bhikkhuni ordination, she was the only bhikkhuni at the hermitage, where three sil matas and one samaneri (novice bhikkhuni) also resided. The elderly head nun had no plans to receive the upasampada. Since she was unwell, she had handed over the daily management of the hermitage to a younger sil mata who acted as the de facto head nun. Citta’s bhikkhuni ordination introduced complications in monastic seniority because all but one of the four nuns living with Citta bhikkhuni (including the samaneri) had received their sil mata ordinations before her. Sil mata ordination seniority made Citta junior to all but one nun at the hermitage and fourth in line in terms of her precedence in partaking in communal activities, such as processing in line, partaking of alms (dana), leading religious practices, and receiving salutations from householders. However, her bhikkhuni ordination set her apart from the sil matas and allowed her to formally participate in rituals with other bhikkhunis that were denied to other nuns at her hermitage. Citta’s ritual seniority as the only resident bhikkhuni was compromised by her continuing to live in community with sil matas.
Citta sought to respect the seniority established by the sil mata ordination precedence. Interactions between the nuns and householders proved to be difficult. Householders had considered inviting her exclusively to say pirit for them, on the grounds that she was the only bhikkhuni at the hermitage. However, she rejected their suggestion for the same reason. When the nuns are invited to perform ritual services at homes, Bhikkhuni Citta avoids attending: “It is because the head nun has to go in front that I do not go. There is no problem [prashna], is there, if I just step away and stand apart? The majority in this aramaya are manis [sil matas]. If I were to be the foremost person, it would be difficult to get things done.” Citta (p.155) felt that the only way to deal with the difficult situation was to exclude herself from religious activities with the other nuns outside the hermitage. Her sensitivity toward her fellow nuns extended to her interrelations with them within the hermitage. She told me that she thought the seniority determined by the sil mata ordinations was more important than her new “status” as a bhikkhuni, and if she were to claim seniority as the first (and only) bhikkhuni at the hermitage, it would be “hurtful” (ridenava) for the other nuns living with her, so she insisted on maintaining the sil mata seniority. When alms food was served at the hermitage, Bhikkhuni Citta stood aside while the others were served first, according to sil mata ordination seniority. Somewhat laughingly she explained that even though she was served later, she received the food in her alms bowl before the more senior sil matas sat down to eat. That way, she explained, she was “neither ahead nor in the middle.”
As my accompanying family members and I prepared to leave Citta’s aramaya—in some confusion about how monastic seniority really worked with her—I was unaware that we were about to confront a further imbroglio. Usually, when leaving this hermitage, we had paid our respects to the senior-most nun first and later to the junior nuns, according to seniority. The nuns would stand in a row in order of seniority, and we would bow to them in turn, greeting them individually, according to their placement in the line. That day, however, after expressing our intentions to leave, something different happened. Citta Bhikkhuni and the only samaneri there continued a prolonged conversation with us as we waited for the elderly head nun to emerge from her room. Earlier we had been told that the acting head nun—junior to the actual head nun but senior in sil mata ordination to both Citta and the samaneri—was feeling unwell and could not see us off. Dusk settled, and the “farewell” conversation with Citta and the samaneri continued for what seemed like more than half an hour, or at least an unusually long time. The elderly head nun appeared to be taking longer than usual to come and see us off. When she eventually appeared, Citta and the samaneri moved some distance away from us. As usual, we first paid our respects to the head nun. However, because the other two nuns had moved aside, we were obliged to walk several yards to take our leave of them. That was awkward. We left that hermitage as we had left no other hermitage. Of course, it was not until we had parted company that I realized something of the importance of what had happened about the way monastic seniority works among nuns. Citta Bhikkhuni and the samaneri had wanted to see us off without the head nun’s being present (p.156) so as to skirt the complicated question of determining monastic seniority in that situation. Note again that when the head nun came to see us off, Citta and the samaneri—the two “junior” nuns who were “senior” to the head nun by virtue of their bhikkhuni and samaneri ordination—moved away from us, hence allowing us to bow farewell to the head nun first. As I realized later, they did so not simply out of respect for the head nun. In distancing themselves a few yards from us and the head nun, the bhikkhuni and the samaneri avoided having to acknowledge that they were in any way “junior” to the head nun, who was still a sil mata and neither a bhikkhuni nor a samaneri. The way they stood apart from us allowed us to simply respect the head nun without having to “decide” to whom we would first bow farewell. Obviously, the questions of monastic precedence and seniority among nuns are complicated, and this incident refers only to the way one bhikkhuni and one samaneri sought to deal with those questions so as not to disrupt monastic practice and living in nunneries. Such questions of seniority are important to being a nun. However, they are not “problems” that nuns seek to resolve but rather “questions” that they both face and evade in their daily lives.
Nuns’ interactions with visitors are generally well choreographed. The situation of monastic precedence I encountered at Citta’s aramaya, which I had visited multiple times, was wholly new to me. A few years later I encountered a situation at another aramaya, where a comparable question of monastic precedence or seniority arose. I had known the head nun of that hermitage, Padma, since the mid-1980s. She had ordained several sil matas, but she usually lived alone. She and some of her student nuns had received their higher ordinations from the Bodhgaya-Dambulla group of nuns, albeit at different times. One of her gōlayās (student nuns)13 had received the upasampada before she had. Even though Padma’s golaya did not live with her, she visited her often. Padma recounted how those visits raised new questions (prashna):
This question has arisen. Now the golaya has one year [of bhikkhuni ordination] seniority over me. But I cannot offer reverence to her, because I am the guruverya [teacher, mentor]….She cannot worship me…because she is senior by one year [of bhikkhuni ordination]. This is a big question….She cannot worship me, since she is the guruverya[ according to the higher ordination], and I cannot worship her, because she is the golaya [junior according to her sil mata ordination]. Nevertheless, she is the one who helps me out here.
(p.157) Again, such accounts may make one think that questions produce problems. However, immediately following what she had said, Padma detailed how her bhikkhuni-golaya would visit and clean the hermitage and so on. The golaya’s cleaning of the hermitage pointed to the way both nuns sidestepped the question of seniority. In such seemingly simple tasks as cleaning the hermitage, the nuns went beyond the question of monastic precedence and seniority (or power) and attended to their everyday routines at a temple. The monastic duties of the golaya cleaning the temple set aside the issue of seniority, which obviously could not (nor perhaps needed to) be solved. Problems do exist, but the conditions in which the nuns live render them as questions to be faced rather than problems to be solved.
A few years after my discussion with Padma, I (unknowingly at the time) became a party to the questions Padma had noted. On this occasion, I arrived at the aramaya as arranged, accompanied by my family members. A dog’s loud barking at the aramaya announced our arrival. We waited an unusually long time as the dog barked incessantly. Finally, the head nun, Padma Bhikkhuni, appeared and came out to greet us. After some conversation we were joined by the bhikkhuni-golaya, mentioned earlier, whom Padma had once ordained as a sil mata. Clearly our arrival produced a quandary concerning which bhikkhuni should precede the other in receiving us as we entered the aramaya. There was probably a short interchange between the two bhikkhunis as to how we should be welcomed. If the bhikkhunis appeared together, we would pay our respects first to Padma, whom we knew, and then to her golaya, whom we had not planned to meet anyway, because she was not resident there. Proceeding thus, however, would have violated the precedence of bhikkhuni seniority. Following customary practice, we would have become a party to the seeming confusion about monastic seniority. During the course of the day, the golaya remained in the background while I conversed with Padma. She joined the conversation intermittently and occasionally left to attend to other duties. At the end of the day, my family members and I prepared to leave—this time with the two bhikkhunis we were visiting, having offered them a ride. My family members went ahead to the vehicle, parked some distance away at the bottom of a hill, while I waited for the bhikkhunis at the hermitage. Once again, the wait seemed interminable. Eventually the bhikkhunis appeared, ready to leave. They walked in single file, with the elderly Padma following the lead of her much younger pupil, while neighbors looked on. My family members had wondered why I was taking (p.158) forever to leave the hermitage. Only later did I realize that once again we had encountered a complication about monastic seniority. Our departure had likely been delayed because the two bhikkhunis had taken some time to decide on an appropriate single-file precedence that they would observe as they walked (with me following) from the aramaya to the vehicle.
The questions of seniority presented by the newly introduced bhikkhuni vis-à-vis the sil matas are those that nuns face and live with. Citta Bhikkhuni had decided to withdraw from certain communal activities while avoiding others that might complicate the lives of the nuns living together at her hermitage. In so doing, she had mostly relinquished her seniority as a bhikkhuni. Padma Bhikkhuni, had, on the contrary, decided to observe bhikkhuni seniority in giving precedence to her student, who had received the upasampada before her. Padma’s situation was somewhat different from Citta’s, because Padma lived alone and did not need to address the question of seniority every day. However, because Padma had regular contact with the golayas who visited her and frequently participated with them in specific rituals for bhikkhunis mentioned in the Vinaya, she was obliged to acknowledge their seniority as bhikkhunis when processing in line and so on. Neither Padma nor Citta (whose ordinations had different origins, one associated with the Bodhgaya-Dambulla group and the other with the Sarnath group) were training nuns for the bhikkhuni ordination. Neither attempted to represent herself as a bhikkhuni, whose seniority in the hermitage was implicated in a debate about the meaning of Theravada authenticity. However, other nuns I have met—both sil matas and bhikkhunis—who are involved in educating and training junior nuns for ordinations (as either sil matas or bhikkhunis), define monastic seniority with reference to the question of the Theravada authenticity of bhikkhuni ordinations of Sri Lankan nuns.
That definition of seniority was clearly evident in conversation with a head nun, a sil mata who ran an educational center for other sil matas, and one of her student sil matas. Echoing views of senior monks who asserted that it was impossible to establish an authentic Theravada ordination, she opposed the upasampada of nuns, citing the loss of a Theravada bhikkhuni lineage and the absence of the necessary quorum of Theravada bhikkhunis. The two sil matas proceeded to object to the bhikkhuni ordinations that had recently occurred in India and Dambulla. They suggested that the ordinations had been conducted in a “Mahayana” manner and that some monastics had made money from the ordinations. Those sil matas also voiced concerns about the confusion the new ordinations had introduced (p.159) regarding monastic seniority. They explained that elderly and senior guru maniyo were usually unwilling to undergo the rigorous bhikkhuni training program, which was more suited to young nuns. According to them, the junior sil matas under their tutelage might have fewer qualms about undergoing a demanding training program. The junior nuns, however, out of loyalty to their teachers, whose seniority they respected, were also usually unwilling to embark on the training program. They were hesitant to train as bhikkhunis, realizing that confusion concerning monastic precedence might ensue, for their potential ordination as bhikkhunis would effectively render them senior to their teachers, with whom they lived. The two sil matas with whom I discussed the issue were well aware of the complications introduced by the bhikkhuni ordinations and described situations in which elderly sil matas who had many more years in the renunciant life (as sil matas) were obligated to recognize the seniority of their younger student nuns who had become bhikkhunis. Sil matas who realize that their ordination as bhikkhunis would bring confusion into their everyday lives also tend to criticize the bhikkhuni ordinations as being “Mahayana” and thus inappropriate for Sri Lankan renunciants. For them Theravada invalidity is another name for difficult questions of monastic seniority at an everyday level. The same questions, however, have been evaded by bhikkhunis who promote the Theravada identity of the bhikkhuni ordinations.
Bhikkhuni Sama, a vigorous proponent of the Theravada authenticity of the Bodhgaya-Dambulla group’s bhikkhuni ordinations, sought to overlook their effects on complicating certain relations of monastic seniority among bhikkhunis she knew. Sama (one of several bhikkhunis with whom I have spoken about this) waxed on about how unified the bhikkhunis with whom she had trained at Dambulla were. She emphasized that because all those bhikkhunis lived either with other bhikkhunis or with samaneris whom they were training, there were no “questions” about monastic seniority. However, when I referred to a disruption of monastic seniority that had occurred within a Bodhgaya-Dambulla hermitage known to her, she conceded that there had indeed been some concerns at that hermitage:
So several of them [junior nuns] would like to be samanera?14
That is, they would like to take the pabbajja dasa silaya [Ten Renunciant Precepts]?(p.160)
Yes….Another thing is that all those who are at a bhikkhuni aramaya are becoming mahana [ordained] as samaneras.
So there are many samaneras at aramayas?
Yes. Now, at a bhikshuni aramaya all of them are samaneras. They are all samaneras. The golaya of a bhikshuni is not a sil mata anymore.
Now, at the aramaya of Bhikkhuni Vimala?
Yes. [She laughs and lowers her voice.] Yes. There is a question [prashna] there, is there not? Vimala Meheninvahanse is a bhikshuni, and the others—they do not wish to be samaneras.
That is the question [prashna] there, is that not so? Vimala Mehninvahanse finds it difficult to control them, does she not?
They have come from different places.
Sama proceeded to give reasons why Vimala Bhikkhuni was unable to influence the junior nuns with whom she lived—reasons I was in no position to confirm or deny. What is important is that Sama, in wishing to elaborate on the efficacy of the samanera and bhikkhuni ordinations (probably bearing in mind an expectation that my research would be made public), preferred to evade the very real questions some nuns faced because of their new bhikkhuni ordinations. She was attempting to validate the living situations of bhikkhunis and their junior nuns in which seniority was well defined. She (as well as other bhikkhunis) considered sil matas who wear robes different from those of bhikkhunis, observe a distinctive disciplinary practice, and are barred from rituals open to fully ordained nuns to be gihī (“householders”). However, she thought of samaneras, who wear the same robes as bhikkhunis and are often seen as bhikkhunis-in-training, as being pavidi (“renunciant”) and more like fully ordained nuns. Since vinaya rules restrict bhikkhunis from living, eating, and, sleeping with householders, hermitages in which both bhikkhunis and sil matas dwell face some complicated situations that would be absent in aramayas where all renunciants had received the same type of ordination. Because I was already aware of Vimala’s situation and knew that Sama interacted frequently with her, I was in a position to question Sama’s idealized portrayal of harmonious renunciant hermitages. In the course of our conversations, Sama attempted to assure me that the higher ordination of nuns with which she was involved was distinctively Theravada and that its implementation had provided orderly living situations for (p.161) bhikkhunis. She tried to correlate lived realities with vinaya practices. My point is not that her attempt to claim an idealized view of renunciant life marked a difference between precept and practice or between what was said and what was; rather, it is that her claim was part of a narrative that sought to authorize the distinctiveness of the Theravada bhikkhuni ordinations at Dambulla, to which she was connected, as opposed to the Sarnath-group ordinations, whose validity she consistently opposed in our conversations. She clearly preferred not to publicly acknowledge any discord within the hermitage of a Bodhgaya-Dambulla bhikkhuni. Meanwhile, her initial insistence that all junior nuns who lived with bhikkhunis wished to be samaneras was an attempt to assure me that the ongoing Dambulla bhikkhuni ordinations were more authentic than the others that Sri Lankan nuns had received, because they accorded well with the Pali Vinaya and Theravada protocol.
The emergence of new lines of seniority, and of female renunciants’ understanding of the extent to which those lines are authoritative bears on another related dispute between nuns—that concerning the validity of bhikkhuni ordinations as Theravada—which I take up later in this chapter. For now, however, I will turn to assessing how the significance of a Theravada identity for bhikkhuni ordinations became central to monks engaged in missions outside Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan monks, both those residing in the country and those living abroad, were among the first to support the bhikkhuni ordinations of Sri Lankan nuns. The articulations of what Theravada meant in the transnational context were different, albeit related, to the claim to Theravada authenticity in Sri Lanka itself. The uniquely Theravada identity of bhikkhuni ordinations was clearly promoted in an attempt to further foreign missions. Indeed, establishing what constitutes Theravada became important for Sri Lankans’ acceptance of recent bhikkhuni ordination rituals, including the one that eventually took place in Sarnath, India. That ritual has been hailed by some as the first “successful” Theravada bhikkhuni ordination in recent times and as the precursor of all subsequent Theravada ordinations.
Missionary Differences and International Representations
The 1988 ordination of Sri Lankan nuns in Los Angeles was conducted with the intention of propagating Buddhism in America and defining a Theravada Buddhism that was clearly differentiated from Mahayana. (p.162) According to a letter written by Walpola Piyananda, a monk officiating at the Los Angeles ordination,
Strong criticism is being made against the Theravada form of Buddhism because of the denial of women into the order. Some female devotees have abandoned Theravada temples and joined Mahayana temples and entered the Bhikkhuni Order. This number is ever on the rise…If we are going to continue the spread of Theravada in this country [America], we need to reexamine our position on the ordination of women. (qtd. in Bartholomeusz 187)
Promoting the higher ordination of Theravada women was primarily about ensuring the success of Theravada missionary efforts in America.15 Sri Lankan sil matas who received the higher ordination in Los Angeles—a ceremony that was conducted by both Theravada and Mahayana monastics—eventually returned to Sri Lanka. They did not continue their practices as bhikkhunis, because of a number of factors, including a lack of support from other monastics as well as householders. Theirs was not an ordination they sought out or struggled for; rather, it was about meeting the needs of a Theravada Buddhist mission in America that faced new questions. While those bhikkhunis from Sri Lanka effectively disappeared from the gaze of the public, the event of the ordination reaffirmed the need to clarify what higher ordination meant and whether it was ritually valid for “Theravada” Buddhist women—fueling a debate that persisted in the mainstream media over the following years.
Piyananda was once again involved with a higher ordination of Sri Lankan nuns, this time conducted in December 1996 at Sarnath, India. A main organizer of this ordination was Mapalagama Vipulasara, who was the joint general secretary of the World Buddhist Sangha Council (WBSC), the president of the Maha Bodhi Society of India, and the president of the Sri Lanka Buddhist Congress.16 In an interview published in the papers he mentioned that the writings of Anagarika Dharmapala motivated him to support the bhikkhuni ordinations:
I read many books and a lot of writings of our Anagarika Dharmapala, the Founder of the Maha Bodhi movement. Anagarika Dharmapala maintained fine records in his diaries. He has written down everything that he considered important for the development of the sasana [Buddhist dispensation]. In his 1897 Diary, Anagarika Dharmapala has (p.163) written that Buddhists should utilise the services of Dasa Sil Matas and Bhikkhunis to propagate the Dhamma to spread the Buddhist way of life all over the world. That day, I made a prarthana [firm resolve] that in 1997, that is one hundred years after Anagarika Dharmapala made that record, suitable steps will be taken to provide an opportunity for Dasa Sil Matas to spread the message of the Maha Bodhi.17
The Sarnath ordination, like that conducted in the United States the previous decade, was arranged with the publicized intention of promoting Theravada Buddhism. But when the time came for staging the higher ordination in Sarnath, questions arose about the availability of potential ordinands. Steps were taken to select the most suitable candidates. The Sri Lankan organizers relied on the government infrastructure of national and district sil mata organizations to communicate with nuns throughout the country and invite applications for the upasampada. Of the twenty sil matas who were eventually chosen to train, only ten were willing to make the journey to India. One condition of the ordination was that the sil matas would leave Sri Lanka for at least three years, during two of which they would do missionary work in India. That stipulation allowed for maintaining the continuity of bhikkhuni training, but, more important for the sil matas, it meant leaving their home hermitages. Among the organizers initially selected for training for the Sarnath upasampada were senior sil matas who had honed their skills in leadership and administration while working in district and national sil mata organizations for a decade or more. Those were also head sil matas who ran the hermitages in which they lived. Unwilling to abandon their hermitages and the communities they served, they refused to leave the country.
The ten female renunciants who eventually agreed to accept bhikkhuni training in Sarnath were ones who (1) would and could leave their home hermitages and families, (2) would commit to participating in missionary work in India, and (3) would accept potentially prolonged absences from managing the duties of their hermitages (assuming they lived in community with others). Such training was not an option for some of the senior-most sil matas who were initially selected, but it was a possibility for sil matas who lived alone or whose performance of services at a hermitage was not considered indispensable. The ordination at Sarnath was an event of global proportions that, according to Kusuma’s report, sparked opposition from senior (Mahanayaka) bhikkhus from Sri Lanka and evoked concern among the Korean monastics who were organizing the ordination. The Sri (p.164) Lankan bhikkhus who agreed to preside at the ordination did so with the assurance that the Korean bhikkhunis who were to ordain Sri Lankan nuns belonged to a lineage that derived from the Dharmaguptaka lineage (a lineage not significantly different from that of the Sri Lankan nuns who had ordained Chinese bhikkhunis in the fifth century C.E.). Kusuma Devendra was assigned the task of verifying the connections between the Korean ordination lineage and that of the Dharmaguptaka in order to ascertain its “Theravada” character. For the foreign missions, “Theravada” was another name for a Sri Lankan Buddhism of international stature, a Buddhism seen as having to embrace the full participation of women if it was to be successful.
While Sri Lankan monks and Korean monastics, as well as interested householding practitioners, laid plans for an international ordination, the Theravada bhikkhuni remained but an ideal. Some questioned the suitability of the sil matas who had agreed to the conditions of the training program and the ordination. Vipulasara worried that in this pool of sil matas, there was no renunciant adequately equipped for the task; in fact, he was concerned about the qualifications of the sil matas who were preparing to train at Sarnath. The idealized Theravada bhikkhuni, largely the creation of controversy and dissent, was not a figure that the sil matas themselves readily embraced.18 This resulted in a crisis that may have scotched the plans to ordain Sri Lankan bhikkhunis at Sarnath. Kusuma Devendra, who had not originally intended to join the sil matas in receiving the ordination and was already in Korea researching the lineage transmission in an attempt to verify the suitability of the Korean ordination lineage for Sri Lankan nuns, was suddenly asked to step forward as a prospective bhikkhuni. I cite from her published account of what occurred:
At this point, Ven. Vipulasara telephoned me from Sri Lanka and conveyed the facts. The Koreans were alarmed and some even doubted the pure intentions of Bhikkhu Vipulasara. Bhikkhu Vipulasara told me that he felt the nuns selected were not up to the standard required for ordination, because their language skills and knowledge were inadequate. “It is an international responsibility,” he said. In the face of all this, he invited me to join the nuns and take a leadership role as the first bhikkhuni. Otherwise, he said, he would be constrained to abandon the whole project! I was caught between two worlds and had hardly any time to think. I replied, “Venerable sir, please do not abandon the project. Even at the risk of my life, I will (p.165) be willing. There will never be another chance.” So by the time Ven. Vipulasara hung up the receiver, we had decided to go ahead with the ordination. This was how I decided to become a bhikkhuni.19
It is possible that Vipulasara had premonitions that the renunciants selected for ordination would be unable to fulfill their commitments. I have heard a variety of stories concerning the newly ordained bhikkhunis, some of which may lack credibility. Whatever the case, it appears that of the ten bhikkhunis who were ordained in Sarnath in 1996, at least four reneged on contracts and returned to Sri Lanka before their agreed-to time in Sarnath was over. One bhikkhuni who happened to win a visa lottery granting her permanent residence in the United States eventually relocated there, and another chose to renounce her Sarnath ordination and was later re-ordained in Dambulla. Bhikkhuni Kusuma, the most senior of the ten who were ordained, continues to travel globally, providing religious instruction. Within Sri Lanka little is known about the other seven bhikkhunis ordained in Sarnath. The renunciants who were ordained there were in a position to accept the terms of bhikkhuni training and ordination not only because they were eligible to do so but also because they were willing to reside outside Sri Lanka. Additionally, as was evident in my conversations with them soon after their upasampada, they were not, as some have suggested, renunciants who had “struggled” to become bhikkhunis.20 That fact ties into the argument in Chapter 5—namely that sil matas were not leaders in a social movement that promoted ordination (if one can even consider the bhikkhuni ordination as a movement). The first bhikkhunis ordained in Sarnath did not strive to become bhikkhunis. Another important point about the Sarnath ordination is that the very idea of Theravada had a distinct meaning in the context of an international setting, a meaning that was congruent with the goals of Sri Lankan Buddhist missions abroad. Next, I will discuss how and why the idea of Theravada authenticity nevertheless had significance for monastics living in Sri Lanka. That particular idea of Theravada authenticity emerged from among competing narratives that eventually questioned the Theravada identity of the 1996 Sarnath ordination.
A few months after the higher ordination of Sri Lankan nuns in Sarnath in 1996, Inamaluwe Sumangala, the head monk of the Dambulla temple (p.166) outlined plans for training and ordaining bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka. It is important to understand his plans to train nuns for the upasampada in light of his ongoing attempts to establish a unique place for the Dambulla temple as a center independent of the Asgiriya chapter based in Kandy. A few years earlier, Sumangala had challenged the authority of the Asgiriya monks, who until then had been accepted as the owners of the Dambulla temple (Abeysekara, Colors 190–192). On becoming the head monk of the Dambulla temple, Sumangala defied senior Asgiriya monks by denying the prevailing relationship between the monks affiliated with Dambulla and those from Asgiriya. Whereas the Asgiriya monks permitted only a restricted caste-based ordination, Sumangala, who questioned that, began ordaining monks regardless of caste distinctions. Championing the cause of the upasampada of bhikkhunis helped him further undermine the authority of the Asgiriya monks. The head monks of the Asgiriya and related Malwatte sects strongly opposed a bhikkhuni ordination of Sri Lankan nuns, and Sumangala’s endorsement of the bhikkhuni upasampada positioned him to challenge them once again. Interestingly, Sumangala had not been a player in the heated public disputes of the 1980s and early 1990s about the ordination of women. It was not until about the time of the Sarnath ordination that he joined the debates.
After Sumangala organized an initial meeting in March 1997 and inaugurated the Sri Lanka Bhikkhuni Re-awakening Organization (SLBRO), he planned to begin training sil matas at a center near Dambulla (Salgado “Unity”). When I visited the center in August 1997, he intended to ordain bhikkhunis in the Dambulla area itself. But as details of the 1998 Bodhgaya International Full Ordination Ceremony (organized by the Foguangshan monastery in Taiwan) unfolded, his plans changed.21 Sumangala made arrangements for ten senior nuns training in Dambulla to be ordained at Bodhgaya, together with ten sil matas associated with Sarvodaya.22 Once the bhikkhunis trained in Dambulla had received the upasampada in Bodhgaya and had begun ordaining other Sri Lankan nuns in Dambulla, the Bodhgaya-Dambulla bhikkhunis made public claims to an exclusive Theravada identity, thereby rejecting the prior 1996 Sarnath ordination as Theravada. By claiming a unique Theravada identity, the Bodhgaya-Dambulla group was asserting its seniority over the bhikkhunis ordained in Sarnath in 1996. It is important to note that Sri Lankan monks (including Mapalagama Vipulasara) who had ordained sil matas at Sarnath in 1996, at Bodhgaya in 1998, in Sri Lanka itself (in Dambulla, Galkissa, and Anuradhapura), and in Taiwan were drawn from the same pool of monks (p.167) who, initially at least, worked together. The Bodhgaya-Dambulla bhikkhunis’ claim to the unique Theravada identity of their ordinations is part of a competing narrative about where, how, and by whom Sri Lankan nuns should be ordained. It is also important to understand that claim in terms of Sumangala’s contestation of the authority of the Asgiriya and Malwatte monks who denied the possibility of a Theravada bhikkhuni upasampada and who disapproved of Sumangala’s recently established ordinations of “low caste” monks. Interestingly, in his criticisms of the bhikkhuni ordinations associated with the Sarnath group (i.e., the ordinations conducted in Sarnath, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka excepting Dambulla), Sumangala was not just promoting the idea of centralizing bhikkhuni ordinations and validating only those associated with the nuns under his tutelage. A few years earlier (in connection with the new ordinations of monks he had inaugurated), he had criticized the very principle of centralized ordinations that he was now espousing. “What Sumangala finds astonishing,” notes Abeysekara, “is that…Sri Lankan monks…have confined ordination to certain central locations monopolized by a few privileged monks. He wants to deprivilege this centralized practice. He maintains that such centralization obstructs one of the purposes of the higher ordination intended by the Buddha” (Colors 181). Rather than conclude that Sumangala either was being insincere or had changed his attitude regarding the centralization of monastic authority, one needs to understand Sumangala’s promotion of the unique Theravada authenticity of bhikkhuni ordinations under his tutelage in relation to his separation from the Asgiriya temple and its caste-based ordinations of monks. As Abeysekara argues, that separation was necessarily related to Sumangala’s reconceptualization of the sacred antiquity and independence of the Dambulla temple (Colors 187–194). I suggest that in ordaining bhikkhunis, Sumangala was making “possible the relation between tradition [in this case, Theravada] and difference [Mahayana] to be authoritatively argued in centrally visible ways” (Colors 200).
The Sri Lankan nuns ordained at Sarnath in 1996 took the Bodhisattva vow and were ordained in Korean-style monastic attire rather than in Sri Lankan robes. The Sarnath ordination may have served to confirm the criticisms of monks who had argued against the validity of a Theravada ordination lineage of Sri Lankan nuns, but it also drew strong criticism from Sri Lankan nuns (sil matas and Bodhgaya-Dambulla bhikkhunis) themselves, who referred to the Korean monastic attire as “trousers.” That Sri Lankan monks who had presided at the ceremony donated their own monastic robes to the new bhikkhunis appeared to be irrelevant. Some of the sil matas (p.168) who had trained for the bhikkhuni ordination in Dambulla and were later ordained in Bodhgaya witnessed the Sarnath ordination. They went to great pains to dismiss the Sarnath ordination, even before they themselves had received the higher ordination. The potential for a rift between bhikkhunis ordained in Sarnath in 1996 and those to be ordained later by Sumangala was evident several months before the Bodhgaya ordination.23 In 1997 one bhikkhuni, in keeping with Sumangala’s rhetoric, explained to me that the Dambulla training program for bhikkhunis was uniquely Theravada: “It is the Theravada upasampada of Lanka that we are trying to establish, not the Mahayana. This [Theravada upasampada] is [found] nowhere else in the world.” Even though it was decided later that her own ordination would be conducted in Bodhgaya—by [Mahayana] Taiwanese monastics—after she had been ordained, she continued to emphasize the Theravada character of her ordination in her conversations with me. She explained that the Sri Lankan samaneris with whom she had received the upasampada in Bodhgaya agreed to accepting that upasampada on the condition that it would include procedures that were specifically “Theravada.”24 Theravada “authenticity” was then ensured by a “second” ordination, in which the Sri Lankan bhikkhunis, subsequent to their international Bodhgaya ordination with Taiwanese monastics, traveled to Sarnath and said the Pali pāṭimokkha (confessional recitation of vinaya rules) in the presence of Sri Lankan (Theravada) monks. Notable here is that bhikkhunis from Sri Lanka who had already been ordained at Sarnath in 1996 participated in the 1998 ordination rituals (in Bodhgaya and Sarnath) of nuns from Sri Lanka. The 1998 rituals included an international ceremony at Bodhgaya as well as a brief ceremony in Sarnath conducted by Sri Lankan monks. The Sri Lankan monks at Bodhgaya asked a Sri Lankan bhikkhuni (ordained at Sarnath in 1996) to translate the training instructions and explanations of ritual procedures from English into Sinhalese. They also asked her to perform the ordination of the sil matas. According to that bhikkhuni,
All the monks were together, and this particular monk [Sumangala] knows….He was witness to the fact that…I was the one that asked the questions and gave the ordination….The monks were only observers. They were not asking questions. They said, “You ask the questions,” and they gave me permission to conduct the ordination in their presence….The Sri Lankan monks did not perform the ordination. They said, “You perform the ordination on our behalf.” They were observers. I had to do it.
(p.169) The monks remained silent as she queried the ordinands in Pali and conducted the ordination ritual.25 The bhikkhunis who had just been ordained in Bodhgaya then traveled to Sarnath to participate in a second ritual that would affirm that their ordination was “authentically” Theravada. At Sarnath, after some dispute between Vipulasara and Sumangala over whether the Sri Lankan bhikkhunis who had previously been ordained in Sarnath in 1996 should participate in that second ritual, those bhikkhunis established their seniority by processing in line ahead of the bhikkhunis who had just accepted the ordination at Bodhgaya. Their seniority was further affirmed when they presented themselves as witnesses at the second, “Theravada” ordination of the bhikkhunis who had just accepted the international ordination at Bodhgaya.
The Sri Lankan bhikkhunis ordained in Sarnath in 1996 assisted with the training and ordination of the Dambulla-based nuns who became bhikkhunis in Bodhgaya (and Sarnath) in 1998. Without the participation and support of the former, the ordination of the latter would not have transpired as it did. But if the bhikkhunis ordained in Bodhgaya in 1998 wished to claim the foremost place among bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka, they needed to refuse to acknowledge the contributions to their own ordinations of the 1996 Sarnath group and to stigmatize as Mahayana both the Sarnath ordination and subsequent ones at which the Sarnath bhikkhunis officiated. And that is exactly what they did.26 Although some monastics have touted Theravada authenticity as the defining difference between Bodhgaya-Dambulla monastics’ ordinations and those associated more directly with the monastics who had participated in the 1996 Sarnath ordination, the difference is less a question of Theravada authenticity than one of claims to monastic seniority. The discussions that follow suggest that what is at stake is not, as some might assume, a debate about the “purity” of a Theravada bhikkhuni lineage but rather a contestation of who could validly make what claims about bhikkhuni ordinations. One cannot begin to understand what constitutes “Theravada” without recognizing the meaning of such contestations.
The Mahayana Difference
The case for a valid Theravada ordination of nuns was made once again in an announcement of the first Dambulla ordination of bhikkhunis in March 1998. That announcement, prominently displayed and taking up an entire half page of a national Sinhalese-language newspaper, presented (p.170) the arguments of two well-known head monks: Inamaluwe Sumangala and Talalle Dhammaloka.27 It also listed ten senior monks who would be participating in the ceremony, including monastics from India, the United States, Malaysia, England, and Sri Lanka. Mapalagama Vipulasara and Walpola Piyananda, who had participated in the 1996 Sarnath ordination, were among them. The ten bhikkhunis who had trained in Dambulla and received their upasampada in Bodhgaya returned to Dambulla and conferred the upasampada on nuns training there. That event was well publicized in the Sri Lankan media and was considered a first in Theravada Buddhism, for it celebrated “the beginning of the Bhikkhuni order in Sri Lanka again after nearly eight centuries.”28 It was presented on the front pages of national newspapers in dramatic and colorful photos of nuns in processional.29 Within a month of the Dambulla ordination, the leading monks of three Nikayas met at the Asgiriya temple and announced their disapproval of the ordination in a letter to the president of the country, thereby contributing to a new public discussion about the issue.30 Significantly, the Asgiriya monks led the concerted resistance to the Dambulla ordination of Sri Lankan nuns. The previous ordination, at Sarnath, had not resulted in such a unified opposition. The opposition to the Dambulla ordinations was likely part of an ongoing contestation for monastic precedence between Inamaluwe Sumangala and the Asgiriya monastics.
The Dambulla monastics continued to promote the Theravada authenticity of the Dambulla ordinations. A short publication entitled Higher Ordination and Bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka presented their argument.31 That booklet was authored by Bhadra, a Sri Lankan bhikkhuni, who, perhaps not coincidentally, had originally accepted the upasampada in Sarnath in 1996. Unable to remain in Sarnath to complete her training, she returned to Sri Lanka, began working closely with Sumangala, and was reordained at Dambulla. In her booklet the Mahayana-Theravada difference is presented in black and white. According to her, all ordinations of Sri Lankan bhikkhunis except for those at Bodhgaya and Dambulla had been unacceptable because of their association with Mahayana. Of the Los Angeles ordination and its Taiwanese Mahayana connections she states, “Those nuns were ordained by bhikkhunis of Taiwan. But they were not accept[ed] as bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka, because Taiwan is a Mahayana Country” (25). In fact, the reasons for the Sri Lankan nuns’ discontinuation of bhikkhuni practice after the Los Angeles ordination varied; the link to “Mahayana” was only one of many factors.32 Bhadra continues to describe the 1996 (p.171) Sarnath ordination as one that was “also received from Mahayana,” as a direct result of which “all the other nuns in Sri Lanka held a meeting and discussed about the situation. Several Maha Theros [senior monks] from various districts came forward to support them to re-establish the Higher Ordination according to the Theravada Tradition” (26). She admits that the 1998 bhikkhuni ordination in Bodhgaya took place “in the presence of both Theravada and Mahayana bhikkhu[s] [and] bhikkhunis” (27). But adding that there was a second ordination “in the presence of Sri Lankan Bhikkhus,” she reasserts a distinctively Theravada character of the Bodhgaya-Dambulla group bhikkhunis in stating that when they returned to Sri Lanka, they “succeeded in re-establishing the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka after nine hundred years” (27). By saying that the Sri Lankan bhikkhunis ordained in Los Angeles, Sarnath, and, more recently, in Taiwan “were not being accepted as Theravada bhikkhunis” (29), she undermines the ordinations of those bhikkhunis and ultimately promotes the Bodhgaya-Dambulla group bhikkhunis as the only authentic Theravada bhikkhunis from Sri Lanka.
I raised the Theravada-versus-Mahayana question with Sumangala. According to him, the 1996 Sarnath ordination was a “Korean” and “Mahayana” ordination. But he maintained that the ordination of Sri Lankan nuns by Taiwanese bhikkhunis in Bodhgaya was valid. He indicated that the latter ordination had originally derived from one officiated by Sri Lankan bhikkhunis, because “Devassara, a bhikshuni [bhikkhuni]…went from Lanka to China and took the bhikshuni order there.”33 Nevertheless, he was clearly disturbed by the ordination of Sri Lankan bhikkhunis in Taiwan that had occurred in 2000. He suggested that that ordination was done for the “wrong reasons” and was upset that he had not been consulted about it at the outset. In an attempt to deny the validity of the ordination of the bhikkhunis in Sarnath and Taiwan as well as that of the bhikkhunis whom they later ordained at different temples in Sri Lanka (i.e., outside Dambulla), he advised the Bodhgaya-Dambulla bhikkhunis against participating in vinaya acts (vinaya karmaya)34 with them.35
I asked Sumangala to comment on his advice to the Bodhgaya- Dambulla group bhikkhunis. He said that because the ordination of Sri Lankan bhikkhunis in Taiwan had been orchestrated to make money for the sponsors rather than to promote the welfare of the religion, he was not prepared to recognize it. He associated the organization of the bhikkhuni upasampada of Sri Lankan nuns in Taiwan with Sakyadhita, (p.172) particularly with two (non-monastic) Sakyadhita members: Kumari and Sunita.36 Unsurprisingly, he had nothing positive to say about them or Sakyadhita:37
You have forbidden the Dambulla bhikshunis to do vinaya karmaya with the other bhikshunis, is that correct?
What do you mean by the “other bhikshunis”?
I mean…the group from Kaoutaramaya [in Sri Lanka], that it is not good to do it with them. Have you said this?
Yes, I have….Now in the Vinaya it says that you should do the vinaya acts with those members of the sangha with whom you reside [samāna samvāsika saŋghayā]. Now the Kaoutaramaya upasampada that the Sakyadhita organization has done is a serious wrong [barapatala väradak].
A wrong? What have they done?
That means they have…, even while bhikshunis were being ordained here [in Dambulla], taken bhikshunis to China [Taiwan] and given them the ordination there….It is at that point that they did the wrong. What is the wrong? Even while there was an ongoing and established program for the bhikshunis in Lanka, they created a different group (tavat kaṇḍāyamakēgollaŋnirmāṇaya keruvā). The Sakyadhita organization found the money for this from Foguangshan. They did that work with the expectation of receiving money. I have seen this….I have told this to them before, and I tell it to them today—that they should not do bad work like this for money. They have done a great wrong in doing that; they have done the greatest damage to the program, the bhikkhuni shasanaya program, in doing that. Now because of that there are two groups [kaṇḍāyamas]….They did it; that means it is Sakyadhita that has done this. Sakyadhita has had no connection at all with our [organization]. What they wanted to do was to show off to the world that they have a bhikkhuni (väḍapiḷiveḷa) program—to get an income from abroad. That is how I saw that that is not a good idea. But this work that we are doing is not being done with the expectation of money from anyone. This is done out of sincerity [saddhāven]; that is, our work is for the sake of the Buddhist dispensation—to bestow [on women] the proper status that the Buddha gave them in the dispensation. They had one objective, and we had another.
So it appears that there are two branches [ śākhā]?
There are two branches. Two branches came to be.
That could become two sects [nikāyas]?
That could in the future become two sects. Sakyadhita needs to take the responsibility for that—Kumari and the other one…
Sunita needs to take the responsibility for that.
Do you think that those bhikshunis—those who belong to that lineage [paramparāva]—do you think that they are not really bhikshunis, or what do you think of them?
I need to clarify that a little more. Now those at Kaoutaramaya—those dasa sil matas who were at Kaoutaramaya—if they had wanted to be ordained, then Sakyadhita had the duty to discuss this with us and then form some sort of program here. Without doing anything like that, they wanted to obtain the funding from Foguangshan and somehow take anyone to go and get the upasampada. That was like a contract. That is not something that they did for the sake of the religion but for the sake of money. You see, they wanted somehow to take some [nuns]—that is, some twenty or so in number—and show them off and then fulfill the contract and get the money….That is wrong. They had the opportunity of….When they were doing this the [bhikkhuni training] program had already begun at Dambulla….They came to Dambulla and have seen this; they know what is being done here. The Dambulla bhikshunis were doing this [ordination] already….If we had gone there and talked and then said that it was not possible, then…
What do you mean “say it was not possible?”
If we had said that it was not possible to….If they had made a request of us [for the ordination] and we had rejected it…
That conversation never took place?
That conversation did not take place. We did not even know that they were doing something like this. They did this secretly [horeŋ]38….We did not know that there was something like this taking place! That is why I think that they should be called not the Kaoutaramaya Nikaya, but the Sakyadhita Nikaya [laughing]….Otherwise, we could call it the Sunita Nikaya. That is very wrong work. Now for that reason it is difficult to join these [Dambulla] people with those [other nuns]. Why? Because we went with the [Sri Lankan] monks from Lanka to Bodhgaya and to Sarnath, and, having gotten together with the monks without any issues, we are continuing our work with the registration of the bhikkhunis. Now it is difficult to get those people together with these people because the bhikshunis from here were not connected with that [Taiwan upasampada]. So, in the future it is possible that two sects can come about.
(p.174) Clearly, Sumangala, in dismissing the Taiwan ordination of Sri Lankan bhikkhunis as having been done for the “wrong reasons,” saw in that ordination a rival to ordinations being conducted in Dambulla. The accusation of insincerely performing actions in the name of religion while focusing on monetary profit is not, of course, new. In fact, sil matas who refused to be ordained as bhikkhunis accused Sumangala himself of seeking financial gain from foreign countries for ordaining bhikkhunis. Sumangala expressed a sense of betrayal; he felt that because he had an ongoing program of bhikkhuni ordinations, the prerogative to ordain bhikkhunis lay with the program at Dambulla. In our conversation he affirmed that the two groups—the one associated with bhikkhunis from Sarnath and Taiwan and the other with the Bodhgaya-Dambulla bhikkhunis—were and should remain distinct, because only the Bodhgaya-Dambulla group was authentic.39
Sri Lankan monastics aware of Sumangala’s attempt to dismiss the Sarnath ordination were among those who organized ordinations for Sri Lankan nuns at different centers in Sri Lanka as well as in Taiwan. One such monk, who had initially worked with Sumangala and later distanced himself from him, described the Dambulla ordinations as dēśiya, or something that belongs to the country. Disputing Sumangala’s claim that only the Dambulla ordinations were Theravada, he explained Sumangala’s stance in terms of party politics:
Let’s say I think of starting a Theravada pakṣaya [party]….Let us imagine that I have broken off…and that I start a separate party. I want to develop this party….So what would I do? I will attack the other party….It means that I will argue against it and find fault with it. And I develop [my own] party. That is all that I think is happening—nothing else….I [referring to Sumangala] want to give people the idea that the Theravada bhikshuni shasanaya that I started and that is from Dambulla is the Theravada bhikshuni shasanaya that is spreading throughout Lanka….That is a wrong idea, no? I [referring to himself] say it is wrong….It is I, after all, who gave the training and the upasampada to both [i.e., the bhikkhunis ordained at Sarnath and those ordained at Bodhgaya] [laughing wholeheartedly]. This is the reason; there is no other reason. It is just that they want to have people think that it is only from one place in the world, Dambulla, that the Theravada bhikshuni is being trained….That is an incorrect idea.
(p.175) The monk recognized that Sumangala “did not want to accept that they [the Sri Lankan nuns ordained at Sarnath] had the upasampada in the Theravada way.” He was displeased with Sumangala’s attempt to dismiss the Sarnath ordination. To challenge Sumangala’s claim, the monk described how he himself had brought together Sri Lankan bhikkhunis ordained at Sarnath (i.e., connected to Korean monastics) with the Sri Lankan bhikkhunis ordained at Bodhgaya (by Taiwanese monastics) in an ordination in Taiwan that also included Taiwanese monastics who had officiated at the Bodhgaya ordination. Because the Bodhgaya ordinations, with which the Dambulla bhikkhunis were connected, had been conducted by Mahayana monastics from Taiwan, the monk hoped that by orchestrating another ordination that involved nuns ordained by both Korean and Taiwanese monastics, he could undermine the claims of the monastics centered in Dambulla. Subsequently he, together with other monastics, continued to organize and officiate at other ordinations in Sri Lanka in which Sri Lankan bhikkhunis who had been ordained in Sarnath (in 1996) and in Taiwan (in 2000) participated. In doing so, he attempted to consolidate the connection between the Sarnath and Bodhgaya ordinations.
Asserting the Theravada authenticity of the ordinations they sponsored and labeling all other ordinations of Sri Lankan bhikkhunis as Mayahana gave Dambulla monastics an important means of dismissing the Sri Lankan bhikkhuni ordinations that they had not organized. Bhadra voiced misgivings about the “Mahayana” character of some ordinations, and Sumangala, though acknowledging those misgivings, did not mention them to me in our discussion about the Taiwan ordination. Although the question of Theravada (and Buddhist) authenticity has been debated publicly among high-ranking monks and politicians in Sri Lanka for some time, the meaning of “Mahayana” itself (apart from its differences from Theravada) is not so clearly established among Sri Lankans. The next section looks at how Sinhalese-speaking nuns understand the apparent division between groups of recently ordained bhikkhunis and how that apparent division is tied to their articulation about the meaning of Theravada and the bhikkhuni ordinations that took place at the turn of the century. The point here is not just to show that there are different views on what is meant by Theravada and Mahayana but to highlight that claims about Theravada and Mahayana are inseparable from discursive strategies (to use Abeysekara’s terminology) that underline competing narratives about who may authorize a form of Buddhism as “authentic.”
While the Bodhgaya-Dambulla bhikkhunis cast doubt on the Theravada validity of the ordinations of Sri Lankan nuns in Sarnath in 1996 and later in Taiwan (by bhikkhunis ordained in 1996 in Sarnath), and while Sumangala also raised questions about the ordination in Taiwan, yet another rivalry emerged in the contestation about Theravada authenticity. Despite the Mahayana/Theravada distinctions, ostensibly centering on the bhikkhuni ordinations, this rivalry concerned a dispute between a teacher (guru) nun and her two pupils (golayas). Some of the female renunciants involved in the rivalry were associated with the Bodhgaya-Dambulla group in question, whereas others were closely connected to the bhikkhunis ordained in Sarnath (who ordained bhikkhunis in Taiwan and at Kaoutaramaya).
The rivalry centers on a sil mata from Kaoutaramaya, Seelavatie Maniyo, and two junior sil matas under her tutelage. Apparently, Seelavatie fell out with the two golayas.40 While Seelavatie remained a sil mata (for some time), the golayas went on to receive the bhikkhuni training and upasampada in Dambulla and Bodhgaya. The position of her golayas as two of the senior-most bhikkhunis from Sri Lanka was established early. Although Dambulla organized bhikkhuni upasampadas on a regular basis, Seelavatie, their guru maniyo, decided not to be ordained there. Had she been ordained there, she would have had to pay obeisance to the two “junior” nuns with whom she had had a disagreement. But later Seelavatie, together with other sil matas from Sri Lanka, was invited to receive the upasampada in Taiwan. Accepting the ordination from Taiwan enabled her to become a bhikkhuni without having to recognize the seniority of the two “junior” golayas.41 Sil matas mention that incident as an instance of the difficulties that confront the new bhikkhunis and a good example of why sil matas should reject the upasampada. Bodhgaya-Dambulla group bhikkhunis argue that since Seelavatie received the upasampada after her younger pupils, she should pay obeisance to them. Seelavatie herself was reluctant to talk about the matter with me in greater detail. What is of importance here is that what appears to be a grand narrative including Theravada/Mahayana, Sri Lankan/Taiwanese, or “correct”/“incorrect” distinctions in ritual procedures that may make sense of the different ordinations detracts from what is happening among female renunciants in their everyday lives. Whereas Sumangala sought to undermine a Sakyadhita-Taiwan ordination on the grounds of insincerity and Bhadra’s booklet positions the bhikkhuni (p.177) ordinations within the context of a Theravada-versus-Mahayana debate, the rivalry was articulated differently by some Sinhalese-speaking nuns.
I asked a group of nuns (referred to by the letters A–E) who had connections with the Sarnath-group bhikkhunis to reflect on the different ordinations being conducted for Sri Lankan bhikkhunis. Although they knew that ordinations were taking place in Dambulla and that the Dambulla bhikkhunis did not participate with them in rituals, they were uncertain as to why. Because they were still nuns in training, they discussed among themselves how they should address my questions and decided to respond collectively as a group. While aware of the rift between Seelavatie and her golayas, they appeared to be unclear about its origins. The putative “Mahayana” character of an ordination did not seem to be an issue to them, as is apparent in an interview with me about upasampadas that Sarnath bhikkhunis had conferred on bhikkhunis at Kushtanagara and Kaoutaramaya. (Both were centers in Sri Lanka where nuns had received the upasampada).
I think there is one [ordination] in Dambulla, and there is one in Kushtanagara.
Are they the same?
[Hesitating] Kushtanagara and Dambulla…No…from what I have heard, the one in Dambulla is different….Is it to do with the Siam Nikaya and the Burma Nikaya?
No, there are no Nikayas [involved].
No, we do not know, really…
[Referring to the guru-golaya rift] It has to do with the teacher, and now there is a separation.
But…we do not know for sure; we are just saying what we think ….[They talk among themselves.]
The nuns from Kaoutaramaya come here….They cannot go to Dambulla; it is too far, is it not?
After more discussion among themselves, one nun volunteered, “If one does it properly, really there is just one upasampada….It is people who make the difference [in the upasampada]. According to the rules, it is just one….In Lanka it is one way, and in other countries it is different.”
The upasampada is one, but they [at Dambulla] are creating a division….They say that they have the Theravada upasampada and that the other one is Mahayana…but theirs was a little Mahayana too, is that (p.178) not so? The bhikshunis at the first upasampadas were Mahayana…so I do not know which is right.
Well, that is so, since the countries are different. But if we look at this, it is really the [one] dharma of the Buddha that allows one to realize nibbana.
The question of difference that I raised was likely one that the nuns had not been asked to discuss previously. It was evident that they were attempting to think it through while responding to me, continually conferring among themselves so as to provide me with the “correct” response. Eventually, they rejoined that the dharma of the Buddha is one, and whether an upasampada was Mahayana or Theravada made no difference to the realization of nibbana. Theirs was a response I have commonly encountered among monastics not primarily associated with the ordinations at Dambulla. Such monastics note in general that a Theravada/Mayahana difference did not exist during the time of the Buddha and argue that such distinctions are not important in the first place. Thus they skirt the question about the Theravada identity of the ordinations.
A senior officiating bhikkhuni associated with the Bodhgaya-Dambulla group nuns and much in tune with Sumangala, insisted on recognizing a distinction between the Sarnath group and the Bodhgaya-Dambulla group bhikkhunis and their upasampadas. Notably, this Bodhgaya-Dambulla group bhikkhuni, like the nuns associated with the Sarnath group (see the preceding interview), was unclear about the specifics of the Mahayana difference. Our conversation centered on the ordination of certain Sri Lankan bhikkhunis we knew in common. Because those bhikkhunis were not ordained at Dambulla, the Bodhgaya-Dambulla group bhikkhuni attempted to dismiss their ordination as Mahayana. Interestingly, although she had no doubts that their ordination was “not Theravada,” she was unsure about the specific country in which their ordination took place:
They [some of the Sri Lankan nuns in question] have been ordained once. Once—that means only the Korean bhikshunis got together and ordained them. They have not been ordained by the Lankan bhikshunvahanses.
Where did they go for the upasampada?
They went…to Korea.
[Thoughtfully] Korea means Taiwan, no?
Korea is one country, and Taiwan is another.42(p.179)
I think it was Taiwan.
[Pondering my suggestion and then decisively] It is Korean bhikshunis who did [the ordination] in Taiwan. There are Korean bhikshunis in Taiwan. They [the Sri Lankan nuns] did it there and came. There were no Lankan monks at all who went there.
Upon my furthur questioning, she agreed that some Sri Lankan monks had taken part in the ordinations but that this did not constitute the required quorum needed to conduct an authentic Theravada ordination ceremony. The main thrust of her argument was that the Sri Lankan bhikkhunis ordained in Taiwan could not be considered Theravada, because the stated condition had not been met and because the ordination was “Korean”—an argument that she used in opposing the Sarnath ordination. Interestingly, she attempted to discredit the ordination because of its putative “Korean” and “non-Theravada” character, even though members of the Taiwanese sangha, rather than Korean monastics, had organized it. Having difficulty in explaining some details about the event, this bhikkhuni suggested that “Korean bhikshunis in Taiwan” had conducted the ordination.43 Another point that arose in our conversation (only a part of which appears above) was her conflation of “Theravada” with “Lanka” and “Mahayana” with “Korea” or “Taiwan.” What this Bodhgaya-Dambulla bhikkhuni wanted to make clear to me was that the Mahayana ordination in Taiwan had been quite different from the ordinations in Dambulla. She emphasized unequivocally that the ordination in Taiwan was “not Theravada.” But she herself, like the junior nuns (A–E) mentioned earlier, was uncertain about what exactly made it “different.” This bhikkhuni attempted to discredit the Taiwan ordination on the grounds that it was Korean or Mahayana and therefore could be viewed as inauthentic and inappropriate for a Sri Lankan.
Both the Sarnath and the Bodhgaya-Dambulla group bhikkhunis acknowledge the presence of a dispute between the Kaoutaramaya bhikkhuni and the two golayas who became senior to her with their bhikkhuni ordination, and both groups recognize the existence of contesting narratives about the idea of Theravada among bhikkhunis. Those narratives, which in some ways resemble those emerging from the disputes between the head monks at the Dambulla and Asgiriya temples, are framed in terms of competing claims to a supposedly authentic Buddhism. Common (p.180) to both disputes about Theravada authenticity are central questions of monastic seniority and power.44
In this chapter I have sought to understand what it means for Sri Lankan nuns to become bhikkhunis and identify themselves as “Theravada.” I have argued that the meanings of Theravada are rooted in the debates about monastic seniority and power in which they occur. Sinhalese-speaking nuns without access to the globalatinized vocabulary used by scholars and other nuns to discuss the identity of nuns have different assumptions about what is and is not “Mahayana.” Understanding contemporary nuns’ views of Mahayana is important not, as scholars such as Cheng think, for affirming that they are or are not “accurate” but for suggesting that their views are embedded in an ongoing debate about the meaning of monastic seniority and power. It would be a mistake to assume that the so-called internationalization or globalization of the higher ordination of nuns has equivalent meanings for Buddhist monastics around the world. As a whole, what Theravada means to scholars, monks, and nuns can differ, and Theravada can become a buzzword for claims to monastic seniority and power—whether of monks or of nuns—both outside and inside Sri Lanka.
Outside Sri Lanka, monks supporting Theravada missions center their concerns about monastic precedence on promoting an egalitarian and distinctively Theravada Buddhism, a Buddhism that is as accepting of nuns as Mahayana. Within Sri Lanka, monks and nuns assert the Theravada character of ordinations to either sanction or undermine contesting narratives. Sil matas who reject the bhikkhuni ordination do so echoing the concern with Theravada authenticity while focusing on a potential confusion of monastic seniority among nuns. Such confusion has already been borne out in the everyday interrelations of nuns. Sil matas and monks who deny the possibility of a valid Theravada bhikkhuni upasampada are among those who also oppose the authority of influential monks such as Sumangala. Some senior bhikkhunis who affirm the authenticity of their ordination as Theravada and deny that of other bhikkhunis are simultaneously contestants in a guru-golaya or “teacher-student” rift; such rifts are connected with disputes about who has seniority and proper precedence. Meanwhile, Sumangala and senior bhikkhunis ordained at Dambulla champion the cause of the Theravada ordination of bhikkhunis (p.181) and reject the validity of the bhikkhuni ordinations in Sarnath, Taiwan, and Sri Lankan centers other than Dambulla on the grounds that such ordinations are “Mahayana.” Nevertheless, several nuns I interviewed—including both those associated with the Bodhgaya-Dambulla ordination and those associated with the Sarnath ordination—though granting that differences may exist between those ordinations, are uncertain about what those differences are. Again, this chapter has not been concerned with assessing which ordinations are most authentic or most appropriate for Sri Lankan bhikkhunis. Rather, it has attempted to show that, in order to better understand the questions surrounding the ordination debates in Sri Lanka, one must go beyond the assumption that the category of Theravada is self-evident.
(1.) See, for example, Gethin; Harvey.
(2.) In their otherwise thoughtful articles on “Theravada Studies,” Crosby and Choompolpaisal, in keeping with most works on the subject, have assumed the category of Theravada without questioning it.
(3.) This is somewhat similar to the understanding of Theravada found in Gombrich’s earlier book, Theravada Buddhism, which suggests that the designation Theravada is associated with the primacy of monasticism, Pali texts, certain beliefs and practices, and specific countries where it is predominant, and is also differentiated from “Mahayana.” However, that book describes Theravada as an “ordination tradition” (168) and also assumes that Theravada Buddhism has a long history of more than 2500 years (21).
(4.) That is something that they state in addressing the question of the bhikkhuni upasampada. We may infer the authors’ support for the bhikkhuni upasampada in their assertion that Theravada/Mahayana differences are not about “monastic tradition” or ordination lineage—an assertion that Sri Lankan proponents of the ordination also make.
(5.) Another book that appears to share a similar understanding of Theravada is Constituting Communities by Holt et al. The essays in the book discuss beliefs and practices laid out in Pali texts as well as the particular cultures of South and Southeast Asia that are generally identified as Theravada. In that book an explanation of what “Theravada” itself means is absent.
(6.) Anil Sakya, in his paper “Contextualising Thai Buddhism” (cited with permission), makes interesting comments about the idea of Theravada. He suggests that the modern use of the term “Theravada” was introduced in 1950, at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) in Colombo, Sri Lanka. That conference, attended by representatives from twenty-seven countries, was held as part of an attempt to overcome the pejorative connotations of the term “Hinayana.” Sakya also discusses a paper by Peter Skilling that has since been revised and published. Skilling’s publication states that though the term “Theravada” is often taken for granted today, it should not be, because it “is rare in Pali literature,…and for nearly a millennium it was rarely used in the Pali or vernacular inscriptions, chronicles, or other premodern texts” (“Theravāda” 61). According to Skilling, “as a type of Buddhism, the very idea of Theravada is a by-product of globalization” (“Theravāda” 62; emphasis in original). Skilling proposes (like Bechert but unlike Gombrich and Obeyesekere) that the history of “Theravada” does not concern doctrine but rather “ordination lineages” (64). For further reflection on the genealogy of Theravada see the recent work, How Theravāda is Theravāda? by Skilling et al.
(7.) See, for example, “Bhikkhuni Order” and sources mentioned below.
(8.) For support of this procedure, see “Ordination of Dasa Sil Matas,” and the article by Kumar Piyasena.
(9.) I use the terms “Sarnath (group) bhikkhunis or nuns” and “Bodhgaya-Dambulla (group) bhikkhunis or nuns” to also refer to those female renunciants who have received training (and often also the upasampada) from bhikkhunis from one of these groups.
(10.) One must understand that debates about a (Theravada) bhikkhuni ordination of Sri Lankan nuns took place in the context of contestations about the question of what did or did not constitute a “pure” Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Those contestations were prevalent in the country throughout the 1980s and 1990s. As Abeysekara indicates, neither the meaning of Theravada nor the idea of a pure Buddhism should be considered self-explanatory (Colors 109–142).
(11.) The question of monastic precedence was noted quite publicly in a 2010 event organized by the Sri Lankan monk Bodagama Chandima and Taiwanese bhikkhunis that was heralded as the “First all Sri Lanka Bhikkhuni Dana (alms giving ceremony).” Sri Lankan monks, Taiwanese monastics, and approximately 2,900 Sri Lankan nuns (bhikkhunis, samaneris, and sil matas) received alms. Although some senior Sri Lankan bhikkhunis were excited about participating in such an event, others with whom I have talked mentioned their concern about the inadequate observance of monastic precedence between monks and nuns as well as between nuns themselves. Also see Cheng, “Cross-Tradition” and Theravada Samadhi Education Association.
(12.) Although the determination of seniority among sil matas in discrete hermitages is generally straightforward, at Dambulla, where nuns from different hermitages gathered for training, it was to be rearranged partly according to the precedence of the novice and higher ordinations and also according to the performance of individual nuns at the required bhikkhuni qualifying examination. I later learned that the sil mata ordination precedence is often taken into account when nuns from one hermitage receive the higher ordination at Dambulla on the same day.
(13.) The term golaya means more than “pupil” or “student.” It refers to an individual who owes moral allegiance and loyalty to a teacher or mentor who serves as a guiding authority in life. Teachers are usually older than their golayas by a generation and are comparable to parents who share with their progeny their life experiences and social connections.
(14.) This nun used the term samanera or “novice monk” for novice nuns or samaneris, and I followed suit by using it in a similar manner in my conversations with her.
(15.) For subsequent preparations for the higher ordination of a Theravada nun in the United States, also see Nemsiri Mutukumara, “Sri Lankan, Thai Bhikkhus.” Deegalle Mahinda, a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka who was studying in the United States at the time and also considered it important to address the needs of the mission abroad published an article in a national Sri Lankan newspaper, suggesting that the establishment of a Theravada bhikkhuni order would “prove that women have equal status in Buddhism even today” and also potentially assist with the “quick acceptance and progress of Theravada Buddhism in Western countries.”
(16.) According to one informant, discussions for the ordination at Sarnath began in a very preliminary fashion when female practitioners working to “uplift” what he referred to as the tattvaya, or status, of sil matas and enhance their acceptance among Buddhists as worthy recipients of donations decided that those goals could be accomplished with the institution of a bhikkhuni upasampada. Those practitioners spoke persistently about the need for the bhikkhuni upasampada with Vipulasara, who at that time (the 1980s) was at the Parama Dhammachaitya (p.264) Pirivena in Ratmalana, where a Korean bhikkhuni was also residing and studying. (The Korean bhikkhuni, Sang Wong, chief incumbent of the Bo Myunsa temple in Seoul, South Korea, is now referred to as the MahāBhikkhuni [“Great Bhikkhuni”]; it was she who initiated plans for the bhikkhuni ordination that took place in Sarnath in 1996.) Although Vipulasara had long-term associations with Korean monastics, the conversations between Vipulasara and the Korean monastics concerning the bhikkhuni upasampada appear to have begun in Ratmalana. It would be inaccurate to suggest, as has Goonatilake, that the initiative for the bhikkhuni upasampada began as a result of the Sakyadhita conference of 1993 in Colombo, Sri Lanka (44–45). Vipulasara’s intentions to prepare sil matas for the upasampada and for missionary work abroad were publicized later in 1996 in the Sri Lankan media. See “Maha Bodhi Society.”
(17.) “The Ordination of Dasa Sil Matas.” This interview was broadcast nationally on the Buddhist Review radio program the same (full-moon) day.
(18.) I interviewed four Sri Lankan bhikkhunis shortly after their ordination at Sarnath. Although they had been following the renunciant life for several years, none of them had had long-term aspirations to become fully ordained bhikkhunis. Their acceptance of the upasampada points to the “contingent conjunctures” (to use Abeysekara’s terminology) that resulted in the Sarnath ordination. The efforts leading up to the Sarnath ordination are not unlike those led by individuals such as Piyasena and the Professor mentioned earlier. One difference is that the attempts of the latter were led by householders rather than monastics. Those efforts were stymied by an absence of accepting and suitably prepared sil matas. The Sarnath ordination, led by monastics of transnational stature raised similar concerns about the preparedness of the sil matas.
(19.) Kusuma, “How I Became a Bhikkhuni” (17). Kusuma conveyed to me that there were many reasons that Vipulasara made this request of her: he knew her to be a strong meditator and scholar; he knew of her linguistic abilities in Pali, English, and Sinhalese and of her educational background in the sciences; and he trusted that her maturity as an older woman would enable her to handle being the target of imminent public criticism.
(20.) This questionable idea of struggle in which bhikkhunis are pitted against opposing Buddhist monks has appeared frequently in the media. See, for example, Frances Harrison’s article.
(21.) For an extended account of the Foguangshan monastery and its interest in bhikkhuni ordinations, see Chandler.
(22.) Sarvodaya is a well-known non-governmental organization working at a grassroots level in Sri Lanka that was then training householders as well as sil matas in an attempt to improve living standards in villages. For more on Sarvodaya, see Bond’s Buddhism at Work and Macy. Sarvodaya’s initial involvement with sil matas, though predating that of Sumangala, was part of a larger effort to “uplift” villages rather than promote a bhikkhuni upasampada.
(23.) See Seelananda’s article. This article calls for unity among bhikkhunis throughout Sri Lanka: “My fervent and kind appeal is, please do not make divisions and do not let others…make divisions in the Bhikkhuni Order as in [the] Bhikkhu Order in Sri Lanka.” This article mentions the Sarnath ordination, a proposal from Taiwan to confer a higher ordination on nuns, and, indirectly, the efforts in Dambulla.
(24.) Those procedures included details such as reversion to the white attire of a temporary renunciant or householder before accepting the attire and requisites of a fully ordained monastic—a practice associated with Sri Lankan higher ordinations. Unlike the Sri Lankan bhikkhunis ordained in Sarnath in 1996, who wore Korean-style monastic robes associated by some with “Mahayana,” the Sri Lankan bhikkhunis ordained in 1998 in Bodhgaya wore Sri Lankan-style monastic robes.
(25.) According to one Sri Lankan bhikkhuni who received this ordination, these personal questions were asked by Taiwanese bhikkhunis, with the Sri Lankan bhikkhuni serving only as a translator.
(26.) Although we need to be cautious about raising questions that appear relevant to the ordination of nuns both in Tibetan and Theravada Buddhism, it is interesting that the notion of monastic precedence is also important to Tibetan nuns. A Tibetan nun of Asian origin talked to me about the matter in some detail. This nun did not seek to receive the higher ordination, but she knew of the efforts of Tibetan nuns of Western origin to do so. She observed that at a particular ritual session, the participating Western nuns, who were very junior to some of the Asian Tibetan nuns present, assumed monastic seniority by (inappropriately to their junior station) sitting in front of the latter. “Just because they are Western nuns they want to sit ahead…. They know very well they should not be there and they are doing it anyway.” She indicated that such nuns, who as novices did not observe proper behavior in respect to monastic seniority, should not even consider trying to become ordained as bhikkhunis, who are even more restricted. According to her, the debate about the bhikkhuni ordination ultimately concerned who could or could not sit in “the front seat row.”
(27.) “Meheṇi sasna yali.”
(28.) See Rupasinghe. The assertion that no Theravada bhikkhuni order existed before the 1998 Dambulla ordination centers on the idea of where the ordination can take root. Sumangala has dismissed the 1996 Sarnath ordination by citing a passage from the Mahāvaṃsa that, according to him, asserts that the bhikkhuni ordination can only be established when a renunciant is ordained “on Sri Lankan soil.” His interpretation has been contested by a scholar-bhikkhuni who indicates that the passage refers not to renunciants ordained “on Sri Lankan soil” but rather to renunciants “of Sri Lankan soil”—renunciants who were born in Sri Lanka but may be ordained anywhere in the world. Unlike the former interpretation, the latter suggests that the “rebirth” of the Sri Lankan (p.266) bhikkhuni order “after 800 years” first took place in Sarnath in 1996 rather than in Dambulla in 1998.
(29.) See, for example, Vidanagama, and Weerasinghe.
(30.) See the articles by L. B. Wijayasiri, G.A.D. Sirimal, and D. Amarasiri Weeraratne, “Mahanayakas.”
(31.) This forty-one-page booklet describes eight methods of ordination acceptable in a Pali text and makes a case for the contemporary establishment of the higher ordination for women in Sri Lanka. It also cites verbatim (31–39) a conference paper I presented at the fifth Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, Phnom Penh, 1997. That paper was later revised and published as “Unity and Diversity.”
(32.) Reasons for the nuns’ discontinuing their practices as bhikkhunis relate first to an absence of real interest among the nuns themselves in becoming bhikkhunis (Bartholomeusz 182), a lack of training and education in what the higher ordination meant, and inadequate preparations for the nuns to continue their practice after returning to Sri Lanka. Bhikkhunis, following stricter rules than sil matas, are not in a position to observe certain vinaya regulations (e.g., concerning restrictions on food preparation and the observance of the patimokkha) without the support of householders and monks.
(33.) That the Korean ordination lineage has also been traced to the Chinese was not a matter I raised with him.
(34.) These include necessary rituals performed by bhikkhus and bhikkhunis in community, such as the patimokkha recitation and the kaṭhina (ritual held at the end of the rainy-season retreat).
(35.) Although several Bodhgaya-Dambulla bhikkhunis have affirmed that Sumangala said this and that they follow his recommendations, I know that some bhikkhunis do not comply with this. In one such instance, a bhikkhuni ordained at Dambulla appeared at a Sarnath bhikkhuni ritual and planned to officiate. She was turned away by senior Sarnath nuns because she lacked the “character qualifications” to participate.
(36.) For purposes of maintaining their anonymity, I have not included their actual names here.
(37.) I have identified Sumangala by name, as he requested. He indicated that the ordinations he was conducting were part of a “big event” with which he wanted his name to be identified.
(38.) Also “on the sly” or “deceptively.”
(39.) Sumangala attempted to invalidate the ordination in Taiwan because of what he viewed as the insincerity and money laundering of its sponsors, not because it was “Mahayana.” If he had dismissed it as Mahayana, I would have had the opportunity to present him with a counter-narrative potentially invalidating the Bodhgaya ordination. Because the Foguangshan temple in Taiwan had been central to both the Bodhgaya and the Taiwan ordinations of Sri Lankan nuns, (p.267) undercutting the validity of the Taiwan ordination would effectively have done the same to the Bodhgaya and Dambulla ordinations.
(40.) According to some, the two junior sil matas (golayas) received their sil mata training and ordination from her, and according to others, they did not. But my informants all agree that, according to their sil mata ordination, the two nuns who had associated closely with her were junior to Seelavatie. That the dispute involved a notion of seniority that was questioned when the junior sil matas became bhikkhunis was also confirmed directly by the three nuns involved in the dispute.
(41.) On her return to Sri Lanka, Seelavatie Bhikkhuni trained nuns for bhikkhuni ordinations and has since participated in ordinations associated with the Sarnath group.
(42.) The confusion about Buddhist practices and their associations with different countries is common among practitioners in Sri Lanka. Another nun associated with Dambulla who also refuted the Mahayana ordinations seemed to think that Taiwan and Thailand were one country. Also see Cheng (Buddhist Nuns 180–185). Unlike Cheng, I wish to focus on this matter not to indicate the significance of “ignorance” among subjects, but rather to argue that knowledge of what kind of Buddhism is practiced where is just not a primary concern. What is at stake here is the question of recognition of an authentic Sri Lankan (Theravada) bhikkhuni upasampada that is opposed to something else.
(43.) This confusion may have been prompted by her knowledge that Kusuma, whose ordination was conducted by Korean monastics, was also present at the Taiwan ordination.
(44.) Such questions may well have entered into the first ordination of Thervada bhikkhunis in Australia in 2009 in which Ajahn Brahm of the Thai Wat Pa Pong Buddhist community participated. Within weeks of the ordination, Thai monks of that community declared the ordination invalid and expelled Ajahn Brahm. See “History in the Making?”