21 July, 2024


Bhikkhuni Dr.Kusuma: Challenging The Brahministic Male Chauvinism

By Charundi Panagoda –

Saranath, India, 1996. Hundreds of devotees, monks, nuns and photographers follow a grand procession of dancers, drummers, horses and caparisoned elephants towards the ordination platform. Kusuma Devendra (nee Gunawardene), about to undergo higher ordination, thinks back to the days of the Buddha, when Ven. Maha Prajapathi Gothami Devi and other women had only their determination to end their Samsaric journeys by entering the Buddha Sasana.

The Bhikkhuni at her daughter’s residence in Wellawatte. Pic by Susantha Liyanawatte

The ceremony started at 6 a.m. and went on until 6 p.m. Her family was there and some of her expatriate classmates had even flown in from London to witness this historic moment. All the nuns (ten including her) had to worship the Buddha prostrating themselves with their foreheads touching the ground. This procedure was repeated more than a hundred times until their knees bled.

Once the long ordination ceremony was done, she became one of the first Sri Lankan women to have been ordained as a bhikkhuni in several centuries.

“Tears came to my eyes when I realised that I had achieved something I must have aspired for, for eons in Samsara. To receive ordination as the first Bhikkhuni after nearly thousand years since the disappearance of Sri Lankan Bhikkhunis! It was unbelievable! Amazing! Even today after 17 years it remains a beautiful dream come true!” Bhikkhuni Kusuma writes in her recently released autobiography ‘Braving the Unknown Summit’. The book, she says, was not intended to be a work of scholarship but a simple narrative to provide, if at all, some guidance and inspiration to women who seek an alternative lifestyle away from hearth and home.

Now spending her golden years as an 83-year-old, at the Ayya Khema Meditation Centre she built, she reflects on her life and her decision to write the book, urged by her chief disciple Ven. Medhavini and daughter Peshala. “So here I am, seated in the open verandah surrounded by Banyan, Bo, Na and Sal trees as well as many trees such as Jak, Coconut, Avocado and Arecanut at my ashram in Olaboduwa, recalling my past. Somewhat to my surprise, I find that the incidents in the past which at that time may have been so difficult and sad to deal with now do not arouse any strong emotional response in my mind. The events that had made deep impressions on me seem to be long dead and gone, and I do not feel any strong likes or dislikes, or anger or sadness. Everything is buried in the sands of time, and I know that all of it will fade away with my death and dissolution. This also seems to be another reason why I should write it down for the benefit of new generations. I know that life is but a temporary “station” or a stop in the infinite life and death process in Samsara. So if my life could be an inspiration to someone, then the writing of it will not be in vain”, she writes.
The book covers her childhood, youth, professional life, marriage, the sad loss of a daughter and son and her turning to Buddhism. She reminisces that becoming a Bhikkhuni was an unprecedented uphill battle. Then again, she had never actually planned to become a Bhikkhuni.

She was raised in a deeply religious household by nationalist-Buddhist parents of the anti-colonial “Buddhist cultural renaissance”. She grew up learning the Buddhist sutras her grandmother chanted in her native Matara dialect. Her religious life continued, as she became a science teacher, married and had six children. The family observed sil on Vesak and gave regular alms to monks. In the ’70s during the food shortages, she fed and bathed the poor children who flocked to the gates begging for food.

Her life changed when, at the Sri Jayewardenepura University studying for a Master’s Degree in Buddhism, she stumbled across the Therigatha, the Psalms of the Buddhist Nuns. The Therigatha “filled her mind with thoughts of enlightenment for women,” especially about the Ten Precept nuns (Dasasil mathas). She secured a small research grants for a doctoral thesis on Dasasil Mathas.

The nuns “strikingly” revealed that neither the monks order nor the government gave them recognition or respect. Dasasil Mathas were a marginalised community in society, their poor living standards obstructing their religious aspirations. Consumed by the subject, she appealed to the President that the government should care for the nuns as much as the monks. She recalls that President J.R. Jayawardene smiled and told her “Madam, I am not going to put my finger into such a controversial thing.”

Nevertheless, he entrusted his wife with the nuns’ matters and finally established a separate section in the Buddha Sasana Ministry for the nuns, which was shut down when it fell under the Monks’ Advisory Board.

Unfazed, she continued her research taking up a subject unknown in Sri Lanka, the bhikkhuni vinaya. At the time, many thought the order of bhikkhunis wouldn’t be revived in Sri Lanka until the advent of the Maithriya Buddha.

The most notable attempt at reviving the bhikkhuni order after its disappearance following the fall of the Anuradhapura kingdom occurred in the early 1900s when Catherine de Alwis, an affluent Catholic woman turned Buddhist, went to Burma and was ordained as Sudarmachari. However, upon her return to Sri Lanka, the male monks here did not recognise her ordination, told her to exchange her brown robes for yellow ones and accepted her only as a ‘Dasasil Matha’, a status not part of the original Sasana fourfold. Though the nuns follow the same ten precepts as the monks, they are not recognised and respected as such.

Bhikkhuni Kusuma quotes Sudarmachari to describe the current situation of nuns: “The Buddha Sasana, like a table rests upon four legs: the bhikku, bhikkhuni, male upasika and female upasik. The bhikkhuni leg is no more, leaving the table shaking and unstable.”

When she approached Ven. Vipulasara Thera to re-establish the Bhikkhuni order after the Sakyadhitha International Conference in 1993 along with Dr. Hema Gunatilleke and Ranjani de Silva, the move stirred up much controversy. Despite the backlash, about 200 nuns were interviewed for ordination. Nine candidates were chosen and she taught them English prior to their travel to Saranath where Ven. Vipulasara Thera suggested the ceremony be held, Saranath being the place where Lord Buddha had preached His first sermon. She herself travelled to Korea spending three months studying the ordination procedures. It was then that Ven. Vipulasara Thera had called her to announce that he was under attack from all quarters over the reinstatement of the Bhikkhuni order and it could not go through.

She pleaded with the Thera to go ahead regardless. Already a substantial amount had been spent arranging the ceremony in Saranath. The Thera replied, “In that case, there’s only one solution. You are the only person I know committed and qualified enough.” He wanted her to give leadership to the nuns being ordained.

It was a challenge she heard in stunned silence, a decision then made for the “liberation of all womanhood.” She was first ordained as a Dasasil Matha at Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya and then along with the nine others ordained a bhikkhuni at Saranath.

Some refused to accept their ordination, claiming it was done according to the Mahayana tradition. Bhikkuni Kusuma responds that it’s a misinterpretation. Historically, Sri Lankan bhikkhunis established the bhikkhuni order in China in 429 CE, and the tradition was preserved in East Asia where it thrived while in Theravada countries it died out. “It’s a matter of getting it back,” Bhikkhuni Kusuma says.

“All this resistance is nothing but monks wanting their supremacy and fear that bhikkhunis would do better,” she adds. “There is brahministic male chauvinism very well apparent in the Sangha but this is no idea of the Buddha.”

Since her ordination, there have been over a thousand Bhikkhunis ordained in the country but still the Bhikkhuni order is not organised.

Bhikkhuni Kusuma says she’s “happier” now focusing on social welfare programmes from her Meditation Centre, instead of pushing for bhikkhuni recognition in Sri Lanka. But she is more than willing to take up the cause internationally, where there is much interest. Since 1996 she has travelled extensively and marvels that 16 years ago when she left hearth and home, she thought “I may well be on the road with no one to care for me”. She writes, “I thought I am too old now to work once I retired from my profession, but here I am, conducting lectures and meditation sessions around the world!”

Her next project, she writes in the book is to establish a hostel for women and nuns in Colombo so that laywomen and nuns who need accommodation would have a place to stay while they complete their work. “I am hoping that with everyone’s help I would be lucky enough to see its completion during my lifetime.”

Courtesy Sunday Times Plus

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Did the Buddha envision some of his female disciples to be, from among those who had enjoyed the worldly life including happy marriages,widowhood and children?
    Did he also allow ten year old boys to give up the worldly life to beome monks when they were too young to understand their stressful future?
    The vow of celebacy is the most difficult to conform to,lifelong.
    So is,the vow of poverty.
    Those who cannot conform,’fall by the wayside’.
    Will the hundreds of bhikkunis envisaged in the future,be able to conform?
    Maybe,the monks are correct in their opposition to a ‘bhikkuni order’.

    • 1

      Still living in primitive male chauvinistic ideology.
      Sexism is as bad as racism or colonialism, and monks are correct?!!

      We will have compassionate & humane Buddism one day in SL.
      And, if equality is a new concept to Buddism, then we have to introduce it.

      This is the haalparu and the muddy-hyped, not the pot-mud or the brick-mud, great is the rice-mud

      Kapilavastu relics also displayed in only Siyampoli temples
      (multi nikaya Gangarama the only after thought due to weeks extension)

      Good will eventually overcome evil.

  • 0

    Practical Mahayana permits marriage eg Rinpoche Karmapa is married.
    This is what she is silently mentioning when she speaks of China.
    The Chinese got the message from Gautama directly and wrote it in the classical Chinese language as they were civilized and maintain it as a philosophy as Gautama said.
    Gautama’s language was Rajas lost for ever while the administrative was classical language Sanskrit which is considered dead except known to the Brahmins. The British learnt Sanskrit from a low cast on the sly.
    As you may be aware there are at least 70 versions of the bible while the original is in Old Latin and only the pope has it- how much has been edited is anyone’s guess. Same with Hinayana from the word go.
    Go to Long man grottos in China its beauty. These statues in Sri lanka in every roundabout is land grabbing power and politics.

    • 0

      Gauthama Buddha’s language was Magadha. The Pali script developed later writes it down in verses as recited by Arhant Venerable Ananda.

      So don’t write false comments

      • 0

        If what you say is that true then you are more informed than you lord the British who ruled you and them and of course you were slaves too. I am not being funny Sanskrit is the language of the Hindus and Jains whom you unfortunately despise over there be what it may.
        How did the British Sahib learn Sanskrit? When you can see through the seeds of time and tell me which man taught them and which one didn’t speak then to me till then hibernate in rajapakistan.
        I spent time with great lamas relatives of the king, and also as a kid with a sinhala monk who was a distant relative of a king – he knew sanskrit well so he taught buddhism and hinduism to some in english (he is dead now samsara)
        I dont want to insult you but the reality is the untouchables become the Buddhist in India- sad but true.

      • 0

        when did bhikkhuni divorse the dirty old bastard mahanayake.

  • 3

    You may not intend being funny, but what you write is funny indeed!

    “How did the British Sahib learn Sanskrit?” you ask. You have already informed us (who have never regarded the British as “Sahibs”) it was, in your opinion, from “low caste” Indians, and not the “real Sanskrit” which is a “dead language” known only to Brahmins!

    Is that what you were told?

    My friend, you can learn Sanskrit over the Internet. Do a Wikipedia search on Sanskrit and you may be able to learn a bit yourself. While you’re there, why don’t you do a bit of historical research into the Sinhalese, Tamil, Hindi, Grantha, Malayalam, and Brahmin scripts and their evolution. You may even be interested in researching the influence of these scripts on those of South-East Asia, ranging from the Buddhist and Hindu civilizations in Nepal, Java, Bali, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand and even Korea, China and Japan (in addition to Tibet, which, as a “Mahayana tradition” you seem to be “pitting” against what your think is the “Hinayana” tradition in Sri Lanka).

    Very few people, in more enlightened Sri Lanka would consider it an “insult” that “the untouchables [were convinced to] become the [sic] Buddhist in India” during the Indian Independence Movement. It is true, but not “sad”, as my research into the Indian politician you mentioned yesterday has shown. The man you claimed had “introduced Buddhism to India” was a contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi who converted “back” to Buddhism like his forefathers in Ratnagiri in West India, during the fight for Indian Independence from the British. He encouraged his followers to follow his example. Thousands did. This man rose to high position in Indian scholarship and politics from the terrible disadvantage of what used to be called, denigratingly, “untouchable caste” (by “high-caste” Brahmin and Kshatriya castes). Nowadays civilized people prefer the term “Dalit” which may also have demeaning connotations. I don’t know enough about the history of South India, and Indian languages, to be certain.

    Fortunately, though unfortunate vestiges of caste prejudice remain, the people of Sri Lanka have never been as obsessed by “caste” as people in India (not just Hindus but so-called “Christians” as well). That’s largely because Buddhism has been traditionally opposed to discrimination based on caste…though that has never been the case when it came to the royal and ruling families in Sri Lanka. There are historical reasons for this, but not good reasons, in my opinion.

    • 0

      Quote:You may not intend being funny, but what you write is funny indeed!Unquote.
      Your problem like your dad is that both are bounty hunters looking not just for knowledge.
      Ever heard of Enigma ciphers well even as kids we had S language of our known similarly Royalty had theirs. As you are aware I studied in India and know very well they have a very close hand policy in imparting knowledge especially the Brahmins even more than the English. But then the thieves were sent to Australia where you have grown up so I cannot expect better from you. T
      You partner left you so you and we all can see why. You are half Tamil and half Singhalese so who is going to believe you not the Indians for sure. Any third world nation knows that what they buy from the first world is never the best but something with flaws and that’s what Lanka got. You cannot display common sense because your mind is twisted with a fantasy.
      I learnt it in my first year at campus along with French so you go and fetch the internet your God. If “everything” of anything was for free on the internet there won’t be any authors or copyrights and there won’t be like our Billionaire J K Rowling. You are conceited small mind the transfer of technology is not like running a GP practice like your struggling father its vale runs into Billions. In 1990 India purchased the technology for engineering plastics to make bumpers for a staggering $2 billion then. Therefore your internet knowledge is street talk.- in Sinhala rastiyadu kata.;) Good luck I am already running late on a process must go.

      • 1

        Mr Wu,

        I must admit that I didn’t know much about the Enigma machines, codes and their history – so I’ve checked them out on Wikipedia. There’s lots about them, and I haven’t read it in detail. What I have gathered so far has, however, helped me understand your comment. They are, I believe, World War II cipher machines that were developed by a German engineer (Arthur Scherbius) at the end of World War 1 (in 1918).

        From what I have just read, the code, which was first used by the German navy in 1925, was cracked by the the British, who used information gathered for the “Ultra” database. Initially on paper files, this data shaped the development of the CIA-funded and directed MK-Ultra programs. By then, however, about 100 German enigma machines, seized by the British at the end of the war, were sold to unsuspecting countries in the Third World…Meanwhile, since 1927, the Enigma D model was being widely used, going to the intelligence services and private companies and individuals rich enough to buy the expensive German machines.

        So, are you telling us you are a spy?

        And then you mention “our” JK Rowling, of Harry Potter fame. And you say you were at a MIA concert in London, with other “whites” and report that there weren’t too many darkies at the event…goodness me, Pook the Troll – now wonder you were so cagey about your past. It appears that are a racist, white-supremacist Indian-trained businessman of dubious integrity who’s been to London with “batch-mates” who work as “engineers” in the American military. And you think it’s okay to threaten to have me killed and made into mincemeat by your “mates” if I go to Afghanistan? Also suggesting that I should go there with the Australian mercenaries?

        It appears that you are a violent agent provocateur and character-assassin, Mr Wu. A family tradition, is it?

        • 0

          You are unable to blend in your adopted land like most Asians and that does not mean that other immigrants have to follow your bad/sic idea.

          Western nation’s tax payers spend billions trying to integrate the new immigrants but the vast majority of immigrants are just “greedy”- period.

          That in turn is causing social unrest in the west and is on the increase (it can be worse than a Uganda effect), it seems you are one of them down under from the comment made here and especially on that article “to be or not to be”

          Hey Looney “imagine if you had no imagination what would things be like” Eh???? Speak then to me.

  • 0

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  • 3

    The above string of nonsequiturs models something of the ignorance over the centuries around bhikkhuni ordination. How does the aggressive argumentation in these comments, about nationalism and language, bear any relevance to an article about the restoration of the bhikkhuni sangha? It’s worth asking yourself what makes it so hard to acknowledge and support the resurgence of women into roles of spiritual leadership. This has been a long time coming and I offer gratitude and respect to Bhikkhuni Dr Kusuma for her clear-sightedness, conviction and wisdom. Sadhu sadhu sadhu

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