Abstract: Theravada Bhikkhunis

by Bhikkuni Dr. Kusuma Devendra

I congratulate the organizers for the wonderful enthusiasm to create a worldwide Bhkkhuni Sangha order as was the wish of the Buddha. May you be blessed again and again.

I am the first Bhikkhuni in Sri Lanka after a lapse of nearly 1000 years. I and nine others received higher ordination in 1996 from the Korean Sangha of the Chogyo Order which is a member of the World Sangha Council. We were ordained in Sarnath, India under the auspices of the Indian Mahabodhi Society, of which the President then was late Ven. Mapalgama Vipulasara Thero. Afterwards we received instruction and training in Sarnath for two years under the able guidance of Ven. Pandit Andawela Devasiri, a Sri Lankan monk in the Pali tradition of Bhikkhuni Vinaya.

It is well known history that Sri Lanka received Bhikkhuni ordination in the 3rd century B.C. from Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta, the daughter of Emperor Asoka of India.

In the 6th century A.D. after nearly 900 years, the ordination was taken by Sri Lankan nuns headed by Devasara Bhikkuni to China. This is Chinese history. (Prof. Hema Gunatilleke did a research on this.) They traveled in sailing ships crossing dangerous seas for 3 months along the silk route in a merchant ship of a man called Nandi. Thus the Sri Lankan ordination was established in China. From China it went to Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam etc. According to Sri Lankan tradition all the Bhikkhunis in the world today are descendants of Sri Lankan Bhikkhunis and the lineage can be traced to Mahaprajapati through Sanghamitta, which was the Pali Magadhi tradition in India.

Our Sri Lankan Bhikkhus who attended the ceremony in India in 1996 gave us the Sri Lankan bowl and robes having recognized us as fully ordained Bhikkhunis.

Three months before my ordination I was sent to Korea, Seoul, to Bo Myunsa temple to study Vinaya with Ven. Bang Joo Suk, the chief abbot of the temple who organized the ordination. I studied the Dharmagupta Vinaya ordination procedure. To my great satisfaction the ordination procedure was same as the Pali Vinaya procedure.

There is reason for this. Bhikkhuni ordination was taken from Sri Lanka to China and then to Korea in the 6th century A.D. The dual ordination procedure is still extant in Korea and is the same as the Pali. The only difference is that it is in Korean language and we had to seek the help of translators. I translated the procedure into Sinhala from English while in Korea (3 months), for the use of our Sinhala nuns who obtained ordination. Thus the Sri Lankan nuns were familiar with the Pali as well as the Dharmagupta ordaining procedure before they went for ordination.

It is admitted that Sri Lanka obtained only the ordination from Korea and then the Pali tradition of Vinaya was followed.


Today there are over 500 Bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka having obtained ordination subsequently from Taiwan as well from local Bhikkhunis.

I must place on record that I officiated at the 1st ordination held by Taiwan in 1998 one year later at Buddha Gaya. Since I was a Bhikkhuni already, I was invited to the platform to translate the English version of the Chinese ordination procedure to Sinhala for our local nuns. Later these nuns gave ordination to other Sri Lankan nuns with the collaboration of senior monks of Sri Lanka.

It must be pointed out that for the dual ordination ceremony only ten monks and ten nuns are needed. Hence there was no need to get the consent of all the monks in Sri Lanka.

Since the Bhikkhuni tradition was lost 1000 years ago in Sri Lanka, the traditional Theravada hierarchy could not accept the new ordination. But things are changing after 10 years now and the Goveniment has come to see the necessity for Bhikkhunis. The President of Sri Lanka, His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa invited the monks of the hierarchy for a discussion and Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda of Malaysia, a Sri Lankan Bhikkhu, known as the father of Malaysian Buddhism said that "a table needs four legs, Buddhism without Bhikkhunis is unstable because the fourfold society is not complete" and the President came to accept this position.

It is good to have the Support of the Government and society for Bhikkhunis though it is not a Vinaya requirement.

Objections raised by opponents / refutation / Legal status

Most of the objections came from monks who claimed that being a Theravada country we have received a Mahayana ordination. It was argued that there was no Mahayana or Theravada during the time of the Buddha and the Buddha gave ordination to women by dual ordination which is what is being practiced all over the world. Sri Lanka received dual ordination first from nuns and then from monks.

Before dual ordination was proclairned the Buddha invited the monks alone to give ordination (Cullavagga Pali). Later when Bhikkhunis were able to perform the ceremony alone, they were allowed to do so and as a courtesy they have to go before the monks for a second time in a similar way.

I submitted a PhD research on the subject going into detail. The manuscript is with Ven. Jampa Tsederon.

Since Bhikkhuni Vinaya was supposed to be obsolete monks did not study Bhikkhuni Vinaya and they were not interested to study either. The objections came from such persons.

I translated my theses into Sinhala and published it, thanks to the Tibetan Institute, Hamburg under the kind patronage of Gabriele Kustermann. Since then there have been no strong feelings against the establishment of Bhikkhuni Sangha in Sri Lanka.

In fact there is a trend now to support the ten precept nun who is recognised by the Governrnent. But the nuns have no teaching centres whereas monks have Governrnent sponsored Pirivenas. The monks have opportunities for higher education and training. They are supported by lay people and the Government. The nuns are more or less on their own, trying to eke out an existente.

Some nuns who have taken residential meditation Courses which are free, are able to do a bit better but the economics and the war in the North for 25 years is making it difficult to even exist. No legal status for Nuns!

Future Hopes

I was greatly influenced by Ayya Khema from Gerrnany who established the Buddha Haus and many meditation centres. In fact I have started my own centre named " Ayya Khema Meditation Centre " which will be equipped to hold residential meditation for around 15 to 20 persons - local and for foreigners. There is about 1 1/2 acres of land available that can become a flourishing Bhikkhuni Centre as well, in the future. Again I must acknowledge the kind help and good intention of Ven. Nyanabodhi and Gerhard Link of Buddha Haus, Germany for buying ths land for me.

My best wishes to the H.H. Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Bhikkhunis and the German Buddhists for bringing up this Conference. It will surely be an eye opener to the world.