Monday, September 1, 2008

Nun's Full Ordination (Theravada)

Text by Bhikkhuni Sobhana (LakeHouse)

Britney Spears, when speculation was rampant, to explain why she shaved her head. She seems to have affected many other female celebrities' choice of haircut usually reserved for nuns.

Bhikkhuni ("nun") ordination: It is a great blessing that women going forth in Theravada Buddhism is no longer a novelty.

After a lapse of 900 years, there now exists in Sri Lanka a functional female monastic order holding regular, twice monthly recitation of the monastic precepts properly supported by monks.

Sri Lankan nuns have received full ordination in every year since 1998. Over 400 international nuns are practicing, mostly in rural areas. There are 2,000 female novices (samaneris) preparing for ordination, as well as 3,000 practicing as Ten Precept "Nuns" (Dasa Sil Matas or DSM), the much older former glass ceiling for women.

These developments should be celebrated by anyone who appreciates the Buddha's plan for a four-fold Great Order of monks, nuns, male, and female lay disciples.

Western women in particular had long been discouraged from going forth in the Theravada tradition. There are many supportive monks. Bhante Gunaratna of West Virginia ( is among the most senior of supportive monks in this regard.

Yet, the history of inequities and lack of an established Western female Sangha are serious barriers. In a viable Sangha, at least four monks would meet regularly for reciting the monastic precepts, and there would be sufficient depth of training and wisdom. The effort to form such a Sangha has been hindered by the difficulty in organizing ordinations. So it is encouraging to know that the Nun's Order of Sri Lanka will now gladly ordain all qualified foreigners.

In 2006, four international nuns were ordained, together with ten local nuns. The ordination ceremony was held at the Chapter House of the Golden Temple in Dambulla, Sri Lanka led by Bhante Inamaluwe Sumangala Thera. Bhikkuni Gunanusari and I had the privilege of participating in this ordination.

Afterwards, I spent Vassa (the three-month Rains Retreat) at the home temple of Bhikkhuni Siri Sumedha, who is the head of the Bhikshuni Educational Academy at Dambulla.

I attended several village welcoming ceremonies, the very impressive bi-monthly monastic recitation attended by up to 115 bhikkunis, all-night protective chanting at private homes, and a full round of Kathina Cloth celebrations.

I observed that this Sangha was organized out of the former DSM Order, which was founded in 1932 by Ven. Sudharmacari (Mary Katharene de Alwis), a virtuous and capable nun who had studied the Doctrine and Discipline in Burma for 14 years. My bhikkhuni teacher, who ordained as a DSM at age 12, explained that they did the same religious work as a monk without any recognition.

Their status was always ambiguous -- neither Sangha members nor lay disciples. While some DSMs were well trained and disciplined in their practice, others were just destitute widows, who would go to a shop and buy some yellow cloth to wear.

In 1986, assisted by the government, a society of nuns was founded with chapters in every region of Sri Lanka. This society provided Dharma training and access to university-level Buddhist studies for nuns.

It was this group of DSMs, together with their monk supporters, who organized the training program and selection procedures for the re-establishment of the female Order.

Today's Sri Lankan nuns are drawn from the top ranks of DSMs. They already have decades of experience, well established local temples, and a base of lay supporters.

A few are scholars or recluses. They are venerated and supported but still materially quite poor compared to their male counterparts.

The full ordination of nuns is officially opposed by all three monk sects in Sri Lanka [who are strictly following the rules laid down by the Buddha] but is quietly supported by individual monks. Gradually, nuns are receiving government recognition as clergy. There is no governmental persecution.

Therefore, if any North American woman has an interest in going forth and receiving full ordination, here are some points to consider about ordaining at Dambulla:
  • The candidate should have three years of monastic training before ordination. Among our international group, some counted their previous experience (of dwelling at a Buddhist temple as lay resident and observing the eight monastic precepts).
  • Experience in Mahayana settings is also counted, as is Theravada novice training.
  • She should be sponsored by a respected Theravada monk who agrees to supervise her in her homeland for five years following ordination.
  • There is a qualifying examination. Local candidates receive a three-month training course, but unless one is fluent in Sinhalese, the foreigner must prepare at home under her own teacher.
  • The curriculum includes the major disciplinary rules for females (bhikkhuni patimokkha), lesser rules (Culavagga), aphorisms (Dhammapada), discourses (sutras), the history of Buddhism and history of the Bhikkhuni Sangha from its ancient founding up to recent developments.
  • Local candidates are expected to memorize blocks of text in Pali, but it is possible to pass the examination with a very slight knowledge of Pali.
  • Ordination is given annually, shortly before the beginning of Vassa (full moon in July).
  • The teachers particularly advise candidates to stay with a Bhikkhuni Sangha for their first Rains Retreat.
  • It is possible to obtain the full monastic training and supervision in Sri Lanka. For example, a female novice could study Pali and Buddhism in a college setting, while learning the monastic rules within a nun's dwelling.
  • If she is not fluent in Sinhalese, the options are very limited, but there are a few English speaking nuns.
  • Naturally, she should first establish herself with a well-trusted, skillful primary teacher. Then, while learning Doctrine and Discipline, let go of attachments, commitments, and habits of household life. Only then should she make the decision to take nun's ordination.

PHOTOS: Britney Spears, Natalie Portman (who yesderday was awarded a "Humanity Award" in Venice, CA and donated the $50,000 award to the Jane Goodall Institute), Neve Campbell, Demi Moore, Sigourney Weaver, Sharon Stone, Noemie Leonoir, Tibetan nun and activist fighting Indian police while protesting Chinese abuses.

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