The Sunday Leader

Sri Lanka’s Bhikkhuni Order In Deadlock

By Camelia Nathaniel - Photos by Asoka Fernando

Once again the re-establishment of the Bhikkhuni Order, which was the focus of attention a few decades ago, has surfaced with the Buddhist nuns in the country seeking recognition and calling on the government to issue them with the Bikkhu identity cards and register their monasteries.

However the Most Venerable Maha Nayaka Theras have voiced their disapproval over the recognition of these nuns and stand by their claim that it is not possible to re-establish the Bhikkhuni Order according to the ‘Dharmavinaya’, the doctrine of the Buddha.
There are said to be around 2,000 Theranis in the Bhikuni Sasana in the country, while there are around 800 ordained Bhikkunis in Sri Lanka. These Bikkhunis allege that they are being treated unfairly and since their monasteries are not registered they are deprived of government funding, which in turn deprives these young nuns of educational opportunities.


According to the honourable registrar of the Asgiri Chapter and lecturer of the Bikkhu University in Anuradhapura, Venerable Anamaduwe Dhammadassa Thero, the Most Venerbale Maha Nayaka Theras of this country, who practice the Theravada Buddhist doctrine, have not accepted these nuns in our country as bikkhunis. Pointing out the reasons for not accepting the nuns as Bikkhunis he told The Sunday Leader that with the fall of Anuradhapura to the Chola invaders in AD 1017, the Bhikkhuni order disappeared and became non-operational. Although the Order of Bhikkhus also faced the same fate, it was later revived after King Vijayabahu drove away the Chola invaders. The king had to get down monks from Burma to revive the Bikkhu order, but unfortunately there were no nuns in Burma, Siam, Cambodia or Laos – the other four Theravada countries. Hence the monks maintained that the Bhikkhuni order should be considered defunct and not restorable.

However, he said that the main legal objection the Mahanayaka Theras raise against a revival of the Bhikkhuni Sangha stems from the fact that the Vinaya holds that women are to be ordained by both the Bhikkhuni Sangha and the Bhikkhu Sangha. In their view, to be a purely Theravada ordination, it must also come from an existing Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha. “Therefore, in the absence of an existing Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha, a legitimate Theravada Bhikkhuni ordination cannot be granted, and since, there is no existing Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha, setting up a Bhikkhuni Order cannot be done under the Dharmavinaya. Therefore, it is not very satisfactory that a new view point be built regarding this issue,” added Venerable Anamaduwe Dhammadassa Thero.

Grand Ordination

The Theravada Bhikkuni order was introduced to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (BC 250 – 210). Since then this order flourished in Anuradhapura for about 1,200 years. During the time the Bhikkhuni order existed in Sri Lanka it proved to be an asset to the religion and rendered yeoman service to the Sasana.

Records indicate that the Bhikkhuni Sangha that currently exists in Sri Lanka derives from a grand ordination held at in 1996 where a higher ordination ceremony was performed for bhikkhunis at Isipatanaramaya in Benares. It is not known how the conditions necessary for such a ceremony were fulfilled on that occasion. The ceremony, which was performed with the participation of bhikkhunis belonging to the Mahayana tradition, was not acceptable to those of the Theravada tradition.

According to Venerable Anamaduwe Dhammadassa Thero, the Most Venerable Mahanayake Thera’s were not consulted prior to this ordination. The ceremony, which was performed with the participation of bhikkhunis belonging to the Mahayana tradition, was not acceptable to those of the Theravada tradition. Buddhist historical records indicate that even some of the Mahayana teachers did not accept a bhikkhuni tradition. “If the ordainment of these nuns had been done in consultation with the Most Venerable Mahanayaka Theros of this country, and by bringing in representatives from a country that practices the Theravada doctrine with the mediation of the government as well, then they could have given their consent. However since it was done in an improper manner, we cannot accept them and disregard the traditional Theravada Buddhist traditions of this country,” he added.

Although these nuns are referred to as Bikkhunis they cannot be referred to in this manner according to the current situation, as they have been ordained in an improper manner said Anamaduwe Dhammadassa Thero.

“Therefore although they want the same status as the monks in this country and seek to be registered with the Bhudda Sasana Ministry, the chief prelates of this country are against the registering of these bikkhunis or their monasteries. They claim that according to the existing traditional Theravada Buddhist doctrine in this country these nuns cannot be called Bikkhuni’s and cannot be ordained, and they are only Sil Matha’s who have been ordained in the wrong manner,” he said.

Dharmaguptaka Vinaya lineage

However it is said that the women who were ordained included 10 precept Theravada nuns from Sri Lanka and Nepal, as well as Western nuns following Tibetan Buddhism. A full dual-ordination was conducted in accordance with the Dharmagupta Vinaya tradition. In Vinaya terms, the women that were ordained became full-fledged bhikkhunis inheriting the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya lineage.

Meanwhile in a bid to seek justice for the Bikkhunis of this country, the Mahanayake of the Rangiri Dambulu chapter of the Siyam Nikaya, Most Venerable Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thera says he is ready to seek the assistance of the judiciary against the injustices done to the Bhikkhuni Sasana.
The Mahanayake said that the Bhudda Sasana Ministry has neglected the affairs of the Bhikkhunis.

““The Bhudda Sasana Commissioner has even imposed a ban on issuing National identity cards to them. The Bhikkhunis have been deprived of their right to be registered, and he has even refused to register the Bhikkhuni monasteries,” he said, adding that it is in total violation of their rights. .

He said that even though the sacred Bo Sapling at the Sri Maha Bhodiya was brought to this country by a Bhikkhuni, whereas today females have been banned from entering the Udamaluwa to pay homage. “Even the sacred tooth relics were brought to this country by a female, but they are not allowed to enter the chamber that the sacred tooth relic is housed,” he added.

Penalizing Bhikkhunis

Venerable Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thera accused the Commissioner of Buddhist Affairs of bearing the Brahmin mentality and thus penalizing these Bhikkhunis, whereas Lord Buddha was the one who gave females equal rights as males in society.

“There are around 427 Bikkhuni monasteries across the country, which cater to around 100 higher ordained Bikkhunis and around 1,200 Samaneras. These Bikkhunis are a vital component of the Sambuddha sasanya. Even Lord Buddha has preached that Sambuddha Sasanaya would be strengthened if only the bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, upasakas and upasikas were strengthened. Based on this principle the Rangiri Dambulla Sangha Sabhawa ordained 22 Bikkhunis at the Rangiri Dambulla Temple in 1998, reviving the Bikkhuni sect that had been considered redundant. However, it is sad that since then the Commissioner of Buddhist Affairs has failed to recognise these Bikkhunis as a legitimate sect in this country, and refuses to even register their monasteries. When asked why he refuses he says that since the Malwathu, Asgiriya, Amarapura and Ramanya Nikaya Most Venerable Maha Nayaka theros have not approved the registration of these nuns he cannot register them. This is totally unacceptable, as there are no owners to the Buddha Shasanaya,” he said.

The doctrine, the Teacher

He said that prior to the enlightenment of Lord Buddha when Venerable Ananda Thero had inquired as to who would take over as the head of Buddhism, the Buddha had told Venerable Ananda Thero that the doctrine he preached would act as the teacher.
“In the statement made by Lord Buddha it is clear that the Buddha Sasanaya has not been handed over to anyone. Hence it is not necessary to gain the permission of anyone but it is only pertinent to act according to the teachings of Lord Buddha. Even the establishment of the Bikkhuni order and the ordainment of these nuns were carried out according to the teachings and doctrine of Lord Buddha. Therefore if anyone opposes the existence of these Bikkhunis, it is certainly in violation of the very doctrine that was preached by Lord Buddha,” he said, adding that it would only contribute toward the deterioration of Buddhist values and principles.

Venerable Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thera further stated that refusal to accept these Bikkhunis is a total violation of their fundamental human rights. He said that the letter said to be signed by the four Most Venerable Mahanayaka Theros, which was produced by the Commissioner of Buddhist Affairs as the basis for the refusal to register these Bikkhunis, has no mention whatsoever about the Bikkhuni sect of Rangiri Dambulla.

“Instead it is in relation to some other sect in Kurunegala. Therefore, it is very unfortunate that the very ministry that has been set up for the progress and preservation of Buddhism according to chapter nine of the constitution acting this way. These government officials should act in a manner that preserves and protects Buddhism, and not act according to the whims and fancies of a handful,” he said.

Ministerial clarification

Responding to the allegations Secretary to the Buddha Sasana Ministry, M.K.B. Dissanayake said that his ministry has no issue with registering these Bhikkunis if the Mahanayakes of the relevant chapters would certify their applications. “We have no way of knowing if the Bhikkunis are who they say they are. For that matter even a monk has to have the certification by the relevant Mahanayakes in order to obtain the registration ID. Therefore it is not true that our ministry is refusing to register them, but if the recommendations are sent by the relevant Mahanayakes we will register them and issue the IDs,” he said.

The Bikkhunis however claim that the reason they seek the government registration was purely for administrative purposes, as without their monasteries obtaining the government registration they are not entitled to the financial allocations that would facilitate the educational requirements of the young Theranis in Bhikuni Sasana across the country.

Explaining their plight Venerable Oruthota Damayanthi Mehenin Wahansa of the Ratnamali Bikkhuni Aranya in Pahalayagoda, Ganemulla said that since its been around 15 years since the re-establishment of the Bikkhuni order in the country, and a great deal of work being done by them, it is saddening that these nuns are still not accepted or recognised by the government, which is simply being influenced by a handful of Mahanayaka theros.

“Due to our sect not being recognised by the government and funds not being allocated for the educational purposes of the therani’s, it is their education that is being affected, which is a violation of their basic rights,” she lamented.

According to Venerable Oruthota Damayanthi Mehenin Wahansa, these student nuns are unable to even sit for examinations without their Identity cards and also do not receive even text books from the government.

“Our student nuns get their text books required for their studies thanks to the temples in the area that have been kind and generous enough to share their books with our thereinis. Even examination papers are sent to us after the monks at these temples have written for the exam, and we then conduct the exam separately after them. Taking this aspect into consideration, it is a grave injustice to the student nuns in furthering their education,” she said. She said that although Bikkhunis have been in existence from Lord Buddha’s time, the government of Sri Lanka still refuses to accept them, based on the biased beliefs of a handful of chief monks.

“Even when we apply for our identity cards, our applications are rejected and returned. This situation has a negative impact on the entire existence of Bikkhunis in the country