Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 11, SPECIAL COMMEMORATIVE ISSUE
Ayya Tathaaloka bhikkhunī
Khemā of Great Wisdom
Uppalavāṇṇā of Great Spiritual Power
Pre-eminent Dhamma teacher
Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, the Buddha's step-mother and maternal aunt.
Nanda (Sundari Nanda), the Buddha's half-sister.
Above images of great bhikkhunīs from "the Eighty Great Disciples of Lord Buddha" from the 3 Gems website: http://3gems.org/articles/sangha/historical/eighty-great/1/
"The world’s earliest known woman international political and religious emissary, the 3rd century BCE Indian emperor Ashoka’s bhikkhunī daughter, Sanghamittā..." Photo: a relief mural depicting Sanghamittā bringing a branch of the Bodhi Tree to Sri Lanka, displayed at Sri Jemieson International Meditation Center, Samadi Mawatha, Ampitiya, Kandy, Sri Lanka; photo taken 9/18/2014 and contributed by SUSA member Jane McEwan.
At a particular point early on in his teaching, the Buddha stated his Sāsana or “Dispensation” 2 would be deficient if he did not have fully awakened bhikkhunī disciples. He then went on to affirm having more than 500 such fully awakened women disciples, roaring his “lion’s roar” as a successful teacher. 3 This is one of our founding teacher’s most excellent and memorable qualities.
And yet recently in conversation with a woman monastic life aspirant visiting our Awakening Forest Hermitage, Aranya Bodhi, she mentioned that although she had attended quite a few Mindfulness & Vipassana meditation retreats here in the U.S. over the years, and had listened to many Dhamma talks, she had never heard of the Buddha having any leading women disciples—not to mention bhikkhunī 4 —disciples. She had heard of the Buddha’s leading bhikkhu (male monastic) disciples Sāriputta and Mahā Moggalānna but never of their peers, the leading female disciples, Khemā of Great Wisdom and Uppalavāṇṇā of Great Spiritual Power. Nor had she heard of the pre-eminent Dhamma teacher, Dhammadinnā; nor of the Buddha’s own wife and sister 5 becoming outstanding bhikkhunīs in his Sangha.
Coming upon great women leaders of the ancient Buddhist Sangha in the Pāli Buddhist texts inspired Mabel Bode, one of the early, end-of-the-19th-century, outstanding women scholars of the Pali Text Society, to author “Women Leaders of the Buddhist Reformation.” 6 The stories of these great women have inspired and encouraged me as well—just as these recollections are rightly meant to do in Buddhism, as a salient part of the practice Sanghānusati: recollecting the worthy qualities of the treasure of the Sangha.
We are deeply fortunate that these stories, referred to but lost in the Indian Sanskrit traditions, 7 have been passed down to us in the Pāli texts of the Theravāda tradition, in what are some of the earliest recorded examples of awakened women’s religious poetry and teaching known to our world today. 8 This is one of the great and unique treasures of our Buddhist heritage—a tradition that also produced the world’s earliest known international woman political and religious emissary, the 3rd century BCE Indian emperor Ashoka’s bhikkhunī daughter, Sanghamittā, and the first known women's historian of the bhikkhunī authors of the Dipavaṁsa, the “Chronicle of the Island” or “Transmission of the Lamp.”
But at the time of Mabel Bode’s writing, the ancient and great Bhikkhunī Sangha that flourished in early Buddhism and for more than a thousand years—with changes in political and religious climates—had almost entirely died out or disappeared in all but East Asia. In its absence, in Tibetan Buddhism, monastic women have only been able to progress formally to the level of perpetual novices in the monastic Sangha. 9 While in Theravāda Buddhism—although in other ways a tradition aimed at preserving the Early Buddhist teachings and practices—only an unordained “lay nunhood” remained, one in which women had no formal, legal role or place in the monastic Sangha at all. A "Bhikkhunī Sangha" came to be seen as a heresy or very “wrong view,” according to the Early Buddhist teachings, developing out of the idea that women, having been born as women, could not realize the Path and fruit of the practice in Buddhism, not at least until they reincarnated as men. The strange and terrible idea and story even emerged (and still exists today), that the Buddha never wanted to have a women’s Sangha. A debilitating misogyny crept into texts, views and practices.
Fortunately, over time, there have been bright-minded and clear-eyed masters who did not buy into this distorted and disabling vision of what the Buddha taught or intended. And, even through hard times of little to no institutional support, women have heeded their strong internal callings, practiced the Buddha’s teaching, and their practice has born fruit. Realized women teachers and masters have continued to emerge, like stars in the sky at dawn. But this is not the depth, clarity and vision the Buddha himself set forth for his Sangha, which could be better compared to the brilliance of myriad stars filling the deep and clear autumn sky in the mountains.
In the sutta of his final days, 10 we find the Buddha explicitly remembering and stating his intention—from the very beginning directly after his great awakening before he even began teaching and to the end—to have a complete fourfold Sangha, including knowledgeable and experienced disciples capable of sharing the teaching and passing it on to others, both male and female, householders and monastics. However, according to our texts, the first three folds came first into existence. It was not until five years after the Buddha began teaching, following the death of his father, that his father’s second wife, the Buddha’s own foster mother and maternal aunt, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, then aged 80, set forth intent on the monastic life, requesting and founding the Bhikkhunī Sangha, thus fulfilling the Buddha’s founding intention to have a complete and balanced fourfold Community. 11
The word used for full ordination in Buddhist monastic life is upasampadā—“full acceptance” or “entry into full communion.” Those so accepted have full rights and responsibilities in the monastic community the Buddha founded. It is this form of ordination that the Buddha himself is unquestionably recorded as having offered and established for his female disciples who requested entering monastic life in his community 2600 years ago. 12
We are very fortunate to live at a time of great revival in recent centuries. After near decimation in many of the countries of Asia (including India, China, Vietnam, Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Tibet), 13 even very recently as in China, Buddhism has experienced or is experiencing a great re-emergence. The Buddha’s teaching, in its many forms and branches, is now available in a way unprecedented in our world, with a growing number of people in western countries and in the USA reaping the benefits. There is a revival and a worldwide spread of the Early Buddhist teachings, passed down in the Theravāda tradition and other Buddhist traditions. And there has been the beginning of a revival of the Sangha, including in the last three decades of this century, the reappearance of fully ordained women—with upasampadā—in the Theravāda and Tibetan traditions.
I cannot imagine myself how lucky I have been. Somehow, I had the good fortune to meet extremely knowledgable and excellent teachers, including my most venerable elder bhikkhunī mentor Myeong Seong Sunim, whose name means “Bright Star,” and my most venerable late bhikkhu preceptor, Ven. Dr. Havanpola Ratanasāra. My late preceptor took a truly groundbreaking role by offering the first Theravāda sāmaṇerī (novice) ordination in North America in 1988, and later in the same year, by supporting and serving as Bhikkhu Preceptor in the Theravāda-rite full ordination of an international assembly of female monastics from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Germany and USA, in partnership with Buddha’s Light International Foundation in Southern California.
Ten years later, from 1996-1998, a new and growing wave of women’s ordinations appeared in Theravāda Buddhism, leading to the revival of the Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha in its old homelands of South and Southeast Asia, as well as leading to its birth in the West—in the United States, Australia and Europe.
By 2005, in the USA, we saw the establishment of the first bhikkhunī support foundations like Dhammadharini, and then the Alliance for bhikkhunīs and Sakyadhita USA. At the same time, we began to see the first Theravāda bhikkhunī vihāras, hermitages and monasteries 14 appear in North America. With these, we’ve seen the number of emerging women monastic life aspirants also steeply rise. Bhikkhunī preceptors have been authorized and successive bhikkhunī ordinations performed. The call for knowledgeable, skilled and experienced bhikkhunī teachers is also on the rise. Our major challenge now is to develop the systems of support to enable those who are aspirants or newly ordained to train, so that they may be able to fulfill their own heart’s intentions in the Path; so that those who have the heart to teach, can become the luminary bhikkhunī teachers called for; and that there may be the support for those who are fledgling teachers to develop into master teachers, worthy of being called true refuges—like the “great trees” and “female lions” so praised and commended by the Buddha twenty six centuries ago.
To do so, we need to expunge the misogyny—the fear, aversion, hatred and ill will—from our traditional Buddhist communities, as an extremely important kind of self house cleaning. We have to recognize that these views, whether turned toward self or others, are fundamentally antithetical to the Buddha’s teaching and recommended practice. They are harmful and debilitating. Expunging misogyny, it is to our great benefit to turn towards helpful and enabling aspirations, attitudes and behaviors of mutual upliftment. The Buddha, in his early teaching, was known for his Sangha’s inclusiveness of all classes, castes, ethnicities, races and nationalities of people, and so too for gender. Aiming to support the very best opportunity for all to fully access and practice the teachings, to benefit and to fulfill their aspirations, and to share the teachings: this is the primary and fundamental purpose, in fact the noble purpose, of Buddhism itself. All of the Buddhist traditions, with all of the wisdom and skillful means available to us, are truly and rightly intended for nothing other than this.
In our new Buddhist communities in the USA, whether small or large, newer or gaining in years, a deep and proactive contemplation on interdependency may be essential for our survival and our flourishing in so many ways. The monastic and householder communities in Buddhism are originally and rightly part of a mutually interdependent and mutually uplifting whole. Supporting one another is an essential element of the paradigm of the Sangha as a jewel, treasure and refuge. Let us think of what it would take for our fledgling bhikkhunī renascence (a rebirth) to grow into a renaissance (a flourishing), and how we can enable this. A renaissance would mean seeing the Fourfold Community healed. Seeing Buddhism fully capacitated and enabled to itself enable, nurture and support the great light of many luminary awakened women teachers, both householders (upāsikās) and monastics (bhikkhunīs), as well as everything in between. 15 Not a predominance of women, changing from one imbalance to another; but a balance, in which we all appreciate, support, and nurture the best in each other as in ourselves—realizing our full potential and potency as awakening and awakened beings.
In the end here as in the beginning, we commend and deeply appreciate the Buddha’s most excellent and clear vision, manifest in this human life in the paradigms and stratagems of the Dhamma and the Sangha—a worthy vision and Path to strive for, to embody and to uphold.
Varo varaññū varado varāharo
Annuttaro Dhammavaraṃ adesayī —
Idampi Buddhe ratanaṃ paṇītaṃ,
Etena saccena suvatthi hotu.
The excellent one, the knower of the excellent,
giver of the excellent, bringer of the excellent;
Expounder of that incomparable, peerless Dhamma—
In the Buddha is this precious jewel,
Through this truth, may there be for us well-being.
- The Buddha, Ratana Sutta (Jewels Discourse)
1. My gratitude to Kathleen Chase O’Flynn for offering useful comments on an earlier draft of this article.
2. Sāsana is also translated as “Teaching” (although this is normally the translation of Dhamma), “Church,” “Institution” or “movement.”
3. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (MN 73, I 490-491)
4. A bhikkhunī is literally a female bhikkhu; while bhikkhu literally means “a person who lives on” bhik— “alms.”
5. The Buddha’s wife’s name was Yasodharā. In the Pāli texts she is also known as Bimbā, Rāhulāmātā—“Mother of Rahula” and Bhadda Kaccāna. His half-sister’s name was Sundarinandā—“Beautiful Joy”.
6. “Women Leaders of the Buddhist Reformation” by Mabel Bode, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1893)
7. The Sthāvirīgāthā, the Sanskrit version of the Therīgāthā or “Verses of the Women Elders” is referenced in texts, but has been lost to posterity.
8. See: Alice Collett’s Women in Early Indian Buddhism and Lives of Early Buddhist Nuns; Wendy Garling’s new Stars at Dawn; Susan Murcott’s First Buddhist Women; Charles Hallisley’s new translation of the Therigatha; and “Women’s Contributions to Buddhism: Selected Perspectives,” Sati Journal: the Journal of the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies, Vol. 2 (2014).
9. Since 1987, the year of the founding of Sakyadhita International Buddhist Women’s Association, His Holiness the Dalia Lama has given his blessing and permission to his female monastic students in the Tibetan tradition to go for full bhikṣuṇī ordination to countries that have preserved the tradition such as Taiwan or Korea. Twenty years later in 2007, he called for the first Global Congress on Buddhist Women, and now 30 years later, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa is taking steps to reestablish the tradition of full ordination for women in the Tibetan Mulasarvāstivāda tradition (“Gyalwang Karmapa Makes Historic Announcement on Restoring Nuns’ Ordination”).
10 The Long Discourses of the Buddha, “Mahāparinibbāna Sutta” DN 16 (PTS: DN ii 72), section 18: https://suttacentral.net/en/dn16.
11 See “The Other First Bhikkhuni,” Ch 17 of Bhikkhu Sujato’s White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes.
12 The dating of the 2600th Anniversary of the Bhikkhunī Sangha and the establishment of the Fourfold Community of the Buddha between the September full moons of 2016 and 2017 is in accordance with the Theravāda Buddhist calendar dates for the Buddha’s Parinibbāna. The foundation of the Bhikkhuni Sangha five years after the Buddha first began to teach appears in the canonical Pali texts in the Kuddhaka Nikaya “Theri Apadana” text. The Sri Lanka Theravada Buddhist Sangha remembers and commemorates the founding of the Bhikkhunī Sāsana on the day of the September full moon, known as Binara Poya in the Sinhala language.
13 One exception would be Japan, where Buddhism has existed for more than a millennium, but has lost its monastic bhikkhu and bhikkhunī Sangha, and is experiencing a steep decline.
14 In example: Carolina Buddhist Vihara, Dhammadharini Monastery and Aranya Bodhi Hermitage, Mahapajapati Monastery, Embracing Simplicity Hermitage, Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery, Awakening Truth, Karuna Buddhist Vihara
15 The Early Buddhist texts o.f the Tipiṭaka depict various forms of renunciate practice within the household life, as well as various stages of monastic practice; not a strict polarity of monastic and lay householder.
Venerable Tathaaloka Theri is the first Western woman to be designated as Theravadan Bhikkhunī Preceptor (Pavattini/Upajjhaya), and she has contributed to the going forth and full ordination of women as bhikkhunīs in the USA, Australia, India and Thailand. She also serves as a Senior Monastic Advisor to the Dhammadharini Support Foundation, the Alliance of Bhikkhunīs and Sakyadhita USA.
Ven Tathaloka currently as the in-residence sanghatheri of Dhammadharini Monastery at the western foot of Sonoma Mountain in Penngrove and the Aranya Bodhi Hermitage on the Sonoma Coast in Northern California, where she provides Dhamma and meditation teaching and guidance and monastic mentorship in conjunction with hermitage prioress and co-teacher Ven Sobhana Theri and monastery co-manager and assisting teacher Ven Suvijjana Bhikkhunī. She also teaches where invited around the greater San Francisco Bay Area, in other states, and internationally.
Read her complete bio on the Dhammadharini website.