Contribution an Motivation of the Mahayana and Theravada Bhikkhunis and Upasika in Malaysia

by Samaneri Sumangala

This article is written by Samaneri Sumangala in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.

Introduction

Gotama Buddha is an exemplary Teacher (AN3.65), the shower of the way (MN107) and a spiritual friend (SN45.2). In order to ensure that the Buddha’s teaching and the Buddha sāsana would spread far and wide and thrive for a long time, the Buddha firmly established the Four-fold Sańgha: bhikkhu, bhikkhuni, upasaka and upasika – to provide equal and conducive platform for the attainment and propagation of the Buddha-Dharma that leads to happiness here and now, hereafter and the ultimate bliss of Nibbana. After the Buddha’s Parinibbana, the Dhamma-Vinaya is taken as the Teacher.

It was the Buddha who showed the world that the Truth – the Dhamma/ Nibbana goes beyond caste, race, religion, tradition, custom, beliefs, region, society, status, age and gender. The establishment of the bhikkhuni sasana by the Buddha, with the remarkable courage of the first bhikkhuni and the first group of five hundred bhikkhunis lead by Mahapajapati have shattered the belief of the lower status, incapability and discrimination against women. Indeed, the Buddha is an incomparable teacher of gods and human.

Development of Buddhasasana and Dhamma Education in Malaysia over the Last Few Decades

Buddhism was re-introduced to Malaysia by the Chinese immigrants, particularly during the British rule in the late 19th century[1]. The Dhamma education which is Buddhistic only evolved in the 1950’s[2] with the arrival of some outstanding missionary monks[3] and nuns to Malaysia. Mahayana Buddhism as practiced by Chinese monks and nuns spread mostly to the Chinese speaking community. Theravada Buddhism, made significant inroads in the English educated Buddhist community e.g. Chinese, Sri Lankan, and also practice by the Siamese and Burmese.

Immigrant monks and nuns subsequently inspired some local laity who later became local bhikkhus and bhikkunis and became Buddhist leaders, Dhamma teachers and organizers. The 2010 census (Malaysia Statistical Department) showed that of the total population of 28 million people in Malaysia, about 5.4 million were Buddhists, mostly nominal Buddhist. However, the Malaysian Buddhist Association registered around 3,000 ordained bhikkhus and bhikkhunis – Mahayana and Theravada and there is a need to groom more monastics to teach and serve the Buddhists at large.

Contributions of Bhikkhunis and Female Laity in Malaysia and their Motivation

Miracles of Education – Preservation of Buddha Dhamma

1930 - Ven Fung Lian came from Xie Men, China to propagate Buddhism in Penang

1930 – Ven Fung Lian came from Xie Men, China to propagate Buddhism in Penang

As early as 1935, one prominent Mahayana nun, Bhikkhuni Fong Lian[4]  founded the Phor Tay (Bodhi) Buddhist Institute in Penang with the noble objectives of disseminating Buddhism through education and orphanage services.  Unfortunately she passed away in 1937, at the age of 36.

Her legacy is continued by her female disciples and supporters e.g. Bhikkhuni Kuan Chung and female laity such as Ong Dong Su, Chan Sau Yeen, Pitt Chin Hui, Cheah Tat Wan and many others. Their strong determination, dedication and diligence manifested in the establishment of the Phor Tay Buddhist Institute in 1940, Phor Tay Chinese Primary School in 1945 and Phor Tay Secondary School in 1954 – to provide new buildings and facilities for education and to mold better Buddhists.

Later Chan Sau Yeen[5] (1969-1984), supported by Malaysian Buddhist Association, became the co-founder, deputy principal and lecturer of Malaysian Buddhist Institute (MBI). Currently this Institute offers Certificate in Buddhism (Buddhist studies in Chinese and Basic Organizational Skills) and is recognized by the Malaysian Education Ministry, Sri Lanka, China and Hong Kong for further studies[6].

ShiJiZunPresently, Venerable Ji Zun (1991- ), a former student of MBI, is the Head of Education Administrator and MBI Correspondence Course. Together with other ex-graduates, they continued to produce Buddhist leaders, teachers, organizers and volunteers to help the community at large. More than 50 graduates became monks and nuns. Presently, most Mahayana abbesses in Malaysian temples received their education at the MBI.[7] From 1990s onwards some MBI students furthered their studies in Taiwan, became ordained and remained there to serve the international Buddhist community. Fo Guang Shan and Dharma Drum actively recruited Malaysian women potentials[8].

 

Venerable Sing Kan (1957 – )

VenSingKan2At the age of 25, Venerable became a nun at Sin Fook Tong temple, Kuala Lumpur under the guidance of her great grand master Sin Pooi and teacher Venerable Ku Chung. She took her higher ordination as a bhikkhuni in Penang in 1987 under the preceptorship of Master Tai Sheng from Taiwan.

Spiritual Training

Ven studied Buddhism under Uncle Fam and the late Ven Dr. K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Nayaka Thera in Buddhist Mahavihara in 1993. She later taught Buddhism in its Sunday school (BISDS) for 2 years.

In 1996 she took the Diploma in Buddhism (BAPU program) for 1 year and in 1997-1999, Diploma in Buddhism at the Kelaniya University, Sri Lanka. She then completed a degree course in Buddhism organised by International Buddhist College in 2001-2004 and became the Vice Principal and teacher of Siang Lin Chiao Yuen kindergarten, Malacca.

SamPohThong

Role as an Abbess

In 2007, Venerable gave up her aspiration to be an academic in Buddhist studies to become the abbess of Sam Poh Thong in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur. She is active in propagating Buddhist education and meditation practice especially with the young. She started the ‘Smart Readership Programme’ to improve the standard of English of the under-privileged children in the neighbourhood. She started with twenty students, providing them with free breakfast and lunch every Sunday but the number has now grown to more than a hundred. Presently, Ven is expanding the temple to meet the needs of increasing number of students and devotees.

Prior to the formation of Gotami Vihara, Ven Sing Kan had kindly provided accommodation to our local or visiting Theravada nuns. We are most grateful to her for her kind support.

Mission in Inter-faith Understanding

Ven is actively involved in interfaith discussions and dialogue to promote peace and harmony in a multi-racial and multi-religious society. She is one of the Vice Presidents of the Malaysian Consultative Committee of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST). She travels extensively to network with other Buddhist societies in the propagation of Buddhism. She was in the Netherlands recently to assist the families of MH17 tragedy.

VenChangHengCompassion in Action

Venerable Chang Heng

A young orphan, Venerable Chang Heng[9] came in contact with Buddhism at Sau Seng Lum (SSL) Petaling Jaya, Selangor. Ordained at the age of 18, she went to Taiwan to further her studies in Buddhism. In 1978 she became the 3rd abbess of SSL[10]. Under her able leadership with the motto “May human beings be free from suffering and may the world be peaceful”, SSL diversified from a Buddhist temple to a compassionate community and extended its services to helping the less unfortunate in the areas of healthcare, culture and education.

She set up the Petaling Jaya SSL Haemodialysis Center (1994) to provide affordable and quality dialysis services to poor kidney patients of all creeds. Starting with 6 units of dialysis machines and 4 patients, the center now has 100 units and over 200 patients. In 2003, SSL Haemodialysis Center was one of the first NGOs to be awarded the ISO 900:2000 Quality Management System and Healthmark Certification. The SSL Haemodialysis Center later became the Dialysis and Stroke Rehabilitation Center. In 2004 its health services expanded to a new center at SSL Puchong. The innovative design of the 500 Arahat images in this new center is recorded in the Malaysia Book of Records and has become a tourist destination. Ven Chang Heng teaches Buddhism as “life education for the family and community.”

Sau Seng Lum Dialysis and Stroke Rehabilitation Centre in Puchong

Sau Seng Lum Dialysis and Stroke Rehabilitation Centre in Puchong

Recognition

In 2001, Ven Chang Heng was awarded the 2001 Outstanding Young Malaysian Award for Humanitarian and Volunteer Service by the International Junior Chamber Association Malaysia[11]. In 2007, she received the prestigious Outstanding Women in Buddhism Awards Committee by the United Nations in Bangkok for her contribution to Buddhism and the community. In 2008, in recognition of Ven Chang Heng’s selfless and devoted service, the Malaysian Medical Association honored her with the 2008 Healthcare Service Award for 15 years of selfless and devoted service to the local and international communities.

Bridging Individual to Group, Local to International

Venerable Jue Cheng 

VenJueChengVenerable Jue Cheng was born in Johor in 1960. In 1989 she left her nursery school and her career as a teacher to study at Fo Guang Shan Tsung Lin University.  In 1990, she suddenly awakened while contemplating human suffering during her monastic training in Fo Guang Shan (FGS). This experience led her to ordain as a bhikkhuni, to “purify her mind.” In 2007, she came back to Malaysia after 15 years of teaching humanistic Buddhism in Brazil where she became known as “the sincere monk – Rev. Sinceridade.”

Despite being held at gunpoint no less than five times, she has this thought in her mind – “I may not be able to change you (the mafias) but I shall change the mind of your children.”  With her bravery, determination, nurturing skills and kindness, she helped built a FGS temple (Zu Lai) and a Buddhist community in Brazil. In 2003, she was awarded the Civilian Honor by Cotia City, Brazil. She also served as an abbess in FGS Argentina.

Venerable is currently, the Chief Abbess of FSG Malaysia and Singapore, principal of Dong Zen Institute of Buddhist Studies and CEO of Fo Guang Publications. She oversees more than fifteen Chapters of FGS in Malaysia and Singapore, including six foreign and twenty-four Malaysian nuns who teach Buddhism. Many Malaysian nuns stay at FGS headquarters in Taiwan and some have become abbesses of FGS temples in countries around the world.

She recalled her Master’s words: “Malaysians are the treasury of talents and the monastic are of good use”. Ven Jue Cheng is keen to propagate Dharma through cultural and educational activities – ensuring that Buddhism can be developed into a systematic, modern, humanized, progressive and in an international environment to promote the concepts of oneness and co-existence, joy and harmony, respect, tolerance, peace and equality. This is to educate not only the Buddhists but also multi-cultural society, religion and race. She said when “the robe is put on, it is genderless. Work is life when one serves selflessly for the wellbeing and happiness of all.”

 

Maintaining the Buddha’s Early Teaching and Mind Training

Unlike the Mahayana, Theravada temples and centers in Malaysia have yet to have Theravada bhikkhuni teachers to lead the devotees. Only around late 1980s, some female Buddhists mostly meditators, went forth as “shaven ones with pink, white or brown robe” and were given the name as sayalay or silasin (Myanmar), maechee (Thailand) or dasa sil mata (Sri Lanka) but the Theravada ordination as samaneri (a novice) and bhikkhuni according to the Buddha’s Four-fold Sangha were not available .

However, in the beginning of 21st century, with the understanding that bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are ordained by the vinaya, there are Malaysian women who have received proper ordination in the Theravada and/or Dharmaguptaka vinaya lineage as samaneris and bhikkhunis.

VenHasapanna3Earliest Theravada Bhikkhuni from Malaysia

Venerable Hasapanna

Venerable Hasapanna was born in 1960, and is from Ipoh. She was ordained as a trainee nun (Anagarika) for 2 years and a ten precept nun for 4 years following the Theravada tradition. In 2009, she was one of the earliest Malaysians to take the full-pledge ordination as a Theravada Bhikkhuni (with Ayya Tathaaloka as Pavattini) for 2 years at Dhammasara Buddhist Nuns Monastery, Western Australia.

She is currently the Co-Abbess of Dhammasara Nuns Monastery and also the Assistant Spiritual Director of Buddhist Society of WA. Since then the numbers of bhikkhuni in Dhammasara is growing gradually, from three to seven and with four samaneris. Dhammasara is planning an expansion of their residential capacity and welcoming requests from women all over the world who would like to walk the path as nuns.

Venerable Hasapanna explains about the stages of becoming a Theravada nun. This process takes years of careful spiritual development and practice. Candidate will go through three months observation or acclamation as lay person – with duties and responsibilities living, practicing and working together with the nuns.

If she is found to be suitable, she will be committed to another stage of development as anagarika – while practicing, be of service and stay in for one year. When she feels more adapted and committed as an anagarika, she can then request for novice / samaneri ordination. As a samaneri, she will go through training for another two years. Then she may request for bhikkhuni ordination as a full-pledge nun.

These stages of development entail the good practice of the candidate and the guidance and evaluation of their preceptor teacher and the community of senior nuns. After receiving the training, the nuns’ role are to give Dhamma talks, sutta study, meditation and conduct retreats to inspire others to develop virtues and a healthy and happy life.

Venerable Hasapanna travels locally and oversea e.g. Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong to give Dhamma talks and inspire people to walk the path. This year, with the support of some Buddhist societies she will be conducting one of the earliest Theravada temporary samaneri novitiate program in Malaysia to inspire potential candidates.

The First Stupa – Connecting the three traditions

VenDhammikaVenerable Dhammika

Venerable Dhammika was attracted to Buddhism through meditation and has been organizing and leading Dhamma activities in the Kuching Buddhist Society (KBS) of Sarawak (East Malaysia) since 1994. In Venerable Dhammika’s circle, it is often said that Theravada is like the roots of the tree, Mahayana the branches and Vajrayana the leaves”.  She often smiles as she says, “I would rather be the string that ties all the beads of a mala together.”

In 2004, the truth of aging, sickness and death dawn on her as her teacher, the late Ven K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera Nayaka aged and became physically weak. That awakening gave her the confidence to carry on her teacher’s mission to spread Dhamma and to build a Theravada Buddhist center and a first stupa in Sarawak. With her sincere intention, within a short time the stupa and the Kuching Dhamma Vijaya Buddhist Center came into being in 2008. She took her bhikkhuni ordination following the Dharmaguptaka lineage in 2012. She is the Founder and Chairman of Dhamma Vijaya Foundation and President of Kuching Dhamma Vijaya Buddhist Association. She sees a good leader or teacher as an influential role model for the development of the Buddha Dhamma. She believes that “if one has a will, there is always a way.”

KDVStupa

The Mind Training

SayalaySusilaSayalay Susīlā

Sayalay Susīlā was born in Pahang, Malaysia, in 1963 and in 1991, ordained as a Theravada Buddhist nun in the Burmese tradition at the age of 28, in Malaysia. Sayalay began developing her keen interest in insight meditation while at the University of Science Malaysia, where she obtained a degree in mass communications in 1988.

After graduation, Sayalay worked as a high school teacher for a year and a half. But disenchanted with worldly matters and desiring to be dedicated to the practice more than ever, she resigned her post to take up meditation full time. Six months after her ordination in 1991, she went to Panditarama Monastery in Myanmar, where she practiced intensively for nearly three years under the guidance of the famous meditation master Venerable U Pandita Sayadaw.

In 1994, wishing to cultivate concentration meditation, Sayalay moved to Pa Auk Forest Monastery in Myanmar. She placed herself under the guidance of renowned monk, Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw and remained in the forest for 14 years. In addition to an assiduous program of meditation, she also learned the Abhidhamma, ancient discourses, and the Pāli language from Pak Auk Sayadaw. Meanwhile, she became his English-to-Chinese interpreter in Myanmar and abroad.

During her travels in Myanmar, she also practiced different meditation methods, such as those taught by Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw, Mogok Sayadaw, and Sayagyi U Ba Khin. As a result Sayalay has become an unusually accomplished teacher, able to present the subtleties of the Buddha’s teachings in a simple and direct way. In particular, she presents the most profound division of the teaching, the Abhidhamma, in a lucid manner grounded not in pedantic philosophy, but in actual meditation experience.

Sayalay has traveled extensively as a meditation and Dhamma teacher, presenting the Abhidhamma and Sutta expositions in formal lectures and talks, and has conducted meditation retreats throughout the U.S., Canada, Australia, Taiwan, Latvia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. She speaks fluent Chinese, English, Burmese, Hokkien and Malay. Her publications include Unravelling the Mystery of Mind and Body through Abhidhamma (second edition), published in both English and Chinese, Mindfulness of Breathing (English), The Practical Manual of Abhidhamma  (Chinese), and The Nine Virtues of the Buddha (Chinese).

Susilabool

 

How to Encouraged more Women to Become Dedicated Theravada Bhikkhuni and Dhamma Teachers

  1. Be understanding, heedful and sincere in your Aspiration and Mission!
  2.  Encourage and Provide Opportunity to the Potentials e.g. Committed Bhikkhuni Training Program or Speaker Training Program.
  3. Provide and Support a Center for the community of Bhikkhuni, samaneri and upasika to dwell, learn, practice, realise and share.
  4. The training is not just to become a teacher but as a Practitioner, Model, Coach, Facilitator, Counselor and Friend
  5. Set up an Educational Fund as one of the priorities for Bhikkhuni Teacher Development.

Conclusion

Although the development of Buddhism in Malaysia is still quite young (about 60 years), the good work of charismatic immigrant teachers (monks and nuns) have led local Buddhist, individually and collectively, to continue promoting peace and wisdom through “the teaching of the Buddha.” Female Buddhist nuns and lay teachers have shouldered many responsibilities – as founders, organizers, fund-raisers, leaders, teachers, CEOs, administrators, counsellors, workers and practitioners – with great zeal and effort, displaying capability and endurance. They have done great work in spreading Buddhism from the temple to the communities. These bhikkhunis and female laities inspire others by embodying the Buddha’s virtues.

The continued growth of Buddhism depends on nurturing the potential of all human beings, lay or ordained – to bring forth the teaching of the Buddha and uphold and support the Fourfold Sangha, and work for the well being of the world. This will set a new milestone in the development of Buddhism in Malaysia.

Writen by Samaneri Sumangala

Spiritual Advisor, Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia

Notes:

[1]    Prof. Dr. M. Kamal Hassan & Dr. Ghazali bin Basri (Vol. Ed.). Religions and Beliefs. 2005. Archipelago Press,  Malaysian.  P 62.

[2]    The Buddha’s word. Chief’s 75 felicitation.

[3]    Religions and Beliefs, p.68.

[4]    Seet Lee Terk. Buddhist Nuns in Malaysia, p122-128.  and http://www.PhorTay.org and personal interview with Ms. Cheah Tat Wan on 5th Aug 2009.

[5]    Interview with Ms. Cheah Tat Wan, Living Testimony Aug 09 and MBI Historical Record in Chinese.

[6]    Seet Lee Terk. P 124.

[7]    Seet Lee Terk. p123.

[8]    Interview with Fo Guang Shan Abbess, Rev. Jue Cheng Living Testimony Jul 09. Seet Lee Terk. p123.

[9]    www. Sau Seng Lum Buddhist Temple & 500 Arahats. Google: Sau Seng Lum Haemodylasis Center.  Also see Seet Lee Terk. p125.

[10]  She received the abbesseship from Rev. Ji Xian, the 2nd abbess. The temple is 107 years old.

[11]  www. Sau Seng Lum. And Seet Lee Terk. p125.

Thailand – Venerable Ta Tao Fa Tzu (1908 – 2005) – Pioneers in Dhamma Propagation

by Barbara Yen

This article is written by Barbara Yen in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.

Thailand – Venerable Ta Tao Fa Tzu (1908 – 2005) – Pioneers in Dhamma Propagation

VenTaTaoFaTzuVenerable Ta Tao Fa Tzu was the first woman from Thailand to be ordained as a bhikkhuni under the Mahayana tradition in Taiwan in 1971. Also known as Ven Voramai Kabilsingh, she receive the Eight Precepts from Pra Prommuni, a member of the Supreme Council of Elders and Vice Abbot of Wat Bavornnives, the royal residence since Rama IV.

Ven subsequently wore light yellow robes instead of white. An inquisition was held by the Council of Elders on her action. Her master ended the inquisition by asking if that was the colour of the monks’ robes and if it was not, and also she was not impersonating the monks, they should not see any harm in it.

The Early Years

In 1946, she married Korkiat Shatsena, a Member of Parliament and representative of the people in a southern province. She sat in Parliament as a journalist and was the only reporter trusted by the Muslims to do fact finding for the government during the crisis in the south. She submitted a twelve point proposal to the government to resolve the crisis and now, fifty years later, when the problem is still not resolved, her paper was republished.

Ordination – Turning her Home into a Temple

Her daughter, Ven Dhammananda (Chatsumarn) was ten years old when she became a nun. Rather than leaving home, Ven Voramai turned her home into her temple. Many nuns joined her and they became self supporting by starting a stone factory.

Songdhammakalyani Monastery

SongdhammakalyaniShe then built Songdhammakalyani Monastery and it was the first temple built by women for women, complete with Uposatha Hall and Sima boundary and therefore ready for ordination. The land in Nakhon Pathom, just outside Bangkok, was purchased from H.M. Indrasakdisaci, Queen of King Rama IV in 1960.

“When my mother became interested in Buddhism, she realised that in the Buddha’s time, He gave ordination to women. Why were women never ordained in our country?” recalled Ven Dhammananda.

Propagation of the Buddha Sasana

Ven Voramai propagated Buddhism for 32 years through a monthly Buddhist magazine, ‘Vipassana Banthernsarn.’ She was involved in social welfare, providing food and clothing for the poor and needy. She sponsored the ordination of more than a hundred monks throughout the country and also offered more than a hundred Buddha images to various village temples in remote areas.

Power of Healing

Ven Voramai was also well known for her healing abilities which she learnt from her Master. She could also see departed beings, many of whom were suffering, mostly due to the war and she helped them to forgive and to gain better rebirths.

Ven could see that women were the foundation that had contributed and strengthened Buddhism in Thailand. They have kept Buddhism going because it was actually women who fed the monks and in many cases, were their teachers too.

Ven Voramai was a mother, role model and an inspiration to Ven Dhammananda who followed her foot-steps to become the first bhikkhuni under the Theravada tradition. Once when Ven Dhammananda went on an alms round, an elderly man remarked with tears in his eyes, “I never dreamt that the Bhikkhuni Order can one day become a reality in Thailand!”

Ven Voramai passed away at a ripe old age of 95 years in 2003, one year after she saw her daughter ordained as a bhikkhuni.

Written by

Barbara Yen

President, Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia

 

Thailand – Mae Chee Kaew (1901-1991), a Reputed Female Arahant in Modern Times

by Barbara Yen

This article is written by Barbara Yen in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.

Thailand – Mae Chee Kaew (1901-1991), a reputed female arahant in modern times

VenMaecheeKaewThis is an inspiring story of the trials and tribulations of a simple village woman from a pious family in Baan Huay Sai in northeast Thailand. She is the youngest of 5 children, all of whom had no formal education. Her mother passed away when she was five years old.

At the age of 17, she was compelled to marry. She did not have a happy marriage as her husband became unfaithful to her. Unable to have children, they adopted a daughter from a relative.

She was weary of the suffering of life and each year, she pleaded without success for her husband’s permission to allow her to join a three month meditation retreat. It was only after her uncle’s intervention, that her husband relented. After her first taste of temporary renunciation, Maechee Kaew decided to pursue her life-long path for enlightenment.

Bliss of Going Forth

At the age of 37, after 20 years of marriage, her husband consented to a divorce after she agreed to relinquish all her property to him. She also arranged for the care of her daughter before she renounced. The challenges she faced of being a female renunciant are evident here.

Her Meditation Experience

Mae Chee Kaew was very fortunate to have learnt meditation from great meditation masters like Ajahn Sao in 1914 and Ajahn Mun in 1917 when they came to stay near her village. The methods and techniques they taught her was the repetition of the word ‘buddho’ to enter into Samadhi. After that she was advised to turn inwards to investigate her mind, to remove the layers and layers of defilements until what was left was the pure mind.

Ajahn Mun could see that she possessed uncommon psychic abilities and had great spiritual potential. Even as a beginner, her mind easily went into deep absorption for many hours. Ajahn Mun, himself an arahant and with psychic powers, could see that she sometimes experienced frightening episodes in her meditation. He would request to see her the next morning to report to him so that he could guide her.

When she knew that Ajahn Mun decided to stay on for his three months rains retreat, Mae Chee Kaew donated twenty acres of her land to build a monastery, Wat Nong Nong for him and his disciples to stay. After the retreat, before Ajahn Mun left, he requested her to be his disciple as he saw her potential for arahanthood. She was 16 years old then and her father did not give consent. Ajahn Mun then advised her to stop meditating, as without a teacher the amazing capacities of her mind might cause her more trouble than realisation. He asked her to wait for another master to arrive.

After her renunciation, Mae Chee Kaew learnt meditation under various bhikkhus and she was given a 20 acre land to build her monastery.

Disciple of Ajahn Maha Boowa

MaecheeKaew2In 1951, Ajahn Maha Boowa arrived into her village and became her master. Ajahn Maha Boowa who was an arahant, also saw her potential for enlightenment, but also saw the danger of her being distracted by the external phenomena and remained attached to them, therefore unable to progress. He advised her to turn her energy inwards to investigate the nature of her mind and body.

When she experienced bright explosive lights and a feeling of total emptiness, she mistook it as Nirvana. She did not believe her master’s advise that there was still an element of self and subtle defilement. When all explanations and advice failed, Ajahn Boowa demanded her to leave.

Attainment of Arahantship

Realising her folly and her stubbornness, she apologized to her master and then went into long, silent retreat. She practiced with diligence, taking very little sleep and on some days, went without food. She first identified the falsity of forms, then thought, and the steps of breaking down the self. She finally experienced a supreme radiance and investigated it until she reached the final goal.

Like the experience of the Buddha and Ajahn Maha Boowa after their attainment, Mae Chee Kaew recalled her past lives and reflected on the impossibility of teaching others on how to attain the same achievement. Yet quickly, she realised that if she could attain liberation, others could too.

She went on to motivate the nuns in her monastery. She was requested by Ajahn Maha Boowa to teach his mother in his hometown which she did for 14 years, in gratitude to her Master, before she returned to her Monastery.

Unusual Psychic Powers

When Mae Chee Kaew was 7 years of age, she already experienced unusual psychic abilities of communication with unseen beings – celestial deities, nagas, animals and hungry ghost of Buddhist cosmology. She was often invited to visit them in the different heavenly and hell realms. She could even see the past lives of these beings. Her father discouraged her from talking about these phenomenon.

As an adult, while meditating, she had a few episodes of animals which complained to her as they were brutally killed by farmers. Once a wild boar told her to be compassionate and eat its meat so that it could be reborn as a human being. The night before, a farmer name Dun, who had killed it, would offer them her meat the next morning, which he did.

Mae Chee Kaew had skills in predicting events, mind read and some healing abilities. During a drought season, she was able to lead her monastic community to hidden water sources which had come into her vision one day while meditating.

She surprised her master Ajahn Boowa who was living a few kilometers away from the nuns, by knowing through a chilling sensation, when he was leaving the vicinity. His entourage would wander into another jungle for the next few months. She knew exactly when they return, by feeling a warm sensation and would ask the nuns to prepare alms food to offer him and his disciples the next morning. It was a few kilometers walk to their camp.

Once when she and her nuns were meditating in a cave, a naga (mythical dragon) threatened to harm them if they did not leave. She reasoned with it after which it left them alone.

(I have seen photographs of two nagas captured by an Australian bhikkhu one early morning, on the banks of the River Ganges)

 Mandapa or the Trirattanusorn Stupa, which also functions as a museum and contains Mae Chee Kaew’s relics

Mandapa or the Trirattanusorn Stupa, which also functions as a museum and contains Mae Chee Kaew’s relics

Death of an Arahant

In 1977, she was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis, diabetes and cancer but she survived till 1991. At her death, upon cremation, her bones turn into relics of different colours and in the shape of pearls and crystals. It was the final proof of her highest spiritual attainments, arahantship.

Ajahn Maha Boowa, at her eulogy, declared that there was no need for any funeral chanting because as an Arahant, there was nothing more they could add for her. He also said that whether we were man or woman, we were equally capable of attaining enlightenment, no matter what lineage or tradition we were practising, so do it well. He had a stupa erected in her memory.

Conclusion

Mae Chee Kaew left a legacy to inspire the future generations. She had proven that attaining Arahantship was not impossible, for both women and men, even in modern times. So we should not underestimate the power of our spiritual potential and need to aspire and strive hard.

“If you neglect to cultivate your inherent mindfulness and wisdom, striving only half-heartedly, the obstacles in your path will multiply until they block all sight of the way, leaving the end of the road forever in darkness.”

~~ Mae Chee Kaew ~~

MaecheeKaewRelics

Mae Chee Kaew’s relics

 

Written by

Barbara Yen

President, Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia

References

Bhikkhu Sīlaratano, Mae Chee Kaew: Her Journey to Spiritual Awakening and Enlightenment, A forest Dhamma Publication, 2009. (The author, an American, is one of Ajahn Maha Boowa’s disciples).

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15830835-mae-chee-kaew 

http://wanderingdhamma.wordpress.com/2009/12/18/book-review-mae-chee-kaew-her-journey-to-spiritual-awakening-enlightenment/

http://buddha-and-me.blogspot.com/2011/01/mae-chee-kaew-female-arahant-in-modern.html

Written by

Barbara Yen

President, Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia

 

Vietnam – Ven Su Ba Thich Nu Dieu Khong (1905-1997): Leadership and Activism in Nationalism and Sangha Building

by Barbara Yen

This article is written by Barbara Yen in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.

Vietnam – Ven Su Ba Thich Nu Dieu Khong (1905-1997): Leadership and Activism in Nationalism and Sangha Building

Ven Dieu Khong was born Ho Thi Hanh and from a noble family, her father being a well-known high ranking official of the Nguyen Dynasty. She led a very simple, humble and respectful life and had the heart of immense compassion, generosity and tolerance to all sentient beings.

She was educated under the influence of both Eastern and Western cultures and read widely. Her father wanted her to study abroad, but she declined. Her aspiration was to strengthen the eastern tradition and to empower women in her homeland. She found family life not appropriate for herself, and had asked her parents many times without success for permission to become a nun.

Service to the Community
In 1926 Ven Dieu Khong founded the Women Workers Union and started a shop which became famous for promoting domestic products. She also started the Lac Thien Association to help the women and the poor and later it was involved in the anti-colonial movement.

She had resisted marriage but in 1928, agreed to marry an ailing, elderly widow with six children. After their son was born, her husband passed away. She raised the children and was still able to devote herself to Buddhist services. In 1932 she became a novice nun under Ven Thich Giac Tien, Abbot of Truc Lam Temple and in 1944 she became a bhikkhuni.

Dhammaduta Work
Ven Dieu Khong helped found the Association of An Nam Buddhist Association and the United Buddhist Church. In 1960, she assisted in founding the Van Hanh University, the first Buddhist university in South Vietnam.

She also established many temples, convents for nuns in Central and South Vietnam and built Buddhist schools and orphanages. She was an ordination master and contributed greatly in the Buddhist Revival and Reformation Movement.

Ven contributed articles and poems to Buddhist magazines and journals, some of which was to educate women. She was one of the key founders of Lien Hoa Publishing House in 1952 and Lien Hoa Buddhist Monthly Magazine. The magazine was the longest running in Vietnam. Being fluent in French and Mandarin, she translated treatises by Nagarjuna and others into Vietnamese.

Buddhist and Nationalistic Movement
During the French rule, Ven Dieu Khong campaigned for the freedom and equality of religion and protected Buddhism with wisdom and courage. Many monastics were imprisoned. She faced the dictatorial Ngo Dinh Diem regime by participating in petitions, demonstrations and hunger strikes and secretly distributed leaflets to the people not to give up hope.

Ven was the first to volunteer for self-immolation but was objected by the senior monastics as she was young and had great potential in spreading the Buddha Dhamma. They decided on Ven Thich Quang Duc instead. She played an important role in the unification of North and South Vietnam and received many awards.

In 1978 after a serious illness, her heart stopped, and nuns and monks were chanting for her. One nun started to cry and Ven suddenly woke up! She recovered and continued her “Bodhisattva heart’s” work for another 19 years.

Translation Work
At age 80, Ven Dieu Khong translated the hundred volumes of Dahzi Du Lun. Upon completion in 1997, she passed away at the age of 93, after 53 years as a devoted bhikkhuni. Her stupa at Hong An Pagoda is a reminder of the powerful inspiration she gave to everyone including her disciples and students, many of whom became abbesses in Vietnam and other parts of the world.

Written by

Barbara Yen

President, Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia

References

Mongolia – Ven Amaa (1905-2010): Courage and Resilience in Spiritual Practice in Challenging Conditions

by Barbara Yen

This article is written by Barbara Yen in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.

Mongolia – Ven Amaa (1905-2010): Courage and Resilience in Spiritual Practice in Challenging Conditions

Introduction

VenAmaaAfter nearly seventy years of Communist rule and destruction, monasteries and nunneries face not only the difficulties of recovering Buddhism but also to establish space to practice.

Traditionally in Mongolia, there was no indication of educating women in the Dharma or offered the possibility of ordination to them, as opposition arose when such ordination was introduced. Hence, before 1990, women were rarely ordained in Mongolia.

There are two types of Buddhist vows available for women in Mongolia.

  1. The full Getsulma vow of ordination, involving 36 monastic rules.
  2. The Genenma lay vows (Five Precepts), promising not to kill, steal, lie, not to commit any sexual misconduct and not to take intoxicants. These vows are taken by many Buddhists, both male and female in Mongolia.

Women who have taken the Genenma vows visit the nunnery during the day but return to their homes at night. They are allowed to marry and when they have children they leave the nunnery for one year to look after the child. They generally wear red or occasionally yellow deels (the traditional dress of Mongolia) rather than the Buddhist robes. They do not shave their heads.

Novice ordination for nuns (Getsulma) was offered for the first time in Mongolia’s history in 1993 by Bakula Rinpoche. Today, these nuns are the first generation of ordained female Buddhist practitioners.

Support from the Bhikkhus
Fortunately there were visiting teachers like Bakula Rinpoche and Lama Zopa Rinpoche who offered desperately needed teachings to the monks and nuns and lay people.

Presently, nunneries in Mongolia, for instance Dechen Ling Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, which was initiated by Ven Bakula Rinpoche, consists of two small gers. The twenty-one handmas (nuns) there had to take turns to live in the nunnery or conduct pujas and other practices like meditation, as all could not fit into one yurt. The rest must return to their family homes each night. In Mongolia, handmas are mostly lay women.

Lama Zopa has agreed to guide the handmas of Dechen Ling and has encouraged them to take novice ordination. Rinpoche also has plans for a new nunnery in Mongolia. In the meantime, Ven. Gyatso from the new FPMT center in Mongolia will teach courses to the handmas there.

There were also opportunities for education for the nuns including studying abroad in Dharamasala, India and in Korea.

During the 10th Sakyadhita Conference in 2010, we visited one of the nunneries. A Rinpoche there declared to us, “We need both the monks and nuns to make Buddhism grow in Mongolia. Otherwise, it is like trying to fly an airplane with only one wing.”

VenAmaa6Family History

At the beginning of the twentieth century, when Ven Amaa was born, there were more than 1,000 monastic complexes sprawled across Mongolia’s deserts, steppes and forests. In Khenti Province alone, where Ven Amaa was born and which was also the birthplace of Chenghis Khan, it was a great stronghold of the Buddha dharma for centuries.

The Mongolian Monastery Documentation Project counted no fewer than 101 Buddhist institutions that flourished there prior to the Stalinist purges. It also seemed a particularly strong place of women’s spirituality, with many deeply respected female meditation masters.

Spiritual Development
Her father and grandfather were accomplished lamas. As a child, she began learning prayers and chanting especially on Arya Tara and Shakyamuni Buddha.

Ven Amaa was later introduced to the ancient tantric traditions of Ven Padmasambhava and was also inspired by one of the greatest practitioners in Padmasambhava’s lineage, Ven Danzan Ravjaa (1803–1856), the famed mahasiddha from the eastern Gobi Desert. She was drawn to his way of practicing chöd, the rituals and visualizations for directly cutting through ego attachment called lujing, Tibetan for “offering the body,” The chöd later became her central practice.

During Stalin’s communist regime, particularly during the years 1937–1939, Buddhists were persecuted and many Lamas were killed, sent to Siberia or disrobed. Nearly all the monasteries were looted and demolished. Religious practice of any kind was illegal and lay meditators had scattered.

During this period, Ven Amaa, with a small group of yogis, lead by a Tibetan master, Lama Zundui, was still able to learn and practice meditation and chöd intensively and secretly for two years with great courage, perseverance and resilience. At age sixteen, she was the youngest member there.

They practiced in caves and cemeteries, hiding in the cover of darkness and dressed in lay clothing. They had escaped detection due to the vastness and mountainous regions of the country and sparse population.
Unfortunately, they were later discovered by the Communist and were forced to flee. Some were caught, while Lama Zundui, Ven Amaa and others escaped. Lama Zundui and another of her teachers, Ven Artiin Mergen Pandita, who could make themselves invisible, escaped arrests on several occasions.

Accomplishment

Inspiring the next generation of nuns. With Ven Ani Kunze, a leader of the Mongolian Buddhist women paying her respects and receiving her blessing

Inspiring the next generation of nuns. With Ven Ani Kunze, a leader of the Mongolian Buddhist women paying her respects and receiving her blessing

She was renowned as the only person in Mongolia’s three eastern provinces who could do the complete and proper chanting and ceremonies for those who passed away, based on the text by Ven Padmasambhava, now popularly known as ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’.

Her Home was her Temple

Although devotees visited Ven Amaa daily, at all hours of the day or night to ask for advice, prayers and blessings, she did not have a sacred space of her own. She received them on the carpeted floor in her family ger, greeting everyone with the same loving, toothless smile. On auspicious days, she and her disciples would chant in a nearby temple.

VenAmaa3

Ven Amaa’s own ger. Posing with her is Batbaatar, who sponsored it’s cost.

 

In 2008, at the age of 104, Ven Amaa finally had her own ger, which became a meditation and chanting shrine. It was sponsored by an American male devotee, Batbaatar who had never met her before.

Ven Amaa, a revered 104-year-old Buddhist master at the 10th Sakyadhita Conference, Mongolia, 2008

Ven Amaa, a revered 104-year-old Buddhist master at the 10th Sakyadhita Conference, Mongolia, 2008

In 2008, Ven Amaa travelled 200 miles to Ulaanbaatar to attend the 10th Sakyadhita Conference. At the Opening ceremony, we stood up in an ovation when she walked up the stage, aided with a walking stick, to welcome us. She was overwhelmed to see several hundred Buddhist women and men of different nationalities and traditions, speaking different languages coming together to speak with one heart. She reflected, ”I met people from all over the world. I saw that Buddhism was being practiced in so many languages. The language isn’t so important, it’s the meaning…. that is important.” She declared to the crowd, “I have been waiting for this moment my whole life.”

Fortunately, on the recommendation of Venerable Konchog Norbu, Ven Amaa was interviewed for the Mongolian Buddhist Monasteries Documentation Project.

Ven Amaa passed away in 2010, nearly 106 of age, one of the last of a generation and culture never to be seen again.

Konchog Norbu is an American Buddhist monk who served as director for the Mongolian Buddhist Revival Project from 2005–2009. From Shambhala SunSpace. Posted by Sakyadhita Blog on Nov 11, 2013

Konchog Norbu is an American Buddhist monk who served as director for the Mongolian Buddhist Revival Project from 2005–2009. From Shambhala SunSpace. Posted by Sakyadhita Blog on Nov 11, 2013

 Conclusion

For the first time in centuries, Sakyadhita International Conferences are uniting and empowering women like Ven Amaa across traditions and cultures. Women are coming together to enrich each other’s lives and spiritual practices, and returning home to build local networks that will continue to strengthen the traditions and practices of women at the grassroots level all over the world.

Written by

Barbara Yen

President, Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia

 

References:

  1. Ven Konchog Norbu, 104 Years of Practice, 2013
  2. Ven Konchog Norbu, Amaa, June, 2008
  3. Ven Konchog Norbu, Amaa II, June, 2008
  4. Ven Konchog Norbu, Not the Comfy Chair!, October, 2008
  5. Ven Konchog Norbu, Chanting Down Babylon, October, 2008
  6. Mongolian Buddhists Protecting Nature Handbook
  7. Emily D. Porter, Mandala: Buddhism in Our Time, March 2001, page 16. mandalamagazine.org.
  8. http://vq.vassar.edu/issues/2002/01/online-additions/nuns-mongolia.html#sthash.XtgrnHNV.dpuf
  9. Ven Konchog Norbu’s blog Dreaming of Danzan Ravjaa

 

 

Taiwan – Dharma Master Cheng Yen, (1937- ): Buddhism Beyond Borders: Engaged Buddhism – Compassion in Action

by Hooi Yoon Chun

This article is written by Hooi Yoon Chun in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.

TaiwanDharma Master Cheng Yen, (1937- ): Buddhism Beyond Borders: Engaged Buddhism –  Compassion in Action

VenChengYanContact with Buddhism
Master Cheng Yen, who leads the world renowned Disaster Relief organistion Tzu Chi, was born in 1937 in Taiwan. She was raised by her aunt and uncle. She had first hand experience of suffering, witnessing the devastating effects of war, which taught her the truth behind the concept of impermanence and suffering. She also looked after her sick brother in a hospital for eight months.

At the age of 23, her father died suddenly from brain hemorrhage. It was in searching for a burial place for him that Master Cheng Yen first came into contact with Buddhist philosophy and made her to aspire to be a nun.

She traveled around eastern Taiwan with a nun but without being ordained. After 2 years, she registered for ordination in Lin Chi Temple but was turned down as a nun must be the disciple of a master for two years before ordination.

Fortunately, she encountered Venerable Master Yin-shun, who accepted her request, just an hour before registration closed! She then went to Hualien County to continue her spiritual practice, which was mainly reciting and copying Sutra. It was during her six months there that she vowed to commit herself to the Lotus Sutra and the “Path of the Bodhisattvas.” It was also the Sutra of Immeasurable Righteousness, dealing with human problems, weather, psychiatric, psychological and spiritual issues, that influenced her outlook.

Founding of Tzu Chi
There were two watershed events that inspired Master Cheng Yen to take the power of Buddhism to help people in the world. The first was at a discussion in 1966 with three Catholic nuns who pointed out that Buddhists had not helped society, unlike the Church, in building schools and hospitals. Those words made Master realise that Buddhism had to do more than simply encouraging private cultivation.

Tzu-Chi-logoThe other event occurred in the same year while visiting a hospital in Fenglin. She saw blood on the hospital floor and learned that an aboriginal woman suffered a miscarriage but was not attended to without paying a deposit. These events led Master to establish the Tzu Chi Foundation in April 1966 and its first Hospital in Hualien in 1986.

Initially, she encouraged her 5 disciples to make baby shoes and thirty followers to save fifty cents from their grocery money every day into little savings banks made from bamboo. Master encouraged the daily “giving” practice which would help develop the virtue of generosity. Just as the Buddha was guided by a noble desire to help others, she inspired her followers to listen to those who were sad or help those in pain.

Tzu Chi’s beginnings were humble. In the first year, 15 families were helped by 30 followers. Unlike most Buddhist orders, Tzu Chi nuns do not take donations for themselves. They worked for their food by farming, weaving gloves, making diapers, shoes and electrical circuit breakers.

Medical Mission
By 1970, Master realized the link between poverty and illness after spending six years among the poor of eastern Taiwan and resolved to tackle the problem. Tzu Chi’s first medical outreach free clinic in 1972 opened in Hualien, with more than 140,000 consultations done so far.

Plans to build a 600-bed general hospital were developed in 1979 to provide service to the undeserved eastern Taiwan. Despite initial setbacks both in funding for the hospital and finding an acceptable site, construction was completed and the hospital opened on 17 August 1986. Tzu Chi has since built 6 hospitals in different parts of the island.

In order to address the shortage of nurses, and expand the medical mission, the Tzu Chi College of Nursing was built in September 1989 in Hualien. It was the first private nursing college in Taiwan to waive tuition for selected courses. Students not only learn the technical skills of nursing, they were also imbued with the spirit of compassion and humanitarian outlook.

In 1992, a bone marrow registry was started and Is now a division of the new Tzu Chi Stem Cells Center. By August 2005, Tzu Chi had registered more than 274,000 marrow donors and matched almost 1000 recipients with compatible donors around the world.

Master established the Tzu Chi College of Medicine in 1994, which became a University in 2000. She also appealed to Taiwanese people to donate their bodies for medical training which resulted in one body for every four students to study. The Athletic Drug Testing Center was established in 1996 when gold medal winners were tested for banned drugs.

International Relief Work
Relief work in China, the first major work, began in 1991 when devastating floods hit central and eastern China. Despite the political situation, Tzu Chi was able to open up avenues to assist Chinese people in desperate need. It was difficult to convince Taiwanese to help the Chinese in China, whose government officials were wary of accepting Tzu Chi.

Tzu Chi volunteers are not to discuss business, politics, or religion while giving aid. Master’s philosophy is that both parties, those receiving assistance and those delivering the aid, are rewarded, one materially and the other spiritually.

Master Cheng Yen has directed Tzu Chi to conduct relief work in various disasters like typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis in countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka in the 2004 tsunami, Pakistan earthquake in 2005, in Mongolia, Ethiopia, Nepal, Thailand, Rwanda, Cambodia, North Korea, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Vietnam, the United States, Brazil, Argentina and numerous other countries including Taiwan.

Help was rendered in the form of immediate relief assistance like prepared meals, drinking water, financial assistance, and rebuilding homes and schools. This relief work has earned the reputation of being the first to arrive and the last to leave.

Da Ai Television
Da Ai TVMaster Cheng Yen launched ‘Da Ai Satellite Television’ which is a 24-hour, commercial-free status television station on 1 January 1998. It is partially funded by a nationwide recycling effort She encourages vegetarianism to improve the carbon footprint further.

Da Ai features non-political news, generally free of negativity and violence, teaching lectures and serial programs designed to extol the virtues of living a good life, often profiling people who made major changes in their life for the better. She broadcasts inspirational teachings every week-day in the programme “Morning at Dawn”, a 25-minute address and a twelve-minute address in the evening.

Master rises early in the morning and often receives visitors and actively oversees the many projects throughout Taiwan by making monthly trips around the country. She also monitors the action of the various centres in 47 countries throughout the world. Master is really a person who practices what she preaches.

.
Cheng Yen Award

Recognition

Master was recognised internationally with some of these awards:

1986: Received the ‘Huashia Medal of the First Order,’ Taiwan
1991: ‘Ramon Magsaysay Award,’ Philippines for Community Leadership
1994: ‘Eisenhower Medallion’ by the People to People International.(PTPI Founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower)
1995: ‘Executive Yuan (Cabinet) Cultural Award,’ Taiwan
1996: ‘Interior Ministry’s First Class Honorary Award,’ Taiwan
1996: ‘Foreign Affairs Medal of the First Order,’ Taiwan
1996: ‘Huaguang Award of the First Order,’ Taiwan
1998: ‘International Human Rights Award,’ the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO)
2000: ‘Noel Foundation Life Award’
2001: ‘Presidential Culture Award,’ Taiwan
2001: ‘National Medal of the Second Order’ from the President of El Salvador
2001: Conferred ‘Honorary Doctorate in Social Science,’ Hong Kong University
2001: One of 26 ‘Heroes from Around the World’ and featured on the ‘Wall of Honor’ in Philadelphia’s National Liberty Museum
2002: ‘Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award,’ World Buddhist University, Thailand
2002: ‘Honorary Doctorate Degree in Socio-Cultural Studies,’ National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan
2003: ‘Presidential Second Order of the Brilliant Star Award,’ Taiwan
2004: ‘2004 Asian American Heritage Award for Humanitarian Service,’ Asian American Federation of California (AAFC)
2007: ‘24th Niwano Peace Prize for Humanitarian Service,’ Niwano Peace Foundation, Japan
2008: ‘WFB Merit Medal,’ from World Fellowship of Buddhists
2011: ‘Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humanities,’ University of the East, Manila, Philippines
2011: named by the Times, New York as ‘One of World’s 100 Most Influential People’
2014: nominated for Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Harald zur Hausen, director of the German Cancer Research Center who was one of the former prize winners

Written by
Hooi Yoon Chun
Honorary Treasurer
Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia

 

 

Rev. Ikuko Hibino, Japan (1949 – ) : Yes, A Woman Can Be A Priest in Japanese Buddhism!

by Dr Lai Suat Yan

This article is written by  Dr Lai Suat Yan in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.

Rev. Ikuko Hibino, Japan (1949 – ): Yes, A Woman Can Be A Priest in Japanese Buddhism! RevIkukoHibino

“Can a woman can be a priest in Buddhism?” and “What is Buddhism?” were some of the questions directed at Rev. Ikuko Hibino when she was studying language in France.[1] These queries and the suggestion that she became a priest irrespective of her marital status piqued her curiosity and planted the seeds for her eventual path to be one. While her father is the head priest of the Kayadera Temple in Kuramae, Tokyo, as a woman she is expected to marry a priest who will eventually succeed her father. This is due to the cultural succession of temples that passes along the male lines. Although there is no prohibition for women to be priests in the Jodo school, this cultural practice is the mechanism in operation. Furthermore, a wife of a priest is generally expected to play a supportive role and produce male heirs to succeed the temple. In this context, Rev. Ikuko Hibino’s aspiration to be a priest was and still is an uncommon one.

As a university student, she majored in English literature in Atomi Gakuen Women’s College. Following her father’s footstep and recommendation she studied the English poet, William Wordsworth. She is considered an obedient daughter and while happy with her literary study, part of her wanted to do something different. She became involved with a theater group that she joined every afternoon after her classes. Her father sometimes attended her theater performances. It was her dream to become a theater producer then. Unfortunately, her father had a heart attack and passed away the year she graduated. She suffered as things were good for her until then. As she described it, “It was like a clear sky was suddenly covered with a black cloud.” This prompted her to think and find a meaningful life for herself. Her uncle then succeeded her father until she married a priest. She took the time to travel and examined herself and her culture from outside of Japan in different contexts, first to England and then later to France, also to attend a language school.

The questions and suggestions posed to her in France related to Buddhism and the possibility for a woman to be a priest led to her joining a training course organized by the headquarters of Jodo school after her return. She completed the three yearly sessions of training which included reading sutras, chanting meditation, Buddhist philosophy and history as well as performing Buddhist ceremonies and hymns. At the end of each of the yearly training course there were exams which she passed. After that she attended a final retreat course and the qualification as a Jodo school priest was conferred upon its completion. So, at age 26, in 1975 Rev, Ikuko Hibino officially became a priest. It took nearly 30 years later before she moved up the ranks and be certified as the chief priest of the Kayadera temple in 2002.

While there were those, usually male priests or lay people, who were not supportive of her decision to be a priest, they were in the minority and she did not heed them. Instead she focused her attention on 90 per cent of those who supported and protected her. Those supportive told her that if she needed help and if there was anything or custom she did not understand or not used to in the priest group, she could always asked them. In this context, she is thankful to these priests who were kind and protected her. Indeed, Rev. Ikuko Hibino was fortunate as she did not face any legal challenge to her succession of the temple as could be faced by a female priest. Or this could be analyzed as the testament of her ability to win over those around her.

The institutional practice of Buddhism is gendered male in another aspect–besides the succession of temple along male lines–as generally men are the ones allowed to lead in a religious ceremony as the pitch favored is that of the male voice. In this context, women faced an additional challenge but Rev. Ikuko Hibino surmounted this as well. According to her, “My voice is not different from that of a male priest, when we read the sutra, it is the same as male priests’ voice. Very often, women cannot…I was trained by an opera singer for that pitch when I was younger.” While changes may be forthcoming with the discussion of having two keys at the Jodo school headquarter, it is clear that the path to be a priest is much more difficult for women. Given these circumstances, there is a scarcity of female priests in comparison to male priests. In the area surrounding Rev. Ikuko Hibino’s temple in Kuramae, there are 36 Jodo sect temples but only two of the chief priests are female.

Rev. Ikuko Hibino’s presence signifies the possibility for women to be a female priest, rare as it maybe. She serves as a role model for other women in the Jodo sect in particular and younger female priests in this tradition consult her when needed. In addition, female Buddhists followers of her tradition or other tradition also consult her on various issues.

Service to All Beings Nationally and Internationally

Rev. Ikuko Hibino, like her male priest counterpart, conducts funeral rites and memorial ceremony for families of the departed. As the chief priest she oversees the development of the temple and presides over various Buddhist rituals and ceremonies such as the Ojuya ceremony that pays homage to the Buddha or the Segakie (hungry ghosts) ceremony. In addition, she is also a dharma speaker and a counselor. Trained as a counselor in the neuro-linguistic tradition she attends to those with problems by active listening and using language to encourage those suffering to open up, talk more, explore and find the answer that is within them.

From 1981-1989, she was the international committee member of the All Japan Young Buddhist Association and embodying the spirit of compassion was involved in refugee relief work at the Cambodian border. During this period, she was active in various international exchange activities with, for example, the Malaysian Youth Buddhist Association, Thai Youth Buddhist Association and the Taiwanese Youth Buddhist Association to foster international understanding. Besides her leadership ability, she is in a unique position to contribute at the international arena due to her command of English. From 1988-1990, she was the Deputy Secretary General of the World Fellowship of Buddhist Youth with objectives that includes promoting unity and solidarity among Buddhists globally, promoting peace and harmony among Buddhists youth as well as carrying out activities in various spheres from a humanitarian angle. As the Chairperson of the Standing Committee for Humanitarian Services of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, she chaired the adoption of the resolution to extend humanitarian services to all living beings to promote and strengthen animal welfare in 2012.[2] The resolution was sponsored by Mr. Senaka Weeraratna of the German Dhammaduta Society.

Reflecting her leadership qualities, openness to the diversity of culture and Buddhist traditions, since the late 2000s she has been one of the Board of Directors of the International Ladies of Buddhist Association, Japan.[3] The association organizes cultural, academic and educational activities to learn and educate others of the Buddhist culture and practices of various denominations to promote understanding and transcend differences. One of the tasks of the organization is to nurture female Buddhists to be future leaders of society. As a female Buddhist priest in a leadership position, Rev. Ikuko Hibino’s contribution is invaluable particularly, in a world marked by differences of various kind, be it gender, nationality, sectarianism, race, economic or culture.

Written by

Dr Lai Suat Yan

Vice-President Gotami Vihara

and Asian Public Intellectual (API) Fellow Year 13 (2013/14)

Materials for write-up was collected during the API Fellow grant

Notes

[1] For this sharing and more details please see the article by Rev. Ikuko Hibino on the Jodo school website http://www.jodo.org/events/buddhism_8.html in an article titled “The Daily Life of a Female Buddhist Priest”.

[2] For details see Janaka Perera, “World Fellowship of Buddhists takes steps towards promotion of animal welfare,” LankaWeb, 22 July, 2012 at http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=43,11001,0,0,1,0#.VAi1z_ldVwY accessed 11 August, 2014.

[3] For details of ILAB and its inauguration see Padmasari, Vol. 11, June 2009.