It has been recognised that in some Buddhist countries in Asia, women who aspire to go forth in the Theravada tradition have to settle for a subordinate position as eight or ten preceptors. These women renunciants often encounter obstacles in their spiritual path. They receive little guidance, support and companionship from the monastic community and not much recognition from the lay communities. Many have low self confidence and self esteem. They feel isolated, become disheartened and some have disrobed.
As Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi so succinctly said in his book, The Revival of Bhikkhuni Ordination in the Theravada Tradition, “While defenders of the present system say that women can make just as much progress by taking up some surrogate female renunciant lifestyle as they could by becoming bhikkhuni-s, the plain fact is that these subordinate renunciant roles do not meet their aspirations or give them access to the complete training laid down by the Buddha. They usually do not command the reverence from both the monastic and lay communities, seldom take on leadership roles or give guidance in religious activities and social services but linger on the margins. They often appear timid and self-conscious. They mainly serve as helpers at monasteries where they are given permission to stay.”
It is sad that those who want to seek full ordination do so in other Buddhist traditions or in other countries. By doing so, it does not solve the problem as their status is not recognised or supported by the sangha and lay community when they return to their own countries.
Yu Ban in his article A Lotus At Dawn: Opening The Doors To The Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha observed that “while monks lead many of the largest Buddhist organizations in Taiwan, the administration is largely left to nuns who manage them with dedication and efficiency. Nuns are also at the forefront of several organisations involved in education and social work.”
In Vietnam, it is so heart warming to see both the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis work closely together in serving the community. And what is most surprising is that, the older monks are more supportive of the nuns than the younger ones. They have encouraged a number of the promising nuns to further their education abroad.
At the last Sakyadhita Conference in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam in 2009, when we visited one of the Buddhist universities in Hue, we were very impressed with the line-up of the Senate – monks and nuns stood confidently and comfortably on the stage and not segregated. For a developing country, they are doing very well indeed!
In recent years prominent Tibetan lamas have encouraged some of their student-nuns to receive full ordination in East Asian countries, and now they are on the verge of officially starting a Bhikkhuni Sangha within Tibetan Buddhism.
In Malaysia, the number of Theravadin women renunciants or ten preceptors is approximately twenty two. In Singapore, it may be much less. Most of them are from the Pak Auk tradition and are presently receiving training from their masters in Myanmar, Sri Lanka or Thailand.
How the Support Network Started
At the Invitation to the Rains Retreat at Vivekavana Solitude Grove (Bukit Mertajam) last year, Bhante Saddhasiri announced to the crowd of supporters who had come to make the Invitation that he was recognising and supporting the Theravada Bhikkhuni ordination lineage, becoming the first Chinese Malaysian to accept the lineage.
Ayya Kamalanani (a Chinese Malaysian Theravada Bhikkhuni ordained in Sri Lanka) was at the Invitation and subsequently spent the Rains Retreat at Vivekavana, where they have greatly supported the nuns by providing them with practical and financial help like a place to stay and transport needs.
Also resident at Vivekavana is a British monk, Bhante Anandajoti, and from his discussions with Ayya and various other female monastics, he realised that they were mostly unsupported in their monastic lives, getting support only from their families and friends.
He therefore wrote to Judy Chua and suggested that what was needed was a Support Network for the nuns in general (not just bhikkhunis), and she contacted Maxine Cheong, Amy Khaw, Yu Ban, Wuan Thong Lok, myself and others whom she knew.
How We Got Involved
On An Individual Level
- In the past, we had been silent supporters or have given support to individual local or visiting woman renunciants (dana, accommodation, transport, funds for requisites, studies to attend conferences, being their ‘kappiyas’ as they do not have to handle money)
- In April 2011, Ven. Anandajoti referred to us a Sayalay for practical assistance (she is an ex-accountant who is visually challenged). She has other medical needs as well and has to travel to KL often for treatment, appeal for SOCSO pension, visit the Association for the Blind, etc.
On a Collective Level
- In April, we agreed to set up of this network
- In May, we had our first meeting at Brickfields Temple in KL, where Bhante Dhammaratana promised all assistance, including premises whenever we need it.
- Ven. Saranankara of the Sri Lankan Buddhist Temple, Sentul pledged to us a premise in Selangor as a place of stay for the renunciants (in the past they had stayed at Mahayana temples or homes of relatives and devotees)
There is an urgent need to work on some areas to make this path they have chosen a smooth and successful one for them. We have planned and worked on some strategies which are as follows:
1. Establish a Centre for Renunciants
- A conducive and safe place for them to stay and practice
- A transit place for renunciants from other states or visiting foreign nuns
- For skills building and development of personal growth
2. Set up a Face-book and blog to
- Create an awareness of the issue
- Keep the renunciants posted on developments
- Keep the supporters posted on developments
- To establish a network for both monastic and lay community locally and globally
3. Conduct Fund Raising to
- Set up the centre
- Invite teachers here to instruct them
- Sponsor fully or partly renunciants to further their Buddhist studies, locally or overseas
- Sponsor relevant publications
4. Invite Preceptors
- As teachers and mentors
- As advisors for management and operational needs
5. Do Surveys on
A. Who are the Theravadin Women Renunciants?
- Number of eight and ten preceptors in Malaysia
- Number of women who are ordained overseas
- Who are they?
- Where are they practicing presently?
- What are their needs
- What issues/challenges are they facing?
- What are their aspirations e.g. to provide service to community, pursue academic pursuits or higher ordination?
- Find out if there are women who are interested to go forth but are holding back because of obstacles, insecurities over spiritual, financial and material support
B. Who are the supportive Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis?
- Local Sangha who can help as spiritual advisors, teachers and role models to the community
- Foreign Sangha to help as advisors and preceptors
C. Who are the supportive Sangha members from other traditions?
- As teachers and offer support and services like accommodation, financial resources
D. Who are the supportive Lay Devotees
- Pool of professionals and skilled workers as trainers and for organization work
- Provide services – fund raising, accommodation, transport, maintenance work, donors, ‘kappiyas’
It can be seen that the Theravada Women Renunciants need support from all angles. It will indeed be a great meritorious act if we can help the Buddha bring back this missing link of His Four-fold Assembly and help bring to the fulfillment the Buddha’s own mission of opening “the doors to the Deathless” to all humankind. Our aspiration is to raise human consciousness, to see beyond gender just as the Buddha did.
Humans are very creative – what is impossible can be made possible. All we need is a conviction and commitment – “I have a dream” and a passion of Dr Martin Luther King.
As Albert Einstein had put it so aptly, “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.”
On the same note, Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Change therefore has to start with ourselves. When we are stuck with finding an answer, the question we can ask is, “What would the Buddha want us to do in such a situation today?”
To be part of the network and get connected, you are invited to join our Facebook and stay in contact.
We also welcome contributions in the form of articles, professional expertise especially IT, locating the renunciants, event organising, fund-raising, etc.
Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!