by Barbara Yen
Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era
In conjunction with International Bhikkhuni Day, 2014, Gotama Vihara Society Malaysia has decided to honour outstanding Asian Buddhist women, both monastic and lay, who had made an impact to Buddhism in the modern times. Many of them have not received the due recognition nor had their stories written by scholars. For a start, we are focusing on Asian women as they have a long way to go to achieve recognition and support.
Objectives of this Exercise
- honour and acknowledge the achievement of Eminent Asian Buddhist Nuns and Lay Buddhist Women
- show-case their expertise, experience, skills and talents
- give them a voice and a face because very often, they are faceless, voiceless and invisible
- be a role model to inspire other Buddhist Women in their work
- recognise Malaysian renunciants for taking the lead to inspire others who wish to go on this Path
Summaries of the Biographies
Below are summaries of these extraordinary women. Most of the information are obtained from a combination of either one of these sources – personal interviews, the 11th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women publication: Eminent Buddhist Women, Vietnam, 2010, personal blogs and world-wide web pages.
Full write-ups of some of their stories will subsequently be posted on our Blog in different stages.
V Leadership and Activism in Nationalism and Sangha Building
1. Vietnam – Bhikkhuni Su Ba Thich Nu Dieu Khong (1905-1997)
Venerable 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 her, and had asked her parents many times without success for permission to become a nun.
Service to the Community
In 1926 she founded the Women Workers Union and started a shop which became famous to promote 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 Venerable Thich Giac Tien, Abbot of Truc Lam Temple and in 1944 she became a bhikkhuni.
Venerable 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.
Venerable 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 which lasted the longest 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, Venerable 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.
She 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 Venerable 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 suddenly, Venerable woke up. She recovered and continued her “Bodhisattva heart’s” work for another 19 years.
At age 80, Venerable 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.
VI Dhamma Propagation and Activism through Talent and Creativity
1. Nepal – Venerable Ani Choying Drolma
The singing nun who fights for rights of women and children. She has produced a few albums and is nicknamed the “rock star nun.” Singing and performing with top musicians is a way to take the essence of Buddha’s teachings to the world and help people in need. She was featured in the Eastern Horizon and Star Publication, Malaysia on 12 May, 2014.