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
Although the title indicates ‘Modern Era’, for China, we have included the first two nuns who were ordained in the 4th century CE (Common Era). After them, there are no known records of outstanding Buddhist nuns or lay women, especially after the Cultural Revolution when many monastics were persecuted. Books by modern scholars only had records of outstanding bhikkhus in China but there were no mention of these two nuns.
It is a reality that women make up the majority of followers of most religions, whether as practitioners or supporters of monastics. However this does not reflect on their leadership roles.
The stories we are show-casing are women who had practiced Buddhism and spread the Buddha sasana against great odds and challenges. In the process, they displayed great courage, resilience, skills, creativity and faith in their missions.
Their life stories cut across boundaries, Buddhist traditions, cultural identities, gender, language and caste. Those who supported them believed that in Buddhist theory, the mind has no intrinsic gender, duality or divide.
For these women, their common aspiration was that the Dhamma, in its purity, helped to alleviate suffering and transcended all obstacles for the benefit of all. Their selflessness and wisdom enabled them to achieve this and in doing so, they were also able to gain the highest spiritual attainment.
Recognising this, Sakyadhita International which was founded in 1987, had as its theme, ‘Eminent Buddhist Women’ for the 11th Sakyadhita Conference, held in Vietnam in 2010. The Conference highlighted Buddhist women’s contributions and acknowledged how much they have accomplished in the areas of leadership, Sangha building, meditation, engaged Buddhism, environmental protection and nation building. They were exemplary teachers who created Paths and had given positive role models for other women to emulate.
The dictionary’s definition of ‘Eminent’ is ‘distinguished, outstanding, noteworthy, prominent, above others in rank, merit or reputation.’ The women featured here are all of these and much more.
Let us aspire to follow the Buddha’s foot-steps by helping the Four-Fold Sangha flourish. This Sangha has lasted about 2,600 years in Asia and can be considered the world’s oldest continuous organisation. Aren’t we honoured and privileged to be part of this and to help up-hold it for the benefit of all beings?
Here is the list of some outstanding women, the selection of which is not exhaustive.
I. Great Meditation Masters
- Korea – Venerable Daeheang Kun Sunim
- Indonesia – Ayya Santini
- Thailand – Maechee Kaew
II. Pioneers in Dhamma Propagation – Scholars and Teachers
- Thailand – Ven Dhammananda
- Thailand – Ven Ta Tao Fa Tzu
- Bangladesh – Dipa Ma (Mother of Light)
- Sri Lanka – Ven Kusuma
- Philippines – Ven Sui Miao
III. Buddhism Beyond Borders: Engaged Buddhism – Compassion in Actio
- Taiwan – Ven Cheng Yan
- Japan – Ven Ikuko Hibino
- Malaysia – Ven Chang Heng
- Malaysia – Ven Sing Kan
- Malaysia – Ven Hasapanna
- Malaysia – Ven Sayalay Susīlā
IV. Courage and Resilience in Spiritual Practice in Challenging Conditions
- Mongolia – Ven Amaa
- India – Ven Visakha
- China – Ven Ching Chien
- China – Ven An Ling Shou
- Myanmar – Daw Thissawaddy
V. Leadership and Activism in Nationalism and Sangha Building
- Vietnam – Ven Su Ba Thich Nu Dieu Khong
VI. Dhamma Propagation and Activism through Talent and Creativity
- Nepal – Ven Ani Choying Drolma – the singing nun
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.
I Great Meditation Masters
1. Indonesia – Venerable Ayya Santini
Ayya Santini experienced many struggles and challenges to become a bhikkhuni. She is known for her great skills in teaching meditation especially to children until they could not get enough of it and continued to come back for more. The children’s ages are also getting younger – 5 year olds although her original limit was 12 years of age! As punishment for some wrong doings, the kids asked to be given more meditation time!
A number of monastics, including Bhikkhus and devotees, visit her monastery, Wisma Kusalayani, on the cool hills near Bandung, to learn her technique of engaging the children. The only answer Ayya could give was that she gave them love, and she has loads of it to give away. Ayya conducts retreats for adults as well and is known for her very strict rules like locking the yogis rooms during the day so that they do not return to rest.
Personally, she can sit very still for hours without a cushion and encourages participants to do the same. She participates in the ordination of bhikkhunis and samaneris, both in Indonesia and abroad.
2. Korea – Venerable Bhikshuni Daeheang Kun Sunim (1927 – 2012)
In 1950, Venerable took the samaneri vows and entered Sangwon Temple and spent four years in the mountains. To keep herself safe, she smeared her body with mud which caused her skin to crack and bleed during winter. She ate whatever leaves and grass available. She was mistaken to be mentally ill and was bullied and beaten. During the Korean War, she was arrested on suspicion of being a spy for North Korea.
Ven Daechaeng received full ordination in 1961 and for six years, she stayed in a small hut in Sangwonsa Temple on Mt. Ch’iak. Her focus was on finding her true Buddha-nature.
Spreading the Dhamma
In 1972, she founded the Hanmaun Sonwon (One Mind Zen Centre) and became its abbess. She attracted several hundred disciples and became the first nun in Korea to have male disciples. She also had about 100,000 lay followers and her Dhamma talks were usually attended by thousands of people. Her teaching emphasised on the daily cultivation of mind by being aware; that everyday life and every moment was a perfect time to practice.
Her monastery established a leading weekly Buddhist newspaper, Hyundae Bulkyo (Modern Buddhism) in 1994. They also produced a journal and other publications, conducted research and workshops, and became a pioneer in setting up on-line sites. She encouraged hymn singing daily as part of the awareness practice and formed choirs for children, young adults, mothers and men. In 1996 the Hanmaum Science Institute was formed.
She was seen as a Bodhisattva of medicine for her healing powers. She also had psychic powers and communicated with deities, the deceased and with animals and plants.
She established fifteen branch temples in Korea and ten worldwide and contributed to the modernization and popularisation of Korean Buddhism throughout the world.
Ven Daechaeng authored the book No River to Cross: Trusting the Enlightenment That’s Always Right Here, and Wake Up and Laugh.
She received the Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award from the United Nations in 2002 and the Sarvodaya Award from the Sri Lankan religious welfare agency in 2001. Due to her popularity and success, she was accepted by the Chogye Order, the largest Buddhist Order in Korea.
She passed away at the age of 85 after leading 63 years of monastic life.
3. Thailand – Maechee Kaew (1901-1991)
A reputed female arahant in modern times, Maechee 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. Ajahn Mun (also Ajahn Chah’s master) could see that she had unusual psychic abilities and great spiritual potential. She had divine eyes, had skills in predicting events, mind read, possessed some healing powers and unusual psychic powers of communication with the deities, nagas, petas, deceased persons and animals. She was often invited by them to visit the heavenly and hell realms.
Even as a beginner, her mind easily went into deep absorption for many hours. Ajahn Mun requested her to be his disciple when she was aged 16. However, her father objected to it and later pressured her to marry.
Upon divorce, she became Ajahn Maha Boowa’s disciple and subsequently achieved the highest spiritual attainment of liberation. She was requested by Ajahn Maha Boowa to teach his mother in his hometown which she did for 14 years out of gratitude for her master, before she returned to her monastery.
In 1977, she was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis, diabetes and cancer but she survived till 1991. At her death, her bones turn into relics of different colours and in the shape of pearls and crystals. 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 “whether we are man or woman, we are equally capable of attaining enlightenment, no matter what lineage or tradition we practised, so do it well.” He had a stupa erected in her memory.