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.
II Pioneers in Dhamma Propagation – Scholars and Teachers
1. Sri Lanka – Venerable Kusuma
Venerable Kusuma is the first nun to receive full ordination in Sri Lanka. Known as Mrs Devendra before her ordination, she studied molecular biology hoping to answer her question on what was the beginning of life. When the answers did not satisfy her, she turned to Buddhism and did her Masters in Buddhist Philosophy and 2 doctorates in Buddhism. She also did a degree course in Pali. She taught in a university for 20 years.
Venerable’s interest then turned to the nuns’ issue and did a research on the 8 Precept nuns or Dasa Sil Matas. She appealed to the then President of Sri Lanka, Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa to give them some recognition and privileges eg. nun identity card which he eventually granted. A section for Bhikhuni affairs was also created in the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
She was then invited by Dr F. Lottermoser to Germany to research on the Bhikkhuni Vinaya which took them 2 years to complete.
When she returned to Sri Lanka, Ayya Khema came to stay with her. She helped Venerable to receive the Bhikkhuni ordination by the Korean nuns in Sarnath in 1996 under the Dharmagupta lineage. She discovered that there was no difference between its Vinaya rules and the Pali Vinaya. Venerable was greatly inspired by the Sakyadhita Conference held in Sri Lanka in 1993 and did a second Bhikkhuni ordination in Bodhgaya in 1998. One of her remarks is “The facts are stubborn and history cannot be altered.”
2. Thailand – Venerable Dhammananda (Chatsumarn Kabilsingh)
Venerable Dhammananda is a former professor at Thammasat University, Bangkok and became the first Theravada bhikkhuni in Thailand. She was ordained in the Theravada tradition in Sri Lanka as a samaneri in 2001 and later as a bhikkhuni in 2003. This is after overcoming much trials and tribulations and she is now the abbess of Songdhamma Kalyani Monastery, which her mother, Venerable Ta Tao Fa Tzu had built in Nakhonpathom, Thailand. The Monastery now acts as the coordinating center of the Network of Thai Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha formed in 2013.
Training of Nuns
She holds temporary samaneri ordination programs twice annually and also conducts novitiate and meditation retreats at the Monastery. Presently, there are approximately 100 female monastics in Thailand.
Most notably, the bhikkhunis at Songdhammakalyani has started to spread the dhamma to female inmates in prison since 2011.  She is being invited for inter-faith dialogue with the Muslims in Thailand and incorporates environmental concerns in the program of the temple, for example, a recycling project and spreading the dhamma to preserve the environment.
She is an author and her doctoral thesis was on “A Comparative Study of the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha”. She has published numerous works in Thai and English, including Thai Woman in Buddhism. She translates over 30 Buddhist books from English to Thai with the most well-known being the Saddharmapundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra) and Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of The Dalai Lama.
She is a sought after speaker at international conferences and also participates in the ordination of bhikkhunis and samaneris abroad. She is one of the Spiritual Advisors of Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia and was a past President of Sakyaditha, International Association of Buddhist Women.
She also worked closely with the International Network of Engaged Buddhist (INEB) to support the growth of Buddhism in India and has provided bursaries to the Youth Buddhist Society, in Sankissa, India to come to Sondghammakalyani to further enhance their spiritual capabilities. In addition, she facilitated and assisted in the full ordination of ten monks from Sankissa in Thailand.
Venerable Dhammanda’s contribution to the spread Buddhism globally has won her accolades and recognition nationally and internationally. In 2012, the Ashwagosh Foundation in Nagpur, India awarded her the Sakyamuni International Award. The United Nations selected her as one of the fifteen Buddhist women recipients from world-wide to receive the “Outstanding Buddhist Women Award” in 2004. She was on the screening committee of Japan’s Niwano Peace Award from 2003-2006.
She will complete 12 vassas (rain retreat) by end of 2014 at the age of 71.
 For more details on this aspect, see Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, “Engaged Buddhism: Bhikkhunis’ Work with Inmates in Prison,” Yasodhara, Vol 31/1, No. 117, October-December 2013.
 For details see, “Developing Spiritual Leadership of Buddhist Youth in India,” Yasodhara, Vol 30/2, No. 114, January-March 2013.
3. Thailand – Venerable Ta Tao Fa Tzu (1908 – 2003)
Venerable 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 8 precepts from Pra Prommuni, Vice Abbot of Wat Bavornnives, the royal residence since Rama IV.
In 1946, she married Korkiat Shatsena, a member of parliament and representative of people in a southern province. Her daughter, Ven Dhammananda (Chatsumarn) was 10 years old when she became a nun. Rather than leaving the home, Ven Voramai turned her home into her temple.
Songdhammakalyani Monastery 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 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.
Ven Voramai continued propagating 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. She also offered more than a hundred Buddha images to various far away village temples.
Ven Dhammananda could see that women were actually 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, 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 pindapatta, 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 age of 96 years in 2003.
4. Bangladesh – Dipa Ma (Mother of Light) (1991 – 1989)
Her teaching was “to be aware and to be present and to bring in mindfulness to daily activities. You cannot separate meditation from life.”
She had hundreds of students including monks who sought her advice on her meditation technique. Among them was Venerable Dr Rastrapala, a bhikkhu who was ordained for eighteen years at the time when he met her. In 1970, he established the well-known International Meditation Centre in Bodhgaya.
Her concentration was so deep that, once at a retreat, the need for sleep and food vanished. At one point, a dog sank its teeth into her leg for a few hours without her realising it and it had to be pulled away by the monks and brought to hospital.
Dipa Ma developed her psychic abilities from an Indian master, Munindra, in the form of mind-reading, visitations to heavenly and hell realms, dematerialization, time travel and knowledge of past lives.
She spread the Dhamma, first in Myanmar, Bangladesh, then in India and USA influencing the Vipassana movement there. She was invited to teach meditation in USA by her students who are now renowned Buddhists meditation teachers like Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Cornfield.
5. Philippines – Venerable Bhiksuni Sui Miao (1922-1998)
Venerable Bhiksuni Sui Miao was born in Philippines of parents who are from Fujian, China. She spread the Dhamma in Philippines, Taiwan, California and in Hawaii where she settled down. Her temple there attracted many people of other faiths even though she spoke hardly any English or Japanese. Among the venerables she had ordained were Bhiksuni Jing Ping and Bhiksuni Jing Ru (Malaysian) who had continued her linage and work.
(NB – Dr Christie Chang of Taiwan, President, Sakyadhita International was introduced to Buddhism by Bhiksuni Sui Miao)