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.
IV Skills and Resilience in Spiritual Practice in Challenging Conditions
1. India – Venerable Visakha
Venerable Visakha from Patlipur, Maharashtra State, is among the renunciants who received full bhikkhuni ordination at the first Theravada bhikkhuni ordination held at Bodhgaya in 1998. She was then aged 80. She was greatly moved and expressed her deep gratitude to Bhiksu Hsing Yun of Foh Guang Shan, Taiwan for reviving the Bhikkhuni Order in India. She is committed to support equal rights and improving the status of women in Theravada societies.
In her youth, she did Dhamma volunteer work and was greatly inspired by Dr Ambedker. She became an anagarika in 1964 and a samaneri in 1967 under the guidance of Venerable Saddhananda Bhikkhu Samadhi who taught tranquility meditation. She then started to share with the villagers about the Dhamma and also volunteered for six years in the publishing of Dhamma materials.
With the help of her teacher, she built a temple in Thiroda village which took them four years to complete. In 1990, they built the Mahaprajapati Bhikkhuni Vihara, also known as the All Indian Bhikkhuni Centre and completed it in 2006. She was assisted by Ven Katyayani Bhikkhuni and Ven Seelachara Bhikkhuni and other devotees. She became the President of the All Indian Bhikkhuni Sangha.
2. Myanmar – Daw Thissawaddy
Daw Thissawaddy was a Buddhist nun who studied for a Ph.D in religious philosophy in Sri Lanka and received higher ordination there. She was detained on 27 May, 2004 when she returned to Rangoon for an international conference and also to see her father who was ill. He passed away soon after.
Prior to her return, she had sent a letter of appeal to the government to accept women for higher ordination in Myanmar. She was charged under Section 295 and 295(a) of Burma’s criminal code. Section 295 relates to “abusing religion” while 295(a) addresses “desecration of religious buildings and property.”
When news of her arrest broke out to the world, the junta released her and she left the country. She is now living in America and is married to a Zen practitioner. She has an older sister who is a Sayalay and their father had been a monk before.
(Original reporting in Burmese by Tin Aung Khine. Edited and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han. http://www.rfa.org/english/news/social/burma_buddhism-20050707.html)
3. Mongolia – Venerable Amaa (1905-2010),
Amaa’s father and grandfather were accomplished lamas. She was a forest meditator since her twenties. During Stalin’s communist regime, Buddhists were persecuted and many Lamas were killed or disrobed. Amaa and a group of yogis, lead by Tibetan master, Lama Zundui, had to practice secretly for two years in caves and cemeteries, hiding in the cover of darkness and dressed in lay clothing.
Amaa was renowned as the only person in all of 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 Padmasambhava, now popularly known as ‘The Tibetan Book of Dead’.
Although devotees daily visited her non-stop to ask for advice, prayers and blessings, she did not have a sacred space of her own. All her activities were conducted in her family ger. On auspicious days, she and her students chant in a nearby temple. In 2008, at the age of 104, Amaa finally had her own tent, which became a meditation and chanting shrine. It was sponsored by an American male devotee, Batbaatar who had never met her before.
Also in 2008, Ven Amaa travelled 200 miles from Khenti Province to Ulaanbaatar to attend the 10th Sakyadhita Conference. 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 declared, “I have been waiting for this moment my whole life,” Amaa passed away in 2010, nearly 106 of age.
4 China – Venerable Bhiksuni Jing Jian (292- CE) and Venerable Bhiksuni An Ling Shou (300– CE)
Zhong Ling Yi went forth and became the first woman in China to take the bhiksuni precepts. After her ordination, the newly named Bhiksuni Jing Jian ordained many more women, including her great disciple, Bhiksuni An Ling Shou. They faced many objections including from a bhikkhu and for An Ling Shou, from her family members as well.