by Samaneri Sumangala
Commemorating the Contribution of Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta: The 1st Female Missioner in the World History
Full moon day 6th December 2014 is dedicated as Sanghamitta Day – a day to reflect upon the arrival of Venerable Sanghamitta Theri to Sri Lanka to bring forth the Bhikkhuni Sasana oversea and to spread the Buddha-Dhamma far from her homeland Pataliputra, India back in 3rd BC. It is also an observance day of Uposatha (taking refuge in the Triple Gem and observing the 5 or 8 precepts) to mark the arrival of the Great Bodhi Tree, the tree under which the Buddha gained Enlightenment. It was brought by Venerable Sanghamitta Theri from India and planted by King Devanampiya Tissa in the Mahameghavana, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. This Bodhi Tree, the oldest tree in the world is still alive until today (2300 years) to inspire people on the Buddha’s Enlightenment and the Path to and the practice of Enlightenment. It is also synonym to the arrival and contribution of Venerable Sanghamitta Theri.
Venerable Sanghamitta Theri was the daughter of King Ashoka (the great Buddhist king of Maurya Dynasty who initiated the 3rd Buddhist Council and sent 9 missionaries group to spread the Buddha-Dhamma and Buddha Sasana far and wide). She was also the sister of Venerable Mahinda Thera who started the Bhikkhu Sasana and Buddha-Dhamma in Sri Lanka. Sanghamitta was married at the age of 14 and had a son. Later her husband Aggibrahma joined the Bhikkhu Order and when her son grew up, he too became a samanera who follow Venerable Mahinda Thera to Sri Lanka.
At a very young age of 18 Sanghamitta too renounced her royal household life and became a bhikkhuni. She was known as a profound learner of the Dhamma-Vinaya and referred to as Arahat Sanghamitta. At the age of 32, upon the request of King Devanampiya Tissa for the ordination of her sister in-law Princess Anula and many women in Sri Lanka, Venerable Sanghamitta Theri took the courage and determination to start the Bhikkhuni Sasana in the far distance land. Escorted by the Sri Lanka ambassador Prince Arittha and together with ten bhikkhunis and the eight representatives from each: the royal family, the nobility, Brahmins, traders and many skilled personnel from different castes, she sailed to Sri Lanka with the Bodhi Tree placed in a golden vase. With Ven. Mahinda Thera’s injunction, her effort completes the Buddha’s Fourfold Sangha (bhikkhu, bhikkhuni, upasaka and upasika) in Sri Lanka.
Her arrival was well received and Princess Anula was ordained as the 1st Bhikkhuni in Sri Lanka, followed by a thousand women from different ranks of society. Since then, Bhikkhuni Order continued to flourish and brought about the wellbeing, status and contribution of women as well as the people in the country. As the bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka were so illustrious and well learnt in Dhamma-Vinaya, around 5th CE, recorded in the Chinese history, a delegation of bhikkhuni from Sri Lanka led by Bhikkhuni Devasara went to China to ordain Chinese women by the Dharmaguptaka vinaya, which was also a lineage of Theravada. Thus bhikkhuni sasana continues to flourish untill today although in the 11th CE, when Cholian king from South India invaded Sri Lanka, the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni Order disappeared due to war and famine. In the late 20th CE, the Theravada bhikkhuni sasana in Sri Lanka was re-established with the ordination of ten bhikkhunis by the Theravada monks at Sarnath, India, where the Buddha’s first sermon was preached and the 1st Sangha or Buddha’s 1st Community of the Nobles was established. Since then the bhikkhuni Sangha in Sri Lanka continued to grow. Women in Sri Lanka play a vital role in spiritual life and contribute to the well being of the people and the country. In Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, a Buddhist woman became the world’s first female head of government on 21 July 1960.
Indeed, it was a remarkable move for Venerable Sanghamitta Theri, a female to break through the tradition of a no..no… from the caste system, from the gender differences, from status and above all from “the belief system of the day.” She was the 1st women ever recorded in history (Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa of Sri Lanka) to take on this missionary task and her influence is immeasurable. Her exemplary practice and attainment, courage and determination, dedication and diligence in propagating and promoting the Buddha-Dhamma and Buddha-Sasana should be taken at heart and be followed for one’s wellbeing, happiness and benefit and for the good of the many.
On this Sanghamitta Day reflect and be inspired to recall to mind:
Be the 1st to travel out of the comfort zone for a good and noble cause
Be the 1st to learn and master the profound Dhamma – the Noble Eightfold Path
Be the 1st to take the courage to be a Dhamma missioner
Be the 1st to support the Bhikkhuni sasana and continue to support the Fourfold Sangha
Be the 1st to set the goal for enlightenment and walk the Path of Enlightenment
As you take the 1st step, the door to liberation is open. Every one step leads nearer to the ultimate Nibbana. This is the step for all your noble wishes to be fulfilled soon.
May you be well and safe. May you be free from the ill of defilements. May your heart be happy.
Namo Buddhaya, Namo Dhammaya, Namo Sanghaya