Archive | January 2015

Rev. Ikuko Hibino, Japan (1949 – ) : Yes, A Woman Can Be A Priest in Japanese Buddhism!

by Dr Lai Suat Yan

This article is written by  Dr Lai Suat Yan in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.

Rev. Ikuko Hibino, Japan (1949 – ): Yes, A Woman Can Be A Priest in Japanese Buddhism! RevIkukoHibino

“Can a woman can be a priest in Buddhism?” and “What is Buddhism?” were some of the questions directed at Rev. Ikuko Hibino when she was studying language in France.[1] These queries and the suggestion that she became a priest irrespective of her marital status piqued her curiosity and planted the seeds for her eventual path to be one. While her father is the head priest of the Kayadera Temple in Kuramae, Tokyo, as a woman she is expected to marry a priest who will eventually succeed her father. This is due to the cultural succession of temples that passes along the male lines. Although there is no prohibition for women to be priests in the Jodo school, this cultural practice is the mechanism in operation. Furthermore, a wife of a priest is generally expected to play a supportive role and produce male heirs to succeed the temple. In this context, Rev. Ikuko Hibino’s aspiration to be a priest was and still is an uncommon one.

As a university student, she majored in English literature in Atomi Gakuen Women’s College. Following her father’s footstep and recommendation she studied the English poet, William Wordsworth. She is considered an obedient daughter and while happy with her literary study, part of her wanted to do something different. She became involved with a theater group that she joined every afternoon after her classes. Her father sometimes attended her theater performances. It was her dream to become a theater producer then. Unfortunately, her father had a heart attack and passed away the year she graduated. She suffered as things were good for her until then. As she described it, “It was like a clear sky was suddenly covered with a black cloud.” This prompted her to think and find a meaningful life for herself. Her uncle then succeeded her father until she married a priest. She took the time to travel and examined herself and her culture from outside of Japan in different contexts, first to England and then later to France, also to attend a language school.

The questions and suggestions posed to her in France related to Buddhism and the possibility for a woman to be a priest led to her joining a training course organized by the headquarters of Jodo school after her return. She completed the three yearly sessions of training which included reading sutras, chanting meditation, Buddhist philosophy and history as well as performing Buddhist ceremonies and hymns. At the end of each of the yearly training course there were exams which she passed. After that she attended a final retreat course and the qualification as a Jodo school priest was conferred upon its completion. So, at age 26, in 1975 Rev, Ikuko Hibino officially became a priest. It took nearly 30 years later before she moved up the ranks and be certified as the chief priest of the Kayadera temple in 2002.

While there were those, usually male priests or lay people, who were not supportive of her decision to be a priest, they were in the minority and she did not heed them. Instead she focused her attention on 90 per cent of those who supported and protected her. Those supportive told her that if she needed help and if there was anything or custom she did not understand or not used to in the priest group, she could always asked them. In this context, she is thankful to these priests who were kind and protected her. Indeed, Rev. Ikuko Hibino was fortunate as she did not face any legal challenge to her succession of the temple as could be faced by a female priest. Or this could be analyzed as the testament of her ability to win over those around her.

The institutional practice of Buddhism is gendered male in another aspect–besides the succession of temple along male lines–as generally men are the ones allowed to lead in a religious ceremony as the pitch favored is that of the male voice. In this context, women faced an additional challenge but Rev. Ikuko Hibino surmounted this as well. According to her, “My voice is not different from that of a male priest, when we read the sutra, it is the same as male priests’ voice. Very often, women cannot…I was trained by an opera singer for that pitch when I was younger.” While changes may be forthcoming with the discussion of having two keys at the Jodo school headquarter, it is clear that the path to be a priest is much more difficult for women. Given these circumstances, there is a scarcity of female priests in comparison to male priests. In the area surrounding Rev. Ikuko Hibino’s temple in Kuramae, there are 36 Jodo sect temples but only two of the chief priests are female.

Rev. Ikuko Hibino’s presence signifies the possibility for women to be a female priest, rare as it maybe. She serves as a role model for other women in the Jodo sect in particular and younger female priests in this tradition consult her when needed. In addition, female Buddhists followers of her tradition or other tradition also consult her on various issues.

Service to All Beings Nationally and Internationally

Rev. Ikuko Hibino, like her male priest counterpart, conducts funeral rites and memorial ceremony for families of the departed. As the chief priest she oversees the development of the temple and presides over various Buddhist rituals and ceremonies such as the Ojuya ceremony that pays homage to the Buddha or the Segakie (hungry ghosts) ceremony. In addition, she is also a dharma speaker and a counselor. Trained as a counselor in the neuro-linguistic tradition she attends to those with problems by active listening and using language to encourage those suffering to open up, talk more, explore and find the answer that is within them.

From 1981-1989, she was the international committee member of the All Japan Young Buddhist Association and embodying the spirit of compassion was involved in refugee relief work at the Cambodian border. During this period, she was active in various international exchange activities with, for example, the Malaysian Youth Buddhist Association, Thai Youth Buddhist Association and the Taiwanese Youth Buddhist Association to foster international understanding. Besides her leadership ability, she is in a unique position to contribute at the international arena due to her command of English. From 1988-1990, she was the Deputy Secretary General of the World Fellowship of Buddhist Youth with objectives that includes promoting unity and solidarity among Buddhists globally, promoting peace and harmony among Buddhists youth as well as carrying out activities in various spheres from a humanitarian angle. As the Chairperson of the Standing Committee for Humanitarian Services of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, she chaired the adoption of the resolution to extend humanitarian services to all living beings to promote and strengthen animal welfare in 2012.[2] The resolution was sponsored by Mr. Senaka Weeraratna of the German Dhammaduta Society.

Reflecting her leadership qualities, openness to the diversity of culture and Buddhist traditions, since the late 2000s she has been one of the Board of Directors of the International Ladies of Buddhist Association, Japan.[3] The association organizes cultural, academic and educational activities to learn and educate others of the Buddhist culture and practices of various denominations to promote understanding and transcend differences. One of the tasks of the organization is to nurture female Buddhists to be future leaders of society. As a female Buddhist priest in a leadership position, Rev. Ikuko Hibino’s contribution is invaluable particularly, in a world marked by differences of various kind, be it gender, nationality, sectarianism, race, economic or culture.

Written by

Dr Lai Suat Yan

Vice-President Gotami Vihara

and Asian Public Intellectual (API) Fellow Year 13 (2013/14)

Materials for write-up was collected during the API Fellow grant


[1] For this sharing and more details please see the article by Rev. Ikuko Hibino on the Jodo school website in an article titled “The Daily Life of a Female Buddhist Priest”.

[2] For details see Janaka Perera, “World Fellowship of Buddhists takes steps towards promotion of animal welfare,” LankaWeb, 22 July, 2012 at,11001,0,0,1,0#.VAi1z_ldVwY accessed 11 August, 2014.

[3] For details of ILAB and its inauguration see Padmasari, Vol. 11, June 2009.


Korea – Venerable Bhikshuni Daehaeng Kun Sunim (1927 – 2012): A Great Meditation Master

by Barbara Yen

This article is written by  Barbara Yen in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.

Korea – Venerable Bhikshuni Daehaeng Kun Sunim (1927 – 2012): A Great Meditation Master

VenDaehaeng5During the time of Venerable Daehaeng, the status of monks and nuns were almost equal and nuns were able to take full ordination and could establish their own monasteries.

Ven Daehaeng was born in 1927 in Seoul’s Itaewon district. Like Master Cheng Yan of Tzu Chi, she was a self made nun without obtaining formal monastic training. As a child her family suffered greatly and lost their home under the Japanese colonial rule as her father was in the Korean army. As she had an inclination to meditate she seized the opportunity of the family being homeless and living in the forest, she took to the mountains, to spend time alone in the wilderness.

Spiritual Search and Cultivation
In 1950, Ven Daehaeng took the samaneri vows with Venerable Hanam Kun Sunim. She entered Sangwon Temple and spent four years in the mountains. As a female ascetic practitioner, she encountered gender-specific challenges.

With only the clothes she was wearing, and sleeping under trees, she ate whatever leaves and grass that was available. To keep herself safe, she smeared her body with mud which caused her skin to crack and bleed during winter. 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 Daehaeng 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 and trying to understand the true owner, the true doer. After about thirty years of intense practice and upon her awakening, she was absorbed in the various questions that spontaneously arose from inside. If a question arose in her mind, she stood on a spot for days and nights until she found an answer.

Teaching and Leadership Role
In 1972, Ven Daehaeng founded the Hanmaun Sonwon (One Mind Zen Centre) in Anyang, near Seoul and became its abbess. It was a place where everyone could learn about their true, pure nature and how to live with freedom, dignity, and courage.

Her teaching mainly emphasises on the daily cultivation of mind by observing ‘kuan’ or awareness; that everyday life and every moment was the perfect time to practice.

Ven believed that everyone was endowed with the wisdom and abilities of all Buddhas which was different from the egoistic, individual self. She called this wholesome mind ‘juinkong’ (the master who is void). One was to entrust everything to it and would be peaceful here and now and be free from the bondage of ego, and thus the web of suffering.

The perfect moment and answer to overcome suffering thus lay within us and there was no need to rely on outside powers or to search from elsewhere. Once this cloud of habits and discriminations had lifted, our inherently bright foundation, our true nature, could shine through. She taught us to entrust, to let go of everything that confronted us, to our inherent foundation, and then to go forward while observing.

Ven Daehaeng stressed the need to discover and develop our fundamental, universal mind and Buddha-nature and through which all beings and all universe were inter-connected as one. She was determined to teach spiritual practice in such a way that anyone, regardless of their occupation, gender, or family status could practice and awaken.

Ven was able to realise her teaching of harmonious living with all beings. The most outstanding activity was the formation of choirs for hymn singing daily as part of ‘kuan’ practice – for children, young adults, mothers and men.

Her Teaching on Truth

VenDaehaeng3“Truth is not something that can be found or lost. Truth naturally arises when you believe in your foundation and entrust everything to it.”

“Truth is the flowing that never stops for even a moment. It flows and penetrates and is alive. There is nothing in the world that is unmoving. Without beginning or end, without coming and going, there is only flowing, just as it is. Like flowing water, it flows naturally, without any hindrance. Because it is flowing like water, there is no moment that it ever becomes stagnant. Therefore, stopping something from flowing is the same as killing it.”

Large Following
Ven’s charismatic leadership attracted several hundred disciples and became the first nun in Korea to have male disciples, despite of observing the Eight Chief Rules or Garudamas. She also had about 100,000 lay followers. About 40% were men, many of whom were young, male intellectuals who helped establish 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. In 1996 they formed the Hanmaum Science Institute.

Her Dhamma talks which were usually attended by thousands of people, strove to combine the spiritual and material worlds under the teachings of One Mind. She used simple everyday language and was usually followed by questions and answers which was rarely practiced during her time in Korea.

She was seen as a Bodhisattva of medicine with her healing powers and had great compassion for people who were sick. She took on other’s pain, both physical and mental and healed them without even touching them. She also has psychic powers and communicated with deities, the deceased and with plants and animals.

She established fifteen branch temples in Korea and ten worldwide, in the United States, Canada, Germany, Argentina, Thailand and Brazil.


  • No River to Cross: Trusting the enlightenment that’s always right here (2007, Wisdom Publications)
  • Wake Up and Laugh: The Dharma teachings of Zen Master Daehaeng (2014, Wisdom Publications)
  • A Thousand Hands of Compassion: The Chant of Korean spirituality and Enlightenment (2008, Korean/English, Hanmaum Publications)
  • My Heart is a Golden Buddha: Buddhist stories from Korea (2012, Hanmaum Publications)

In the late 1970’s, she began translating the traditional ceremonies which were first used in the temples she founded. She was concerned that laypeople were missing the benefits that understanding the ceremonies could provide. She began translating them from the traditional Sino-Korean characters into modern, phonetic Korean. These included:

  • Thousand Hands Sutra (千手經), which includes the Great Compassion Dharani (大悲咒)
  • Heart Sutra (般若心經)
  • Diamond Sutra (金剛經)
  • Flower Ornament Sutra (華嚴經).

Her Korean version of the Thousand Hands Sutra and the Great Compassion Dharani has been published in English as A Thousand Hands of Compassion.

VenDaehaeng4Ven was awarded 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 a monastic life for 63 years.

Ven Daehaeng is widely regarded as one of Korea’s foremost Seon (Zen) masters and left an indelible mark in Korean Seon mountain meditation with her extraordinary determination in her spiritual practice and commitment to spread the Buddha sasana. She contributed to the modernization and popularization of Korean Buddhism throughout the world. Her work has made her legendary, even during her life-time.

1. Pori Park, ‘The Leadership of Bhikshuni Master Daechaeng and the One Mind Zen Centre (Hanmaum Seonwon) in South Korea,’ Eminent Buddhist Women,’ 11th Sakyadhita International Conference, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 2010
2. Hyesoen Sunim, ‘The Ascetic Mountain Practice of Seon Master Daechaeng,’ Eminent Buddhist Women,’ 11th Sakyadhita International Conference, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 2010
3. World-wide webs:,,

Written by
Barbara Yen
President, Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia

Buddhist Women As Agents of Change: Case Studies from Thailand and Indonesia

Ven. Dhammananda and the Female Monastic at Songdhammakalyani Monastery

This article was published in Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia Issue 16 September 2014  (

by Lai Suat Yan, Vice President, Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia

While in Thailand the majority of its population are adherents of the Theravada Buddhist ‘tradition’, in Indonesia, Buddhism is a minority religion with the Theravada Buddhist ‘tradition’ embraced by the majority of Buddhists. However, the development of the Theravada tradition in Indonesia is much influenced by its counterparts in Thailand.

Consisting only of men, the Theravada Buddhist ecclesiastical authorities in both Thailand and Indonesia do not recognize bhikkhunis (a fully ordained female monastic). In this context, the aspiration and determination of Buddhist women to be female monastics in the Theravada Buddhist tradition in the 21st century reflect their role as agents of change to bring renewal to their faith. Their convictions and actions affirm women’s spirituality and gender inclusiveness as envisioned by the Buddha in establishing the female monastic order. They are able to survive and even grow due to their ability to attract their own supporters and followers. Furthermore, those who aspired to be female monastic are able to travel outside of their countries to be ordained due to the transnational dimension of Buddhism. These Buddhist women thus reclaim their identities and roles from only being supporters of Buddhism to that of spiritual leaders, religious innovators and ritual specialists. The Theravada Buddhist ‘tradition’ is a changing one as the female adherents stake their claim to their rightful heritage as female monastic. Similarly, the identity and roles of Buddhist women are fluid.


Thailand’s Ven. Dhammananda on an almsround. She is seen here being given lotus flower buds, one of the popular offerings during almsrounds


Changing Identity of Buddhist Women

In Thailand, Ven. Dhammananda, and in Indonesia, Ven. Santini both reference the Buddhist scripture for a usable past[1] to posit that wherebhikkhunis are not in existence, it is possible for them to be ordained by bhikkhus (fully ordained male monastic) only (Lai 2014, 3, 6). They thus became religious innovators by leading the way in becoming ordained and legitimized, deeds based upon the ‘original’, ‘pure’ message of the Buddha. Detractors of bhikkhuni ordination claim that the proper procedure and requirement for bhikkhuni ordination is to require both bhikkhus andbhikkhunis (dual ordination) as the ‘original’, ‘pure’ message of the Buddha (Lai 2011, 147-48). Ven. Dhammananda received her full ordination as abhikkhuni in 2003 in Sri Lanka and Ven. Santini with three other Indonesian Buddhist women did so in 2000 in Taiwan. Their ordination subsequently paved the way for other Thai and Indonesian Buddhist women to be ordained and to defend their ordination as being based on the Buddha’s ‘tradition’. However, none of them are recognized by the religious authorities of the Theravada ‘tradition’ in their home countries. Despite this, Ven. Dhammananda and Ven. Santini introduced samaneri (novice female monastic) temporary ordination which is based upon the samanera (novice male monastic) temporary ordinations in their respective countries.

Nevertheless, both Ven. Dhammananda, and Ven. Santini are able to attract their own followers and are invited for ritual blessings of new homes and donated lands for schools. When they go for pindapata (almsround), a ritual symbolic of being a monastic in the Theravada tradition, laypeople give them dana (offerings of food, drink and flowers) indicating their support. Significantly, monastic — in this case, bhikkhunis — who practice well and purify their minds as they observe 311 precepts are sources of merits. Conventionally, women are perceived as only receivers of merits or as supporters of Buddhism (Terwiel 1994, 243). However, as female monastic they become “conveyor of blessings” (Harvey 1990, 241) in their role as ritual specialists whether it is going for pindapata (almsround) or in ceremonies conveying blessings for healing, protection or to ward off evil spirits. In ordaining and practicing well, women become synonymous with sources of merit and conveyers of blessings and symbolically represent sacred and positive power (Lai 2011, 203-17), a role conventionally identified with male monastic.

Ven. Santini during a blessings ceremony for land donated to expand a school

Ven. Santini during a blessings ceremony for land donated to expand a school


Both bhikkhunis are regarded as a spiritual leaders in their respective countries with their own followers and are well known for being socially engaged Buddhists. The female monastic at Songdhammakalyani Temple where Ven Dhammananda is abbess have worked with female prison inmates since 2011 (Dhammananda 2013, 16-20) and run an environmentally friendly project. Ven. Dhammananda has contributed to training and strengthening the Indian Bhikkhuni Sangha (Yasodhara 2013, 8-11) as well as facilitating the ordination of male monastic from Sankissa, India in Thailand (Thakur 2013, 5-7) and became involved in interfaith dialogue with Muslims in southern Thailand.

Furthermore, Ven. Santini and her followers are known for their work with the disadvantaged that transcends religious lines whether it is donating basic necessities such as rice, oil and sugar or monetary contribution in the aftermath of a fire to rebuild homes of the villagers nearby Wisma Kusalayani, Lembang where she is abbess or coming to the aid of the victims of the recent Mt Kelud eruption who are predominantly Muslims (Lai 2014, 5-6). The Wisma Kusalayani is run in an environmentally sustainable manner with a policy of reduce, reuse and recycle whether it is with regards to water or other household products and a separation of organic and non-organic waste.


Ven. Santini On An Aid Mission to Survivors of the Predominantly Muslim Population Affected by the Mt Kelud Eruption, Indonesia


Buddhist Women As Agents of Change

The research conducted indicates that these Buddhist women are agents of change as they bring renewal to their faith by ordaining as female monastic in spite of the obstacles encountered. They refer to the Buddhist scripture to reclaim their heritage as female monastic. As educated persons knowledgeable about Buddhist history and teachings of their tradition, they are able to withstand the opposition encountered and defend their ordination. As female monastic, they become more visible publicly, be it as a spiritual leader, a ritual specialist or a religious innovator. Both Ven. Santini and Ven. Dhammananda are religious innovators as they tap local culture and sentiments by introducing the samaneri temporary ordination in their respective countries, an innovation based on the existing samanera temporary ordination.

… And Growing Support

Support for the female monastic is growing as they find a niche in attending to the needs of female Buddhists due to the prohibition of close contact between a monastic and the opposite sex and in meeting the needs of the more disadvantaged sections of society. The socially engaged Buddhist practice that transcends religious lines bodes well for the future and can serve as a stepping stone towards religious harmony. In both the Thai and Indonesian case, networking at the international dimension enables them to be ordained. Furthermore, international networking offers a pathway for female monastic to share their experiences and ideas on a broader stage as well as learning from each other.

Dr Lai Suat Yan [2]
API Fellow 2013/14
Gender Studies Program, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
University Malaya, Malaysia.

Find out more about the Songdhammakalyani Monastery and Thai Bhikkunis:

Ven. Dhammmananda and two female monastic on almsround

Ven. Dhammmananda and two female monastic on almsround


Dhammananda. 2013. Engaged Buddhism: Bhikkhunis’ Work in Prison. Yasodhara 31/1: 16-20.
Gross, Rita. 2009. A Garland of Feminist Reflections. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Harvey, Peter. 1990. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lai Suat Yan. 2014. Buddhist Women As Spiritual Leaders, Ritual Specialists and Religious Innovators: Case Studies from Thailand, Indonesia and Japan. Paper presented at the 13th API Regional Conference, Hiroshima, Japan, 9-13th November.
Lai, Suat Yan. 2011. Engendering Buddhism, Female Ordination and Women’s Voices in Thailand. PhD diss., Claremont Graduate University.
Muecke, Marjorie. 2004. Female Sexuality in Thai Discourses About Maechi (lay nuns), Culture, Health and Sexuality 6/3: 221-38.
Tambiah, Stanley J. 1976. World Conqueror, World Renouncer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Terwiel, Barend J. 1994. Monks and Magic. 3rd ed. rev. Bangkok: White Lotus Press.
Thakur. 2013. Ordination of the Sakyas in Thailand. Yasodhara 31/1: 5-7.
Yasodhara. 2013. Training Program for All Indian Bhikkhuni Sangha. Yasodhara 31/1: 8-11.


  1. See Gross (2009, 20) for the importance of an accurate and usable past to empower women in the present and see Tambiah (1976, 528) and Muecke (2004, 232-34) for the deployment of an usable past in the context of religion in Thailand.
  2. I would like to acknowledge the support of the API Fellow grant for the data collected in Indonesia and for some of the materials and information gathered in Thailand.