Commemorating the Contribution of Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta

by Samaneri Sumangala

Commemorating the Contribution of Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta: The 1st Female Missioner in the  World History

Sanghamitta2Full 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.

SanghamittaAt 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… 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


The Passing of Other Elders

from the Extended Mahāvaṁsa, Chapter XX. The Complete Emancipation of the Elders
ExtMhv 75-82 cf. Mhv 54-58

Temples (Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok)

(Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok)

Also the five Great Elders: Ittiya, Uttiya, the Great Elder Bhaddasāla and the greatly intelligent Sambala, and Mahinda, these five, being without pollutants, attained Emancipation.

Also beginning with the Great Elder Ariṭṭha, greatly wise and skilful, after skilfully teaching many students in the Discipline, Doctrine and Abstract Doctrine, being expert in discrimination, together with innumerable thousands of monks who had destroyed the pollutants passed away.

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The Passing of Arahat Sanghamitta

from the Extended Mahāvaṁsa, Chapter XX. The Complete Emancipation of the Elders
ExtMhv 65-74 cf. Mhv 48-53

Stupa (Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok)

(Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok)

The Great Elder Saṅghamittā, of great power, great intelligence, fulfilled all duties to the Dispensation with virtue and wisdom, and benefitted many people in the delightful Island of Laṅkā.

Nine years after the beginning of the reign of King Uttiya, fifty-nine years (after arriving), while residing in the Elephant’s Measure house, this light of the world passed away.

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The Passing of Arahat Mahinda

from the Extended Mahāvaṁsa, Chapter XX. The Complete Emancipation of the Elders
ExtMhv 43-64 cf. Mhv 29-47

Stupa (Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok)

(Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok)

After the King Devānampiyatissa’s passing, his younger brother, well-known as Uttiya, also born of King Muṭasīva, ruled righteously.

The Elder Mahinda was the Light of Laṅkā, a leader of a great crowd, who light up the Island of Laṅkā, who propogated the supreme Dispensation of the Victor consisting of proper study, practice and penetration. He who was like the Teacher, 1 benefitted many in the world in Laṅkā, with a virtuous crowd of wise monks in the Community, in the eighth victorious year of the King Uttiya, within the Rains Retreat, after he had dwelt sixty years near the Cetiya mountain, on the eighth day of the bright half of the month Assayuja, 2 that passionless Elder, who increased the light, 3 attained Emancipation.

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Ven. Sanghamitta and the Nunneries

from the Extended Mahāvaṁsa, Chapter XIX. The Journey of the Great Bodhi Tree
ExtMhv 118-120 & 166-189 cf. Mhv 68-85

Nuns Worshipping (Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok)

Nuns Worshipping
(Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok)

Near the Lord’s Great Bodhi Tree, through the wonder of being near the flag of the true Dhamma preached in the lovely words of the land of Laṅkā, Queen Anulā, with five hundred women and together with another five hundred women of the harem received the going-forth in the presence of the Elder Saṅghamittā, and those one thousand nuns, after developing insight, in no long time attained the state of Worthiness.

The Great Elder Saṅghamittā lived in the Nunnery known as the Lay-Womens’ Monastery together with her Community. She made there three dwelling places which were considered the foremost. 1

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Reception in Lanka

from the Extended Mahāvaṁsa, XIX. The Journey of the Great Bodhi Tree
ExtMhv 38-51 = Mhv. 23-31

Receiving the Bodhi Tree (Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok)

Receiving the Bodhi Tree
(Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok)

King Devānampiyatissa, who delighted in the benefit of the world, had heard from the novice Sumana about the day of the arrival of the Bodhi Tree, and from the first day that began the month of Maggasira he decorated the highway from the north gate as far as Jambukola with silver leaves of cloth strewn like sand that had been sprinkled all round on the highway.

From the day the King went out from the city he waited at the grounds of the reception-hall by the ocean, and there the Lord of the Earth, through the psychic power of the Great Elder Nun, saw the Great Bodhi Tree coming in the middle of the great ocean, decked out in all its splendour, and by the power of Mahinda, he drew as though close to it.

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Ven. Sanghamitta and the Bodhi Tree set out for Lanka

from the Extended Mahāvaṁsa, XIX. The Journey of the Great Bodhi Tree
ExtMhv 1-37 cf. Mhv 1-22

The Nuns Set Sail (Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok)

The Nuns Set Sail
(Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok)

In order to protect the Great Bodhi Tree, the Best of Charioteers appointed eighteen from royal families, and eight from ministerial families, eight from brahminical families, eight from merchants’ families, and from the foremost and faithful cow-herders families, the sparrow weavers, 1 the potters families, the hyena families, eight of each were also appointed.

He sent Nāgas and Yakkhas together with their assembly and sprinkled it with water brought for the purpose day by day and gave eight gold and eight silver water-pots, as was desired. Then taking the Great Bodhi Tree and worshipping it in various ways, he said: “In whatever way you like go from city to city.”

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Festivities for the Bodhi Tree

from the Extended Mahāvaṁsa, Chapter V. The Third Recital
ExtMhv 111-120 cf. Mhv. 64-68

Bodhi Tree Festivities (Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok)

Bodhi Tree Festivities
(Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok)

On the first day of the bright half of the month Kattikā the Guardian of the World Asoka placed a branch of the Great Bodhi to the east of the root of a lovely great Sāla tree, and worshipping it day by day, on the seventeenth day new shoots starting taking hold and arose on the trunk of the delightful Bodhi Tree.

Seeing that the Lord of the World, his mind faithful and satisfied, with his ten fingers raised in reverential salutation to his head, said: “I give it sovereignty over the whole of the Rose-Apple Island,” and the Lord of the World consecrated the Great Bodhi Tree with sovereignty.

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Requesting Ven. Sanghamitta and the Bodhi Tree

from the Extended Mahāvaṁsa, Chapter XV. The Acceptance of the Great Monastery
ExtMhv 1-32 cf. Mhv. 1-18

Mahinda and Arittha (Mural at Wat Pho)

Mahinda and Arittha
(Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok)

In order to bring the Great Bodhi Tree and the Elder Nun, the Lord of the World, remembering the statement spoken by the Elder, on a certain day in the Rainy Season, while sitting in his own city near the Elder, consulted his ministers and urged his nephew, the minister called Ariṭṭha, to undertake these deeds.

After considering it and inviting him, he uttered this statement: “Dear, after going into the presence of King Dhammāsoka will you be able 1 to bring the Elder Nun Saṅghamittā and the Great Bodhi Tree here?”

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The Great Cloud Monastery and Queen Anula

from the Extended Mahāvaṁsa, Chapter XV. The Acceptance of the Great Monastery
ExtMhv 1-37b cf. Mhv. 1-26b

Queen Anula Listens to Dhamma (Mural at Wat Pho)

Queen Anula Listens to Dhamma
(Mural at Wat Pho, Bangkok))

[The story now moves on around thirteen years. In the meantime King Asoka had seen to the reunification of the Saṅgha and the holding of the Third Council in which the teachings had been reconfirmed. Following this the leading monk at the Council had arranged to send missionaries to the border areas. The Arahat Mahinda had been sent to the Island of Laṅkā, where he had converted King Devānampiyatissa and many others. The story picks up as he continues with his teaching mission:]

“The elephant stall is crowded,” said those who had assembled there, and outside the southern gate, in the delightful Joy Grove, in the King’s garden, which was well-covered, cool and grassy, the people reverentially prepared seats for the Elders.

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