The Determined Buddhist Nuns of Sri Lanka

The Determined Buddhist Nuns of Sri Lanka March 12, 2023

The Buddhist nuns of Sri Lanka have needed determination for there to be nuns at all. The last post, The Buddhist Nun Controversy, explained that Buddhist nuns’ orders died out in southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka, centuries ago. And because of ancient rules that govern the ordinations and training of monks and nuns, for centuries women in most southeast Asian countries were not allowed full ordination because there were no fully ordained nuns to ordain them.

To recap: The Buddhism in most of southeast Asia is of the Theravada tradition. The loss of nuns in southeast Asia meant there were no Theravada nuns at all, anywhere. The only lineage of nuns that survived through the centuries to the present day began in China. It’s believed the first Chinese nuns were ordained in about 434 CE. The officiants were nuns from Sri Lanka who traveled to China to offer full ordination to their Chinese sisters. But the Chinese nuns were of the Mahayana tradition, not Theravada.

It’s believed the first order of Buddhist nuns was established in India by the Buddha, who is thought to have lived from about 563 BCE to 483 BCE. Over the centuries Buddhist monks carried the Buddha’s teachings everywhere in Asia. But the nuns’ orders did not spread as far. We know that there were once Buddhist nuns in Sri Lanka, probably from the 3rd century BCE to about the 11th century CE, but then the number of Buddhist nuns dwindled away. The time was marked by war, drought, and famine, and the number of monks in Sri Lanka dwindled also. But the monks’ order rebounded; the nuns’ order did not.

Meanwhile, the lineage of Mahayana nuns that began in China spread to the Korean peninsula, Japan, Vietnam, and Taiwan, where nuns’ orders thrive to this day.

In the late 20th century a few women of Sri Lanka were able to receive full nuns’ ordinations, for the first time in centuries. But these nuns are still struggling to be recognized as nuns by the monastic establishment in Sri Lanka.

The “Ten Precept Women” of Sri Lanka

In the late 19th century there was a significant revival of Buddhism in the British Crown Colony of Ceylon, which today is the independent nation of Sri Lanka. Many men were inspired to become monks. At the same time, many women of Ceylon also wished for a life dedicated to the Buddhist path. But while there were many Buddhist monasteries in Ceylon, there were no convents and no nuns.  So, not unlike the Beguines of Catholic Europe, these women created their own order.

The women began by vowing to keep the ten precepts (dasa-sila) given to novice monastics.  They came to be called dasa sil mātās, or “ten-precept women.”  Many of the dasa sil mātās shaved their heads and adopted a saffron-colored robe similar to the robes nuns had worn in Ceylon many centuries earlier. But in truth their place was and is somewhere between being nuns and being laywomen, since they had no official recognition as any sort of clergy. And they were denied formal, full ordination.

Over the years many dasa sil mātās worked in temples, cooking and cleaning. Others were able to form their own communities where more of their time could be devoted to meditation and study. Today the dasa sil mātās teach Buddhism and perform religious ceremonies for laypeople without official permission from the hierarchy.

Full Nuns’ Ordinations Resume

Pressure to allow women of Sri Lanka to receive full nuns’ ordination grew in the 20th century. In 1986 an association was founded in Sri Lanka to provide training and access to university-level Buddhist study for the dasa sil mātās, to prepare them for future ordination. In 1987 the International Association of Buddhist Women (IABW), also called Sakyadhita (“daughters of the Buddha”), was formed in Bodh Gaya, India, by a consotortium of Asian and western women Buddhist practitioners. These included laywomen and scholars together with some monks and laymen. High on the association’s list of goals was the revival of Theravada nun ordination.

In 1988, five women of Sri Lanka received full nuns’ ordination in a ceremony at Hsi Lai Monastery, Hacienda Heights California. They returned to Sri Lanka and were met with resistance from the monks. More Sri Lankan nuns were ordained in 1996 in Sarnath, India, with nuns from Korea presiding. There have been more ordinations since. I understand there are now a few hundred fully ordained nuns in Sri Lanka.

It’s my understanding that to this day none of the official organizations of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka recognize the ordinations of Theravada nuns. However, many individual monks accept the nuns, so it may be just a matter of time before a new generation of monastic leadership brings a change of attitude. Meanwhile, many of the dasa sil mātās prefer to remain unordained. They feel their unofficial status gives them more freedom from the patriarchal Buddhist establishment.

A woman offers incense at the Buddhist altar on the top of Adam`s Peak in Sri Lanka. Photo 181789251 / Buddhist © Kasto80 | Dreamstime.com
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