Contemporary Bhikkuni Ordination in Sri Lanka

Contemporary Bhikkuni Ordination in Sri Lanka

By Ayya Sobhana Bhikkhuni, 2008

Bhikkhuni ordination: It is a great blessing that today bhikkuni ordination in Theravada Buddhism is no longer a novelty.

After a lapse of nine centuries, there now exists in Sri Lanka a functional bhikkuni sangha holding regular patimokkha (the twice monthly recitation of the precepts) and properly supported by bhikkus.

Sri Lankan nuns have received upasampada (full ordination) in every year since 1998. Over 400 bhikkhnis are practising, mostly in rural areas. There are 2,000 samaneris (novices) preparing for ordination, as well as 3,000 practising as Dasa Sil Matas, the older order of ten-precept nuns. These developments should be celebrated by anyone who appreciates the Buddha’s plan for a four-fold mahasangha of bhikkus, bhikkunis, male and female lay supporters.

Western women in particular have been discouraged from going forth in the Theravada tradition. There are many supportive bhikkus. (Bhante Gunaratna is among the most venerable of them.) Yet the history of inequities and lack of an established Western female sangha are serious barriers.

In a viable sangha, at least four bhikkunis would meet regularly for patimokkha and there would be sufficient depth of training and wisdom. The effort to form such a sangha has been hindered by difficulty in organizing ordinations, so it is encouraging to know that the Bhikkuni Order of Sri Lanka will ordain qualified foreigners.

In 2006, four international nuns were ordained with this order, together with ten local nuns. The ordination ceremony was held at the Chapter House of the Golden Temple in Dambulla, led by Bhante Inamaluwe Sumangala Thera. Bhikkuni Gunanusari and I had the privilege of participating in this ordination. Afterwards, I spent vassa (three-month rains retreat) at the home temple of Bhikkuni Siri Sumedha, who is the head of the Bhikshuni Educational Academy at Dambulla.

I attended several village welcoming ceremonies, the very impressive bi-monthly patimokkha attended by up to 115 bhikkunis, all-night pirit chanting at private homes, and a full round of Kathina celebrations.


I observed that this Sangha was organized out of the Dasa Sil Mata order, which was founded in 1932 by Ven. Sudharmacari (Mary Katharene de Alwis), a virtuous and capable nun who had studied dhamma and vinaya in Burma for 14 years. My bhikkuni teacher, who ordained as a DSM at age 12, explained that they did the same religious work as a bhikkhu, but without any recognition.

Their status was always ambiguous – not sangha and not lay. While some DSM nuns were well trained and disciplined in their practice, others were just destitute widows, who would go to a shop and buy some yellow cloth to wear.

In 1986, assisted by the government, a society of nuns was founded with chapters in every region of Sri Lanka. This society provided dhamma training and access to university level Buddhist study for the nuns.

It was this group of DSM nuns, together with their bhikku supporters, who organized the training programme and selection procedures for the re-establishment of the Bhikkuni Sangha.

Today’s Sri Lankan bhikkunis are drawn from the top rank of the DSM. They already have decades of experience, well established local temples and a base of lay supporters.

A few are scholars or recluses. The bhikkunis are venerated and supported by laity, but still materially quite poor compared to their male counterparts.

The ordination of bhikkunis is opposed by all three bhikkhus sects of Sri Lanka, but quietly supported by individual bhikkus. Gradually, they are receiving government recognition as clergy. There is no official persecution.

If any North American woman has the interest in goingforth and receiving full ordination, here are some points to consider about ordaining at Dambulla:

* The candidate should have three years of monastic training before ordination. Among our international group, some counted their upasika and anagarika experience, (dwelling at temple as lay residents and observing eight monastic precepts). Experience in Mahayana settings was also counted, as well as Theravada novice training.

* She should be sponsored by a respected Theravada monk who agrees to supervise her in her homeland for five years following ordination.

* There will be a qualifying examination. Local candidates receive a three-month training course, but unless she is fluent in Sinhalese, the foreigner must prepare at home under her own teacher.

The curriculum includes Bhikkhuni Patimokkha, Culavagga, Dhammapada, suttas, history of Buddhism and history of the bhikkhuni sangha from its ancient founding up to recent developments. Local candidates are expected to memorize large blocks of text in Pali, but it is possible to pass the examination with a very slight knowledge of Pali.

* Ordination is given annually, shortly before the beginning of vassa (July full moon).

* The teachers particularly advise candidates staying with a bhikkuni sangha for the first vassa.

* It is possible to obtain the full monastic training and supervision in Sri Lanka. For example, a samaneri could study Pali and Buddhism in a college setting, while learning Vinaya within a bhikkhuni dwelling. If she is not fluent in Sinhalese, the options are very limited, but there are a few English speaking bhikkhuni teachers.

* Naturally, she should first establish herself with a well-trusted, skilful primary teacher. Then, while learning dhamma and vinaya, let go of the attachments, commitments and habits of household life. Only then should she make the decision to take bhikkhuni ordination.