Bhikkhuni Sudhamma traces the origin of contemporary Buddhist ordination of women to Queen Anula, Sri Lanka’s first bhikkhuni, and recounts her own experience in visiting the queen’s stupa.
On the island of Sri Lanka, during the third century BCE, a junior queen (a sister-in-law to King Devanampiya Tissa) dwelled in royal comfort. Known as Anula Devi, or Queen Anula, she was to become the first Sri Lankan woman to ordain as a Buddhist bhikkhuni (female monk).
Her story is generally traced back to an encounter the king had when hunting on a mountain one day. While in pursuit of a deer, the king suddenly came upon a dignified man with a shaven head, wearing saffron robes, who had mysteriously appeared on the mountain along with several others like him.
During instruction to townspeople later that day, a thousand people attained the first stage of enlightenment. That evening, during a teaching for women of noble families, another thousand attained. When the king and his people greeted the Elder the next morning, Arahant Mahinda gave a talk during which Anula Devi and five hundred women of the palace attained to the second stage of enlightenment.His name was Ven. Arahant Mahinda, a bhikkhu and former prince sent from India by his father, the great Emperor Asoka, to introduce Buddhism to the people of Sri Lanka. Deeply impressed by the wise bhikkhu and his retinue of bhikkhu elders, the king and his large entourage took refuge in the Buddha, and then invited the venerable Elders to take their meal at the palace in the morning. Learning of the king’s praises of the bhikkhus, Anula Devi and the ladies of the palace were eager to hear their teachings. After the Elders took their meal, Anula Devi and five hundred women of the court offered gifts and then respectfully listened to a discourse, at the end of which all of them attained the first stage of enlightenment.
After tasting the sublime joy of Nibbana, how could the palace women continue to live the now burdensome life of a royal householder, with its shallow pleasures? Queen Anula and the five hundred ladies bravely requested the going-forth into homelessness, and the king urged Mahinda to grant their wish. According to the ancient chronicle, the Mahawansa, Mahinda replied:
“It is not allowed to us, O great king, to bestow ordination on women. But [in India ] there lives a bhikkhuni, my younger sister, Sanghamitta. She, who is ripe in experience, shall come hither bringing with her the southern branch of the great Bodhi-tree of the [Buddha], O King of Men, and (bringing) also bhikkhunis renowned (for holiness); to this end send a message to the king my father. [Sanghamitta] will confer the ordination upon these women.”
So the king sent a messenger to the court of Emperor Asoka to request that Ven. Arahant Sanghamitta come with an entourage of bhikkhunis and a cutting of the Lord Buddha’s Bodhi tree. Sanghamitta’s father, the emperor, protested, knowing that she would never return. However, having heard that the queen “lives longing for ordination” and remains “constantly in stern discipline,” Ven. Sanghamitta, moved by compassion, resolved to respond to the queen’s plea and those of the other women.
Months passed while all necessary arrangements ensued in India . Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka , the new religion spread quickly. Thirty thousand Sri Lankan men ordained, including some relatives of the king. Queen Anula and five hundred ladies of the palace and five hundred maidens, though living a life of luxury that most would envy, were unable to wait for their freedom. They undertook ten precepts (novice vows) and put on the yellow robes. They moved into a new monastic residence graciously provided by the king called The Lay Women’s Monastery (Upasikaa Vihara).
Finally, Ven. Sanghamitta and her bhikkhuni companions arrived by ship, carrying with them the sacred Bodhi-tree cutting. Their ship entered the northern port of Jaffna , where the king honored their arrival by wading into the water in greeting. After their arrival, under Sanghamitta’s direction, the ship was broken into pieces, and the mast, rudder, and helm housed in Upasikaa Vihara and kept for public viewing (creating the world’s first museum). The holy tree cutting that she brought, a living link to the enlightenment of the Buddha, was taken with great pomp to the heart of the capital city of Anuradhapura and ceremonially planted. There the blessed tree, continuously worshipped, lives on even now, 2,300 years later.
We can only imagine Anula Devi’s delight on seeing the face of her benefactor and finally bowing to a woman in robes. Anula and the ladies of the court received the going-forth from Ven. Sanghamitta at which time Ven. Anula attained to full enlightenment. The bhikkhuni sangha flourished in Sri Lanka . Less than two hundred years later, an important ceremony drew ninety thousand bhikkhunis. Five hundred years after that, a compassionate group of bhikkhunis made the arduous voyage from Sri Lanka to China in response to the appeal of Chinese women wishing to ordain. The bhikkhuni sangha spread from there. All Mahayana bhikkhunis today trace their roots back to Sanghamitta and the women she ordained in Sri Lanka .
Whenever war decimated the Sri Lankan male sangha, bhikkhus voyaged from other countries to resume ordinations of men. Sadly, when the same brutal conditions decimated the Sri Lankan female sangha, no revival occurred, and a light went out in Theravada Buddhism. Unknown thousands of Theravada women, who, like Anula Devi, longed to live the holy life, had to accept its impossibility. Until recently, that is. Elder Taiwanese and Korean bhikkhunis, in gratitude to the Sri Lankan bhikkhunis who long ago gave life to the Chinese female sangha, recently gave back the same to Sri Lankan women, in several international ordination ceremonies, most notably in the late 1990’s. The new Theravada bhikkhunis, now hundreds strong, are thriving, and have spread to more countries. All the new bhikkhunis can empathize with Anula Devi’s longing for the holy life, and remain grateful not only to their great foremother Ven. Sanghamitta, but to the renunciate Anula Devi as well.
I visited the place where Queen Anula and the women of the court fulfilled their dream to ordain. After the seeming miracle of my own higher ordination in Sri Lanka in 2003, some friends and I went on pilgrimage to the holy sites in Anuradhapura . We venerated the enormous stupa, a bell-shaped monument, at Ruwanveliseya, which stands more than three hundred feet tall and contains Buddha relics. We meditated beneath the ancient Bodhi tree. We went to the nearby site of Mihintale, the mountain monastery of Arahant Mahinda, where we bowed to the large white Buddha stupa that stands at the top of this small, steep mountain.
Our tour guide, a retired archeologist, took us several miles from Mihintale to a deserted area of scrub trees and stones outside an unremarkable small village. In a clearing made by a large slab of rock, our guide pointed out a rectangular concrete border marking a newly-discovered ancient inscription carved into the stone. The markings at the end identify the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa, thereby dating the inscription to 2300 years ago, the 3rd century BCE. Our guide translated the rock’s ancient Sinhala script: “This is the place the five hundred ladies with Queen Anula became bhikkhunis.”
I looked around the isolated, wind-swept area. To one side of the inscription, the rock curved downward into a lovely lotus pond. To the other side, the rock climbed upward to a plateau where about a dozen enormous hand-chiseled granite boulders rested: supports for wooden beams for buildings, the foundation of the monastery. Shallow stairs carved into the rock lead up towards the former buildings. I had an image of beautiful, well-tended flowers raised in boxes on each side of the staircase, and felt a growing sense that I had “come home.”
Beyond the building foundations arose a brush-covered hill about twenty-five feel tall. Our guide explained the hill was actually a small, ancient stupa, probably holding Ven. Anula Devi’s cremated relics. On the other side of the stupa, one can see a distant mountain peak where the white stupa of Mihintale shines like a beacon. I envisioned bhikkhunis here long ago also gaining inspiration from the stunning distant sight.
As my friends returned to our van, I slipped away and quickly ascended the “hill,” carefully stepping among the scratchy bushes and many fallen, broken, deep red bricks, signs of the crumbling stupa. In the privacy created by the bushes and small trees, I lowered my forehead onto the earth covering the stupa. Lingering in that position, I silently introduced myself to any listening deities, explaining that I, too, am a bhikkhuni. The bhikkhuni sangha did not perish, but long ago spread from here to China and recently was brought home to Sri Lanka. Soon I would return to my own country far away, the U.S.A., and asked for their assistance.
I breathed in a sense of exquisitely sweet, supportive energy. How I never wanted to leave! But my friends impatiently honked the van’s horn. Reluctantly, I departed.
Drawn by an urgent need to return, the following weekend I managed to find a way back from Colombo which is many hours’ drive to the south. Again I reverently approached the stupa and laid my forehead onto the parched dirt. This time I simply opened myself to whatever would arise. I began to cry tears of grief. I wept for the lady whose relics were enshrined here. It felt as though she had been cremated and placed here only days ago. I missed my great teacher!
In response, a calming, soothing presence enveloped me.
* * *
Bhikkhuni Sudhamma grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was ordained as a novice by her teacher, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, at Bhavana Society in West Virginia, and later received bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka. Currently she is the abbess of the Carolina Buddhist Vihara in Greenville, South Carolina.
1. An abridged version of this article was previously published in Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Volume Six, Number 2, Winter 2007, page 45, and is reprinted here with its gracious permission.