Buddhist nuns make comeback in Sri Lanka - to monks' dislike

In a nation where Buddhist nunneries supposedly closed down 800 years ago, Sister Indirani and others like her do quite well. In fact, they do so well that monks in Sri Lanka are up in arms, reviving old charges of heresy against them.

Once an invisible minority, Buddhist nuns here have swelled to approximately 3,000 in the last decade and continue to grow as more Sri Lankan women take on new roles in the developing society.

The nuns represent a movement that may well change the face of Buddhism in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). And it is the direction and growth of this grass-roots religious body that has become the unlikely focus of controversy.

Sister Indirani, for instance, spends her days at a Buddhist temple giving advice and solace to impromptu guests - men and women alike - on a wide range of problems. She often helps donate food, clothing, furniture - and sometimes land - to the poor.

She grew up in the slums of Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, and became a nun at age 10. Like other nuns in this island nation, she is desperately poor and begs for food on the streets.

''You see them walking aimlessly on the streets, begging,'' Eardley Ratwatte, the government's commissioner of Buddhist affairs, relates. ''It appears as if they don't know where they'll get their next meal.''

The monks have long discriminated against the nuns because of their alleged heresy. Specifically, nuns cannot be ordained. ''The monks don't treat the nuns as equals, but as poor relations,'' says Kusuma Devendra, a Sri Lanka university lecturer who is studying the nuns.

But says Sister Indirani, in regard to following Buddhist teachings, ''What monks do, we do.''

The women call themselves Dasasil Matas, or ''Mothers of the Ten Precepts.'' The 10 precepts are specific rules of conduct taught by the Indian prophet, Buddha, in 6th century before Christ. They include taking vows of chastity, not taking the life of living things, not taking what is not given, not engaging in false or idle talk, not using intoxicants, and not taking part in material pleasures. When followed, the rules are believed to lead one to enlightenment.

In Sri Lanka, it is traditional for devout laity to take five, eight, or 10 precepts, after which they wear white clothing to symbolize spiritual purity. But Dasasil Matas go one step further. Instead of conforming to white lay attire , they don yellow robes, shave their heads, accept alms from the public, perform rituals - and in so doing, assume the role of Buddhist clergy.

But Buddhist monks did not always discriminate against nuns in Sri Lanka.

Although some believe the Buddha himself was progressive on women's issues, he was not egalitarian. In a well-known Buddhist scripture, he was hesitant to establish an order of nuns, or bhikkhuni sangha. It was due only to persistent entreaties of his closest disciple, Ananda, that he did so. But the Buddha predicted that the life span of his teachings would be reduced as a result.

When Buddhism was introduced in Sri Lanka by the Indian monk Mahinda Thera in the third century BC, a number of women implored him to ordain them as nuns. But according to the Vinaya, the canonical rules governing Buddhist monastic life, ordination of women could be given only by a Buddha or by members of a bhikkhuni sangha. So the nun Sanghamitta Theri, Mahinda Thera's sister, came to Sri Lanka, where she founded a bhikkhuni sangha.

The order flourished for more than a millenium. A group of missionary nuns sailed to China in 426 BC and established an order there that still survives.

The Sri Lankan bhikkhunis, however, originated from a monastery steeped in one branch of Buddhism (Mahayana) that eventually lost out to another branch (Theravada) in the 5th century AD. In fact, Mahayana Buddhism was cast into disrepute and the order of nuns died out here in the 12th century.

The only women who have a lineage of such ordination are found in China and Hong Kong, countries in which Mahayana Buddhism dominates.

Contemporary efforts here to restore the lineage, by sending women to China or Hong Kong for ordination, are haunted by this fifth-century dispute. Orthodox Theravadans conclude it is impossible to resuscitate the order.

One possible solution to this seemingly no-win situation, Mrs. Devendra says, is ''if the bhikkunis receive ordination (abroad), return here, and pay penance to the monks. They must confess to a deed that dates back to the fifth century.''

Still, she is skeptical about Dasasil Matas receiving ordination in the near future. Monks, she claims, ''would fight it every step of the way because they feel threatened. They fear that nuns will become more spiritually advanced.''

Nuns who also support a bhikkhuni sangha here cite more practical problems: The present Dasasil Matas are a disorganized group who lack basic facilities and education. These issues take immediate priority, they say.

''What is important is to observe the Vinaya rules and apply these teachings to religious, charitable work,'' says Sister Sudharma, who holds a bachelor's degree in Buddhist civilization and, as perhaps the most influential nun in Sri Lanka, has established 13 nunneries.

The contrast between the life styles of Dasasil Matas and monks is stark. Monks receive substantial food, housing, health care, and education from governmental and private sources.

With these enticing benefits, most of which the average Sri Lankan cannot afford, it is not uncommon for a boy to enter the monastery - ironically, for a better material if not spiritual life.

Last year, the government sent questionnaire-registration forms to all nunneries in an attempt to organize Dasasil Matas and thus provide needed goods and facilities.

Less than one third of the forms were returned, however. According to Mr. Ratwatte, some women were suspicious of the move and feared government repression.

Sister Indirani says she understands this sentiment. Faced with lack of support - and, at times, hostility - they are suspicious of any official charitable act.

Despite - or perhaps because of - their lowly status, one cannot underestimate Dasasil Matas' strong determination to pursue religious lives.

Their reasons for joining the order are as varied as the women themselves. Many, like Sister Indirani, report religious callings at an early age. One woman joined the order at age 70. A number of Dasasil Matas were battered wives.

Perhaps due to the daily hardships they face, Mrs. Devendra suggests, Dasasil Matas are more attuned to the sufferings of others.

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