Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

"We Love Our Nuns": Affective Dimensions of the Sri Lankan Bhikkhuni Revival

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

"We Love Our Nuns": Affective Dimensions of the Sri Lankan Bhikkhuni Revival

Article excerpt

Introduction (2)

The Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhist order of bhikkhunis, or fully ordained nuns, was revived in the late 1990s after a gap of circa 1000 years. Since 1998 bhikkhuni ordination ceremonies occur regularly in the country. (3) Estimates on the number of nuns in the new bhikkhuni order range between 1000 and 2000. The rapid growth of the bhikkhuni order is, perhaps, surprising given the fact that the Sri Lankan government and the bhikkhu sangha have not yet formally accepted the revival. Consequently, although it is legal to hold bhikkhuni ordinations and establish bhikkhuni temples, these temples receive no government funding, making it especially hard for nuns to get a monastic education. There are, however, a number of prominent bhikkhus advocating on behalf of bhikkhunis. (4) Thus formal recognition of the bhikkhuni revival may well come in the not-too-distant future. Until then bhikkhunis rely on lay support for all of their needs. As Janet Gyatso has observed, "the real fate of the new female [Sri Lankan bhikkhuni] order is being decided by the lay community" (5). It is precisely because laity support their local bhikkhuni temples--often with great enthusiasm--that the Sri Lankan bhikkhuni order continues to grow.

This paper examines lay responses to the Sri Lankan bhikkhuni revival, focusing particular attention on the presence of strong affective relationships between laity and nuns. Affective ties between laity and nuns became the focus of my research while I lived in a rural farming village for five months toward the end of a longer two-year period of ethnographic research in Sri Lanka. I am especially concerned in this paper with the use of the word "love" (Sinhala: adaraya, adare) (5) to describe lay-nun relationships in this village. Laity told me that they "loved" their nuns. Just what laity mean by the word "love" and what this can tell us about the dynamics of the Sri Lankan bhikkhuni revival is the subject of this paper.

Lay responses to the Sri Lankan bhikkhuni revival have not received much attention. Public discourse on the revival on the part of scholars, activists, government officials, and monastic authorities still centers primarily on questions of the revival's scriptural validity. According to Buddhist monastic regulations (vinaya) new bhikkhunls must be ordained by a quorum of both bhikkhus and bhikkhunls. In the absence of a living Theravada bhikkhuni lineage, South Korean and Taiwanese bhikkhunls, who follow Mahayana rather than Theravada Buddhism, made up the quorums that ordained the first Sri Lankan bhikkhunls. These Sri Lankan bhikkhunls were ordained at international ceremonies held in India by South Korean (1996) and Taiwanese (1998) organizations. Opponents of the bhikkhuni revival thus argue that all Sri Lankan nuns are really Mahayana nuns and should not receive formal recognition by the government or monastic authorities. (6) However much questions of scriptural validity matter to those engaged in public debate over the revival, my research indicates that lay patrons of bhikkhuni temples have very different concerns. Their primary concern is whether or not they can get their religious needs met at their local bhikkhuni temple, not whether the South Korean and Taiwanese ordination ceremonies conformed to Theravada monastic regulations.

Given the importance of the Sri Lankan bhikkhuni revival to bhikkhuni movements worldwide, I was surprised to find that Sri Lankan laity are often unfamiliar with the history of their own bhikkhuni revival. Indeed unless they have personal contact with a bhikkhuni temple, they may not even be aware that a revival has taken place. How is this possible? An alternative female renunciant order of ten-precept nuns (dasasilmata) was founded in 1905 at a time when there was still insufficient support for a bhikkhuni revival in Sri Lanka. Ten-precept nuns are technically not members of the Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhist sangha, although they live celibate monastic lives. …

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