The Urban Dharma Newsletter... September 24, 2002


In This Issue:

1. Thai Nuns Fight for Rights ...By Chayanit Poonyarat
2. Nuns in the Buddhist Tradition ...A brief history
Monastic Ordination for Women in Modern Buddhism
4. Dhammasara - The Nuns' Monastery
5. Book Review: Blossoms of the Dharma: Living as a Buddhist Nun
6. Temple/Center of the Week: The Buddhist Society
...of London



1. Thai Nuns Fight for Rights ...By Chayanit Poonyarat ...Sept. 19, 2002

* http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/DI19Ae02.html

BANGKOK - Buddhist nuns have been part of Thailand's religious community for more than 300 years, but they say that the ambiguity around their status means they have yet to get the respect they deserve.

The Buddhist nuns or mae chi live in a state of limbo - afforded a measure of social recognition, but denied formal religious endorsement.

The state considers them part of the religious clergy and, like Thailand's 300,000 monks, they do not have the right to vote. But the official council of ordained Buddhist clergy or Sangha does not recognize mae chi - official statistics put their number at 14,700 in 1997 - as full members. They are not permitted to interpret the Dhamma (the teachings of the Buddha), officially teach Buddhism or perform religious rituals.

The Sangha is prepared to recognize them only as disciples of the faith, which means mae chi have a lowly status in the temple hierarchy in Thailand, 95 percent of whose people are Buddhist.

"We consider ourselves among the clergy who learn and practice Dhamma, meditate and provide spiritual support for society," said Mae Chi Pratin Kuan-Orn, chairwoman of the Institute for Thai Nuns, which has operated as a community service since 1969.

"Because of our unclear status and the fact that we are not officially recognized, nuns can neither legally receive means to live from Buddhist followers, nor any support from the government for studies and community-related projects," Mae Chi Pratin said in an interview, referring to practices regularly done by monks.

This means that nuns are dependent on monks for daily support, as well as for help in hosting community programs, adds Mae Chi Pratin, who like all Thai Buddhist nuns wears white robes and has a shaven head and eyebrows.

Mae chi cannot be ordained as monks in Thailand. Mae Chi Pratin explains that for the last 300 years, Thai Buddhism has not allowed women to be ordained as novice monks, which has meant that women interested in following the Buddha's teachings only have the option of becoming nuns.

But gradually, some nuns have been taking a different path, looking to other Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, which follows the Theravada tradition of Buddhism but allows ordination of women as monks.

Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a Buddhist scholar, was ordained as a novice in Sri Lanka in February 2001 and then became Thailand's first female monk in the Theravada tradition, assuming the name Dhammananda and wearing saffron robes.

Samaneri Dhammarakhita sparked outrage among the all-male religious establishment, who accused her of violating Thai Buddhist traditions when on February 10, 2001, she became the first female monk, or bhikkuni, to be ordained on Thai soil.

"Thai Buddhism is regarded as conservative in outlook. It recognizes nuns, but only men are allowed to become monks," she was quoted as telling the British Broadcasting Corp at the time.

Unlike ordained monks, who are expected to follow five religious precepts and 227 other Buddhist rules, nuns are expected to follow only 10 precepts and 80 Buddhist rules.

The fact that monks are expected to hold higher ethical standards - by virtue of the number of rules they must adhere to - is a good indication that "being a nun is less valued than being a monk", said Thai World View, a local website on Thai society and culture.

Nuns also help maintain temples, cleaning and cooking for the monks, eating separately from them.

The nuns' lack of religious recognition means it is difficult to have a system to deal with problems such as women who don the nun's robes and ask for alms or food from passers-by.

"This makes nuns look even worse in people's opinions," said Mae Chi Pratin.

In 1991, the Institute for Thai Nuns and female activists tried to push parliament to consider a "Nun Act", a set of basic regulations for nuns. However, the response from the Department of Religious Affairs was clear: "It is impossible. A nun has never existed in a Thai Buddhist decree."

The Sangha "must have solid reasons why it does not recognize nuns and female monks in Thai Buddhism", said 39-year-old employee Saranya Suthiwan, who considers herself a devout follower of the faith and visits the temples regularly.

She says that even with 227 rules and precepts to abide by, some monks still misbehave. Saranya was referring to the rash of cases of monks' impropriety, ranging from living ostentatious lifestyles to having relationships with women, to hit the press in recent years.

"It can be even harder for nuns to guide their lives spiritually with less precepts to follow," added Saranya. "If nuns really want to explore Buddha's teachings and lead peaceful lives, talk of legal recognition and status should not get in the way."

But while the pursuit of women's religious rights has its detractors, many say it is now time to address religious inequality in Thai Buddhism.

"Understanding and supporting the religious rights of women is very important for Thai Buddhism," said Tavivat Puntarigvivat, director of research and development at the Bangkok-based World Buddhist University.

Tavivat referred to the Buddha's life, which he said clearly acknowledged the sexes as being spiritually equal.

He says there is room - and need - for women in the Buddhist hierarchy. In an interview, Tavivat said that nuns and female monks can, for instance, address social issues that male monks often have difficulty with, such as sexual abuse, prostitution and abortion.

Tavivat says that ordained bhikkuni are well recognized and play a significant role in Mahayana Buddhism, the other major strand of the religion common in other Buddhist strongholds such as Taiwan.

"It is nonsense to say that having women is a violation of the religion. We all know that if the claim that there has been a decline in Buddhism is true, it is because of other factors," he added.

Tavivat explains that nuns and female monks would be more effective in promoting Buddhism among female lay people, and that this could discourage inappropriate relations that have been known to happen due to the close contact between female devotees and the male clergy.

"Embracing women - who make up half of the population - as part of the religion will allow Buddhism to work as a way to a peaceful life, two times over," said Tavivat.

(Inter Press Service)


2. Nuns in the Buddhist Tradition ...A brief history

* http://members.tripod.com/~Lhamo/Nuns/KGhistory.htm

Extracted and adapted with permission from Modern Blossoms of the Dharma: Living as a Buddhist Nun, edited by Ven. Thubten Chödron, and published earlier this year (2000).

Soon after the Buddha’s enlightenment, many people, attracted to this serene, wise, and compassionate man and his teachings, sought to become his disciples. Some became lay followers, maintaining their lives as householders with a family, while others became monastics.

The Order of Nuns began with Mahaprajapati, the Buddha’s aunt and stepmother who cared for him as a child. She, together with 500 women from the Shakya clan, shaved their heads and walked barefoot the long distance from Kapilavastu to Vaisali to request ordination. At first the Buddha declined, but after the intercession of his close disciple Ananda, the Buddha confirmed women’s ability to attain liberation, and began the Order of Nuns. This existed and flourished for many centuries in India, and later spread throughout southern, southeast, central and east Asia. Buddhism entered the snowy lands of Tibet in the 7th century, and before long Tibetan women were becoming nuns.

What is the essence of the Buddhist path, which gives meaning and inspiration to the nuns’ lives as well as to our own? The Buddha’s teaching can be subsumed in the Four Noble Truths:

1. Our life is filled with unsatisfactory experiences;

2. These have causes: the ignorance, anger, and clinging attachment within our minds;

3. There exists a state free from these: nirvana or liberation; and

4. We can follow a path to eliminate these unsatisfactory circumstances and their causes and to attain the lasting peace of liberation.

In this way the Buddha explained our present situation as well as our potential, and clearly described a step-by-step path for transforming our minds and hearts. This is a practical approach that can be applied in daily life, not just in a temple or church. We first learn the teachings, then reflect on them to ascertain their meaning correctly, and integrate them into our mindstreams through meditation. In this way, we free ourselves from negative emotions and develop our good qualities, thus bringing about our own as well as others’ happiness.

Why would someone ordain as a Buddhist nun? Reasons vary from individual to individual, but in general, these women are committed to follow the Buddha’s path for developing the mind and transforming the heart. They voluntarily take ethical precepts to facilitate this process. These precepts include the avoidance of: taking life, stealing, sexual activity, lying, intoxicants, adorning the body, and seeking distraction through entertainment. Other precepts guide the nuns’ relationship with others in the monastic community and with lay people. The nuns’ primary interest is in transforming their own minds, and through this to contribute to society and to the welfare of others.

Monastics have traditionally played a special role in Buddhist societies. They devote their lives predominantly to the study, practice, and teaching of the Dharma, as well as to maintaining the monasteries, hermitages, temples, and Dharma centres. Throughout history, the responsibility for the practice and preservation of the Buddha’s teachings has lain with the monastics. Thus the monastics serve vital roles that need to be preserved in our modern societies, East and West.

Since the Buddha’s time, nuns have played an important, if largely unnoticed, part in keeping the Dharma alive. The Therigata, or Songs of the Elder Nuns, was spoken by nuns who studied and practised directly under the guidance of Shakyamuni Buddha. In it, they reveal their spiritual longing and achievements. Throughout the centuries and in all Buddhist societies, there have been nuns who studied, practised, and in some cases taught the Dharma. Due to the structure of society, and to the nuns’ reticence to draw attention to themselves, many of their contributions have gone unnoticed. But in recent years, we see active and vibrant Buddhist nuns in the East and West. Some are scholars, some are meditators. Some work on translations of scriptures, others do social service work in hospital, prisons, and schools in war zones or in poor areas. The nuns’ contribution is a wonderful work in progress.


3. Monastic Ordination for Women in Modern Buddhism

* http://members.tripod.com/~Lhamo/4ordin.htm

There are currently three forms of monastic ordination available to women:

1. The full ordination, known as Bhiksuni (Sanskrit) or Bhikkhuni (Pali), has survived only in the Mahayana countries of China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea, although it is now being introduced into the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for the first time.  Sri Lanka has also seen its first few bhikkhuni-s thanks to the pioneering efforts of the late Ven. Ayya Khema.

2. The novice ordination, Sramanerika, was until recently the highest ordination available to women in Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism), as the bhiksuni ordination appears never to have been transmitted to Tibet.  It also exists in all the schools where the bhiksuni ordination has survived.

3. The bhiksuni ordination once existed in the countries where Theravada (the southern school of Buddhism) is most practised, but it died out around the 10th century.  The novice ordination has also disappeared in these countries.   Women who wish to live as nuns do so by taking eight or ten precepts.  Neither laywomen nor formally ordained, these women do not receive the recognition, education, financial support or status enjoyed by their male brethren.  These "precept-holders" live in:  Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand (Siam), and in Vietnam within the Theravadin tradition.   Japan is a special case as, although it has neither the bhiksuni nor sramanerika ordinations, the precept-holding nuns who live there do enjoy a higher status and better education than their precept-holder sisters elsewhere, and may even become Zen priests.

Monastic ordinations for women

1. Country 2. Tradition 3. Bhiksuni (full) ordination 4. Sramanerika novice ordination 5. No formal ordination (i.e. precept holders) 6. Colour of robes


1. Burma 2. Theravada 3. No 4. No 5. 10 precepts:  the nuns are known as anagarika-s (homeless ones) or thilashin (possessors of morality). 6. orange and pink

1. Cambodia 2. Theravada 3. No 4. No 5. 8-10 precepts 6. white

1. China and Taiwan 2. Mahayana 3. Yes 4. Yes 5. No 6. grey or black or brown

1. Japan 2. Mahayana 3. No 4. No 5. Bodhisattva precepts plus celibacy (similar to 10 precepts of novice) 6. black or white

1. Korea 2. Mahayana 3. Yes 4. Yes 5. No 6. grey

1. Laos 2. Theravada 3. No 4. No 5. 8-10 precepts. 6. white

1. Nepal 2. Theravada 3. No 4. No 5. 10 precepts:  the nuns are known as anagarika-s (homeless ones). 6. orange and pink

1. Sri Lanka 2. Theravada 3. No 4. No 5. 10 precepts:  the nuns are known as dasasil mata-s (homeless ones). 6. saffron/ochre

1. Thailand (Siam) 2. Theravada 3. No 4. No 5. 8 precepts: the nuns are known as maeji-s or maechee-s. 6. white

1. Tibet and the Himalayas 2. Mahayana (Vajrayana) 3. No (a few bhikshuni ordinations have been introduced via the Chinese tradition) 4. Yes (known in Tibetan as getsulma-s; full-ordination nuns are called gelongma-s) 5. No 6. burgundy with yellow accents

1. Vietnam 2. Mahayana 3. Yes 4. Yes 5. No 6. grey or brown

1. Vietnam 2. Theravada 3. No 4. No 5. 10 precepts. 6. white

Information from Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha, edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo (Snow Lion, Ithaca, 1988).  See also Sakyadhita's page on nuns' robes, with photographs of nuns in every tradition!


4. DHAMMASARA - The Nuns' Monastery

* http://www.buddhanet.net/nuns_mon.htm

When allowing women to go forth into the homeless life the Buddha stated quite clearly that they have the capacity to attain full enlightenment. During the time of the Buddha and since, there have been many female arahants .

However, not for a very long time, have such favorable conditions come together to support women in leading the monastic life as those that pertain now in Perth.

I write to you as the Senior Nun of the yet to be built Nun’s Monastery, having recently accepted the invitation of the committee of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia to take up this position. And though I am still a nun without a nunnery in the material sense, my heart is full of joy and gratitude for the work that has already been done on this project by so many faithful and committed people. Especially I would like to thank Ajahan Brahmavamso, the spiritual director, for his support, and the donors who generously offered funds for the society to purchase the 583 acres of bushland at Gidgegannup.

The purchase of the land is the first giant step towards providing nuns with the opportunity to train in Dhamma-Vinaya, in a setting ideal for a forest monastery. As such it is fulfilling one of the original aims of the society as stated in its constitution, i.e. to provide monastic facilities for both male and female Sangha. While the Nuns’ Monastery will complement the existing Monks’ Monastery, its location some distance from Bodhinyana will encourage it to develop and function independently.

As an ongoing reminder of its true purpose, we have named the Nuns’ Monastery Dhammasara, the Heartwood of the Dhamma, a synonym for Nibbana, after a simile used by the Buddha.

In the longer and shorter discourses on the Simile of the Heartwood in the Maijhima Nikaya, the Buddha compares the holy life to a man searching for the finest quality wood to use in making something. Just as this man would not serve his purpose if he took leaves and twigs, outer bark, inner bark or sapwood instead of the heartwood of the tree, so monks and nuns should not be satisfied with anything less than Nibbana.

It is unshakable deliverance of mind that is the goal of the holy life, its heartwood, its end

So, Dhammasara will be a place to practice for the attainment of Nibbana. It will primarily be for Theravidin Nuns, and women who want to train to become nuns. As resources and facilities develop there will be the opportunity for lay people who are committed to the Theravadin way of practice, and who are willing to undertake the eight precepts for the duration of their stay, to spend time as part of the community and on self-retreat.

As for myself, you may remember me from my visit to Nollamara in 1996. I ordained as a ten-precept Nun in Sri Lanka in 1985 with Venerable Piyaratana, the Chief Monk of Polgasduwa Island Hermitage as my Preceptor, and Ven. Ayya Khema as my Teacher. I lived at Parappudviva Nuns’ Island and in several towns in the south of the country during my ten years in Sri Lanka. My senior companion nun during that time was Sister Dhammadinna, a Sri Lankan. In 1994 I was able to fulfill a long-standing wish and went on pilgrimage to the Holy Places in India for six months. Later, at the invitation of Venerable Ajahn Sumedho, I spent a year at Amaravati, his monastery in England. In 1997 I returned to Australia, hoping to be able to contribute to making the teachings of the Buddha available in my home country. Since then I have spent my time in self-retreat at Wat Buddha Dhamma and Buddha Dhamma Hermitage, both near Sydney, and have been available to offer teachings when invited. Though I am not a member of the Amaravati Nuns’ community as such, I enjoy a close and warm friendship with the nuns there, and I look forward to a time in the future when we can invite them to visit and participate with us.

My deepest aspiration for this life is to attain Nibbana, and in the process to assist others towards fulfilling their potential. So being part of this project is allowing me to express my life’s purpose, and I feel immensely blessed.

How quickly we can begin building the first amenities on the site will depend on all of you. In the meantime I invite you to join me in rejoicing in our very good fortune, to be associated with such an immeasurable significant project, one that will surely bring the Dhamma with its great blessing to so many.

Sister Ajahn Vayama.


5. Blossoms of the Dharma: Living as a Buddhist Nun ...Thubten Chodron


Book Description

In the first book to reflect the voices of Buddhist nuns from every major tradition, 14 contributors describe their experiences, explain their order's history, and discuss their lives.

Reviewer: Nona Black from USA

These essays shine with intelligence and compassion. They also fill in so many little details about nuns' lives, dreams, obstacles and the work ahead. I was stunned by the book's vivid descriptions and its practical approach to everyday problems. Buddhist nuns are regular people, of course, but have focused their energy on the monastic discipline which supports a solid spiritual way of life. The essays break these things down, giving them a human face, a view of spiritual matters in perspective. Most of all, the book imparts a precious gift - an opportunity to imagine what it would be like. We can all rejoice.


6. The Buddhist Society ...of London, England

* http://www.thebuddhistsociety.org.uk/

Founded in 1924 by Christmas Humphreys, the Buddhist Society is one of the oldest Buddhist societies in Europe.

The Object of the Society is to publish and make known the principles of Buddhism and to encourage the study and practice of those principles.

The Society presents the major Buddhist Schools and traditions, and in its extensive library there are books on all Buddhist subjects.

The Society holds lectures, classes and activities in the Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana schools. Some are open to the public including Introducing Buddhism which offers the newcomer an introduction to the whole field of Buddhism. There are also classes and lectures for members only; these include The Fundamentals of Buddhism, an intermediate course, and Themes of the Great Way, a course on Indian Mahayana. All courses and practice classes are free of charge. The annual resdential Summer School, entitled 'Deeper into Buddhism' is open to members and non-members.

Public Lectures

There is a public lecture arranged on a Wednesday evening generally once a month. This is given by a distinguished speaker and covers some aspect of Buddhist life. The programme is arranged as the year progresses so you are invited to obtain details from here or by contacting the Buddhist Society tel: 020 7834 5858 during opening hours.

Lectures given 1999 included:

The Middle Way: An Experiment in Buddhism by Martin Goodson
Is there Room for God in Buddhism? by Jim Pym
Investigating the Skandhas
- Brian Bromley
Bodhisattas and Bodhisattvas
- Anil Goonewardene
The Greatest Warrior
- Desmond Biddulph
Finding Home in the Heart
by Garry Gelade
The Life of the Buddha: A Symbol of the Spiritual Journey
by Martin Goodson
Japanese Buddhist Art
by Marie-Therese Barrett MA
Just as an Elephant lifts itself out of the Mud
by Desmond Biddulph
Membership of the Buddhist Society includes:

• a subscription to the Society's quarterly journal, The Middle Way

• lectures and classes for members only

• use of the library (postal service available)

• occasional functions and receptions

For further information and a prospectus please write, phone, fax or email the Society at:

The Buddhist Society,

58 Eccleston Square, London SW1V 1PH
tel: 020 7834 5858
fax: 020 7976 5238
email: info@thebuddhistsociety.org.uk

Open to members and non-members... 2.00 to 6.00pm Monday to Friday and 2.00 to 5.00pm Saturday.

Today, still faithful to its Objects, the Buddhist Society provides classes and courses in the teachings of the major Buddhist traditions, as well as a general introduction to Buddhism and its historical development.

The special festive days in the Society's calendar are: Founder's Day (April), Buddha Day (May), and the Society's Anniversary Day (November). See The Middle Way Journal for details.

The Society is in the process of expanding and improving its Library and hopes that this will become an important national resource. The Society has established two Raymond M Percheron Research Scholarships for research in Buddhist Studies to be awarded from time to time.

The Buddhist Society maintains an important London centre in Westminster where visitors from across the Buddhist world come and are made welcome. The Society is happy to work in concert with other Buddhist organizations in order to fulfill its declared Objects and generally to help and advise wherever possible. The Society remains small but active, encouraging as a matter of policy the establishment of independent parallel organizations.

Christmas Humphreys

The Buddhist Society was founded in 1924, by the late Christmas Humphreys, building on the pioneer work of the first Society, The Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1907 to 1925/6). A lay organization, it is now the oldest Buddhist institution in the country. From its inception it has not been attached to any one school of Buddhism, remaining non- sectarian in character and open in principle to the teachings of all schools. Nor does the Society lend its official support to any activity of a political nature, whether national or international, this being proscribed by the terms of its constitution.

Christmas Humphreys, who was to become a High Court Judge, was President of the society he founded until his death in April 1983. Over the many years of his presidency the Society flourished and became widely known and respected, both at home and overseas. In 1956 the Society moved to its present address at Eccleston Square and in that same year participated in the Buddha Jayanti, the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddhas Enlightenment celebrations in India. In 1961 His Holiness the Dalai Lama became Patron to the Buddhist Society, the first in the West to be so honoured. During these especially fruitful years the Society received many distinguished visitors, including Her Majesty the Queen of Bhutan (1925), Their Majesties The King and Queen of Thailand (1966), and his Holiness the Dalai Lama in his capacity of Patron of the Buddhist Society (1973). Subsequently, His Holiness the Dalai Lama made a second visit in June 1996 as part of the Society's extended 70th anniversary celebrations.

In the early days, much emphasis was placed on publishing and some of the books published in that period remain in print today, notably our founder-presidents Buddhism: An Introduction and Guide, which, published by Penguin Books has been in continuous print since 1951. The tradition of publishing continues, with the Society acting the part of an occasional publisher. Especially noteworthy in this connection is the Society's internationally respected quarterly The Middle Way, as the earlier Buddhism in England, has a publishing history going back to 1926.  


The Buddhist Society is aware that it operates in a rapidly-changing British society and world and where useful and appropriate it endeavours to respond. Following the recent, important change in the law affecting the content of Religious Education in county schools involving the teaching of the principle religions of the UK (Buddhism included), the Society increasingly helps teachers and pupils alike in gaining an understanding of the Dharma (Buddhist teachings). As part of this work, the Society took a significant part in a project initiated by the Secretary of State for Education to provide model Religious Education syllabuses for the use of Local Education Authorities in the revision of the locally agreed syllabuses required under the law. Also in the field of education, the Society is represented on several Standing Advisory Councils, Religious Education (SACRE), statutory bodies which advise Local Authorities on all matters pertaining to the religious education of children. It is further represented on the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, an independent body with a wide advisory role. And in response to the need for authentic information on Buddhism that the change in the law has brought about, the Society has begun to publish educational material for use by schools and colleges.

The Buddhist Society is a member of the emerging Buddhist Network (UK) and publishes from time to time a Buddhist Directory covering the UK. Because of the Societys standing and special knowlege in this area it is frequently called upon to give help and advice to the BBC and other major news organizations. It also gives advice to publishers, as well as to visitors or callers who seek help or information.

The Buddhist Society is a member of the Inter-Faith Network for the United Kingdom and is actively involved in the interfaith movement. It participates in constructive dialogue with members of other faiths in different contexts. This is both to learn more about other faiths and especially to learn how to live together in friendship and harmony, working for the good of society as a whole.

The Buddhist Society is a member of the European Buddhist Union, the World Congress of Faiths, and the World Fellowship of Buddhists and sends delegates to international conferences from time to time. It is also represented on the British section of the United Nations Association and in touch with other organizations.

Some members of the Buddhist Society are involved in the work of Angulimala, a Buddhist prison chaplaincy organization, visiting and helping prisoners. The Society has also begun to gain valuable experience in the field of mental health through chaplaincy work related to two London hospitals.



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