Bodhgaya International Theravada Bhikkhuni Ordination January 2019

19/03/2019

Fully accepted, fully ordained. New bhikkhunis with their teachers, preceptors and their ordaining Dual Sangha upon the completion of two full days of bhikkhuni ordinations. Photo courtesy of Kanjana Suthikul

By  - Shyamal Sinha

Bhikkhunis (nuns) are one of the four-fold assembly of the Buddha's followers in early Buddhism and in what it later became known as, the Theravada. The other members of the four-fold assembly are bhikkhus(monks), upasakas (lay men), and upasikas (lay women).  

Sukha Sanghassa Samaggi—“Happy is the Harmony of the Sangha” 

Buddhagaya, the site of the Buddha’s Great Awakening or Maha Bodhi, is one place on Earth that can be felt truly common to all Buddhists and seekers around the globe. In a world so often riven by strife between its various peoples, it is wonderful to return to the roots of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree at the diamond seat of the Buddha’s awakening—in harmony—together. In this spirit, on the 28th and 29th of January 2019, with the patronage and support of the Mahabodhi Society of India Bodhgaya, the first International All Theravada Bhikkhuni Ordination was held in Bodhgaya, the site of the Buddha’s Great Awakening more than 2600 years ago. Twenty-four women novices (samaneri, sikkhamana) from various countries were granted higher ordination and fully accepted as Bhikkhunis by the Dual Sangha of Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis.

Upasampada means to be “fully accepted” into one of the world’s oldest and longest-lasting intentional communities, the Buddhist Sangha. It also means “to share in the same base of training [in Vinaya, the monastic discipline of the Patimokkha].” To be fully accepted means to be endowed with complete training in Dhamma and the Vinaya discipline established by the blessed Buddha for his monastic community of disciples. According to Vinaya, those who are fully ordained have full rights and full responsibilities in the intentional community of the Blessed One’s Sangha.

 

The ordinations began on the first day before dawn, with bhikkhuni teachers and novices gathering from various monastic lodgings and pilgrims’ guesthouses around Bodhgaya. In accordance with Sri Lankan tradition, the candidates were dressed in white, and received anew the Pabbajja (“Going Forth”) and Samaneri Precepts at the vihara of the Maha Bodhi Society, with the blessings and instruction of the Venerable P. Seewali Mahathero, the General Secretary of the Mahabodhi Society of India. Then, all the bhikkhunis and samaneri candidates went to the established sima of Wat Lao Buddhagaya International, where bhikkhu and bhikkhuni ordinations can legally be held.

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Candidates entering the vihara of the Mahabodhi Society of India in the pre-dawn to undertake their refuges and samaneri precepts afresh. Photo courtesy of Kanjana Suthikul

For this Bhikkhuni Ordination, Venerable Vijithananda Theri of Sri Lanka served as the Bhikkhuni Preceptor (Pavattini/Upajjhaya] for the candidates from mainland China, who were first due to their seniority in monastic life. She also served as preceptor for bhikkhuni students from Khemarama (also known as Tịnh An Lan Nhã in Vietnam). Venerable Lieu Phap Viditadhamma Theri served as Bhikkhuni Preceptor for her students from Suññata Bhikkhuni Arama (also known as Ni Viện Viên Không in Vietnam), and Venerable Dhammananda Theri from Thailand served as Bhikkhuni Preceptor for her own students from Songdhammakalayani Bhikkhuni Arama and other locations where she serves as mentor in Thailand.

These three venerable Bhikkhuni Preceptors led the Bhikkhuni Sangha, which included senior bhikkhuni preceptors of five countries and bhikkhuni teachers and leaders of ten countries, gathered in Bodhgaya harmoniously together for this historical ordination. These bhikkhunis included Ven Tathaloka Mahatheri of North America, Ven Santini Theri of Indonesia, Ven Adhimutti from New Zealand, Ven Tissara from Taiwan ROC, Ven Dhammakamala from Thailand, Ven Sumangala from Malaysia, and many more. Bhikkhuni Kammavacacarini officiants Ven Vijithananda Theri and Ven Vinayadharini Theri from Sri Lanka led and conducted the aspiring candidates’ examinations and the formal Acts of the Bhikkhuni Sangha (Sanghakamma) which are essential to Full Bhikkhu/ni Ordination.

After the candidates were examined and fully accepted by the venerable Bhikkhuni Sangha they are “ordained on one-side”: ekato-upasampanna. The venerable Bhikkhu Sangha was then invited into the Sima at Wat Lao International Buddhagaya to confirm and complete the bhikkhunis’ ordinations in the presence of the gathered Maha Sangha of Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis.

The Most Venerable Seewali Mahathero, General Secretary of the Mahabodhi Society of India, served as the Bhikkhu Upajjhaya for the second half of the ordination, leading up the Bhikkhu Sangha, which included other such great senior bhikkhu leaders as Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi Mahathero of America, Ven Mahindawansa Mahathero and Ven Wimalajothi Mahathero of Sri Lanka, Ven Vupasama Mahathero of Taiwan ROC, and Ven Varasambodhi Mahathero from Bangladesh. Ven Piyaratana Mahathero and Ven Sudhamma Mahathero from Sri Lanka led in the formal Acts of the Bhikkhu Sangha confirming and completing the Bhikkhuni Upasampada of all twenty four candidates. Ven Piyaratana Thero gave the Anusavana Ovada—“The Instruction” directly upon the completion of the Upasampada, instructing the new bhikkhunis in the Three Reliances, the Eight Things Never-To-Be-Done, and the cultivation of the Three Higher Trainings essential to Buddhist monastic life: Adhisila—Higher Ethics & Moral Virtue, Adhicitta—the Higher Mind (through Mindfulness & Samadhi), and Adhipañña—Higher Wisdom.

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Candidates gather in front of images of the Buddha, Mahinda Thero and Sanghamitta Theri, while bhikkhuni preceptors instruct them in mindfulness training. Photo courtesy of Bhikkhuni Lieu Phap

As there were twenty-four candidates, and the Buddha only allowed the ordination of three or fewer candidates at one time, the new bhikkhunis received their ordinations with their preceptors in eight groups of three, going three by three, from morning and afternoon over two days time. At the conclusion of all the ordinations, how joyfully the Sangha chanted blessings ]all together for the large gathering of newly ordained bhikkhunis filling the center of the hall, surrounded by supportive Sangha. A great mood of rejoicing, happiness and relief spread through the environment, made all the more blessed by the offerings of flowers and Sangha Dana (gifts of useful monastic requisites) made by generous people to the whole Sangha after the ordination.

This was not the first International Bhikkhuni Ordination  held in Buddhagaya. The historic Bhikkhuni Ordination (which is credited by many with making the greatest strides towards the revival of the Bhikkhuni Sangha in Theravada Buddhism ) was held in Bodhgaya just over twenty years ago in 1998. At that time, the Sri Lanka bhikkhunis ordained received Dual Ordination first from the Chinese Dharmaguptaka tradition, and then subsequently were reordained by dalhikamma with the Sri Lankan Theravada Bhikkhu Sangha to change their tradition to Theravada. Since 1998, full Theravada Dual Sangha Bhikkhuni Ordinations have been offered in Sri Lanka. They began to be offered for foreign nationals in Sri Lanka from 2002, to Westerners in Sri Lanka since 2003, for Indians in Nagpur in 2009, in the West itself (Australia and the US) since 2009 and 2010, for foreign nationals in Vaishali in 2012, and in both Germany and Indonesia since 2015.

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History or herstory is made- the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha is revived in Mainland China, with three bhikkhunis of Sambodhi Sangha fully accepted into the Theravada tradition. Photo courtesy of Marlai Ouch

This time was the first time to offer such an ordination fully based upon the Canonical Pali-text Vinaya Ordination Procedure in Bodhgaya, while also including traditional Sri Lankan cultural expressions, in honor of the Sri Lankan teachers and preceptors who led the revival of the Bhikkhuni Upasampada. It was also historic for another reason: three samaneri students from mainland China of Sambodhi Sangha’s founder Ven. Vupasama Mahathero and Sambodhi Sangha teacher Ven. Tissara Bhikkhuni received full bhikkhuni ordination. This means that the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha in Mainland China has been [re]established  and is a living lineage.

After the International Bhikkhuni Ordination, contemplating the Buddha’s words Sukha Sanghassa Samaggi“Happy is the Harmony of the Sangha,” other noteworthy and meritorious activities were undertaken while the Sangha was gathered in harmony together. I highlight three here.

First, the preceptors, teachers and new Sangha members joined the Global Conference on “Buddhism and Women’s Liberation” hosted by the Mahabodhi Society of India in Bodhgaya, with Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi giving the keynote address, and Ven. Bhikkhuni Dhammananda from Thailand receiving a special award for her lifetime service to the Sasana.

Second, during the conference, the idea was proposed that the gathered bhikkhuni preceptors, teachers and leaders of ten countries form a World Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha Council in order to support the harmonious collaboration and cooperation of the growing transnational Bhikkhuni Sangha, to guide training and ordinations of samaneris and bhikkhunis, and to altogether support the renaissance of the Bhikkhuni Sangha in its homeland of India as well as around the world.

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Ven. Lieu Phap Viditadhamma Theri serves as Bhikkhuni Preceptor for her students, who were fully accepted by the Bhikkhuni Sangha and Bhikkhu Sangha on January 28. Photo courtesy of Bhikkhuni Lieu Phap

Third, on the last day of the conference, in the chilly winter’s dawn, the new Theravada bhikkhunis, led by senior bhikkhuni teachers, walked in a long line barefoot and bareheaded for pindapata (almsround, pindacariya) through the town of Bodhgaya, coming finally to the Mahabodhi Temple, and then taking their almsmeal, offering flowers and meditating together at the roots of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree together, as daughters of the Buddha.

Upon return, their numbers bolstered by the newly-ordained, the Theravada bhikkhunis’ pindapata (almsround, pindacariya) line was also joyfully increased in South Vietnam. Not only was the pindapata line longer, but recitation of the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha has become possible now with full sanghas of resident bhikkhunis. Ten bhikkhunis gathered to chant the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha together at Khemarama Bhikkhuni Arama and more at Suññata Bhikkhuni Arama in Vietnam this past February New Moon Uposatha, a great blessing for the Lunar New Year.

The Bhikkhuni Sangha has existed since the Buddha’s lifetime and has continued into the present in China, Korea and Vietnam. Modern South and South-east Asian Buddhism is currently seeing the beginings of a revival of this ancient women’s monastic tradition, initially in the West and in Sri Lanka, now followed by Thailand. Sri Lanka currently has more than 2000 Theravada bhikkhunis, more than any other country in the world.  

with input from  Ven. Tathaloka Theri   

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