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The Journey of Women Going Forth into the Bhikkhuni Order in Bangladesh, Part 3: The Bhikkhuni Order Is Established

By John Cannon and Jnan Nanda
Buddhistdoor Global | 2016-06-24 |

This article forms part of the “Buddhist Voices from the Land of Rivers” series, which is based on visits by the authors to Buddhist sites in Bangladesh and their meetings with leaders and activists from the Buddhist community.

During their latest visit to Bangladesh in March 2016, John, a Western Buddhist practitioner, and Jnan, a Bangladeshi Buddhist, met with four bhikkhunis (fully ordained nuns) and two samaneris (female novices) in Chittagong, where they talked about the latest developments in the establishment of a female monastic order and their future plans. One bhikkhuni from Khagrachari was unable to attend. 

Bangladeshi bhikkhunis and <i>samaneris</i> having a conversation with Muslim women. From Bangladesh Bhikkhuni Sangha FacebookBangladeshi bhikkhunis and samaneris having a conversation with Muslim women. From Bangladesh Bhikkhuni Sangha Facebook

Subsequent to our previous meeting with Samaneri Gautami (related in Parts 1 and 2 of this series)* we were once again able to meet with Venerable Gautami, now a fully ordained bhikkhuni, and other members of her sangha in Chittagong on 22 March to discuss the latest developments in their lives. In Part 2, we mentioned the intention of Ven. Gautami and four other samaneris to spend a month in Thailand in November last year to receive further religious training and guidance from Ven. Prof. Bhikkhuni Dhammananda before taking full ordination at her nunnery. However, the five samaneris changed their travel plans and instead went to Sri Lanka in January this year. There, they joined three Vietnamese and three Thai samaneris to receive full ordination (upasampada)—a total of 11 candidates from South and Southeast Asia—at the Sri Lanka branch of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women in Panadura.

Before the ordination ceremony, they underwent an intensive one-month monastic training course at the Sakyadhita center under senior bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. Their uppajjaya (preceptor) for this process was Sri Lankan bhikkhuni Ven. Sumitta Mahatheri. Following the ordination, the new bhikkhunis were taken around the island to visit various important religious sites, including Sri Dalada Maligawa (or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic) in Kandy, to strengthen their spiritual commitment to the monastic life and its daily practices. 

Bhikkhuni candidates training at the Sri Lanka branch of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women in Panadura. From Bangladesh Bhikkhuni Sangha FacebookBhikkhuni candidates training at the Sri Lanka branch of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women in Panadura. From Bangladesh Bhikkhuni Sangha Facebook

The five newly ordained nuns then returned to Bangladesh, where they received a warm and enthusiastic reception from their supporters. With the bhikkhuni order now fully established in Bangladesh, the nuns, samaneris, and their lay supporters are occupied with planning new projects, including the construction of two nunneries—one in the Chittagong Plains and the other in Khagrachari in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This means that Ven. Gautami and the four other bhikkhunis are quite busy supervising construction and fundraising, as well as producing Buddhist publications, and conducting daily meditation retreats and Dhamma talks.

We talked with three of the new bhikkhunis—Bhikkhuni Visakha, Bhikkhuni Sila, and Bhikkhuni Uppalavanna—who received full ordination alongside Ven. Gautami about their decision to enter the monastic order. Ven. Visakha, who had been a samaneri for five years before receiving full ordination, said she had been inspired by her study of the Dhamma to continue her monastic life, and had also received the support and encouragement of her family. Ven. Sila said she had decided to undertake full ordination after four years as a samaneri, noting: “I like this spiritual life.” Unlike her Dhamma sisters, Ven. Uppalavanna had originally intended to become a samaneri for just 13 days; however, she was so inspired by her experience that she decided to continue her monastic life and to undergo full ordination. 

Newly ordained nuns pose with the senior monks and nuns who conducted the ordination ceremony at the Sri Lanka branch of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women in Panadura. From Bangladesh Bhikkhuni Sangha FacebookNewly ordained nuns pose with the senior monks and nuns who conducted the ordination ceremony at the Sri Lanka branch of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women in Panadura. From Bangladesh Bhikkhuni Sangha Facebook

Although there are now five fully ordained nuns in Bangladesh, opposition from the mainstream male sangha continues. Ven. Gautami told us that before the foundation ceremony for the building currently serving as their temporary nunnery in Chittagong, the bhikkhu sangha had distributed leaflets urging monks and lay people not to participate. In spite of this, three bhikkhus attended, along with a large number of lay devotees. “There are monks who want to support us,” said Ven. Gautami. “But because of the senior monastic elders, these monks cannot get involved with us.” We received a firsthand taste of this opposition during our trip: the monks were either unwilling or unable to help John travel to the meeting place in the Chittagong Hill Tracts due to the entrenched monastic opposition to the nuns and because of the politically sensitive nature of the area. Eventually, John was able to visit the nuns with the help of one of Jnan’s relatives in the area.

Samaneri Proggadipa, who met with us during our visit, told us that she has been a novice for two years. However, her case is somewhat unusual in that, unlike the other samaneris in the sangha, who entered monasticism as a personal choice, she was offered into the bhikkhuni sangha by her parents. We were told that she was frequently sick before becoming a novice, so her parents decided to see whether the monastic life might offer some benefit. Samaneri Proggadipa told us that since ordaining as a novice she has been in good health. 

Ven. Gautami speaks at a gathering in Chittagong in protest against the killing of a Buddhist monk in Bandarban District in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. From Bangladesh Bhikkhuni Sangha FacebookVen. Gautami speaks at a gathering in Chittagong in protest against the killing of a Buddhist monk in Bandarban District in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. From Bangladesh Bhikkhuni Sangha Facebook

Among other significant developments, we learned that since our last visit Ven. Gautami’s mother, now 79, had ordained as a samaneri. While visiting the temporary nunnery in Chittagong, we found her happy among the five young bhikkhunis and four other samaneris. Asked how she found her life as a monastic, she replied that she was happy practicing the Dhamma.

Of the five bhikkhunis and five samaneris, two bhikkhunis are now pursuing higher secondary and primary education, while one samaneri is studying for her higher secondary education exam. Our visit concluded, we wished these pioneering female monastics of Bangladesh well and offered our encouragement and best wishes for their future plans. 

The nunnery under construction in Chittagong. From Bangladesh Bhikkhuni Sangha FacebookThe nunnery under construction in Chittagong. From Bangladesh Bhikkhuni Sangha Facebook
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