Reverend Sayalay Ketumala has been a Buddhist nun since July 1999, when she joined Pa-Auk Meditation Center in Mon State, some 40 kilometers east of the former Myanmar capital, Yangon. The founder of the Dhamma School Foundation, overseeing more than 4,800 Buddhist education centers for children throughout Myanmar, she has been described as “a fierce advocate for the importance of women in religion.” (France 24)
In Myanmar, where women are widely set below men in all activities of life, Rev. Ketumala has set out to forge a path of equality, or at least independence from existing religious power structures. “The decision for entire affairs about the nuns comes down from the monks,” she explained. (India Times)
“When a man enters into monkhood, people always applaud saying it is good for the religion and will make it better, but when a woman enters into nunhood, people always think it is because of a problem,” Rev. Ketumala continued. “They think it’s a place for women who are poor, old, sick, divorced, or need help for their life.”
Even senior nuns are treated below junior monks—those who had been ordained for as little as a single day. Donations to nunneries lag far behind those to monasteries, as the traditional Buddhists see such giving as less meritorious. Some nuns report abuse by laypeople for undertaking their alms rounds. “Sometimes they are harassed along the road,” said Rev. Ketumala. (France 24)
Nuns also face being ostracized by their families, as happened to Rev. Ketumala after she ordained, although she said they have since reconciled.
Rev. Ketumala said her move from a secular outlook toward one focused on the Dhamma came after reading about Buddhist philosophy and mindfulness: “I used to think success was measured with materials—titles and property—but later I found out that those who can control and master the mind are the only successful people.” (France 24)
Along the way, she has earned two degrees in Buddhist studies, one from the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka in 2010. Rev. Ketumala has authored several articles in newspapers, journals, and magazines, as well as the book Ketumala Nidan, which emphasizes social justice, gender equality, peace, and justice from a Buddhist perspective. In 2017, she was awarded a prize for the best article of the year by Myanmar’s Shwe Amyutae Magazine.
In 2016, Rev. Ketumala started an empowerment training program for younger nuns and is planning to follow up with an organization to teach the art of leadership and management more broadly to nuns in Myanmar. “The institute will provide the skills they need outside the nunnery, particularly for the development of their community,” she explained. (France 24)
Rev. Ketumala’s philosophy along the way has been to create friends and alliances where she can find them. Despite the common difficulties she has faced at the hands of men, lay and monastic, she prefers not to think of them as enemies, stating: “Conservatives are everywhere, so the situation doesn’t give much space to ask for women’s rights.” (France 24)
An estimated 88 per cent of Myanmar’s 56.6 million people are Theravada Buddhists, according to US government data, with 6.2 per cent of the population identifying as Christian and 4.3 per cent as Muslim, while other religions make up less than one per cent each. There are an estimated 500,000 Buddhist monks and 75,000 Buddhist nuns in the country.
Myanmar: Meet Buddhist Nun Ketumala Who Stands For The Importance Of Women In Religion (India Times)
The Buddhist nun challenging misogyny in Myanmar (France 24)
Rev. Sayalay Ketumala (Kaiciid Dialogue Centre)
Pa-Auk Tawya Meditation Center