Pioneering Female Buddhist Monastic Ven. Dr. Bhikkhuni Kusuma Dies Aged 92
The internationally acclaimed Buddhist monastic, scholar, and vocal advocate for full female monastic ordination Venerable Dr. Bhikkhuni Kusuma Devendra died late on Saturday in Sri Lanka. She was 92 years old.
A message from her family was shared over the weekend on social media:
It is with regret, we wish to announce that Ven. Bhikkhuni Kusuma (Age 92) passed away peacefully after a brief illness. Final rites will be performed at a private funeral according to a family request.
May she attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana!
Ven. Bhikkhuni Kusuma became the first Sri Lankan bhikkhuni in 10 centuries and, inspired by her mentor Sister Ayya Khema (1923–97), is credited with pioneering the revival of the Theravada bhikkhuni order in Sri Lanka. She went on to offer Dharma talks all over the world and to found and lead the Ayya Khema International Meditation Centre in Horana in western Sri Lanka.
“We are organizing a seventh-day death memorial to be broadcast live and are also planning to set up a library and visitor center in her memory,” Ven. Dr. Kusuma’s youngest son, Mudi Devendra, told Buddhistdoor Global.
In a 2018 interview with Buddhistdoor Global,* Ven. Bhikkhuni Kusuma related:
I worked toward the establishment of the bhikkhuni order for maybe 20 years. There was a flourishing bhikkhuni order in Sri Lanka for nearly 10 centuries and then the lineage died out. I had no idea of ordaining, but I was keen to get it re-established.
The bhikkhu [male monastic] order was well established and people are used to looking up to bhikkhus. For centuries, Sri Lanka had a very powerful tradition of bhikkhu ordination. But that also died out due to invasions, a lot of wars, being under the British, the Dutch, the Portuguese; Sri Lanka lost the bhikkhu order as well. But about 200 years ago, it was resurrected. They took Dutch ships, went to Burma and Thailand, and brought the bhikkhu lineage back. But they did not bring back the bhikkhuni order! So that’s what we were trying to do. Because the bhikkhu order is well established, recognized by the government, and there is education and support from the entire Buddhist community, it has been functioning successfully up to today. However, the bhikkhuni order was unheard of. It was quite controversial.
I didn’t want to confront the hierarchy because that would mean that I would get into trouble personally. For 20 years I had conducted many ordinations, but privately, without any publicity. There was a silent understanding. [Before my ordination] I got books printed with my name written as Bhikkhuni Kusuma, but nobody confronted me. There wasn’t a big opposition; we were in the minority, and the monks didn’t feel that we were a challenge. I thought: it is tradition, and it takes time. As time passed, when the numbers [of interested women] grew, the time would be right for us to openly ask for recognition. I was waiting.
My ordination came as a surprise even to me. Dr. Vipulasara Thero [at that time, the secretary of the World Buddhist Council, the president of the India Maha Bodhi Society, and an advocate for bhikkhuni ordination] insisted that I join the order and take up leadership because he thought that the other nine nuns were not able to face such an important international ordination by themselves.
We now have about 3,000 bhikkhunis and it was after my first ordination that the word bhikkhuni was once again known and heard in Sri Lanka!
For much of her early life, Kusuma Devendra was an academic, studying molecular biology in the United States and teaching science and English at university. She turned to Buddhism after realizing that science could not answer all of her questions about the nature of existence. She subsequently earned two PhDs—one on bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka and one on the Vinaya, the division of the Buddhist canon concerning the rules and procedures governing the Buddhist monastic sangha.
Ven. Bhikkhuni Kusuma traveled to South Korea and Taiwan to study living lineages of female monasticism, and in 1996 formally took her own ordination vows at Sarnath in India, before a united conclave of the top bhikkhu and bhikkhuni leaders of Korea's five principle monastic orders, led by the late patriarch of the Jogye Order, Ven. Seo Am Sunim.
The author of several books, Ven. Bhikkhuni Kusuma represented Sri Lanka at many international Buddhist conferences and was considered a leading light and role model by Theravada bhikkhunis around the world.
I wish that bhikkhunis—not only in Sri Lanka, but all over the world—will be educated, will be practicing, will be talking about the Dharma and giving that knowledge to the world. Then, it will be a different world altogether. — Ven. Dr Bhikkhuni Kusuma*
* The First in 1,000 Years: An Interview with Venerable Kusuma (Buddhistdoor Global)
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