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Buddhist Nuns in Burma

Dr. Friedgard Lottermoser

Friedgard Lottermoser was born in Berlin in 1942 and spent her childhood in what was then known as East Germany. She moved to West Germany when she was ten and spent three years in Burma, where her stepfather worked for a German firm. In 1965, she received a B.A. in Pali from the University of Rangoon, then earned an M.A. in Pali at the University of Mandalay. While in Burma, she studied Vinaya with the bhikkhu (fully-ordained monk) scholar Sayadaw Shin Janakabhivamsa and meditation with the well-known lay teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin. From 1973 on, she helped organize the first meditation courses of the U Ba Khin tradition to be held in Europe and has been actively involved in establishing several Buddhist centers there. In 1979 she received a Ph.D. for her work in Pali and has been working on a critical Pali dictionary since then. Dr. Lottermoser attended the International Conference on Buddhist Nuns in Bodhgaya in 1987 and serves as a member of the Sakyadhita Vinaya Research Committee.

According to a legend in the Burmese historical chronicles, the Burmese race arose from the union of a Sakyan prince, a fugitive related to the Buddha, and the daughter of a local chieftain in the city of Tagaung in Upper Burma. This is fixed in the memories of the people with the proverb, "The beginning of the Burmese people is from Tagaung." Quite certainly Theravada Buddhism has been a nation-building element in Burma. The majority of the inhabitants of the modern nation, the Socialist People's Republic of the Myanmar, define themselves as Burmese Buddhists. This statement is not merely a religious definition, but has a full range of social and juridical implications.

Burma presently has a population of approximately thirty million with an overwhelming majority (75%) of Theravada Buddhists. Only Thailand has a higher percentage (95%) since it never came under colonial rule. The Sangha census held in 1980 show 300,000 males wearing the Buddhist robes of a monk (bhikkhu) or a novice (samanera), and approximately 30,000 females in robes, that is, Buddhist nuns referred to as sila-rhan (pronounced thila-shin, meaning "owners of virtue"). If these figures are correct, and we have every reason to assume that they are, there would be ten males and one female wearing the robe in the Buddhist religious orders out of every thousand nationals in modern Burma.

What is the status of the "Buddhist nuns?" Social rights for women are traditionally at a fairly high level in Burma. Women usually handle the family finances and are trained to do so when quite young. There is, however, that little extra "male superiority," referred to as "bhun" (bhaga in Pali, meaning glory or power), which is supposed to be stronger in men than in women How does this reflect on the status of Buddhist nuns in Burma today?

Daw Mi Mi Khaing, a well-known woman author of Burma, wrote a book called The World of Burmese Women which contains a chapter on "Women in Religion." I have compared it with my personal observations made in Burma during the last twenty-five years, particularly from 1965 to 1970, when I lived in various Buddhist monastic establishments in Upper Burma.

When discussing the status of Buddhist nuns at an international level, we find ourselves confronted with a profusion of terms in many languages, a veritable "Babylonian tower of confusion." It is important to clarify this jungle of terms to find out what Buddhist women in religious robes actually are in the different countries where Buddhism is practiced today. The present nuns of Burma are not regarded as full female equivalents of the monks. They are not bhikkhunis. The name for the Buddhist nuns is sila-rhan (owner of good moral conduct), may- sila (Miss Virtue), or bhva-sila (granny virtue). However, "rhan" is also the normal term of address for male novices (Pali: samanera, Burmese: kui-ran). Even the word "rhan-pru" (make a "rhan") refers to the pabbajja (leaving the household life) of male novices.

It is a traditional cultural requirement for every male Burmese Buddhist to become a novice in childhood for some time and a monk in adulthood. There is even a saying, "You must become a monk, before you can become a man." Such a cultural requirement does not exist for women. The shaven head is a fairly strong cultural barrier, in fact, since almost every adult laywoman takes great pride in her long hair (as did the men until the British conquest of Mandalay). But now, with modern short hair styles becoming fashionable for young ladies, this obstacle to wearing the Buddhist robes is somewhat diminished. I have heard that the temporary wearing of the robe, so common for men in Burma, is now more frequently practiced by young women during long vacations.

The present nuns in Burma had a great period of revival and prosperity during the sasana reforms sponsored by King Mindon, who built the royal city of Mandalay and held the Fifth Buddhist Council there in the second half of the nineteeth century. The most prominent nuns at that time were Saya Kin and May Nat Pe, two orphans of war from Manipur (now India) who reached Burma in early childhood and were adopted by a royal minister. At Sagain and Mingun in Upper Burma, just across the river from Mandalay, on the banks of the Irrawaddy, there are hundreds of nunneries even today - a veritable "kingdom of nuns."

Historical Background of the Buddhist Nuns of Burma

The history of Southeast Asia is still a field wide-open to investigation in many respects. Some recently established facts may not yet have become common knowledge. According to research done by Luce and Than Tun, there is inscriptional evidence to show that there were bhikkhunis as well as bhikkhus in Pagan. Daw Mi Mi Khaign says that one bhikkhuni (rahan-ma, or female monk) was even a bishop! These reports were confirmed in a conversation I had in 1986 with a woman scholar, Daw Tin Tin Myint, who is head of the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Rangoon.

When Did the Bhikkhunis Come to Burma?

Pali tradition states (in the Samantapasadika 69.10, translated by N.A. Jayawickrama, p.61) that Emperor Asoka sent the monks Sona and Uttara to Suvannabhumi and that they established the Buddhadhamma there. On that occasion, 3500 noble men and 1500 women entered the Buddhist order. Suvannabhumi has been identified with Lower Burma. The city of Thaton has been identified with Sudhammanagara, the capital of a Mon kingdom of that time.

From archaeological remains, including stone inscriptions in Pali found in Lower Burma, we know that the Pyu people living there before the Burmese arrived were Theravada Buddhists. There is Chinese evidence to the effect that both boys and girls of the Pyu were educated in Buddhist monasteries and that "they left at the age of twenty, if they did not feel inclined to the religious mode of living on a life-long basis." This statement is very significant. Twenty years (after conception) is the age required for higher ordination according to the Vinaya. Bhikkhuni ordination may therefore have been available to Pyu girls. The monastic system of education applied to both boys and girls equally and may have resembled the system found in villages of Upper Burma even today. The Bhikkhuni Order may have been introduced into the Pyu kingdoms of Lower Burma from South India along with other features of Theravada Buddhism.

It is not quite clear how the bhikkhunis disappeared from Burma. Pagan was sacked by the Mongol emperor of China in 1298 A.D. After this, Burma was in a state of political unrest, split up under different rulers for several centuries. Some of these were antagonistic to Buddhism. The present area of the Socialist People's Republic of Myanmar is defined by the conquests of the Konbaung dynasty (1751-1885 A.D.) which was replaced by British colonial rule after three successive wars fought in 1824, 1852, and 1885, respectively.

The order of monks managed to survive all these trials, but not the order of bhikkhunis. To restore the order of bhikkhunis, a sasana reform would be required. An effort in this direction has already been made by the Burmese government in the early 1980s. Identity cards have been issued to all citizens in robes, both male and female. Monks who do not conform to the Dhamma and the Vinaya have been made to leave the order. Two Sangha universities are now being set up, in Mandalay and Rangoon, where modern subjects are being taught to monks in addition to the traditional Pali Buddhist scholarship. It would be a very laudable development if these efforts could also be extended to the Buddhist nuns. After all, half the Buddhists of Burma are women, and the opportunity to practice their religion is an important feature of their lives.

In my inquiries, I have come across several unsuccessful attemps to re-introduce bhikkhuni ordination into Burma. There was one attempt in the 1930s, by a very learned monk named Shin Adicca. There was apparently another effort by the teacher of the Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw, an elder named Jetavana Sayadaw, who wrote a book in Pali in the 1950s, entitled Milindapanha- atthakatha, in which he advocated the ordination of bhikkhunis (by bhikkhus). And in 1970, there was an application to the Burmese government to re-introduce the "Bhikkhuni Sasana," with copies sent to twenty leading monks in Burma. This application was made by my own Dhamma teacher, a Burmese woman of the Sayagyi U Ba Khin tradition, who has been a keen meditator for 33 years. As a laywoman, she has studied Pali in all aspects, including fifteen years' study of Vinaya, in a famous monastic university in Upper Burma.

I firmly believe that it is our duty as Buddhist women of the present age, when the sasana is undergoing worldwide revival and is spreading to many countries where it was not known before, to try our level best to make the sasana bright, shining, and complete. The sasana is incomplete if higher ordination into religious orders is not available to women, since this opportunity was originally granted by Lord Buddha. Buddha himself said to Mara that his teaching is well-establish only if all the four groups of disciples are complete: bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, upasakas, and upasikas. There is a prophecy that the sasana will last for 5000 years and that there will be a revival after 2500 years. This means in the twentieth century, our own time - now! In fact, the growing interest in Buddhism at an international level seems to bear out this prediction.

As the Buddhadhamma is being re-introduced into India, as it becomes newly established in many Western countries, the different schools of Buddhism meet and come into close contact with each other. They develop an attitude of cooperation and dicover their common ground. It becomes increasingly obvious that the basic tenets of Lord Buddha have to be emphasized to make the Buddhadhamma strong in the modern world. This includes the bhikkhuni ordination for women. As in most other spiritual movements, women around the world have taken a very strong interest in Buddhism. About two-thirds of the meditators in the West are women. It is our duty as Buddhist women to make an effort to establish the sasana in its full completeness.

May all beings be happy! May the women of the world make a special effort for progress on the path of sila, samadhi, and panna - virtue, mental calm, and insight. May peace prevail in the world.

Editor's Notes

  1. Published by Zed Books, London, 1984.
  2. Sasana refers to the teachings of the Buddha, the practice of the teachings, and the fruits of the practice.
  3. Bhikkhu refers to a fully ordained monk, bhikkhuni to a fully ordained nun, upasaka to a Buddhist layman, and upasika to a Buddhist laywoman. The precepts of the upasaka and upasika are the same, five in number: to refrain from taking life (killing), to refrain from taking what is not given (stealing), to refrain from sexual misconduct (adultery and so on), to refrain from telling lies (especially about one's spiritual attainments), and to refrain from taking intoxicants. The precepts of the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni include these and more.

From: Sakyadhita Newsletter, Summer 1991, vol.2, no.2