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Contemporary Development of bhikkhuni sangha in Theravada Buddhism.

My focus on this presentation will be limited only to Theravadin tradition. Buddhist women in Theravadin countries i.e. Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia did not have any access to full ordination until recently. The movement started with an effort of the far sighted Ven.Master Hsing Yun of Fo Guang Shan. (2) His branch temple Hsilai (3) in L.A. offered for the first time an international ordination for Buddhist women from all traditions in 1988. (4) At that historic event there were more than 200 female novices who could not obtain full ordination from their own lineage came to receive full ordination.

From Theravadin traditions, there were 2 Thai women; (5) Ven.Dhammavati, the leading bhikkhuni of Nepal and her group received full ordination at this time. Eventhough they were fully ordained but upon returning to Nepal they still have to wear the pink robe of thilashins. (6) There were 5 Sri Lankan dasasilmatas who went through this ordination with the support of the Sri Lankan monks living in the US. However, without structural support in Sri Lanka they could not continue bhikkhuni sangha and eventually returned to the traditional dasasilmatas, way of life. (7)

Bhikkhuni ordination given by Korean bhikkhu Sangha.

Ordination for women in Theravada started from the movement in Sri Lanka. The first batch of ten dasasil matas to receive bhikkhuni ordination took place in Sarnath in 1996, the ordination ceremony was organized and given by Korean bhikkhu sangha. Among the ten bhikkhunis, one who is better known would be Ven.Kusuma Devendra. I believe that the ordination for bhikkhuni in Korean tradition at that time was given by bhikkhu sangha only, and this ordination was not an exception. There were 2-3 bhikkhunis at the ordination ceremony but they were not officiating the ordination as required by the Vinaya.

Dual Sangha ordination by Chinese tradition.

A much better recognized ordination came in 1998 when Fo Guang Shan organized an international ordination for bhikkhunis in Bodh Gaya in 1998. This is now marked as a beginning of the present contemporary ordination for women in Theravadin tradition.

In Sri Lanka, the situation was different, there were senior monks who were supportive of the bhikkhuni ordination and helped from the start by screening the top quality of the existing dasasilmatas. Twenty dasasilmatas were screened and selected by a committee of senior monks in Sri Lanka. These were the first batch of bhikkhunis receiving dual ordination, that is first from the bhikkhuni sangha of Dharmagupta Vinaya and then from the bhikkhu sangha.

Establishing Theravadin Bhikkhuni lineage Sri Lanka.

There are few places where women seek bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka. Below are some of the major ones:


Realizing that the dual ordination given by the Chinese bhikkhunis might not be accepted by the orthodox Theravadins back in their own homeland, the ten senior monks from Sri Lanka who attended the dual ordination arranged yet another ordination. The senior monks along with the newly ordained Sri Lankan bhikkhunis went to Sarnath. And another ordination was given to them. It was purely Theravada given only by Sri Lankan bhikkhu sangha.

This was done with an explanation according to the allowance of the Buddha as recorded in Cullavagga, Vinaya Pitaka of Pali tradition.

This is to satisfy and reaffirm the Theravadin lineage.

In the same year 1998, upon returning to Sri Lanka. Ven.Inamaluwe Sri Sumangalo Mahathero, Nayaka or abbot of Dambulla led the movement and started giving ordination to the remaining dasasilmatas who had previously filed their applications for full ordination but were not selected to go to India. At that first bhikkhuni ordination more than one hundred monks attended. The event was recorded on VDO.

There were three bhikkhunis appointed by the sangha to perform as upajjhaya, or pavattini. They were Ven.Kavida Yanisiri, Ven.Rahatungoda Saddha Sumana of Eheliyagoda, and Ven.Sumitra of Paduka. Each one of them were dasasilmatas for more than 40 years, well-versed in dhamma and vinaya.

The ordination for bhikkhunis organized by Dambulla has continued up to present, and in this lineage they have already ordained 400 bhikkhunis. They have a training center in Kalundewa, few kilometers away from the main temple, built with a support from Korean Sangha and offer three-month training prior to annual ordination. Again the training is accessible only for the local Sri Lankan candidates.

The Dambulla ordination requires that samaneri candidates must be able to pass the exam at the end of the three-month training period. In 2007 there was a case of a Thai Samaneri who failed the exam and was refused ordination. The Maha Nayaka told her to come back next year.

It is from Dambulla that bhikkhuni ordination is spreading internationally. In 2004 Ven.Sudhira (Australian) received full ordination after spending 4 years as samaneri, in 2005 Ven.Dhammananda (Thailand) received full ordination (for a second time) after spending 2 years as samaneri and 2 years as bhikkhuni. Both bhikkhunis were trained under the same bhikkhuni upajjhaya, Ven.Rahatungoda Saddha Sumana of Eheliyagoda. There are also American bhikkhunis who received ordination from this center.

In this connection, its relevant to give some background to the senior monk who is responsible for the revival of the bhikkhuni sangha in Sri Lanka. Ven.Inamaluwe Sri Sumangalo ordained in Asgiri (8) and started to break away from the traditional practice of Syamvamsa which limited ordination for bhikkhus only to Govida caste. In 1985 he was the first one to break this barrier and returned to the teaching of the Buddha by allowing ordination for men of all castes.

In 1998 again he took the responsibility and brought Syamvamsa to another height by giving ordination to bhikkhunis. Of course at both events he had to face much criticism from the more orthodox bhikkhus and also Sri Lanka Society.

However, in 2005 he was appointed Maha Nayaka (the highest title for monk) of Dambulla which is a branch of Syamvamsa. This can be considered a recognition for both his ordination for monks free from caste as well as ordination for bhikkhunis.

In 2005, I had a personal audience with the most senior Maha Nayakas of Syamvamsa both of Malwatta and Asgiri in Kandy, both of them without hesitation, supported the bhikkhuni ordination.

Bhikkhuni Association in Neugala.

In Sri Lanka, after Dambulla, there is another Bhikkhuni Association which also offers bhikkhuni ordination at Neugala, but being limited in English, International candidates have difficulties both in teaching and training. In this group there are approx. 50 bhikkhunis all local.

Bhikkhuni training Center.

This is most recent development in connection with bhikkhuni ordination. Ven.Vimalajoti, director of Buddhist Cultural Center in Colombo was invited to attend the International conference in Hamburg, Germany in 2007. That was one of the largest forum to discuss the bhikkhuni issue, there were more than 70 academic papers presented and H.H. the Dalai Lama actually gave the seed fund of 50,000 Swiss Francs to start the conference.

Ven.Vimalajoti was there to witness the energy and the strength of both the Theravada and Mahayana bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. Upon his return to Sri Lanka, he committed himself to support the training and ordination of bhikkhunis. This year, 2008 it was the first time that he organized ordination for international bhikkhunis in Horana, Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka Sakyadhita. (9)

In the early period (1990s) of this movement, Sri Lanka Sakyadhita was helping to connect the candidates to the senior monks. One of the senior monks who was very supportive was Ven.T.Dhammaloka of Tapodanramaya, in Mt. Lavinia, Columbo. Sakyadhita through the able leadership of Mrs. Ranjani de Silva had helped organized few novice and bhikkhuni ordinations. Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh was first ordained as samaneri under the organization of Sakyadhita in 2001. The ordination was given by a chapter of five Syamvamsa senior monks but the event was organized and co-ordinated by Ven. T.Dhammaloka (of Amarapura). It was a loss for the bhikkhuni sangha when he passed away suddenly on Dec. 31, 2003.

Samaneris who received full ordination with the assistance of Sakyadhita were Thai, American, Burmese and also local Sri Lankan novices.


Thailand is one country after Sri Lanka that bhikkhuni sangha seems to have really spread and in the process of being established only in the past decade. Through 700 years of history, Thai women was never given ordination as the monks kept referring to the necessity to have dual ordination which requires the existence of bhikkhuni Sangha first. Logic used was catch-22, so it never got started.

After three-wave of the attempt to establish bhikkhuni sangha in Thailand, the shadow started to become a reality with the ordination of one women ... Dr.Chatsumarn Kabilsingh in 2001. For 30 years she had prepared and equipped herself with all the knowledge and information regarding the possibility of ordination for women in her country. She was fully aware of the attitude and all the reasons behind the consistent refusal to recognize the bhikkhuni sangha. Both her M.A. thesis and Ph.D. dissertation were on the bhikkhuni sangha. As the president of Sakyadhita, in 1993 she was organizing an international conference on Buddhist women in Sri Lanka, and even at that time govt. officials giving permission for Sakyadhita to hold international conference told the organizers not to have the discussion on the revival of bhikkhunis on the conference agenda. The organizers kept their words but there were a large group of colorful bhikkhunis from all over the world attending that conference which the President of the country came to attend the opening ceremony. Sri Lankan people woke up to be, for the first time aware that the bhikkhunis are much alive in the world.

When Sri Lanka was being stirred with the ordination in 1998. Dr.Chatsumarn Kabilsingh was preparing herself to take on this life commitment. In 2001 she went to Sri Lanka for samaneri ordination and took her two-year training and came to be known as Ven.Dhammananda. She moved cautiously and took every step as required by the vinaya, in 2003 she returned for her full ordination. During the vassa of 2003 and 2004 she invited her upajjhaya and the bhikkhunis internationally to stay as a sangha to answer to the vinaya training requirement. (10)

Her mother, Ven.Bhikshuni Voramai Kabilsingh, prepared her well on this commitment. The temple has been established for more than 40 years. During 2001 Ven.Dhammananda invited the bhikkhu Sangha to establish the Sima-malaka (boundary) and have the uposatha hall ready for proper ordination.

Her ordination in 2001 gave quite a stir for discussion among the Thai monks. Many women who had hidden desire to be ordained now started coming forward.

Now 2008 there are already some 10 Thai bhikkhunis and 30 samaneris mostly received ordination from Sri Lanka from Syamvamsa.

Ven.Dhammananda is the first one to start this movement but the largest center for bhikkhunis are now in Chiangmai (in the northern Thailand.) Ven.Nandayani, the leader of this group has her base in Chomthong district, one hour from Chiangmai proper.

Few serious samaneris are still studying and under training with their upajjhayas in Sri Lanka. Each one of them seems to plan to start their own centers. Ranjani de Silva commented that they are blossoming like lotuses all over the land. In brief, though they have neither formal recognition from the government nor the Sangha, they seem to blossom well with the support of the people.


Cambodia provides yet another interesting story. Most of the temporary nuns in Cambodia are called donchees or yaychees, they wear white and shave their heads, like the maejis in Thailand, they do not have any recognized status.

With the far-sightedness of the present Somdech Buakree of Dhammayut (11) who has been teaching a group of bhikshunis from Taiwan and now trained them for Buddhist education. Apparently this could be one way of introducing bhikkhuni sangha to the local Cambodian women. This is at a very beginning of his project. The problem is that these bhikkhunis are from Taiwan and Cambodian Government recognizes Mainland China, so Somdech can not be very open in supporting them without contradicting the political position of the Government. The bhikkhunis wear some what like Dhammayut robe, the color is definitely Dhammayut Theravada. During my recent visit (Feb.2009) there were at least 30 of them. They stay in a separate temple run by the Chinese, the problem that I see seems to be the limination of language. The temple stands in rather deserted area opposite the international airport. As we turned into the small lane leading to their temple, the local Cambodians still do not know of the existence of their temple.


Laotian women are not very keen to follow the religious lifestyle. There are women who would become maejis (12) during the Rain, but after that they return to their families. Buddhism in Laos follow very closely to Thailand. Many monks in Laos would come and receive both ordination and training from Thailand. The change in the position of the bhikkhunis in Thailand will eventually effect Laos but not in the immediate future.


Myanmar has a strongest tradition of contemporary nuns, in this country they are called thilashins, the women wear pink with a brown robe folded on their left shoulders. They have better education and meditation training than in any other countries in S.E.A. But the sangha follows the style of the government, they are very militant. In 2005 they sentences a bhikkhuni (13) ordained from Sri Lanka to 76 days of imprisonment. After that she was deported to Sri Lanka and eventually to U.S.A. This year (2008), she is reported to have disrobed. There is another Burmese medical doctor who also received bhikkhuni ordination in 2003 in Sri Lanka but now based in the U.S. Yet, there is another Burmese samaneri ordained also from Sri Lanka and now plays a more quieter role in the suburb of Rangoon.

With that attitude of the majority of the monks, Myanmar will likely be the last country in S.E.A. to accept bhikkhunis.

But everything is impermanent, that is the teaching of the Buddha.


Contemporary Development of bhikkhunis is very much a living issue, hence it is very colorful. Trained as an academic, the author could not imagine that she would herself witness the emergence of bhikkhunis in her life time and that she would be part of that knots and bolts to make the progress of the movement.

It is the fulfillment according to the establishment of the fourfold Buddhists that the Buddha had started for us some 2,500 years ago. Indeed all the women in this movement feel the privilege to be part of it.

Ven.Dr.Chatsumarn Kabilsingh (Dhammananda)

(1) Paper prepared for the Conference on Bhikkhuni Education, Yen. Wil Yins 70th Birthday in Taipei. Taiwan. May 30, 2009.

(2) Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

(3) Hacienda Heights in Los Angcles, CA.

(4) Ayya Khema, a well known teacher in Germany, co-founder of Sakyadhita was ordained at this ordination.

(5) Mrs. Varaporn and Mrs.La-oo.

(6) Contemporary nuns having no ordination procedure, not even pabbajja (novice ordination) In Thailand they observe 8-precepts and are called maeji, in Myanmar they are called thilashin and in Sri Lanka they are called dasailmata

(7.) I reported this in more details in Yasodhara.

(8) One of the two early branches of Syamvamsa.

(9) International Buddhist Association came into existence in 1991 after the first conference on Buddhist nuns in 1987 (Bodh Gaya) there were three co-founders. Ven.Ayya Khema (Germany), Ven.Bhikshuni Karma Lekshe Tsomo (U.S.A.) and Dr.Chatsumarn Kabilsingh (Thailand).

(10) As a newly ordained bhikkhuni, one must receive training from upajjhaya for at least 2 years. (for monks they need 5 years)

(11) Like Thailand, Cambodian monks belong either to Mahamkaya or Dhammayut. Dhammnayut Nikaya from Cambodia originated from Thailand. There are two somdechs in Cambodia, one if MahaNikay and one is Dhammayut.

(12) White robe nuns.

(13) She received ordination at the same time with Ven.Dhammananda in 2003.
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Author:(Dhammananda), Chatsumarn Kabilsingh
Publication:Yasodhara-Newsletter on International Buddhist Women's Activities
Geographic Code:9THAI
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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