Bhikkhuni Order

How Bhikkhuni Order flourished for centuries

by SumanaSaparamadu

Budusarana Jan 31 2008

It was on the full-moon day of the month of Unduvap that the ship bringing Sanghamitta Theri and the branch of the Bo-tree at Gaya, arrived at Jambukola orDambukola. It would have taken at least two days for the chariots, awaiting the Theris arrival with her companions to reach Anuradhapura, a distance of about 150 km. (Jambukola was, scholars say, Kyts or a port nearby on the Northern coast of the Jaffna peninsular).
The planting of the sacred branch on Lankan soil was an event of utmost importance, as it signifiesBuddhas dhamma that took root in Lanka. In connection to this a 14-day festival was held to honour the Bodhi tree.

After this festival in the month of Duruthu, Sanghamitta Theri Ordained Princess Anula and the court ladies who renounced the worldly life. This was the specific reason for Theris visit to Lanka. With that ordination she founded the Seehala Bhikkuni Sangha the Order of Seehala Bhikkuni.
That was the first step taken by the Theri. A greater and more important task lay before the Theri to teach the Dhamma and the Vinaya, which formed the bedrock of the Sangha.
Sanghamitta Theri and the eleven Bhikkunis who came with her from Jambudeepa(North India) took up residence in the
Upasika Vihara which King Devanampiyatissa built for Princess Anula and the court ladies who were to be ordained, and began to teach the Dhamma, instructed the novice bhikkunis on the Vinaya, and exhort them to lead the goodlife, according to the Dhamma, which alone would bring them salvation fromsansaaro.
The Bhikkhunis responded well to the teaching and soon acquired a reputation for their learning. Some specialised in the Vinaya, and others in the history of the religion -
Saddhamma Vamsa. The Deepavamsa mentions five famous bhikkhunis - Mahila,Samanta, Girikali, Dasi and Kali - who were pre-eminent among Vinaya scholars. They came to Anuradhapura all the way from Ruhuna, especially to teach the Vinaya. The first two were daughters of King Kavantissa and half-sisters of Dutugemunu. Girikalawas the daughter of the Kings Purohita the adviser while Dasi and Kali were daughters of commoners.
In the first century AD Lanka was hit by a severe drought and famine. Bhikkus andBhikkunis left their abodes and went to India or to the hilly districts in the island. At long last the famine was over and Walagamba ascended the throne after Seven years of war. He got down Bhikkus and Bhikkunis from India to revive the religion. They came without a hesitation when they heard the peril was over. The Deepavamsa tells us that the first to teach the Vinaya were sixteen bhikkunis.
The Deepavamsa records much information on the Theravada Bhikkunis where as theMahavamsa, which was introduced very much later than the Deepavamsa, mentions theBhikkhunis and Mehenavara only in passing. The Mahavamsa says nothing even ofMahila the half-sister of Dutugemunu who was still famous when Mahanama Therawrote the Mahavamsa.
One chapter in the Deepavamsa gives a detailed account of the original missionaryBhikkhunis who came from Jambudeepa to learn Dhamma and Vinaya.
Some Seehala Bhikkhunis specialized in the history of the religion -
Saddhamma Vamsain King Walagambas time and two Bhikkhunis who came from India, Seevala andMaharuha, were both historians.
They were proud of Nagamitta who was Ordained in Lanka, and lived during the reigns of Kutakanna Tissa and his son Abhaya. She too was well-versed in history. Two others distinguished for their knowledge of the Saddhamma Vamsa were Sanha and Samudda, who lived closer to the last period recorded in the Deepavamsa.
Some scholars are of the opinion that Deepavamsa is the work of Bhikkunis, they had made a collection of traditions handed down from the time of Sanghamitta Theri.
From its inception the Bhikkuni Order was a great success and its reputation was so high, that even royalty came from overseas seeking peace and refuge.
Nunneries were favourite objects of endowment with the women. As more and more women joined the order more and more nunneries had to be built. When the numbers grew, as it happened with the bhikkhus, there were schisms among Bhikkhunis too.
This was due to differences in the interpretation of the Dhamma or the Vinaya rules. New abodes were needed for the breakaway bhikkhunis. Mahavamsa says thatMoggallana II (497-515 AD) built a special Mehenawara which was named Rajini and gave it to the Saagalika bhikkhunis. There was also another breakaway group known asDhammaruchika.

The original group Ordained by Sanghamitta Theri and headed by her, the orthodox Theravada Bhikkhunis, were known as Hatthalahaka Bhikkuni. A Shrange name for a Sect of Bhikkunis. The word means elephant post. Sanghamitta Theri wanting a quiet place for meditation, made it a habit to be away from the city and visit where the State elephant used to be tethered. The King when he got to know this, built her aVihara there and it became the Theris residence until her demise. And the community ofbhikkhunis, under her, became known as Haththalahaka Bhikkhunis.

The Seehala Bhikkunis didn’t confine their mission to their island home and fewBhikkhunis went to China in the 5th century and ordained Chinese women. TheMahavamsa or any of the other Pali or Sinhala chronicles (Vamsa katha) make no mention of this. This from Chinese records that we learn that two batches of SeehalaBhikkunis went to China in 429 AD and 433 AD in a ship captained by one Nandi from India. This captain Nandi took them to Nanking, the capital of the Sung Dynasty. In the second batch was a bhikkhuni by the name of the Devsara.
When the second group arrived four years later, the first group was very fluent in Chinese. Now there were enough bhikkhunis for a quorum to perform the Upasampadaor Higher Ordination. 300 Chinese Samaneri Bhikkunis were given the Upasampada inbatches, The ceremony was overseen by Bhikkhu Gunawarman, a Kashmiri Bhikkhu.

The Bhikkhunis who played an important part during the Anuradhapura period of our history, who even braves stormy seas to carry the Dhamma to China and founded a Bhikkhuni Order there, disappeared from the scene with the fall of the Anuradhapurakingdom in 1017 AD. There is no mention in any of the chronicles of nunneries. What happened to them during the years of Chola rule?
After Vijaya Bahu defeated the Cholas wrested the country from them and became King in 1065. He enlisted the help of King Anuradhapura of Ramanna (part of present day Myanmar) to restore the Upasampada and revive the religion, but he made no attempt to revive the Bhikkhuni Order.
The Bhikkhuni Order was fostered and cherished by successive rulers for over 12 centuries. Why it was allowed to die completely without any attempt at resuscitation is difficult to understand (Malalasekera ibid)

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