Terrible treatment of Burma's First Bhikkhuni

Theravāda in the 21st century - modern applications of ancient wisdom

Terrible treatment of Burma's First Bhikkhuni

Postby Bankei » Wed Feb 17, 2010 10:22 pm

Saccavadi's story:

In 1981, the Burmese government formed an organization called the State Sangha Nayaka Council, (hereafter referred to as the SSNC). The council consists of 47 elder monks whose duties include helping to resolve disputes within the monastic community as well as serving as interpreters of the ancient Buddhist Pali canon. When the SSNC was formed, the council officially gave the name ‘thilashin’ to all female monastics which unfortunately can denote an inferior status compared to the word ‘novice’ or ‘monk’ given to the male monastics. A thilashin is restricted to taking 8 precepts which prevents her from becoming a bhikkhuni (a female monk) with the accompanying 311 precepts originally handed down by the Buddha over 2500 years ago. It is important to note that the term ‘thilashin’, along with the inferior status associated with the name, cannot be found in the Buddhist Pali canon. According to the Buddhist Pali canon, the Buddha ordained both male and female monks.

I would like to relate my own experience in dealing with the SSNC. In 1986, in Burma, when I was 21 years old, I ordained as a thilashin. 12 years later, in late 1998, I moved to Sri Lanka in order to immerse myself in the Sri Lankan Buddhist culture and to study critical analysis in Buddhist literature at the University. I was surprised to learn that there were bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka who were wearing the same color robes as the bhikkhus. These bhikkhunis, like their male counterparts the bhikkhus, did not handle money, did not cook for themselves and survived solely on the offerings of the lay community.

I had been a thilashin for 16 years and became eager to ordain as a bhikkhuni after having learned of the existence of the community of female Buddhist monks. I consulted about this with the bhikkhus at the Burmese temple located in the capital city of Sri Lanka, Colombo. I was told that women can never be bhikkhunis. The bhikkhus at the temple also lodged a complaint regarding my intention to ordain as a bhikkhuni to the SSNC. In 2003, despite the written objections from the SSNC in Burma, I proceeded with my ordination in Sri Lanka, and donned the robes of a bhikkhuni.

In early 2005 I had became aware that my father, who resided in Burma, had become gravely ill. I wanted to visit with him and flew to Burma. The SSNC had learned of my visit and opened a formal investigation regarding my ordination.

In the end, the SSNC decided that it was a crime for a female to be ordained as a bhikkhuni. Their decision was made based upon what I felt was a biased interpretation of the Pali canon. On May 27, 2005 I was brought before the 47 monks of the SSNC. The monks presented me with a document that had four requests written upon it. The first request was to bow three times to the council of monks of the SSNC. The second request was to remove my bhikkhuni’s robes and replace them with the robes of thilashin. The third request was to sign the document admitting that I was foolish and wrong. The fourth request was to read these admissions aloud.

I bowed to the monks three times. As for the second request I stepped behind a privacy screen and removed my robes and put on clothes of a lay person. Regarding the third request I relented and signed the document given to me. But as for the fourth request I could not bring myself to abide. In the end I refused to read aloud the written passages asking forgiveness of the monks but instead I addressed the lay people in the audience. I said to the lay people:

‘Please forgive me if I have abused your support. I have accepted your alms-food not as a beggar but as a female monastic who has tried to follow the noble teaching of the Buddha.’

Again the council requested me to read aloud the admission of guilt exactly as it was written on the document given to me. Again I refused. At that point the council informed me I would be sentenced to five years in prison. I was immediately taken into custody and eventually sent to the general prison of Yangon. All of these events transpired one month after my father’s death.

Once in prison, I was confronted with many challenges that included corrupt police, threats of rape, and horrible living conditions. Thoughts of suicide were eventually replaced with a renewed energy and resolve to work for a more compassionate interpretation of Theravāda Buddhism in regards to female monastics. No beds, no blankets or pillows were given to the prisoners and due to the over crowed conditions we were forced to sleep on the floor laying on one side next to one another. Mosquitoes, bed-bugs, and rats were a daily nuisance. Sanitation was almost non existent. Leaking roofs meant the prisoners were often wet. Urine and feces overflowed the toilets on to the floor. Soon I realized prison was a place where prisoners would often face an early death.

In the end I was released after having served 76 days. My early release was due to my plight being publicized by the BBC and the RFA (Radio Free Asia) along with the help of family members, some of whom had a military background. I was given another chance to meet the four requests of the SSNC. I performed the four requests including reading aloud my admission of guilt. No longer welcome in Burma I was driven to the airport and put on a plane headed to Sri Lanka where upon arrival I put on my bhikkhuni’s robes and moved back into the monastery to continue my Buddhist practice which included working towards my doctorate at the Post-Graduate Institute of Pali & Buddhist Studies, at the University of Kelaniya.

I would like to say that my experience of being a thilashin for 16 years and a bhikkhuni for 5 years has overall been a positive one. I have had the honor of having great teachers in my life, both male and female. The majority of monks I have known have been essentially good people and many of them support women ordaining as bhikkhunis.

In conclusion it is my strong opinion that Burma should have a democratic style of government and that there should be a separation of church and State with a guarantee of religious freedom for both males and females. Burma suffers from a very high poverty and unemployment rate. Corruption is common. I feel that in order for Burma to live in peace and prosperity that the military government and the democratically elected President, Miss Aung Sang Su Kyi, who is presently under house arrest, should work together in reconciliation with the best interests of the country in mind. Help from the international communities in whatever capacity they can offer should be welcomed.
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Taken from http://sujato.wordpress.com/
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Re: Terrible treatment of Burma's First Bhikkhuni

Postby RMSmith » Fri Feb 19, 2010 4:12 pm

I read this quite a while ago, and it still saddens me.
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Re: Terrible treatment of Burma's First Bhikkhuni

Postby withoutcolour » Fri Feb 19, 2010 6:43 pm

Burma is in need of many different types of reform.
One of my favourite books is Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin, and I recommend it for anyone who wants an insight into the awful conditions in Burma.

On a personal note, that story was so touching. I admire anyone who, while being threatened with prison time, can still stand up for what they believe in. May many more bhikkhunis walk this path and help lead the way for women who want to ordain.
Also, Aung Sang Suu Kyi is a personal hero of mine -- she is a wonderful woman, and I pray for her release, her safety and maybe even her rise to presidency. Burma needs her.

-wc
Namo tassa arahato bhagavato samma sambuddhassa.
สัพเพ สัตตา สุขีตา โหนตุ
sabbe sattā sukhita hontu
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Re: Terrible treatment of Burma's First Bhikkhuni

Postby Bankei » Sat Feb 20, 2010 5:33 am

hi Withoutcolour

Your comments reminded me of another book I have by an American James Mawdsley who is an activist for democracy in Burma. He was arrested and imprisoned in Burma for a few years. After getting out he went back to Burma with the intention of being arrested again and spend a a further period of a few years in prison there. All for his cause. His book is "The Hear Must Break: The Fight for Democracy and Truth in Burma", 2001.
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Re: Terrible treatment of Burma's First Bhikkhuni

Postby withoutcolour » Sun Feb 21, 2010 4:13 pm

bankei,
i will have to check it out. lately the books ive been getting into are politically themed. (i just read a really great book about this guy who set up a ton of schools just for girls in the middle east, specifically pakistan)
the author of the book i read was super-stealthy and luckily wasn't imprisoned. she hid all of her notes from writing inside of other things and stored them in the backs of toilets while she traveled.
-wc
สัพเพ สัตตา สุขีตา โหนตุ
sabbe sattā sukhita hontu
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Re: Terrible treatment of Burma's First Bhikkhuni

Postby Clayton » Mon Mar 01, 2010 4:53 am

Wow. That is unbelievable... it really goes to show how strong delusion may be. Your commitment to the dhamma in the face of persecution is inspiring. Women ordination come on people we aren't living in the dark ages anymore...

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Re: Terrible treatment of Burma's First Bhikkhuni

Postby Arya-Shraman » Thu Mar 04, 2010 9:15 am

It amazes me that It took her 16 years to understand!what was she waiting for? getting in prison?
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Re: Terrible treatment of Burma's First Bhikkhuni

Postby Freawaru » Mon Mar 08, 2010 5:21 pm

RMSmith wrote:I read this quite a while ago, and it still saddens me.


Yes. I still don't understand why people think that biology is more important than Dhamma. Those SSNC guys clearly are not bhikkhus in the sense the Buddha used the word. The terminology bases on meditation, not biology.

"Man", "male": in Dhamma these terms refer to the ability to penetrate and reach unification with an object, a state of desire. Also known as absorbtion, samadhi when done lucidly. The subject, the "I". Has nothing to do with chromosomes.

"Woman", "female": the receptive ability, the object, the me. The state one absorbs with. There are clean "women" and not so clean.

"Celibate", "bhikkhu": they refer to the awareness ability (sampajanna), that does not absorb into a state but stays detached and observes it. Experienced as subject, thus male. Turned upward, penetrating wisdom.

"Celibate", bhikkhuni: detached awareness experienced as object, as a "me". Developing receptive wisdom. Intuitive, mirror like.

Just as every person consists of "I" and "me", every practitioner of vipassana meditation will develop both bhikkhu and bhikkhuni awareness. Regardless of chromosomes.
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Re: Terrible treatment of Burma's First Bhikkhuni

Postby Zom » Tue Mar 30, 2010 7:21 pm

Dhamma and esp. Vinaya is not about the equality of men and women or any "social justice".
Good interview on this topic with Ven. Ajahn Sumedho.

http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php ... 75,0,0,1,0
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