COLOMBO: News that Buddhist nuns have been denied identity documents in Sri Lanka made world headlines recently, exposing a complex reality that reflects unequal gender dynamics in monastic life.
“The media has distorted the whole issue,” Buddhist preacher Rajitha Viduransi told Arab News, referring to a December report by the BBC in which Bhikkunis, or Buddhist nuns, narrated the challenges that they face in obtaining their official identity.
For laymen and laywoman, Viduransi explained, national identity cards are issued by the Department for Registration of Persons. For Buddhist monks and nuns the documents are produced by the Department of Buddhist Affairs, which is directly under the prime minister, reflecting the special status the majority religion holds in Sri Lankan society.
Once they enter a Buddhist order, future monks or nuns have to renounce their national identity and will have their identification documents replaced by special cards that carry the name of a recognized prelate who ordained them. And that is where the problem starts.
Despite numbers of prominent Bhikkunis in the country, who have served for decades in monasteries, not a single one has the right to confer holy orders on novices, Viduransi said. While the Department of Buddhist Affairs is unable to issue the special identity cards without an ordinance, male clergy have been reluctant to authorize the service and lineage of Lankan nuns.
The lineage is special and started with that of monks in the third century BCE. According to tradition, the ordination lineages of both monks and nuns arrived on the island from India, with King Ashoka’s son, Mahinda, and daughter, Sanghamitta.
Sri Lanka’s proud history of male and female monasticism was interrupted by famines in the 11th century. While male orders were later restored, the Bhikkuni lineage lapsed for centuries, to be revived only in the late 1990s, but not without male opposition, which is also manifested in hindrances to the ordinance, ultimately throwing their female counterparts into a catch-22 situation.
The nuns say that they cannot obtain identity cards like regular citizens, because special procedures are in place for them, and often they cannot complete the procedures, because their ordinance is rarely recognized by the chief clergy.
Department of Buddhist Affairs director general, Sunandsa Kariyaperuma, confirmed to Arab News that for an identity card to be issued to a Bhikkuni, they need unanimous approval from the four prelates of the country’s main Buddhist orders. But the male clergy have been refusing to grant it.
According to Kolitha Thero, a deputy of Walukarama Temple in Colombo, the number of ordained Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka is about 40,000, while of nuns merely 4,000.
Senior nuns have been calling unsuccessfully for equality. They want to be able to ordain their novices too and face no discrimination in access to the basic right of having identity documents, without which no one can officially exist.
Bhikkhuni Kusuma, who celebrated her 90th birthday in December, said: “I was working for 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 wish that Bhikkhunis, not only in Sri Lanka but all over the world, could be educated, practicing, talking about the dharma (Buddhist cosmic order) and giving that knowledge to the world. Then, it will be a different world altogether,” she said.