Sharing Buddhist Women's Stories
Reflections on Documenting the Bhikkhuni Revival
With Ayya Suvira and Ranjani De Silva
Sunday 1st May 2022
Helen Richardson: It's a great pleasure to introduce our special guest this afternoon, Ayya Suvira. Ayya Suvira received her higher ordination at Dhammasara in 2019. She now resides at Mettārāma nuns' monastery in Sydney. Currently, Ajahn Sujato is her teacher. Suvira Bhikkhuni is the author of a ‘Walking in the Sunshine of the Bhukkinis, a biography of Ranjani de Silva, the woman behind the bhikkhuni revival, and we're very pleased that Ranjani has joined us this afternoon. We've asked Ayya to speak about the stories of Buddhist women associated with the bhikkhuni ordination, and in particular Ranjani, the subject of her book. Thank you very much for joining us. And now it's over to you.
Ayya Suvira: Thank you so much, Helen, for that lovely introduction, it's a pleasure to be here and thank you for putting so much effort into organizing this as well. And just acknowledging the presence of Venerable Vijitānandā from the Sakyadhita centre in Sri Lanka, and also Ranjani herself, who's been very quiet, but it's lovely to see you too. So, you know, just thinking about what I wanted to talk about today, I really feel very honoured to explain a little bit about Ranjani's bio. The original reason, I was asked to write Ranjani's biography by my nun teacher Ayya Upekkhā was because she felt that many of the key figures involved with the Theravada Bhikkhuni revival were getting older, and the time to tell their stories was really now. And since that time, Ayya Kusumā has passed away. I had been very fortunate to get the chance to interview Ayya Kusumā and to be in correspondence with her right up until the point where she became unwell. So that's been a real privilege. And for people who might not necessarily be aware about why Ranjani’s contributions are significant, when we think about the Bhikkhuni revival, there's two main areas where attention has been given in recent years, to the possible reintroduction of ordination for Buddhist nuns. So, one is in the Theravada tradition, the other being in the Tibetan tradition. But certainly, in respect of the Theravada tradition at least Ranjani has been described as being a prime mover of the revival, and possibly even the person most responsible. And that's because of her consistent contributions, through the late 80s and early 90s, through Sakyadhita International, her presidency of Sakyadhita International spanned the years after 1995. So, she had been a former president. And her key contribution to that had been as an organizer of the 1993 Sakyadhita International Conference in Sri Lanka, and also as an organizer of the famous 1996 ordination which was widely credited with restoring the Theravada Bhikkhuni order.
So that's a little bit about the context. And for me as a nun, it was interesting to write in detail about the 1996 ordination. But what I wanted to share with everyone was mostly some things that I found inspiring from Ranjani's biography, just in the context of it being a Buddhist woman's story. So, I hope that's okay, with Ranjani, we've worked very closely. So, I'm just going to read out a few passages that I thought were representative. Because actually, when we think about Theravada, sometimes the type of literature we have access to, there's not necessarily a lot of high-quality writing available on Theravada Buddhist woman stories, you could count the number of publications on one hand. I think we have Ayya Khemā's biography, we also have Ayya Kusuma's biography, but that is a bit hard to get your hands on outside of maybe Sri Lanka. Also the biographies of Dipa Ma and Maechee Kaewa. But some of these books were not necessarily written by a woman, Maechee Kaewa’s biography in particular, that was, as far as I know, written after her death. So, when we encounter Theravada, because we're not necessarily always encountering women's stories, we can get the idea that Theravada is somehow a tradition that doesn't have women's stories, which would be incorrect. Because the type of Theravada we get internationally as well, it's sometimes a very filtered Theravada.
What we see from Ranjani's story is that women who are living in Theravadin countries, of course, they have their own stories, and they have role models, rituals and life experiences that all center around the lived experience of Theravada woman. So, I just wanted to share a little bit about some things in Ranjani's life that I found inspiring. Ranjani comes from a long line of wise and engaged Buddhist women. An early influence in her life being her mother. Ranjani was born in 1937, but already her mother was the president of the local Buddhist women's association. So, already she was in a lay leadership role, where she'd set up a weaving center to give employment to local women.
Ranjani's mother was very typical of that generation, she was married at 14. But Buddhism remained a very important part of her life and even as a married woman she continued to do charity activities in the local community. Things like treating malaria victims - Ranjani had mentioned her mum even going to boil pots and pots of herbal medicine, to go and serve and help the malaria victims at the local dispensary. This was even before people were going to the hospital, so, her mum had had a role in taking the first malaria patients to the hospital, to introduce them to modern malaria medicine. So, all of these things that were already happening on a village level back in the 1930s, and 40s, where we have women taking on these local leadership roles with malaria only being eradicated in Sri Lanka in 2012. When Ranjani is describing her own mother, she's describing someone who's a leader, a counsellor and a manager. Ranjani had mentioned the weaving center, where they were giving employment to girls at a village level or to young women and they got the teachers in from the government small industry department who lived with Ranjani's family. And that's something engaged that's happening in the community. Something else I wanted to share was what Ranjani related to me about textile manufacturing; the role of that at village level, the ‘woman's activity’ that's helping to generate income.
She said that it's like the story of the 16-year-old weaver girl who came to the Buddha. This is actually a story from the Dhammapada commentary, I thought it was nice to share because it shows how we do have these women's stories that already exist within the Pali textual tradition. So, in the story of the Weaver Girl, she's 16 years old, and she had already been practicing the recollection of death for three years. The Buddha had seen that the time was ready for this weaver girls awakening. So, the Buddha and the girl had this kind of cryptic exchange or conversation. In the Buddha's address to this 16-year-old girl, he's asked her - sorry, the translations a little bit old - but I'll read it out as it is.
Buddha: "My girl, where have you come from?"
The weaver Girl: "I do not know, reverend sir."
Buddha: "Where will you go?"
The weaver girl: "I do not know, reverend sir."
Buddha: "Do you not know?"
The weaver girl: "I know, reverend sir."
Buddha: "Do you know?"
The weaver girl: "I do not know, reverend sir."
What we have here already is a kind of riddle. So, where she is coming from, she doesn't know. Where's she going. She doesn't know either. The Buddha's asked her, don't you know, do you not know? And she's replied, I know. The Buddha's asked her, but do you know? And she said, I don't know. So, what's going on with this conversation? There's a crowd already, and people have shamed this young girl for her answer, thinking that she should have said where I've come from is the weavers house – and .where I was going is the weavers workshop.
There was a deep meaning to her answers, and the Buddha silenced the crowd. When the weaver girl said that she didn't know where she came from, she meant that she didn't know where she came from before she was born. When she said that she didn't know where she was going, she meant she didn't know where she would be reborn after death. When she said that she knew, she meant that she knew that she would die. When she said that she didn't know, she meant that she didn't know the time or whether it would be day or night. The Buddha expressed that the crowd hadn't understood her meaning and that those who have the eye of wisdom will see. The weaver girl attained stream entry.
This is a story that Ranjani has related from the Pali Dhammapada commentary, showing the wisdom of Buddhist girls and women. That was something I wanted to share because I found it memorable. I don't have any huge logic that I'm sharing, just things that really stood out to me as being memorable.
Another woman who had an impact on Ranjani's life, was her aunt - the chapter in the book is “Aunty Lay Disciple”. The reason I wanted to share this was that basically the picture that Ranjani's painted of her aunt, describes what life was like for female renunciant practitioners before the bhikkhuni revival and before any of the other forms of nun’s ordination. This is back in the day when women weren't even really encouraged to even wear brown. Ranjani's aunt was staying at home wearing white as a lay woman practitioner. They called her Aunty Upāsikā, upāsikā being the devout Buddhist female practitioner. She didn't have access to nuns’ ordination; this was how things were in the past:
She observed eight precepts continuously while staying at home. So that's to say in addition to the regular five precepts of a Buddhist lay devotee, she had undertaken a degree of renunciation. So, Ranjani recalls, running to see her on the way to the temple. And even though she was quiet, they always like to see her. So, after her husband passed away, she lived by herself in a house with another woman to assist her. It was only later that Ranjani understood that she was different at home 24/7. Aunty Upāsikā dressed in white and wore a white shoulder shawl. She spent her days by herself, and once in a while she would attend Temple. Ranjani's understanding is that she was influenced by her son, Ven. Mirissē Guṇasiri, who gave her religious instruction. She led the life of a renunciant.
In their district, they didn't have sīla mātās – the mother who upholds virtue, . Though there were sīla mātās in other districts by this time with sīla mātā ordination being a makeshift cultural ordination form that had emerged in the absence of Bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka. When they went on pilgrimage to places like Kataragama or Anuradhapura, they would suddenly see a woman walking on the road, wearing light yellow cloth. But as in their district they weren't recognsed or respected Ranjani had no idea at all about these ‘sīla mātās’.
Ranjani says of her aunt: “Upāsikā nændā! - nændā meaning aunty. She was the only one. Now I realize why she was in white all the time. Ranjani does not recollect seeing woman wearing yellow at that time in her village -.yellow here meaning whatever coloru the nuns robes were. Aunty Upāsikā’s funeral was held in Ranjani's school days and it was huge. Ranjani said it was “like a mahānāyaka.” A mahānāyaka is the head of a monastic fraternity who was elected by the Sangha council -. it's the senior position in Sri Lankan Therevada Buddhism. There was a lot of respect;. there was a big cremation fire and many monks came as if it were the funeral of a senior monk.
I wanted to share that story. Because it shows us the general environment of the 1940s, early 1950s before we have some of these ordination forms that we have today. So, if it weren't for the bhikkhuni revival, this is what life would be like for nuns; the situation where the female practitioners are expected to stay at home and lead a quiet religious life. But we also see the contradictions involved in that, because on the one hand, Aunty Upāsikā’s practicing at home, but on the other hand, we see so much respect that Ranjani has related around her funeral, that she was treated like she was a senior monk. So, a little bit illustrative there too, about, the type of opinions that Ranjani recalls having about women who might have already taken a sila mata ordination elsewhere. When we think about the bhikkhuni revival today this is a very different world.
So just a little bit of sharing, I think one of the things I really liked about this book, just on a personal level, is the chance to share some of the things that we don't obviously see in stories of buddhist male or monk practitioners. For example, some of the rituals that are really women's rituals and women's life experiences, things like, the coming-of-age ceremony that is widely practiced throughout South and Southeast Asian cultures. So, the concept of having a celebration around the time a girl turns 12 or in her early teens to mark the transition into womanhood. It's something that's a bit alien to western culture. We get this very sanitized version of theravada in the west but when we think about lived experience, this is the type of experience that theravadin women are actually going through.
What's actually involved in a coming-of-age ceremony in these countries? Typically, there's some type of seclusion involved, where the girl spends some time away from people and away from men. So, I'm just going to read a little bit here about Ranjani's coming of age ceremony.
When Ranjani came of age, they cooked milk-rice and traditional sweets such as kævum (oil cake) and kokis (rosette cookies) for the day of the bathing ceremony. The dhobi woman came and Ranjani was bathed, and the dhobi woman received gifts of money and rations. Ranjani received presents of jewelry. Although they didn’t have a party for Ranjani’s coming of age, some family members came with the milk-rice and traditional sweets. She was given a white silk dress to wear and they took a small photo with the neighbors.
After she came of age, she wasn’t allowed to go to school for one week. In fact, she was basically locked in the room—they had a small room that was sometimes used for females. She wasn’t allowed to see any males and they didn’t have any males
in the house. For five or six days, she wasn’t allowed to eat anything fried in oil. She was given simple food or curry. I asked if it was boring in the room. Ranjani said yes—it was like when she was locked in the room with measles.
And again, there’s the nearly . . I was going to say nearly universal, but quite common women's custom that exists right across the therevadin countries and South and Southeast Asia, also in India as well, though in India proper because of colonization, I think the percentage observance of this particular woman's custom is a little bit reduced. But, right through, even as far east as Cambodia, Buddhist women have this custom of coming-of-age seclusion. So, maybe nothing new for the Sri Lankans who have joined us this evening. That's something I wanted to share mainly for the westerners to show how Therevada also has these lifecycle rituals for women in traditional Buddhist countries. That also extends to birth too, that Ranjani is obviously a mother and even while she was pregnant Buddhism was offering customs that are supportive and bringing meaning. Ranjani recalled reciting the Angulimāla paritta which is the chanting that comes from the Arhant Angulimala - he used to be the former mass murderer, but after he found the Buddha, he became harmless. So, that's the origin of this chanting for the wellbeing of the child throughout the delivery.
Another thing I really liked about her story was that she was working as well. And if we read literature that's out there about Buddhist women, we very rarely get stories of working Buddhist women. That's just because of the age of some of these books that we have out there. Like Dipa Ma, someone who was married quite young, became a housewife, and very inspirational in her own right. As women who might have careers, not necessarily something that's always easy to relate to. Ranjani, she had a very full career with the state Engineering Corporation in Sri Lanka, before giving up work, so she could give more time to meditation, to Buddhism. She's also met the nun Ayya Khema who's had this very transformative impact on Ranjani's life. I had a little passage where Ranjani is commenting on how strong Ayya Khema was - there's a passage in the book about founding the Nuns Island in Sri Lanka.
So Venerable Khema had been attracted to an island, which was close to the monks island. There was nobody living on that particular island. There were a few islands where a number of families lived, Ranjani was impressed that she had made it into a nun's Island, saying, I don't think any other person could do that. The island had formerly been a desolate place where they released Cobras and other snakes after catching them. At considerable expense, Venerable Khema had a hall and a library built.
So, this nuns island it went on to have a very big impact. Also, on the development of Buddhism in Australia, as you know, very early visitors to the nuns Island included Ayya Vāyāmā, who went on to become the abbot of Dhammasara nun's monastery and also Ayya Nirodha who also spent the period as co-abbot of the Dhammasara nun's monastery. So, Ranjani's encounter with Ayya Khema and learning meditation, in a context where meditation is being taught by a very strong female Buddhist nun, that's something that's really had a very transformative experience. That experience of meeting Ayya Khema that's really been the tipping point – from there Ranjani has gone on to attend the 1987 International Nun's conference in Sri Lanka. From there, having made the connection, there's wasthe 1991 conference in Thailand, ( I think that's when the name change occurred to Sakyadhita. But please correct me, it may have been 91, or it may have been after that.)
From there she's gone on to organize the 1993 Sakyadhita International Conference in Sri Lanka. What Ranjani is recalling happening is that, for the first time, all of the local nuns are seeing bhikkhuni's, bhikkhuni's from different countries in the world. People are getting inspired, there's a lot of conversations happening. And from there, the monks also took an interest, people like Ven Māpalagama Vipulasāra. So they've invited these Korean bhikkhuni's to organize the ordination for the local Sri Lankan nuns in 1996. And those first 10 candidates really being the tipping point where we can mark the beginning of the modern Theravada Bhikkhuni revival. I'm not saying it's the first ordination, because obviously there had been early ordinations, one of them being in 1988 in the US, but it was the 1996 ordination that really got the media coverage. And from there, that was the point where the ball started rolling towards 1998. And once this issue was taken up there's been continuous ordinations from that point onwards. So, I mean, picking a starting point is a bit arbitrary. But I think it's undeniable that that 1996 ordination was really a tipping point. And we also see Ranjani relating stories about Venerable Sang Won in particular. And it was Venerable Sang Won being the Korean bhikkhuni preceptor for that ordination. And if I had more time, I would have really loved to have told you all a bit more about Venerable Sang Won because own story of coming to Sri Lanka from the 1980s and being a student of Sanskrit in Sri Lanka, receiving international awards, and to be recognized for her role in building cultural exchange between Sri Lanka and Korea. She has the relic at her temple, which she founded, which is the Bomyeong Temple in Seoul, and is seen as a strong female Buddhist leader in helping to transmit the lineage from Korea to Sri Lanka.
It was really something that people thought was never going to happen, the ordination. I have a little excerpt that I wanted to share around that. Just an excerpt that shows the determination that Ranjani had that Ayya Kusuma this group of 10 nuns had in actually making this happen:
At this point they've been preparing the robes for 1996 and they knew that the ordination was coming. And by this time Ranjani was getting threats.
A member of the Buddhist men’s association told Ranjani, “Madam, a person like you doing things like this is against the Vinaya and Dhamma, did you speak to the monk?” Ranjani replied,
I said, these are the things you have been saying for the last thousand years, scaring the women not to do this. He told me, you are doing things against the Vinaya and Dhamma, huh? I said, these are the stories you have been telling and not allowing the women to go ahead, all these thousand years you have stopped us, you can’t stop it now. He said, can you go speak to this Na Uyana Ariyadhamma Thera. I said, I have my great respect for them, please leave them alone. If the Buddha is there only I will ask him. Nobody besides of Buddha I have no doubts about, I am going ahead. I remember that very well.
They were scaring us, all those thousand years, not allowing us to go ahead. I used to get telephone calls, scolding me. And my own family sisters said you are doing things against the mahānāyakas’ wishes, they are like Buddha for them. They aren’t Buddha, the mahānāyakas. They are respected monks.
This illustrates some of the determination that Ranjani had to actually go ahead with 1996. One of the really fascinating and strong points of 1996 is that we have these 10 candidates who come from Sri Lanka to Sarnath and led by Ayya Kusama and the ordination itself, being given by the Korean Sangha. And for me, this was one of the really wonderful learning experiences about this ordination, was just to learn about the international cooperation that was really required to make it happen. So, the Korean Sangha that was involved, it was actually the five main orders of Korean Buddhism. So really representing the entire Korean tradition, led by the leading Korean Buddhist order, which is the Jogye Order, and all of this international cooperation, also going back to Ven Vipulasāra's background with the World Buddhist Sangha Council, and also with the, I think, the Korean Buddhist Sangha council. So, really showing a very high degree of harmony and cooperation in making the ordination possible. And again, many senior nuns as well from Korea being present and I think, something nice to share as well. Maybe some of the positive outcomes for nuns involved in the 1996 group, because they'll just read the names of the 1996 group of nuns.
1) Ven. Kolonnavē Kusumā, 2) Ven. Habarana Chinta Chandradassī
3) Ven. Matalē Vijitā 4) Ven. Galle Subhadrā
5) Ven. Bandaravela Sudhammikā 6) Ven. Peliyagoda Sudarśanā
7) Ven. Pānadura-Vekada Bhadrā 8) Ven. Passara Samā
9) Ven. Kurunegala Subhadrā 10) Ven. Kurunegala Hemapālī
For me learning about this ordination a huge experience. When you follow these issues, you think, oh, I know about 1996. I know about 1998. And then I realized, actually, I don't! Because firstly, the preceptor only speaks Korean, she hasn't really spoken much about this particular ordination. So, there was a lot of confusion in the literature about what actually really happened. And I think unless anyone had talked to the preceptor herself, they'd likely to hold probably some misunderstandings about what occurred. I think it's a bit disappointing that we have this whole international back and forth, that gets very legalistic. And that no one's really making the effort to engage the preceptor herself, which was Ven Sang Won. So, I had an opportunity to connect with Venerable Sang Won via the interpreter,( I really need to thank Professor Eun-su Cho and Venerable Yu-jeong for her help, and that also Ayya Tathālokā for putting it all together). That was just such a lovely experience because when we think about who owns the history of these ordinations, it's really the preceptor, she's the one who's done the work. She's the one who's verified the candidates, and a lot of money has gone into this, a lot of effort. But sometimes the contributions of the female preceptors themselves like Ven Sang Won are recorded incorrectly in a lot of the literature; where we find it doesn't have her correct monastic name, it has her lay name, because that was what appeared on the passports. So, I was able to include little details like the correct monastic name of the female preceptor for 96. That was something I felt personally was quite an accomplishment.
I wanted to share some positive outcomes about the 96 group because sometimes people wonder where the 96 group are now because we don't necessarily hear a lot about them.
There were many successes of the 1996 ordination. This ordination was both early and ground-breaking, and Ranjani has recounted her difficulties with characteristic humor and honesty. Her struggles through adversity and the tribulations that are inherent in any new project seem to have paid off. With such a high retention rate, the 1996 ordination can be considered an overall success. Ven. Kusumā went on to teach internationally, becoming a visible and prominent leader of the global bhikkhuni revival, and later developed the Ayya Khema International Buddhist Meditation Center. Of the remainder of the 1996 Sarnath ordination group, before long, Ven. Matalē Vijitā was offered land, where she had her own ārāma (nunnery). The ārāma, Gotamī Ārāma, is in Olaboduva on Horana Road, and is now a large center with many bhikkhunīs, near
what is now the Ayya Khema Center. Ven.Bandaravela Sudhammikā remained in India, learned Hindi and continues to serve at the Indian Mahābodhi society. Even though Ven. Pānadura-Vekada Bhadrā had returned before end of training due to family issues, she joined the Dam̆ bulla group later. Ven. Passara Samā later returned to India to support Indian bhikkhunīs as a missionary, and subsequently led further bhikkhunī training and ordination programs, including organizing the 2009 Bodh Gaya bhikkhunī ordination.
Ven. Peliyagoda Sudarśanā became a US resident. She obtained her green card after becoming a bhikkhunī. She completed a second masters at the Buddhist and Pāli University, and later, a PhD. Ven. Sudarśanā’s other later accomplishments included founding the Samadhi Buddhist Meditation Center in Florida. She became the
first Sri Lankan bhikkhunī preceptor in America, serving as bhikkhunī preceptor for numerous bhikkhunī ordinations in USA together with Ven. Valpola Piyānanda since 2010. “She never gave up,” said Ranjani. Ven. Sudarśanā said, “It’s been given to us, I have taken it, that’s the end of it.” Ranjani remarked that she kept to that line and she was very strong.
However, two of the group didn't continue with the training and returned to living as sila matas.
We do see there were such positive outcomes from that 96 group – eg Venerable Kusuma going on to have such a global international reputation, Venerable Sudarsana becoming a preceptor. So a lot of really positive outcomes that are easy to miss amongst all the negativity and some of the controversy that surrounded this ordination. But there's no inherent reason why this ordination had to be controversial, it could have just been a positive story of women getting ordained. For me, that's the story that's really important.
Helen: Thank you Suvira, I'd like get a word from Ranjani as she's with us. I'd like to ask you, how do you feel personally, now it's 25 years on since the ordination. How do you feel towards what happened then, and how it shaped your life being able to become a bhikkhuni?
Ayya Suvira. It's really interesting, because there are so many streams in the bhikkhuni revival, there's also, at the same time, as you have things happening in Sri Lanka, you have things happening in the USA. And that was one of the insights for me from the book, is that there's also the story of the bhikkhuni revival in the USA that's happening alongside the Therevada bhikkhuni revival in Asia. And Ayya Tathālokā has a paper honouring those worthy of honour, which really focuses on the contributions of Ven. Havanpola Ratanasāra. So, like my own tradition, it really came via Ayya Vayamma, via Ayya Tathālokā. I feel that there's a slightly separate history that doesn't always intersect directly with major ordinations, like 96. Although that being said, my preceptor is Ayya Santinī in Indonesia, and she was ordained in Taiwan, as a direct result of Ranjani's work. So, one of those very early ordinations in either 2000 or roundabout, then. You really see these very strong international networks, or what you should really call transnational networks where everyone's somehow connected, the USA is connected, Australia's connected, Sri Lanka is connected. All of these wonderful networks of international Buddhist women.
Helen: One of the questions on the chat room is about nuns Island. Is it still going? Is it still there?
Ayya Suvira: My understanding is, it's since been returned to the monks and that's due to the civil unrest because of the insurgency. It became unsafe and unsustainable, and they couldn't attract nuns anymore. So that's my understanding as what's happened with that island.
Helen: Do you think it might be returned to the nuns in the future?
Ayya Suvira: I have no personal connection with that group, I wouldn't know.
Helen: Ranjani you're with us? And how do you feel hearing this and having Ayya Suvira writing your story? What was the whole process like, I understand it took years.
Ranjani de Silva: It was wonderful. She was so patient, and she used to cry sometimes, tears would roll down her checks, she was so inspired. I just kept on talking, it was like a picture, like a movie, I can remember every detail. So, I just keep on telling her and she was recording. It was wonderful. She spent so much time and she knows more about me than I know, because she had been on Google, she finds places where I studied, my Sunday school and my village. And she was so inspired, and she wanted to do it, so I said no, I want stories. But this will be very good, and they will appreciate this and all this good background. So, she had done so much, and she found some old photos, everything and I'm ever so grateful to her for her patience. She took a lot of time, since 2018/19.
Helen: Ranjani before you joined us I asked Ayya Suvira had she been to Sri Lanka because her descriptions of the village you came from and the food and the difficult times and your relatives, it was so vivid and I thought she must have been in Sri Lanka to be able to write like that, so obviously, there is a real symbiosis between the pair of you.
Ranjani de Silva: Yes, really good you know, she was really quite connected and it was really for me also that my life, childhood story just came to my memories very clearly and it was so wonderful in the village, compared to the modern life, it was so simple, but we were so contended, no craving, so simple and wonderful, I can't believe it, our children they don't know what life is.
Helen: It's quite difficult at times.
Ranjani de Silva: I can remember even after the war, I remember I was a little kid, I was going to the nursery or something you know, you see those people going with the guns and I was scared you know, we were trained to go under the table, I didn't know what was happening. And so that was wonderful that all those stories came back to me, and I mentioned them to her, I didn't know they were going to be in the book.
Helen: Ranjani I also wanted to ask you and I may have got this wrong, from what Ayya Suvira said it was Ayya Khema who really motivated you to go on and do the work you did with the conference and then with the higher ordination. Is that Is that correct? Was it motivation from Ayya Khema or from others?
Ranjani de Silva: Actually, Ayya Khema who inspired me to help the nuns, soon after 1987. I am always grateful to her, and I always mention at each conference too, I think of her. She called by my name, I don't know why, at the formation of Sakyadhita, after the Nuns conference that is where we formed the association, and named "Sakyadhita" and she said, Ranjani you have to help the nuns to go to Sri Lanka. And by that time, I had absorbed all the papers read by other people and Sri Lanka heritage and how we had the bhikkhuni's in the past, and we are neglecting these women who want to renounce and then I felt ashamed, and I felt guilty. Like I thought, no, I'm going to do something. That is how this started. No, I didn't have any association just on my own, as I went back, I changed my attitude toward the sila mata that I went on looking for them. So little by little, I work on my own and finally I formed a branch, national branch, Sakyadhita Sri Lanka, it is still working fine. And this is how it started in 1991. After four years from age seven, the second conference was organized in Thailand called Buddhist Women's Conference, and we Bhikkhuni Dhammananda she was professor at that time, she organized it. So, she also has mentioned about the book. There also I was planning, I'm going to do it in Sri Lanka because they were talking so much of Sri Lanka and the history, we have to invite all these women round the world you know. I love Sakyadhita, that we connected all the Buddhist women around the world that is what I really like. You know, that was beautiful. I'm really grateful to remember Karma Lekshe, and Tenzin Palmo all these leading bhikkhunis. So, it was great after Thailand, when I invited, they were not looking for the venue and I just said I just got up and said on my own, just another woman. I said I invite you to hold the next conference in Sri Lanka and Ayya Khema was there that is the last time I saw her, and she was already sick, and she never came for this Colombo conference. She encouraged me, yes Ranjani, you can do it, you can do it, go and do this. So that is how I started, and they couldn't believe that it's possible.
Helen: And it was very successful.
Ranjani de Silva: Yes it was really successful. Yes. And we didn't have any technology, no email, no nothing, only my old typewriter and those long letters. But it worked.
Helen: Did you personally ever think you wanted to ordain?
Ranjani de Silva: No, not really, at this point. Maybe as a young girl I was talking one day, I mentioned when I was 16 or something, we were talking, and I just mentioned, and my teacher said you become a nun with other friends. Maybe I was just talking about interest in the nuns, I don't think if the circumstances like this I would have considered but not under those conditions. Yes. It never came to me.
Helen: Ayya Suvira mentioned the opposition there was to ordination, so in Sri Lanka itself, how much opposition was there from the Buddhist establishment who liked things the way they were?
Ranjani de Silva: Very much, very much I had to really be in secretly almost, we were not talking about it, yeah. We didn't talk or mentioned even that we're going to do ordination. So, we were just doing it undercover. We never announced it only after the ordination happened then the photos and it was announced in the television and said revival bhikkhuni has been revived or something like that in the news and then only they came it was controversial with the monks when they got the news and by that time we had done our job so after we did it, it doesn't matter.
Helen: The ordination itself, was it in Korea or India?
Ranjani de Silva: India, Sarnath. Yeah. I travelled with nuns two nights in this train from Chennai to Varanasi, so that was interesting. I don't know anybody, so everything was arranged by Mahabodhi India, all the room everything. So, we were comfortable, but I had no fear or nothing. But there were already the senior sila matas were gone ahead there to watch what is happening. And they are very angry about this I have mentioned that we were presenting and what is happening to these. They were not the most senior nuns we selected. So, because the conditions were not so, they never thought very difficult. I mean, at least to find those things with they were not convinced that it is possible. That is why I'm happy that it was successful specially because Ayya Kusuma was the leader because she had the education and knowledge and personality. And that supported my work. If not for her maybe it wouldn't have been so successful. And also, without me she wouldn't have become a bhikkhuni, so it was like two of us work together, it was necessary that it just happened that way.
Helen: Because Ayya Kusuma had a very successful academic career before she decided that she was accepted by the establishment.
Ranjani de Sila: I have my great respect for her all the time and sometimes monks say, "she's not a bhikkhuni", but when they see her and when she goes, and they see her she's accepted.
Helen: How did things change? When did the higher ordained bhikkhunis begin to be accepted in Sri Lanka?
Ranjani de Silva: Yeah, well there are so many, so many, but officially there are still the three, there are three main Nikāyas almost two have accepted, except the Siam one, the Thailand that came, they are not saying, but unofficially, they are working and I must say we had no objections and they never obstructed any work done by the one day one. After ordination when they returned to Sri Lanka, in 98 group came first because 96 group are not allowed to come they were asked to stay there for three years. So, 98 ordination came immediately after their ordination. They landed in Sri Lanka. And they came in procession, and I attended to those ceremonies. They were really accepted. The monks from the area came and gave talks and very good welcome. I mean, they never protested. They don't, but they could do rituals and finally one by one, they were having done it together sitting in the same place like that. So maybe still have some not, but we got a really good response from the monks, you can't blame them, yeah.
Helen: How do you feel for what you've done? 25 years on?
Ranjani de Silva: . It just happened. I don't know. I think the good intention, it was my intention to help the poor sila matas, I felt sad the conditions that they will living under being renounced. After listening to and hearing the history that is how it started. It led me to the Dharma, just one by one, I didn't plan anything we just followed. You know, when I do one thing, the next thing follows and anyone asked for a cent or rupee worth, but it just happened. The right person comes to the correct time.
Helen: I think you were the right person, Ranjani.
Ranjani de Silva: Everything fell in line. It's wonderful. I never asked for anything, but all the support came. And so sometimes when they say I'm doing the wrong thing, I'm ruining the Buddha's sasana, they say the Lord Visnu supposed to be protecting the sasana. There's a big temple where there's a big Visnu so I go and I recite the bhummaṭṭhā sutra and then just wish, if it is wrong, it may not happen, I'm sure. Then I see the light, and everything is successful. I knew I was doing the correct thing. Nobody could stop me, even my own sisters they were really angry about it once but luckily when I came to Australia, my brother offered the house supporting the nuns, so it just happened, yeah.
Helen: That's a whole different story of how the establishment began to develop in Australia. How do you feel, I know you've spent the last two years in Newbury with younger bhikkhunis, how do you feel mixing with them?
Ranjani de Silva: Happy every time they get high ordination, I say may they bloom like lotuses, so I always say keep adding more bhikkhunis. It is so wonderful to see.
I didn't expect all these things. I didn't want a biography. I didn't know people to say to write it down what person to write. I'm a person to work but not writing. We're not writing notes or not keeping any note, but I just keep doing things on my I plan, and it works.
Helen: And that's wonderful.
Ranjani de Silva: Thank you. Thank you for all your help.
Helen: Do some women these days, refer to the sila matas, rather than bhikkhunis?
Ayya Suvira: So, a sila mata being a 10-precept nun -. this is the type of ordination that's emerged in Sri Lanka, in particular, in the absence of bhikkhuni ordination. What we need to understand here is that sila mata, it's not necessarily a free choice. Because the way that the Sri Lankan buddhist system works, basically, you have an ID card and you need your ID card to do various things, such as sitting exams. And sometimes you also need permission, I was hearing recently from the Sila Mata Association to travel overseas as a nun. So, the system forces women into particular forms, because to be a bhikkhuni in Sri Lanka there are barriers. The biggest one of those being the absence of ID cards. And Buddhism in Sri Lanka, is managed by a department called the Ministry of the Buddha Sasana and for a brief period in the early 2000s, they did actually issue bhikkhuni ID cards. So, I think some of the nuns who are around and like maybe the early 2000s they may still have ID cards that say like Bhikkhuni, so and so. But since about like 2004 those ID cards were no longer issued, the ministry did a backflip and decided to cease issuing those cards, just making life generally difficult for the nuns who were in the system.
So, at present there are more sila matas than bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka, the numbers that Ranjani was given by a senior preceptor for Dambulla in Sri Lanka was a total of about 3000 bhikkhunis. So, in terms of the sila mata numbers, I don't know exact numbers, there may be slightly more sila matas than bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka. So yes, there are women who are actively choosing to be sila matas even though bhikkhuni ordination is available. Some of the driving factors behind that, are just A. because it's easier, B. maybe they have a particular teacher who supports a particular ordination form, or they may be older generation and not necessarily so interested in anything different, a lot of personal and individual choices. And a lot of nun choices too, because genuine religious freedom for buddhist women in Asia around ordination choices, it's not necessarily something that always exists when you have buddhism existing alongside state buddhism. So that's just my comment on that point.
Helen: Do bhikkhunis officially exist in Sri Lanka?
Ayya Suvira: Ranjani mentioned earlier about support. So, Sri Lanka has three main nikayas, or three main monastic groups. So, one of them is Siam Nikaya, which is the tradition that comes via Thailand, and the other one is Amarapura Nikaya which is the tradition that comes via Burma. And the third one is Ramanna Nikaya, which is a separate Burmese tradition. So, in recent years, the relationship between Amarapura and Ramanna Nikayas may have changed, I'm not really up to date on the details, but that's the way it used to be anyway. So, within those three nikayas the ones that acknowledged bhikkhunis, so the Asgiriya branch of the Siam Nikaya does. So, they are a subset of the Siam Nikaya that has supported bhikkhunis since the get go since 1998. Some branches of the Amarapura Nikayas also support the bhikkhunis. So, we're really blessed to have Venerable Vijitānandā, online. So, she was actually awarded an outstanding service award via the Amarapura Nikaya, via the bhikkhuni supporting branch. So that's why it's complicated, some of these official branches of Sri Lankan Buddhism do actually support the bhikkhunis. So, you have this rather unfortunate situation, that even the funding was recently given for the nun’s colleges to like official government funding for the bhikkhuni colleges, that you have, like certain issues that are still ongoing, like the ID card issue. So that's just my comments on that based on what I've heard recently, from my friends in Columbo.
Helen: So, what is the current situation for the nuns and the bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka given the really dire economic situation.
Ranjani de Silva: Yeah, generally all the nuns are respected by the community, and they all receive the dana no problem. The present situation is sad. During the Covid period also the Alliance of Bhikkhunis gave us a lot of help and funding, and we managed through Sakyadhita Sri Lanka to distribute the funds and the rations to about 50 nunneries around the remote areas. And also, some funds went directly to the colleges, monastic education centre’s where there is 50/60 young nuns Id created. So, at that time there was covid, people couldn't go to work and in lockdown. There were some floods and elephants are ruining the crops, a lot of things happen in that time, we managed to reach those areas and they did a great job.
Helen: Ranjani so it’s the two things happening - all the difficulties of Covid and then the economic and political problems.
Ranjani de Silva: With political issues at the moment it is difficult. Prices have gone up. There are more than 500/600 nunneries there, so sometimes because they are unable to express themselves - they don't have the English and the computer knowledge to speak to it maybe if you bhikkhunis can write and say their conditions. But at this point the only thing we can do is see about their food, meals, food supply. We just had Sri Lanka New Year - April 13/14th and then we received some help from Fo Guang Shan,Taiwan, BLIA, the Buddha Light International Association. Some are bhikkhunis stationed in Sri Lanka and helping to provide a lot of rations and they travelled to faraway places in the country and give them food parcels to the residents, so that was a great help.
Photos below show the work being done by Sakyadhita Sri Lanka distributing food to nunneries in Sri Lanka, supporting them in these difficult economic times.
Nuns distributing at a nunnery.
Helen: This is the work that's going on and Sakyadhita Australia would like to support this - if people would like to help us, we've put our bank details at the bottom of the transcript. Any donations would be welcomed; and they'll go straight to Sri Lanka with everything going to supporting the nuns there. So, thank you.
Helen: So, I'd like to thank very much Ayya Suvira and congratulations again on your book; I'd urge everyone to get a copy. It's a great read, it's very colourful, and it's a lovely story, Ranjani’s story, and it goes right back to her early days.
Details of where to get a copy and further details in the link below.
Again, my thanks to Ayya Suvira and Ranjani de Silva.
Donations to support Mettārāma Monastery: https://mettarama.org/donate-money/
Obtain the book: https://mettarama.org/ranjani-de-silva-bio/
Sri Lankan Fundraiser:
Transfer to Sakyadhita Australia account–
Account Number: 157734898.
Labelling your donation ‘Sri Lanka’