The Nun’s Path
An essay on gender equality and the role of women in Theravada Buddhism, the oldest and most traditional of the 3 branches of this ancient eastern religion. This project reflects on the journey of a young Cambodian nun Heng Kosorl, who believes the path to enlightenment is for both men and women.
The Nun’s Path is one of dissolving boundaries.
To be a nun in Cambodia is not easy, says 24-year-old Kosorl. Her name in Pali sounds like Kosorla which means wholesome, while in the Khmer language it means “good deed.” Both meanings seem to fit the young Cambodian Obasica (student nun).
Her decision to become a nun was partly inspired by her mother, whom she accompanied to live in a pagoda when she was just 13 years young.
The Andeuk Pagoda is one of the few wats (pagodas) in Cambodia where nuns practice meditation along with their male counterparts. I met Kosorl and her mother for the first time at the Vipassana Center in Battambang in 2012, shortly after I arrived in Cambodia. She was 17 years young at the time, still a high-school student. About a year later, after she finished high school, she decided to shave her long, black, shining hair, depart from her colorful garments and become a nun too, like her mother and the other women around her.
Growing up, Kosorl listened to many Dharma talks and learned how to meditate. Helping the nuns in their daily services for the monks, before and after school, was her norm.
In the wat I met women of different ages and backgrounds, who had chosen to withdraw from social life, shave their heads, wear simple white garments and live by the 5 or 10 Buddhist precepts. Surrounded by a humble environment where they seemingly had established a symbiotic relationship with the monks, the nuns had become food-preparers, cleaners, gardeners, spiritual guides, caring grandmothers and so much more. These humble women fundamentally contribute to the quality of life in the temple. Thanks to the support of others, Cambodian monks enjoy a role mostly free of worries. Their community takes care of their needs, so that they can practice, study and meditate. They are culturally honored and recognized by their bright orange robe which has become a deeply-ingrained symbol of their respected status. Thus, unlike the nuns, the monks have no occupations to support themselves; rather, they are supported.
Kosorl has spent many years of her young life at this pagoda, where she has learned that the role of a nun will probably remain that of a servant to the monks. For her to become free, to evolve just like the monks next to her, she would have to leave and find her own path in a different country. Female spiritual seekers in Cambodia encounter obstacles: the possibility to study is limited by the roles and the rules women are restricted by. Kosorl challenges these boundaries, she follows her longing to explore wisdom herself.
“My shaved head and white robe often provoke pity in Cambodian people,” she says. They automatically think that just because I am a young dounji, I must be heartbroken. My answer is usually a smiling, “YES, my heart has experienced suffering as any one else’s too, and so it is filled with Labha, Dosa and Moha.” Kosorl explains that suffering in Pali, expressed as Dukka, is the attachment to Labha – greed, Dosa – anger, and Moha – ignorance. “I am aware of the nature of my heart,” she says, “but those who look at me with their conditioned ideas, often remain ignorant.”
When Kosorl moved to Sri Lanka in October 2017 as the only nun together with a group of monks, she decided to change the color of her garment, from the typical Cambodian white to the Sri Lankan monastic sapphire dark red, allowing her to blend into a new space of equality.
Nuns in Sri Lanka obviously provoke a different reaction in the lay people. Where Kosorl lives now, it is not pity but honor which people express equally towards male and female spiritual seekers.
Kosorl now studies Buddhism and Pali at the Kaleniya University, and lives at the International Cambodian Buddhist Temple in Colombo. As the first Cambodian nun she came to study along with her Cambodian spiritual colleagues. So far she is the only nun, but she won’t be the only one for much longer, she believes.
There are 3 different types of nuns in Cambodia, I learn. Most nuns are elderly women. Through serving the monks they gain merit. These dounjies don’t feel the need to study Buddhism; they find fulfillment through their selfless giving to the monks. The second type of nuns is younger, but these nuns may not stay for long in the temple. They often seek refuge from their troubled life and usually go back to it once they have calmed their minds. The third group are also young nuns, who seek to learn. But often they fail to find teachers who would introduce them to the right practice of mediation and study; those who do find the path to mediation often lack the foundation of Buddhist teaching.
Since Kosorl moved to Sri Lanka, she has met many Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist nuns from different parts of Asia. The connection to these spiritual sisters has become a source of valuable inspiration, wisdom and support for the young nun.
Soma, one of the most famous early Buddhist nuns responds to Mara, the mythical Buddhist tempter:
“That vantage point the sages may attain is hard to win. With her two-fingered consciousness, that place no woman is competent to gain.”
Soma replied, “What should the woman’s nature signify when consciousness is taut and firmly set, when knowledge rolleth ever on, when she by insight rightly comprehends the Dhamma?”
“What difference does being a woman make,
when the mind is well-centered,
when knowledge is progressing,
seeing clearly, rightly, into the Dhamma?”
Her femininity was no obstacle to Soma’s path to enlightenment. Her confident answer referred to the Buddha’s teaching of anatman, or no-self. This teaching says that human nature is not fixed or permanent; since all attributes are in a constant state of change, they cannot be inherently real. Even what looks real, like “woman’s nature,” is a transitory illusory attribute.
Looking at the role of women at the time of the historical Buddha, who lived in northern India in approximately 500 BCE, women seem to have held an inferior and therefore limiting place in society. Women spent most of their lives serving and obeying others – their parents, husband and his parents and even their grown children. Seldom were women allowed to make their own decisions.
When asked by Ananda, his closest disciple, the Buddha said that women too are capable of becoming arhats, completely enlightened, just as men can, if they follow the path of renunciation.
The efforts of women to practice a life of renunciation was not always supported by the Buddha according to the scriptures. When asked by his step-mother to ordain an order of nuns, he at first refused to ordain the women. Eventually, Ananda changes the Buddha’s mind; however, the Buddha insists that they take upon themselves eight rules which place the nuns in a position subordinate to the monks.
Why is the Buddha, who admits that women who live the monastic life can attain enlightenment, so hesitant when confronted with the opportunity to ordain both genders?
The Pali scriptures were not written down until four hundred years after the Buddha’s death. Some have argued that this incident which is mentioned in these scriptures, never really happened. The Buddha thought of men and women as equal, and saw the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis as equal. However, after his death, society might have struggled to deal with such a radical idea of gender equality, so this story might have been invented. Rules to lower the status of the bhikkhunis probably were made in order to increase societal acceptance. The monastics were completely supported by the lay people, so these radical ideas had to be made acceptable to lay society.
When the Buddha opened the doors for women’s entrance to monastic life, they were able to experience more freedom and independence within the order of bhikkhunis than anywhere else in society. Bhikkhunis were not anyone’s servant and specifically forbidden to do household work; they only had to work for liberation from samsara. Once they themselves were liberated, then they often taught other women.
Women joined for all sorts of reasons, some simply because they believed in the Buddha teachings, others because their husbands were becoming bhikkhus, and others when they were widowed. Some very poor women joined because the order would provide a community and care; some young women chose the renunciate’s life as preferable to marriage.
The Therigatha – the enlightenment songs of the early bhikkhunis, form the greatest source of women’s voices in the Pali canon. Although probably edited by monks, it still offers us an impression of the early bhikkhunis’ awakening path to freedom, confidence and wisdom.
“And be it woman, or be it man for whom such a chariot doth wait,
by that same vehicle into Nirvana’s presence shall they come.” – The Buddha
Not many women who converted to Buddhism joined the order of bhikkhunis. However, a few lay women still gained some level of enlightenment, and a few even became arhats. Lay women were important in the early years of Buddhism. Historical studies have found that during the first seven or eight centuries of Buddhism in India, Buddhism was patronized by wealthy queens.
After the Buddha’s death, the order flourished for several centuries. It is claimed that in the third century B.C.E., Mahinda and some other monks travelled from India to Sri Lanka where he started an order of bhikkhus. Queen Anula and her maidens were impressed by his wisdom and decided to become bhikkhunis. Traditionally, it takes ten bhikkhus to ordain a bhikkhu, and both ten bhikkhus and ten bhikkhunis to ordain a bhikkhuni. Mahinda sent for his sister, Sanghamitta, who was a bhikkhuni in India. She came, with eleven other bhikkhunis, and started the nuns’ order in Sri Lanka. This happened in approximately 250 B.C.E. The bhikkhunis were declared wards of the king, and their monasteries were kept within the walled interiors of major cities.
In the eleventh century, Sri Lanka was conquered by the Colas of southern India, who destroyed the monasteries and eliminated the monks and nuns. In 1070, Sri Lanka invited monks from Burma to restore the order of bhikkhus, as Buddhism had disappeared in India by this time. Unfortunately there were no surviving orders of Theravada nuns anywhere to find, since ten nuns were needed to ordain a new nun, ordination of bhikkhunis was no longer possible, and so there has been no fully ordained order of Theravada bhikkhunis since that time.
While lay women’s support has been beneficial to maintain institutional Buddhism over the centuries, such valuable support has sadly been unavailable for the female path to attain nirvana. The role of women in Theravada Buddhism has primary been to support the bhikkhus on their path to enlightenment rather than seeking their own.
Not being allowed proper ordination has made it difficult for nuns to find guidance, wisdom and confidence on their path to enlightenment. Most buddhist nuns in Cambodia see their role as the servant; the humbleness demanded of them seems like a meditative practice. However, I often cannot help but recognize that this humbleness is not equally required of male practitioners. If the Buddha taught that the same path leads women and men to enlightenment, why than are women and men offered so very different paths?
With gentle negotiation over several years in the recent past and the eventual support of influential members of the (male) monastic community, today after 1000 years, the Theravada Bhikkhuni lineage has been re-established in Sri Lanka.
There still are no possibilities for nuns in Cambodia to study or be ordained. Most nuns remain in the role of the servant. While caring for the spiritual journey of monks, they have limited access and little time to be concerned with their own spiritual path to enlightenment.
// What I mention in this article is collected wisdom from different sources combined with thoughts and reflections, on interesting encounters and interviews with Buddhist nuns and monks and also readings of various articles on the topic of women in Buddhism .