Negotiating the roles of bhikkuni within Indonesian Theravada Buddhism

The demand for a greater gender equality is present in various religious traditions, including Buddhism. In most Theravāda Buddhist societies, women are no longer allowed to pursue the highest level of ordination instituted by the Buddha, i.e. to become bhikkhuni. Although women are able to practice the monastic life and participate in the monastic institution (sangha), they do not gain spiritually equal status and authority in comparison to their male counterparts (bhikkhu). This becomes a constraint for Theravādin women who are eager to pursue higher ordination. Challenging the patriarchal convention, some of them turn to the other Buddhist school, the Mahāyāna, to be fully ordained. Yet, their status remains illegitimate, according to the male Theravādin authorities who insist on the “purity” of the lineage of the Theravāda tradition.

In this context, Wilis Rengganiasih Endah Ekowati’s 2006 master thesis at CRCS UGM titled “The Controversy of Bhikkhuni Ordination (Upasampadā) within Theravada Buddhism in Indonesia” discusses the issue within the Indonesian context. It particularly focuses on explaining and analyzing the narratives of four Indonesian Buddhist nuns undertaking full ordination at the Mahayana temple Fo Guang Shan in Taiwan on April 15, 2000.

The most significant part of Ekowati’s master thesis is the third chapter where she explains the agency of the Indonesian nuns challenging the Theravādin-male authorities for the sake of the pursuit of full ordination. To begin with, she explains about the development of Indonesian Buddhist nuns experiencing the monastic life. Due to the impossibility of women’s full ordination, the only possibility for them in the Sangha is to become mae ji, a lower level of Buddhist nun who stay in the monastery and practice eight precepts rather than the full 311 vows.

Unfortunately, mae ji remain deemed as inferior, because they are likely to serve bhikkhus in vihāra. As such, they gain a negative stigma: “an intellectual servant or bhikkhu servant”. It is true, Ekowati insists, that while focusing on practicing their spiritual path, mae jis have to perform some duties, including cooking for bhikkhus and cleaning the vihāra. This reflects a double burden of which they have to bear as a Buddhist nun. Arguably, this is not effective for the improvement of their spirituality.

With the growing awareness for the spiritual independency, the mae ji have built their own place for practicing the monastic life, named as Wisma Kusalayani, independent from the bhikkhu sangha. Located in Maribaya, Bandung, it was founded in April 1993 by two women, Santini and Silavati, who were at the time mae ji. It aims at assisting Theravādin nuns to cultivate their spirituality, including meditation, learning, and practicing the Dhamma. In 1994, the mae ji began called themselves with a Pali term anagārini as a way towards liberation from the gendered stigma. It was then followed by the establishment of The Association of Indonesian Anagārinis (LAI) which focuses on the empowerment of Buddhist women.

Ekowati presented central arguments for and against the prohibition of bhikkhuni ordination in Theravāda Buddhism. According to the Vinaya Pitaka of the Pali Canon, the pursuit of higher ordination for nuns requires the existence of both bhikkhu sangha (male monastery) and bhikkhuni sangha (female monastery). Nonetheless, according to the Theravāda tradition, the existence of bhikkhuni sangha has disappeared since the eleventh century CE in both India and Sri Lanka. Since then, it is considered as no longer existant, and any attempts to revive it is regarded as against the tradition. Thus, according to this argument, it is highly impossible for women to be fully ordained as bhikkhuni.

This argument was used by STI (Sangha Theravāda Indonesia) and members of KBTI (Keluarga Besar Theravāda Indonesia) to refuse the status of the Indonesian nuns fully ordained in Fo Guang Shan, Taiwan, by issuing an institutional decree. It was previously affirmed by the Sangha Sabha of Sri Lanka, sending a letter to the chief of STI at the time. According to Ekowati, this presupposes “a kind of indirect pressure from the Sangha’s senior authority”.

Ekowati subsequently elucidated how the Indonesian Buddhist nuns have challenged the Theravādin authorities to defend their status as bhikkhuni. They argue that bhikkhuni ordination is not against the Buddha teachings (the Vinaya). This is based on the Cullavagga Sutta X (Buddhist-selected texts) which acknowledges that the Buddha himself allowed bhikkhu to ordain bhikkhuni. Accordingly, Bhikkhuni Santini contended that Buddhist nuns can pursue higher ordination without the presence of Bhikkhuni Sangha.

They were also critical of the atthagarudhamma, the eight precepts, arguing that it represents discriminatory rules imposed on bhikkhuni. It was historically conceptualized during the first Buddhist council which was mostly dominated by men. Besides, they questioned the historical authenticity of the extinction of Bhikkhuni Sangha in the eleventh century CE. In particular, they insisted that the prohibition of women’s higher ordination arguably hinders us from the essence of ordination itself, as the Buddha says that anyone, regardless of gender, can attain the enlightenment (nirvana).

Eventually, in the latter chapter of her thesis, Ekowati examined gendered biased interpretations of the Buddhist canons serving as a scriptural basis for the prohibition of bhikkhuni ordination. In her view, those texts should be understood within their historical context, i.e. “the anti-feminine Brahmanism” in which Buddhism emerged. The first Buddha council represents how women’s voice was subordinated. In this regard, Ekowati contends that the perspective of women is highly needed in interpreting the scripture in favour of gender equality. Here, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article, The Revival of Bhikkhunī Ordination in the Theravada Tradition is relevant. He reforms the restriction of full ordination for women. Pointing out “the ancient mandate” of the Buddha’s teachings and reflecting the challenge of contemporary context, Bodhi argues that women’s full ordination is legally legitimate.

Ekowati’s thesis contributes to the discourse on feminism and Buddhism in Indonesia. Her study on the narratives of the Indonesian Buddhist nuns reflects what feminist scholars called agency, albeit she did not use the theory of agency in her analyses. Yet, what influences their agency remain less explored, e.g. what influences their understandings on the scriptures. Using the concept on agency may make her analyses deeper and more nuanced. Above all, however, Ekowati’s thesis is not only an academic study but also an attempt to hear the voices of the voiceless. Also, crossing religious boundaries, this case is not unique to Theravada Buddhism. Similar struggles can be found in other religions such as Christianity (female pastors) and Islam (female ulama) though maybe with a different ultimate goal.


Images courtesy: Wisma Kusalayani.



  1. Latifah

    14 October 2018

    Tulisan yang menarik. Tapi, saya kira negosiasi dalam hal ini juga sifatnya berlapis. Pendirian Astinda (Atthasilani Theravada Indonesia) pada 22 Desember 2017 juga merupakan suatu bentuk negosiasi yang penting. berikut ini saya kiriman tulisan saya yang dimuat di ttg peran atthasilani di dalam Sangha Theravada Indonesia (STI). Salam. Peran Atthasilani dalam Pendidikan Anti-Kekerasan melalui Meditasi Cinta Kasih
    Latifah (Dosen Sekolah Tinggi Agama Buddha Kertarajasa, Batu, Malang)

    Nir-kekerasan hanya dapat terwujud bila seseorang mempunyai belas kasih. Latihan spiritual merupakan salah satu jalan mengembangkan belas kasih. Penelitian membuktikan bahwa latihan meditasi cinta kasih dapat mempengaruhi wilayah otak lobus frontal kiri, yang berkaitan dengan perasaan belas kasih. Sudah banyak juga riset yang menunjukkan dampak meditasi dalam memunculkan emosi positif yang tidak hanya mempengaruhi kesehatan personal, tetapi juga relasi sosial.
    Dalam hal ini, atthasilani mempunyai peran signifikan dalam pendidikan anti-kekerasan, terutama dalam latihan meditasi. Atthasilani merupakan sebutan untuk perempuan Buddhis yang menempuh jalan hidup suci sebagai viharawati dengan menjalankan delapan sila/aturan kemoralan dan hidup di vihara. Selain menjalani latihan kemoralan untuk mengembangkan spiritualitas pribadi, mereka juga secara aktif berkeliling ke penjuru Nusantara untuk membimbing masyarakat. Seperti yang diuraikan Atthasilani Gunanandi, biasanya latihan meditasi dilakukan sesuai dengan tujuannya. Secara umum meditasi dilakukan dengan samatha bhavana atau vipasana bhavana. Bila ingin mendapatkan kondisi batin yang tenang biasanya yang sering digunakan adalah samatha bhavana, sementara vipasana bhavana dilakukan bila yang dituju adalah kebijaksanaan, misalnya ingin menyelesaikan masalah. Meditasi cinta kasih (metta bhavana) merupakan bagian dari samatha bhavana.
    Meditasi sendiri merupakan bagian dari inti ajaran Buddha, yaitu mensucikan batin. Mengembangkan kebajikan dengan melatih moralitas serta tidak berbuat jahat merupakan inti ajaran Buddha lainnya. Demikian penjelasan Atthasilani Gunanandi yang merupakan Ketua Astinda (Atthasilani Theravada Indonesia). Astinda ini baru resmi berdiri pada 22 Desember 2017.
    Biasanya, dalam rangkaian pelatihan meditasi, atthasilani akan memberikan pengantar praktik meditasi yang merupakan bagian utama dari kehidupan seorang Buddhis. Dalam kaitannya dengan pengembangan cinta kasih, atthasilani menjelaskan dasar-dasar anti-kekerasan yaitu membebaskan diri dari kebencian, termasuk benci pada diri sendiri dan kondisi di luar diri. Kedua, tidak menyakiti makhluk lain. Ketiga, mengembangkan kesabaran (tahan dengan kondisi apa pun.
    Dalam keseharian, atthasilani terlibat penuh dalam pelatihan meditasi dalam beberapa jenis kegiatan. Pertama, retret meditasi sementara selama sepuluh hari.Pelatihan ini akan mencakup berbagai jenis meditasi yang juga dapat diikuti oleh peserta non-Buddhis. Kedua, pelatihan atthasilani, yang menekankan pada pengendalian diri, misalnya secara khusus, latihan kemoralan (delapan sila), dan secara khusus, berlatih sabar. Latihan lainnya adalah hidup dalam kebiaraan/vihara. Ketiga, Pekan pendalaman dhamma, khususnya bagi remaja, yang berlangsung selama seminggu menjelang Waisak (April-Mei). Selain itu, masyarakat umum dapat juga berlatih meditasi di vihara-vihara yang menyediakan program pelatihan meditasi seperti di Padepokan Dhammadipa Arama-Malang, Balerejo, Bakom-Bogor, dan Bali.
    Dalam penyelenggaraan pelatihan meditasi, atthasilani bekerja sama dengan berbagai organisasi perempuan seperti Wandani (Wanita Theravada Indonesia) dan Forum Ibu-Ibu Bali (FIB) dan organisasi kepemudaan Patria (Pemuda Theravada Indonesia) di samping Sangha Theravada Indonesia (STI). Di samping pelatihan meditasi, kerja sama dalam pembinaan masyarakat Buddhis yang dilakukan oleh atthasilani mencakup pertemuan rutin secara umum setiap minggu,, dan pertemuan khusus. Dalam pertemuan itu, atthasilani memberikan ceramah dhamma (ajaran Buddha) yang berhubungan dengan nilai-nilai anti-kekerasan. Misalnya, pada saat muncul berita-berita yang berpotensi memancing kekkerasa, atthasilani memberikan anjuran agar umat Buddha tidak begitu saja percaya dan tetap bersikap tenang (sabar). Atthasilani menghimbau umat untuk berusaha tidak memicu konflik kembali. Di samping itu, atthasilani juga melakukan bimbingan spiritual untuk warga binaan di lapas. Selain pujabhakti, pertemuan dapat juga berupa seminar organisasi perempuan Buddhis, misalnya seminar Wandani menyangkut isu Kekerasan Dalam Rumah Tangga (KDRT) atau mengantisipasi kekerasan dengan membangun self-esteem perempuan, dan pemberdayaan ekonomi perempuan.Atthasilani juga terlibat aktif dalam kegiatan-kegiatan lintas-iman.
    Di luar kegiatan spiritual, atthasilani juga berperan mengatisipasi merebaknya tindakan kekerasan dengan memperluas akses pendidikan bagi masyarakat yang membutuhkan. Dalam kegiatannya di berbagai pelosok daerah, atthasilani mengidentifikasi anak-anak muda Buddhis yang membutuhkan bantuan pendidikan. Sebagian dari mereka tersebut dititipkan di vihara sebagai anak asuh selama menempuh sekolah menengah. Banyak dari anak asuh ini yang kemudian melanjutkan pendidikan tinggi ke Sekolah Tinggi Agama Buddha dan menjadi atthasilani selama berkuliah.Selesai kuliah, atthasilani menjalani masa pengabdian di berbagai vihara. Selesai masa pengabdian, mereka pun dapat terus mengabdi pada masyarakat sesuai dengan pilihan masing-masing dengan tetap berpegang pada semangat dhamma. Dengan demikianlah agama dapat menjadi pondasi kemanusiaan. ***

  2. Latifah

    14 October 2018

    Ini tulisan ttg atthasilani. Ternyata tulisan saya ttg atthasilani itu bukan dimuat di buletin macapat UB, melainkan di buletin ISJN.

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