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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 January, 2004, 00:47 GMT
'Rebel' nuns battle monks' scorn

By Frances Harrison
BBC correspondent in Colombo

Bhikuni Kusuma has a shaven head and wears the robes of a Buddhist monk - but she's a woman.

Buddhist nuns
Buddhist nuns are seen as rebels by mainstream Sri Lankan monks

Many of her male counterparts call her misguided, but for her followers, she's a teacher who studied the ancient texts and revived the third century BC practice of ordaining women as Buddhist nuns, or Bhikuni as they're called.

"It was taboo - the word itself was taboo - nobody wanted it, nobody knew it," she says of the title "Bhikuni", which she was the first to use in Sri Lanka in modern times.

With a doctorate in microbiology, she found herself drawn to question her existence from a new angle - that of religion.

'Unbroken lineage'

Bhikuni Kusuma spent years unearthing ancient scriptures in libraries in Germany to discover the precepts that ruled the lives of women who were ordained in the time of the Lord Buddha.

Then she went to India to take part in an ordination ceremony.

"You may even say it was not safe to have it in Sri Lanka," she explains. "People thought it was some new thing that was irregular".

Bhikuni Kusuma on her phone
Bhikuni Kusuma became a nun after her microbiology doctorate

Most Sri Lankan monks still do not recognise female ordination.

They say Bhikuni Kusuma went outside Sri Lanka's Theravada strand of Buddhism to receive ordination from the Mahayana sect which is more prevalent in the Far East.

They liken it to a Catholic going to a Protestant Church to be ordained and then returning to practice as a Catholic priest.

Bhikuni Kusuma argues that the practice of ordaining Buddhist women travelled from Sri Lanka along the Silk Route to China thousands of years ago and she says she is only reviving the original practice.

"All that we got is that unbroken lineage coming from the time of the Buddha," says Bhikuni Kusuma.

'Feminist' influence

For the monks who wield considerable power and influence in Sri Lanka, the 400 ordained nuns are little better than rebels.

The nuns complain that a teenage male novice monk is given more respect in a temple than they are, despite the decades of scholarship and devotion behind them.

Nuns carrying food
It's an uphill struggle for the nuns as they battle clerical disapproval

The nuns are made to sit on the floor while it's normal practice to show respect to a monk by giving him an elevated position.

"You can't sit equivalent to the monks - it's not because they're women, but because they're not fully ordained," explains monk Dr Bellanwila Wimalaratne Thero.

Like the clerical hierarchy, he does not recognise the ordination of Bhikuni Kusuma because he says a nun can only be ordained by 10 senior nuns - and since there are none in Theravada Buddhism, there is no way of reviving the process.

Dr Wimalaratne Thero says Buddhism respects women's rights and the nuns are just stirred up by foreign ideas like feminism.

"Some kind of encouragement to women is there - why don't you fight for your rights and then the women's organisations and sometimes non-governmental organisations get money for this work," he says.

'Be better than a man'

There are now about 400 ordained nuns in Sri Lanka.

Nun at Anuradhapura
Many nuns need the support of their communities to survive

They're beginning to get financial support from the communities they live in, but some still face real hardship just surviving.

It's a far cry from the monks, who are part of a powerful religious establishment that receives state funding as well as public donations.

The nuns complain they're left out when it comes to official funding because men are in control.

It's hard to fight for your rights and yet stay aloof from worldly affairs.

Ironically, Sri Lanka's nuns echo more secular women when they say the only way for them to win recognition is by being 10 times better than a man.

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