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Tuesday, November 9, 1999 Published at 12:31 GMT

World: South Asia

Sri Lanka's nuns make a comeback

There are now 150 fully-ordained Buddhist nuns

By Susannah Price in Sri Lanka

Buddhist nuns in Sri Lanka are at the forefront of a quiet revolution - trying to rebuild an order that was destroyed a thousand years ago.

Watch Susannah Price's report in full
Up until 1996, Sri Lankan women were only permitted to reach a lower order within the Buddhist clergy - which was far less respected and they were never considered the equal of the 30,000 male monks on the island.

But last year, the first Bhikkunis or nuns were ordained in Dambulla.

Most of them study at Dambulla's education institute which is attached to the seminary.

[ image: Dharma Visuduhini:
Dharma Visuduhini: "We are gaining increasing acceptance"
The head of the institute, Dharma Visuduhini, pushed to become a Bhikkuni for 17 years.

There are now 150 fully ordained nuns on the island.

"We are seeing an increasing number of women joining the community, even married women come to us and ask to join," she said.

"We are gaining increasing acceptance, I think everyone knows we cannot be stopped now."


But the high priests and many monks, who are extremely influential on this island where the majority of the population are Buddhist, are still opposed to the women.

They accept the order of Bhikkunis existed in Sri Lanka until they were wiped out during invasions from India.

But they do not accept the Bhikkuni's assertion that the lineage continued unbroken in China and could be reintroduced.

[ image: Manta Bhani:
Manta Bhani: "Females are very feeble in this world"
"Even when Buddha gave permission for a chapter of nuns originally, he hesitated because females are very feeble in this world and can be harassed by others," said one of their opponents, a monk called Manta Bhani whose temple is near Dambulla.

"The Bhikkuni order cannot be re-established because it was completely eradicated from the world."

However, the monk at the main temple in Dambulla, Inamaluwe Sumangala, was instrumental in helping the nuns become ordained and he believes Buddha made no discrimination so the clergy should not either.

Social work

Once they are fully ordained, the Bhikkunis are sent to temples round the island.

They take the outreach part of their work seriously and attend residential courses in Colombo to study counselling, psychology and social work.

[ image: Nuns study psychology and social work]
Nuns study psychology and social work
The women chosen for full ordination tend to be graduates, and very different to the elderly widowed women who previously took the lower form of ordination.

"After high ordination we want to give the Bhikkunis professional knowledge to do counselling and go out to the people," said Mrs De Silva who helped organise the courses.

"We have highly qualified nuns who have been bold."

The courses have proved extremely popular among the women who also have the chance to swap experiences of life in the rural areas.

Another group of Bhikkunis is due to be ordained next year - and the hope is that all 3000 women who are part of the lower order will eventually be ordained.

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