Golden Era of Bhikkhunis Sasana….
Most Venerable Bhikkhuni Fa Xun
World’s Famous Teacher and Author in Singapore, Malaysia and Western Australia, Vice -Principal of the Nuns’ Campus of the Buddhist College of Singapore
During the “golden age” when the Buddha was alive, many members of his saṅgha (Buddhist community) were able to attain enlightenment. In Hindu society during the Buddha‟s time, women‟s place was in the home and their primary role was to bear children. However, the Buddha affirmed that women have the same capacity as men to walk the spiritual path and attain enlightenment. The Buddha created a Bhikkhunī saṅgha (nuns order) parallel to the Bhikkhu saṅgha (monks‟ order), and placed men and women on equal terms in his teachings. This Bhikkhunī saṅgha provided an alternative community for women which freed them from familial constraints and encouraged their spiritual pursuits. They shaved their heads, put on the robes, and joined the Bhikkhunī saṅgha to live a mendicant life. It must be acknowledged also that during the Buddha’s time, some women chose to join monasteries out of destitution. The diligent Bhikkhunīs proved women‟s potential for devotion, self-sacrifice, courage and endurance. They demonstrated real spiritual ability and became revered teachers and gained respect from the society. The Emperor Asoka even enrolled his daughter, Saṅghamitta into the saṅgha. Living a monastic life was highly valued by the society. Since then, many women have left their homes to follow the Buddha’s footsteps.
The social status of the Bhikkhunīs began to decline after the passing of the Buddha and the withdrawal of royal patronage. They were generally deemed to be a group of helpless and powerless victims, “failures” or “social rejects”‟. Chinese literature and drama usually portray Bhikkhunīs as escapists, negativists, pessimists, “losers” in love and as failures in marriage or life. For example, in the famous Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, monastic were portrayed as “losers” and “victims”. In Burma, there is the proverb, “Buddhist Nuns are those women whose sons are dead, who are widowed, bankrupt, in debt, and broken-hearted” (Kawanami 2000, p. 136). Becoming a Bhikkhunī was represented not as a choice but as a circumstance or fate which they suffered.