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by Tathālokā Bhikkhunī

Princess Hemamālā the Buddha's sacred tooth relic - by Solias Mendis
Kelaniya Temple, Sri Lanka

A Contemplation

Their images were everywhere, and still are, these heroines of Early Buddhism, these bearers of the sacred; on walls, on book covers, on billboards, on postcards.

The Venerable Sanghamittā Therī the Great Arahatī, who conveyed the Sacred Bodhi Tree. And Princess Hemamālā who carried the Relic of the Tooth; both successfully making long and difficult voyages fraught with dangers, from India to Sri Lanka. Everyone was familiar with their stories - they were household names. Their actions deeply appreciated.

The treasures they carried, held chief among the sacred.

The large as life bas reliefs pictured here are from tall walls facing one of Colombo's main city streets, displaying both the heroines and the iconic resting places of their sacred charges in the upper right: Sanghamittā Therī (with king Devānampiyatissa) and the fence inner court of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura; Princess Hemamālī (with Danta Kumāra) and the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.

I borrowed a friend's phone to snap these photos, and have visited both of these places in person on pilgrimage.

Sanghamittā Therī (with king Devānampiyatissa) Princess Hemamālī (with Danta Kumāra)

These relics and shrines are revered as among the most sacred relics and shrines of the Buddha in Sri Lanka.

Traditionally, Early Buddhist teachings do not only hold the birth mother of the Buddha Mahā Māyā as special or sacred for bearing the Bodhisatta in her womb for ten months; although still they do for this reason, considering her both very special herself, as well as perfected all the more in her association with the Buddha, through her bearing him.

They do not only hold the Buddha's foster mother Mahāpajāpatī as sacred for having suckled and nurtured him; they do consider this, but consider her sacred for a different reason. And they do not only consider the Buddha's wife sacred for having been the Bodhisatta's consort. Or for having born him a son, although she did. They consider her most sacred for a different reason.

Many of us know what that reason is: these great women woke up.


They realized complete enlightenment, becoming "Buddhanubuddhaṁ" - those who awaken in the wake of the Awakened One - through the benefit of the Buddha's example, the Teachings, the noble Path, and through realizing for themselves what can be realized in this very life. For doing what needed to be done, "kataṁ karaṇīyaṁ". The Buddha's foster mother and his wife become etadagga sāvikā arahantas, among the foremost leaders of the Buddha's awakened disciples.

As such, what sacredness they carried with their bodies, and bore within their bodily sārirā was the fulfillment of the living Dhamma, in the Path and Fruits.

The venerable Sanghamittā Therī depicted first in the images here here, centuries later, but still in the Early Buddhist period, is revered for the same reason: she became one of the arahants early in her monastic life as a young bhikkhunī at the tender age of twenty, and came to Sri Lanka ten years later as a mature and experienced arahant, with a group of twelve enlightened bhikkhunīs (there were twelve of them in total together, eleven plus Sanghamittā).

These eleven are described in the eldest of the Pāli-text chronicles, the Dīpavaṁsa, thus:

79. ettakā tā bhikkhuniyo dhutarāgā samāhitā

odātamanasaṅkappā saddhammavinaye ratā |

79. these Bhikkhunis who are free from desire and firm, whose thoughts and wishes are pure, who are firmly established in the true Dhamma and Vinaya, –

80. khīṇāsavā vasī pattā tevijjā iddhikovidā

uttamante ṭhitā tattha āgamissanti tā idha. |

80. who have ended afflictions, who have attained (perfection), who possess the three super knowledges, and are well-versed in the spiritual powers, who are established in the ultimate, and in the transmission of the Teachings, will also come hither. [1]

The Great Therī Sanghamittā is all the more revered for having then supported--the texts literally count 'a thousand' women - just for starters--in not only their ordination into the Buddhist monastic Sangha as requested, but also their arahatship.

Arahatship means complete awakening and fulfillment of the Path in Early Buddhism. Her legacy includes tens of hundreds, which evolved into tens of thousands, of female arahatīs. This was the founding Bhikkhunī Sangha of the Isle of Lanka.

At times though, these factors foundationally important in very early Buddhism begin to recede to the background in the telling (and in some contemporary writings may even go unmentioned), while Sanghamittā Therī's bearing the gift of the sacred Bodhi tree, southern branch sapling from the very tree at whose roots the Buddha himself experienced his great awakening and thus his own representative, takes center stage and precedent.

I've asked myself why.

There may be interesting reasons for this:

(1) All Early Buddhist traditions and most later Buddhist traditions put the Buddha first, as the original teacher, the discover of the Path, the revealer of what was hidden, like a lamp in darkness, showing the way. Although normally they greatly revere later awakened masters and teachers, luminaries and guides as well.

(2) The Pāli-text chronicles of Sri Lanka contain legendary reference to previous ancient Buddhas who also came to the Island, back when it had different names. Those Buddhas too, per the chronicles, all likewise had leading Bhikkhunī disciples who then brought those Buddha's Bodhi tree saplings to the Island. Each of those Buddhas had their own unique Bodhi tree - they were not all the Sacred Fig, the Assattha (Pipal) tree of the Buddha Gotama, Sakyamuni.

Per the Pāli-text Dīpavaṁsa chronicle:

The wise and powerfully spiritually adept bhikkhunīs

❁ Rucānandā Therī conveyed the Sirīsa Bodhi of the Buddha Kakusandha,

❁ Kandanandā (aka Kanakadattā) Therī conveyed the Udumbara Bodhi of the Buddha Konāgamana,

❁ Sudhammā Therī conveyed the Nigrodha Bodhi of the Buddha Kassapa, and

❁ Sanghamittā Therī conveyed the Assattha Bodhi of the Buddha Gotama and planted it in the island of Laṅkā, in the delightful Mahāmeghavana. [2]

But are the chronicles to be trusted?

Per inscriptions carved in stone:

The Bhikkhunīs close association with the sacred Bodhi tree lasted long - up to thirteen hundred years after Sanghamittā Therī's time, more than fifteen hundred years after the Buddha. Including, specifically, bhikkhunīs of the Theravāda tradition.

Inscriptions of Anuradhapura record historical bhikkhunīs up into late in the 10th century CE still closely involved with the intimate daily ritual care of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree.

Seven chief bhikkhunīs were entrusted with the honors and royally provided with the four monastic requisites, as recorded in the Anuradhapura district Mahakalattawa pillar inscription of King Kassapa IV. This inscription mentions the Nalarama Mehenivara, which had been a monastery of the Bhikkhunis for a long period. (Epigraphia Zeylanica Vol. V, no. 31).

According to the Mahāvaṁsa chronicle the same king is recorded as constructing and offering monastic lodgings named Mahamallaka specifically for the bhikkhunīs of the Theravāda school, as well as making offerings of significant support to bhikkhunī establishments of the other two main schools.

During the 10th century, stone inscriptions not only record royal donations to the Theravāda bhikkhunīs attesting to their active presence in core sacred spaces, they record leading Upāsikā supporters' donations as well.

Just across the footpath from Sri Lanka's oldest Buddhist stupa in Anuradhapura, the Thuparama, adjacent to the Sanghamittā Stupa, within a few minutes easy walk to the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, there was once a well-apportioned and centrally-located bhikkhunī ārāma in the area then and still known as the Padalañchana, in the 10th century constructed for and donated,

"to the bhikkhunīs of the universally reverenced Thera School (the Theravāda) by Vajirā, wife of commander-in-chief Sakka Senāpatī, during the reign of King Jotivana (Kassapa V), the Sovereign of Sri Lanka."

It was one of the last of the Anuradhapura period to be so.

Thus not only the chronicles, but also stone inscriptions up into the 10th century CE, show bhikkhunīs, including those specifically of the Mahāviharavāsin Theravāda school, actively present, involved, honored and supported at the heart of the ancient sacred spaces, with the Sri Maha Bodhi tree, in the forecourt of the Thuparamaya.

Bhikkhunīs of the other leading traditions of the Abhayagirivihara and Jetavanarama are likewise recorded by inscriptions as actively royally supported, likewise the Bhikkhu Sangha, up to the period of Chola conquest, when Anuradhapura was plundered and burned, and the bhikkhunīs disappeared from the records.

During the time of their absence, some customs changed.

I will tell a story.

When on walking pilgrimage in Thailand, when we arrived at the great Phra That Phanom Chedi stupa on the Mekong River, the final destination of our pilgrimage, our small pilgrimage party was welcomed up to the inner sanctum of the cetiya.

The chief monk noted to us that normally women were not allowed inside the inner sanctum, but chose to make an exception at the sight of a then very rare Bhikkhunī (at that time i might have been the only such bhikkhunī present in Thailand, Ven Dhammanandā was then still a sāmanerī, and Ven. Bhikkhunī Dr. Lee was abroad in Sri Lanka).

The monk's stated rationale and idea was that those who had the merit to be higher ordained were sanctified, irrespective of gender. That the state of 'upasampannā' was beyond gender. He also mentioned that when some of the northern Thai stupas had been opened for renovations, repairs and reconstruction, that ancient Bhikkhuni relics had been found enshrined inside. A connection was made with the sacred. "The sārīrā of this body and the sārīrā of the bhikkhunī arahants are close to one another - be encouraged, be diligent - 'appamadena sampadethā'!"

Our pilgrimage group meditated overnight inside the inner court of the chedi, which was a special experience, due to the awesome sense of sanctity and gravitas of the space, and the meaningfulness of the special allowance and opportunity.

More than ten years later, in Sri Lanka on pilgrimage, when our small pilgrimage group came to the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in the early dawn, one lady of our group had prepared an offering of very specially fortified and imbued milk rice to offer at the roots of the Sri Maha Bodhi. They so kindly and graciously asked if i would like the honor to make this offering, however, it was explained brusquely that was not allowed, that only male monks and male caretakers (or the president) were allowed up to draw near to the sacred tree in the close quarters to the trunk and roots of the Bodhi.

A man took the clay bowl of special milk rice offering from my hands and handed it to a monk who was standing up the stairs inside.

It was a surprise and a little shock, given the well known story of Sanghamittā Therī and the history.

How to understand?

Just a few short weeks before, I had been present and physically a part of the group of Bhikkhunīs receiving a cutting sapling of the very same venerable tree at the Dhammasara Monastery in Western Australia, as had my bhikkhunī companion who was then present there together that dawn with me.

They explained, so it generally is these days. Perhaps seeming strange or incongruent, but not uncommon.

My faithful Buddhist co-pilgrim friends explained this is how the customs had changed meanwhile during the time of the several hundred year absence of the Bhikkhunis.

How some things had then become traditional that were not the same as the old traditions. And now that we (such bhikkhunis) are back, they hoped we would and should make it right again. Several of them said.

As i've written long already, i will not tell the story of the Relic of the Tooth brought by Princess Hemamālā in the second image here, as i think you can find it if you wish to know. I will just say that when later on our pilgrimage we came to Kandy, and to the Temple of the Tooth -- the Dalada Maligawa -- we had a similar experience.

This time i was warned beforehand.

We bhikkhunīs could draw only so near, but then were held back by the guards.

Other male monk pilgrims who came were beckoned and allowed to come in more closely.

An organized pilgrimage tour group from abroad, including Mahāyāna bhikkhus, bhikkhunīs, upāsakas and upāsikās, were welcomed with drums and trumpets, were handed lotuses and jasmine to offer, and were allowed inside. The pilgrimage group had been instructed in the opportunity and prepared, made generous donations. Thoughts circles while did the pilgrims...

Surely it cannot be that the relics of the Buddha can be seen by those with money for a donation while the Buddha's precept-holding renunciate daughters are held back?

I folded my palms before my heart, and became still, looking deep within.

At the moment the pilgrimage group had all entered and were inside circumambulating around, we were suddenly and swiftly called forward and allowed to offer our vandana directly before the open inner shrine of the relic, just before the tour group appeared coming around the other side.

We stepped aside quickly to allow them.

We were told afterwards in hushed whispers how lucky we were, that "normally the nuns, 'maniyo', may not be allowed closely inside, only the priests are, although Princess Hemamālī was a woman...well, we wish we would follow our own old traditions."

I often reflect on the Vibhajjavāda.

According to the chronicles, the Buddhist doctrine and tradition Mahinda Thero and Sanghamittā Therī brought from India to Sri Lanka was called 'Vibhajjavāda' (Sanskrit, Vibhajyavāda), which means a teaching of discernment.

An example is given, in a woven cloth with threads of various colors, to be able to spread them out, and see each color distinctly and clearly.

And like that, the elements, aggregates and sense spheres.

It seems important that we develop the mind of such discernment.

Something is not good or bad, helpful and beneficial or not, due to being old or new, traditional or non-traditional.

We need to see proactively, in a more clearly discerning way. A way that is able to inform our actions, and our choices. Bringing together the good of the old with the good of the new, intentionally, with wise discernment.

Developing such keen perspective and insight, such active working discernment, is of enormous value and worth.

After all, we all want the best of the old and the new. And to leave behind all that does not well serve the meaning and goal, the attha, while preserving, giving rise to, developing, and bringing to fulfillment that which does.

Sa+atthaṁ sabba+añjanaṁ kevala paripuṇṇaṁ parisuddhaṁ brahmacāriyaṁ pakkassesi'ti.

Thus this spiritual life is pointed out in its completed clarity and purity in its essential meaning and goal within all its conventions--in both essence and conventions.

Tam ahaṁ Dhammaṁ abhipūjayāmi.  🙏🙏🙏

Tam ahaḿ Dhammaṁ sirasā namāmi.  🙏🙏🙏

Likewise such noble Buddhadhamma Sangha . . .🙏🙏🙏

Anumodana with thank you always to all the supporters of our Dhammadharini Sangha, with its Women in Buddhism HerStory Mission & Vision, which allows me to be able to research, write and publish these posts on #BuddhistHeritage #HerStoryOurStory and #womeninbuddhism with three main times of focus on education and outreach each year:

❁ September Full Moon: Bhikkhuni Sangha Founding Anniversary International

Bhikkhuni Day

❁ December Full Moon: Sanghamitta Day

❁ February Waning Lunar Quarter: Mahāpajāpatī Parinibbāna Day


Bearers of the Sacred: Heroines of Early Buddhism

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