by Tathālokā Therī
Tribute article offered for The Bhāvanā Society Newsletter December 2023, in honor of our most venerable Sanghanāyaka Thero Bhante G's eighth cycle around the sun (Bhante's 96th birthday is Dec 7th 2023).
In Tribute to Bhante G’s Banner Support for Bhikkhunīs
"Bhante G (Venerable Dr. Henepola Gunaratana Thero) has been a part of my life, literally, since the day I was born in Washington DC. We arrived in the United States on the same day, the 18th of September 1968. When I went to Europe in the late 80s as a white-robed anagārikā, it was in the supportive wake of Bhante G’s Dhammadhuta teaching tour. Upon return to the USA, Bhante followed in my late preceptor Ven. Havanpola Ratanasāra Thero’s footsteps in beginning to give Sāmanerī ordination to women in America, as part of the first ordinations offered in 1989 at the then-fledgling Bhavana Society forest monastery.
"Traveling to India as seeker pilgrim anagārikās, we heard of Bhante G’s extensive and dedicated Dhammaduta work in the Buddha’s homeland, as the ripples were also felt from the first Sakyadhita International Buddhist Women’s Conference in Bodhgaya–revivals were in the air. After my higher ordination in November of 1997 with Bhante Havanpola Ratanasāra (then chief Sangha Nāyaka of the Western Hemisphere for the Sri Lanka Malwattu Chapter of the Syamopalivamsa Mahānikāya), Bhante Gunaratana joined international leading Theravāda bhikkhus in formally giving his vara (blessings and support), in his role as Sangha Nāyaka of North America, as one of the chief patrons of the groundbreaking 1998 Bhikkhuni Ordination in Bodhgaya, leading to the revival of both the ancient Indian and Sri Lankan Bhikkhunī Sanghas. Receiving higher ordination in 1998 in Bodhgaya was the first of Bhante G’s Bhavana Bhikkhunī disciples, Ayyā Sucintā from Germany.
"Not long after, in the year 2000, Bhante G offered his in-person support for the higher ordination of the first Thai-American bhikkhunī, Ayyā Gotamī, for the revival of the Indonesian Theravāda bhikkhunī sangha led by Ayyā Santinī, and for the higher ordination of ten Sri Lankan bhikkhunīs of the esteemed Naugala communion led by the late Ayyā Khemacārī.
"Bhante G also continued giving sāmanerī ordination at Bhavana, in 1999 to Ayyās Sudinnā and Sudhammā, and in 2000 to the late Ayyā Dīpā (d. 2014). He furthered his support for higher ordination of his women monastic students trained and ordained at Bhavana, as opportunities began to open up to internationals for bhikkhunī ordination in Sri Lanka: Sinhalese-American Ayyā Sudinnā, fully ordained in the first international Bhikkhunī Ordination at Mt. Lavinia Tapodhanārāma in Sri Lanka in 2002, and Euro-American Ayyā Sudhammā at the second international Bhikkhunī ordination at Mt. Lavinia in 2003, with the support of the late Bhante Tallale Dhammaloka, the Naugala bhikkhunīs and Sakyadhita Sri Lanka. In 2003, Bhante G also gave sāmanerī ordination to two more women aspirants, the Vietnamese-Canadian Ayyā Guṇānusārī (a former Mahāyāna bhikkhunī) and his long-time Euro-American student Ayyā Sobhanā.
"By the time I returned to my home country of the US from Asia in 2004, an incipient bhikkhunī sangha was present; with half or more of the bhikkhunīs and sāmanerīs present in the US ordained by Bhante G, and with those sāmanerīs confident in their support for further higher ordination. When this early fledgling group of the first five bhikkhunīs founded the North American Bhikkhunī Association (now Theravāda Bhikkhunī Association of North America) in 2004, Bhante G agreed to serve as founding senior monastic advisor, and faithfully gave regular Bhikkhunī Ovāda teachings to the growing numbers of Theravāda bhikkhunīs and sāmaneris in the North America and then in Europe, for the first ten years. In 2005, when we founded Dhammadharini Vihāra, the first dedicated monastic residence for Theravāda bhikkhunīs in the western United States, it was Bhante G’s first bhikkhunī disciple, Ayyā Sucintā, who came to assist me in its foundation.
"In all this, Bhante G, as a highly-educated, highly-dedicated and devout bhikkhu teacher, continually referred to the Buddha’s own founding vision of a capable and brilliant fourfold community as expounded in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta and numerous other Theravāda Pāli-text suttas. His respect for the Buddhavācana was the inspiration and firm basis for his belief in laying the foundations of Buddhism in North America with a complete Fourfold Sangha of fully-capable disciples empowered with sīlā to teach Dhamma and Meditation; who would be able to inspire, guide and ordain the next generations.
"Bhante G went on to support the higher ordination of his students Ayyā Guṇanusārī and Ayyā Sobhanā with the newly-established Dambulla Bhikkhunī Order led by Bhante Inamaluwe Sirī Sumaṅgala Nāyaka Mahāthero in Sri Lanka in 2006; and then to bless and support the First Theravāda Bhikkhunī Pātimokkha Recitation and Bhikkhunī Sangha Kathina in the USA in South Carolina in 2007. These 2007 Bhikkhunī Sanghakammas marking the formal existence of the Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha in North America, were hosted by Bhante G’s own bhikkhunī disciple Ayyā Sudhammā, the first American-born woman to receive higher ordination in Sri Lanka, with also the blessings and support of the late Bhante Piyatissa of the New York Buddhist Vihara.
"In 2008, when the use of a 120-acre portion of private redwood forest preserve land was offered in northern California to the Bhikkhunī Sangha for a forest hermitage (the first bhikkhunīs’ forest hermitage in North America); Bhante G, together with Ajahn Pasanno of the Abhayagiri Monastery in California, both founding abbots of forest monasteries in the US, kindly accepted my invitation to visit and bless the land, which became the Aranya Bodhi Awakening Forest Hermitage.
"In 2010, when the time came to offer the first All-Theravāda dual (Bhikkhu-Bhikkhunī) Sangha bhikkhunī ordinations in North America at Aranya Bodhi, Bhante G presided as the leading seniormost Bhikkhu, by then with 60 vassas. It was his American bhikkhunī disciples, Ayyā Sudhammā and Ayyā Sobhanā, who served as the bhikkhunī ācarinīs, together with the author as pavattinī, for this ordination. This was truly momentous, a day of much joy, Bhante G’s eyes twinkling deeply as he recited the verse Sukho Buddhānaṁ uppādo… “Happy is the arising of the Buddha…happy is the teaching of the True Dhamma…happy is the striving of the harmonious Sangha,” while giving the new bhikkhunīs’ first Ovāda Dhamma Desana. Blessed moments of a lifetime.
"In 2015, when his first bhikkhunī student from Germany, Ayyā Sucintā, was ready to ordain her own first bhikkhunī disciple, Bhante G also traveled to Germany to offer his in-person support for the first European Theravāda bhikkhunī ordination as well. This ordination, held at Anenja Vihāra and Mettā Vihāra in the Bavarian Alps, was marked by a strong showing of both bhikkhu and bhikkhunī disciples of Bhante G’s. Thus, our Venerable Chief Sanghanāyaka Mahā Thero Bhante G served as the leading senior bhikkhu for the first dual Theravāda bhikkhunī ordinations in both North America and Europe, while his bhikkhunī disciples also supported the first Theravāda bhikkhunī ordinations in both Australia (in 2009) and Indonesia (also in 2015).
"All in all, with his thirty-five years of banner support, we count a full dozen pioneering women of the first generation of North American bhikkhunīs who were ordained by Bhante G: from Thailand, Sri Lanka, USA, Vietnam, and Canada; and tens more abroad, from Germany, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Canada, and New Zealand.
"It is noteworthy that recently, in the year 2020, Bhante G fulfilled a long-held wish to inaugurate a bhikkhunīs’ Dhamma Center in the USA in Virginia not far from the Bhavana Society, and he has continued his support by giving sāmanerī ordination and blessing the bhikkhunī ordination of his faithful and highly-dedicated long-time students, Sāmanerī Satimā, and Bhikkhunī Dhammadinnā, in 2021-2022, locally in Virginia.
"Finally, I would like to add that Bhante G has not only supported the monastic life aspirations of women and men of both Asian and European heritage, but also, notably, those of African, African-American, and Native-American heritage as well. Truly, as a son of the Buddha, like a sun of the Buddha whose rays shine equally upon all, Bhante G has shared the Buddha’s inheritance of the full and complete traditional three-fold Path of Training: in sīlā (including full Pātimokkha Sīlā for both women and men), in samādhī (as one of the great exponents of Mindfulness & Jhāna meditation) and paññā (sharing a great love and enthusiasm for the insights and wisdom of Early Buddhist sutta teachings).
"I would like to thank and anumodanā all the venerable bhikkhunī and sāmanerī disciples of Bhante G for their bravery, courage and dedication–for their being a part of my life, and all of our lives. The Buddha Sāsana is inestimably brighter and more friendly and accessible, for your presence.
"My special thanks go to Bhante G’s disciples who have contributed to this article, over the years and now, sharing their stories with me: Samā Michelle Koen, bhikkhunī mahātherīs Ayyā Sucintā, Santinī, Gotamī, Sudinnā, and Sudhammā, venerable therī Ayyā Sobhanā, late bhikkhunī Ayyā Dīpā, bhikkhunī Ayyā Dhammadinnā, and Sāmanerī Satimā. I would like to recognize that Bhante G’s heart disciples and students, through his dedicated teaching of Sutta Dhamma and meditation and his great inspiration, are far, far more than those few listed here; including this writer, writing now in gratitude, as one whose whole life has been blessed by his great dedication.
"Homage to the Buddha, Dhamma and the noble Sangha."
(published 6 Dec 2023)
With special thanks to bhikkhunī therīs Ayyā Sucintā, Ayyā Sudhamma and Ayyā Sobhanā, who helped fill me in on the historical information and corrected me! Anumodana!
I would also like to express my special appreciation to Bhante Saddhajeewa and Jeff Beeson for all their loyal and dedicated efforts to work with me on this article which was written back in August (at the time of Bhante G's being honored with commemorative stamp) and to bring it now to publication on the revered occasion of Bhante G's birthday. "Punya anumodana!" - very much appreciating and blessing the merits and virtues of your venerable and faithful efforts.