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The following is a manuscript for Ven. Sungak’s speech at Mindfulness Day Colloquium held by the Buddhist Council of Greater St. Louis on November 4, 2006.
This year, 2006, is the 2550th anniversary since the Buddha’s death. This means that Bhiksuni’s history has been nearly 2500 years.
Many Bhiksunis are greatly respected today even though having arisen from a male-dominated and difficult environment. They were very brave and wise and, in fact, they had to uphold even more precepts than Bhiksus. They also did a magnificent job during the 2500-year history of the Bhiksuni Sangha. Their wisdom was startling.
The social position of women at the time when the Buddha was born was remarkably low. Maha Pajapati raised the Buddha after his mother, Maya passed away. Later after listening to his Dharma teachings, Maha Pajapati and other royal women decided to enter the Buddhist priesthood.
What did they have to do in order to enter the monastery? Just picture this: they first shaved their hair and put on the most humble clothes and kept going and going and going and finally reached the monastery. And who was first in line? That would be a Maha Pajapati and the royal women. They were unshaken in their decision to enter the monastery.
So you see, the Bhiksuni Sangha, the Buddhist monastic order of women is almost as old as that of the Bhiksus. I am very thankful for Buddha’s decision to allow women to lead a religious life. I am also thankful for the venerable Ananda, one of the Buddha’s greatest disciples, who spoke to the Buddha on behalf of the women desiring to enter the monastery.
This is the first time in the history of religion that a religious leader declared openly that men and women are equal on spiritual grounds.
Buddhism has transcended race, nation, and gender to declare that the highest spiritual achievement transcends such obstacles or discrimination. With this important reasoning the Buddha allowed and welcomed women to join his Order.
Both Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism have dramatic and unique histories with respect to the Bhiksuni Sangha. In some regions, sadly, the Bhiksuni Sangha no longer exists. In some regions, however, the Bhiksuni Sangha has been reestablished. In still other regions, thankfully, the Bhiksuni Sangha has either been solidly supported by the Bhiksu Sangha or it has been allowed independence since its formation within those countries.
In the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the Bhiksu sangha and Bhiksuni Sangha have existed side by side since Buddhism entered the country. We support each other.
In South Korea, the Bhiksuni population is 4,885 and the Bhiksu population is 4,953 in 2005. The total population of trained Sunim is 13,035 (including Sramaneraka: 1335, Sramanera: 1862) in the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.
Still, if we gather all the Bhiksunis in the world, there would be maybe 30 thousand. Today, fewer people in general want to enter the monastery. In many societies family sizes are decreasing and this is a problem for the future of the Sangha. For example, families may not want to encourage their only child to join the monastery.
In Korean general law, men and women are nearly equal even though this is not actually true in general society. However, in the Sangha males and females enjoy greater equality than in the general population. In the Sangha, ability is more important than gender.
Both Bhiksus and Bhiksunis participate equally and share equal responsibility for helping within the community and helping to ensure the growth of Buddhism globally.
This year, Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism has revised the formal robes system (Kasaya). The formal robe has lines, both vertical and horizontal that symbolize the monastic’s rank; more vertical lines indicate higher position. The formal robes system does not have any gender discrimination because Bhiksus and Bhiksunis are wearing the same kind of formal robes.
The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism promotes Education, the spread of Buddhism, and the Translation of the Sutras. In addition to promoting the Sangha the Jogye Order addresses social and International issues as well.
The Order provides males and females an equal opportunity to further their education. For example, Bhiksus and Bhiksunis study in the same classes not only at Sangha University, which is the Order’s foundation school, but also ordinary schools such as general school. They are also provided an equal opportunity to study at secular schools within Korea or to study abroad. Also, the Order and many individual temples have founded scholarship systems. The Order’s primary concern is to give all candidates the best education so as to train as many prominent meditation masters, Dharma teachers, and social workers (Bodhisattvas) as possible.
In this year, 2,225 Bhiksus and Bhiksunis completed the intense summer practice period in 94 Seon monastic Centers within our order. After the completion of this summer meditation retreat they taught Buddhism and counseled laypeople or other members of the Sangha until the beginning of the winter retreat.
After fifteen or twenty years spent practicing in this way, sitting in meditation, and receiving temple training, some Bhiksunis enter the society at large where they open meditation centers for the public. There, Bhiksuni Seon masters listen from their hearts to the people’s sadness or happiness. There are 4885 active Bhiksuni Seon masters who are fully ordained and have received the 348 precepts.
Bodhisattva (Kwan-yin) is a very important genderless person in Mahayana Buddhism. I think of Bodhisattva as a great Buddhist social worker. Bodhisattva’s face is that of a kind and gentle woman, perhaps like a mother’s face.
In South Korea, more then 60% of the Buddhist lay population is women. Maybe this is true of other countries as well. These data tell us how important Bhiksuni’s are both in positions of responsibility and as socially engaged participants. We escort people along the path of the Buddha. Sometimes we become their teacher; sometimes we become their grandmother; sometimes we become their mother or sister or aunt. We laugh from our hearts when they are joyful. We spill tears when they feel sad. We are always together with them, whenever or wherever they may be.
At the present time, twenty-five Bhiksunis work for president at various social centers around Korea. More than thirty-seven Bhiksunis are professors at various universities. Ten Bhiksunis work at broadcasting stations in Korea.
Each year, more and more social work centers, infant care facilities, shelters, and homeless centers are opened. Also, schools and hospitals have opened in India and Cambodia, and many temples and Seon centers have opened around the world. Therefore, more and more well trained Bhiksunis and Buddhist women are needed.
If we open our eyes to look around we see so many places where our help is needed. We must go everywhere and extend our hands because there are many people shedding tears of grief and sorrow. We must give them hope and help them smile. We must work continuously until no sad people can be found. This socially engaged action is a natural outgrowth of our awakening Bodhi mind. Even if women find themselves facing discrimination or limitations that keep them from positions of responsibility they still have responsibility to their practice and to the community.