The Significance of Sanghamitta Day


Anoja Wijeyesekera

Sanghamitta was born in 281 BC and was the second child of Emperor Ashoka of India and his first wife Devi. She was born in Ujjeini (present day Ujaain in Madhya Pradesh) and was the younger sister of Arahant Mahinda. She married at the age of 14 to Agribrahmini, a nephew of Emperor Ashoka and had a son Sumana. She and her brother Mahinda ordained as Buddhist monks and they both became Arahants. Sanghamitta was only 18 years when she gained ordination. Her husband Agribrahmini and later her son Sumana (Samanera Sumana) also ordained and became Arahants.

Emperor Ashoka, (304 BC – 232 BC) having adopted Buddhism, created a Buddhist empire in India and then undertook the task of spreading the tenets of Buddhism to nine other countries in Asia that included China, Burma, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Malaysia and Laos. He sent his own son, Arahant Mahinda to Sri Lanka to spread the teachings of the Buddha, at the request of King Devanampiya Tissa (250 BC – 210 BC).

At the time that Buddhism was established in Sri Lanka, there was a clamour for ordination by the ladies of court including Queen Anula. Arahant Mahinda requested his sister Sanghamitta, who was by then an Arahant, to fulfil this need by undertaking a voyage to Sri Lanka, to establish the order of Nuns. She brought with her a sapling from the Bo tree under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment.

Unduvap Poya, the full moon day of December, is celebrated in Sri Lanka, and is called Sanghamitta Day, to honour and remember two specific events associated with the arrival of Arahant Theri Sanghamitta from India, in the year 245 BC. The two events are:

The establishment of the Order of Nuns

The planting of the sapling of the sacred Bodhi Tree from Bodh Gaya in Anuradhapura.

The Bodhi Tree brought by Arahant Theri Sanghamitta has stood the test of time and has been preserved with meticulous care to this day. It is venerated as one of the most sacred living Buddhist objects of worship in Sri Lanka. However the order of Nuns established by Theri Sanghamitta has not been preserved with the same care. Starting with Queen Anula who became an Arahant, many other Sri Lankan women who became Bhikkunis attained Enlightenemnt. The Bhikkuni Order prospered for 1,000 years. However, as a consequence of invasions from South India, the Bhikkuni Order fell into decay and disappeared by 1017 AD. It is noteworthy that in 429 AD Bhikkuni Devasara realised that the Bhikkuni Order could vanish from Sri Lanka on account of war and famine. Therefore she led a mission to China to establish the Bhikkuni Order. The original Theravada Bhikkuni lineage established by the Sri Lankan nun Bhikkuni Devasara in China, in 429 AD, has continued unbroken to this day.

After the Bhikkuni Order disappeared in Sri Lanka, the Bhikku Order also met with the same fate, but Asarana Sarana Saranankara Maha Thera re-introduced the Higher Ordination from Thailand. He is credited with re-establishing the Higher Ordination of Monks in Sri Lanka in 1753 AD. However, the same effort was not made to re-establish Higher Ordination for the Bhikkunis, which could be brought from China. The result has been that its existence today is not firmly established in Sri Lanka and sadly Bhikkunis are not accorded the same recognition and privileges that are accorded to monks.

While some Nikayas recognise the Bhikkuni order, some do not. As a result state recognition has not been formalised. Many Bhikkunis were not able to vote at the recent election on account of not having a valid Identity Card which recognises their status as Bhikkunis. This situation is an insult to Bhikkuni Sanghamitta whose mission to Sri Lanka was primarily to establish the Bhikkuni order, which was done under the patronage and wholehearted support of the King, with all the support and privileges that it guaranteed.

In celebrating Sanghamitta Day, the greatest respect that Sri Lankan Buddhists can accord Arahant Theri Sanghamitta is to give proper recognition to the Bhikkuni order, which she established.

In the 21st century, the country that produced the first woman Prime Minister in the world, is still unable to re-establish a proper Bhikkuni order. This is a cause for shame and regret. This is also a violation of the Convention on all forms of Discrimination against Women, which Sri Lanka has ratified. It is time that the Nikayas who hitherto have not accepted the re-establishment of the Bhikkuni Order, take immediate steps to rectify this anomaly and honour the decision of the Buddha to establish a Bhikkuni Order. Over two and a half millennia ago, the Buddha recognised that men and women did not differ in their capacity to attain Enlightenment. Therefore he agreed to establish the Bhikkuni Order. Large numbers of women, who ordained at the time of the Buddha, attained supreme Enlightenment.

Later, after Theri Sanghamitta established the Bhikkuni order in Sri Lanka, many women including royalty, attained Enlightenment. Even today despite all the obstacles placed on them, there may be Bhikkunis who have attained Enlightenment. It is high time that the all the Nikayas, the government, and the people of Sri Lanka accept this reality and respect and honour the decision taken by the Buddha to establish the Bhikkuni Order.

It is hoped that the new administration under the recently elected President gives this matter the priority and attention that it deserves and that a properly supported and structured Bhikkuni order is re-established in Sri Lanka once again.

In order to do so the following steps need to be taken immediately.

Establish an Independent Bhikkuni Fund managed by an Executive Committee comprising respected members of the lay community and some senior professionals including lawyers and financial accountants. These persons should not be aligned to politics. The fund would be a government grant, to be managed in accordance with the highest standards of ethics and integrity, based on Government Financial Regulations. Through the fund, now moribund temples which have no monks could be renovated and made into Bhikkuni temples.

The fund could also be utilised to upgrade and recognise the Bhikkuni training programmes that already exist and to introduce new degree standard programmes where necessary, whereby a structured well-disciplined, highly trained and disciplined order can be established. Entry criteria to the Bhikkuni order need to be of a very high standard and no minors or old age pensioners should be recruited. Apart from age, a screening test needs to be conducted, in order to ascertain the suitability of candidates, in terms of attitude, needs, education and capability. The order thus streamlined should be one of high learning in the Thripitaka and exemplary in its observation of the code of ethics for Nuns. A monitoring system also needs to be established to maintain the highest standards within the Order.

The implementation of this may require the passing an Act of Parliament to give effect to the principle of equality of status and to allocate the financial requirements to support the firm structure and foundation for the Bhikkuni Order to thrive in Sri Lanka.

Higher ordination may be brought back from China, where it was first established by the Sri Lankan Bhikkuni Devasara, back in AD 429.

The re-establishment of a highly disciplined, educated, well-structured and supported Bhikkuni Order would be the greatest respect that we can pay the Buddha who took the unprecedented step of establishing the Bhikkuni order and giving an equal place to women 2600 years ago and to Theri Sanghamitta who introduced the order to Sri Lanka in the year 245 BC. Once the Bhikkuni Sasana is well established again in Sri Lanka, we can be truly proud to celebrate Sanghamitta Day.

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