The following is a little piece by the Burmese ex-bhikkhuni Saccavadi that was circulated some time ago; I republish it here for those who are not familiar with her story. She was one of the most promising monastics of her generation, and regularly topped the State-sponsored Sangha exams in Myanmar. This is what happened when she returned to Myanmar as a bhikkhuni.
In 1981, the Burmese government formed an organization called the State Sangha Nayaka Council, (hereafter referred to as the SSNC). The council consists of 47 elder monks whose duties include helping to resolve disputes within the monastic community as well as serving as interpreters of the ancient Buddhist Pali canon. When the SSNC was formed, the council officially gave the name ‘thilashin’ to all female monastics which unfortunately can denote an inferior status compared to the word ‘novice’ or ‘monk’ given to the male monastics. A thilashin is restricted to taking 8 precepts which prevents her from becoming a bhikkhuni (a female monk) with the accompanying 311 precepts originally handed down by the Buddha over 2500 years ago. It is important to note that the term ‘thilashin’, along with the inferior status associated with the name, cannot be found in the Buddhist Pali canon. According to the Buddhist Pali canon, the Buddha ordained both male and female monks.
I would like to relate my own experience in dealing with the SSNC. In 1986, in Burma, when I was 21 years old, I ordained as a thilashin. 12 years later, in late 1998, I moved to Sri Lanka in order to immerse myself in the Sri Lankan Buddhist culture and to study critical analysis in Buddhist literature at the University. I was surprised to learn that there were bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka who were wearing the same color robes as the bhikkhus. These bhikkhunis, like their male counterparts the bhikkhus, did not handle money, did not cook for themselves and survived solely on the offerings of the lay community.
I had been a thilashin for 16 years and became eager to ordain as a bhikkhuni after having learned of the existence of the community of female Buddhist monks. I consulted about this with the bhikkhus at the Burmese temple located in the capital city of Sri Lanka, Colombo. I was told that women can never be bhikkhunis. The bhikkhus at the temple also lodged a complaint regarding my intention to ordain as a bhikkhuni to the SSNC. In 2003, despite the written objections from the SSNC in Burma, I proceeded with my ordination in Sri Lanka, and donned the robes of a bhikkhuni.
In early 2005 I had became aware that my father, who resided in Burma, had become gravely ill. I wanted to visit with him and flew to Burma. The SSNC had learned of my visit and opened a formal investigation regarding my ordination.
In the end, the SSNC decided that it was a crime for a female to be ordained as a bhikkhuni. Their decision was made based upon what I felt was a biased interpretation of the Pali canon. On May 27, 2005 I was brought before the 47 monks of the SSNC. The monks presented me with a document that had four requests written upon it. The first request was to bow three times to the council of monks of the SSNC. The second request was to remove my bhikkhuni’s robes and replace them with the robes of thilashin. The third request was to sign the document admitting that I was foolish and wrong. The fourth request was to read these admissions aloud.
I bowed to the monks three times. As for the second request I stepped behind a privacy screen and removed my robes and put on clothes of a lay person. Regarding the third request I relented and signed the document given to me. But as for the fourth request I could not bring myself to abide. In the end I refused to read aloud the written passages asking forgiveness of the monks but instead I addressed the lay people in the audience. I said to the lay people:
‘Please forgive me if I have abused your support. I have accepted your alms-food not as a beggar but as a female monastic who has tried to follow the noble teaching of the Buddha.’
Again the council requested me to read aloud the admission of guilt exactly as it was written on the document given to me. Again I refused. At that point the council informed me I would be sentenced to five years in prison. I was immediately taken into custody and eventually sent to the general prison of Yangon. All of these events transpired one month after my father’s death.
Once in prison, I was confronted with many challenges that included corrupt police, threats of rape, and horrible living conditions. Thoughts of suicide were eventually replaced with a renewed energy and resolve to work for a more compassionate interpretation of Theravāda Buddhism in regards to female monastics. No beds, no blankets or pillows were given to the prisoners and due to the over crowed conditions we were forced to sleep on the floor laying on one side next to one another. Mosquitoes, bed-bugs, and rats were a daily nuisance. Sanitation was almost non existent. Leaking roofs meant the prisoners were often wet. Urine and feces overflowed the toilets on to the floor. Soon I realized prison was a place where prisoners would often face an early death.
In the end I was released after having served 76 days. My early release was due to my plight being publicized by the BBC and the RFA (Radio Free Asia) along with the help of family members, some of whom had a military background. I was given another chance to meet the four requests of the SSNC. I performed the four requests including reading aloud my admission of guilt. No longer welcome in Burma I was driven to the airport and put on a plane headed to Sri Lanka where upon arrival I put on my bhikkhuni’s robes and moved back into the monastery to continue my Buddhist practice which included working towards my doctorate at the Post-Graduate Institute of Pali & Buddhist Studies, at the University of Kelaniya.
I would like to say that my experience of being a thilashin for 16 years and a bhikkhuni for 5 years has overall been a positive one. I have had the honor of having great teachers in my life, both male and female. The majority of monks I have known have been essentially good people and many of them support women ordaining as bhikkhunis.
In conclusion it is my strong opinion that Burma should have a democratic style of government and that there should be a separation of church and State with a guarantee of religious freedom for both males and females. Burma suffers from a very high poverty and unemployment rate. Corruption is common. I feel that in order for Burma to live in peace and prosperity that the military government and the democratically elected President, Miss Aung Sang Su Kyi, who is presently under house arrest, should work together in reconciliation with the best interests of the country in mind. Help from the international communities in whatever capacity they can offer should be welcomed.
Following her release, Bhikkhuni Saccavādī returned to Sri Lanka. Later she went to the USA, where she stayed with her friend, Bhikkhuni Guṇasārī, at time of writing the only other Burmese bhikkhuni. Suffering from her traumatic experiences, she disrobed in February 2008.
The sense of calm acceptance that emerges from this little essay, together with her gentle praise of the kindness of monks, is, in my experience, typical of the spirit of those women who have persevered in their bhikkhuni vocation. I might add that I have found Burmese monks who live overseas to be quietly supportive of bhikkhunis. It is not an ethnic thing, it is an ideology.