THE SRI LANKAN VILLAGE where the Theravadin Buddhist nun P. G. Ranwala built her temple is in the upcountry, miles from any city. One-story mud-and-thatch houses painted pastel pink, blue, and green, and deeply ridged paddy fields carved into the mountainside below give the village a prosperous feeling, although the people here live on the edge of poverty. Before Ranwala came, the villagers waited weeks for monks to come from the city of Kandy to perform chanting ceremonies and other Buddhist rituals on their behalf. Most parents relied on weekly radio programs to provide religious education to their children.

Now the center of community life and spiritual practice is the temple built by the 56-year-old former English teacher who left her career, her husband, and her own village to become a Buddhist nun. Ranwala died soon after the temple was built, but the children learn about Buddhism in weekly Sunday school classes from the nuns who run the temple now. They regale them with jataka stories of Buddha’s past lives when he was a rabbit, a monkey, and other characters. The nuns’ days are busy with ceremonies for villagers who are about to embark on a new venture for those who are ailing.

Ranwala’s achievement is all the more extraordinary in light of the fact that Buddhist nuns in Sri Lankan society are barely seen as legitimate spiritual seekers in the eyes of the Buddhist religious establishment there. During the Buddha’s lifetime, men and women were both well supported in the ascetic life by laypeople. Nuns had an active community, thebhikkshuni sangha, and women of every age and social caste became nuns. Alongside the monks, they were teachers, meditators, community activists, and leaders. But when Sri Lanka was invaded in 1017 by lndia, the Sri Lankanbhikkshuni sangha was disbanded. Nevertheless, Sinhalese women continued to choose a spiritual life by renouncing their worldly ties, donning robes and living as bhikkshunis. Today, there are six thousand women registered with the government as nuns, or dasasilmanyos. But without a sangha, the women have had to contend with discrimination, harassment, and extreme poverty. Most are disregarded and slandered, and some are even threatened by none other than the monks.

ln Theravada Buddhism (the foremost religion in Southeast Asia), the ideal for those who want to pursue a spiritual path is to give up their worldly possessions, their homes, and their names; shave their heads; don orange-colored robes; and become monks or nuns. This tradition of monastic life was established by the Buddha himself, who laid out hundreds of rules that monks and nuns agreed to follow in a ritual of ordination. Some of the rules include not handling money; not cooking their own food; remaining celibate; owning no more than a few robes, a bowl and needle and thread; and not harming any beings (even insects). The idea was to create a minimalist lifestyle so that ascetics would not be distracted from meditation and their ultimate goal: attaining enlightenment. The ascetics were supported by the generosity of laypeople who, in Buddhist countries, still feed and clothe them. ln the Buddhist worldview giving alms—especially to monks and nuns—means that the donor accrues merit (good karma), which is key to ensuring a better rebirth in the next life.

Laywomen from a Sri Lankan village, courtesy of Laura M. Markowitz.
Laywomen from a Sri Lankan village, courtesy of Laura M. Markowitz.


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