Saccavadi grew up the youngest of six siblings in a rural area of Shan state in northeast Burma. She ordained at the age of 21, following the footsteps of her sister, who had ordained just a year before. When she was young, Saccavadi was a tomboy, preferring to hike and fish rather than spend time on schoolwork, she says. But after she ordained, her dedication to her spiritual studies saw her excel. She regularly got top marks in state-sponsored Buddhist exams and was regarded as one of the most promising monastics of her generation. In late 1998, when Saccavadi had been a thilashin [novice nun] for 16 years, she made the decision to study for a further degree in Buddhist Literature at a university in Sri Lanka, long a cradle of Theravada Buddhism. While in Sri Lanka, she was surprised to find nuns wearing the same saffron-colored robes as fully ordained monks.
In Sri Lanka an order of fully ordained nuns, known as bhikkhuni in the Theravada tradition, existed for more than 1,000 years, until in the 11th century invaders from southern; India established the caste laws of Hinduism, which relegated women to subordinate roles. As Buddhism went into decline, the island’s order of monks dwindled. It was later revived, but the bhikkhuni order was not restored until the 1990s, when the full ordination of a small number of Sinhalese nuns took place as part of historic ceremonies held at Sarnath and Bodhgaya, in India. Since then, a vibrant bhikkhuni community has flourished in Sri Lanka. Though some conservative monks dispute this, there is evidence that Burma, too, had a flourishing order of bhikkhunis until around the 13th century, when it is thought to have died out. But in Burma resistance to reviving full female ordination is deeply entrenched, as Saccavadi was to discover.
Seeing the Sri Lankan bhikkhuni nuns inspired her to want to follow the same path. But when she sought the advice of Burmese monks living in Sri Lanka, she was told full ordination was not possible for women. The monks did not leave it there. They filed a complaint about her request with the council of senior monks appointed by the Burmese government, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC), in Yangon. Despite then receiving written objections from the SSMNC, Saccavadi, together with another Burmese thilashin named Gunasari, proceeded to ordain as a bhikkhuni. It was 2003, and they were the first female Burmese novices in modern times to receive higher ordination in Sri Lanka.
Two years later, when Saccavadi received news that her father was gravely ill, she returned to Yangon and events took a darker turn. After learning of her return to the country, the SSMNC opened a formal investigation into her bhikkhuni ordination. Shortly after her father died, Saccavadi was summoned by the SSMNC’s senior monks to explain herself. “They kept wanting to know what is my point [in taking full ordination],”Saccavadi says. In May 2005 she was ordered to appear before a council of senior monks at a religious court hearing held at Kaba Aye Pagoda in Yangon, a temple where monks traditionally have close links to the government. The charge she was called to answer was, in effect, one of “impersonating a monk.”
“It was a huge hall, a Buddhist courtroom, and it was full, maybe 400 people there,” Saccavadi recalls. “A row of senior monks seated up on a platform, me below, alone, in front of everybody. Staff from the department of religious affairs came to watch. There were old monks, some nuns and young monks too. I could see the old monks didn’t want any dispute. They want peace. They sat there very upset.
“I close my eyes and meditate. I think of the Buddha,” Saccavadi says, in a quieter voice, switching to speaking in the present tense, as if transported back to the courtroom.
“It is dead quiet. I am calm. I feel what I am doing is not just for me, but for all Burma,” she continues.
“Then I hear the monks clear their throats loudly, ‘Huhhumm!’ like that. Like I must show respect. Then they start to read their demands over a loudspeaker.”
The demands were, first, that Saccavadi bow three times to them. Second, that she remove her saffron bhikkhuni robes and replace them with the pink robes of a thilashin. Third, they demanded that she sign a document admitting she was foolish and wrong to have become fully ordained and, fourth, that she read this admission out loud.
“I was alone. My father had died. There was no one to help me answer their questions. The monks were saying how stupid I was. Everyone was scared. It all happened quickly,” says Saccavadi.
The account of what happened next differs depending on whom you speak to. But Saccavadi is quite clear in her recollection.
First, she says, she bowed to the monks three times, as they demanded. She was then presented with two sets of clothes. “I was forced to change,” she says. “They laid out the pink thilashin dress and also lay dress. I chose the lay dress.” Reverting to wearing a novice robe was simply too galling. According to Saccavadi, she stepped behind a privacy screen to change her clothes (later, rumors circulated that she had stripped down in front of the monks). She then signed a document given to her, admitting she had been wrong to take full ordination. But she could not bring herself to read it aloud and ask for forgiveness.
Instead, she says, she turned and addressed the laypeople present in the courtroom. “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 teachings of the Buddha.”
Again, the senior monks asked her to read her admission of guilt aloud. Again, she refused. Indignant at the affront, the monks promptly sentenced her to five years in prison.
“I was taken to a police car. Bam, bam, bam, very quick,” she says.
First Saccavadi was taken to a local jail close to the temple. Shortly afterward she was transferred to Burma’s infamous Insein prison, a place that more than lives up to its name. Insein is internationally renowned for its inhumane treatment of inmates, many of them political dissidents and prisoners of conscience. It was here that Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was twice imprisoned. Accounts of the mental and physical torture that detainees are regularly subjected to are repeatedly highlighted in human rights reports.
“When I first ordained in a forest nunnery in southern Burma and went on alms rounds, I used to see groups of prisoners tied together, working in chain gangs, picking up rocks by the side of the road. I used to look at their faces and think, ‘How fortunate that I’m a nun,’” Saccavadi says. “Then when I went to prison, I thought, ‘My God! Now I am one of them.’”
After Saccavadi was released from prison, she was forced to leave the country. She relocated to the United States from Sri Lanka in 2007. Now in her late forties, she lives in California with her husband, an American Buddhist. –The Editors
From In Search of Buddha’s Daughters: A Modern Journey Down Ancient Roads, by Christine Toomey. © 2015 Christine Toomey. Reprinted with permission of The Experiment Press.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.