Mobilizing Gendered Piety in Sri Lanka’s Contemporary Bhikkhunī Ordination Dispute
Since the late 1980s, in defiance of Sri Lanka’s major monastic fraternities (nikāyas) and the government, Buddhist women and men have begun to organize across distinctions of national boundary and Buddhist tradition to reinstate a defunct bhikkhunī ordination lineage for renunciant women. Drawing on fieldwork from the winter of 2015–16, this article considers some of the strategies by which Sri Lanka’s bhikkhunīs and their supporters constitute the burgeoning lineage(s) as both legitimate and necessary for the continued health and vitality of an otherwise ailing Buddhist sāsana. I argue that Sri Lanka’s bhikkhunīs engage in highly-visible forms of adherence to vinaya rules and social expectations for ideal monastic behavior set against a popular discourse about the laxity of male renunciants. Such engagement is both political and soteriological; while it is aimed at fulfilling legitimizing gendered expectations of women’s piety, it is expressed primarily in terms of the eradication of personal and societal suffering through forms of practice that accord with the ideal of a pious monastic. Thus, in contrast to discourses which locate bhikkhunīs as subjects whose presence weakens the sāsana’s duration and strength, in this new discourse Sri Lanka’s bhikkhunīs become virtuous agents of social service and moral restoration. The article concludes by identifying emerging connections between this discourse and an alreadygendered xenophobic Buddhist nationalism.
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