Mobilizing Gendered Piety in Sri Lanka’s Contemporary Bhikkhuni Ordination Dispute


  • Tyler A. Lehrer University of Wisconsin–Madison



Gendered piety, Buddhist nationalism, Sri Lanka, Bhikkhunīs


Since the late 1980s, in defiance of Sri Lanka’s major monastic fraternities (nikayas) and the government, Buddhist women and men have begun to organize across distinctions of national boundary and Buddhist tradition to reinstate a defunct bhikkhuni 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 bhikkhunis and their supporters constitute the burgeoning lineage(s) as both legitimate and necessary for the continued health and vitality of an otherwise ailing Buddhist sasana. I argue that Sri Lanka’s bhikkhunis 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 bhikkhunis as subjects whose presence weakens the sasana’s duration and strength, in this new discourse Sri Lanka’s bhikkhunis 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.

Author Biography

Tyler A. Lehrer, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tyler A. Lehrer, Department of History, University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA.


Abeysekara, Ananda. 1999. ‘Politics of Higher Ordination, Buddhist Monastic Identity, and Leadership at the Dambulla Temple in Sri Lanka’. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 22(2): 255–280.

Asian Mirror. 17 June 2014. ‘BBS Leader Kirama Wimalajothi Thera Resigns From Organization!’

Bartholomeusz, Tessa. 1994. Women under the Bo Tree: Buddhist Nuns in Sri Lanka. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

BBC News. 16 June 2014. ‘Sri Lanka Muslims Killed in Aluthgama Clashes with Buddhists’.

Bhikkuni Traning Centre Dekanduwala. ‘About>The Order of Bhikkhunis’.

Blackburn, Anne M. 2001. Buddhist Learning and Textual Practice in Eighteenth-century Lankan Monastic Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Borchert, Thomas. 2007. ‘Buddhism, Politics, and Nationalism in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries’.Religion Compass5: 529–546.

Bodu Bala Sena, ‘A Buddhism that Protects Society from Generation to Generation’ (bududaham parapurin parapurata surakin bauddha samajayak udesa).

Buddhist Cultural Centre. 2015a. ‘About Us’.

———. 2015b. Dekanduwala Dhamma Training & Meditation Centre. Dehiwala, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Cultural Centre.

Cheng, Wei-Yi. 2007. Buddhist Nuns in Taiwan and Sri Lanka: A Critique of the Feminist Perspective. London: Routledge.

Daily Mirror(Sri Lanka). 1 March 2016. ‘Need a Leader to Represent Buddhist Monks: Gnanasara Thera’.

Department of Census and Statistics, Sri Lanka. 2016. ‘Quick Stats: Census of Population and Housing’.

de Silva, Chandra R. 1998. ‘The Plurality of Buddhist Fundamentalism: An Inquiry into Views among Buddhist Monks in Sri Lanka’. In Buddhist Fundamentalism and Minority Identities in Sri Lanka, edited by Tessa J. Bartholomeusz and Chandra R. De Silva, 53–73. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Dekanduwala Dhamma Training and Meditation Centre. 2015. Sri Lanka’s First Bhikkhuni Training Centre and International Faculty of Buddhist Studies. Colombo: Buddhist Cultural Centre.

Fenn, Mavis L. 2007. ‘De Silva, Ranjani’. In Encyclopedia of Buddhism, edited by Damien Keown and Charles S. Prebish, 263–264. London: Routledge.

Gombrich, Richard. 1988. Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Hüsken, Ute. 2010. ‘The Eight Garudhammas’. In Dignity & Discipline: Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns, edited by Thea Mohr and Jampa Tsedroen, 133–138. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Kawanami, Hiroko. 2007. ‘The Bhikkhuni Ordination Debate: Global Aspirations, Local Concerns, With Special Emphasis on the Views of the Monastic Community in Burma’. Buddhist Studies Review24(2): 226–244.

Khema, Ayya. 1998. I Give You My Life: The Autobiography of a Western Buddhist Nun. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Kusuma, Bhikkhuni Kolonnawe. 2012. Braving the Unknown Summit: Autobiography of Ven. Bhikkhuni Dr. Kolonnawe Kusuma. Colombo: Akna Publishers.

Kusuma, Bhikkhuni and Samaneri Akincana. 2015. Code of Conduct for Buddhist Nuns (Bhikkhuni Vinaya): Arising of the Buddhist Order of Nuns and Their Code of Conduct According to Pali Sources, with Text and Translation of the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha. Colombo: Akna Publishers.

McMahan, David L. 2008. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Maduwage, Shihara. 8 December 2014. ‘Trendsetter: Bhikkhuni Dr. Kusuma’.Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka).

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mrozik, Susanne. 2014. ‘“We Love Our Nuns”: Affective Dimensions of the Sri Lankan Bhikkhuni Revival’. Journal of Buddhist Ethics21: 57–95.

Nathaniel, Camelia. 3 March 2013. ‘Sri Lanka’s Bhikkhuni Order in Deadlock’. The Sunday Leader (Sri Lanka).

Salgado, Nirmala S. 2000. ‘Unity and Diversity Among Buddhist Nuns in Sri Lanka’. In Innovative Buddhist Women: Swimming Against the Stream, edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, 30–41. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon.

———. 2013. Buddhist Nuns and Gendered Practice: In Search of the Female Renunciant. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2017. ‘Tradition, Power, and Community among Buddhist Nuns in Sri Lanka’. Journal of Buddhist Ethics 24: 367–399.

Silva, Kalinga Tudor. 2016. ‘Gossip, Rumor, and Propaganda in Anti-Muslim Campaigns of the Bodu Bala Sena’. In Buddhist Extremists and Muslim Minorities: Religious Conflict in Contemporary Sri Lanka, edited by John Clifford Holt, 119–139. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stewart, James John. 2014. ‘Muslim-Buddhist Conflict in Contemporary Sri Lanka’. South Asia Research 34(3): 245–246.

Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 2007. ‘Auspicious Beginnings: The Inception of Sakyadhita’.Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women16(1): 2–6.

Wijayaratna, Mohan. 2010. Buddhist Nuns: The Birth and Development of a Women’s Monastic Order. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.




How to Cite

Lehrer, T. A. (2019). Mobilizing Gendered Piety in Sri Lanka’s Contemporary Bhikkhuni Ordination Dispute. Buddhist Studies Review, 36(1), 99–121.