Determined to Do It - the story of an early Theravada bhikkhuni

I just received a request to re-post this essay by my preceptor Ayya Gunasari in a separate thread so that it doesn’t get buried. I hope you enjoy!

Ayya Gunasari is a Burmese bhikkhuni and describes her path to ordination and the reaction of monks. It’s a very touching story and highlights the problems in a very relatable way. She tells of a famous Burmese monk who was forced to disrobe merely because he was supportive of bhikkhunis in theory (he didn’t carry out any actual ordinations). After that, Burmese monks were no more able to speak up in public in support of bhikkhuni ordination. Ayya Gunasari also explains how monks secretly taught her Pali and the Vinaya, the many difficulties she had to go through without support and without a place to stay, and how challenging the situation was for monks when she became a bhikkhuni and they didn’t know how to relate to her.


Determined to Do It

Bhikkhunī Guṇasārī Therī

My Background
I was born in Burma in 1932 during the Great Depression. My family was very kind to me because I was the firstborn. I got my early education, but it was interrupted by the war with Japan. My parents were worried about the bombing in Rangoon, so we moved to a faraway village where my uncle was a monk. My grandfather was so generous that he would feed fifty families during this time of scarcity, and so we had little food for ourselves.
When the war ended around 1945, I was able to continue my education. Because of the years I missed school, I had a double promotion three times so I could be with the other students my age. I was good at math and able to catch up, but I was poor at history and other subjects. At the time of matriculation, I took mathematics and physics. I decided to become a doctor because my grandfather was an Ayurvedic physician and my uncles were all doctors. My mother and aunts did not agree because they thought it was not a suitable profession for a woman. They thought I would have to behave in an unladylike fashion. I became a doctor nonetheless.
At medical school I met my future husband and eventually got married. I had two children while I was in my final years in medical school in Burma. My husband wanted to move to the United States. I stayed back with my two children for the first year, but then followed my husband to the United States. At that time, I could not bring my two young children, who were one and two years old, with me. It was a very upsetting situation for me, but my mother thought it would interfere with my studies if I brought them. After four or five years, we tried to bring the children over, but the Burmese government would not allow it. They feared brain drain and thought Burmese professionals should return to their own country. Each time we applied to bring the children over, we were refused.
Finally, after my father passed away, my daughters, aged fourteen and fifteen, came to the United States. I thought that since at last the family was together it would be perfect, but it didn’t turn out that way. My older daughter was bitter about being left behind for all those years. She couldn’t understand why I left her at such a young age, even though I explained it to her. It was a difficult time for us. This is when I began to question, “What is life? What use is money? What is happiness?” We had five children whom we loved, but life became chaotic. Every day I was crying when I went to work. It was because of this unhappiness with my daughter’s situation that I had doubts about what leads to happiness and stability in life.
This eventually led me to meditation. A few years later, Mahāsi Sayadaw came to the desert in California. It was his first visit to the United States and I didn’t even know who he was. A friend told me he was coming, so I traveled to the desert with my children. That’s when I got my first taste of the desert—thorns and all. When I was introduced to Mahāsi Sayadaw, he just looked at me very seriously and didn’t say a word. I was scared. Later I would meet him, along with Sayadaw U Sīlānanda. When I heard Mahāsi Sayadaw talk about satipaṭṭhāna practice, that’s when I decided to meditate.
After Mahāsi Sayadaw left, I started meditating with Sayadaw U Sīlānanda, who stayed in California. For the first few years, I was not so good with meditation. During the walking time, I liked to sleep—I was a bit lazy.
When I was young, I knew there were thilashins, eight- and ten-precept nuns. As much as they were quiet and meditative and doing what they needed to do, they didn’t get the respect they deserved. If a woman wanted to become a thilashin, people thought it was because she had no financial support, or because she was old, or because her husband had died—that sort of thing. Young girls rarely became thilashins unless they were orphans or from financially deprived families. I only remember one thilashin in our clan, a distant relative whom we supported. At that time, thilashins weren’t highly regarded, so becoming a thilashin never occurred to me. So even though I wanted to be a serious practitioner after meeting Sayadaw U Sīlānanda, becoming a thilashin was never in my mind.
By 1989, I was very serious about meditation, going on longer retreats totaling three months each year. I would make time for my meditation even while I was still working. I read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s work on the Samaññaphala Sutta and the Brahmajāla Sutta. My mind changed totally. I was sure there had to be something besides thilashins. I knew that during the Buddha’s time there were bhikkhunīs, but I had never heard of bhikkhunīs while I was in Burma. I was determined that I would ordain somehow, although I didn’t know how.
One day I went to the Bodhi Tree Bookstore in Los Angeles and saw Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo’s book on bhikkhunīs. On the cover was Guruma Dhammawati Mahātherī from Nepal. I recognized Daw Dhammawati because she was well-known and loved by the Burmese people. She ran away from Nepal at age fourteen, following an old monk into Burma. At first, she didn’t know Burmese, but she learned when she became a nun and eventually earned her Dhammacariyā degree. When I saw that picture, my mind was shaken up. Although she was still wearing the thilashin robes, Daw Dhammawati had become a bhikkhunī. I also saw in that book there was a bhikkhunī association started by Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, and Ayyā Khemā. That made me determined to find out more.
For the next thirteen years, I plunged into my research. Without knowing how to operate a computer, it was hard on me, but I bought the books and read all the articles I could find. The reason it took thirteen years was my husband became sick and couldn’t work, so I had to work to put the last three of our children through college.
While working and meditating, I researched this topic. I recalled speaking with Sayadaw U Sīlānanda about what I had discovered. He told me the lineage of bhikkhunīs had been cut off and the Burmese monks believed that it couldn’t be reconnected. I said I would continue to do the research nonetheless. That’s when I saw stories of Ashin Ādiccavaṁsa and of Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw. Jetavan Sayadaw was the teacher of Mahāsi Sayadaw, but after he wrote Milindapañhā Aṭṭhakathā, he was criticized by the monks for wanting to help the bhikkhunīs. In 1934, Ashin Ādiccavaṁsa’s disciple, U Thittila, became the first Burmese monk to come to America and England. Even though Ashin Ādiccavaṁsa was famous, he was forced to disrobe because of what he wrote about bhikkhunīs.
I showed my research to Sayadaw U Sīlānanda. He said he knew about these older sayadaws who supported the bhikkhunīs, but even so he couldn’t help me or he would suffer the same fate as them. He said that it was not the right time to go ahead on this matter. He did not say I should ordain or that I shouldn’t ordain; rather, he left the decision up to me. He only asked me one question: “What would you do if you didn’t have someone to give you these precepts?” I answered that I would do as the lay disciples and go in front of the Buddha statue and take the precepts myself. Knowing he could not help me anymore (he had suffered a minor stroke), he picked up the phone and called Bhante Piyananda, asking him to help me to become a sāmaṇerī. In this way, he helped me while remaining in the background.
After I decided to go ahead with the sāmaṇerī ordination, many monks who knew me came to try and dissuade me from doing so. They told me I would starve, there wasn’t enough support, and there would be no place for me to stay. They felt it was not even possible to be a thilashin in the West, let alone a bhikkhunī. Instead, they recommended that I wear the white clothes and determine for myself how I would live and practice. I decided to ordain nonetheless, even if I would starve. I was really determined that just like in the Buddha’s time, women should have the opportunity to live as bhikkhunīs.
Finally, the monks left me alone. In 2002, before I ordained as a sāmaṇerī, I was still practicing at the Tathāgatha Meditation Center in San Jose when Sayadaw U Sīlānanda suggested I spend four or five months in Burma continuously. I had known Sayadaw U Paṇḍita since 1984, when he started teaching in the United States, so I applied to stay at his place in Yangon. It went smoothly at first because I was a layperson. Then I became a sāmaṇerī with Bhante Piyananda. I had to write back to Sayadaw U Paṇḍita and let him know about the change. He did not tell me not to come, so I went there in my rust-colored robes. Only after I got there and met with Sayadaw in person did he say, “Oh, the monks will be shocked. Please, for my sake, will you listen to me?” He requested that I take off the robes I was wearing and replace them with the robes of a thilashin. I was heartbroken, very upset, but I had no choice. I had applied to be part of this retreat for two and a half months. I have never been back to Burma since.
The mind was changed after becoming a sāmaṇerī. Ever since the day my head was shaved, I have thought, This is it. I will take no other position in life. This is what I want to do. With each stroke as the hair went down, I felt a coolness in my heart. I knew I was in the right place. Even more than when I became a bhikkhunī, becoming a sāmaṇerī was very striking for me. I was really happy as a sāmaṇerī and was so eager to learn about monastic life, but my preceptor, Bhante T. Dhammaloka, head of the Amarapura sect in Sri Lanka, along with Bhante Piyananda, decided that due to my long-time experience as a meditator, I should take my bhikkhunī ordination before two years elapsed. So on February 28, 2003, I became a bhikkhunī in Sri Lanka.

My Time as a Bhikkhunī
My first year as a bhikkhunī in Sri Lanka, I spent learning Pāli at Kelaniya postgraduate studies and with Dr. Lily de Silva at her home. In 2004, I planned to go to Birmingham, UK, to study Abhidhamma under Sayadaw Rewata Dhamma. Unfortunately, right after I bought the ticket, the Sayadaw passed away. Since I was already prepared to go, I went to Birmingham, but I wasn’t allowed to stay or study there because I was a bhikkhunī. The board members at his organization decided it was improper to accept a bhikkhunī at the monastery.
As I was stranded in the UK with no place to go, a friend, Dr. Leo Kyawthinn, searched for a monastery where I could spend the Rains Retreat. Luckily, I was allowed to stay at Ajahn Khemadhammo’s forest monastery in Warwick, and my time there went well.
During the period of 2004 to 2007, some kind Burmese sayadaws quietly taught me Pāli and Vinaya and my friend Ayyā Uttamā and I attended the University of the West to study Pāli under the late Dr. Ananda Guruge. Despite this helpful instruction, those years were unstable and hectic. Without a permanent monastery to live in, I moved frequently. I moved from Riverside to Monterey Park, and then to Joshua Tree. Finally, I settled at Mahāpajāpatī Monastery in 2008 after it was established by Therese Duchesne, and I have been the abbess there since October 2008.
Even with a stable location, my life was not stable. Setting up a new monastery is challenging. I looked for suitable bhikkhunīs to come live and work with me, but as there were few bhikkhunīs in the United States, they were hard to find. So besides looking for women who were already ordained, I tried to support others in their wish to train in monastic life at Mahāpajāpatī Monastery. However, as is to be expected when people are exploring a whole new way of life, anāgārikās came and went. In addition, those who became sāmaṇerī did not always stay either. One bhikkhunī whom I ordained and who lived at the monastery with me for several years died suddenly of cancer. The Buddha admonished monastics to live together “like milk and water,” which blend seamlessly when mixed. This is not always easy. However, I now have another bhikkhunī, two sāmaṇerī, and an anāgārikā at the monastery, and we are developing our community. As it is the eighth year of growing Buddha’s daughters at Mahāpajāpatī Monastery, hopefully these precious seeds will sprout and mature soon, through effort, courage, confidence, and loving-kindness.
Besides working to develop the community at Mahāpajāpatī Monastery, beginning in 2008 I started to support the ordination of other bhikkhunīs. I arranged for one bhikkhunī ordination to take place in South Carolina in 2008. Then in 2010, I helped arrange for the ordination of five bhikkhunīs and was one of the chanting bhikkhunīs who questioned and supported the candidates during the ceremony. In 2012, I did the same thing for four bhikkhunīs. Finally, in 2016, as I had the twelve vassas required to act as a preceptor, I was the preceptor for two bhikkhunīs who were ordained at Bhante Piyananda’s temple, Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihāra. It has been my greatest joy to help other women become bhikkhunīs—something that I myself struggled so hard to do.

My Relationship with the Bhikkhus Outside of Burma
I knew many bhikkhus in the Los Angeles area for thirty years before I ordained. As a layperson, we were like brothers and sisters. But when I ordained, it became very awkward. As much as they liked me, they didn’t know how to behave or communicate with me now that I was a bhikkhunī. There were four or five bhikkhus who tried to teach me Pāli and the rules of monastic conduct. All I had known before was meditation, so I appreciated that. As they pointed out, experience in monastic life is quite different than experience as a lone meditator. I loved studying Pāli. On the whole, the monks were very kind to me, but it took many years for them to be relaxed with having me around. Now I can go to Paṭṭhāna chanting with no problem. It took many years to be accepted, as it did with Sayadaw U Paṇḍita. It took nine years for him to even recognize me as a bhikkhunī.

The History of Bhikkhunīs
I am interested in the history of bhikkhunīs, particularly the latest records of bhikkhunīs in various countries. There are many records of bhikkhunīs on the Indian subcontinent and in “greater India” up to the fifteenth century. In Burma, it was originally thought that bhikkhunīs disappeared in the thirteenth century, but recent research by Peter Skilling shows there were bhikkhunīs into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. I feel it is very important to trace the archaeological findings, such as the inscriptions at Pagan discovered by Professor Than Tun and Dr. Luce to understand the historical presence and movement of the bhikkhunīs.Venerable Bhikkhu Anālayo asked me to translate three booklets of his on the legality of bhikkhunī ordination into Burmese. Thus, in addition to doing my own research, I completed the last of those translations in early 2016. It was a great gift to be able to contribute to the understanding of these issues.

Advice for Women Who Are Considering Taking Ordination
First, they must be honest with themselves. If it is an attempt to escape difficulties in relationships—husband, boyfriend, parents—it will not work. They must have a genuine interest in Buddhism. That’s why when women come to me, I try to help them gain a general knowledge of the teachings. There are many things we do not know, but we should be willing to learn. It’s so important to know at a deep level if this is really what they want to do. If they just get into the glory of the robe and like it when people bow down to them, that is not coming from the right place. At first, my idea was to become a recluse because I had become so disenchanted with life, but being a bhikkhunī is not only about meditating. When we become part of the Saṅgha, it differs from being a solitary yogi. For example, as bhikkhunīs, we must communicate and reciprocate saṅghakamma with our brother bhikkhus and our sister bhikkhunīs at other monasteries. Accordingly, we attend Kaṭhina, Vesak ceremonies, Paṭṭhāna, and Paritta chanting ceremonies, and Buddhist monastic gatherings and some Buddhist social programs, such as Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Buddhist Global Relief. To fulfill our duties toward laypeople, we attend funeral services, visit sick patients at hospitals, and provide inspirational Dhamma talks and chanting. I do not want aspirants to have the same misconceptions as I did. I encourage them to visit many monasteries and learn from their experiences. Every place has its strong and weak points. An aspirant must ask herself why she wants to become a bhikkhunī. She should search inside herself to understand her motivations. I have seen monastics who have dedicated themselves to one monastery and then when something happens that causes them to feel they can’t stay there, they have nowhere to go. By making a commitment too soon, they may find out that it isn’t what they wanted and then be left without support. This is why I try to make sure my aspirants take their time to consider carefully before they commit. We must be realistic about things. Nowadays there are many good lay teachers. Many people are suited for lay life whereas others are suited for monastic life. We must know for ourselves what we are best suited for. This is why it is important to take sufficient time to try things out, first as an anāgārikā, then as a sāmaṇerī. It is better to take the time to find out during the earlier stages than to feel stuck in something later. In the beginning stages, it is important to stay in one place because that is where the groundwork is developed. Community life is difficult; it requires a lot of patience. I have found meditation and seclusion much easier. It was my first choice, but somehow I found myself going down this road instead. My suggestion to younger people is to see whether they can fit into community life by practicing with patience.Coming into monastic life as an older person is not easy either. The energy is low and many habits are hard to change. I wish I had started when I was younger. But it was my kamma to finish what I needed to do in my family life. Looking back, I could see that lay life was not for me. Although I like freedom and solitude, I also like the restraints of being part of a community. It inspires me when we all get along as a saṅgha, show concern for each other, and go through challenges together. Also, I enjoy giving to others in the Saṅgha, including those outside my immediate community. Although we may have personality differences, we belong to each other. We are sisters; we are one. The whole thing is Saṅgha. It is not complete on our own.

Adapted from an interview with Ayyà Guṇasārī conducted by Ayyà Dhammadhīrā in May 2014.


The essay was published here (Reflections of Theravada Bhikkhunis):

Let-the-Light-Shine.pdf (2.6 MB)

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Thanks for sharing this, Ayya. The essay just goes straight to the heart :heart::bow_and_arrow:

Ayya Gunasiri’s resolve is remarkable. Of course, we wish it didn’t have to be so difficult, but to see her to what she did despite the odds—inspiring. May I meet her in person someday.

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Yes, she’s really incredible. She seems like a sweet old lady, but she has the heart of a lioness.
She had some major health issues in 2020 and is mostly retired now. I don’t think she travels much. But if you have the chance to go to California, do visit there. Mahapajapati is a very tranquil place with a special atmosphere out in the desert. Here’s a recent photo:

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What an inspiring story! I lived out in the desert of Southern California for a year. It can be quite beautiful, in its own way. At that time I didn’t know about this monastery, but remember thinking it seemed like a good place for one.

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Very inspiring story, thank you for sharing this Venerable!

Reading about these experiences really shine light to my overly optimistic assumptions and hidden prejudices. Kinda shows how deep-rooted the anti-bhikkhunī attitudes are if it took even great meditation master like Sayadaw U Paṇḍita nine years to simply recognize her status…

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If I’m not mistaken, this is from the book mentioned here:

Somehow that thread seems to have slipped past people.

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:open_mouth:

Yes, thanks for pointing it out. I hadn’t noticed that thead… Thank you Ayya Sudhamma @Charlotteannun for sharing the book with us. :anjal:

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How recent is that photo? Last I heard Ayya G isn’t in good shape after her stroke, even to talk by phone.

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This is what I heard from a nun friend at Mahapajapati in January:

She [Ayya Gunasari] is good. She did the surgery in early time, then it is not bad to recovery. Almost recovered, but speech is not like before.

Even before the stroke, it was very difficult for Ayya Gunasari to talk on the phone because she’s hard of hearing. I assisted her many times while I was there, even years ago.

The photo was sent out in their newsletter on Jan 19 but I’m not sure when exactly it was taken.

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