The Therawada Bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka has been in existence since 1998. Yet unfortunately, we do not come across many Bhikkhunis (Buddhist nuns) as often as we come across Bhikkhus in Sri Lanka. It was learned that most Sri Lanka Bhikkhunis were living in hermitages far away from society, engaging in their meditations in seclusion. Daily Mirror visited one of these religious retreats named “Pilisarana” in Kirindiwela, which was a small temple built for the use and benefit of Bhikkhunis.
The concept of ‘Pilisarana’ was born twenty years ago based on a request made by a mother to a daughter. The late mother of Chulani Korathota, Mrs. Ellen Gomes as a dying wish, sought an undertaking from her daughter to promote Buddhism and the Bhikkhuni Sasana in Sri Lanka in respect of her memory. This wish was carried out by Ms Korathota after the demise of her mother, and ‘Pilisarana’, a residential sanctuary for Bhikkhunis was constructed in two acres of land originally owned by Mrs. Gomes’ family in Kirindiwela.
When we arrived at the temple our first attraction was the small dagoba reflecting the sunshine from a distance. The dagoba was on high ground next to a small ‘Bo’ tree. Steps leading to the dagoba were meticulously crafted in cement. Chulani Korathota’s husband, Shanti Korathota who was in charge of the construction of the temple came forward to greet us.
" The Pilisarana Trust aims to provide a sanctuary for Bhikkhunis wherein they can cater to the spiritual and religious needs of the community whilst pursuing their individual spiritual goals '
“The Pilisarana Trust aims to provide a sanctuary for Bhikkhunis wherein they can cater to the spiritual and religious needs of the community whilst pursuing their individual spiritual goals. It will also aim to be a beacon of support to the vulnerable, and victims of trauma and violence, with particular focus on improving the lives of under-privileged women and children irrespective of race, religion and nationality. We also aim to support the educational development of deserving local students by financial sponsorship and the provision of other services, materials and methods that are educationally appropriate.,” Korathota said elaborating on the objectives of “Pilisarana”
There were three Bhikkhunis at Pilisarana. Two were residents of the temple while one was visiting and all three of them were in their youth, although not too young to enter the Bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka. The Bhikkhunis were dressed in yellow robes with their heads shaven. There was a mystic aura about them, as if they were encircled in an invisible halo that floated with them wherever they went. ‘Pinpata perenawa’ - I remembered an old phrase my mother used a long time ago while describing Bhikkhunis. The appearance of these Bhikkhunis emanated the message of peace, serenity and contentment.
Daily Mirror spoke with one of the Bhikkunis, the oldest of the three - Ven. Kottawe Shantha Nanda therani.
“It has been five years since I entered the ‘Meheni Sasana’ (female priesthood) now. There are more than 1000 Bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka today. Since 1998 ‘Bhikkhuni Upasampada’ (ordination) has been occurring in our country. However when it comes to us being accepted as Bhikkhunis, some Bhikkhus refuse to accept us as Bhikkhunis while some do,” Nanda therani said. When enquired as to the reason behind this, Nanda thera said with a sad smile that some Bhikkhus believed, to inaugurate the Therawada Bhikkhuni order again, they had to wait until the time of the Maithree Buddha. “Most Bhikkhus believe we are Mahayana Bhikkhunis because we were ordained with the help of a few Taiwanese Bhikkhunis. But we follow the Theravada Buddhism,” Nanda therani added.
There was also an elderly lady named U.R. Somalatha to help in the temple who stated that she had been working at ‘Pilisarana’ since the day of its inception.
“I help the Bhikkhunis with their work. Meals are provided from the villagers. Our Bhikkhunis only eat vegetarian food. I believe ‘Pilisarana’ is doing a great service to society. People, especially lay females come and seek the advice and assistance of the Bhikkhunis whenever they are faced with a problem,” Somalatha said.
‘Pilisarana’ plans to provide group meditation facilities for lay females and conducted by experienced Bhikkhunis. These mediation sessions would need to be pre-booked by lay females.
" Since 1998 ‘Bhikkhuni Upasampada’ (ordination) has been occurring in our country. However when it comes to us being accepted as Bhikkhunis, some Bhikkhus refuse to accept us as Bhikkhunis while some do "
However, ‘Pilisarana’ is still under construction. At the time of our visit we saw a few scattered construction workers going about their tasks. The pinnacle of the dagoba had not been placed yet. Flowers were planted around the ‘kutees’ (chambers) of the Bhikkhunis. The young ‘Bo’ plant next to the dagoba was dancing in the wind. As I watched the young plant swaying in the wind, I couldn’t help imagining the gigantic ‘Bo’ tree this would some day become, and shelter the world as the Jaya Shri Maha Bodhi in India sheltered the Lord Buddha a long time ago. The three Bhikkhunis made a peaceful retreat step-by-step, past the flowerbeds, up to the dagoba.
Shanti Korathota explained to us that the ‘Pilisarana’ trustees intended to build more meditation ‘kutees’ and wished to invite other philanthropists to fund these buildings. “Such ‘kutees’ can be used by the donors during their lifetime for whatever periods they desire. The cost of a ‘kutee’ is approximately Rs. 1, 000, 000,” Korathota said.
In the ‘Dharma Shalawa’ (preaching hall) there was a statue of the Buddha. The three Bhikkhunis sat in front of the Buddha statue and bowed their heads. We watched, as they shut their eyes and held their hands in salutation in front of the Buddha statue. The sound of the leaves singing in the breeze, the songs of the birds; they all appeared to be far away from their world. They were absorbed in a much greater realm than the beauties of nature. They had chosen a different path, an unusual lifestyle to most of us maybe, but a path that was not taken by many, nevertheless one that has taken them toward eternal contentment and peace: a life of ‘Dhamma’.