The internationally acclaimed Buddhist monastic, scholar, and vocal advocate for full female monastic ordination Venerable Dr. Bhikkhuni Kusuma Devendra died of Covid complications late on Saturday in Sri Lanka. She was 92 years old.
Some personal reflections on meeting Bhikkhuni Kusuma
Bhikkhuni Kusuma was for me, a real life example of someone who embodied all four of the brahmavihāra qualities of kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity.
I first heard about her from a friend in Thailand, who told me that Bhikkhuni Kusuma had been one of the first women to take full ordination as a nun back in 1996, in Sarnath, India. That piqued my interest, and through my friend, I made contact with her and found out that she was planning to visit Australia. At that time, in the early 2000s, I was managing a meditation centre in New South Wales, and I was able to invite her to come and teach a weekend retreat for us.
The first time I met Bhikkhuni Kusuma, I immediately felt her warmth, openness and grandmotherly kindness. She seemed to me to be the embodiment of mettā energy. Whenever I was around her, she just wanted to hold my hand, not for support because she was elderly, but because of her natural warmth and connectedness.
On that first weekend retreat, I was supposed to be doing the cooking and she was supposed to be doing the teaching. But Bhikkhuni Kusuma spent almost as much time in the kitchen as she did in the meditation hall. She very good-naturedly supervised me in the preparation of her favourite Sri Lankan dishes, which she wanted to share with the meditators. And when the food was served, she watched with delight when people went back to take second helpings
As I got to know her a little better during that weekend and subsequent visits, I discovered there were many other dimensions to her beyond the warm grandmother. She had been a high school science teacher for 12 years then an English lecturer for 20 years at a University in Sri Lanka.
Her life changed when she started studying for a Master’s Degree in Buddhism, and stumbled across the Therigatha, the Poems of the Buddhist Nuns, and according to her biography, her mind became filled with “… thoughts of enlightenment for women”
She secured a small research grant to write a doctoral thesis, which helped to drive interest in reviving the Bhikkhuni lineage of fully ordained nuns. She then found a senior monk, Ven. Vipulasara Thera, who was willing to hold an ordination ceremony for women, even though this was controversial in Sri Lanka at that time.
There were many twists and turns in the events leading up to this ceremony. Bhikkhuni Kusuma told me that although most of the details of the ceremony had been organised in Sarnath, India, as the time got closer, hostility grew and some of the nuns received death threats.
Shortly before the ceremony, Ven. Vipulasara Thera asked her to be one of the first to ordain. Her first response was NO, I’m just the researcher, I’m not a nun! But she told me that when she thought about it more, she thought to herself:
“I’m an older woman, I’ve lived a full life, if there are death threats, let me be the one who dies, not one of these younger nuns”
So in 1996, she went ahead and became a bhikkhuni, a fully ordained nun, out of compassion for the other women who wanted to take that path.
She was interviewed by a Sri Lankan newspaper in 2012, and I was struck by her equanimity as she reflected on those events.
Somewhat to my surprise, I find that the incidents in the past which at that time may have been so difficult and sad to deal with now do not arouse any strong emotional response in my mind. The events that had made deep impressions on me seem to be long dead and gone, and I do not feel any strong likes or dislikes, or anger or sadness. Everything is buried in the sands of time, and I know that all of it will fade away with my death and dissolution.
Almost ten years after I first met Bhikkhuni Kusuma in Australia, I was living and working at IMS in Barre, Massachusetts. Someone in the Front Office told me that a fully-ordained nun from Sri Lanka wanted to visit IMS and if possible, to meet Joseph Goldstein. It turned out to be Bhikkhuni Kusuma!
I think she must have been eighty years old at that time, and although she had no idea that I was at IMS, when her car arrived out the front, she rolled down the window, looked at me and without missing a beat, said: Hello, Jill from the Blue Mountains, Australia!
Then Joseph came out to meet her. She told him that in the 1980s she had served him lunch at her home in Sri Lanka, and ever since then, she had wanted to visit IMS before she died. The three of us went into the meditation hall and Bhikkhuni Kusuma started prostrating to the Buddha. Tears were rolling down her face, tears of happiness. She said again: All my life I wanted to visit IMS before I die, and now I’m here!
I bowed with her, and I was crying, filled with muditā for how much it meant for her to visit IMS, even though she had been to all the pilgrimage sites in India and her home country of Sri Lanka. Bhikkhuni Kusuma’s courage and kindness and efforts to support women on the dharma path have been inspirational to me. In her own words:
I wish that bhikkhunis—not only in Sri Lanka, but all over the world—will be educated, will be practicing, will be talking about the Dharma and giving that knowledge to the world. Then, it will be a different world altogether. — Ven. Dr Bhikkhuni Kusuma
May it be so!
Please Help Establish a Sanctuary for Bhikkhunis in Aotearoa/New Zealand
Throughout the ages, people have sought places of refuge to engage in deep meditative practice – quieting their minds and opening their hearts for the sake of others as well as themselves.
Some have sought to become monastics, to dedicate themselves to contemplative practice and a life of service. For example, in the time of the Buddha and for centuries afterward, men and women were ordained as bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.
Unfortunately, full ordination for women in the Theravada (South East Asian) branch of Buddhism gradually died out. Consequently, the support that would enable them to give themselves full-time to monastic life and deep practice has been greatly restricted and often denied.
To help remedy this situation, the New Zealand Bhikkhuni Sangha Trust (NZBST), a registered charity in New Zealand, is establishing the first meditation hermitage for bhikkhunis (fully ordained female monastics) in that country. The first step is to purchase a residence in Hamilton, where monastic women can live, practice, and offer teachings to the community.
Through the generous support of donors, we have paid the deposit and secured most of the funds to purchase a house in Hamilton. However, we require additional funding ($65 000 NZ) to establish our residence.
We hope you will find it in your heart to help us.
This is a historic step! Please go to our webpage to learn more: https://bhikkhuni-sangha.org.nz
And please share this appeal with others who might be interested.
In America, please make your tax-deductible charitable donation via the Alliance For Bhikkhunis.
Your help will make a real difference in supporting full access to Buddhist practice for women. And it will make a profound difference to all those who come to this hermitage, and to all those whose lives they touch.
With respect and gratitude,
New Zealand Bhikkhuni Sangha Trust
If you have any questions, please contact: nz.bhikkhunitrust
Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery
Many of you know of Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery in Placerville, California, which was established by bhikkhunis Anandabodhi and Santacitta as a place where women can train as monastics and lay visitors can practice and serve.
Due to the recent and ongoing wildfires in California, the monastery has had to be evacuated. All the sisters are safe in Sacramento, and miraculously, it seems the monastery’s main buildings haven’t been damaged.
As the nuns say in their most recent update:
This is thanks to the efforts of the 2,119 Firefighters who are giving their all to protect homes from the Caldor Fire.
We appreciate the many people around the world who are chanting and praying for the safety of Aloka Vihara and for the many beings that are suffering in the fire and smoke. We would like to invite you to join us in generating metta (unconditional love) each day at 6:30 am and/or 6:30 pm PDT for the benefit of all beings and this beautiful planet Earth.
Ayya Anandabodhi, Ayya Ahimsa, Ayya Niyyanika
UPDATE 8 October 2021 from MaryAnn Gallo and Friends of Aloka Vihara
Kathina-Almsgiving is a very important ceremony every year, but this year feels especially poignant, coming in the wake of a terrible forest fire that the vihara – though threatened – survived. Out of concern for the health of the AVFM resident community as well as its supporters during the ongoing pandemic, the ceremony will be held virtually again this year. You can learn more about it here: Kathina-Almsgiving 2021. I hope you will be able to join us!