Indonesian Bhikkhuṇīs & Women Ascetics: A Historical Introduction & Survey of Terminology
Article by Tathālokā Bhikkhunī
Intro by Ādhimuttā Bhikkhunī
Wikunis and Kilis: A Summary of Indonesian Terminology for Women Ascetics, Teachers & Sages
Wikuni in Bahasa is the Indic-origin Indonesian word for bhikkhunī in Pali and bhikṣuṇī in Sanskrit. The male form of the word is wiku, a bhikkhu/bhikṣu. However, this word also appears in our Indonesian texts as in Indic texts, to be used both for male monastic ascetics as well as for both male and female monastic ascetics collectively. Wikuni is contemporarily translated into Indonesian Bahasa as pendeta Budha (a “Buddhist pandit”), which is, in turn, translated into English as “Buddhist pastor” or “preacher.”
Photo 1: Bhikkhuṇīs engraved in stone
Others speculate that it may be related to the Indic giri, which means “mountain,” and is also used as an nominative appellation in Sanskrit for ascetics in India. Mountains, mountainous rock formations and caves have a very long history of being held sacred to Indonesians, and in indigenous gender cosmology, the mountain is female. Kilis are most often associated with retreat to ascetic hermitages in the mountains, so often that they are regularly called female hermits or hermitesses.
The word kili is also often combined with suci to make the combined word kili-suci. Suci is from an Indic word that means “pure” or “clean”. The word suci can also stand on its own to describe a monastic/renunciate. Kili is combined with rara as rara-kili as well. Rara or rarā means a “girl or maiden” like the Indic kaññā.
|Photo 2: Bhikkhuṇī in her mountain cave ascetic lair being visited by royals|
Rara-kili is one of two main kinds of women and women ascetics: those who have entered monastic life in their youth or without marrying, and those who have entered monastic life later in life, after marriage, as widows, and/or in their old age. In Old Javanese, elders in monastics life as well as those who have entered into monastic life in old age may be called wṛddhā (Sanskrit: vṛddhā, Pali: vuddhā), which is a respectful and and honorific word meaning "senior", “old” or “elder”, in the feminine form.
|Photo 3: Bhikṣuṇī Śaila with monastic companions teaching Dharma to King Rudrāyaṇa and Queen Candraprabhā in the royal palace|
Furthermore, women who are teachers, leaders or priestesses are also called ājar, ājar-ājar or ācārīs, that is, (in Pāli), acariyās, masters or teachers in their own right. They are distinguished from acarinīs who, in some Indic non-Buddhist traditions, are the wives of a married male teacher. The Indic-origin world guru is also used for revered female as well as male teachers in old Indonesian languages. She may also be called a widyādharī, the Indonesian feminine form of the vidyādhāra, a “holder of knowledge” or “bearer of wisdom” in the Indonesian Mantranāya traditions (aka Mahāyāna Mantrayāna, Vajrayāna or Tantrayāna).
|Photo 4: Indonesian Buddhist Bhrikuti|
(appearing in the Hevajra Tantra and
Women ascetics of various traditions, including Buddhist, may also be known as muṇḍīs (women who have taken tonsure), sekhīs (those who have undertaken training—sikkha in the precepts) and dewī or devīs (female divinities). In all cases, the women ascetics’ names or one of these words above may be prefixed by either one or both of the honorific Old Indonesian words saṅ (sang) and hyaṅ (hyang), which are used for revered persons and holy and sacred beings such as buddhas, bodhisattvas and divinities. For example, a woman ascetic might be honorably and reverentially called saṅ tāpaswī.
Buddhism was not at all alone in having such female ascetics and monastics. There are numerous records of jaṭīs (women matted-hair Jaṭila ascetics) and saṅ ṛṣi tapaswī brāhmaṇī, encompassing various kinds of Brahmin women ascetics. There were both male and female ascetics, sages and saints of Brahmanism, Śaivism and Buddhism. Most of the islands of the Indonesian archipelago, as well as the Southeast Asian mainland with which they shared a long history of cultural association, have long and ancient histories, back to time immemorial, of initiated women priestesses in the indigenous and ancient Megalithic cultures. Having women religious was not a new thing for this part of the world, imported with Buddhism, but rather a very old one.
Early Historical Development of Buddhism in Indonesian Lands
|Photo 5: Indonesian Seated Woman|
Ascetic (Saṅ Tapaswī)
It is not known when Buddhism first came to the Indonesian archipelago. Sacred footprints attributed to the ancient Buddha Dīpaṇkara have been found on Sumatra, but are thought to have been crafted in the contemporary Buddha's era for veneration. Sumatra was widely known as both Suvarṇadvipa (the Isle of Gold) and Suvarṇabhūmi (the Land of Gold), a named area that the Aśokan missionaries arhat dharmadhūtas Soṇa & Uttara are recorded to have visited in the 3rd century BCE.
If Indonesia were the Suvarṇabhūmi of the ancient Buddhist missions, then its Buddhist Bhikkhuṇī Sangha could have been established around 2,400 years ago, in the 3rd century BCE. Thai, Burmese, Lao and Cambodian peoples also believe the Suvarṇabhūmi (Pali: Suvaṇṇabhūmi) territory to which the ancient arahat missionaries came to have been located in their countries. Whether or not the land of Suvarṇabhūmi included Indonesia or not, numerous inscriptions from the second century BCE mentioning local bhikkhuṇīs along Indian trade routes and near active seaports with Indonesian connections. This combined with the lack of a ban on sea voyages for Buddhist monastics (as compared to Jains), strongly suggests the travel and spread of both the male and female Buddhist monastic Sangha along both sea and land routes.
The Witness of the Famed Traveling Monastic Pilgrim I-tsing
In 671, a famous monastic pilgrim monk and travelogue author Bhikkhu I-tsing (Yijing, 義淨) arrived in the archipelago from China. He spent six months in Indonesia before traveling to India, where he studied at Nālanda for a full decade before returning to Śrībogha (the old name of Malayu, modern Palembang, S Sumatra). He remained in Indonesia for four more years working on translations before returning to China in 695 CE.
Photo 6: Bhikṣuṇī Ācārī Śaila (with monastic companion) giving
the “going forth” into monastic life (Skt: pravrajyā, Pali:
pabbajā) to Queen Candraprabhā
He found most of the Buddhists to be Hinayāna (his term), but with some Mahāyāna (It is noteworthy that, both in India and in Indonesia, to study Mahāyāna Madhyamika, Yogācāra and bodhisattva teachings was observed by the venerable I-tsing to be a monastic's personal choice, not related or tied to their monastic nikāya, order, monastery or ordination lineage).
Further, he made special note of something else to our interest. He remarks that, of the Buddhist monastic women that he observed, “in all the countries of the Southern Sea, the nuns have a special upper undergarment, which, though not in accordance with the Indian style, is also called saṅkakṣikā”. They use the five robes of bhikṣuṇī, the first four of which (including the saṅkakṣikā) he observed also used by the bhikṣus. This provides confirmation of a widespread Buddhist women’s monastic presence in the Indonesian islands during the late seventh century.
Women Ascetics, Teachers and Preceptors in the Kakawin World
We now enter into the kakawin world. This is the millenium-long world of the poets, the world of the Indic epic poems of the royal courts, and the world of the courts themselves and the people who inhabited them, people which included royals, male and female priests and monastics, third gender royal guardians, advisors and ministers, and in contact with the broader world, everyone. These included those who had withdrawn from the world to mountain hermitages and remote ascetics lairs.
Through the kakawin poems (known in Sanskrit as kāvya) and their poets the kawi (or kāvi), we can learn much about the roles women played in the highest levels of society, as well as out on its fringes, as Helen Creese has explored in her 2004 Women of the Kakawin World. We can also learn from the kakawin of one Buddhist monk, a member of the clergy, a minister, and a kawi poet, known by his pen name Mpu Prapanca, who was the author of the epic historical (and her-storical) poem Desawarñana, aka the Nagarakṛtāgama.
|Photo 7: Taking Refuge in the Buddha’s Way|
From Creese, we learn that from 7th thru 15th century Java, and until the 19th century in Bali, there were female teachers or ācārī at the courts (161, 271, 290), as well as female religious officials (161), female priests (162), and female ritual specialists. We see these women present in the courts as teachers and advisors, and present for the facilitation of important life passages relating to birth, marriage and death.
We read appreciative and glowing words of “wise wom[en], completely trustworthy, sworn to loyalty, spiritual preceptor[s], dignified in appearance, and firmly grounded in etiquette…” (107, f56). And we learn of the normalcy of both women’s and men’s withdrawing into asceticism in the fourth aśrama, the final stage of their life, or after their spouse has passed away, as an alternative to satī. We also read of those entering monastic life before marriage, as an alternative to married life. We will discover that both of these ideals as having a well-established place in the culture in the stories of King Airlangga and the Crown Princess who became the female hermit saint popularly known as Devi Kili Suci whose stories will be told later. There are very many references to secluded ascetic hermitages for women here, as well as to women’s religious roles in the spiritual life of the people.
All posts in the "History of Women in Buddhism - Indonesia" series:
Part 1: Introduction Twelve Javanese Sites Worthy of Interest: Monuments & Sites Related to Women in Buddhism & BhikkhunīsPart 4: International Buddhist Networking, Bhikkhunīs and Women’s Leadership in the 5th-7th Century Indonesian South Seas
Part 5: The Mystery Story of Devi Kili Suci ~ the 11th Century Vanishing Crown Princess Bhikkhunī Hermit & Her Selomangleng Goa Cave
Part 6: Bhrikutī & the Appearance of New Non-Bhikkhunī Forms of Women’s Asceticism in Buddhism
Part 7: Ardhanāriśvārī Ken Dedes & Gender in Ancient Indian Buddhism
Part 8: Gāyatrī Rājapatni: Queen, Bhikkhunī & the Prajñāpāramitā
Part 9: Tomé Pires Witness & the Beguines, change comes to the roles of women in religion in Indonesia
Part 10: Shedding Light on the Bhikkhunīs & the Great Founding Women of Borobudur (Sakyadhita Conference Presentation)
Photo credits for Part 2:
Photo 1: courtesy of Photodharma.net (or Photodharma.de): http://www.photodharma.de/Indonesia/08-Gandavyuha-Level-2/images/Gandavyuha-Level-2-Original-00001.jpg.
Photo 2: courtesy of Photodharma.net (or Photodharma.de): http://www.photodharma.de/Indonesia/04-Jataka-Level-1-Top/images/Jataka-Level-1-Original-00048.jpg.
Photo 3: courtesy of Photodharma.net (or Photodharma.de): http://www.photodharma.de/Indonesia/06-Divyavadana-Level-1/images/Avadana-Level-1-Slide-00098.jpg, Also in the Huntington Archives at: http://huntington.wmc.ohio-state.edu/public/index.cfm?fuseaction=showThisDetail&ObjectID=30030727&detail=large.
Photo 4: courtesy of The Walters Art Museum: http://art.thewalters.org/detail/15031/the-buddhist-goddess-bhrikuti/.
Photo 5: courtesy of the Met Museum: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1997.435.
Photo 6: courtesy of the Huntington Archives: http://huntington.wmc.ohio-state.edu/public/index.cfm?fuseaction=showThisDetail&ObjectID=30030832&detail=large.
Photo 7: courtesy of the Huntington Archives: http://huntington.wmc.ohio-state.edu/public/index.cfm?fuseaction=showThisDetail&ObjectID=30032596&detail=large.
Endnotes to Part 2:
 “Bahasa” is an abbreviation for “Bahasa Indonesia,” the Indonesian language. The Indic word bhāsa originally just means “to speak” or “language” itself, and can refer to any language; I.e., bhasa-Thai, means “the Thai language”.
 The question has been raised of whether there is any ancient association between the words wika (or wikka) and the wiku and wikuni with the contemporary Wica or Wicca movement. The use of these words in the contemporary movement is thought to stem from pre-Christian spirituality in Europe. The association between the contemporary use of the popular words “shaman” and “Shamanism” with the ancient Indian Samana (Śramana) movement of which Buddhism was a part is better known.
 See Alice Collett’s and Bhikkhu Anālayo’s 2014 “Bhikkhave and Bhikkhu as Gender-inclusive
Terminology in Early Buddhist Texts”. For the dual gender use of the word wiku, see: http://sealang.net/ojed/search.pl?service=dictionary&query=wiku.
 See: http://sealang.net/ojed/search.pl?service=dictionary&query=tāpaswī. Most of the Indonesian and Indonesian-Sanskrit words mentioned in the two paragraphs directly above here can be found referenced to primary source ancient Indonesian texts in the Old Javanese-English Dictionary: http://sealang.net/ojed/.
 Megalithic Culture of Indonesia (pp 3-4)
 “The Origins of the Maritime Silk Road,” ChinaCulture.org, 17 Jun 2005 (accessed 20 Aug 2014 at: http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/zhenhe/132334.htm.
 Per the Pali-language Dipavaṁsa, Mahāvaṁsa and Samantapāsādikā texts.
 Per Bhikkhu Anandajoti: there were two language spheres in Southeast Asia, Pāli in the more northerly and Sanskrit in the southerly, thus when writing about the southerly areas, the Sanskrit “bhikṣuṇī” may be more appropriate. (personal correspondence 26 Jan 2015)
 Sthavira Nikāya" is generally considered the Sanskrit name of the Pali “Theriya Nikāya,” which later came to be known as the Theravāda. See Bhikkhu Anālayo’s "A Note on the Term Theravāda,” Buddhist Studies Review, 2013, vol. 30 no. 2 pp. 216–235. However, in this case, it might also be the name of the Abhayagirivihāra school monastics, who also came to be known as “Mahāyāna Sthāviras” according to another 7th century Chinese Buddhist monastic pilgrim and travel writer, Xuanzang (玄奘, Hsüan-tsang).
 He normally used the shorthand “ni” (尼), or “female monastic”, that is, “ni+monastic” (尼眾) for “nun,” which are typically short for bhikśunī or bhikkhunī (T54, p0216a). It is clear that he is referring to bhikkhunīs, as the same words and phrases are used for the Buddhist monastic women of both China and India, as for the lands of the South Seas (南海諸國). Speaking of what is proper for them all, he says “尼有五衣”: “‘Ni’ have five robes”. It is the five robes of the bhikkhunīs in Vinaya that is being referred to. See: http://www.buddhist-canon.com/history/T540216a.htm.
 The South Seas’ samkakṣikā (Pāli: sankacchika) seems akin to the contemporary Burmese thilashin nuns’ similar garment. In “Rules Concerning Nun’s Dress and Funeral,” from I-tsing’s A Record of Buddhist Practices XII:79, it is described as two cubits each way, with edges sewn together and corners sewed back an inch. “In wearing this one holds it up and put’s one’s head and shoulders through, having the right shoulder wholly out of it. If one does not wear it, one should wear a regular samkakṣikā as similar to the bhikṣus.. In one’s own rooms and monastery, a kusūlaka and samkakṣikā are sufficient. Note that the kusūlaka is in place of the Pali-text udakasātikā bath-robe as the fifth of the bhikśunīs’ five robes. The kusūlaka’s length is four cubits and width is two, both ends of it being sewn together. It may cover as far up as the navel and comes down four fingers above the ankle. I-tsing finds the first four robes to be used in common with the bhikṣus. (78)
 The Kakawin Nagarakertagama palm leaf text: http://dewapujangga.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/kakawin-negarakertagama.jpg.
 Word used for female ācārya in the Kakawin genre, specifically but not exclusively with regards kilis and venerable elders (wṛddha). Interestingly, we find the descriptive phrase “wiku wṛddhācārī,” which would seem to suggest that the word wiku (bhikkhu) was also applied to female teachers; that is, that it may have been used to refer to both female as well as male monastics. See: sealang.net/ojed/search.pl?service=dictionary&query=ācārī
 Satī (aka sutee), was the voluntary self-immoliation of a widow on the crematory pire of her husband, which had by then gained great popularity in Hinduism. Sometimes, not only the widow, but entire households, including servants and slaves, would follow.