Tomé Pires Witness & the Beguines,
change comes to the roles of women in religion in Indonesia
Ayyā Tathālokā Bhikkhunī
In this ninth post in our “History of Women in Buddhism - Indonesia” series leading up to the Sakyadhita International Buddhist Women’s Conference in Indonesia, we come to the last of the ancient and premodern records of Buddhist women leaders, kilis and bhikkhunīs in Indonesian Buddhism, with one final and telling glimpse from a surprising Western source, before sweeping social changes overtook Java, Sumatra and much of the archipelago. We touch on some of the changes brought by Islam and by Colonialism, and the impact they had on women in Indonesian religion and spirituality, and women in Buddhism.
Extracted from Ayyā Tathālokā’s paper “Light of the Kilis: Our Indonesian Bhikkhuni Ancestors,” this article is part of the series leading up to the 14th Sakyadhita Conference in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. This article is dedicated to the first Theravada bhikkhunī ordination in contemporary times in Indonesia which is planned to precede the Sakyadhita Conference in June 2015.
Tomé Pires Witness & the Beguines,
change comes to the roles of women in religion in Indonesia
Islam is thought to have been first introduced to to the Indonesian archipelago in the 11th century via traders from Gujarat, India. By the late 13th century CE (the time of our last post 8 on Gāyatrī Rājapatni), Indonesia came to be largely cut off from many of the Indian Buddhist holy places due to Islamic conquest on the Indian continent. In the 12th century, the Abhayagirivihāra and Jetavana Vihara of Sri Lanka were closed by the king Parakkamabāhu, and the monks either disrobed or integrated into the Mahāvihāra school. In the 13th-14th centuries, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia—in fact most of South and Southeast Asia—adopted the form of Theravāda Buddhism of the Sri Lankan Mahāvihāra school. However, we know that Hevajra Tantra, a form of Vajrayāna Buddhism, continued to be practiced by the rulers of West Sumatra up until the 14th century. From the mid-14th (to the early 17th centuries), the governments of the Chinese Qing Dynasties issued a ban on maritime trade, contributing to massive decline in Maritime Silk Road use, and cutting Indonesia off still further from its northern East Asian Mahāyāna Buddhist contacts. During the Chinese Yuan and Ming Dynasties, Muslim participation in Chinese government greatly expanded.
Islam spread increasingly in Indonesia in the 14th to 15th centuries, initially, in part, via interest in a woman-friendly contemplative and spiritual Sufism. In the beginning to middle of the 15th century the first Sultanate of Malacca was founded by Raden Kertawijaya (Pravijaya/Parawijaya V), the last king of Majapahit, and his bride Putrī Malik al Salih (Malikussaleh), the Crown Princess of Samudra Pasai Islamic monarchy of Dvāravatī Champa.
The queen, known as Ratu or Sultanah Nahrasiyah (Nahritsyah, Nari or Nara Shah), is remembered as Sang Putri Penakluk Majapahit or “the Princess Conqueror of Majapahit” and she was appointed Parameswari. It is noteworthy that in the Southeast Asian Islam of this early period, women were able to become sultans and shahs. In the end of the 15th century, the Islamic Kingdom of Demak was founded by her son, Raden Patah/Fatah, in what came to be known as the end of the millennium-long era of Buddhist-Hindu rulership of Java, and the beginnings of the Muslim era.
The early 16th century saw the last of any known records of the Buddhist bhikkhunīs in South India, and at the same time, the beginnings of a strong and growing European influence in both India and Southeast Asia, which was to develop into full scale Colonialism. But what of the Indonesian wikunis and kilis, the Buddhist women ascetics and women practitioners that we have been following in Indonesia? Here, in the first half of the 16th century, we come upon another, and unexpected, mystery.
|Image 2: Painting from “Tomé Pires on the Sultans of Malacca”|
|Image 3: Painting of Tomé Pires from |
his ambassadorship to China 1515-1516 CE
“Tapas means observants, like Beguines. There are about fifty thousand of these in Java. There are three or four orders of them. Some of them do not eat rice or [some do not] drink wine: they are all virgins, they do not know women.”He says more, speaking specifically of women ascetics and renunciates:
“Many Javanese women do not marry and [remain] virgins. They have houses in the mountains and there they end their lives. Others become Beguines after they have lost their first husband—those who do not want to burn themselves to death (satī or more commonly sutee). And they say that there are large number of these in Java, and there there must be more than a hundred thousand women; and afterwards they live in chastity, and they die in this, and they have houses in place for such retreat; and so the women, like the men, ask for food for the love of God” (p 177).Pires also mentions seeing Beguines in his travels to Ceylon/Sri Lanka (p 87).
It is noteworthy that he understands there to be about 100,000 such ascetic women still in this period, around double the number of male monastic ascetics. The traditional three or four orders or pakṣa of ascetics are well known and were previously mentioned in Part 2: the Buddhists, Śaivites, and Viṣnuvites, with the Brahmanical or non-Brahmanical rishis sometimes included as a separate order. They are often mentioned by both their names as well as their distinctive appearances.
|Image 3: Painting depicting the Mughal Islamic encounter with various forms of Hindu men’s and women’s asceticism. The Mughals did not try to intervene in local societies, but to balance and pacify them through unique administration.|
|Image 5: Drawing and verse depicting the Islamic encounter with Śaivite women’s asceticism.|
|Image 6: Paintings depicting various forms of Hindu women’s asceticism and renunciation, from fasting (left), to naked asceticism (center), to a head to toe covered modesty with soft brush to protect insect life (right).|
|Image 7: Stone and brass figures depicting Indonesian Buddhist and Hindu women’s asceticism. The figures in the middle and on the left are robed Buddhist bhikkhunīs, the figure on the right a female Hindu ascetic.|
The Sutasoma describes them by their distinctive features which also appear in terracotta figurines from the period: being bald-headed (as Buddhist monastics are described and depicted), wearing clothes of bark, or wearing hair in a top-knot, or wearing their hair long and loose and going naked with unkempt appearance. The learned Brahmin pandits wore a turban or a tall cap (as they still do in Bali) and a long jacket with sleeves, then rarely worn by common men or women. Both poetry and terracottas of this period also depict numerous retreats, assembly halls and small sheds for ascetics in the mountains, on the slope of a hill or on rocks with both recreational and sacred functions. Both the mountains and caves were considered propitious in indigenous beliefs from ancient times, especially the combination of mountains, water and caves, which were thought to be both the abodes of gods and places of retreat.
But what of Pires' use of the word “beguines?” The word itself sounds surprisingly similar to “bhikkhunīs,” and one must wonder about a connection given the context. The Italian form, beghini, might sound even more similar. In Europe, the Beguines were a largely 12th-16th century liberal and “free-spirited” feminist movement of Christian women religious, who were not affiliated with Church hierarchies. They are definitely not recorded as having Southeast Asian branches during this period. However trade routes are known to have opened between Sweden and the Indic world from the 6th century (even bringing in Buddha images), and between Italy and South India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia from the 10th century, bringing in an influx of luxury products from the Far East. Scholars have tried to attribute the European Beguines’ name and that of the associated and later-founded male communities of Beghards to various persons and places, so far unsuccessfully. The most obvious English association of “begging” and “beggars” may also be confounded, as the Beguines, at least in Europe, and at least initially, and at least mostly, did not beg, but brought their private inheritance into monastic life and then shared it with all the community (the latter certainly happened in Buddhism as well).
Other than those who became Poor Clares, the Beguine ethic seems different than the practice of asking for food or the alms-rounds observed and recorded in Indonesia by Pires above. But although the root word bhik, in bhikkhu and bhikkhunī does mean to “collect alms,” and is linguistically related to the contemporary English word “beg,” Buddhist monastics are also not supposed to assertively “ask” or “beg” for food or alms according to the contemporary English meaning of the word either, but rather to passively offer the opportunity for giving by presenting themselves silently, and then to live from what is freely given.
|Image 9: Beguines with the herbalist on the public dock. Beguines were not cloistered as the nuns of the Catholic Church, and had self-governing, independent women’s monastic communities in Europe.|
There are similarities between the Beguines’ and the traditional Bhikkhunīs’ life. Beguines prayed for their benefactors. Those who entered the European Beguine communities had an initial period of mentorship, after which they became independent. They were then allowed to live simply either solitary or in communities; and if in communities, they shared common property. The communities were often on the outskirts or the fringe of town, not deep in the forest, and Beguines were allowed to go into town; they were not strictly cloistered. They had independent self-governing chapters with no central hierarchical Church authority and were allowed to leave monastic life and marry if they wished, but not return. All this allowed them an exceptional degree of independence, unknown to their medieval European sisters, whether wives or Catholic nuns. And all of these factors were shared with the traditional Bhikkhunīs’ way of life.
However, the Beguines in Europe were not so simply and easily condoned—or even allowed—by Christian Church authorities. They had to repeatedly face charges of heresy, sometimes resulting in death. Neither were the so-called tapas/beguines of Indonesia so easily allowed by colonial Church authorities and missionaries in Indonesia. According to Barbara Watson Andaya, a scholar who has written extensively in The Flaming Womb on what has been termed as “the repositioning of women in early modern Southeast Asia,” “the ethical and religious systems that became so dominant in early modern Southeast Asia justified and affirmed a new authority for men (102).” This happened not only in relationship to the growth and spread of Islam in the archipelago, although this became an increasingly significant factor. Western colonialism, which included the spread of both medieval Catholic and Protestant Christianity, exerted an enormously powerful influence in this regard. In The Flaming Womb, Andaya writes:
“Both Catholic and Protestant authorities were inclined to see women as a potential medium through which Satan could work his malevolent designs because of female prominence in indigenous ritual. Since “witchcraft” was tantamount to heresy, such women must be purged from the community. In sixteenth century Melaka, for instance, the Portuguese captured and excommunicated a number of ‘enchantresses,’ apprentices of feared forest-dwelling groups… In 1669 an MEP [Missions Étrangères de Paris] priest thus proudly reported that he had baptized an old ‘prophetess’ who had more than fifty apprentices, forcing her to acknowledge that her rituals were a deception…After the Portuguese eviction the Dutch followed similar policies. In Ambon, hundreds of ‘spirit houses’ and effigies were burnt and individuals accused of maintaining ‘heathen’ statues were threatened with execution… . Offended by the sexual explicitness of the images…officials ordered the destruction of such images (p 94-95).”Thus, under colonialism, former religious sites, and iconography, together with women in religious leadership and their communities of women ascetics, were in particular targeted with elimination. It is noteworthy that such “witch hunts” were in a three hundred year period of popular practice in Europe and North America (much of “the West”) between the 15th and 18th centuries, resulting in the death of 70,000 to 100,000 people, 75-80% of whom were women. In Indonesia, the effect seems to have been widespread, and the eradication or conversions almost complete, other than on the island of Bali and a few extremely remote places high in the Tengger Mountains mountains of Java around Mt. Sumeru, where a very few highlanders retained the name of Agama Budha.
To be continued in our final post in this series…
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)
 “Women’s Position in Aceh,” Aceh: History, Politics and Culture, edited by Arndt Graf, Susanne Schroter, Edwin Wieringa, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, (2010: 4)
 The Buddhist bhikṣuki’s of Mahāmāyā temple of Kerala. Sadasivan (2000: 134-137). It is a strange coincidence that the last records of bhikkhuṇīs in Burma/Myanmar as well, also coincide with the time of colonialism.
 There are scattered records of bhikkhunīs in Sri Lanka after the 10th century when the Bhikkhunī Sangha is supposed to have been utterly eradicated. One such example would be of the Sri Lankan bhikkhunī Candramāli, who travelled to Tibet, participated in compiling the Tibetan Tripiṭaka, and authored the Śrī Candramālārāja Tantra in the 11th century.
 The Sutasoma is a kakawin (kāvya) poem of the 14th century CE written by Mpu Tantular. Buddhist in nature, it is the source of the Indonesian motto Bhinekka Tunggal Ika—“Unity in Diversity” and teaches religious tolerance, particularly between Hinduism and Buddhism.
 See: “The Helgo Treasure: A Viking Age Buddha,” web: http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/12/the-helgo-treasure-a-viking-age-buddha/.
 Per The Economist’s 12 May 2013 “Who Were the Beguines?”: http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/05/economist-explains-who-were-beguines (accessed 25 Nov 2014). Marcella Patton, who The Economist called “the last Beguine” died in April of 2013, during the time this article was being researched. There are however at least two small beguine communities in the United States.
Image 1: courtesy of Harianaceh.com, web: http://www.harianaceh.co/read/2011/07/07/12585/nahrasiyah-keagungan-seorang-ratu.
Image 2: courtesy of: Mencari Sakiinah, web: https://mencarisakiinah.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/antique_map_valentijn_malacca.jpg?w=300.
Image 3: courtesy of: letraherido.com, web: http://www.letraherido.com/images/imagenes%20exploradores/magallanes.jpg.
Image 4: courtesy of the Smithsonian Museums of Asian Art, web: http://www.asia.si.edu/research/articles/images/yogic/fig1.jpg
Image 5: courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Art via Wikipedia Commons, web: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFemale_Ascetic_(recto)%2C_Page_of_Calligraphy_(verso)%2C_Folio_from_an_Album_LACMA_M.90.141.3_(1_of_4).jpg.
Image 6: courtesy of: vintageindianclothing.com/category/hinduism, web: http://vintageindianclothing.com/category/hinduism/#jp-carousel-2157, http://vintageindianclothing.com/category/hinduism/#jp-carousel-2158,
Image 7: courtesy of Sakyadhita Awakening Buddhist Women’s Blog, this series.
Image 8: courtesy of The Michegan Catholic, web: http://i0.wp.com/themichigancatholic.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/12-St-Clare-of-Assisi.jpg?zoom=2&resize=450%2C1044.
Image 9: courtesy of: DocuGenero on Pinterest, web: http://static0.akpool.de/images/cards/47/476563.jpg.
Image 10 and quote: courtesy of JoanNestle.com, web: http://www.joannestle.com/livingrm/lieve/belgium/graphics/beguineentendement.gif.
Ayyā Tathālokā Bhikkhuī (sans diacritics Ayya Tathaaloka)
Ven. Tathālokā Bhikkhunī is an American-born Theravada bikkhunī, Buddhist monastic scholar and teacher. She is the co-founder of the non-profit NGO Dhammadharini (Women Upholding the Dhamma), the North American Bhikkhuni Association and Aranya Bodhi Hermitage, as well as a senior monastic advisor to Sakyadhita USA and the Alliance for Bhikkhunis. She was a recipient of the 2006 Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award and a presenting scholar at the 2007 International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha on her special areas of scholarship: Bhikkhuni Sangha History and Bhikkhuni Vinaya. Ayyā Tathālokā served as preceptor for the historically significant bhikkhuni ordinations held in Western Australia and in Northern California between 2009 and 2014. She is currently working with the Dhammadharini support foundation to establish a permanent monastery/vihara for the Dhammadharini Bhikkhuni Sangha in Northern California north of the San Francisco Bay Area (see dhammadharini.net).