Monday, April 27, 2015

History of Women in Buddhism - Indonesia: Part 6

Bhrikutī & the Appearance of New Non-Bhikkhunī Forms of Women’s Asceticism in Buddhism

Ayyā Tathālokā Bhikkhunī

Image 1: Bhrikutī Devī, Nepal
In this sixth post in our “History of Women in Buddhism - Indonesia” series, we pick up a topic that is only hinted at being possible in Part 5 - the subject of the appearance of non-bhikkhunī/bhikṣuṇī forms of women’s (and men’s) ascetic/spiritual ideals (and practices) in Buddhism.  It is a time in history or her-story when both royal blood and ascetic spiritual power and mastery appear to have become an essential qualification of the deification of the fe/male rulers of the land, often united with or balanced by their co-appearance as either awesome likenesses or living embodiments of the bodhisattvas and buddhas of Mantranāya and Tantrayāna Buddhism, which has been spreading and developing in Java now for a period of more than 500 years (from the 7th-13th century). We look at one such example in the image of Bhrikutī, an apparently royal female ascetic of spiritual power, who appears very close to the most exemplary Śaivite royal female ascetic and consort, Parvatī, and yet is a manifestation of both the Buddhist wisdom of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, and the fierce form of compassion of the savioress, Bhagavātī Aryā Tārā.
This post is specially dedicated to all those affected by the 25 April 2015 earthquakes in Nepal and the surrounding areas, to all those in need, and to all those who are helping. 
Extracted from Ayyā Tathālokā’s paper “Light of the Kilis: Our Indonesian Bhikkhunī Ancestors,” this is the sixth part in our “Women in Buddhism - Indonesia” mini-series leading up to the 14th Sakyadhita Conference in Borobudur, Indonesia.

Bhrikutī & the Appearance of New Non-Bhikkhunī Forms of Women’s Asceticism in Buddhism

We now move on, following birth and death through the centuries, to the Singasari (Singosari) Kingdom of East Java and to the great Candi Jago (aka Candi Jajagyu) temple at Melang. Singasari succeeded the kingdom of Kederi in eastern Java featured in Part 5.

The great Candi Jago rock temple originally had five peaks above like the Mt. Meru (Sumeru, Kailash) of the Indian continent which was famous from both Buddhist and Hindu texts, as well as from both the five-peaked natural Mt. Meru of Central Java and the five pinnacles of the human-made "Vihāra Mountain" Borobudur. Candi Jago has dark lower chambers unique to Java that are thought reminiscent of the mountain meditation caves mentioned above used by Buddhist and Hindu hermits.

Image 2: Licchavi/Nepalese Princess Bhrikutī
Devi —known to Tibetans as Bal-mo-bza'
Khri-btsun, Bhelsa Tritsun credited with
bringing Buddhism to Tibet

Images from the Amoghapāśa Sādhana meditation text authored by 12th century Kashmiri monk Sakyaśrībhadra [1]depict a new type of ascetic woman who has entered into the Buddhist world (or perhaps an old type who is now manifesting in new ways).  She does not appear as a bhikkhunī/bhikṣuṇī. She is named Bhrikutī (or more proper Sanskrit: Bhṛkutī).

The famed 7th century Nepalese princess who became the first Tibetan Buddhist queen shares her name—the association between the two not yet entirely clear. As with her great co-contemporary 7th century supporter of Buddhist scholarship, Queen Shima (Simha) of the Javanese kingdom of Kalinga, and the appearance of bhikṣuṇī kalyāṇamitrā Simhavijṛmbhitā “lady of the lion’s roar”in the Gandavyūha or “Entry into the Dharma Realm” text (mentioned in Part 4), one may wonder whether great and leading “real life” kalyāṇamitras and bodhisattvas are being immortalized in Buddhist practice texts as well as images and/or whether it was believed that through the greatness of their sainthood and practice vows, they continued to be accessible.

Image 3: Bhrikutī image from the
Museum of Patan in Kathmandu, Nepal
Nepalese Licchavi Princess Bhrikutī Devī (भृकुटी)—known to Tibetans as Bal-mo-bza' Khri-btsun (བལ་མོ་བཟའ་ཁྲི་བ), Bhelsa Tritsun ('Nepali consort') or, simply, Khri bTsun ("Royal Lady”)—is credited with bringing Buddhism and the tradition of Buddhist bhasa (Nepal: पौभा) aka thangka (Tibetan: ཐང་ཀ་) sacred scroll painting to Tibet in the 7th century, when she married the first Tibetan king Songsten Gampo (srong btsan sgam po) in 632 CE. She and her Nepali craftsmen also built the first form of the Red Palace (now the Potala Palace) and the famous Jokhang Temple in the heart of Lhasa.

In Tibetan, she also may be called Bhrikutī-Tārā, the wrathful or frowning form of Tārā, as “bhrikutī” literally means “wrinkled” of “frowning brow”.

In the Singhasari East Java image of Bhrikutī from Candi Jago, she appears as in this Amoghapāśa Sādhana meditation text. Her image is an interesting mix. She has all of what we now consider to be the “classical Indian ascetic implements:” matted dreadlocks piled atop her head, loincloth, tridaṇḍa ascetics’ staff, kalaśa water container and mālā rosary. She is often depicted with her right hand raised up at face or chest height, open palm outwards in the varada-mudrā gesture of bestowing religious blessings.
Image 4: Bhrikutī standing between two lotus plants
Candi Jago, Malang, East Java

Image 5: Sudhana-kumāra standing between 
two lotus plants Candi Jago, Malang, East Java
In the Candi Jago image; however, she is also wearing an elaborate crown and other full regalia—perhaps signifying the highly popular combination of royalty and asceticism, or the deifying of ascetics.[2] Her image is visually very similar, almost a twin, to that of Sudhana-kumāra, who may be familiar to us from the upper Gandhavyūha level of Borobudur; she as he is also, an idealized (male) seeker on the Path who does not become a bhikkhu/bhikṣu.
Image 6: Candi Jago Amoghapāśa form of Avalokiteśvara
dedicated to King Wisnuwardhana
holds virtually identical implements to Bhrikutī,
who is a female emanation
But here Bhrikutī’s image is also perhaps far more similar in appearance to the main Candi Jago image consecrated as “Jina Buddha Vairocana.”  The statuary Candi Jago Vairocana image is portrayed as a manifestation of Śiva-Buddha, that is, a Buddhist Vairocana image that is also holding Indian ascetic implements, the rosary and flywhisk of Śiva.

The famous and important native Javanese poem Kuñjarakarṇa Dharmakathana, translated and published by Teeuw and Robson as Liberation Through the Law of Buddha, is portrayed in stone on Candi Jago walls.  In it, Kuñjakarṇa is a yakṣa who purifies himself through practicing asceticism and receives instruction from Jina Buddha Vairocana. In his instruction, the Buddha and Śiva and other Buddhist and Hindu figures are explicitly co-identified in ultimate reality.

The Vairocana image here is one of two buddha images originally enshrined at Candi Jago that are dedicated to King Wisnuwardhana.  The first statue, already mentioned, is the Śiva-Buddha image. The second, housed in a hidden sanctum at the central peak of the temple later struck by lightning, lost and now found again, was of the Amoghapāśa form of Avalokiteśvara, who also holds ascetic impliments.

At Candi Jago, Bhrikutī’s companions in the Amoghapaśa Sadhana were also found: Green Tārā and Sudhana-kumara on the one hand, with Bhrikutī and Hayagrīva on the other—a pentad to go with the five sacred peaks.  It is unknown whether the Candi Jago Bhrikutī image above is a portrait image of King Śrī Jaya Wishnuwardhana’s queen consort Waning Hyun, regnal name Śrī Jayawardhanī. It was through her that Singasari received the royal lineage of her grandmother Ken Dedes (to be explored in the next post) which was passed on through their heirs from Singasari to the glorious Majapahit Dynasty which followed. Considering Wishnuwardhana’s strong association with the Amoghapāśa form of Avalokiteśvara, it would follow that his queen Jayawardhanī would either have been portrayed as Bhrikutī or as Green Tārā.

In the older Hevajra Tantra Bhrikutī appears in a triad as a companion to some form of Avalokiteśvara (here Amoghapāśa) who stands in the center, and Green Tārā, who stands on the other hand.  In this tantra, Tārā represents the manifestation of the karuṇā—the compassion, and Bhrikuti the prajñā—the wisdom of Avalokiteśvara.

Image 7: Hevajra Tantra Avalokiteśvara, Green Tārā, Bhrikutī triad from the Central Java period

Image 8: Candi Jago female dhyāni buddha Malakī

This is a distinction between the representation in the Hevajra Tantra, and in the Amoghapāśa Sādhana, where Bhrikutī and Hayagrīva represent the ferocious side of compassion as balance to its softness. As a pentad, they are surrounded by the five dhyāni buddhas in both their male and female forms.

There is an explicit balancing of male and female on both sides, with representatives of both genders portrayed as tenderly and fiercely compassionate.
Image 9: Bhrikutī depicted seated on lotus in
“royal ease” posture at Ellora’s Cave 10
Returning to Bhrikutī—curious about the entry of this non-bhikkhunī woman ascetic into Buddhism, and interested in how she changed over time—we may look back at Bhrikutī’s historical development in India. The famous rock-cut cave temple of Ellora in western India proves to be an ideal place.  Cave 6 at Ellora represents the earliest type of Bhrikutī, in which she stands alone or in a mediating position with regards to the grouping of figures at a Buddhist shrine, and she is represented purely as an ascetic. This type of representation appears in and does not persist beyond the 7th century CE, the same century that the Nepalese princess Brikhutī Devi came to Tibet, as mentioned above.

In the second type of image found at Ellora—as in the Hevajra Tantra and Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa—together with Green Tārā,[3] she has become companion and assistant to, and an emanation of, the compassion of Avalokiteśvara.  In a way, it seems that she, once a non-Buddhist ascetic or alternative form of Buddhist ascetic, has been welcomed in and “converted” or assimilated into mainstream Buddhism.  In another way, in her form as the Nepalese Tibetan queen consort, it was she who did the introducing and converting to the form of Buddhism with which she was familiar. Either way, she serves as a form of medium and mediator.  This second form, appearing at Nālanda[4], Sarnath and Orissa (Odisha)[5], persists into the 8th century at Ellora.

Image 10: Bhrikutī image (viewer’s left) dressed in Tibetan royal silks seated next Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo (center) and Chinese princess Wengchen (right)
Over time, she shifts from the viewer’s left to the right. Note that in classical Indian iconography, normally the right-hand position (at the viewer's’ left) is of the foremost rank or importance, so this could indicate a relative increase in the historical/political importance of Wencheng (文成公主), the Tibetan king’s Chinese second queen consort and their relationship, or an increase in the popularity and importance of the form of Tārā with whom Wencheng was associated.

Image 11: Bhrikutī at Ellora’s Cave 12 depicted seated to the viewer’s right (at the
 left hand) of the central Avalokiteśvara on double lotus in “royal ease” posture

By Cave 11, Bhrikutī is fully ornamented as a queen or goddess, as if the convention of portraying her as an ascetic is nearly forgotten (or perhaps it is the sense of her ascetic fierceness that has passed). By Ellora’s Cave 12, she has become just one of a complete set of twelve female deities flanking the antechamber of the shrine, although to the left of the central aisle, she is again depicted in triad. In her antechamber image, she still holds her ascetic implements, but she also wears an elaborate headdress and complete set of jewels.  It is this final form of Bhrikutī that we have seen in the Javanese Candi Jago images. Scholars speculate that Parvati’s asceticism in association with Śiva could have carried over into the Buddhist representation of Bhrikutī.[6]

Image 12: Parvati depicted as a meditating ascetic
Image 13: Parvati depicted as an ascetic queen with her sons Ganesh and Kartikeya

There is an open question of how much these images represent a transformation in the actual practiced forms of women’s asceticism in Buddhism along the lines of those developed in Śaivism. A further question is whether the practices related with such images were largely or exclusively for royalty, or were more mainstream. As we continue, we may gain clues to the answer.

Further reading on Bhrikutī:

All posts in the "History of Women in Buddhism - Indonesia" series: 
Part 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)

Image Credits Part 6:
Image 1: Courtesy of Photographer Jeremy Villasis, web: jeremyvillasis.com
Image 2: Courtesy of Chinese Buddhism Encyclopedia, web: http://www.chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com/en/index.php/Bhrikuti
Image 3: Courtesy of "Sur les traces du sacré", à la rencontre de Bhrikuti, web: http://www.paulo-grobel.com/05_expes/Fiches_PDF/mustang/blog_tirawa/blog_mustang_bhrikuti.htm
Image 4: Courtesy of the Museum Volkenkunde, web: http://volkenkunde.nl/en/node/1417
Image 5: Courtesy of the Museum Volkenkunde, web: http://singosari.info/en/node/1386
Image 6: Courtesy of Singosari Info, web: http://singosari.info/sites/default/files/09a-RMV-2630-1-photo-RMV_0.jpg
Image 7: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, web: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/39036
Image 8: Courtesy of Jononmac46 on Wikipedia, web:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jago_Temple#mediaviewer/File:Chandi_Jago_Goddess_(BM).JPG
Image 9: Courtesy of paulo-grobel.com, web: http://www.paulo-grobel.com/05_expes/Fiches_PDF/mustang/blog_tirawa/blog_mustang_bhrikuti.htm
Image 10: Courtesy of Wikipedia, web: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhrikuti#/media/File:SongstenGampoandwives.jpg
Image 11: Courtesy of elloracaves.org, web: http://elloracaves.org/caves.php?cmd=search&words=&cave_ID=12&plan_floor=2&image_ID=381
Image 12: Courtesy of Lotus Sculpture, web: http://www.lotussculpture.com/8bc9.html.
Image 13: Courtesy of Fæ on Wikipedia, web: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parvati#mediaviewer/File:Lalita_statue.jpg.

Endnotes to Part 6:
[1] The sādhana is based on a vision of Sakyaśrībhadra’s when he visited Bodhgaya. Schoterman has suggested that during the exodus of Buddhist monks at the end of the thirteenth century the Amoghapāśa Sādhana was taken to Java, where it was used by sculptors there. Reichle (2007:116, f 34).
[2] Or perhaps an assimilation/amalgamation of Nepalese-Tibetan Princess-Queen Bhrikutī Devi into herself.
[3] This unique entirely feminine 8th century Indian Madhya Pradesh Bhrikutī triad attributed to Kumaradeva features Green Tārā in the center, with Bhrikutī and White Tārā attending on either hand: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), web: http://collections.lacma.org/node/248694
[4] Nalanda image here at the Henan Museum: http://english.chnmus.net/Exhibitions/2007-02/14/content_52690.htm
[5] Ghantasala image here on right: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/dpv5ZPLLb_g/0.jpg.
[6] Hockfield’s Unfolding A Mandala: The Buddhist Cave temples from Ellora (1993: 93-95)


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).


  1. What is your source to recognize the Image no 3 of Bhrikuti as the historic princess of Nepal from seventh century ? This woodwork is of seventeenth century of Newar at style differing to 1000 years in cultural , art, iconography, belief and aesthetic tradition. Is there any specific norm to distinguish her as Nepalese princess with four armed icon.....? Instead this image belong to the sodasa lasya group and named as Maladevi in mine perception....

    1. Image 3: Courtesy of "Sur les traces du sacré", à la rencontre de Bhrikuti, web: http://www.paulo-grobel.com/05_expes/Fiches_PDF/mustang/blog_tirawa/blog_mustang_bhrikuti.htm

      Dr. Ratna,

      Thank you for your comments. These images are recognized in the end image credits. The original article was written by Venerable Ayya Tathaaloka, so you may wish to discuss this with Venerable, as she would be the expert on this topic among our contributors.

      with Metta,

      Sakyadhita International Webmaster

  2. How do you identify the seventeenth century wooden four armed icon of Patan museum as the historic Licchavi princess of seventh century ? Whereas, Its cultural aesthetics and iconic posture is revealing something else. Look carefully her upper right arm and lower one holding a beads ...which signifies more at Maladevi of Sodasal lasya then something else and her upper left is holding a lotus bud m which is often misinterpreted as Utpala (not lotus but a Tibetan flower) as lower one is speaks of varada boon bestowing.....all compose a sense of tantric image ,,,not of Licchavi icon...of one thousand years ahead...