Monday, April 6, 2015

History of Women in Buddhism - Indonesia: Part 3

South Indian Bhikkhunī Manimekalai Travels to Java

Article author: Āyyā Tathālokā Bhikkhunī
Introduction to this segment: Tathālokā Bhikkhunī and Ādhimuttā Bhikkhunī 

Image 1: Manimekalai distributing food to the needy
with her magic bowl. In contemporary South Indian 
paintings, of which there are many as she continues 
to be a legendary folk hero, she is almost always 
depicted more in appearance like a modern Hindu 
sannyāsinī than a Buddhist monastic.
This third post in our "History of Women in Buddhism" series records the dramatic and inspiring life story of a Buddhist woman saint, Manimekalai, second century South India’s Buddhist Mother Theresa.[1] It examines marks of the status and the mobility of ancient South and Southeast Asian Buddhist women monastics, their environmental and social justice ethics, their rights of self-determination, relationship with politics, and how Buddhism was proactively compared with regards gender issues and women’s rights to other faiths, doctrines and religions of the period. 

This post especially coincides with the Sri Lankan Buddhist observance of Bak Poya on the full moon of April, the commemorative date of the Buddha’s visit to the Isle of Manipallavam aka Nagadipa, which figures so prominently in the life story of Manimekalai.  

Extracted from Ayyā Tathālokā’s paper “Light of the Kilis: Our Indonesian Bhikkhuni Ancestors,” it is part of the series leading up to the 14th Sakyadhita Conference in Borobudur, Indonesia. [Also: read the worthy historical places to visit and about the ancient terminology]

Part 3: South Indian Bhikkhuṇī Manimekalai Travels to Java

Image 2: Manimekalai book cover
Manimekalai (Maṇimēkalai, Tamil: மணிமேகலை), a highly-revered Tamil-Language Buddhist epic poem, is one of the five great epics of Tamil Literature, and the only one of the formerly-glorious collection of Tamil Buddhist writings of the period to survive.

The venerable Manimekalai’s life story was recorded and popularized between the second and third centuries CE.  From it, we recognize not only the international freedom of mobility of the early south Indian and island nations’ Buddhist bhikkhunīs (Skt: bhikṣuṇīs), but also the esteem which the greats among them held as leading monastic teachers, realized practitioners and saints.  

Image 3: Ancient Tamil epics on palm leaf text
Manimekalai, whose name means “girdle of maṇi-jewels,” was named after the Goddess of the Sea of the same name, Manimekhala Devi (known and beloved to Buddhists for her rescuing of the bodhisatta in the Mahājanaka Jātaka tale).[2] 

 Image 4: Thai 6 Baht stamp celebrating
Magha Puja Day shows the sea goddess 
Manimekhala (above right) rescuing the 
bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be) Mahajanaka 
from the raging Sea.
The human Manimekalai was born to a royal dancer along the coast of South India into a matriarchal line of royal dancers/courtesans. She, together with her mother-mentor, became students of the South Indian Buddhist teacher and sage Bhikkhu Aravaṇa Aḍigal, both entering the Buddhist Order, despite the people’s protest at the loss of their highly-valued entertainers.  When she came of age, the heir to the Chola empire, Prince Udaya-kumāra, wished to marry her (a proposal very hard for a dancer’s daughter to refuse). Despite her love for him due to his having been her spouse in several previous lives,  Manimekalai bravely chose to continue in her life of renunciation for the sake of “the bright light of knowledge,” and later was fully ordained as a Buddhist monastic.[3] 

As with the life stories of many saints, her story contains abundant moral-bearing miracles.  In the course of her adventures, during which she too received divine assistance from the Sea Goddess in escaping the ongoing pursuit of the amorous prince, she found herself deserted on the sands of the Island of Manipallavam nearby its then famous Shrine of the Buddha’s Seat.

Image 5: Sri Lankan Kelaniya Temple painting of the Buddha appearing, in the fifth year of his ministry on Bak Poya April full moon, to end the dispute between two related Naga clans over the jeweled seat. Coming upon the seat, Manimekhalai chants, “Hail to the holy feet of him who rid the Nagas of their woes,” alluding to this incident.

Image 6: The former Sri Lanka president pays homage to the Nagadipa pagoda. The pagoda and shrine on the isle of Manipallavam aka Nainativu and also referred to as Nagatheevu, Nagadipa and Manithivu, is a location foremost in religious worship. To this day, both the island and  the presiding guardian goddess Amba Devi are associated in veneration with the visits of Manimekhalai and Kannaki to the island.

There she is said to have been guided by a deity to find a very special alms-bowl, the Amudhasurabhi, with a blessing upon it that it could share food out in alms to an infinite number of people. 

Image 7: Actress depicting
Manimekhalai holding the
blessed alms bowl, from the
movie Amudhasurabhi
Back in the Tamil city of Puhar (also known as Kāveripattanam), putting the miraculous alms bowl to its blessed use, Manimekalai was granted a boon by the king who was much impressed by her piety and knowledge of Dharma.

She used this boon to request that he transform the prison into a public almsgiving hall, emphasizing the dharma of rehabilitation through giving support rather than giving punishment.  In this hall she shared food daily with all the needy of every kind, while also teaching the Dharma there.[4]

Later, when hearing of a drought-caused famine in Java (called Chava, Chavaka or Savaka-nadu in Tamil)[5] she travelled there to the capital of Nagapuram, where she taught the king Punyarāja, son of Bhūmicandra, both of whom she had past karmic affinities with. (The bowl that she had inherited had once, in the new king’s just-previous past life, belonged to Punyarāja).

By that time, Manimekalai’s fame had spread so far and wide that when they first met, the king’s minister recognized her immediately. Having heard about her in his travels abroad, he introduced her saying: 
“There is none equal to this maiden in all of Jambudvipa. She [is] a nun of great piety and virtue that ha[s] come from Kāveripattanam, and possess[es] marvelous and miraculous powers.”[6] 
Manimekalai’s teachings to Punyarāja on Java were on the social justice forms of benevolence and loving-kindness to all, focused on providing for the material well-being of all his people.[7] In these lines, she defines virtue (அறம் or sīla), as the human trait by which food, clothing and shelter are made available to all:
அறமெனப் படுவது யாதெனக்கேட்பின்
மறவாது இதுகேள் மன்னுயிர்க்கு எல்லாம்
உண்டியும் உடையும் உறையளும் அல்லது
கண்ட தில்லை. 
“If one should ask what is the supreme form of charity, bear this carefully in mind that it is the maintenance of all living creatures with food and clothing and places to live in safety.”[8]
Image 8: The emblem of the
contemporary Manimekalai 
Welfare Association on
Nainaitheevu (Manipallavam)
Island, where Manimekhalai 
is still well remembered
Manimekalai’s teaching and her story emphasizes moral causality, and that virtuous or poor morality not only passes through lifetimes, but can also have profound environmental benefits or consequences observable in nature--a lesson enormously important to us today.[9]

She also taught fundamental Dharma teachings of insight into the impermanence and transitoriness of all material and emotional phenomena, the suffering of attaching to what is impermanent, and the non-self nature of all conditioned things.  Due to her developed abilities and realizations, she was able to clearly see and know the truths of karma and rebirth, and many of her realizations, strong decisions and actions, and teachings that appear in her epic biography are centered on these truths. 

In her epic, she travels as a saint to the aforementioned Java, the island of Manipallavam off the coast of Sri Lanka, as well as traveling in her homeland of India. Numerous inscriptions from the second century BCE mention local bhikkhunīs 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.

Image 9: Map of India showing Bodhgaya and Kalinga together with 
the southern islands and northern tip of Sri Lanka, including Jaffna, 
Dambakola Patuna and Nagadipa

In fact, the Buddhist shrine Manimekalai visited in northern Sri Lanka, is very close to the Jaffna port of Dambakola, traditionally held to be the arrival point of the famed Sanghamitta Theri to Sri Lanka from India.

There was much Buddhist monastic travel and interchange recorded between these countries: India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and China. It is known that both the Indian and Sri Lankan bhikkhunīs were internationally active and mobile and undertook sea voyages for Dharmadhuta missionary Sangha activities, as these bhikkhunīs undertook two voyages to China for the sake of the dual ordination of Chinese bhikkhuṇīs, which was well recorded, and has been widely published in recent years. Sinhalese bhikkhunīs are also recorded as having traveled to both India and Tibet, and one queen turned bhikkhunī from Kalinga (whether Kalinga in Indonesia or Kalinga in India has not been verified) is recorded as having been ordained in Sri Lanka.

Image 10: Figures of Sanghamitta Therani’s arrival by ship at
the port of Dambukola at the temple of Sanghamitta, Jaffna

Image 11: Dambakola Patuna, an ancient Sri Lankan port, where 
Sangamitta Therani landed while conveying the Sri Maha Bodhi
tree sapling to Anuradhapura. 

When Manimekalai returned from her Dhamma missionary and foreign aid work to her Indian homeland, in disguise as a male ascetic, she studied and became a master of the various non-Buddhist popular religious and spiritual teachings, philosophies and practices of her time, much as the Buddha himself did before his great awakening.

Image 12: Manimekalai depicted in very clearly feminine saintly form with the all-giving bowl, blue lotuses and both the Hindu goddess and Buddhist pagoda shrines with which she is associated on the Isle of Nagadipa/Manipallavam. Again, note the tendencies in pre-modern art during the time of the centuries-long absence of the Bhikkhunī Sangha in India to portray her appearance as the then more familiar image of a sannyāsinī, rather than as a bhikkhunī. 

Reflecting upon these teachings in light of the unique and salient points of the Buddha’s teaching, she finally attaining the ultimate transmission from her family preceptor and master teacher Aravaṇa Aḍigal.[10] A point is made here that the gendered dogmas and practices of other non-Buddhist religious traditions required her to adopt the male form in order to have full access to their teachings and practices -- but not so for Buddhism -- a main promotional point for early Buddhism as it was popularized in this South Indian classic from the early centuries CE.

Image 13: Ilango Adigal (இளங்கோ அடிகள், the “Prince Ascetic”), a 2nd century CE  monk and contemporary of Manimekhalai author Satthanar (சாத்தனார்), who is variously said to have narrated the story of Manimekhalai to Satthanar, or to have had Satthanar narrate the story to him.
The venerable Manimekalai lived the remainder of her life and passed away as a bhikkhunī, and although she lived several centuries after the Buddha, the most eminent title of Arachchelvi as for the awakened leading women disciples of the Buddha is used in her regard, as it was for the bhikkhunī/bhikṣuṇī arahats of yore.


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 for Part 3:
Image 1: courtesy of Eluthu.com: http://eluthu.com/images/poemimages/f15/vzeln_158581.jpg.
Image 2: courtesy of Astralint.com: http://www.astralint.com/images/bookimage/9788189233372.jpg
Image 3: courtesy of Wikipedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manimekalai#/media/File:Tamil_palm_leaf3%7E300_AD.jpg 
Image 4: courtesy of https://blogger.googleusercontent.com/img/b/R29vZ2xl/AVvXsEi4sPxB6Nq524Spf9Tft8i6hTd_aronAzpsEOphSsE-6SPwwM9dL2efj3vLhvhOSk5rL8QuHwDVH0VbyHSdYtGXbBG-7gOp559yfU99q9kkPhEk53BC3rEpKBdCtbJJFY9kHW-tpSYhyphenhypheneIx/s1600/scan0005.jpg
Image 5: courtesy of:  http://viyaasan.blogspot.com/2013/09/blog-post_715.html.
Image 6: courtesy of the Sri Lankan Columbo Page:  http://www.colombopage.com/archive_11/Jan18_1295294319CH.php
Image 7: courtesy of Chennai 365: http://chennai365.com/tamil/Events/Amudhasurabhi/.
Image 8: courtesy of: http://nayinai.com/sites/default/files/Mekalai-1.jpg.
Image 9: courtesy of: Chaminda Weerathunga
Image 10: courtesy of: Chaminda Weerathunga
Image 11: courtesy of the Visit Jaffna blogspot: http://visit-jaffna.blogspot.com/2011/12/top-10-places-to-visit-in-jaffna.html. 
Image 12: courtesy of: http://viyaasan.blogspot.com/2013/09/blog-post_715.html.
Image 13: courtesy of Wikipedia Commons:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilango_Adigal#/media/File:Puhar-ILango.jpg.

Endnotes to Part 3:
[1] See Manimekhalai: the Dancer with the Magic Bowl by Merchant Prince Shattan (Chāttanār) 1989.
[2] See http://skn.ac.th/skl/project/chanok92/ki26.htm. 
[3] Hisele Dhammaratana 2008 (online edition, 3. Bhikkhuni Manimekalai)
[4] In contemporary South Indian images, Manimekalai is almost always portrayed in orange robe, with high stacked hair and jewelry like a contemporary Indian sannyasini. See: http://dosa365.wordpress.com/2012/09/01/24/manimekalai/.
[5] On Manimekalai and the association between the lands of Java, Chava, Chavaka and Savaka-nadu see Chattergee 1933 (p 27), Nandakumar 1987 (p 7) and Kanakasabhai 1904 (p 11)
[6] Viswanatha 2009 (p 177). Viswanatha’s translation reads: “There is none equal to this maiden in all of Jambudvipa. She was a nun of great piety and virtue that had come from Kāveripattanam, and possessed marvelous and miraculous powers.”
[7] Rao 2007 (p 138)
[8] As translated by Dr. C.R. Krishnamurti in his “Tamizh Literature Through the Ages (தமிழ் இலக்கியம் - தொன்று தொட்டு இன்று வரை),” in 4. The Era of the Thamizh Epics - காப்பிய காலம், on the web: http://tamilnation.co/literature/krishnamurti/04epic.htm (accessed on 4 April 2015).
[9] This lesson of warning about human moral or immoral behavior having observable effects on nature, that is on the earth’s climate and weather, may have been a matter of belief or nonbelief in Manimekalai’s time, but seems easy to see and understand now, in our modern times. 
[10] Rao 2007 (p 140)

Ayyā Tathālokā Bhikkhuṇī (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).

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