Monday, May 25, 2015

History of Women in Buddhism - Indonesia: Part 8

Gāyatrī Rājapatni: Queen, Bhikkhunī & the Prajñāpāramitā

Ayyā Tathālokā Bhikkhunī[1]

In this eighth post in our “History of Women in Buddhism - Indonesia” series leading up to the Sakyadhita International Buddhist Women’s Conference in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, we explore the life of one of Indonesia’s most interesting historical Buddhist women.  Earlier prominent women leaders and women ascetics/monastics/nuns that we’ve portrayed in this series such as Ken Dedes, Bhrikuti, Devi Kilisuci, Ratu Shima and Manimekhalai have been interesting in enigma--they are fascinating in that we catch such brief glimpses of their lives, leaving so much to be filled in by imagination, as we find in the many Indonesian, Indian and Tibetan legends, operas and ballets through which their lives are popularly remembered. In this post however, we have the benefit of a lengthy and highly-descriptive historical documentary poem written by a co-contemporary Buddhist monastic poet/biographer/documenteur passed down to us intact, and at least one very well-preserved mortuary portrait image, the Prajñāpāramitā.  Of further interest in addendum is the role that this image has come to play in the contemporary re-nascence of the Theravada Bhikkhunī Sangha on the other side of the world, in North America.

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 post coincides with the release of the first English-language edition of Earl Drake’s Gayatri Rajapatni: The Woman Behind the Glory of Majapahit by Areca Books.

Gāyatrī Rājapatni: Queen, Bhikkhunī & the Prajñāpāramitā

Image 1: Prajñāpāramitā image from East Java
at the National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta
We will now meet one of the greatest of those women whose life has been passed down to us in memory, posthumously captured by the Buddhist monk poet of the court who knew and wrote of her with such reverence and appreciation.  This woman is the lady Gāyatrī, also known as the Rājapatni, in a way somewhat similar to and reminiscent of the lady Gotamī, also known as the Great Prajāpatī.[2]

Gāyatrī was a devout Buddhist, and the youngest daughter of the founder of Majapahit, the last of the great Indonesian royal dynasties, known as the Rajasa Dynasty.  She had three elder siblings, and together they were known as The Four Princesses of Singasari (Singosari).  The epics remember Gāyatrī as having been a keen student of literature, and political, social and religious matters. She possessed extraordinary beauty, charm, wisdom and intelligence.  And yet, in 1276 CE, at the tender age of sixteen, in a terrible repeat of what happened to Airlangga two hundred years earlier {in Post 5}, her world went mad. She witnessed the destruction of her home and kingdom and the murder of her father under the unsuspected attack of the Duke of Kederi.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Wisdom of Emotions

Extract from a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Sundara

Our emotions can be triggered by something very small: a physical sensation, a passing thought, a sense contact, a feeling. In the context of Dhamma we begin to notice that in fact emotions are constructs: amalgams of thought, feeling, perceptions, past conditioning, trauma, family stories; all these things come together to generate emotions. Sometimes we are in a situation where for no apparent reason we start crying, or we become angry or confused. When we search for a reason but can’t find one, we may think there is something wrong with us, that it’s our fault. We make ourselves miserable because we don’t understand that there is a bigger picture. Being human is like that.

Modern psychology has not been able to define emotion. Decades of brain research have failed to pin down what an emotion is. It fluctuates constantly; it is indefinable. So we may be sitting calmly in meditation, surrounded by a lot of other people, but when somebody else comes into the room our sense of calm changes. We are aware of a new feeling tone, perhaps an emotional charge in the body and we soon realize that letting go of it requires more than just awareness and willingness to let go. It also calls for wisdom, for understanding, so as to see deeply its true characteristics of anicca-dukkha-anattā – that it is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self.

Monday, May 11, 2015

“We must get back to the real roots of our Buddhist culture”

An interview with Ven. Bodhicitta by Raymond Lam

Ven. Bodhicitta
In March, Buddhistdoor International published an editorial about the era of simultaneous crisis and opportunity for the Theravada sangha across the traditional Buddhist world. The problems for the sangha, while always influenced by politics, social forces, and shifting economic dynamics, are largely internal: nationalism, sexism (and in some cases institutional gynophobia) and a lack of education form a triple-pronged threat to the Theravada sangha’s moral authority (and for some critics, outright relevance). Yet the other face of crisis is opportunity:  In both Asia and the West, watchers and commentators of Buddhism’s story in the globalizing world are noticing several hotspots where events may well reverberate across Asia and influence social justice movements positively.

Take, for example, the recent establishment of a Buddhist college for nuns in Sri Lanka. Regardless of the politics (and monks are always political in Sri Lanka), it is difficult to disagree that this is a millennial milestone for the country’s Buddhist community, and it is one example of turning the crisis of women’s lack of opportunity to practice into a chance to strengthen and reform the sangha – something that all Buddhists surely agree is a good thing.

One of the nuns bearing witness to these changes is Ven. Bodhicitta, founder of the Nisala Arana in Molkawa. Like many pro-bhikkhuni teachers across the world, Ven. Bodhicitta believes that traditional Buddhist values were never patriarchal, androcentric, misogynistic or sexist to begin with. She therefore does not accept the a priori fusion of the Buddhist story with the male experience, and like many feminists, seeks to entangle social conditioning from reality. “Most traditional societies have been conservative, but I don’t think this is the issue. The problem in places like Thailand is more to do with an overarching patriarchy,” she says. “Men are seen as leaders and promoted to positions of authority in patriarchal society, whereas women always have to take a second place, a subordinated place, in society.”

Monday, May 4, 2015

History of Women in Buddhism - Indonesia: Part 7

Ardhanārīśvarī Ken Dedes & Gender in Ancient Indonesian Buddhism

Ayyā Tathālokā Bhikkhunī

In this seventh post in our “History of Women in Buddhism - Indonesia” series, we continue to look at a topic about which questions have been raised in Part 6 - the subject of the compassionate manifestations of gender in Buddhism and its harmonious associations with Hinduism, in ancient Indonesian Buddhism. For, in Part 6, we encountered the Amoghapaśa form of the highly popular bodhisattva mahāsattva Avalokiteśvara (अवलोकितेश्वर), commonly known as Kwan Yin, 觀音, 觀世音 or 觀自在 菩薩摩诃萨埵 in Chinese, or Chenrezig, སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་ in Tibetan. This bodhisattva is well known not only in Mahāyāna Buddhism, but amidst the Theravāda Buddhists of Southeast Asia as well.

Originally, in India, Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva is known for having appeared in male form, as also in Indonesia, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Korea, but then for later having appeared in female form as Kwan Yin in China, to many contemporary observers’ wonder and curiosity. How and why did s/he do so? And, was this orthodox and legit? I’ve been asked these questions more than a few times... 

In our last post, we saw how, in India, in the Amoghapāśa Sādhana meditation text authored by 12th century Kashmiri monk Sakyaśrībhadra and in the highly popular earlier Hevajra Tantra, Avalokiteśvara appeared with both male and female emanations, the two primary female emanations being Green Tārā who represented the manifestation of karuṇā—the compassion, and Bhrikuti who manifested the prajñā—the wisdom of the bodhisattva. Thus, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama--himself widely thought to be an incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara--speaks about appearing in female incarnation, or when the Gyalwang Karmapa says it would be no problem in Dharma for the Karmapa to appear as a woman, they may not actually be saying anything strange or unorthodox at all.  Actually, the very high level of bodhisattva that Avalokiteśvara is, is taught to be basically androgynous, and to be able to appear in any form, as needed--and to have no trouble at all with appearing in either male or female form.