- Women Under the Bo Tree
Tessa Bartholomeusz has made an important contribution to our understanding of Buddhist women with her carefully researched study of the emergence of “pious lay women” or “lay female renunciant” (upasika) as a new category of Buddhists in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Sri Lanka. Bartholomeusz focuses on the period of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as this period was not only one of a Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, partially in reaction against European colonialism and its imposition of Christianity on the island, but also the period during which the upasika role developed.
Part One of the book traces the historical background of the tradition of female renunciation within Buddhism and its reemergence in the nineteenth century. Part Two describes twentieth-century developments in this tradition up to the date of publication (1994). The author uses a wide variety of documentary sources to describe the various factors that contributed to the emergence of the category of female lay renunciant in Sri Lanka beginning in the nineteenth century: the exclusion of women from full ordination; the rise of Protestant Buddhism, with its belief in the responsibility of the laity for both the welfare of Buddhism and their own salvation (p. 24); the promotion of Buddhism as an anti-Western and anticolonialist [End Page 218] strategy by nationalistic Ceylonese; and the disestablishment of Buddhism, which created a less close-knit relationship between the monastic institution (sangha) and the state.
Bartholomeusz does a fine job of describing the relationship between gender stereotypes of women in Sri Lankan society and Buddhist scriptures on the one hand and the actual roles of the lay renunciant women she studies on the other. She describes how the prevailing sexism of Sri Lankan society (and of the Indian society of early Buddhism prior to that) created obstacles for Buddhist women wishing to renounce the world—they are expected to be wives and mothers, and to support the male sangha. Bartholomeusz persuasively describes how the category of upasika developed to fill the gap between householder and full monastic roles for women. The order of fully ordained Buddhist nuns (bhikkunis)—who take ten monastic precepts (dasa sila) in addition to 311 monastic Vinaya rules—established at the time of the Buddha disappeared in Sri Lanka in the eleventh century (and eventually in all Theravada Buddhist countries). Consequently, Buddhist women in these countries are essentially limited to taking lay vows—or taking ordination from nuns in the Mahayana lineage, which, as Bartholomeusz points out, is also quite controversial, especially because it contradicts the view of Sri Lanka as “the bastion of orthodox Buddhism” (p. 14).
Lay renunciant women have carefully negotiated their status in relation to both the traditional roles of women in Sri Lankan Buddhism as well as the nineteenth- and twentieth-century efforts by reformers to modernize those roles. Bartholomeusz observes that while maintaining certain elements of women’s traditional social roles as caregivers and nurturers (e.g., p. 152), lay renunciant women have also broken with the traditions of recent centuries by refusing to be satisfied with lives as householders and insisting on their right to renounce lay life—and most in the absence of full monastic vows. It is unfortunate that Bartholomeusz does not address in any depth the implications of the “liminal” status of women lay renunciants (dasa sila mattas) for the status of women in Sri Lanka more generally. Nor does the author provide her own view of whether this intermediate status has provided Sri Lankan women with more or less opportunities and freedoms than held by their Buddhist sisters in other Buddhist countries, especially in Mahayana cultures where full ordination for women exists.
Jan Nattier’s analysis of status dissonance and hierarchy in early Indian Buddhism 1 provides a useful framework for considering the various hierarchies of status that Bartholomeusz describes in connection with lay renunciant women. The material that Bartholomeusz presents complexifies this typology. Besides the categories of gender, caste, and seniority that Nattier finds in early Indian Buddhist sutras, Bartholomeusz points to several other status hierarchies, some...