Nuns of Cambodia
See below for a personal account of the nuns of Cambodia
Seven years ago I visited a small group of Cambodian nuns in their forest hermitage. I've often described the three hours I spent with them as among the most joyous of my life. On my recent trip to Cambodia, my friend and translator Sitah and I tried to find this group of saintly women again, but found instead that their hermitage was closed and abandoned. Through inquiries with a nearby family we learned that there were many nuns living at at pagoda just up the road and so we continued on. Pure joy and other epiphanies are seldom repeatable, but in this case I was again transfixed and transformed by spending a couple of hours in the company of a few of Cambodia's nuns.
The Cambodian word for nun is dounji. The first dounji I introduced myself to (through translator Sitah) said her name was Mao Savoy and asked me if I spoke French. When I told her I did not, she switched to a very passable English and brought me to a nearby chalkboard completely covered with words, sentences and diargrams. It was the dounji's master chart of how and why to practice meditation, and she spent the better part of the next twenty-minutes explaining it to me, exuberantly. Mao Savoy gesterured to the chart with great animation, asked me countless retorical questions and indeed imparted a very thorough and sophisticated meditation instruction to me. Clearly, this was one temple alive with true meditiaton practitioners.
Bill Scheffel, KEAP Exective Director.
The Status of Cambodian Nuns
In Cambodia, nuns are called dounji, but their status is far lower than monks and, in fact, they are not ordained monastics, but simply laywomen who have cut their hair, dress in monastic garb and observe eight or ten (or more) precepts. A brief history of Buddhist nuns is in order.
Scripture has it that when first asked by a female student, Maha Pajapati Gotami, if he would establish an order of nuns, the Buddha was at first reluctant to. But since he taught that woman "were able to realize all the states leading to enlightenment and enlightenment itself" he eventually agreed and nuns, called bhikkhunis, become one of the four type of followers of the Buddha (the other three being monks or bhikkhus, laymen and laywomen).
Various reasons for the Buddha's reluctance to grant women full monastic vows have been posited, included his fears for their safety, as they would live secluded in forest hermitages, or simply that the time was not yet right. Some scholars argue that their is no evidence the Buddha was at all reluctant to ordain woman.
Although surviving to this day in Mahayana tradition countries such as China, Korea and Vietnam, ordination of bhikkhunis died out in the Theravadan countries of Sri Lanka and Burma. Although widely claimed that there was never an ordained tradition of nuns in Cambodia, Laos or Thailand, there is much evidence to the contrary. Little is known about why the lineage of nuns in the Theravadan tradition came to this end, but in any case this lapse has prevented the re-arising of a bhikkhunis order, in no small part because a nun is required to ordain another nun.
The tradition of dounji in Cambodia undoubtedly began with older woman taking up residence in the temple grounds, a long-standing and common practice for the old and pious of both sexes. Since these woman, as stated, are not technically nuns following the 311 rules of conduct laid down by the Buddha, their status in the temple is not high, even though they may be following as many precepts as a novice monk, not to mention that their devotion to the Buddhist path might be among the strongest. Typically dounji perform various menial temple functions, including sweeping the temple grounds, cooking and washing the monks robes. In the past, dounji were allowed to study liturgical texts but not to practice meditation. 1
Today dounji, lay devotee nuns, who observe the eight or ten Buddhist precepts, are found in or adjacent to many wats in Cambodia. They are usually elderly women, many of them widows who have raised families and who wish to repair to the wat to prepare for death. A small number are younger and have a life ahead of them. KEAP has found that the nuns as a rule are more mature, meditative, and serious about the Buddhadhamma than the new generation of young monks.
1. Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice, by Ian Harris. Pg. 74.