Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2016

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

Religious Studies

First Advisor

Holly Gayley

Second Advisor

Deborah Whitehead

Third Advisor

Carla Jones

Abstract

This thesis investigates many of the figures and events that have made full ordinations of Buddhist nuns (bhikkhunīs) both possible and contested in contemporary Sri Lanka. I draw on interviews and materials collected during the winter of 2015–16 to show how local actors cooperate across distinctions of nationality and Buddhist practice tradition to revive a defunct lineage. I argue that some of the previous scholarship on women’s renunciation in contemporary Sri Lanka conflates ‘international’ with ‘western,’ and privileges the local while forestalling a more nuanced analysis of the local-translocal exchange of speech and activism which constitutes one of the defining characteristics of the revival. I argue that these studies, while championing the voices of ten precept nuns and their everyday practices of renunciation, problematically assert that the current bhikkhunī ordination initiative represents the foreign incursion of western feminist speech which is at odds with the self-conception of Lankan renunciant women.

In addition, I cast light on an emerging dimension of the bhikkhunī ordination mobilization not yet articulated in previous studies: the interrelationship between an already-gendered Islamophobic Buddhist nationalist discourse and support for nuns’ ordination as an integral step toward rescuing a Buddhist sāsana in decline. Although my findings here are still preliminary, I reveal a complex entanglement between geopolitical ethnic antagonism and the visibility of gender and gender roles in contemporary Sri Lanka through which the bhikkhunī ordination dispute is brought into visibility in a new way. Rather than as subjects to be rescued by western feminism, in this new discourse, Sri Lanka’s bhikkhunīs become agents of social service and moral restoration in local villages.

Taken together, the central characteristics of these overlapping projects which enable and support bhikkhunī ordination suggest new ways of conceptualizing the enterprise with global implications and local sites of engagement, activism, and contestation. Through this, the themes of transnational cooperation, strategies of localization, and ethno-religious antagonism update our view of the contemporary revival and open up new questions for further analysis.

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