Venerable Bhikkhuni Kusama Memorial

Sakyadhita invites you to attend a Zoom memorial to celebrate the life and pay tribute to Venerable Bhikkhuni Kusuma, a remarkable pioneer in the history of women in Buddhism.

Dr. Eun-su Cho will share photos and a recently recovered video of the historic ordination of the first Sri Lankan nuns in modern times to become fully ordained, led by Bhikkhuni Kusuma.
The memorial will include chanting in Pali, dedication of merit in Korean and a sharing of fond remembrances.

A few words from Venerable Ayya Tathaloka Maha Theri.

Dear Venerable and Dhamma friends,
šŸ’ Anicca vata sankhara…truly, all things are impermanent…even those so enduring
Many of you will have heard that our senior bhikkhuni, one of the senior-most in Theravada Buddhism, mahātherī Ven Bhikkhuni Kusumā, passed away around 10 days ago, on August 29th early morning in Sri Lanka.

Ven Bhikkhuni Kusuma had contracted Covid about three weeks earlier, and she had emerged from hospital after two weeks apparently well and without complications. However, shortly after, her oxygen levels dropped and did not rise again. She was 92, and had been a bhikkhuni for 25 years. She passed away greatly peacefully.

Ven Bhikkhuni Kusuma, then Dr Kusuma Devendra, was a founding member of the Sakyadhita International Buddhist Women’s Association (in 1987), and a founding member and the first president of Sakyadhita Sri Lanka. In 1996, and for the remainder of her life, she greatly furthered one of Sakyadhita’s founding aims, the restoration of full bhikkhuni ordination in Buddhist traditions where it had been lost, or was never established.

For in 1996, after more than a year of special preparatory studies, she led a group of Sri Lankan dasa-sÄ«l-mātas (“mothers of ten precepts”) to the Deer Park of Isipatana in Sarnath, India, the site of the Buddha’s first teaching, where all ten received full bhikkhunÄ« ordination from the Korean Bhikkhu-BhikkhunÄ« Mahāsangha organized by the Mahā Bodhi Society of India and Sakyadhita Sri Lanka.

They then stayed on for two years of initial specialized Pāli-text -based Theravāda bhikkhunÄ« studies offered by the late Sri Lankan senior bhikkhu instructor Ven. Devasiri Thero. Before returning to Sri Lanka, the 1996-ordained bhikkhunis, together with the Sri Lankan bhikkhunis ordained in 1998 in Bodhgaya, a total of 33 of them with Ven Bhikkhuni Kusuma at the head of the line, received dalĢ£hÄ«kamma reordination from the Sri Lankan bhikkhu sangha to formally convert to the Theravada tradition (this is the method that’s been used for bhikkhus of East Asian traditions who wish to formally convert to Theravada Buddhism.)

This was an enormously brave thing to do! Their future was uncertain. And yet, they held all of this with grace, and in 1998, they returned to Sri Lanka and Theravada bhikkhuni ordinations began to be offered in Sri Lanka again after a 1000-year gap. Now, 25 years later, the Sri Lankan bhikkhuni sangha is more than 5000 members strong. Ven Bhikkhunī Kusumā lived faithfully as a bhikkhunī, taught the Dhamma, and showed her abundant generosity to the Sangha up to her last days.

It was only a few months later, in 1997, that my own late most venerable preceptor, Bhante Ratanasāra (Ven Dr Havenpola Ratanasāra Nāyaka Mahāthero), also served as preceptor in offering bhikkhuni ordination to women from Theravāda traditions of Sri Lanka and Nepal, together with one young American sāmanerī (me), here in the United States. The Sri Lankan bhikkhunis were still in India at that time. The Bhikkhunī Sāsana had not yet been revived in Sri Lanka. I am ever so grateful for the truly courageous and groundbreaking example of Ven Bhikkhunī Kusumā, Ven Bhikkhunī Sudarshana, and all of the ten bhikkhunīs ordained at Deer Park, Sarnath, just a few months before, who offered the example and showed the way.

Through the entirety of my monastic life as a bhikkhuni, Ven Bhikkhuni Kusuma has been there, showing grace, clarity, and dedication to staying the course in light of the Buddha’s teachings. I first met her in Seoul, Korea in 1995, when i had newly received SāmanerÄ« ordination, and she was studying BhikkhunÄ« Vinaya in preparation for ordination. We met again nearly 10 years later in 2004, together with many more Sri Lanka bhikkhunis in the Theravāda, for the Sakyadhita Conference in Korea.

Twelve years later, i visited her in Sri Lanka in winter of 2016 at the Ayya Khema Centre which she’d founded, and from then on visited her every year in winter thereafter up till Covid. I told her she was a “torch-bearer”; when she heard some people call me “Ayya T,” she said my “T” should be for tārā – like “star-light” – tārā+ālokā (because “Tata” makes trucks, she told me with a smile). She most kindly and graciously led up the Blessing chanting for my thirty year anniversary in monastic life.

My last visit to Sri Lanka, I visited Ven Bhikkhuni Kusuma in an elder care facility down south, where she’d been admitted to hospice care. She was bright and energetic, and said they’d taken such good care of her, that she’d recovered completely. She was released to private care when pandemic struck. Recently, in the past three months, I’d been consulting with her regularly, through friends, about a book chapter i’ve been working on for a Routledge academic volume on Remarkable Women in South Asian Religious Traditions. My chapter is on “The Reemergence of Bhikkhuni Preceptors (PavattinÄ«-Upajjhāyā) in 20th-21st Century Theravāda Buddhism.” Ven BhikkhunÄ« Kusumā was one of the early Sri Lankan bhikkhunis focused on in my chapter.

Ven Bhikkhuni Kusumā served as bhikkhunÄ« upajjhāyā for the full ordination of our Ayya Dhammanandā from Vietnam, whom many of you know from her time with us; and as bhikkhunÄ« ordination ācārinÄ« (instructor) for both Ayya Sudhammā of Charlotte Buddhist Vihara and Ayya GunasārÄ« of Mahāpajapati Monastery, whom many of you will know as well. Also many more — including our friend Asha from Sacramento (now Ven BhikkhunÄ« Kotte Dhammadinna), and the great Italian scholar bhikkhunÄ« working with Ven Anālayo also named Ven -Italy- BhikkhunÄ« Dhammadinnā.

There’s much more that could be well shared, but may this be enough for now. This Pinkam YouTube channel contains recordings of her first Pamsakula Memorial from directly after she passed away (in English), mid-week remembrances from Sept 3 (in Sinhala), and her long 7th-day Memorial on Sept 5th (in English). All three of these memorials were offered by her disciple Ven BhikkhunÄ« Bodhicittā and her family members in Australia. Her Sakyadhita International Memorial is planned to be held at 7pm (Pacific/California time) this coming Saturday – info below. Warm welcome to all who wish to join.

With much mettā,
and enormous appreciation and gratitude for my whole life,
Ayya Tathālokā Bhikkhunī

the Buddha’s ‘Yādahavē’ verse is dedicated to her –

~
As phenomena grow clear to the sage, ardent, absorbed,
all their doubts vanish, when s/he discerns what has a cause.

As phenomena grow clear to the sage, ardent, absorbed,
all their doubts vanish, when s/he penetrates the end of conditions.
– the Buddha, Udana, Awakening, vv 1.1-3 (Yādahavē…Pathama-buddha-udāna)

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