Interview with Ven. Bhikkhuni Kusuma

Q & A with Sara Dassanayake
May 3, 2010

Q: When & why did you decide to become a Buddhist nun?
A: I was ordained in 1996, but I never wanted to become a Buddhist nun. Most of the nuns in Sri Lanka are not ordained. They have little or no access to education; they are not recognized by the state, monks, or the majority of the people. When I found out that they even had a fewer rules to follow, I knew I was not interested. But at the back of my mind, I thought that if I were to become a Bikkuni, [an ordained Buddhist nun] then that would be alright. However, at that time, the word Bikkuni hadn't even been heard in Sri Lanka because Bikkuni ordination died down 10 centuries ago. After my research, I found that there was originally no such thing as 10 precept nuns and the only reason the concept came into practice was because none of the nuns were ordained.

Q: I understand that Bikkuni's have extra rules in comparison to Bikkus…Why is that?
A: These rules were created by the Buddha himself according to the books. What happened was that the monks were ordained five years prior to the nuns. However, Buddha added the extra rules during the time Bikkunis were beginning to become ordained. Bikkus have 227 rules while Bikkunis have 311.

Q: As a former scientist, how has your knowledge of science impacted your understanding of Buddhism?
A: Honestly, I don't think I knew enough science or enough Buddhism to answer that question at the time. But by and large, I always wondered, even as a child, why are we born? Where did humans come from? And so on. That's why I decided to go into the field of molecular biology. I was in fact in the science stream at Anandaa College ( Ananda College,Colombo was a boys and girls mixed school at that time ) and I wanted to go into medicine, but I was rejected because they gave preference to boys. So I taught science for 12 years at Maharagama and only then did I get a scholarship to study molecular biology in America. But when I spoke to my professors, they didn't know anything about the beginning of life. I was then no longer interested in studying science any longer, and I was already homesick for my children and husband. Then I came home and told my husband that I don't want to study science and that I wanted to study Buddhism to get answers for my questions. Then I studied like mad. I sat for the first degree and got two A's in Buddhism and English and a B in Pali. So then they admitted me to the staff in the late 70's at Sri Jayewardenepura University to teach English. I was there for 20 years, but while teaching I was doing my post graduate degree in Buddhism.

Q: How then, do you feel about the relationship between science and religion today?
A: Well I think Buddhism and science often have a better relationship than science than any religion, specifically those that believe in a creator. The reality is, the universe is tremendous, the earth is but a spec. Humans are only microscopic. Scientists talk of this cyclic order in nature and the tremendous energy in this world. Scientists understand mostly physical energy, but Buddha mostly understood the mental energy, which is connected to the concept of rebirth and consciousness. Both Buddhism and science recognize many of the same truths.

Q: So you believe that Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion?
A: Oh yes! Buddhism is a philosophy in the sense that it mentions some obvious truths about life and living. It discusses the human mind, the human body, our environment and how we relate to it.

Q: But what about Mahayana Buddhism? Doesn't it involve some different practices that are more religious in nature?
A: Yes and no. The more ritualistic parts of Mahayana are often more related to the countries it is practiced in.

Q: What is the main difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism?
A: The major difference in Theravada Buddhism, we believe that once you become an Arahanth, the cycle of rebirth ends, but in Mahayana Buddhism, you have to become a Buddha to end the cycle. Then there is Thanthrayana which began in Tibet. It is an even later philosophy than Mahayana. Theravada, however, is the closest to original Buddhism in India.

Q: So what do you think about the ritualistic side of Buddhism? Do you think it is completely necessary?
A: Well, all the scholars believe that it isn't. Many believe that you don't need to worship the Buddha or have confidence in him. For a scholar it's a matter of understanding the philosophy. Originally, I thought the same way. However, when I began my meditation, I found that this idea was totally wrong. When you have a certain amount of rituals-not an excess- you begin to have true confidence in the Buddha's teachings, so you have less doubt and you aren't so skeptical. Often, scholars are just skeptics.

Q: But isn't Buddhism based on asking questions? So wouldn't skepticism be considered a good thing?
A: You don't have to be a skeptic to ask questions. A skeptic is only trying to test you, using his or her intellect to argue. If you truly want to know the Dhamma, then that is fine. With most skeptics, their minds are like filled cups, you cannot pour any new ideas into their minds.

Q: You mentioned meditation earlier. How do you think meditation will benefit average people in their day to day lives?
A: Meditation is an exercise of the mind. How to purify the mind, how to become alert and mindful, how to think right thoughts… When your thinking is right, then your actions and speech are right. Meditation also heightens memory powers; it conserves energy because you don't think rubbish. You become more focused. In meditation, you can just focus on the present. Most people live in either the past or the future. Meditation basically trains the mind to stop thinking of nonsense. Meditation is firsthand knowledge. Reading books is good, but then, you are only reading what somebody else has said. It's like solving a theorem: there is a difference when the teacher does it, and when the student does it themselves, and has confidence that he or she is right.

Q: How can people of the modern world apply Buddhism practically?
A: Unless modern people are doing some kind of meditation, you cannot apply it, because your mind is not trained to see things in the Buddhist way. I knew professors at the university who knew every chapter of every Buddhist book, but they were no better than everybody else because they did not meditate. In meditation you have time to think about your actions.

Q: But don't you think that just following five precepts make you a more decent human being than not doing so?
A: Following five precepts is hard. With all of these temptations, keeping five precepts is much more difficult than it used to be. In the past, the "world" used to be a village where everyone knew each other. Now, if you have a mobile phone, you can have a totally separate life! Sexual misbehavior is nothing, it is easy to tell lies, nobody finds out, right? And people drink and drink! So in a society like this, following five precepts is a great thing, because people are drawn to dangerous things. In the past, the most beautiful girl carrying a precious gem could walk from the south to the north and nobody would touch her!

Q: How is the support for the Buddhist nuns in Sri Lanka?
A: There is support from nearby villages, when people bring them food and take care of them. The problem is majority of people do not accept bhikkunis and monks as equal.

Q: What are the privileges that the monks have?
A: Well, the state "religion" of Sri Lanka is Buddhism, so there is a Buddhist ministry in the government, but Bhikkhunis do not enjoy the same recognition or legal status as monks do. Another reason why nuns have such little support is that most of them aren't educated as much as the monks. Nuns don't have the same teachers and opportunities as the monks do. I have done my best to try and educate them, but it is not enough.

Thank you very much for this interview and your time.