Sickness, healing, and religious vocation: Alternative choices at a Theravada Buddhist nunnery 
by Nirmala S. Salgado
Vol. 36 No. 3 Summer.1997
Copyright by Ethnology
This essay examines alternative religious vocations and choices of cures
that are open to women in the Sri Lankan Buddhist context. The focus of the
investigation is a Theravada Buddhist hermitage that was studied over an
eleven-year period. The article presents case histories of nuns who are
representative of the individuals living at the hermitage, and demonstrates
how the illnesses they suffer concurrently with their ecstatic trances
(interpreted as spirit possession) receive meaning and can be cured within
the framework of Buddhist asceticism in Sri Lanka. (Sri Lanka, gender,
possession, nuns, ecstasy, asceticism, Theravada Buddhism, sickness,
The phenomenon of ecstasy and possession (i.e., states in which the
individual demonstrates an apparent displacement of everyday consciousness
and behavioral patterns) is one that is well known and researched in many
cultures, both within South Asia (Kakar 1982; McDaniel 1989; Obeyesekere
1981) and outside it (Boddy 1989; Lewis 1971; Bell 1987). The
interpretation of this phenomenon is varied. In the Vaisnava Hindu context,
ecstasy can be perceived as "the overflowing" of God, and is nurtured and
celebrated (McDaniel 1989:29-85). However, in the Sri Lankan religious
context, where the ecstatic experience occurs among Hindus, Sinhala
Buddhist priests and priestesses, and Buddhist nuns, the interpretation of
ecstasy is not uniformly positive. In fact, some scholars insist that it
has little relevance to the understanding of Buddhist institutions (Spiro
1967:279-80; Wirz 1954:236). Yet others suggest that these beliefs form an
integral part of Buddhist practice (Tambiah 1970:337-40; Seneviratne and
Wickremeratne 1980:734-36). Ecstatic possession appears to be negative
because it is perceived as being useless or even detrimental to the goal of
nibbana (liberation from the cycle of rebirth) in Theravada Buddhism.
More specifically, states of ecstasy involve an apparent loss of physical
and mental control, and are perceived as qualitatively different from
states cultivated through quiet meditation for the purpose of realizing
nibbana. Monks' denigration of ecstatic possession bears witness to this
(Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1988:83; Ames 1964:40-41). Second, the occurrence
of possession often leads to ceremonies of exorcism that are injurious to
animals and contradict Buddhist norms (Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1988:142).
Third, some Buddhist ascetics maintain that possession is always caused by
malevolent spirits rather than by gods (Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1988:333).
Although the incidence of ecstatic possession has been on the rise in the
past ten to fifteen years in Sri Lanka (Obeyesekere 1978:473-74; Gombrich
and Obeyesekere 1988:67-96), to date there have been no investigations
centering on its occurrence among ordained individuals in Theravada
Buddhism. This is not surprising since it is unlikely that members of the
fully ordained monastic community or Sangha participated openly in such
practices because of restrictions deriving from their monastic rules. Given
the high degree of religious syncretism within Sri Lanka and the divergent
interpretations of possession there, the study of a Buddhist nunnery where
ecstatic possession occurs offers an excellent opportunity to understand
how it is interpreted within a distinctively Buddhist frame of reference.
The nuns who are the focus of this essay follow the Buddhist ten precepts,
shave their heads, wear the saffron robe, and live in a community of
renunciants. While all lay Buddhists would claim to follow the five basic
precepts (i.e., refraining from killing, stealing, lying, taking
intoxicants, and engaging in sexual misconduct), some might observe eight
precepts for a day or two. The eight precepts, whose observances are more
demanding that the five precepts, are understood to include the first four
of the five precepts as well as refraining from: 5) all sexual activity, 6)
eating after noon, 7) engaging in sensual pleasures by attending shows and
adorning one's self, and 8) using luxurious furniture. The ten precepts
indicate a further stage of asceticism. They include all eight precepts and
the abstention from handling gold and silver. The seventh of the eight
precepts translates into two different precepts in the ten precepts.
The nuns have a ten-precept and lay ordination and are in a technical sense
not fully ordained. Though ascetic, they are not subject to the monastic
code of discipline that fully ordained bhikkhus (monks) and bhikkhunis
(fully ordained nuns) are expected to follow. Yet, living in communities of
renunciants, they also are not considered to be entirely lay. These women
seem to entertain two apparently opposing belief systems (Gombrich and
Obeyesekere 1988:27-28). Some of the women appear to suffer from
psychosomatic illnesses. Their decisions to act as they do revolve around
religious vocation and represent specific preferences within a locally
defined context of sickness and healing. Admittedly, it is difficult to
generalize about the attitudes toward ecstatic possession in the Buddhist
ascetic context from a study of a single nunnery. Nonetheless, my
acquaintance with twenty nuns at this hermitage and my investigations of
changes at the nunnery over an eleven-year period suggest some striking
patterns. The conclusions drawn from this study indicate that
interpretations of ecstatic possession can take place within a Theravada
Buddhist community of ascetics and provide new insights into contemporary
religion in Sri Lanka.
After discussing the relationship of status ambiguity to the construction
of gender in contemporary Buddhism and its implications for female
ascetics, this article examines two groups of nuns associated with the
Delgahawatte hermitage and demonstrates how members of each group subscribe
to differing interpretations of ascetic Buddhism. Finally, I argue that the
ambiguous status of the nuns allows them to tolerate to some extent the
spirit cults within ascetic Buddhism.
STATUS AMBIGUITY AND GENDER IN THERAVADA BUDDHISM
Buddhist nuns share more characteristics with the forest monks than they do
with the village monks. The village monks generally enjoy a high status,
are usually associated with well-endowed temples, and are closely involved
with lay people on a daily basis (Southwold 1983:26-28; Bond 1988:99-100).
However, there is a distinction between the status of the socially active
village monk and that of the retiring forest monk. The forest monk, who may
follow an unusually strict asceticism (Yalman 1962; Carrithers 1979), shuns
society and dwells in solitude, renouncing the social, economic, and
educational benefits that the village monk usually enjoys. Obeyesekere
(1981:45) explains the significance of this difference on a symbolic level,
indicating that for the village monk, the shaven head is not a personal
symbol that is expressive of choices made because of deep motivation. The
institution of the Sangha is such that "the monk has no choice: all monks
must shave their head." However, the forest monk is different in that "his
withdrawal from the world is a response to deep personal travail"
(Obeyesekere 1981:41) rather than to the economic and other benefits that
can motivate the village monk.
Although there are Theravada Buddhist women who have received the full
ordination as bhikkhunis (Bartholomeusz 1994:186-89), full ordination for
women in the Theravada tradition is still not generally sanctioned in Sri
Lanka. Thus female Buddhist ascetics remain excluded from the Sangha. The
ambiguous status of the nuns is recognized and reaffirmed at an
institutional level where, unlike the fully ordained clergy, they do not
enjoy certain state and other benefits (Devendra 1988:262-66). Like the
forest monk, a nun has made a conscious decision to renounce not only
family but also many social ties. The village monk, though renouncing
family, remains tied to the village (Carrithers 1979; Yalman 1962:31718). A
nun, like a forest monk, decides to renounce the world despite the
hardships she may encounter in her religious vocation. A woman who shaves
her head and wears saffron robes does not do so because of institutional
benefits that accrue from the status of nun. On the symbolic level she,
like the forest monk, follows a vocation through deep motivation and
personal choice. From the religious point of view, the nuns have an
ambiguous status because they are neither entirely lay nor fully monastic.
Additionally, they have committed themselves to celibacy and a vocation
that runs counter to their traditional role as wives and mothers.
Quite apart from sharing in the ambivalent status as Buddhist religieuses,
the nuns assume the ambiguous position associated with Sri Lankan women in
general. Kapferer (1991:147-48) argues that among the Sinhalese, women by
their very nature are seen as "weak points in structure," and are "at the
nexus of the culture/nature relation," a relation that is central to the
articulation of order and disorder in Sinhalese culture. Kapferer
(1991:144-47) demonstrates this by showing how women are mediators in the
nature/culture relationship, since in their various roles as socializers of
children and preparers of food, they convert the natural into the cultural.
Although many of the younger women who become nuns in their twenties or
earlier may not have children, the older women are often mothers. Moreover,
whether or not they are biological mothers and despite their renunciation
of lay life, on becoming nuns they do not abandon their role as nurturers
as they become dasa sil matas (ten-precept mothers) and continue to be
preparers of food. Unlike the fully ordained monks (who are considered
neither nurturers nor preparers of food), these women continue to play a
maternal role. Keyes (1984:227-30) indicates how the status of motherhood
appears to play a significant part in defining gender (whether or not women
are literally mothers of children) in other Buddhist communities.
Nuns include previously married and unmarried women from urban and rural
areas. They have seldom graduated from high school and usually come from
devout Buddhist families where a close male relative is a monk. They have
chosen to reject conventional societal roles or have been rejected by
others who represent social norms, or have found themselves in both
situations. In a culture where women are expected to fulfill their primary
duties as wives and mothers, there is little tolerance for those who desire
an alternative path conflicting with their traditional roles. Men might
become ordained and join the Sangha, become a kapurala (priest) and serve
at the shrine of a Hindu/Buddhist deity, or engage in exorcisms as an
exorcist (kattadiya or adura), but these roles are closed to women
(Kapferer 1991:140; Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1988:21).
In Sri Lanka, a woman who wishes to be an ascetic has only two options; she
might serve at a god's shrine as a (Hindu) priestess or become a (Buddhist)
ten-precept-holder. Even though she might be legitimated as a priestess,
she does not, unlike the male priest, generally assume a position at a
temple shrine. Rather, she establishes her own shrine at home or elsewhere
(Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1988:37-38). The priestess and the Buddhist nun
attempt to develop two apparently opposing types of mental cultivation. In
the former, the religieuse engages in ecstatic states involving a loss of
bodily and mental control which is considered unseemly in Theravada
Buddhism, while in the latter, she attempts to cultivate total control of
body and mind. The nuns at the hermitage interpret both practices within a
Theravada Buddhist framework.
THE DELGAHAWATTE HERMITAGE
The head nun at the Delgahawatte hermitage, Sumana Maniyo, is known for her
powers in diagnosing the supernatural causes of illness and curing those
who come to her. Most important, she usually succeeds where other medical
practitioners and religious specialists have failed. Her authority to act
as she does has never, to my knowledge, been questioned either by those who
live at the hermitage or by her lay supporters. Her spiritual powers are in
fact acknowledged by several Buddhist monks, thus confirming her
authenticity in the eyes of Buddhists who know of her.
This hermitage, like many Buddhist nunneries in Sri Lanka, is one in which
only a small group of nuns lives permanently. Several nuns may live here
temporarily for a period of many months or years before returning to their
nunneries of origin or moving elsewhere. In recent years there have been
disparities in the numbers of the nuns here, as well as changes in their
propensities for becoming possessed. They were possessed frequently in 1984
but less so in 1985, although 1985 saw the most ordinations of nuns at this
hermitage. More than a third of a total of thirteen women ordained by
Sumana Maniyo herself were ordained in that year. The early and mid-1980s
was a time when many possessed women (a few of them lay) sought refuge at
Delgahawatte, but by 1994 there were no occurrences of possession among the
Significantly, as will be seen, the hermitage has opened its doors to a
wide spectrum of religious practitioners (some of whom become ordained)
with differing perspectives on normative religion. Thus a Buddhist who
frowns on any type of possession is as welcome here as a sick individual
who becomes possessed on a regular basis. The apparently opposing poles of
enstasy and ecstasy, of tranquillity and control of mind and body
brought about through meditation as well as their antithesis in states of
possession, are both tolerated within the life of this hermitage, largely
because of the status ambiguity shared by the nuns. This can be
demonstrated by presenting interview data of five nuns who typify two
different types or levels of Buddhist experience, both of which are present
at this hermitage.
Ascetic Buddhist Nuns: Gutta Maniyo and Mallika Maniyo
The Buddhist nuns whose asceticism is accepted by most Theravada Buddhists
follow the precepts, meditate, and do not become possessed. Their outlook
and practice provide an important counterpoint to those of the less
conventional nuns who experience possession.
Gutta Maniyo. Gutta Maniyo was 82 in 1985, when she first entered
Delgahawatte. Coming from a practicing Buddhist family and with close kin
who are monks, she observed the eight precepts with her parents on poya
(holy full moon) days. When Gutta was in her early sixties a terrifying
experience changed her life. A fifteen-year-old girl from her neighborhood
was killed by a train and the insides of her mutilated body were exposed.
This incident shocked Gutta, led her to become a vegetarian, and made her
ponder the meaning of the human condition in the nature of samsaric
suffering (sasara duka). The first impulses for an ascetic life had clearly
arisen in her.
Although Gutta had been in the habit of observing the eight precepts on
poya days since her childhood, she did not do this on a permanent basis
until a year after her husband's death in 1972. This marked a further stage
in her asceticism. Gutta had considered becoming a nun before her husband
died but had refrained from doing so in order to fulfill her duties as a
wife and mother. She explained that she became ordained in order to shorten
the suffering of samsara. After her husband's death she informed her
children of her plans to be ordained. While two of them objected, her
daughter suggested the compromise that she live in a separate hut in the
backyard while observing the ten precepts close to home. Gutta refused,
realizing that living near the family would interrupt her religious
She was eventually ordained (at age 64) in the ten precepts, five years
after the death of her husband. In 1981, she requested land from the
government and was given one and one-half acres on which to build a
hermitage. Gutta Maniyo denied ever having undergone ecstatic experiences.
In fact, she said possession was undesirable for it bore witness to pavu
(sin/karmically negative action) done in a previous life. After a bad fall
in 1989, Gutta Maniyo left Delgahawatte and went to reside in a hut near
family members, but visits Delgahawatte periodically.
Mallika Maniyo. Mallika Maniyo was 62 in 1985. She also came from a devout
Buddhist background and had observed the eight precepts regularly on poya
days. Better educated than most nuns, she was trained in health care and
started a career as a public health officer before she married at age 24.
She practiced her profession for several years, but shortly after the birth
of her second child she expressed a desire to be ordained as a nun. Her
husband responded by threatening to drown their two infant children. In
order to placate him she delayed her ordination and continued her
activities as a public health officer, housewife, and mother. When she was
54 Mallika began to observe the ten precepts on a regular basis, a sign of
her increasing inclination toward Buddhist asceticism. By this time, her
children were independent and she had left her full-time work as a public
health officer but began part-time teaching at a Buddhist Sunday school.
Satisfied that she had fulfilled her duties as a wife and a mother, she
then determined to become a nun.
Mallika's husband and children fiercely resisted her attempts to become
ordained or even to associate with nuns. One night her husband had a
terrifying dream in which he saw a furious elephant chasing him and
destroying everything in its path. He took this as an omen and agreed to
sign a statement allowing his wife to become a nun. (In the case of married
women, nunneries generally require such permission from the spouse as a
matter of religious protocol.) Mallika eventually succeeded in leaving home
to go to Delgahawatte. Her departure from home was clandestine because of
her family's resistance. After spending some time with Sumana Maniyo she
was ordained by her. Mallika Maniyo's family members were placated when
they visited her and realized that all her needs were met at the hermitage.
Mallika Maniyo left Delgahawatte in 1990 to live at an arama (hermitage)
nearer her hometown, where she is involved in a variety of social service
activities. She visits Delgahawatte about once a year. She has never been
The stories of Mallika and Gutta follow a fairly typical pattern for many
nuns in Sri Lanka hermitages. Both nuns belonged to pious Buddhist families
that observed the eight precepts on poya days and both gradually became
Buddhist ascetics. Like most prospective Buddhist nuns in Sri Lanka, they
faced resistance from their family members and felt unable to join a
community of nuns before their familial duties were fulfilled. Gutta did
not join the nuns until after her husband's demise. Mallika became a nun
only after a dream prompted her husband to comply with her request to be
Although these nuns did not experience spirit attacks and fits of
possession, they both felt welcome at the Delgahawatte hermitage, where
such events were commonplace. Delgahawatte has been criticized by lay
Buddhists for the possession trances and communications with gods and
spirits that occur there. According to some, these practices are not
Buddhist. Gutta Maniyo and Mallika Maniyo, however, represent nuns whose
religiosity is generally acceptable to the lay public and the community of
monks. A total of seven women at Delgahawatte, including Gutta Maniyo and
Mallika Maniyo, never experienced possession. The contribution of these
women to the Buddhist world remains a fairly conventional one (with
activities such as the observance of the ten precepts and teaching at a
Sunday school). They themselves consider spirit possession undesirable or
at best amusing.
While Delgahawatte welcomes women like Gutta and Mallika, it also provides
a place of healing for those who cannot function normally in society. More
typically representative of women at Delgahawatte, these individuals have
all manifested symptoms that have been diagnosed and treated, often
successfully, by Sumana Maniyo. It is perhaps significant that the sick
individuals who seek a cure at this hermitage are, unlike Gutta and
Mallika, often much younger than the nuns who have not been victims of
Ecstatic Buddhist Nuns
Sundari Maniyo. Sundari Maniyo became acquainted with Sumana Maniyo during
her own mother's illness. Her mother suffered psychosomatic symptoms which
are culturally interpreted as harassment by a nati (deceased relative
reborn as a ghost). The symptoms included severe stomach cramps, loss of
consciousness, refusal to eat, and undressing and burning clothes in
public. The family sought the services of a variety of medical and
religious specialists and held tovil (exorcism) ceremonies in an attempt to
cure her but they were unable to do so. They eventually brought her to
Sumana Maniyo, who diagnosed the woman's illness as being caused by her own
deceased mother (Sundari's grandmother). After a few months at
Delgahawatte, where Sumana Maniyo treated her with herbs, pirit (protection
or blessings), and gathas (prayers), she began to recover and was able to
resume her work in the home. Her illness had lasted for about eight years.
Some months later, the family sponsored and participated in an almsgiving
in Delgahawatte. When it was time to leave, Sundari insisted on remaining
behind at the hermitage and her family had to leave without her. Sundari
began to suffer severe chest pains at Delgahawatte. During the next several
months, her family kept returning to Delgahawatte in an attempt to take her
home but she resisted them, insisting on being ordained there. Eventually
Sumana Maniyo persuaded her to leave, suggesting that she first obtain
parental permission for ordination. After Sundari returned home she had a
dream in which she was given instructions that would enable her to become a
nun. (Sumana Maniyo later explained to her that it was her maternal
grandmother who sent her this message.) She was told that if she fasted for
seven days, taking only tambili (king coconut water) for sustenance, she
would achieve what she wanted; i.e., her ordination as a
ten-precept-holder. She followed this advice and began to fast, much to the
consternation of her family members.
On the fifth day of Sundari's fast, Sumana Maniyo visited her, trying
unsuccessfully to feed her. Sumana Maniyo was informed by the gods that
Sundari had to be taken back to Delgahawatte lest she die. On the sixth day
of her fast she returned to Delgahawatte and began a slow recovery. Upon
regaining her health, her family attempted to take her home, but she was
insistent on remaining and becoming a nun. Defying her parents, she began
cutting her hair by the Bodhi tree (the same species of tree under which
the Buddha himself was enlightened). Her parents, desperate to prevent her
from donning a nun's robes, appealed to the police. However, the police
were sympathetic to Sundari and persuaded her parents to consent to her
ordination. They acquiesced and Sundari was officially ordained by Sumana
Maniyo in 1982.
Sundari later learned that her mother, while ill, had secretly made a vow
to "give a daughter to the religion" (i.e., allow a daughter to be ordained
in the ten precepts) if she were to recover, but when she recovered, she
reneged on her vow. Today, Sundari Maniyo continues to live at the
hermitage. She has fully recovered and has ceased to be possessed. Her
story demonstrates how sickness and possession, first of her mother and
then herself, led her to Sumana Maniyo and subsequently to residence in
Delgahawatte and ordination. This is similar to what happened to several
other young women such as Cetana and Dhamma.
Cetana Maniyo. Cetana was ordained by Sumana Maniyo in 1984, when she was
28. Cetana's marriage to Sundari Maniyo's brother had been an arranged one
and shortly after the marriage she became a mother. Her attempts to become
a nun are reminiscent of Sundari's in that she suffered an apparently
incurable sickness and also faced familial resistance in attempting to
fulfill her desires. Cetana, like Sundari, resisted marriage. Forced to
acquiesce to an arranged marriage when she was nineteen, she contemplated
becoming a nun a few years later, when her son was still an infant. This
was about the time of her initial contact with Sumana Maniyo, when the
latter paid visits to tend to Sundari's sick mother (Cetana's
Cetana first showed symptoms of illness in the course of a pirit ceremony
held on behalf of her mother-in-law. When she became paralyzed in her right
foot and fainted, Sumana Maniyo succeeded in reviving her. However, she
began to suffer other symptoms such as chest pains, difficulty in
breathing, and frequent blackouts. Her symptoms continued for several
months but hospital test results suggested that she was physically normal.
Eventually she was brought to Delgahawatte and Sumana Maniyo performed
pirit ceremonies and Bodhi pujas (ceremonies of offering to the Tree of
Enlightenment) for her. Through her meditations, Sumana Maniyo was informed
by the gods that Cetana would not lead a fulfilling life as a lay person
and that she should become a Buddhist nun. Although Cetana had begun to
recover while at Delgahawatte, she experienced the same symptoms when she
returned home. After her parents performed a Bodhi puja on her behalf which
was ineffective, they employed the aid of a kattadiya, but Cetana objected
to the presence of the kattadiya at her parental home and refused to follow
his instructions. She was angry that the kattadiya persisted in staying at
the house and that her parents refused to allow her to become a nun. Having
started to meditate daily, she then began fasting and refused to bathe or
change her clothes. When her husband visited and implored her to consider
their child's needs, she suggested that he find another wife who would do
so. Finally, Cetana agreed to participate in a Bodhi puja conducted by the
kattadiya. At that puja she requested that the Bodhi tree give her the
power to become a nun. Still her symptoms persisted. She then persuaded her
reluctant husband to let her go to Delgahawatte. There, Sumana Maniyo
performed a puja on her behalf, after which she returned to her own home.
After this visit the symptoms of Cetana's illness abated and she began to
wear exclusively white clothing, a symbol of her renunciation. She
refused to have sexual relations with her husband and would become
hysterical whenever she saw him and her child. Her husband began to drink
heavily and one night he beat her. After a dramatic family conflict in
which her husband threatened suicide, Cetana returned to her parental home.
Cetana then filed for divorce, thinking that this would enable her to be
ordained. Sumana Maniyo, however, insisted that she first get the
permission of her husband and her parents-in-law before she receive the
ordination. The divorce case continued to be disputed in court for about
four months, until her husband became convinced of her determination to be
ordained. Shortly after a mutual settlement out of court was reached,
Cetana was ordained. She continued to become possessed for about a year,
during which Sumana Maniyo performed various Buddhist rituals of blessing
for her. Now she is free of all symptoms of her previous sickness and has
ceased to experience ecstatic states of possession.
Dhamma Maniyo. When Dhamma first fell ill in 1973, she contemplated
becoming a Buddhist nun, an intention that she was to keep from her parents
for several years. Symptomatic of her illness were her unusual attitudes to
food and drink. Sometimes she would eat enormous quantities of food and at
other times she would abstain from food and drink altogether for several
days. She would object to the presence of visitors who were known to eat
meat and drink alcohol and she would deliver short sermons on the Dhamma
(teachings of the Buddha) to people. Dhamma's parents employed a variety of
religious specialists to cure her. They organized yantra/mantra and tovil
ceremonies (rituals of exorcism), and pujas and pirit ceremonies on her
behalf. She resisted all rituals in which she was expected to participate
except for the obviously Buddhist ones, such as the pujas and the pirit
ceremonies. She also claimed that her illness would not be cured unless she
were allowed to wear white on a regular basis. Dhamma began to wear white,
thus openly declaring her ascetic inclinations.
Dhamma's parents were convinced that she was under the disti (control) of a
yaka (demon) and hoped she would be able to respond positively to a tovil.
Despite her protests, they held yet another exorcism. When the time came
for blood to be drawn from a chicken (to attract and appease the demon),
she expressed anger at the unnecessary injury to an animal (in keeping with
Buddhist notions of nonviolence). In protest she arose and drew blood from
the exorcist in the same manner as he had from the chicken. That was the
last tovil ceremony her parents held for her.
The ceremony did not cure her and she often became pensive when alone, a
symptom identified in Sri Lanka with "the illness of being alone" (tanikam
dosa). A monk known for his abilities to help the sick gave her books on
Buddhism and attempted to prevent her from brooding. She continued engaging
in Buddhist activities (wearing white, observing the eight precepts, making
offerings to the Bodhi tree, etc.) and expressed her desire for ordination
to the Buddhist monk, but he did not encourage her. She eventually took a
course in meditation with other women, five of whom were subsequently
ordained. Dhamma then expressed her own intention to be ordained to her
parents, who did not counter her intentions. She was ordained after
spending a year observing the eight precepts, and later visited
Delgahawatte with the intention of meditating there. Within three months of
her stay at Delgahawatte, Dhamma Maniyo began speaking in a state of
ecstasy. Sumana Maniyo, on talking to her in this state, claimed that she
was affected by a spirit and began to attempt to eradicate it by performing
Buddhist ceremonies to appease it. After a few years under the head nun's
tutelage, symptoms of Dhamma Maniyo's illness disappeared and she stopped
entering into ecstatic states. She left the Delgahawatte nunnery in 1992 in
order to pursue her studies of the Dhamma at one of the educational centers
for nuns that had recently been established by the state.
The nuns of the second group are similar to those of the first in their
gradual progress toward adopting a distinctly Buddhist form of asceticism
(wearing white, observing the eight precepts, etc.), and in facing
resistance from family members in their quest for ordination. However, the
ecstatic nuns of the second group are a generation younger than those
discussed earlier and better typify the women attracted to this nunnery. In
1984, individuals at Delgahawatte became possessed almost daily, but there
were fewer cases of possession among them in the following year. By 1994
several of those who had suffered severely from unusual illnesses and had
been cured had left, and by then none of the nuns living at Delgahawatte
fell into ecstatic states.
The similarities in the stories of the ecstatic nuns in the second group
are significant because of the way they attest to specifically Buddhist
rather than other types of asceticism. They all experienced an illness that
was considered incurable by medical practitioners and other religious
specialists. Of particular interest is the distinctively Buddhist
interpretation that these nuns provided as they sought relief from their
symptoms, since, as patients, they did have other options (Amarasingham
1980). In addition to seeking recourse in a variety of medical healers,
they might have chosen to go to a kattadiya or a kapurala (priest at a
Hindu shrine), as the parents of Dhamma and Cetana thought fit. The latter
specialists are not perceived as mainstream Buddhist practitioners. The
first group of ascetic nuns are either indifferent to or deprecate spirit
possession. The ecstatic nuns, succumbing to states of possession, embrace
more conventional Buddhist practices. Thus they are taught that spirit
possession needs to be eliminated if they are to recover, a recovery that
is assured if they participate in Buddhist rituals and also become
ordained. This is congruent with the wishes of the sick women, who either
were or wished to become Buddhist nuns. Sundari expressed this quite
dramatically when she cut her hair in the presence of her parents, who then
appealed to the police. Cetana Maniyo, while sick, objected to the presence
of a kattadiya, and reprimanded people for acting against Buddhist practice
by eating meat and imbibing alcohol. She objected to the performance of
exorcisms that are tangentially Buddhist but agreed to participate in more
obviously Buddhist ceremonies on her behalf. Her appeal to the power of the
sacred tree to enable her to become a nun was a clear indication of her
faith. Dhamma Maniyo reacted similarly to what she considered elements of a
questionably Buddhist character. She aggressively resisted tovil ceremonies
and was angered by the ritual wounding of a chicken. At the same time, she
was happy to have a pirit ceremony performed and found refuge in a Buddhist
monk, read books on Buddhism, and began to practice Buddhist meditation
The ecstatic nuns, like the female, god-centered, Hindu-oriented ascetics
discussed elsewhere (Obeyesekere 1981), sought to follow the paths of
religieuses in defiance of their familial roles as wives and mothers. They
also experienced states of possession. These Buddhist nuns, who have chosen
to follow a distinctly Buddhist asceticism, have however opted for a
different vocation from that of some of the Sri Lankan women, who often
avoid associating with rituals and ritual specialists that are obviously
Buddhist (Obeyesekere 1977:354-57, 1981:27-32). They choose to keep their
hair rather than shave it (Obeyesekere 1981:95). Whereas their hair is a
primary symbol of Hindu asceticism, the Buddhist nuns consider the shaven
head to be their central symbol. The Hindu ascetics actively seek states of
ecstasy and consider this to be, like their hair, a gift from the gods.
Ecstatic possession is desirable for the Hindu ascetics, and it becomes
proof of eligibility as a Hindu priestess (Obeyesekere 1981). In the Hindu
context, the failure of an exorcism in ridding the individual of a
possession is even characteristic of divinity (McDaniel 1989:8-9). In the
Buddhist context, the failure of an exorcism (as in the cases of Cetana and
Dhamma) is a confirmation of the futility of the ceremony, especially when
viewed in the light of subsequent successful Buddhist rituals. For the
Buddhist ascetics possession, though undesirable, is tolerated and is often
indicative of the necessity to become ordained for the purpose of
eradicating rather than of encouraging it. The elimination of these
ecstatic states is encouraged through active participation in Buddhist
rituals and meditation to develop enstasis rather than ecstasis. Hence
Sundari's symptoms were identified as troubles caused by a nati who sought
the fulfillment of a promise, and it was the gods who advised the head nun
that Cetana must be ordained on pain of death. Similarly, Dhamma Maniyo's
affliction remained unknown until she unexpectedly became possessed and the
head nun discovered it through her own meditative powers that allow her
communication with the gods.
The authority and charisma of the head nun are central to the formulation
of a distinctly Buddhist interpretation of the asceticism extolled by these
women and give meaning to their inner experiences. First, Sumana Maniyo
explains that the nati (and in some cases, other malevolent spirits) will
not leave the possessed individuals unless the nuns engage in activities
that produce merit (pin). This merit can be transferred to the suffering
spirits to ensure that their suffering is alleviated. While daily Buddhist
rituals are considered meritorious, an ordination is especially so. Second,
Sumana Maniyo maintains that states of possession and ecstasy preclude the
cultivation of Buddhist meditation and enstasy. Thus, she makes sense of
the apparently incurable malady afflicting the sick, recommends a cure, and
places the phenomenon of possession within a Buddhist frame of reference.
Sumana Maniyo continues to heal the sick who come to her for help and who
are now predominantly lay people. Recently (in 1994) she explained how a
young man who had been possessed during a ritual held at Delgahawatte was
under undesirable influences. Discussing his symptoms, she said that a
possessed person is similar to an insane person (pissek). Neither engages
in activities knowingly, consciously, or wisely (Nuvanen, sihiyen,
buddhiyen karana deyak neveyi). Moreover, she insisted that trembling and
shaking happen only when malevolent spirits influence a person. According
to Sumana Maniyo, communication with the gods is through quiet
concentration and meditation and does not make one shake. She asserts that
the cultivation of awareness of body and mind through meditation is of
primary importance. She herself claims to be capable of communicating with
the gods by meditation rather than through ecstasy and possession. Unlike
Hindu interpretations of ecstasy (McDaniel 1989), findings at this
distinctively Buddhist hermitage demonstrate that possession is not
perceived as divine.
While the nunnery provides a place of healing for the sick and the
possessed, it simultaneously accepts a more conventional form of Buddhism
(i.e., one which tries to eradicate these states of ecstasy and possession)
with the intention of encouraging meditative states (enstasis) that lead to
a better rebirth and subsequently to the Buddhist goal of nibbana. The
changes over the past decade in the activities and the composition of the
hermitage are reflective of the nuns' routinization and contextualization
within Theravada Buddhism. The female ascetics, unlike Hindus and Sinhala
priestesses who associate themselves primarily with a divinity, are not
encouraged to entertain ecstatic states that can be associated either with
possession by a spirit or communication with a deity. From the standpoint
of a Buddhist soteriology their ecstatic states are rather considered
undesirable. The varying interpretations of ecstatic states provided by
different types of asceticism, together with the presence of individuals
experiencing undesirable states of possession (from the Buddhist
perspective), attest to how this particular hermitage plays a pivotal role
in transforming the possessed (and therefore undesirable) individuals into
good Buddhist ascetics. Due largely to the ambiguous status of Buddhist
nuns, they are (unlike Buddhist monks, who follow a different and stricter
code of discipline) in a position to accept and contextualize ecstatic
states of possession within a Theravada Buddhist framework of meaning. They
do this with the guidance of their mentor, the head nun.
That Sri Lankan women "are more generally associated with ecstatic
possession by the demonic than they are with ascetic monastic practice"
(Nissan 1984:41) implies that ecstasy and Buddhist asceticism are mutually
exclusive. This is not borne out by the activities at Delgahawatte. Here,
ascetics perform ritual practices that are obviously Buddhist while
engaging in ecstatic states. Sumana Maniyo, while providing a place of
healing and wholeness for the sick, simultaneously attempts to incorporate
individuals into a more widely accepted Buddhist soteriological frame of
reference. Her ambiguous status as a Buddhist nun allows her to welcome and
reintegrate the afflicted within a Theravada Buddhist framework, and is
reaffirmed by her very acceptance of the afflicted. The junior nuns,
because of their ambiguous status, tolerate the interpretation of ecstasy
within an ascetic community that is also Theravada Buddhist.
Although this essay has focused on religiosity as the criterion that guides
personal decisions at Delgahawatte, it is possible to argue that the choice
of a particular healer and process of healing is equally important. Indeed,
in this nunnery where religious ideas and motivations are often worked out
in a context of sickness and healing, it is difficult to distinguish
between refuge in religious vocation, healing specialist, and healing
process. Here sickness, healing, and ecstasy are cultural constructs
without which definitions of health and normative behavior have little
1. The initial fieldwork for this study was conducted when I was a research
officer at the International Center for Ethnic Studies, Colombo. I am
indebted to Ananda Kulasuriya and Indira Salgado for their help while in
Sri Lanka. I thank George Bond, Robert Launay, and Martie Reineke for their
insightful comments on drafts of this essay. I am also grateful to the
anonymous reviewers and editors of Ethnology for their useful suggestions
and to Paul Westman for his encouragement and assistance.
Initial field work took place in 1984 and 1985 and further research was
conducted in 1993 and 1994. Names of places and persons have been changed.
Women who have not yet received the ten-precept ordination are referred to
by a first name (e.g., Sundari); after the ordination the title Maniyo
(mother) is added (e.g., Sundari Maniyo).
2. I use Eliade's (1969:338-39) interpretation of these terms.
3. White is a color of lay renunciation often associated with
eight-precept-holders and at one time with ten-precept-holders (Bloss
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