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The emergence of the Bhikkhuni Sangha (monkhood for women) in Thailand

If one takes a close look at Thai
society today, it could be argued that it is primarily the women who
run daily affairs. In a country where females outnumber males, the
gender dynamics of the nation have dramatically shifted over the last
few decades to where women fulfill many of the major roles in
society. The majority of university enrollments are women, the
breadwinners in many families are women, many corporate executives
and civil servants are women, the majority of new entrepreneurial
start-ups are undertaken by women, and even many farmers are women.

Dr. Siriwan Ratanakarn from Bangkok
University in a paper on the women’s role in Thai society discusses
the important contributions made by such women as Nang Suang, Sikhara
Maha-Devi, Nang Nopamas, Queen Suriyothai, Queen Saovabhaphongsri,
and Queen Sirikit. She states that these women have helped to shape
Thai culture, customs, and traditions either as regents themselves or
as direct advisors to their kings. She also points out how, during
the Sukhothai period, women were portrayed as equal partners to men.
Through literature, we can note that women’s status became much lower
through the Ayutthaya period, where they were portrayed as obedient
wives and daughters. Siriwan believes that women in Thailand have
come a long way since then.

However, even with general acceptance
about the emerging importance of the matriarchal role of women in
society today, there is still one last bastion forbidden to women.
This is the domain of the Buddhist monkhood, something that has been
strictly taboo for women in Thailand for the last seven centuries.

Although women were given the right to
vote back in 1932, they were never given the right to be ordained as
a monk. There is nothing in the Thai constitution forbidding women
becoming monks. However the Sangha council which governs the monkhood
continues to maintain that only men can enter the monkhood. This is
based upon the Sangha Act 1928, which to all intents and purposes is
still upheld as being valid.

The Theravada Bhikkhuni order was never
“officially” established in Thailand, although it exists in
both Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The absence of Bhikkhuni in Thailand over
the last century has led to the perception among many Thais that
women are not meant to play a monastic role in life other than being
a lay follower, or becoming a Mae Ji, or nun. Although a Mae
Ji
is higher than a lay person, this place within the monastic
hierarchy tends to be seen as subservient to monks. In addition,
monks receive free public transport, reserved seats in public places,
and government identity cards, which Mae Ji, just aren’t
entitled to.

This restricts women in the monastic
hierarchy to only participating in activities of obtaining merit
through collective rituals, and undertaking the housekeeping
activities within a temple. Basically they are there to serve the
monks.

A common perception by many within Thai
society about nuns, is that while they are robed in white, they are
most probably present in the temple because they have no other place
to go, suffer from a broken relationship, have a psychotic disorder,
or have very little education.

Consequently robed nuns tend to be
looked down upon, with the general belief in some quarters that women
are of less value than their male counterparts in monastic life.

To some women, the role of Mae Ji
or nun makes them feel very restricted, preventing them from doing
more. This is according to Dhammakamala Bhikkhuni, the deputy abbess
of the Thippayasathandhamma Bhikkhuni Arama Centre, in Kohyor,
Songkhla.

To many women who became a Bhikkuni,
the feeling of materialism, relationships, and career, began to lose
the importance it once had for them. They develop a feeling of
emptiness in life, which needs to be quenched through some form of
change. However being only a Mae Ji or nun is not enough. They
want to do more through the personal freedom a Bhikkhuni potentially
has to contribute to the community and dhamma, in their own way,
different from their male counterparts.

A small number of women who have become
Mae ji, aspire for full ordination in Thailand, even though
’officially’ they would become a social outcast, in risk of civil
prosecution of impersonating a monk.

The pioneer who led the way for women
to be ordained as monks was the professor, controversial author, and
TV host Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, now known as Dhammananda Bhikkhuni.
She is now the abbess of Wat Songhammakalyani in Nakkon Pathom, just
North of Bangkok. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni slipped away to Sri Lanka
back in 2001 to return an ordained monk, being a very controversial
move at the time. Since her ordination, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni has
built up the monastery, established by her mother Voramai Kabilsingh
who was ordained under the Mahayana tradition in Taiwan in 1971,
where more than 100 Bhikkuni have passed through the gates and
scattered around a number of provinces. There is also a substantial
sramaneri or novice nuns who are training for public
ordination at the monastery.

Wat Songhammakalyan has differentiated
itself from male dominated monasteries in Thailand, in that the
Bhikkuni have developed a strong rapport with the communities around
them, and an exemplary empathy and ability to address the needs of
the local residents. The bhikkuni directly engage the community, not
just helping in their spiritual needs, but rendering assistance in
many other ways, especially to the needy, sick, and infirmed. The
Bhikkhuni were there giving assistance when floods hit their
community a couple of years ago.

According to Dhammakamala Bhikkhuni,
wherever and whenever people come into contact with the Bhikkuni,
they very quickly become accepting and are generally happy to see
them. Many of the male Sangha now also accept the Bhikkhuni and in
some parts of Thailand it is now not unusual to see male and female
monks jointly participating in prayers and other rituals.

Over a number of visits the author has
made to Bhikkhuni temples, some stark differences can be seen in
comparison to conventional temples. The Bhikkhuni seem to share a
much stronger sense of community, than their more individualistic
male counterparts. There also seems to be a strong sense of mission
about what they are doing. Although the dhamma espoused is along the
similar modernist themes as Sulak Sivaraksa, Thich Nhat Hahn, and
Buddhadasa Bikkhu, the Bhikkhuni’s method of practice and
dissemination is very different. There is a warmth, empathy, and “a
sense of personalization”
in their approach to counseling
and teaching of dhamma.

The Bhikkhuni have a nurturing approach
based upon their various personal experiences before they were
ordained, which has given many of them the ability to frame dhamma
teachings in a practical way, which can be easily understood by
people. The Bhikkhuni have managed to take scripture and turn it into
something pragmatic that can be understood and used as “everyday
dhamma”
, or socially engaged Buddhism.

Photo: Wikimediacommons | Female Monks in Thailand 

According to Dhammakamala Bhikkhuni,
the most important contribution the Bhikkhuni are making is their
open approach to issues concerning women that are very difficult for
males to discuss with females. This is very important as around 90%
of people visiting temples for dhamma instruction are now females.
The Bhikkhuni see gender as an essential bridge to women.

The Bhikkhuni are heavily involved in
family counseling, assisting in solving everyday problems that are
facing people in society today, particularly in regards to child and
family issues. They are enabling dhamma to be used as a means to live
by for the benefit of the individual, family, and community. Many
supporting the case of the Bhikkhuni in Thailand believe that it is
this group who are maintaining contemporary relevance of dhamma to
everyday life. In this way the Bhikkhuni are performing a major role
in maintaining Buddhism as a useable guide to everyday life.

With many of the Bhikkhuni coming from
professional and higher education backgrounds, many modern pedagogy
and teaching methods have been adopted to help disseminate dhamma
teachings to the young within communities and schools around their
temples.

The Bhikkhuni appear to be realists and
have not relied upon donations to survive. They are not totally
dependent on outside food donations and grow some of their own food.
They even engage in enterprise and sell their surpluses.
Practicality, self reliance, and a collective action orientation are
signatures that the Bhikkhuni display to the rest of society in the
manner of their dealings with outsiders. This manifests itself in an
’aura’ of strong will and motivation, that is inspiring to
many of those who come into contact with them.

There have been a number of scandals
involving male monks of late, creating a small crisis in public
trust. In addition, a large part of the Sangha is focused on doctrine
and tradition, rather than the needs of their followers. Some would
argue that if things don’t change the Sangha may only be able to play
a more limited role in society in the future, perhaps just restricted
to performing the rites and rituals on formal occasions.

The Bhikkhuni approach to dhamma, may
be able to rebuild trust and maintain the relevance of Buddhism to
society.

What appears to be one of the important
aspirations for sramaneri women who want to be fully ordained
as a monk, is to be ordained in Thailand in front of their peers,
rather than run away to another country to be ordained, and then
returning to proclaim themselves a Bhikkhuni. This is now possible
where a member of the Sri Lanka Sangha travels to Thailand for the
ordination and a number of Thai Bhikkhu or male monks are willing to
make up the necessary quorum of five Bhikkhu being present at the
ordination. They feel it is symbolically important that ordinations
are carried out in Thailand.

The Bhikkhuni struggle highlights
gender discrimination in Thailand. As a ’farang’ or ’westerner’, it
would be too tempting to interpret what Dhammakamala Bhikkhuni told
me during our interview as an expression of feminism. However, their
aspirations probably more likely have something to do with their
feeling of the need to serve society in the way they believe is the
best. The author genuinely believes that the Bhikkhuni’s commitment
to the cause of developing a strong Bhikkhuni Sangha in Thailand has
more to do with their personal commitment to love and compassion
towards the community around them, their love of the dhamma, and
humility, rather than the expression of any political or social
statement.

There is no anger present among the
Bhikkhuni, as is in the ’western feminist stereotype’. Rather they
seem to employ empathy and compassion as their driving energy. The
Bhikkhuni seem to see their devotion to their cause as the important
thing, and ’official recognition’ is not their highest priority.
Dhammakamala Bhikkhuni probably best sums their feelings up when she
said “we don’t ask for what can’t be done right now”.

The ordination of Bhikkhuni has not
been a major issue of discussion for over a decade. However with the
regular ordination of women occurring in the near future, a planned
ordination is scheduled for November 29th 2014, it is likely that the
issue will be debated once again. The biggest barrier to the
ordination of women may lie in that it is a total affront to ’what
is’
, and consequently seen as a threat to the establishment,
which has existed under the same structure for over a century.
Consequently conservatism rules to maintain the status quo
rather than consider ’what could be’.

Institutionally, the only consolidation
is that the current small number of Bhikkhuni are generally left
alone and have not been prosecuted.

However Buddhism in Thailand according
to some, needs some revitalization and effort made to regain the
confidence of the people after some of the scandals of late. The
whole question of getting the dhamma across to a rapidly changing
society needs a rethink. This requires some reconsideration about the
entry of women to the Sangha or monkhood.

If Thailand is going to retain its
leadership in the development and dissemination of dhamma, then it
needs to appeal to all segments of the populace. These are challenges
facing the Sangha Council which must address the institution of
Bhikkhuni to maintain its relevance to society and prevent itself
from becoming an institutional relic.

Unrecognized and unacknowledged women
monks are at the forefront in dealing with Thailand’s social
problems, if even on the small scale, while many of their male
counterparts have withdrawn themselves from society to stay within
the temples of Thailand.

Ironically this issue appears to be as
hard to solve as the ongoing political turmoil playing out on the
streets in Bangkok. However the Bhikkhuni have a secret weapon with
their charm and devotion that is winning the hearts and minds of many
who come into contact with them.

The emergence of the Bhikkhuni
phenomenon is a strong wind of change blowing across both the social
and spiritual aspects of Thai society. Society may not be able to
resist this idea, as its time may have come.

Thailand is changing quicker than many
would want to acknowledge.  

Murray Hunter is associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, and  consultant to Asian governments on community development.

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