Female monks fight for status in male-dominated sangha
Thai Buddhism’s first woman monk is leading the push for official recognition
Dhammananda, 72, Thailand’s first female Buddhist monk, radiates a youthfulness incongruous to her age. Dressed in a saffron robe, with her head shaved, she looks nearly identical to her counterparts in the male clergy.
But Thai Buddhism’s Sangha Supreme Council has since 1927 prohibited male monks from ordaining females, in a decision that has caused uproar among those who want to be ordained and their sympathisers.
For years, Thai women wishing to be ordained have sought their ordinations elsewhere, mainly in Sri Lanka, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Dhammananda herself was ordained in Sri Lanka in 2001.
However, Thailand’s Buddhist council considers those ordinations to be of a different sect – Mahayana – than Thailand’s Theravada tradition.
“What they [the council] have done is not right at all,” says Dhammananda, the abbot of all-female monastery Songdhammakalyani, located about 45 kilometres outside Bangkok.
Like Catholic female priest hopefuls, their Buddhist counterparts in Thailand are pushing for official recognition from their male-dominated religions.
Female Buddhist monks are similar to male monks in nearly every way, Dhammananda explains, but the females are not recognised under Thai law.
In a status-conscious society like Thailand, this means the female monks are not accorded the same respect. They are generally not invited to perform the rituals and rites that keep their male counterparts busy.
Women and Buddhism will be a major theme at the first Asean Buddhist Conference, which begins tomorrow in Nakhon Pathom, with more than 250 participants expected to attend.
A representative of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who has expressed support for Thailand’s female monk movement, will also join.
The all-male Sangha Supreme Council rejects the status of female monks not because the Buddha forbade it. In fact, the world’s first female monk, Maha Pajapati Gotami, was Buddha’s aunt and ordained by the Buddha himself.
Their argument against ordaining female monks is that the lineage was broken, leaving no legitimate female monks to ordain new ones.
“For most Thai monks, who are of the Theravada tradition, the lineage died out centuries ago, so it is not possible for more female monks to be ordained,” says Phra Paisal Visalo, a monk known for his human rights activism.
Official figures are not available, but there are believed to be close to 100 ordained female monks currently practising in Thailand. Also known as bhikkhunis, they are not to be confused with nuns in white robes, who are not ordained. Nuns are considered laywomen who cannot perform ceremonies and often are left doing chores monks will not do, such as cooking and cleaning.
Dhammananda explains why being ordained is crucial. She says it is much more difficult to attain enlightenment being a nun because they are preoccupied with these chores. As ordained monks, the path to enlightenment is less obstructed.
Thailand’s most senior female monk says she and her fellow female monks have received support from the local community, fellow bhikkunis abroad and even some Thai male monks, who teach them or join their religious activities.
“Thais are generally non-aggressive, so there has been no open hostility towards bhikkhunis. It is only institutional discrimination from the Sangha Council that we face,” she says.
One way the Sangha Council prevents female ordinations is through strict control of foreign monks’ entry into Thailand, including by rejecting Sri Lankan monks’ visa applications, Dhammananda explains.
Inside Thailand, there have been instances in which government officials have asked female monks to wear jackets over their robes while taking their ID photos, she adds.
“It is fear derived from ignorance that makes these people do what they do,” Dhammananda says.
Others say it is not a question of human rights or women’s rights.
“Religious matters and secular matters are separate,” says the secretariat of the Buddhism Protection Centre of Thailand.
“The Buddhist scripture must be obeyed. It is as simple as that.”
But some refute that notion.
“Buddhism knows no nationalism or gender. It is universal,” says prominent Buddhist scholar and social critic Sulak Sivaraksa.
“Thai monks are selfish and ignorant. They think they are superior to their peers in other countries when in fact they don’t know anything about them,” he says, adding that he sees nothing wrong with ordaining female monks in Sri Lanka.
As the struggle continues on both social and legal fronts, Dhammananda does not worry about the future of female monks.
“In Buddhism everything rises and falls. I have done my part pushing for bhikkhunis’ recognition in Thailand the best possible way I could. That in itself is the most rewarding for me.”