Why you should care
Because female monks.
Sitting in the lotus position in a quiet meditation room, surrounded by young women wearing saffron robes, 71-year-old Chatsumarn Kabilsingh doesn’t look like much of a rabble-rouser. But according to Thai authorities, she is a dangerous dissident.
In Thailand, women are banned from becoming Buddhist nuns, and the venerable Dhammananda — that’s Kabilsingh’s Buddhist name — has disregarded that particular law. She is not only the first Thai woman to get ordained in the country’s majority Theravada tradition, but she is also the abbess of Thailand’s first temple for bhikkhunis (female monks).
Dhammananda is trying to bring back a tradition that disappeared centuries ago. According to historians, female devotees did exist in the time of Buddha, who actually included nuns when he talked about the four groups of followers, along with monks, laymen and laywomen. But the tradition died in Southeast Asia in the 14th century. And in 1928, a secular law was passed by the state banning Thai monks from ordaining women. For Phra Tepvisutthikawee, secretary general of the Buddhism Protection Center of Thailand, the whole discussion is pointless. “It is not a question about [it being] fair or unfair,” he says. “It is just not permitted under the Dhamma Vinaya” — the monastic rules determined by the interpretation of the Pāli Canon, the standard collection of scriptures in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition— “to ordain women.” The Dalai Lama has said on multiple occasions that he believes women should have access to full ordination but he does not, however, have the authority to institute bhikṣuṇī ordination in the entire Buddhist community.
Interestingly, Thai Buddhists’ habit of excluding women makes them an anomaly in a country where women are more represented than men in science, education and business. But here, where 95 percent of the population is Buddhist, religion bleeds into politics. It’s the state religion, reminds B Scherer, professor of Comparative Religion, Gender and Sexuality at Canterbury Christ Church University, and those who violate religious principles can even be banned from entering the country.
Her mother — another bhikkhuni — once rode a bike all the way from Bangkok to Singapore just to wow her male pupils.
Traditionally, young Thai Buddhist men join a temple as novices, although few choose to stay longer and interest seems to be fading. There are currently about 300,000 monks in Thailand, and about 22,000 temples — but 6,000 of them are uninhabited. Tabloids have reported countless cases of monastic misbehavior, from smoking and drinking to gambling and stealing. Dhammananda argues women are the answer. “Maybe they could give us some of those,” she says.
Dhammananda was 40 when she donned her saffron robes. Before that, she spent decades working as an academic on a liberal arts faculty in which 80 percent of the staff were women. She married, raised three sons and became an eminent student of Theravada Buddhism, even hosting her own TV show about Buddhist practices that aired in the mid ’80s.
Even earlier, there was her mother — another bhikkhuni (though not in the Theravada tradition) and a teacher who once rode a bike all the way from Bangkok to Singapore just to wow her male pupils. And it was her father, a frequently jailed opposition politician, who inspired Dhammananda. “I never realized how brave they were until I grew up,” she says.
Now her university lectures are replaced by classes at the Songdhammakalyani temple on the outskirts of Bangkok. The 60 nuns, none of whom are recognized by the country’s Theravada order but practicing their spirituality anyway, wake up at 5.30 in the morning to meditate. After cleaning the monastery, they go out and collect alms from neighbors, as is traditional for monks. Despite the laws forbidding their existence, Dhammananda says the community is very supportive — they get so many offerings that Dhammananda says she now uses buckets instead of bowls.
Dhammanda’s influence is spreading the world over. “Her work has really helped bhikkhunis in the U.S., some of whom go get training in Asia,” says Ayya Tathaaloka, an American-born Theravada nun who created the first Theravadan women monastics’ retreat in California.
Of course, Dhammananda and her kin face an uphill battle. Their bhikkhuni ordinations take place in Sri Lanka, where it is legally allowed. But after the ordination there is little training — which otherwise would consist of extended readings, daily meditation practice, service and continued mentoring by a teacher. Without that, the nuns can lack discipline, worries Dhammananda. The lack of “senior” bhikkhunis is also a problem, since most have been ordained for less than a decade and can’t therefore teach or ordain others yet. For now, the only one with 12 years’ ordination in the whole of Thailand is Dhammananda, who fears there won’t be enough leadership once she’s no longer around to do ordinations herself.
The female nuns depend on foreign help — the Songdhammakalyani temple gets support from Buddhists in Switzerland and other countries. But bhikkhunis won’t flourish without the support of male monks, says Tathaaloka. Such support can jeopardize monks’ futures: British monk Ajahn Brahm, was officially expelled from the Forest tradition — Dhammananda’s lineage — and forbidden from entering Thailand after his monastery in Australia started giving full ordination to bhikkhunis. Scherer believes religious change won’t come without political reform first.
Still, Dhammananda’s influence has spread to other countries. In Vietnam, eight women have been ordained in the Theravada tradition. And seven have taken the robes in Indonesia since it started ordaining female nuns in 2000. This year, Dhammananda is planning to ordain a dozen more bhikkhunis and organize an international conference. “Buddhism cannot do without women,” she says. “We are on the right side of history.”