A few Thai women are defying conservative Buddhist tradition to reinstate an ancient order
It is 5 am and a group of monks have gathered for their morning prayer at Songdhammakalyani monastery. Rhythmic chanting and the smell of incense fill the air as eight saffron robed, bald-headed figures prostrate themselves before a shrine of golden Buddhas. They could easily be mistaken for monks at any Thai temple – if it were not for the fact that they are women.
The unassuming monastery in Nakhon Pathom, an hour west of Bangkok, is the only temple in Thailand exclusively devoted to female monks, known as Bhikkhunis. In 2003, its abbess, the Venerable Dhammananda became the first Thai woman to ordain as a Bhikkhuni in Theravada Buddhism – defying tradition by travelling to Sri Lanka for the ceremony. Her decision sent shockwaves through the deeply conservative Thai Sangha Council, which explicitly banned the ordination of women in 1928.
“I was accused of being a lesbian, of exploiting the public by collecting wealth,” she recalls with amusement. “But I think people are getting used to the idea now.”
Dhammananda was inspired by her mother, Voramai, the first Thai woman to ordain as a monk in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and the founder of Songdhammakalyani temple. But it was not until her late 50s that the divorced grandmother-of-three decided to take her vows. The 69-year-old, born Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, has since ordained dozens of other Bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka and is spearheading efforts to formally revive the tradition in Thailand. Twice a year, women now come to the monastery for temporary ordinations – where they shave their heads and live as novice monks for nine days – a practice Dhammananda hopes will inspire laywomen to spiritually re-engage with Buddhism. It is particularly popular among former prisoners, who are looking for a fresh start in life, she says.
But it has been an uphill battle. The Sangha insists that the Bhikkhuni lineage cannot be revived, because new ordination ceremonies require at least five other Bhikkunis to complete – and this community of women vanished centuries ago. A Sri Lankan campaign to resuscitate the practice using female monks from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition has been treated with hostility by the Thai clergy.
“Our ordination came from the Buddha,” insists Dhammananda. “If you respect the Buddha you should try to revive what he established.”
According to the abbess, the challenges reflect decades of institutionalised patriarchy, rooted in the belief that being born female is a manifestation of bad karma and that women cannot attain enlightenment. Women are not even allowed to touch monks out of fear that it might pollute their sanctity. Traditionally, female monastics are confined to the life of the white-robed Mae Chees, or lay nuns, deemed so inferior that they are only permitted to serve food and clean for the men.
“People look down on Mae Chees, because they only serve the monks,” says Venerable Vanna, who was fully ordained in 2011, adding that becoming a Bhikkhuni injected her life with new meaning. She is among ten Bhikkhunis living at Songdhammakalyani monastery – backed by a regional network of women spanning Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Technically Bhikkhuni activities are legal in Thailand and the Sangha cannot prevent women from becoming ordained in Sri Lanka and donning the robe. But activists say the government must do more to promote gender equality and the right to freedom of religion – as stipulated by the constitution. “The state cannot treat its citizens, female and male, differently,” says Dr. Sutada Mekrungruengkul, from the National Institute of Development Administration, a vocal supporter of Dhammananda’s work.
One of the key challenges is amending the 1962 Sangha Act, which excludes women from a number of special privileges afforded to male monks, such as healthcare coverage and public funding for temples. This can have a devastating financial impact on female monastics, forcing them to rely on alternative, sometimes unexpected, sources of funding.
“I just had a major operation, costing 100,000 baht,” explains Dhammananda, a former professor at Thammasat University. “Because I am a retired government official, the government covered a third of it. But we were still short something like 70,000 baht, which is a lot of money for us, and who paid for it? You wouldn’t believe it. The day of the operation, the nurse came out and told me ‘All the expenses have been covered by the doctor herself’.”
Analysts say the Bhikkhuni controversy mirrors a broader culture of misogyny in Thailand, which persisted despite the election of the country’s first female Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra in 2011. “During her campaign, she claimed to care about women’s issues, but since coming into government the only thing she has done is create a women’s fund,” says Dr. Sutada. (Shinawatra was ousted as prime minister in early May.)
Thai women still hold only 16 percent of parliamentary seats and only four percent of political positions at the local level, while domestic violence is a rampant problem – affecting a staggering 33 percent of families. Activists say it is directly linked to patriarchal notions about karmic justice, which serves to perpetuate the practice of victim blaming.
“When my father became violent, my mother would say ‘This is my karma,’” says Ouyporn Khuankaew, Director of International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice, a grassroots organization that trains monks and nuns on gender and LGBT issues. “And when my sister was in an abusive relationship – a monk told her the same thing.”
Buddhist notions about karma have a particularly harmful effect on women, the disabled, and the LGBT community, warns Ouyporn, adding that even the most progressive monks are susceptible to these prejudices. Both Dhammananda and Phra Phaisan Wisalo, another prominent monk and Bhikkhuni rights activist, have denounced the morality of abortion, which is currently illegal in Thailand, forcing thousands of women to risk their lives by undergoing unsafe procedures each year. According to Ouyporn, there is a need for all Buddhist men and women to critically re-evaluate their understanding of karma in the context of gender, violence, abortion and sexuality – but she insists that reviving the Bhikkhuni tradition is an important first step.
“My sister left the village and wanted to become a prostitute, but if Thailand allowed female ordination she might be a monk,” says Ouyporn. “I believe it not only saves women, but it will save Buddhism from going down the drain.”
But Bhikkhuni activists are struggling to find political support for their campaign – even among human rights and feminist groups. “They don’t think that this is a human rights issue. Many Thai people feel that the monkhood is not for women – that’s pathetic too me,” says Dr. Sutada.
The movement enjoys backing from the human rights commission and a prominent senator, Paiboon Nititawan. But “even the human rights commission moves too slowly,” she says, adding that most politicians, including Paiboon, are now “too busy trying to overthrow the government to focus on this issue” – referring to Thailand’s growing political strife.
Ironically, the ordination of women has caused more of a stir than a string of high-profile scandals to rock the Thai monkhood. Last year, 33-year-old Wirapol Sukphol, nicknamed the jet-setting fugitive monk, shot to the headlines amid allegations of wide-scale corruption, promiscuity, and crimes ranging from statutory rape to manslaughter. Although he was promptly expelled from the Sangha, there remains little public scrutiny over the monkhood. Meanwhile, the Thai Sangha has stayed curiously tight-lipped over the rise of Buddhist extremism in neighboring Myanmar, where the hate preacher Wirathu is leading a vicious campaign against the country’s Muslim minority.
“Degeneration happens very easily and it is predicted by the Buddha himself,” says Dhammananda, who is planning to visit Rangoon in October to discuss the rights of women. “If we understand the teaching of the Buddha properly they should not send negative thoughts towards others, it doesn’t matter whether you are Buddhist, Muslim or Christian.”
Supporters of the Bhikkhuni tradition believe that women can help revive Theravada Buddhism, since they are likely to take their ordinations more seriously. Men are expected to ordain as monks at some point in their lives, whereas women often face familial and social ostracism.
“It is a big shock for the family when their daughter wants to be ordained, but if you are the son the family will be all excited,” says Vanna, a former financial reporter, explaining that it took a long time for her family and friends to come to terms with her transition.
But social attitudes are slowly beginning to change, with a growing number of senior monks at the provincial and regional levels expressing support for the Bhikkhuni cause. Even the monarchy – a conservative bastion of Thailand’s Buddhist tradition – appears to have noticed.
“I actually met the royal family twice and one time I received some kind of recognition – and it was the crown prince’s consort who gave the award. I told them, the organizers, that I will not be kowtowing her, because I am fully ordained,” says Dhammananda, smiling. “Twice I met the crown prince’s consort and in both cases we were standing as equals.”
Hanna Hindstrom is a Chiang-Mai based freelance journalist, who has reported from Southeast Asia since 2011.