Thai women have not been ordained as monks for seven centuries – but one woman is trying to revive the tradition. Thai women were among the first women in Asia granted voting rights, in 1932. However, when it comes to religion, women in Thailand continue to struggle for equality and social acceptance.
Rhythmic chanting fills the air just before dawn at the Songdhammakalyani Monastery in Nakhon Pathom, a provincial city located about 56km outside of Bangkok in central Thailand.
Unlike the 33,903 Buddhist temples that house an estimated 250,000 monks in Thailand, the Songdhammakalyani Monastery is the first temple built for women by women. The abbess, Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, is the country’s first fully ordained nun or Bhikkhuni in a Theravada monastic lineage.
The temple’s roots stretch back nearly five decades when Venerable Dhammananda’s mother, Venerable Voramai or Ta Tao Fa Tzu, became the first fully ordained Thai woman in the Mahayana lineage in Taiwan and turned their family home into a monastery.
“When my mother became interested in Buddhism she realised that in the Buddha’s time the Buddha gave ordination to women. Why were women never ordained in our country?” Venerable Dhammananda tells IPS.
“It was actually the Buddha who gave the ordination to his own stepmother and aunt and the whole story is in the Dhamma for you to read.”
Women account for an estimated 51 percent of Thailand’s population of nearly 68 million, according to a 2012 World Bank report.
Compared to neighbouring countries, women have made great strides in education and on the socio-economic front. However, women still earn 74 percent less than their male colleagues and hold a minority of high-level positions in business and politics. And when it comes to religion, women remain absent.
“A lot of the gender inequalities regarding salary and lack of female representation among the top-ranking members of our parliament are due to deeply ingrained cultural stereotypes of women,” Yad Prapar, associate professor of economics at Ramkhamhaeng University, told IPS.
“In Thai culture, they view the buffalo as a stupid animal that is hard-working. And they used to believe that woman was a buffalo while man was human. This is why women’s status in Thai Buddhism is far inferior to men because they are considered of less value.”
Under the current Thai constitution the ordination of women is permitted. But the Thai Sangha Council, a government-linked religious advisory group, maintains that only men can enter the monkhood, citing the 1928 Sangha Act that forbids Thai monks from ordaining women.
Women’s rights activists and religious scholars argue that legally recognising bhikkhunis (female monks) not only upholds the ‘Four Pillars of Buddhism’ but also provides a monastic community where women from all walks of life can practice among women.
“Women feel safer staying in a temple that is mainly run by women,” says Dr. Sutada Mekrungruengkul, a lecturer at Nation University. “If I had a daughter I would feel more comfortable sending her, during the summer months when there’s no school, to be part of a bhikkhuni sangha where she could be a youth monk for about ten days or one month without harassment.
“Also, with bhikkhunis I can discuss issues pertaining to my personal life or the Dhamma privately. Whereas with a male monk, people could accuse me of having an interest in him because he’s handsome or claim that I want something more than guidance. This is how women strengthen Buddhism.”
The Songdhammakalyani Monastery’s regular 12-week Dhamma courses and three-day retreats in Buddhist education fill a major gap left by male-dominated sangha communities with a curriculum that is geared towards a feminist approach to interpreting Buddhist texts.
“Despite being a Buddhist all my life, I didn’t understand the Dhamma of the Buddha,” 53-year-old Venerable Dhammasiri, who received ordination four years ago in Sri Lanka, tells IPS. “I didn’t practice from my heart because I was never told the meaning of the chants, or the reasons we bow or abstain from certain foods. I was merely a Buddhist by birth certificate.
“In Thailand, the monks only teach from their point of view. I feel more empowered after becoming a bhikkhuni because I’ve not only learned self-control but my eyes have been opened to the historical role women played in Buddhism, like the thirteen female arahants, the history of the bhikkhuni sangha and the respected status we held during the Buddha’s time.”
Currently there are over 30 bhikkhunis and an unknown number of samaneris or female novices living in monasteries throughout Thailand.
To support the bhikkhunis’ movement of establishing a thriving and legally recognised female sangha in Thailand, a coalition of civil society members, scholars and legislators have put forth several proposals to amend Thai laws. Their hope is that in five to ten years the government and the religious clergy will restore the rightful heritage granted to women by the Buddha.
“Women have always contributed to Buddhism because it is actually women who feed the monks. Go to any temple in Thailand, and 80 percent of the attendants are women, so they are actually the foundation to keep Buddhism going in this country,” adds Dhammananda.
“We are laying the groundwork for more women to pursue the ordained life, so that future generations don’t have to fight so hard.”