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Thailand's Buddhist nuns fight for equality

Female monastics gain support despite disapproval from patriarchal institution

A procession of <i>bhikkhuni</i> makes its way to a hall at the Nirotharam monastery for the ordination of eight <i>maechi</i>, or ordinary nuns, to the next spiritual level. (Photo by Denis Gray)

TALAD MAI, Thailand To Thailand's top Buddhist authority, the barefoot, ocher-robed women are defiant rebels. But in this northern village, and elsewhere across the country, the faithful bow reverently and offer armfuls of food to these fully ordained female monastics as they proceed on their early morning alms round.

Although far fewer than the approximately 200,000 male monks, the bhikkhuni are gaining strength both in numbers and public support, despite the official rejection. They are also becoming agents for reform of a religious establishment plagued by corruption and lurid scandals, and run by an ossified body of aged men who forbid elevation of women from ordinary nuns to a status equivalent to that of monks, or bhikkhu.

Three fully ordained female monastics receive food and offer blessings to a donor while on a morning alms round in the northern village of Talad Mai. (Photo by Denis Gray)

"I respect these women more than the monks. They behave more properly," said Nipon Buntheung, a village storekeeper as he placed fruit and biscuits into the alms bowls of three bhikkhuni, who then chanted a prayer for him.

The more than 100 bhikkhunis, along with larger numbers of aspirants, are believed to have spread out across 20 provinces, leading spartan, praiseworthy lives. Those fully ordained must follow 311 precepts (monks adhere to 227), ranging from celibacy and poverty to archaic ones like having to confess after eating garlic.

Sulak Sivaraksa, a prominent Buddhist scholar, even foresees that if these women -- who include holders of doctorates, former business executives and factory workers -- remain above reproach, they will one day lead the monkhood by example.

The positive public attitude toward them is relatively recent. When Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, an author and former university professor, took the Buddhist name of Dhammananda Bhikkhuni and became Thailand's first bhikkhuni in 2003, many regarded her as a "crazy woman," some branding her a lesbian soliciting donations for her own benefit.

MENIAL SERVANTS By long tradition monks have dominated the religion, while the white-cloaked nuns, or maechi, were relegated to the lowest rung of the Buddhist hierarchy, often no better than menial monastery servants and with no path open to higher spiritual status. Thailand's Supreme Sangha Council, the religion's ruling body, persistently argued that since the lineage of the bhikkhuni order, under which women could be invested, died out long ago, this break made such an elevation impossible.

Bhikkhuni Sucinata speaks to nuns about to be elevated to the next higher status of <i>samaneri</i> during a ceremony at Nirotharam temple in northern Thailand. (Photo by Denis Gray)

The council has tried to stem what is clearly a growing movement. A 1962 Sangha act excluded female monastics from healthcare coverage, public funding for monasteries and other benefits enjoyed by monks. Late last year, nearly 100 female clergy were humiliated when barred from entry to Bangkok's Grand Palace, where they sought to pay respects before the body of King Bhumipol Adulyadej.

Officials told Dhammananda, who led one of the groups, that it was "illegal" for women to wear the ocher robes. Following a public outcry, the same officials recently invited them to the palace.

Given the domestic opposition, Thai women aspiring to become bhikkhunis must travel to Sri Lanka, the only Theravada Buddhist country that permits ordinations. Like Thailand, other nations where the Theravada branch dominates -- Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos -- also forbid them. Ordination of women is allowed and widely practiced in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China, where the other major branch of Buddhism, Mahayana, has been rooted.

Dhammananda and others, including many progressive monks, argue that 2,500 years ago Buddha himself ordained the first bhikkhunis, including his own adoptive mother. "If you respect the Buddha, you should try to revive what he established," she said, adding that the Buddha's core teachings are "genderless."

Proponents of ordination see some positive signs. Supreme Patriarch Somdet Phra Ariyavongsagatayan, appointed earlier this year, is regarded as more liberal than his predecessor. Public pressure is mounting for his Sangha Council to reform, and there are moves afoot by the Thai government to impose controls on the virtual free hand now allowed Buddhist authorities. The ongoing progress in Thailand toward gender equality may also play a part.

MISBEHAVING MONKS "There are many questions posed by the public that the Sangha has to answer. They cannot just sit quietly and hope issues like female ordination will fade away. It is not possible," Phramaha Boonchuay Doojai, a leading activist monk at Chiang Mai Buddhist College, told the Nikkei Asian Review. If the Sangha continues to oppose the bhikkhuni, he said, popular opinion will turn even more against the body. It is already under fire for failing to stop the siphoning off of monastery funds, serious crimes by monks, and gross materialism -- like owning fleets of luxury cars -- among some abbots.

But Boonchuay is careful to temper his optimism, noting that it is difficult for the few progressive members of the 21-seat governing council to inject new thinking. "I hope for change in my lifetime, but I am not so sure," he said.

Dhammananda is upbeat. "Change is taking place in favor of female ordination, not only in Thailand but elsewhere in the world," she said. "Whatever the resistance from the establishment, more women will choose to pursue a spiritual path as female monastics. Nothing can stop it."

The movement, she added, has been strengthened by the establishment of the Network of Asian Theravada Bhikkhunis, and her Songdhammakalyani monastery, in the central town of Nakhon Pathom, has emerged as an international center for the training of female Buddhist clergy.

Another major hub is the Nirotharam monastery in northern Thailand, set below Doi Inthanon, the country's highest mountain. Once home to just five nuns struggling on bone-dry land, the still-expanding monastery hosts impressive meditation halls, lecture rooms and dormitories cooled by lush groves of trees. The monastery and a branch temple house about 60 female monastics.

It was recently the setting for the elevation of eight maechi to the next of four stages, that of samaneri, en route to full bhikkhuni ordination. In a ceremony to which all visitors were warmly welcomed, the heads of the eight women were shaved before they knelt in front of their parents to ask forgiveness for any wrongdoings they had committed and then exchanged their white robes for those of ocher.

"All this is training toward a full transformation to a bhikkhuni, to becoming like a full-fledged bird," said Sikamana Manita, 34, a graduate of the University of London, explaining why some women strive for this highest stage. "Following the 311 precepts is the only way to wash away the memory of one's life as a lay person. It is a transformative experience. For me, it is the only path."

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