On February 28, 2003, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, formerly known as Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, became the first Thai woman to receive full ordination as a Theravadin nun. Kristin Barendsen reports on Dhammananda’s steadfast commitment to paving the way for other Thai women practitioners.
Just before dawn, bright spots of saffron and orange move slowly down the dim streets and low tones of chanting linger in the cool air. Thailand’s estimated 300,000 monastics are out on morning rounds, cradling their alms bowls. Of these monastics, only three are women. One is the Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, who has just become a bhikkhuni despite living in a country where such ordination of women is forbidden.
Tall for a Thai woman and a youthful fifty-eight, Dhammananda wears the saffron robes with grace. A dozen women walk behind her; they are mae chees—Thailand’s white-robed renunciates who are considered neither lay nor monastic. On the quiet street a line of laypeople and children are waiting. They carefully place their gifts of food in Dhammananda’s black metal bowl, then kneel on the ground and prostrate three times. Dhammananda chants a verse in Pali, smiles and asks a child if she will be on time for her English lesson later that day. The girl looks up, giggles, and bows.
Two years ago, Dhammananda gave up her worldly life as Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, an accomplished Buddhist scholar, author and university lecturer. Because Thailand’s laws and Buddhist clergy forbid women to ordain as samaneris (novices) or bhikkhunis, Chatsumarn sought novice ordination in nearby Sri Lanka in March, 2001. Recently, she returned to Sri Lanka to receive full ordination, becoming Thailand’s first Theravadin bhikkhuni.
“I know I am walking my path and that I’m being watched very carefully from above,” she says. “I know I’m well protected. Even if I may be speaking alone, one against 62,000,000, that’s fine with me. That’s what dharma does to you-dharma protects you.” And other Thai women are attempting to follow in her footsteps.
Dhammananda’s novice ordination two years ago sparked a strong public debate, bringing protests by the Thai clergy and ridicule from the conservative press. “In the beginning, some monks put up posters against it,” she remembers. “A couple of senior monks gave negative interviews to the press.” A mainstream newspaper and television station derided Dhammananda and her supporters. She received hate mail and e-mail messages that she calls “devilish.”
But opinions seem to be gradually changing. “The monks who were speaking openly against it last year now are becoming more neutral,” she says. “A couple are outspokenly positive. They say, ‘Just keep on doing good work, be patient and perseverant.'” The Bangkok Post has strongly supported her cause, calling her novice ordination “momentous in the development of Buddhism in Thailand.” This year a Thai senator conducted a study on whether women’s ordination would damage Thai Buddhism, and submitted her recommendation to the senate that women’s ordination be allowed.
In this predominantly Theravada Buddhist country, monks are so highly respected that even the king bows to them and assumes an physically inferior posture in their presence. Laypeople improve their karma by giving monks alms and donations to build new temples. Each family hopes to gain respect and merit by sending one son to the monastery, and nearly all Thai men spend at least a few weeks or months wearing the saffron robes. For some, it’s a way to get a good education; for others, it’s a way to devote their lives to the dharma.
Women attracted to the renunciate life, however, face a different set of circumstances. Women can become mae chees, who shave their heads, wear white and take only eight vows (monks take 227), but they are not allowed the full 311-vow ordination of a bhikkhuni.
Because mae chees are not considered monastics or laypeople, their status is in limbo. Usually they work as temple hands, cooking and cleaning for the monks, and they rarely receive any education. They don’t go on alms rounds since they are not a merit-making vehicle for laypeople. As the respected Thai monk scholar Phra Dhammapitaka told the Bangkok Post: “Socially, [mae chees] are not seen as the equals of monks….They’re generally thought of as heartbroken women seeking refuge, or as down-and-outs with nowhere to go.” There are 10,000 to 20,000 mae chees in Thailand, in contrast to 300,000 monks. Of the 32,000 temples in Thailand, fewer than a handful are dedicated to women.
One of these temples for women is Wat Songdhamma Kalayani, some thirty-four miles southwest of Bangkok, where Dhammananda is acting abbess. It was Dhammananda’s mother, Voramai Kabilsingh, who built the temple forty years ago. Voramai received bhikkhuni ordination in the Mahayana tradition in 1971 in Taiwan. She was the first Thai bhikkhuni, and her daughter has now become the first Thai Theravada bhikkhuni.
When Dhammananda’s mother Voramai was ordained, the Thai clergy voiced both protest and support, but there was no active resistance. An accomplished jujitsu practitioner and sword fighter, the Venerable Voramai bought a field of rice paddies near the city of Nakorn Pathom from the consort of King Rama VI in 1960. She had the land converted into usable temple grounds, and built a vihara that serves as both meditation and dining hall. Locals believed she had clairvoyant and healing abilities, and they flocked to her Sunday dharma talks in hopes of seeing her for private counseling and healing sessions.
Before she was ordained, Voramai separated from her husband, a liberal politician who Dhammananda says “always stood for the right thing, even though he was put in jail many times.” At fifty-eight, he was ordained as a monk and lived as a monk until his death at seventy-seven. “He always said that he would like to die in the robes,” recalls Dhammananda.
Today followers refer to Voramai as Luang Yaa, or “grandmother monk,” and to Dhammananda as Luang Mee, “mother monk.” Now ninety-four, Luang Yaa is confined to bed by osteoporosis. She lives in an air-conditioned, free-standing glass room on the second floor of the temple building.
As a laywoman, Dr. Chatsumarn took her mother’s last name, Kabilsingh, or “Red Lion,” to signal that she was continuing her mother’s work. The name suits her well. Two parts fire, one part sharp wit and one part tempering smile, Dhammananda defies Thai cultural norms of the shy, polite woman who runs the show behind the scenes. Dhammananda quite obviously runs the show, and her presence commands respect. Though she can be abrupt, even dismissive at times, her humor adds balance and lightness. She is welcoming to guests and generous with her time. Dhammananda had a distinguished career prior to her ordination. After getting her Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Maghda University in India, she taught Buddhist philosophy in Bangkok at Maha Chula Sangha University and at Thammasat University. She also co-founded and directed Thammasat’s Indian Studies Center. She speaks English fluently, is a popular speaker at international conferences, and is the author of several books in English and in Thai, including Thai Women and Buddhism, published by Parallax Press.
Before she married at age twenty-eight, Dhammananda told her fiancé she would someday become a monastic. “I don’t think he took it seriously. He accepted it just because he wanted to get married,” she recalls. The couple had two sons. “I wish I could show you some of my lay pictures, wearing makeup, jewelry, everything. I had a whole bunch of jewelry. I always kept my nails long, and they never touched the soil.” Now Dhammananda is often seen in her working robes planting flowers around the property.
“I used to feel so happy putting on makeup. You look at yourself in the mirror every morning, you smile at yourself a little bit. Then suddenly you think, ‘It’s so stupid you have been doing this for so many years,'” Dhammananda laughs. “I felt so bored. And I started noticing that everything goes according to faces. The face that you want to put on for people to see. And I got a repulsive feeling. I knew I didn’t have to be involved in that kind of world anymore. I could step out.
“So I took early retirement. I had tasted everything—wealth, name, fame, whatever—and I knew what the extreme of it felt like. During that time it was good, but you know, that’s it. It’s like when you have eaten something to the brim. If you eat more, you just vomit.”
After she felt the call to ordain, she filed for divorce. “I told my husband that I wanted to follow my path, that I wanted to do something much more meaningful than just sit at home being an old lady. He gave in unwillingly. “So Dr. Chatsumarn is gone. I have to deal with this nun. When I was in worldly life, I had to decorate myself to the fullest. And then when I gave up, I gave up to the fullest!” She looks at her robes. “They seem cumbersome, but actually they’re very comfortable and secure. We have to say certain words when we put on the robes. It’s very nice, reminding yourself of what is your life commitment.”
She explains that the Buddha himself ordained hundreds of women as bhikkhunis. “We’re struggling to maintain the status that was given to us by the Buddha,” Dhammananda says. But when Buddhism came to Thailand around the time of Christ, a bhikkhuni sangha was never instated, and in fact bhikkhuni ordination died out in all Theravada countries. Mahayana countries today offer full bhikkhuni ordination; Taiwan and Korea, especially, have thriving bhikkhuni sanghas. In Tibetan Buddhism, ordination is available at the novice level only, although some women have received higher ordination through the Chinese tradition.
In Thailand, the problem with reviving a bhikkhuni order today stems from a vinaya rule requiring dual ordination: women must be ordained first by five bhikkhunis, then by five bhikkhus. Since no bhikkhunis exist in Thailand to perform the ceremony, no bhikkhunis can be ordained.
Other Theravada Buddhist countries face the same problem, but Sri Lanka recently found a way around it. According to Dhammananda, Sri Lanka enjoyed a flourishing bhikkhuni sangha until 1017, when India invaded and destroyed Sri Lanka’s entire monastic order. In 1067, Thai monks traveled to Sri Lanka to help it revive its bhikkhu order, but Thailand had no nuns to help revive the bhikkhuni order. So Sri Lanka had no bhikkhunis until 1996, when Sakyadita, an international organization of Buddhist women, convinced the clergy to permit nuns from Korea, and later Taiwan, to come and plant the seed of ordination again. Although some argue that Mahayana nuns should not be able to give ordination to Theravada nuns, Dhammananda points out that the Sri Lanka/Taiwan lineage is the same. Today, there are over 200 Sri Lankan bhikkhunis.
Why doesn’t Thailand follow Sri Lanka’s example? “The sangha elders don’t want to, simply,” Dhammananda says. “If they really understood the spirit of Buddhism, they would not be making so much noise. They would be so grateful for what I’m doing.”
In addition, Thai law forbids monks to participate in ordaining women. In 1928 Narin Kleung, a political revolutionary who supported women’s ordination, had his two daughters ordained by monks. “However, the government, the sangha and the king didn’t like this man,” Dhammananda explains. “And therefore, they didn’t like the ordination of women.” The young women had their robes removed from them physically and were thrown in jail. Thailand’s highest ranking monk, the supreme patriarch, issued an order forbidding any monks to ordain women. This order is still standing. “My question is, does this agree with the spirit of the Buddha?” says Dhammananda.
Officially, the Thai clergy does not recognize Dhammananda’s bhikkhuni status. But unlike the Catholic Church, which in June 2002 excommunicated seven women who tried to be ordained as priests aboard a boat in the Danube river, the Thai clergy does nothing to prevent Dhammananda’s work. Perhaps it’s an example of the Thai value of mai pen rai, or “never mind,” where people ignore what they don’t like rather than actively oppose it.
Thai monk scholar Phra Dhammapitaka told the Bangkok Post that instead of setting up a new institution for bhikkhunis, the clergy should improve the education and status of mae chees. He says that establishing a new bhikkhuni sangha “might lead to subsequent factionalism and disharmony. The institutional improvement of nunhood, however, can include both the old and new and maintain religious harmony.”
Regarding Dhammananda’s ordination, he comments: “It’s like you graduated from a different university and then demand that you are approved by another establishment. The clergy doesn’t have any right to grant that kind of approval.”
“That’s the easy way out,” Dhammananda responds. She notes that the Buddha was never sectarian, and he probably never intended for the bhikkhuni sangha to die out. “He said that whether Buddhism will prosper or decline depends on four groups,” she explains, drawing a picture of a square structure supported by four columns. “Bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen. If one of these pillars is missing, the structure will collapse,” she says.
She also takes a revisionist look at dual ordination. “During ordination, you must answer several questions that might be problematic, such as, ‘Do you bleed every month? Do you have a proper vagina? Do you have two?'” She laughs wryly. “In the Buddha’s time, the nuns were too shy to answer these questions in front of the monks. So the Buddha said, ‘Let the nun answer all these questions among the nuns first, then bring her to the monks and let her be ordained.’ Historically, this is why dual ordination is necessary.'”
Dr. Wilasinee Phiphitkul, Thailand’s foremost feminist scholar, says that Dhammananda is attempting to do several important things. “She is creating the space and chance for women who want to take the shortcut to enlightenment. She teaches us how to question history, so that we understand the historical context of why women are not allowed ordination. Maybe I speak a little rudely, but she wants to clean up Buddhism in society, since problems like corruption and sexual scandals push a lot of people away. And she’s helping women to have a women’s society, a women’s space within Buddhism.”
“I always say that I am first a Buddhist, then a feminist,” Dhammananda says. “Feminism will not go very far without the foundation of Buddhism. As a feminist you can get so upset, so angry, and you need mindfulness to remember to breathe.”
Skeptics say her struggle is political, not engaged Buddhism. “It’s both,” Dhammananda responds. “To be political is to be engaged.” Others argue that being a mae chee is a legitimate way to practice the dharma and live a renunciate life, so why not just be satisfied with it? Isn’t the patriarchy full of suffering anyway? And isn’t it striving to seek higher status?
“The Buddha said very clearly that to live the life of the monks and nuns is a shortcut because you lessen your worldly burden. The monks always say, ‘You can become enlightened, you don’t have to be ordained.'” She assumes a high, polite voice: “‘But why, your Reverend Sir, why are you ordained? And why are you not giving that opportunity to women?’ It’s just equal opportunity.
“In practical terms, mae chees pay bus fare, but they cannot vote. Because the government is not clear [about their status], both ways they lose. And because they’re supposed to be seeking enlightenment and not worried about worldly thinking, they do not fight, and they do not say anything. This is structural violence that is done to Buddhist women in this Buddhist country.”
However, there are a few mae chees who are renowned and highly respected in Thailand. Model-turned-mae chee Sansanee Sathirabutr runs a popular retreat center for women in a Bangkok suburb. The late Khunying Kanittha Wichiencharoen set up several institutions for women and tried to get a bill passed legalizing nuns’ status. She actually received samaneri ordination in Sri Lanka, but afterward continued to wear white to avoid attracting too much attention.
In February, 2002, Dhammananda invited a delegation of Sri Lankan bhikkhunis to her temple so they could give novice ordination to a mae chee. Varangghana Vanavichayen became the Ven. Dhammarakita Samaneri, the first Thai woman to be ordained as a novice bhikkhuni on Thai soil. Dhammarakita had been a mae chee for nine years: “I had to serve the monks all the time. My mind wasn’t free to do my meditation practice-I had to stay in the kitchen and work as a maid. Now that I’m ordained, I feel more free. The monks treat me very differently.” She says the majority of the monks at her home temple supported her ordination. However, the landlord of the temple property, a woman, doesn’t accept Dhammarakita’s new status. “The landlord says, ‘Women cannot touch a monk who wears these robes, so a woman should not touch these robes.'” Not wanting to make the situation uncomfortable for the monks, Dhammarakita will leave the temple and go off by herself to practice in the mountains to the north.
For the next five years, the Sri Lankan bhikkhunis will stay at the center during the rainy season retreat and hold a novice ordination each year. Eventually the Thai women at Songdhamma Kalayani can start giving the ordination themselves, but first there must be five bhikkhunis to perform the ceremony, and then they must wait twelve years after the fifth bhikkhuni is ordained.
Dhammananda hopes to build a community of women at Songdhamma Kalayani that includes bhikkhunis, mae chees and laywomen. “Not a big community, but a good one.” At the time of this writing, long-term residents number nine, including three mae chees and two young underprivileged girls adopted by the community. Although Dhammananda is often heard giving orders to her helpers, she says, “We do our best to work together, from the bottom, not top-down.” She adds, laughing, “but these brave women who dare to shave their heads are very strong-willed-and you expect them to live in community?”
The center is hemmed in by a six-lane highway—meditation in the vihara can become a meditation on traffic noise. But recently the women turned the back of the property into a garden for walking meditation, with a large square moat, a wooden bridge and gazebo, and young spindly trees. Their next project is to build proper dining facilities, as currently the women eat in front of the vihara’s main altar. Vegetarian meals are offered at 7:30 and 11:30 a.m. Leftovers stay on the buffet table until evening for lay guests who have not taken the precept that prohibits eating after noon.
Dhammananda’s Sunday dharma talks draw a small crowd, mostly educated Bangkok women and local supporters. Every morning and evening she leads chanting and meditation for community members; she teaches meditation techniques in the evening sessions.
I visited Songdhamma Kalayani during the 2002 rains retreat, when the community was hosting a three-month seminar to educate Buddhist women. Attending the retreat were Dhammarakita Samaneri, five dorchees (Cambodian mae chees), six Thai mae chees and ten laywomen. Class topics included the vinaya, the monastic code and Buddhist history, since most mae chees had received no schooling in these areas. The nuns also practiced leadership skills and public speaking, and spent four days in silent retreat in the forest. They went into the cities to meet with women-victims of abuse, factory workers and sex workers-to give support and learn how nuns can help women where monks cannot.
Some of the attendees aspire to be ordained as bhikkhunis, while others are happy with their status as mae chees. Dorchee Naly would like to be ordained, but she says the monks at her home temple in Siem Riep told her not to do it. “They said if I ordained I would have to leave. But if they allow it in the future, I will have studied already.” Resident mae chee Samorn, who is sixty-three, says she does not want to become a bhikkhuni because she is “happy this way. I’m too old, and there are too many precepts to take.” Her beautiful wrinkled face breaks into a huge smile as she says in Thai, “Eight is better.”
Mae chee Sudarat, a young woman from a temple in southern Thailand, says, “In myself, there is no difference between mae chee and bhikkhuni. There is only practice.” Sudarat says that although she first faced oppression as a mae chee, later the monks became “more open-minded,” and she doesn’t have to cook or clean for them. “I’m satisfied with my status right now. It would be striving to ordain as a bhikkhuni. But if everything seemed to be right, if it could make my life more complete, I would do it.” Sudarat adds that fear of negative public opinion or resistance from monks would not be an obstacle for her, should she decide to ordain.
Dhammananda believes, however, that fear plays a role for many. “The mae chees will be the last” to support ordination, Dhammananda says. Many women depend on the monks for housing and financial support, and are afraid to jeopardize that. “They keep silent and follow the monks. Some of them agree with the idea, but they’re afraid to come forward and join. Except for the few here.”
Dhammananda continues, “The trouble is, once they become ordained, where do they live? Some would not be able to go back to their temples because the temples don’t support ordination of women. And if they were mae chees before, when they go back to their city, people will still treat them as mae chees.”
I ask Dhammananda, “Why take the path of greater resistance? Why not just work on accepting the situation for women as it is?”
“That’s the wrong way. If I didn’t know what is the right path, I wouldn’t have bothered. I know it is the right path, and that is the motivation to do it.
“I really don’t feel any challenge on this path. The challenge would be our own inner world, how we cope with our inner world. Now I’m very careful to watch my own mental makeup, that it is not in defilement, that it is not unwholesome. This I did not do when I was a layperson.”
She believes she has also learned how to listen better. “When I was an academic, people would come and talk to me, and I would feel like I was wasting my time. But once I was ordained, I realized that we’re ordained to help others. I understand that when you really take in their problems and understand them from the depth of your heart, you can see something very different than when you understand with your head.”
Every afternoon at around 5 p.m., Dhammananda holds private meetings with laypeople who come to ask her counsel. She also teaches English to children and adults, “but I end up listening to their problems. When they cry, sometimes I also cry.
“We need to get to the spirit of Buddhism, in spite of the structure we have,” Dhammananda says. “The Buddha was always for enlightenment, for equality. He even said himself, ‘Don’t believe in my words unless you put it into practice.’ If it works, only then you take it.
“You must keep in mind that the Buddhist texts came out of the Indian social context, in which women were lowest. Buddha refused to accept the Indian caste system. He denied the social structure of his time. This was very revolutionary. To be a revolutionary is to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha.”
KRISTIN BARENDSEN writes about Buddhism, yoga and travel from her home in Chiang Mai, Thailand.