The Thai Bhikkuni and their role in promoting female empowerment in Thailand

 

The majority of people in Thailand are devout Buddhists, with over 95 percent of the country following Buddhism and its entailed traditions and practices. Buddhism therefore, of course, plays an integral part in the culmination of Thai cultural identity. Buddhism is a part of every aspect of life in Thailand, from giving alms in the morning to the monks and children saying Buddhist prayers in the morning and the majority of Thai men being a monk at least for a short period of their life; Buddhist traditions are seen and felt everywhere in Thai society; As is the presence of the male dominated monkhood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction

As Thailand is heavily influenced by Buddhist values, the Buddhist monks are of course the curators of the religion. Thai monks are seen and felt everywhere with over 32,000 monasteries, 265,956 monks and 87,695 novices (Bangkok Post survey 2017).Monks take part in many official ceremonies daily throughout for example monks may bless a house or a new car, offer prayers at a wedding(Less than 100 years ago, this would never have happened as monks were seen as an ill omen, only to attending funerals): monks may offer prayers for a new business and any number of other occasions. Although monks are numerous in Thailand and come from a variety of social and economic backgrounds (Even the current King has ordained) they do have one thing in common, they are all male. Monks being the representatives of a religion which take part in every part of daily Thai life and they are all male, there is another group of individuals who also embody traditional Buddhist values, the ‘rebel monks’ the Thai Bhikkunni. The Bhiksunni are a group of female monks ordained in the Theravada tradition. Many Bhikkunni have faced opposition in Thailand, both from the male dominated Sangha Supreme Council of Thailand (Buddhist governing body in Thailand) and from laypeople (non-ordained individuals).  This paper will be an assessment of  role that men have in challenging gender equality, namely the male dominated Sangha in Thailand. It will discuss if it is more important for women to form their owns groups, or to work alongside with men. The gains that could  be made through gender equality  programmes targeting both men and women will be discussed as well as what may be appropriate or undesirable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The origins of Bhikkhuni

Chatsumarn Kabilsingh Shatsena now known as Dhammananda Bhikkhuni was the first modern woman to receive full ordination in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism in Thailand. Born in 1944 Chatsumarn Kabilsingh Shatsena to Voramai Kabilsingh also known as Ta Tao Fa Tzu as she was ordained in the Dharmaguptaka  school of Buddhism and Kokiat Shatsena Chatsumarn has to lead a fascinating life and is now the abbess of  Songdhammakalyani Monastery, the only Bhikkunni temple in Thailand. Translated as the “temple where women uphold the Dharma”. Dhammanda Bhikkunni was ordained on 28 February 2003 in Sri Lanka after which she returned to Thailand.(Snyder, 2003). There has of course been much opposition to the Bhikkuni order in Thailand. Many Bhikku (Male monks) including the Ecclesiastical Council disagree with the ordination of Bhikkuni in Thailand believing their ordination to be illegitimate. According to Metthanando Bhikku a prominent monk in Thailand and member of the Ecclesiastical Council:”Equal rights for men and women are denied by the Ecclesiastical Council. No woman can be ordained as a Theravada Buddhist nun or bhikkhuni in Thailand. The Council has issued a national warning that any monk who ordains female monks will be severely punished.”( Metthanando Bhikku,2005).According to Buddhist historians, the original order of the Bhikkuni was set up several years after the Bhikku order at the request of Mahapajapati who was the Buddhas aunt and carer after the death of his mother and her followers. According to tradition, the Buddha denied her several times before allowing her to ordain.This was not however due to her gender but was in fact because they were courtly women used to the extravagances of palace life and would find the harsh lives of monks of that time a struggle. According to Dhammananda Bhikkhuni: “Many people in Thailand both monastics and laypeople do not realise that there has been Bhikkunni in the region before. According to Not many in Thailand understand Buddhism truly like when the Buddha first said no to his aunt and her followers when they asked to be ordained, this was not because of their gender, but because they were women of the court, they could not handle the conditions. Many forget that the Buddha was from a time when social values were different.”( Dhammananda Bhikkhuni 2017). Since the ordinations of Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, a number of other Bhikkhuni have been ordained in Thailand now number numbering over 100 Bhikkhuni throughout Thailand.Not including the number of Sramaneris(Novices) and Mae Ji’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mae Ji’s

Due to the prohibition set by the Sangha, many Thai women instead volunteer to become Mae ji’s.Mae ji’s try to lead a devout life according to the Buddhas teachings, shaving their heads like monks and wearing white following 8-10 precepts(holy rules that must be followed) as opposed to the 331 precepts for Bhikkhuni and 227 for monks.Mae ji’s do not receive the benefits of monastics but are denied rights are are offered to lay people throughout Thailand such as being able to vote or stand for election. According to Dhammananda  Bhikkhuni Mae ji’s are a new concept and not part of traditional Buddhism: “I depend on you and you depend on me, my grandmother was illiterate, and she was a Mae ji, yet when it came to praying she knew everything. She prayed beautifully.Mae Ji’s are not ordained, nor do they receive the benefits of being so.In fact, they are more often treated like servants, having to wash the monk’s clothes and cleaning. Look at the four pillars of the Buddhist community, like legs on a chair, The Bhikkus(monks) Bhikkhunis(nuns), Laymen and Laywomen.Mae Ji’s are a new concept”.Many Mae JI’s face discrimination throughout Thailand, not only do they not have the benefits offered to other monastics such as free transport, etc., many believe they become Mae Ji’s for the wrong reasons. Many Thai people look down on Mae Ji’s feeling that they had no other option, that they could not find a husband or are using the cloak of becoming a Mae Ji to escape other problems in their life.

 

How can Bhikkunini and Buddhism be used as effective tools to empower women in Thailand

 

Early every morning in Thailand the streets are lined with people throughout the country, waiting to give alms to the monks. This is part of the merit system in Buddhism which is believed to bring benefits to the next life. The alms givers are predominately women however, some folklore says that women are born with bad karma and must make more merit in this life to become a man in the next. In the same sense that transgender individuals are born in the wrong body due to transgressions in their previous life, this is not true to the Buddhas original teachings however . According to Buddhist tradition It is believed that everyone is born with both good and bad karma within them and all have the same potential to reach enlightenment. It is cultural , in that same sense the culture protects you.( Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, 2017).It is not only in alms giving where women take the prominent role, also cleaning at the temple, washing , brushing and preparing for  the numerous religious festivals that take place all year round. Like the Mae Ji’s at temples many Thai women still take on the domestic responsibilities , even when it comes to religious duties. After offering alms and preparing comes the time for the religious ceremonies, this is a time when women do not take a prominent role. During religious ceremony the monks sit elevated, with the grandfathers and oldest men sitting closest to the monks, and then come the fathers and then the sons. At the back sit the women and daughters, even though the majority of alms giving  and preparation  for the ceremony was carried out by women, they sit furthest away from the monks and instead the men of the family take control of orchestrating the other attendees.History is written by by men, about men, so we start to write a story about women, from a woman’s- that is a different voice.( Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, 2012).It is not only in alms giving where women take the prominent role, also cleaning. Perspective As was mentioned before, Buddhism is a significant part of Thai peoples cultural identity, yet the male figures are dominant in Buddhism in Thailand and are the leading figures who govern the dissemination of Buddhist and patriarchal ideology. It is seen that people are punished and rewarded for carrying on in this way, people are encouraged to conform and what is viewed as masculine is also seen as superior(Mead 1949).If women were able to be seen in positions of power in a religious sense in Thailand, it would change their perception of value and empower them to take on new roles for cultural and religious traditions . The whole power dynamic and system of bunkum(system of ineptness) and sakdi na (social hierarchy).  According to Dhammananda Bhikkhuni: “I’m just a small crack in the wall; the wall of patriarchy; on the wall of the hierarchy; on the wall of injustice. Soon there will be more cracks and someday the wall will fall.”( Dhammananda Bhikkhuni,2017).The ‘Wai’ in Thailand is a significant act of social behavior in Thailand. It is a physical gesture which is  symbolic of  a person’s social standing. The wai consists of hands clasped together, prayer-like, followed with a very slight bow. There are a variety of different ways to wai, for example someone would never wai a person younger than them first or in a lower position. In a school a new and younger teacher would wai the older teacher and the students would wai the new teacher and so on. The higher someone stands socially the higher hands are to be raised with monks and royalty receiving the highest of wais, with people raising them hands to their forehead. Thai people are very sensitive to their social standing in Thailands immensely hierarchical structure. The idea of a male having to Wai a religious female monastic in Thailand is an alien concept. Even in other intuitions such as hospitals and schools men advance much further and quicker than women. If someone in a senior position wished something done, they would ask the female, even if they started the job at the same time and were both interns with the same qualifications. This may even include cleaning or simply going to get coffee, the junior female in the place of work would always be asked, and if not then it would be the more feminine man and so on. By seeing more women in as leading figures in Buddhism it would begin to effect all other parts of Thai society. Human behavior is unbelievably malleable responding and contrastingly to contrasting cultural traditions(Mead 1949).Throughout the country there are numerous temple schools where families who cannot afford schooling can send their sons to get a good education. There are few choices for girls with little education, factory workers, manual workers or even sex workers. Families believe that sending their sons to be a  monk at a temple even for a short time garners them much merit for the next life, again something which is currently not possible for girls in Thailand currently.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discrimination that Bhikkhuni face in Thailand

To avoid trouble with the greater clergy many Bhikkhuni dub their temples ‘womens meditation centres’.Bhikkhuni in Thailand have faced widespread discrimination throughout Thailand both by Bhikku(male monks) and laypeople despite many trying to lead a quiet existence. On April 20, 2016, a Bhikkhuni ‘womens meditation centre’ was burned down, the centre was run by two Bhikkhuni who may also have had land problems with their neighbours, they, however, faced many challenges before this incident with being frowned upon by the clergy. Not only do Bhikkhuni have to work extremely hard to support themselves and their centres, due to not receiving any of the benefits that other monastics get; they must also concentrate on having relations with locals. The image of Thai monks has been tainted severely over the last few years with accounts of rape, drug trafficking, smuggling amongst an array of other crimes. Similar to in the way the image of Catholic priests has been tarnished the monks in Thailand have also been, perhaps, irreparably. The social elite in Thailand also are against female ordination in Thailand as every year Thailands biggest stars, and wealthiest individuals donate millions to temples, which they frequently receive tax refunds for.Many of the wealthiest people in Thailand have made deals with famous Thai monks as it is a legitimate way to take care of some of their money and keep it ‘clean’. Not only does the Thai Sangha forbid the ordination of females on Thai soil but they have also denied visas to Bhikkhuni coming to Thailand from abroad. In 2003 the Department of National Buddhist Affairs for Thailand denied visas for multiple Bhikkhuni; both from Sri Lanka and India. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni made the following statement after the visas were denied: “Is this the way that the Department of National Buddhist Affairs is trying to preserve Buddhism? This is clearly a systematic elimination of the Bhikhunni Sangha.This is disrespectful to the allowance of the Buddha himself. ” Another example was in early 2017 when a large group of 70 Bhikhunni arrived at the grand palace intending to pay respects to the late monarch but were denied. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni had already made preparations and called to the palace for confirmation however when they arrived at the palace were denied the monastic entrance. They were told that if they wished to pay their respects, they would have to disrobe and join the other laypeople.  Earlier in the year, other groups of Bhikkhuni were also denied entrance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

It is clear that the Bhikkhuni in Thailand face an uphill battle. They fight not only ideals of gender conformity but also are faced with opposition on all sides: The Sangha, laypeople, male patriarchy and the social elites. Bhikkuni offers a new vision for Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, one free from the corruption and scandal that is currently residing in the monkhood here. It is clear that individuals such as Dhammananda Bhikkhuni strive not only for gender equality in religion but in all aspects of Thai life. Gender equality in Buddhism is, of course, the first step in empowering women in Thailand to a new future. One in which women are as valued as men and feminine qualities are also seen as powerful.When Dhammananda Bhikkhuni was asked in 2017:

What do you see as the future of the Bhikkhunis in Thailand?

She replied:
“Remember three things in life, think of yourself as in a cocoon as we are 1.To always be humble that is the most important thing,2. Be eager 3. Always seek to improve yourself. No one can stop us now, not the Sangha or others, we are growing and will continue to grow.”

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