Nakhon Pathom, Thailand – For more than seven centuries, Buddhist women have not been allowed to become ordained in Thailand. The last bhikkhunis – female Buddhist monks – died in the 13th century, and men took a predominant position in Thailand’s Theravada brand of Buddhism.
Chatsumarn Kabilsingh has been trying to revive the bhikkuni tradition. “In Buddhism, men and women are treated equally, but the Thai culture tends to place women lower,” said the 68-year-old Chatsumarn, who left her life as a professor at a renowned Thai university in 2000 to enter monastic life. After three years of learning the Buddha’s precepts in Taiwan, she was ordained as a full bhikkhuni in Sri Lanka. Her name was changed to the Venerable Dhammananda, and she returned to Thailand to help other women follow the same path.
But Thai Sangha, the religious authority in the country, does not recognise these ordinations, citing a 1928 religious order forbidding monks from ordaining women. According to the Buddha’s teachings, a male monk has to be ordained by a quorum of male monks, but women need both male and female monks’ quora. This order makes it effectively impossible for women to be ordained in Thailand; they must travel to foreign countries to become monks.
Dhammananda was the first Thai woman in centuries to be ordained as a Theravada Buddhist monk. Despite the official ban, she now runs the Songdhammakalyani Monastery, the first all-female temple in Thailand, located in Nakhon Pathom near Bangkok.
Other women join the ten permanent monks twice a year in temporary ordinations. They spend a few days with Dhammananda learning the precepts of the Buddha. In Theravada Buddhism, it is believed that being ordained at least once in one’s lifetime it is the best way to gain karma for themselves or their relatives. “I wanted to be ordained because I want my parents [to] go to heaven,” said Paranee, one of the women ordained last April, who works as an assurance agent near Bangkok.
Along with Paranee, 43 other women – most of them from Thailand but also from India and Vietnam – were ordained for nine days and participated in the monastic activities. They shaved their heads and woke up everyday at 5am to meditate. Some days they begged for food in the morning or tidied up the temple’s garden.
Today, about 150 bhikkhunis practice in ten temples across Thailand, founded following Dhammananda’s example.