A Rare Breed of Monks

By Yasmin Lee G. Arpon

BANGKOK – Medfai is only four years old, but this early the little girl is already getting acquainted with Buddhist rituals. On this particular day, she and her family are at a local temple, along with many other people lining up to offer food and drinks to monks. The offerings are not only symbols of respect to the Buddhist holy men, but are also supposed to earn the givers merit.

Today there are only male monks around at the temple they visited, but there may come a time when Medfai may be offering bowls of food to a bhikkhuni (female monk). That is, if local religious officials relent and relax the rules. More than a year ago, a Thai university professor got herself ordained as a bhikkhuni (female monk) in Sri Lanka. When she returned to Thailand to practice her new profession, she was greeted by criticisms from a conservative Buddhist society that has never accepted female monks.

“The criticisms were all over the media every day until the (controversy) died down,” says Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, who was a professor at Thammasat University. “I think it’s because negative energy wears you down.”

Chatsumarn was ordained on Feb. 6, 2001 by a Sri Lankan bhikkhuni in the presence of a Thai bhikkhu (male monk). She assumed the name Dhammananda after shaving her head, like all monks do, and wearing a saffron robe.

Recently, Mae Chee Varangghana Vanarichayen was ordained, also in Sri Lanka, and took the name Dhammarakhita. Her ordination was met with much less noise, but there was still palpable resistance from the public regarding the idea of female monks.

Up to now, in fact, Sen. Oompol Poumanee, a member of the Senate committee on religious affairs, says having a female monk in Thailand “is never going to happen.” Oompol is a practicing Buddhist.

“Personally, I am not going to accept that,” he says, referring to female monks. “That will not be accepted by Thai Buddhism.”
Buddhism in Thailand belongs to the Theravada school, which is prevalent in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. This type of Buddhism is considered “conservative and orthodox” because it worships Gautama Buddha, upholds the original teachings in the Pali Tripitaka, and discourages new interpretations of the scripture, writes Professor Saeng Chandma-ngarin in his book Buddhism and Thai People.

The Department of Religious Affairs also adopts the same attitude. Manope Phonphririntr, an expert at the department, says there are no female monks in Theravada Buddhism. “When Buddhism arrived in Thailand, there was no female monk,” he says. “It has always been that way.”

“But it is a different issue to have women help in Buddhism,” he said, adding that the department does not have any problem with Dhammananda and Dhammarakhita. Still, he insists that they are not recognized as bhikkhunis and that their activities are autonomous from the government.

Phra Surasak of Wat Chonprathan also says that while he welcomes the participation of women in the practice of the religion, he frowns at attaching the bhikkhuni title to them.

“I am keeping a practical view,” he says. “It’s okay for women to be involved in Buddhism to help raise the awareness of society, but without having to identify themselves as female monks. In the Buddhist principle, female monks are nonexistent. It is unconventional.”

Dhammananda, however, says a “fully ordained nun” or female monk is nothing new to Buddhism. “We are not creating anything new,” she repeats. “There are some conservative Thai men who do not like the idea because we never had fully ordained nuns (in the country). But we are not creating it out of thin air.”

Yet it was not just the men who criticized Dhammananda. A woman sent letters to international organizations criticizing her. “She called me an impostor because she could not stand a woman wearing a robe,” recalls Dhammananda.

In ancient times, even the Buddha’s royal mother, Queen Maha Pajapati, became a bhikkhuni. The Buddha initially refused to accept his mother into the order but later gave his permission.

In Thailand, the struggle to have women ordained as monks dates back to 1927, Dhammananda says. That year, a man named Narin-Klueng had his two daughters — Sara and Chongdi — ordained as bhikkhunis. But Dhammananda says the Sangha and the royal family were suspicious of the motives of Narin, a politician.

The girls were ordered to be defrocked; when they resisted, they were put in jail. From then on, the Sangha forbade bhikkhus from ordaining women. The order, issued in 1928, has not been lifted.
Dhammananda explains that the ordination of a woman monk must be done by a bhikkhuni Sangha then by a bhikkhu Sangha. She says the bhikkhuni Sangha never came to Thailand, which is why there has been no bhikkhuni ordination or bhikkhuni Sangha in the country. She notes that since Sara and Chongdi were ordained by bhikkhus, they were unacceptable under Thai Buddhism.

Dhammarakhita, for her part, says that having bhikkunis would provide the “missing” fourth pillar to the house of Buddhism. “I used to think that female clergy was a thing of the past,” she says. “But when I learned of the revival of the bhikkhuni order, I decided to get ordained because I believe it is the right thing to serve Buddhism.”
The religion, she says, “must have four supporting pillars to become stable and strong. But now, we only have three: monks, male and female supporters.”

Many have argued that it is difficult for women to become monks because the order imposes 311 precepts as opposed to only 227 for men.

But Dhammananda says, “(The disparity in the number of precepts) often leads to the misunderstanding that the Buddha did not want women to join the order, so he set up rules as barriers to fence them off from the start.”

In reality, she says, the additional rules were meant to protect women in ancient times. “These were for safety reasons,” says the bhikkuni. “Like you don’t cross a river alone because you might get raped. Or if you go with a group, you stick to the group and don’t fall behind because you may be attacked. “Dhammananda or Chatsumarn is married to a retired Air Force officer and has three sons. She also has a doctorate in religion. She says she used to enjoy putting on make-up every morning and adorning herself with jewelry. She also loved eating meat. But then one day she began to look for something beyond the life she was leading.

“I asked myself, how long do I have to get through this? I was tired of the worldly life. I felt tired and meaningless to have this lifestyle. Am I happy? The feeling was very strong, so when I gave up, I really gave up,” Dhammananda says.

Dhammananda says she is not seeking recognition as a bhikkhuni from the government or the Sangha. “I’m just living my life the way the Buddha wants us,” she says. “If they do not want to recognize me, that’s their problem, not mine. In fact, I am not doing anything against the law. I am protected by the law.”

She says there are male monks who are supportive of her, some of them even coming to visit her. A regular visitor, though, is her middle son, Tho, who comes every Sunday. Tho says he doesn’t think he will become a monk himself, although he had “sort of expected” his mother to take that step. Both his grandparents – Dhammananda’s parents – were monks.

In 1971, Tho’s grandmother, Voramai, received bhikkhuni ordination from Tao An Fa Tzu at Sun San Temple in Taiwan. She became the first fully ordained nun in Thailand. Voramai is still alive but is now weak. She stays at Dhammananda’s temple. Voramai’s husband, a retired politician, also became a monk before he died.

The temple has about 40 regular followers who come every Sunday to bring food and to listen to Dhammananda talk. Located in Nakhonpathom, an hour’s drive by car from Bangkok, it is far from where little Medfai’s family worships. But who knows if one day Medfai would make her way here as well?