Marking the occasion of International Women’s Day on Wednesday, the International Women’s Meditation Center Foundation (IWMCF) announced this year’s awards for outstanding women in Buddhism from its headquarters in Thailand. The the foundation offered awards to 16 women, most of whom are monastics, although several laywomen were included.
Those honored include:
Bhikkhuni Dhammavaree Bhothiyana, Thailand
Bhikkhuni Dr. Sobhita Malikul, Thailand
Bhikkhuni Sakula, Thailand
Bhiksuni Sing-Yin, Taiwan
Daw Daw Nang Kyi Kyi Thein, Myanmar
Gabriela Frey, France
Grace Yeh, Taiwan
Kullanit Kaewkao, Thailand
Lama Chimey Lhatso, Sweden
Maechee Nudiao Netpakdee, Thailand
Reverend Master Meian Elbert, USA
Reverend Ursula Richard, Germany
Reverend Tenzin Chogkyi, USA
Thilashin Punnesi, Myanmar
Nang Phong Kham, Myanmar
Dr. Saw Htut Sandar, Myanmar
The IWMCF has been presenting awards to women in Buddhism since 2002. The awards began as an initiative of two Buddhist nuns, Bhikkhuni Rattanavali from Thailand and Bhikkhuni Dr. Lee from the US. The two created the awards after attending events honoring women in 2001—the Outstanding Women’s Awards in Thailand and the United Nations in observation of International Women’s Day on 8 March 2001. After these events, the two began plans for a global celebration of women in Buddhism, culminating in the first outstanding women in Buddhism awards in 2002.
For the first two years, the awards were given at the Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, which was founded in Thailand in 1974 to promote the welfare of women and children. Later, awards were given at the United Nations’ Conference Center in Bangkok, before returning to the Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women and then other venues.
The awards for 2020 were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 2021 awards were held via Zoom from the Heartwood Refuge Retreat Center, a non-sectarian Buddhist organization led by Venerable Pannavati in North Carolina. In 2022, the awards were given to 20 women from the organization’s headquarters in Rayong, Thailand.
The awards are intended to recognize excellence in a variety of fields and practices, including meditation, social work, community development, Dharma teaching—through writings, academic work, or media appearances—and peace activities. Buddhist women from across the globe can be nominated each year, with the selection finalized by a dozen IWMCF committee members.
Among this year’s honorees, Bhikkhuni Dr. Sobhita Malikul took inspiration from her mother, who became a white-robed nun (Thai: maechee) in her later years. Dr. Malikul decided to pursue education later in life, starting her MA in Buddhist studies at the age of 58 and her PhD at the age of 62, becoming the first Thai bhikkhuni to earn a Ph. in Buddhism in Thailand.
Gabriela Frey has a rich career history working with the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, where she served as assistant to several German members from 1988–2017. Her work helped to bring His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Strasbourg and Brussels, and brought several European Parliamentarians to Dharamsala to meet with members of the Tibetan government-in-exile. In 2019, Frey was the European Parliament’s first guest speaker on the topic of Buddhism in Europe. She is the founder and president of Sakyadhita France.
Reverend Master Meian Elbert is a priest in the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives (OBC), a Western monastic order founded by Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, a British-born woman trained in the Soto Zen school of Japanese Buddhism. Rev. Elbert was ordained in 1977 and worked closely with with Rev. Jiyu-Kennett until the latter’s death in 1996. Today, Rev. Elbert is the abbess of Shasta Abbey Buddhist Monastery.
The organization states a number of objectives for its awards, including international recognition and support for bhikkhunis in southeast Asia, greater awareness of the benefits of female Buddhist leaders, support for those leaders, better social understanding of women in Buddhism, and networking opportunities for accomplished Buddhist women, both ordained and lay.
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