The Thai Bhikkhuni Order: From One to One Hundred and More to Come
Although legally not yet recognized in Thailand, a small but determined group of Buddhist nuns who were ordained in Sri Lanka are blowing a strong wind of change across both social and spiritual aspects of the sangha as they struggle to establish a bhikkhuni order in Thailand. Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, who ordained in Sri Lanka in 2003 and was Thailand’s first fully ordained Theravada nun, observes that 2,500 years ago the Buddha established a fourfold order—monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen—through which to disseminate his teachings, but “we are now sitting on just three legs.” (Associated Press)
While predominantly a Theravada Buddhist country, Thailand has never officially recognized the monastic ordination of women, which is still banned there. The conservative Supreme Sangha Council, which oversees Theravada Buddhist orders in Thailand, has urged the Thai government to block visits by Sri Lankan monks following what Venerable Dhammananda refers to as a “rebel ordination” of eight bhikkhunis in November last year. By comparison, the Mahayana branch of Buddhism more common in East Asia has historically ordained women.
Despite their somewhat renegade status, bhikkhunis in Thailand are winning the hearts and minds of thousand of lay Buddhists. The nuns of Songdhammakalyani Monastery, which is headed by Venerable Dhammananda, are fully socially engaged. Their activities include visiting prisons to provide Dhamma teachings, helping the poor and deprived, and maintaining ties with nearby communities in the central Thai province of Nakhon Pathom. According to the Associated Press, hundreds of civil servants, businessmen, villagers, and others regularly visit the monastery to hear Dhamma talks delivered by Venerable Nandanyani Bhikkhuni, a former mathematician. The monastery also holds weekend Dhamma camps which include meditation instruction that parents and their children can attend.
Venerable Dhammananda emphasized that women were fully able to prove the value of full monastic life and contribute tangibly to Buddhism through close communication between nuns and laywomen unhindered by the barriers of gender and traditional propriety.
The role of women in Buddhism is even being debated in the national press. In an editorial entitled “Women ban hurts Sangha,” the Bangkok Post said, “The clergy can no longer insist on operating in a closed, feudal system that violates universal norms and values. . . . Instead of trying to crush women’s aspiration to pursue a monastic life, the clergy should concentrate on cleaning up its own house to restore declining public faith.”
Today, there are around 100 bhikkhunis in Thailand—former professors, executives, journalists, doctors, and noodle sellers—living a celibate life governed by 311 precepts, although they and their monasteries are not recognized and do not receive the same state funding and other supports provided to other monasteries and the country’s roughly 200,000 male monastics. Nevertheless, these nuns are determined to have their legal status recognized as they slowly gain acceptance among the country’s lay Buddhists.
“It is our right, our heritage, to lead a fully monastic life. We are on the right side of history,” said Venerable Dhammananda, a former university professor and author, with conviction. “It is a movement now. When I was struggling by myself it was just this crazy woman who wanted to be a monk. Now people don’t feel strange when they see a female monk in the streets. We don’t have problems with people, with society.” Although optimistic about the goal, she expresses reservations over how long it could take to realize: "We must wait. Slowly but surely it will come." (Associated Press)
‘Rebel’ Female Buddhist Monks Challenge Thailand Status Quo (Associated Press)
Women ban hurts Sangha (Bangkok Post)
Thai female monastics continue push for gender equality (Lion’s Roar)
Rebel female Buddhist monks are on the rise to challenge the traditional male authorities in Thailand (Mail Online)