The widely venerated Mae Chee Sansanee Sthirasuta, a popular Buddhist nun in Thailand, died on Tuesday from cancer. She was 68 years old. Among Sansanee’s activities were the the founding of the Sathira-Dhammasthan learning center in Bangkok, along with Ban Sai Samphan, a shelter for women, and Savikasikhalai Mahavichalaidhama University. The Sathira-Dhammasthan Foundation announced her death on its website at 8pm on Tuesday.
Mae Chee Sansanee Sthirasuta had been suffering from stomach cancer and receiving treatment since 2017. Initially, her condition had improved with the treatment, but in 2020 a cancerous tumor was again found, leading to a second round of treatment. On 3 December, her condition worsened and doctors discovered that the tumor had grown and the cancer had spread.
On 6 December, following her request, Mae Chee Sansanee Sthirasuta was taken back to the Sathira-Dhammasthan center where she died peacefully on Tuesday at 6.23pm. The Sathira-Dhammasthan foundation will announce funeral plans soon.
Mae Chee Sansanee Sthirasuta spent her early career as a top fashion model in Thailand. She was raised by a single mother, who died when she was 15 years old. The modeling industry allowed her to survive and even thrive, although she felt that her life still lacked meaning. At the age of 27 she ordained as a mae chee.*
She spent the next seven years as a mae chee studying the dhamma. In 1987, Mae Chee Sansanee Sthirasuta created the Sathira-Dhammasthan Foundation in the suburbs of Bangkok. The initial work of the educational and retreat center was to help women who were victims of sexual abuse and single mothers with unwanted pregnancies. Her work also extended to women in prisons and correctional facilities.
The center, which has since become surrounded by Bangkok’s urban sprawl, encompasses some 2.8 hectares of lush meditation gardens and eco-friendly buildings. Visitors to the center are encouraged to wander the meditation paths, explore lotus ponds, and utilize meditation nooks around the property.
Committed to interfaith dialogue as a means to world peace, Mae Chee Sansanee Sthirasuta served as the co-chair for the Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders. This organization sought to build broad support among women around the world to work for peace, poverty reduction, and reconstruction activities. At the Global Peace Initiative of Women and Religious and Spiritual Leaders Conference in Switzerland in 2002, Sansanee met producer and author Victoria Holt, who went on to create a 2004 film A Walk of Wisdom featuring Sansanee.
Her life and work was also documented in a film by Sande Zeig called The Living Saint of Thailand (2019). In the film, two women and a young girl are featured discussing Mae Chee Sansanee Sthirasuta’s transformative effects on their lives.
Thailand is a predominantly Theravada Buddhist nation in Southeast Asia, with 94.5 per cent of its 69 million people identifying as Buddhists, according to the 2015 census. The kingdom has some 40,000 Buddhist temples and almost 300,000 monks. Islam and Christianity are the largest minority religions, with 4.29 per cent and 1.17 per cent of the population, respectively.
* Mae chee is a Thai term for a Buddhist laywoman who has dedicated her life to religious practice. It serves as the only officially sanctioned full-time religious vocation for women in Thailand, as there is no official female order of monastics in the country. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, a Thai female monk who ordained in Sri Lanka, has worked to introduce a bhikkhuni order in Thailand with limited success (See: From Hearts to Hearts: An Interview with Ven. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (BDG))
Mae Chee Sansanee dies aged 68 (Bangkok Post)
Well-known Buddhist nun in Thailand ‘Sansanee’ died of cancer (Pattaya Mail)
True Beauty comes from the Heart (Sathira-Dhammasathan)
Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders (Millennium Peace Summit)
The Living Saint of Thailand (IMDB)
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