11 July 2024

“You know, we are not ordained to gain acceptance. That is not our purpose.”

A clear statement from The Venerable Dhammananda, the first fully-ordained female monk in Thailand and the abbess of Songdhammakalyani Monastery, which is home to female Buddhist monks, or bhikkhunīs, in Nakhon Pathom province.

“If you want to be ordained for recognition, then you’ll have to fight a long way. If you’re ordained because you want to commit your life for the benefit of Buddhism and Thai society, then keep doing it.”

Challenging monastic traditions

For the past 20 years, The Venerable Dhammananda has been at the forefront in challenging the long-standing gender roles in this male-dominated religion, as people often believe that monks in saffron robes should only be male.

Despite the criticism from or disbelief by others, it has also been an opportunity for her to explain that women can also be ordained.

“It is an experience, you know? I don’t consider that as a problem,” she said. “People will look at you. People will criticise you. If they criticise you behind your back, that’s well and good because you don’t hear it… and if that person is already certain that it’s not possible for women to be ordained, then I don’t need to continue the conversation.”

Fully-ordained female monks are not to be confused with nuns. The Venerable Dhammananda explains that those in white robes are not ordained and are only considered to be laywomen. Women cannot be ordained directly as a bhikkhunī either, but they have to be a female novice or samaneri first, according to monastic rules.

The biggest challenge, however, was not really battling people’s opinion, but how to “stabilise” herself in her own spiritual development, to protect herself from being swayed by criticism. In fact, spiritual enlightenment has no gender, which she says, is the most “beautiful” part of Buddhism.

“It is normal that you would endure that kind of criticism, but if you know your path, if you’re committed, and you’re not being swayed, then it’s okay. So that was how I survived the difficult times [during the first few years].”

Struggle for bhikkhunīs

Currently, there are about 300 bhikkhunīs across Thailand, including six bhikkhunīs and two samaneris at Songdhammakalyani Monastery. In April and December each year, the monastery itself also organises temporary ordination for women.

Ordaining women as bhikkhunīs in Thailand still, however, remains a problem.

According to the Sangha Supreme Council, citing an order from the 11th Supreme Patriarch of Thailand in 1928, women are strictly prohibited from ordination, stating that bhikkhunīs have long been extinct from the kingdom. Therefore, women have to be ordained either in Sri Lanka or India, before returning to Thailand.

The Venerable Dhammananda herself was fully-ordained in Sri Lanka back in 2003.

Although such arrangements for proper ordination outside Thailand can still be made, the biggest concern for The Venerable Dhammananda is the “quality” of the route for fully-ordained women, particularly with its education, training and spiritual development.

“You know, a good tree takes years. Teak wood, for example, takes many years [to grow], but once it grows into a big tree, the wood is so valuable and strong. Even tamarind trees, they also take years to grow into this beautiful tree. So the progress of bhikkhunīs depends on the quality.”

As to whether gender equality can ever be achieved in Thailand’s monkhood, it is quite complicated. The Venerable Dhammananda explains, according to its history, that the existence of male monks, or bhikkhus, came years before bhikkhunīs. Therefore, bhikkhunīs would automatically have to remain humble and respectful towards their so-called ‘elder brothers’.

Apart from the ordination, which must be done by the bhikkhus, they would still have to receive instructions from senior male monks, based on the monastic rules, about twice a month. 

“So there is no equality, in the Western sense of doing things equally together,” she said. “So, we have to do things very humbly, otherwise no senior bhikkhus like to talk to you because you always ask for equality.”

The Venerable Dhammananda, the abbess of Songdhammakalyani Monastery

Acceptance and recognition

Although the number of fully-ordained female monks is increasing, there is still a long way to go for them to be fully accepted by Thai society, especially when the Thai law still does not officially recognise them as monks. One of the most notorious events was when 72 female monks and novices were barred from entering the Grand Palace to pay their respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej back in December 2016.

“You know, I still get poison-pen letters, scolding us for stepping into areas which should be only for monks,” she recalls, indicating that female monks still encounter discrimination from authorities and certain groups of people.

Regardless of the struggles, The Venerable Dhammananda believes that it is still important to have more fully-ordained female monks, as it will help fulfill and maintain the four Buddhist communities established by Lord Buddha, which include fully-ordained men and women, laymen and laywomen.

“It was clear that Buddhist society will be strong [with four communities], and you go into the future with this balance,” she explains, while comparing the whole concept to having four legs of a chair.

“When one leg is missing, the chair is unbalanced. Some people say that we also have chairs with three legs, but Buddhism was established to have four legs. So, when one is missing, we should bring about the missing leg for the chair.”

Restoring that faith

In light of recent scandals involving monks, many people seem to have lost faith.

“If I do business, I think that’s good for us, but we’re ordained,” said The Venerable Dhammananda. “You know, we feel sad that there are so many scandals among those bhikkhus, because it lessens the faith that people have, not towards the bhikkhus as such, but towards Buddhism as a whole.”

When asked about the best way to restore that faith, she thinks that it is the responsibility of all parties; the Sanghas (monastic community of Buddhist monks), the government and the people.

“We should do our best to try to clarify the point, so that people understand and differentiate between what Buddhism teaches and the practice of that particular monk.”

Apart from the Buddhist monks, it is also the government’s duty to provide clarity for the situation and ensure the Sanghas’ reputation remains pure. At the same time, people should also have a better understanding of Buddhist teachings, especially the minimum requirements of being a good monk, so that people can identify those who are just “hiding” in their robes.

“The problem with Thai society is that [we are] not conscious or responsible enough to study Buddhist teachings. If we cannot differentiate between the good and the bad monks, then you will keep supporting the ones who are just hiding in their robes.”

Most importantly, The Venerable Dhammananda also reminded people not to turn a blind eye to monks who have committed any wrongdoings, as it will cause more harm to society.

“You know, there is a saying that, if they did something wrong, it’s up to them, don’t criticise them, [or else] you will go to hell. This attitude is wrong. If you know that a monk [is doing something bad], you have to do something about it. You have to report it, so that the law can come in and [take action].”

By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World