As dawn breaks across Thailand, it brings with it one of the country’s most important and revered traditions. Clad in bright orange robes, barefoot and with their heads shaven, male monks make their morning rounds, receiving alms in return for simple blessings. The sight is so familiar to people in Thailand and around the world, it’s become iconic.
But in Nakhon Pathom, from the sanctuary of a monastery set behind a busy highway about 30 miles (48km) west of Bangkok, one particular group of monks has long been denied the respect and recognition given to the men in orange. Now its members are rattling the country’s religious cages in the hopes of reviving an ancient tradition and, more importantly, regaining their legitimacy.
Songdhammakalyani Monastery is one of Thailand’s few all-female monasteries. Its abbess, the Venerable Dhammananda, 72, (formerly named Chatsumarn Kabilsingh) was the first Thai bhikkhuni, or female monk, to be fully ordained in the Theravada tradition, the most widely practiced form of Buddhism in the country. Her late mother, the Venerable Voramai Kabilsingh, was Thailand’s first female monk of the modern era.
Dhammananda and the smattering of female monks like her around the country are seen as troublemakers by the country’s clergy – insurgents intent on destroying the all-male monastic status quo. During Buddha’s time 2,500 years ago and for several hundred years after, bhikkhunis were present right across Sri Lanka and India, and were considered equal to their male counterparts. But by the 11th century, political turmoil and reports of sexual violence had effectively killed off the tradition of female Buddhist monks. Brandishing embedded ideas about gender roles and the strict rules around the requirements for ordination, officials decided that women shouldn’t be wearing monks’ robes.
Dhammananda’s mother had made it part of her mission to push back against the prejudices that had stripped female monks of their rights. And now Dhammananda is carrying on the fight – and causing controversy – as she and her fellow bhikkhunis try to restore women to their rightful place in the country’s spiritual identity.
“When the Buddha was enlightened, and he established the Buddhist religion, he described the four pillars of the faith: bhikkhu, bhikkhuni, laymen and laywomen. This was very clear in his mind and it is written in the historical texts,” says Dhammananda. “So it is not about equality as such, it is about what’s right. We are shareholders of the faith and simply upholding Buddha’s original vision.”
In Thailand, the full ordination of female monks is outlawed. Dhammananda had to go to Sri Lanka to be fully ordained, and she’s currently only allowed to perform first-level ordinations on women. But the ban on fully ordaining women comes down to a technicality. Under the dharma rules upheld by Thailand’s governing Buddhist council, only an unbroken lineage of bhikkhunis can be fully ordained. Since such a lineage no longer exists, the council argues that the bhikkhunis have no claim to monastic legitimacy. Officially, the practice of fully ordaining a woman can result in a fine or, at worst, imprisonment, but it rarely comes to that. Instead, bhikkhunis are tolerated, but considered illegitimate.
For a long time, Dhammananda wasn’t even going to be a monk. “Growing up, people assumed that I would follow in my mother’s path, but I didn’t like to be told what to do,” she says. “I married, had three sons and I was very happy. My life was full.” She earned a PhD in philosophy and Buddhism, became an accomplished author and hosted a long-running TV talk show on the dharma teachings.
Then in 1983, while at a conference at Harvard University on women, religion and social change, Dhammananda was struck by the idea that her specialized knowledge of how integral women had been to Theravada Buddhism obliged her to act on it. “It was then that I came to a realization that I am the only one in Thailand who has all this information about Theravada bhikkhunis, about what is right and what is wrong and how to support them, but I’m not doing anything. I’m just sitting comfortably and that’s shame on me,” she says. “So I knew that the only way I could really make change was to become a bhikkhuni myself and set the example.”
But even after her lightbulb moment at the Harvard conference, Dhammananda took 17 years to transition into a monk. Since Buddhist monks are not allowed to touch members of the opposite sex, she knew that starting that journey would mean pulling away from her three sons. “So I waited for them to grow up, I had to make sure that they were on their right path. Now, they tell me they are very proud,” she says. “My eldest son said he sacrificed his mother for the Buddha.”
Dedicating her life to Buddha also meant divorcing from her husband. “Well of course he was resistant,” she says. “But he has a younger wife now, so he is okay.”
It’s 6 a.m. and the village around Songdhammakalyani Monastery is springing to life. At a ramshackle street stall, pots of soups and curries are being laid out, while a disheveled couple whiz past on a motorbike. On the veranda of a modest house, an elderly couple wait, surrounded by offerings of fresh fruit, small cartons of milk and freshly boiled rice. As the bhikkhunis approach on their morning alms round, the couple prostrate themselves, flat to the floor, their palms pressed together firmly above their heads. The monks recite a small blessing and graciously take the offerings.
It wasn’t always this way. Dhammananda says when she was first ordained, only one or two houses would give the women offerings. “It was not uncommon to pass by households that would turn around as we approached, they could not face us,” she says. “They were only used to giving alms to the male monks, not female. But I would just bless them as I passed and hoped that one day maybe they would understand. Now people are much more open and supportive, so things have changed.”
But there is still resistance. Dhammananda says she and her fellow bhikkhunis will keep up their steady, peaceful struggle until they are standing side by side with male monks, the way Buddha had always intended. “My strength comes from my academic background and a deep understanding of what I am doing and that what I am doing is correct according to the text,” she says. “People can attack from any corner, but I can always say, ‘Go back to the text, please look up this line or this page and you will see what the Buddha said.’”