"against all odds" interview with Samaneri Dhammmananda

      Samaneri Dhammananda was born as Chatsumarn Kabilsingh in Thailand in 1945. She received her B.A degree from Magadh University, Bangkok, an M.A. degree from McMaster University, Canada, and a Ph.D. degree from Magadh University, India. She was a professor of Buddhist Philosophy at Thammasat University in Bangkok for over 20 years before she received her novice ordination from Venerable Dhammaloka Mahathera, Deputy Chief Sangharaja of Amarapura, Sri Lanka on February 6, 2001. She is the author of THAI  WOMEN IN BUDDHISM and many other books on Buddhism, as well as a past President of Sakyadhita (Daughters of Buddha) International, a Buddhist women's organization.

      Samaneri Dhammananda visited Malaysia in June 2002 at the invitation of the BGF. She gave talks at the lpoh Buddha Dhamma Association, Buddhist Maha Vihara and BGF. During her stay at theBGF. Lee Bee Sim interviewed her, together with Low Yin Teing and Jacyln Wee Su Yin, on why she became a nun despite the controversy of female ordination in Thailand, what she thinks about women and Buddhism and her new life now that she is ordained.     

      LEE BEE SIM : Your mother was amongst the first Thai women to become a nun. Was she a great influence in your decision to be a nun too?
      DHAMMANADA: well, I would say my mother has some influence on my decision to be a nun. When we study and practice Buddhism over a period of time, we will develop faith in the Triple Gem. I think this faith (saddha) that I have developed is the strongest influence. But I must also say that it was my mother's Bodhisattva lifestyle that influenced my commitment. She turned our house into a temple. She said that even after ordination, her duty as a mother does not stop. She brought us up in a temple atmosphere. That is how I learnt chanting from a very young age with the nuns. I try to teach the devotees that the way to honor the Budha is not through making many expensive offerings but to sincerelystudy and practice what the Buddha has taught.
     
      As a professor of Buddhism for over 20 years, how would you use your knowledge and understanding of the teachings in your new role as a nun?
      My role as a teacher does not stop when I am ordained. Previously my teaching is only confined to the academic world but now I am addressing a larger public and it may not always be academic anymore. Now I teach wholesome lifestyles for the many people who attend my lectures. In academia I provide food only for the brain but now as a Dhamma teacher, the food I provide is for the well-being of the heart. My audience has also changed: I no longer speak to only students and intellectuals. Now in my lectures I meet farmers, hawkers, housewives, businessmen and many uneducated people. So I need to know what are their needs and problems that they face in their daily lives in order to help them.
      People come to my temple for different reasons. Some come for blessings and ask for amulets or to take pictures of me putting my hand on their heads. I do not turn them away but I also teach them some basic Buddhist values which they can easily understand at their level. It is like leading them up the stairs one step at a time. Some devotees would tell me they cannot come to the temple to do offering to generate merit because they have no money. I told them they do not ned money to make merit. Through practicing the dhamma they will make greater merits than merely making offerings. So slowly we bring the masses to a better understanding of what merit making is really like. I try to teach the devotees that the way to honor the Buddha is not through making many expensive offerings but to sincerely study and practice what the Buddha has taught.
     

      The Buddha has no gender biases. But we were told he initially hesitated to admit women as nuns. Why did he do so?
      People always interpret hesitation as not a good action but this is not necessarily true. When the Buddha was first enlightened, he too hesitated to teach until invited by Brahma Sahampati. When his own stepmother and aunt Maha Pajapati Gotami requested him for ordination, he hesitated because at that time it was socially and culturally not acceptable to have female monastics. He knew it was going to be very difficult for women to become nuns because of social norms then. So he hesitated to ensure that Maha Pajapati truly understood the implications of her request. When the Buddha rejected her request, Maha Pajapati followed him on foot for days and nights with 500 royal ladies from the palace to Vesali. She wanted to prove to the Buddha that her request was serious and based on deep-seated faith. The hesitation was also to allow the gentle ladies of the palace to realize the hardship and difficulties, including the dangers of living in a forest, that they would face when they become nuns.     

      It is said that because of the formation of the Order of Nuns, the Buddha's dispensation will be shortened. Did theBuddha really said such a thing?
      When the Buddha allowed women to be ordained, it was because he realized women have the same spiritual potential as men to be enlightened. He therefore allowed them to become nuns. The statement that by accepting women, Buddhism would be shortened from 1000 years to 500 years is no longer valid because the Buddha's teachings had prospered for over 2500 years. So such words could have not have come from the Buddha. He also set out the Garudarama or the Eight Important Rules in order to strengthen the sangha. So there is no question that Buddhism would decline because women become nuns. When we read the texts, we must read it critically and in its proper context. If we just read one passage in isolation and do not make references to other parts of the scriptures, we will not understand the whole essence. Sometimes we quote out of context, resulting in many negative interpretations of what the Buddha really meant.
     
      There is this misconception that becoming a monastic is a form of escapism.
      What is your commment on this?
      Yes, this may be truee for some people. But I also know of many people who become monks or nuns out of conviction that this is a spiritual journey they wish to pursue not just for their own happiness but the happiness of others. They become monastics out of compassion so that they can provide spiritual support to others. Many monks and nuns arevery strong spiritually and mentally, and for them ordination is not escapism.     

      You said compassion is a motivation why people become monks or nuns. Why is compassion so important?
      Compassion seems to be given much emphasis in Mahayana Buddhism which encourages everyone to go towards the path together in one big family. In Theravada Buddhism we tend to do it individually but that does not mean there is no compassion involved. As Buddhists we must care for others besides cring for our own selves. i think this is the correct attitude. It is important we keep our precepts pure but we must not forget to develop the bodhisattva spirit of helping others. Let's say we keep to the Five Precepts steadfastly but when we see a husband beating his wife next to our house, would we still be keeping our precepts pure if we do nothing to assist the battered wife? We may interpret that it is the wife's bad karma that causes her to get the beating. However, in an engaged Buddhist attitude, we will ask where is our compassion. If we are in the position to help, we should go out and help her. How can we be happy when we see others suffering? As Buddhists I believe we should be involved in social issues.     

      Some people think of Buddhism as a very lonely religion because we emphasize on individual spiritual development. Waht do you think?
      In our spiritual practice, it is very individual. But as I am sitting with you, I need to care for you and other sentient beings. We need to dedicate merits after our meditation. All sentient beings experience suffering in one form or another. We should therefore be sharing our happiness together, so how can we not care for them? Sometimes we know about the importance of compassion but do not put it into practice. I would say that we need to open up and engage others. Let me take it further by saying that we also need to have this connectedness not only with sentient beings but also with the environment. Our existence is also dependent on the environment. That is how we should build up the connection so that we will become a harmonious human being.     

      In Buddhism, five ideal qualities of the perfect wife are mentioned. But they seem to reinforce the inferiority of women to men. Why is this so?
      That teachings came out of Indian social values. That is not the uniqueness of Buddhism. In Buddhism man and woman are equal spiritually. some suttas reflected the social values of India at that time. That is why we must see the Buddha's teachings in its proper context. We must be able to distinguish the cultural context and makeup of the suttas that we read. If we can do this then we will realize the essence of the Buddha's teachings which is devoid of all discriminations. So it important for us to understand that while Buddhism gives freedom to women, it grew out of an Indian environment that does not equate women on the same level as men. If we can understand this, we will be able to appreciate what the Buddha has done to elevate the status of women in India 2500 years ago. Indeed the Buddha was going against all odds during his time.     

     
My challenge is therefore my own spiritual practice.
      What are your biggest obstacles or challenges as a Buddhist nun?
The obstacles are all within me. How can I lessen my suffering and that of others? My challenge is to get back to my original mind before it became clouded with defilementsthat I have accumulated over many, many lives. My challenge is therefore my own spiritual practice.     

      You were recently interviewed by CNN. I think the publicity has helped your efforts to revive the bhikkhuni sangha in Thailand. Do you see the acceptance of a bhikkhuni sangha by the Thai clergy within your lifetime?

      Maybe elsewhere but not in Thailand. Anyway the interview was done in English and the large majority of people in Thailand do not listen to English. So the CNN interview may have no impact on them. But in many other parts of the world. I think there is greatr awareness of the Bhikkhuni issue. In 1993 as president of Sakyadhita (Daughters of Buddha) International, I organized a conference of nuns. The Government officials in Thailand told us not to mention the word "bhikkhuni". So, we complied but most of the participants were bhikkhunis. In 1996, the Korean bhikkhuni sangha went to Sri Lanka to give ordination to Sri Lankan nuns. In 1998, they received full ordination from the Chinese tradition together with the bhikkhu
sangha from Sri Lanka. Back in 1993, I did not expect such positive developments to happen, but it did. Then in 2001, I was ordained as a Buddhist nun in the Theravada tradition in Sri Lanka. Because it was controversial for a Thai lady to be ordained as a nun, CNN picked up the story and interviewed me. So I gave an interview to Loraine Hahn from CNN sitting in my temple in Thailand. Many people in Malaysia have seen this interview with CNN. Whether the Thai sangha wants to
accept female ordination or not, I shall leave it to them but we are talking about half the population of the country! I believe if women are allowed to be ordained, it will also benefit the bhikkhu sangha as we will be helping them propagate the  Buddha's teaching of love and compassion. I think the decision as to whether females can become nuns or not in Thailand should be left to the society to decide.
      

      There are so many problems facing women today. Is it easier for a woman to approach a female bhikkhuni to talk about her problems?
      Yes, I think so because I experience it myself. That is why I give consultation to women who have problems between 2.00-5.00 pm in the temple. They may not come to listen to dhamma talks but they come to tell me about their problems.
So I guide them along the path of dhamma so that they can reduce their pain and suffering. In the process they learn to appreciate the beauty of the dhamma. I think women in Thai society have been neglected for quite a while and if there are
more Buddhist nuns, they too can provide this counseling service for the female devotees.
     

      Last but not least, any words of inspiration for the sisters in the Dhamma, especially those who intend to become nuns?
      My advice is not to rush into becoming a nun. First of all, you must study the lifestyle of a monastic. Experience taking Eight Precepts for a period of time by staying in a temple and find out if it is and environment that you like. Ordained life is very different from lay life. You must get used to it in a gradual way. For example, we are awake by 5.00 am and begin chanting at 5.30 am. Not many people are used to this type of discipline. But once you are sure about ordination, you will find that it is a very beautiful life which you will definitely cherish. EH


Lee Bee Sim is a graduate from University of Malaya with a Bachelor of Economics, specializing in Statistics. She is currently working in a market research company as a Statistics Executive. Bee Sim has been involved with Buddhist activities since her university days and is now helping out with Buddhist activties at BGF.Form : EASTERN HORIZON , Dec.2002