This week, a woman of faith, who is trying to break down a 700 years old barrier. No one questions Chatsumarn Kabilsingh’s Buddhist credentials. She has been a scholar at Bangkok’s prestigious Thammasat University and author of more than 40 books. What is in dispute is one of the wishes to be recognized in Thailand as an ordained monk.
Thailand highest Buddhist authority said that the lineage of Buddhist female monk disappeared since 7 centuries ago. Dr. Chatsumarn is trying a round about path to get her goal. A year ago she was ordained as a novice by lineage of Hinayana in Sri Lanka. The order has very strong culture and historical link to its counterpart in Thailand. You can even find the prove of that in the name of the lineage “Siam Nigaya”. If Dr. Chatsumarn adheres to her duty of novice for 2 years, Sri Lanka and other countries will recognize her as an ordained monk.
Thailand, however is a very different story. We spend this half hour learning a little bit more of Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh in her homeland and why she cares so deeply about achieving it.
L : Dr. Chatsumarn joins us now from the temple she founded in the Thai province of Nakhon Pathom. Dr. Chatsumarn, during our conversation, I refer to you, if you don’t mind, by the title “Ajarn” or teacher. Ajarn, how did you family or even your husband at the time take to the news of you, you know, wanting to be ordained?
C : My desire to be ordained started very early. And before getting married, my to be husband then, he knew that this could be my future. So it was not much of a problem.
L : Did you realize…you are gonna take on the whole establishment?
.....C : I only know when I made a decision that I’m just answering to the call that the Buddha provided for women, trusted women that women, along with men, will take care of Buddhism. I was not prepared really for fight or for asking for right. I think I’m more concerned about taking the responsibility.
L : I want to ask this email question. It comes from Seoul and they would like to know: What is the hardest part of being a monk?
C : The hardest part of being a nun or a monk is just to face your own defilements. Every criticism that comes to you, it is a practice for us. So the problem is not outside, the problem is always within. How do we handle it, according to the Buddhist teaching?
L : Ajarn I wanna share with audience with something that you wrote. I’d like to read that. It said: To be Buddhist is to overcome ignorance and the controversy is based on this: not having the right understanding. It is much more serious than, whether or not women can be ordained. Could you tell me a bit more about what you mean by that?
C : You know if the Buddhist in our country understand the teaching of the Buddha very well, what I do, they will do nothing but appreciate and come forward to support. But because they have not really understood the teachings of Buddhism, the beautiful spirit of Buddhism. That’s why there are still some of them who do not understand, who still protest, who still write nasty letters that we have been getting. But all the while, we know that what we are doing is correct and this is what the Buddha meant us to do.
L : Ajarn there are countries like Korean , Taiwan, Sri Lanka, of course that we mentioned, who are ordaining female monks. Why is Thailand holding back?
C : Because in the past history, ever since we had been nation. I’m talking about 700 years, the nuns or the female monks never arrived here. And the requirement for a woman to be ordained, fully ordained, is that she must first be ordained by 5 fully ordained female monks and then male monks. Because we never had this, so we never got started.
L : There are, as I understand, that 300,000 male monks, may be 4 female novices. How many of the male monks do you think support you and your cause?
C : This is very difficult to answer. I do get monks, the male monks support. Like when I walk on the street, sometimes I met monk who would recognize me and come forward and say that he really trusted that what I do I will achieve. I will be successful and give me blessings. Even some senior monks have been giving me blessings. Only we need to have better understanding from the mass. That is Buddhist education. So right now what we are doing is just to give more and more Buddhist education, Buddhist training.
L : Ajarn, how do you change that perception? I mean I would only guess that some of the male monks would be threatened by people like you.
C : They will not be threatened if they’re really following the teaching of the Buddha. They will only be too happy that another sister step out to take more responsibility along with them.
L : Do you also assume, Ajarn, that may be the women also on your side, there might be some pretty conservative who would rather not get involved in your cause.
C : If some of the Buddhist lady, you know, who call themselves teachers, some of them would say that “I’m very conservative therefore I cannot recognize ordained female monks”. But I say that if you are truly conservative you have to support female monks because the very true conservative would follow the Buddha’s teachings. And it was the Buddha who gave us this lineage. It was not something that I started completely on my own.
L : Ajarn Thank you very much. We will take a very short break. We’ll be right back. Talk Asia will be right back.
This is Talk Asia. We are talking with Chatsumarn Kabilsingh. She is a Buddhist scholar who wants to be recognized in Thailand as an ordained monk. So far Thai authority said that is out of the question.
L : Ajarn, in all your struggle to be recognized as a monk in Thailand, how far are you willing to go or to push your cause?
C : You know what I’m doing as a female monk as you call it, I’m just doing my practice. Here at the temple, we’re teaching people, leading a life style of a female monk. That is the way to show people that it is possible and I don’t think I will push myself anywhere.
L : You wouldn’t push harder? And may be use other ways to make your cause know? Be more high profile?
C : I don’t think that is the purpose of my ordained life If lay people, Buddhist lay people think what I’m doing is correct, they will come forward and help. But I myself, I will not do any kind of…those things you have mentioned.
L : So Ajarn, this will take a very very long time, you struggle?
C : It will wait, it can wait because if we stay for 700 years without ordained monks. I just go my way slowly.
L : Have you personally be harassed or your temple, for example, or your foundation, experienced any sort of, any form of harassment?
C : No we have not received any harassment at all, except once in a while nasty letters as I mentioned earlier. And the Government have not done anything that you could call harassment and even the senior monks and the Supreme Patriarch and his cabinet, none of them has expressed anything officially.
L : Sound like things could be improving. Let me talk to you about your background. You talked about your mother very briefly earlier on. What sort of family background were you brought up in? Can you shed some light here?
C : My father was Member of parliament for 3 sessions. He actually laid the ground for the Democrat Party in the South. So I came from very strong political background. My mother was a teacher at the same time. She was the first woman who actually came out with a Ju Jit Su belt, you know. When she was 25, she rode a bicycle from Bangkok to Singapore. The very fist Thai woman who did that. So from both parental lineage, I think I’ve got a very good DNA so to say, to prove the right to… People would say oh you are brave to do this and that. I do not think that I am brave at all I’m just doing what I should do. I have been Buddhist scholar and I studied Buddhism enough to know the real message that the Buddha wanted us to do, to practice, to study. And exactly this is what I’m doing. I have taken Buddhism not only to my brain but also to my heart. And when you have taken enough Buddhism in your heart, I think any Buddhist woman will do exactly as what I’m doing.
L : It sounds like your parents are having very very strong personality. Have they not tried encourage you to do something else in life.
C : None of them have told me to do exactly what I’m doing but this is just a cause of life that I have found myself in. I think if they have been asked me to do it , you know, I could not be this firm.
L : Ajarn, what about politics? Do you think you would ever thought of may be delving in politics?
C : No not in politics because during that time that my father was in politics, I saw that he went through so much suffering. That actually turn me off from politics. He was jailed many times and as a young girl, you know, I was about 10 years old. We used to suffer so much and I don’t think that politics would be right for me.
L : And that last for a long time?
C : Long time. It was his life, you know, to be a politician was his life.
L : Your children, do you get a chance to see them now?
C : Yes, they do come to visit and to help around the temple on a weekly basis. They all are grown up now, grown up young men.
L : Any of them express any desire to be following in your footsteps? Or following the faith?
C : No, not yet, not yet. When I made a decision to be ordained, one of them asked if it was my own decision or whether I was forced by circumstances. I said it was my own decision and he said that if this is the way that I would be happy in, then he was happy.
L : You talked to me about the process of becoming a novice. In fact, the first Thai novice was ordained, if I could use that word, in Thailand earlier this year. How did that make you feel?
C : We arranged for her ordination in our temple. It ‘s good. It’s good that more women should know exactly what they would want out of their life. That they have practiced Buddhism enough and to come forward. Many people would say that oh you can get enlightened you don’t have to be ordained. But that’s fine for you. But for some other women, they might want to live a much more committed life and we should not be obstacles to them. Each one of us should know and should have a chance to be able to use our potentiality to its best.
L : Ajarn we gonna take another quick short break. Please stay with us, Talk Asia. We’ll be right back.
This is Talk Asia. We’re in the final moment of my chat with Chatsumarn Kabilsingh. She’s causing controversy in her native Thailand, with the quest to become an ordained Buddhist monk.
Q. This is question of the week. It comes from Cary in Hong Kong. She’d like to ask you: Does monkshood make a woman stronger to face the difficulties life may present?
C : I think you have to be strong first in order to be ordained, number one. And yes, once you become an ordained person, spiritually, you are strengthened yes it’s you know both ways.
L : When you were inducted in Sri Lanka as a novice, how is that make you feel when you actually going through the process?
C : I think it was wonderful. You know when you have made a decision long time ago, when the actual event or actual happening, you just went through it without really feeling any extraordinary thing about it. The preparations have been long, you know, so…
L : Did you find you were more at peace with yourself?
C : Focused. I don’t know whether I’m at peace but I’m very focused now. Before that you know I used to travel a lot, may be 7-8 times a year to different countries around the world. There’re so many interesting, in different angles. The picture of the world is large, colorful but blur. But once you ordained, the world is much smaller and what you see is much more focused. And at this time of life you don’t need to have so many things. And I think it is wonderful to be focused, to know exactly what you want out of this life and to be able to pursue your life the way you wanted it.
L : Ajarn, may I ask what your day is like at the temple. What do you do? What is your normal routine?
C : We get up at 5 o’clock and we do morning chanting at 5:30, chanting and then mediation. And then we usually walk around the garden to check what we need in the garden so that we can tell the garden later in the day. And then breakfast at 7:30. On Sunday we go out for alms round at 6:00 o’clock My disciples come and join me from Bangkok. And I will just take a tour around the temple about one hour. People around the temple are very happy to offer alms to female monks. And then after breakfast, usually morning time is my study time, my practice. And I take lunch at 11:30 before noon and then I receive visitors and people who come with any kind of problems or may be just to have a Dharma talk, from 2 o’clock in the afternoon until 5 o’clock. And then in the evening, it’s working time in the garden, we water the garden together with all the girls and other nuns living here. And at 7 o’clock, 7 pm, we do anther evening chanting followed by meditation. And that just about it. After that will be study time.
L : Do you spend a lot of time writing?
C : Yes, morning. Reading and writing will be done in the morning.
L : What about traveling? Do you still get to travel?
C : Traveling is much less now. This year will be only three countries.
L : Where do you normally go and what do you do when you travel?
C : It depends on the invitation. I go on invitation.
L : Aside from obviously the physical and religious aspect of Buddhism, have you seen yourself undergo any particular changes?
C : Spiritually, yes. I spend much more time to look into my inner world, trying to understand the making up of my mind.
L : If for 5 minutes, you were not a novice. You could do anything you want you can have anything you want, what would you do? What come to your mind right away?
C : I do exactly the same thing. Exactly the same thin, just follow this mind just try to understand. In the world outside, only see the projection of your mind but once, since my ordination, I’m much more concerned about trying to see, trying to go back to this mind itself.
L : Surely there must be something you miss, about your old life. Is there anything that you would miss?
C : Please don’t laugh. I miss my high tea (laugh), my afternoon tea.
L : (laugh) Your high tea?
C : Yes.
L : What do you think about that? I mean what, what, you miss it so much. I guess you don’t have a chance to do that any more, right?
C : We don’t eat after 12 o’clock. OK? And high tea, it doesn’t mean only tea. People offer me tea anytime. But high tea means it goes with Blueberry Cheese Cake, for example, something that when you take Blueberry Cheese Cake at noon, it just does not match the time and does not match the meal. So the afternoon high tea is something that I really miss from my lay life.
L : I can see where that comes from. Ajarn, do you think there’s a lots of women in Thailand who would like to follow what you’ve done but may be too scare to do it or not willing to make the sacrifices that you need to do in order to become a novice and later on a monk.
C : I think you… Right now I do have people who come…, many are…, they just want to jump into ordination, thinking it is something fashionable, nice to wear the rope and all that. But I ask them to do come on Sunday. You know I give teaching on Sunday. Come and see if they like my teaching. Because if they are thinking about ordination, I think they have to start at our place. And for the first 5 years you know when they become ordained, female monks, we have to live together during the rainy retreat for 5 years. This is according to the rules. We have to get to know each other. We have to know that this path is not easy as you would imagine. It is not easy life at all to be ordained person. But if you committed, if you have principle and you want to live up to your principle, this is the commitments.
L : Ajarn, of all the women that come to speak to you , who are interested in being ordained or becoming novices, what sort of background do they come from? Are they the women who are abused or are they women who have lost their way? What sort of women come to you?
C : One that I am preparing now, she comes from ordinary background, single. She has been studying Buddhism here and there and try to discover the path. And she is a very committed person. Another person is tired of lay life, tired of the worldly life. Have gone through marriage with children and all that and now ready to give up. So there are few cases that I’m considering, asking them to come visit, come and stay with us just as lay people. And then after that, when they are strengthened, they know that they can live this kind of life style, then they can be more committed. Step by step.
L : Ajarn, do you think in your earthy life time, at least in this life time, that you will ever see equality between male and female monks?
C : No..no. But I need to do my share to start. So that when I…, supposed if generations after this, you know, my grand…great grand children will not blame me that grandma hasn’t done anything for them.
L : Well Ajarn, we appreciate the time that you spent with us here at Talk Asia. Thanks very much.
I have been talking with Ajarn Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a Buddhist scholar in Thailand and that is Talk Asia for this week.