1. The Path of Liberation among women and men are equally
“Have all the Buddhas come into being for men’s benefit alone? Definitely not. They also are for the benefit of women. The path of liberation is open to both men and women.”
So said the Lord Buddha over 2,500 years ago when he set up the Bhikkhuni order to allow women equal opportunity for spiritual practices.
The Buddha also cautioned that the health of Buddhism depended on the existence and strength of four pillars: bhikkhu (monks) bhikkhuni (female monks), upasaka (male lay devotees), and upasika (laywomen).
No wonder the Thai Sangha is in deep crisis. Apart from the monks’ laxity and devotees’ negligence, one of the causes of the Sangha decline is its discrimination against women.
Although temples depend primarily on Thai women for alms and donations, the clergy’s patriarchal system has been hostile to women’s quest for spiritual lives. Forget about the Bhikkhuni order; the clergy is determined not to let it see the light of day. Meanwhile, most whiterobed, headshaven “mae chi”, or nuns, are kept down as temple servants with no legal status as religious persons. They also suffer low social status and stereotyping as broken religious practice, they have very few temples to which they can turn. Most go to nunneries which, like the nuns them selves, must struggle to pursue a religious life without any state or cleric support.
This is the clergy’s standard argument against Bhikkhuni ordination: Female monks must be ordained by both the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni orders according to the Vinaya, or Buddhist discipline. Since the Theravada Bhikkhuni lineage became extinct more than 1,000 years ago, it’s just not possible to ordain female monks. End of story.
Last month, a prominent Thai Buddhist scholar, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, did what more wome will soon do; when she could not get any sympathy from the Thai Sangha, she turned elsewhere. She was ordained by the Sri Lankan clergy as a novice and adopted a new religious name. Dhammananda. When the two preparatory years as a novice are completed, she will be ordained as a Theravada bhikkhuni.
Although Thai law allows only two sects in Theravada Buddhism, it’s unlikely that the clergy will dare outlaw female monks ordained in Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism given their close historical ties.
In the 18th century, when Buddhism in Sri Lanka was in decay and there were not even monks to perform ordinations, Siam sent a delegation of monks to ordain and continue the Theravada lineage there. Hence its name, Siamnikaya.
Now that Sri Lanka has restored the Bhikkhuni order, it is Thailand’s turn to seek help.
Reformist monks and scholars in Sri Lanka argue that the Theravada Bhikkhuni lineage has not been broken. Although the Bhikkhuni order now remains only in the Mahayana tradition in East Asian countries, it actually originated from Sri Lanka travelled to China to establish the Bhikkhuni order there in the 5th century. Given the same origins. Mahayana bhikkhunis then can help ordain and revive the Bhikkhuni order in the Theravada tradition, they said.
The Vinaya requires the presence of at least five bhikkhunis and five bhikkhus to ordain female monks. We now need only four women to follow in Dhammananda Bhikkhuni’s footsteps-and five Thai monks who have the courage to go against the elders-to see the birth of the Bhikkhuni order in Thailand.
If the feudal Thai clergy refuses to wake up to women’s rightful position in the religious realm, it soon will become irrelevant.
When Buddhist scholar Chatsumarn Kabilsingh became a female novice monk, or samaneri, in preparation for full ordination as a bhikkuni, or female monk, she said she received two main reactions. One was admiration, the other the awkward silence of disapproval.
Now she must learn to deal with what most pioneers of change cannot avoid---persecution.
Her TV interviews were banned. Religious affairs officials issued that her temple would be in hot water if it was not properly registered or it the temple’s financial accounts were cloudy.
Ms Chatsumarn, who has now adopted the Buddhist name of Dhammananda, remains calm. And humble. “My mind is firm and clear as to why I want to live a religious life as well as to why women should get ordained,” she said.
Given the clergy’s patriarchal system, Dhammananda Samaneri knew beforehand that her ordination might make the establishment edgy.
But should things get rough, she said, her clear conscience, the determination to continue the Lord Buddha’s legacy for women’s spirituality and the understanding that it is natural for any establishment to be angry with perceived threat will eventually save her spiritual test has began.
Looked on from the bright side, the TV ban and the threats are nothing compared to what happened in the 1920s. Social critic Narin Kluen had his daughters Sara and Chongdee ordained as novices, but they were immediately arrested, defrocked and temporarilly jailed.
Backed by a sensational media, the incensed clergy declared female ordination illegal. That’s why Thai women who want to live a religious life have no choice but to become the head-shaven, white-robed mae chi despite the low social status, the lack of legal recognition for nunhood and zero support.
Next, the clergy has began using the Vinaya to back its opposition to bhikkhuni ordination.
The Vinaya demands dual ordination for bhikkhunis. Since the bhikkhuni lineage in the Theravada tradition disappeared long ago, they argue that it is simply impossible to ordain women as females monks, ever again.
The clergy also often dish out the patronising consolation to women the ordination or not, women still can pursue spiritual development. It does not occur to them that it ordination is indeed unnecessary, why do men need to become monks?
The clergy’s other strategy is to make women feel bad about their religious rights. By portraying women who want to become bhikkhunis as greedy for status and recognition---a sign of spiritual unreadiness---many nuns remain silent about their wishes.
Unlike Ms Sara and Ms Chongdee. Who were defrocked, Dhamananda Samaneri has many things going for her. The media is largely positive. Although the army-run TV Channel 5 has banned her, Channel 11 and UBC 8 immediately invited her for TV interviews.
Also, female ordination is no longer a taboo subject, thanks to the strong women’s movement worldwide. And the clergy has lost much of its credibility due to laxity and endless scandals. This is probably why many monks have dared to voice their public support for female ordination, something unimaginable just a decade ago.
In addition, the Thai clergy’s demand for bhikkhunis’ dual ordination is wearing thin; the Buddha permitted the removal of minor monastic rules should they prove cumbersome for the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni Sanghas.
So if the clergy’s insistence on the rule of dual ordination for bhikkhunis has robbed women of their spiritual path as well as their opportunity to help one another practise dhamma better in a female Sangha, the solution is simple: These rules must go.
2. What has become of goodwill?
The ferocious attacks by the clergy on Dhammananda Samaneri show there is no room for kindness when the holy men feel their status quo under threat.
Phra Dhepdilok, vice-abbot of Wat Bowon Niwet, is a prominent monk who represents the powerful conservative camp in the clergy. He slammed Dhammananda Saaneri’s ordination as revenge on behalf of her mother, a female monk in the Mahayana tradition, against the Theravada clergy.
Matichon newspaper quoted him as saying : “It’s not a matter of monks wanting to ordain women or not. Monks just do not have the right to do this. There’s no way out of this matter because the Dhamma-vinaya determines so.”
“What Dhammananda, or Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, is doing is not a way out. She only wants to take revenge for her mother. In her days, the mother also caused a lot of trouble for religion.”
“Had Chatsumarn any knowledge of dhamma practice and spiritual liberation, she would have known that ordination is ussecessary. Everyone is equal in practising dhamma. Forms are not necessary. What matter is the mind : being ever in sila (right conduct), samadhi (concentration) and panna, why a woman needs to be ordained?
“Women’s ordination is impossible. Why pressure monks? All she wants is to create confusion in the country and to find ways to berate monks.”
Phra Dhepdilok is not a alone in his anger. Immediately after Dhammananda Samaneri’s ordination, many leading names in male-dominated Buddhist circles lined up to discredit her as a front for a “third party” to destroy Buddhism.
It doesn’t take much knowledge of Buddhism to see that such angry responses violate the Buddhist teachings on right speech and compassion.
Shouldn’t we expect monks and those who claim to be well-versed in dhamma to know and act better? Where is the equanimity and understanding they keep preaching to women while keeping ordination out of women’s reach?
If form and ordination are unnecessary, why do men need to become monks?
Given the clergy’s strong reaction against women’s ordination, it is no wonder that the nun communities prefer to remain silent.
Operating under an old-world feudalism, the clergy still doesn’t understand that answering women’s spiritual needs is one of its main challenges should it want to thrive in the modern world.
Ever wondered why Thailand is seeing a boom in meditation movements led by lay teachers, many of them women?
Ever wondered why new faith groups, or reformist religious sects, are more open to women than the clergy?
Turned off by monk’s laxity, their clinging to power and inability to communicate with urban folk, many of the religiously inclined bypass monks in seeking spiritual training, resulting in the growing lay meditation movement.
Many new faith groups attract female followers by offering them the sense of community that lay Buddhist women rarely find in mainstream Buddhism.
How can the clergy turn the tide? Certainly not by closing its eyes and ears.
Back when monks monopolised knowledge of the Buddhist canons, they could use their authority to end any religious debate. No longer.
Thanks to universal education and communication technology, many lay Buddhists are equally versed in the canons, if not more so. When opinion is split, such as over women’s ordination, monks now cannot expect to have the last word. Other voices, especially women’s voices when the issues concern them, must be heard.
With compassion and goodwill, there are always ways out to any problem. With denial and anger, the clergy will lose out in the end.
3. The booze is part of general decline
One in 10 monks and novices is a drug addict. If you are not shocked by this report, you are not alone.
Our holy men already have more than their share of our sinful world if we are to believe the endless stream of scandals involving monks. Booze. Sex. Lies. Corruption. Murder. And now drug. So what’s new?
Manop Polpairin, a Buddhist authority at the Religious Affairs Department, announced this week that about 10% of monks and novices nationwide are addicted to drugs, and senior monks are all too willing to pretend that the problem does not exist
That bit about the elders’ lethargy isn’t surprising either. We can almost predict how they will respond to Mr Manop’s statement:
“There are good and bad in all communities, and the monks’ community is no exception. There are only a few rogue monks, however, compared to the majority of good monks.”
If that sounds familiar, that’s because that is the elders’ standard reply to every scandal involving monks.
Mr Manop said senior monks turn a blind eye because they want to protect the faith. If that’s what senior monks really said, they weren’t telling the turth.
What monks want to protect isn’t the faith. It’s the temple donation which they consider their own. In short, greed.
It’s the same reason monks are so against the ordination of Bhikkhuni, or female clergy. They use every possible orthodox excuse not to revive the Bhikkhuni order. Why are they so afraid of having female monks as their peers? It’s not just a matter of gender bias. It’s a fear of losing power-and losing donations.
When greed is the crux of the matter, Mr Manop’s suggestion that the clergy screen new monks more strictly won’t be of any help. Not that it’s not sound advice. But monks won’t go along with it because the more ordinations they perform, the more the money that comes in. So why put a lid on it?
According to the Vinaya, or the disciplines set by the Buddha, a preceptor must make sure that those who seek ordination must be free and morally ready. The preceptor must coach apprentice monks for at least five years so that they can live a spiritual life independently without fail. If five years is not enough, the preceptor must continue the training until the junior monks are ready to leave.
How are thing here now? Well, you pay, you get ordained, you leave the next day, and no one will raise and eyebrow. That’s why many criminals and drug addicts use the saffron robes as a haven.
The fact that clergy won’t shape up doesn’t mean that change isn’t coming. Many new Buddhist groups, be they Santi Asoke or Dhammakaya, screen their monks very strictly, knowing that disciplined monks can draw followers amid the general frustration with the clergy. More new religious groups will do the same.
But the role of ordination as a cultural rite of passage and as a means of social mobility cannot be dismissed.
In our society, where class differences are immense and legal control is weak, temporal ordination has served the Thais well for a long time. It has equipped the majority poor young men with both moral and formal education to improve their lives.
So let’s not throw away the baby with the bath water. Our challenge is how to preserve the contribution made by temporal ordination while improving on the screening and religious training for monks with life-time commitment. And how to extend this same benefit to women.
If the clergy won’t budge, new reformist Buddhist groups will arise to take up the challenge. That way, the clergy will soon find out that power alone isn’t enough for them to survive in today’s fiercely-contested faith market.
3. A HARD CHOICE TO MAKE : WHICH TRADITION?
To be or not to be ordained had been going back and forth in my mind for the past two years. The decision to be ordained became clear from November 1999 onward. I went through an illness (positional vertigo) during which period I lost my self-assurance and became dependent.
My worldly achicvements, joy, sorrow, success, failure rolled before my own (inner) eyes, after which I became quite disinterested to strive any further in the worldly path. I slowly disengaged myself from various ties and activities. Out of kindness, some friends would urge me to wait until retirement. I knew from within that I cannot be complacent and keep postponing when I cannot be sure (no one can) that I am going to live up to retirement! We tend to take things for granted, don’t we? When I saw a tiny coffin on display in a funeral shop, it’s a good reminder that death is meant for all ages.
Once a decision was made that I would be ordained, next came the variety of choices as to which tradition I would belong? This decision was much harder to make.
To be a Thai woman seeking for an ordination to walk the short cut spiritual path provided by the Buddha is indeed not easy. Due to the Sara and Chongdi cases (reported in Yasodhara no.65). since 1928 Thai monks are not allowed to ordain women to become bhikkhuni, sikkhamana, or samaneri. It would logically follow that any Thai woman seeking ordination into the Buddhist Sangha will have to do it outside Thailand.
My first consideration was the Chinese, Dharmagupta tradition. My mother is the first one in Thailand to be ordained in this tradition, and on learning of my decision to be ordained, she still suggested late last year to seek ordination from the Chinese tradition. First I checked with Fo Guang Shan. They do not have a immediate plan for international ordination, definitely not in 2001 and may be 2002.
Next I approached Ven.Bhikshu ming San, a Chinese monk who helped with the connection to have my mother ordained in Taiwan back in 1974. He is now based in Indonesia, and answered very promptly on a positive note. The major problem I considered was the language barrier which could become a real obstacle considering when I have to deal with the study of the Vinaya later on.
I also considered the Tibetan lineage, but it also posed an academic problem for me that the Tibetan lineage has only lower ordination (samaneri, sramanerika) for women. If I receive lower ordination from the Tibetan lineage, later on I will have to receive higher ordination from the Chinese tradition, in which case I will have to change from the maroon Tibetan robe to the brown or gray of the Chinese tradition. Technically I cannot keep the Tibetan robe with higher ordination from the Chinese tradition, as there is no Tibetan Sangha as yet which accepts higher ordination for women. This will cause confusion to the Thai public who are not yet familiar with an idea of having a female sangha. Yet I hold H.H.the Dalai Lama supreme as my spiritual Guru.
Now I considered Sri Lankan lineage which is closest to the Thai Sangtha. Through our histories, there had been much influence between the two countries. Both retain Pali in their chanting, making transferring and adapting Buddhist rituals easily accessable.
Sri Lankan Dasasilmatas (DSM) started to receive bhikkhuni ordination since 1988 when ten of them went to Hsi Lai Temple in LA. But only five of them actually took the ordination. (see report in N.I.B.W.A. 1988) Upon returning to Sri Lanka there was no supporting structure for them. The five bhikkhunis were scattered and did not retain as a sangha.
A new and more successful wave came in 1996 when 10 Dasailmatas received full ordination from the Korean Bhikkhu Sagha, but some academics had doubt on the authenticity of the ordination as it did not meet the requirement of dual ordination that the conservative Theravada monks would have accepted. There were Korean bhikkhunis at the ordination ceremony but they did not appear to be officiating at the ordination as expected by Theravada understanding. This could have been perfectly the Korean way of doing it. As the Korean bhikkhu Sangha organized and sponsored the whole event, the Sri Lankans were too polite to insist on the required dual ordination. Hence this ordination did not receive full approval from the public. The continuing problem as I see it is that these nuns will have difficulty to gain acceptance to give a proper lineage to future bhikkhuni Sangha.
In February 1998, Master Hsing Yun of Fo Guang Shan organized another international ordination for both men and women. Thirty Dasasilmatas from Sri Lanka received bhikkhuni ordination. The ordination committee realized the sensitive requirement of the dual ordination and paid full attention to it.
In 1998, the Sri Lankan Sangha organized a training course for dasasilmatas preparing them for the full ordination to become bhikkhunis. Since then the Sri Lankan bhikkhu Sangha started giving ordination to their own nuns. Now there are more than 200 bhikkhunis throughout the island.
I followed the event closely. One small point which was problematic for me. The bhikkhunis who were preceptors did not have 12 years standings required in the Vinaya.
Ven.Sumangala Mahathero of the Siam Nikaya who organized bhikkhuni ordination at Dambulla explained in an interview by Dr Nirmala Salgado that it is acceptable as it is allowable and accepted by the Sangha. Besides, these leading bhikkhun is who are preceptors had been DSM for 30-40 years, and they are well rooted in their ordained lives, fluent in both dhamma and vinaya.
I checked again the Buddha’s message prior to his great passing away when he allowed minor rules to be lifted with the consent of the sangha. This explanation satisfied my academic curiosity.
The tradition I have chosen then, is the Sri Lankan tradition, not because it is better than others but it fits my requirement and my personal setting most. My respect for other traditions remains the same. As a lay person I used to introduce myself simply as a Buddhist. But with an ordination lineage in view I have to choose to associate myself with one of them and it happens to be the Sri Lankan Theravada tradition.