One Step Beyond

By Cynthia Good
From Pink Magazine, Dec.2005

      The Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhun, among those recommended by the Association 1,000 women for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, serves as Thailand’s first female monk in the Theravada Buddhist tradition.


 Dhammananda Bhikkhuni remembers the moment she decided to become a monk and give up what she calls her “life of high hells and painted nails.” Her head shaved and her body clad in traditional saffron robes, she explains how she walked away from a 27-year career as professor of Buddhism and Eastern philosophy at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.
 “It happened abruptly,” says the Bhikkhuni, who sits across from me in a simple room at her monastery in the Nakhonpathom province 33 miles west of Bangkok. “It happened when I was putting on makeup one morning. I looked in the mirror and said, “Why am I doing this?” I got tired of it. I felt – this is meaningless.” Because women can’t be legally ordained in Thailand, Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh went to Sri Lanka in February 2001 and took lower ordination. Two years later she returned to become the bhikkhuni, a fully ordained female monk, the first in Thailand in the Theravada Buddhist tradition.
       “It’s a sham,” she says, that women can’t become fully ordained in Thailand. “But the time has arrived.” I ask her how she got to the top of a man’s profession (though she had to leave the country to do it) and she laughs, almost like a young girl, resting her forehead on her arm. “They never allow me to,” she says. After her ordination she received hate mail and allegations that she did it for the publicity and donations, “to horde wealth,” she says. “I knew what I am doing would raise protesting voices. But I did not know it would get nasty.” She says it was a personal test. “The real obstacle is within—how you maintain peace within yourself during such a turbulent time.” “The Bhikkhuni believes it was the Buddha himself who gave women permission to hold such nontraditional roles. “I always say the  Buddha was the first feminist. He was the first one in the world religions to recognize men and women are equal spiritually. No one has the right to stop what was given to us. That is my strength.”
        While she is one of the eight female monks in Thailand, four of  whom reside here at her Songdhammakalyani Temple, only the Bhikkhuni is fully ordained. She strives for change so that other religious women in Thailand can one day have positions equal to those of men and those of women in other countries.
       But progress is slow. “I’m very hot-tempered. I struggle with patience,” the Bhikkhuni admits. She explains how, when gas is used to ripen the mangos faster, they they never taste as sweet. “Everything today is push-button. But if you are doing good work you have to wait.”
       She hopes to see another 10 women ordained in the next 10 years, but according to the Buddhist rules here, she won’t be able to actually ordain anyone herself for more than a decade. “We look to build a community of ordained female monks,” she says. “Only then, in  a community, can you make things happen.”
       On this particular day the Bhikkhuni is visited by Thai volunteers she met in Tibet. They have brought discarded brass silver-ware that the volunteers and female monks will polish and sell to raise fund for the temple. Twice each week, they go out for alms in the street. “We  eat what people give us,” she explains. There are only allowed two meals a day, both before noon. When you are a monk, “you do not have anything that belongs to you,” the Bhikkhuni says, “Even food.”
       What does belong to her, to everyone, she adds, is happiness. “You can find it right here in your mind,” she tells me. May wait too long to experience it. “They go searching outside. Before they realize happiness is inside, they are in the 60s. Some don’t realize it at all.” She tells me about a European lady, deformed from birth, with sad eyes and gnarled fingers, who meditated with her for 30 minutes. Afterward, “she radiated beauty. Forever I remember her smile,” the Bhikkhuni says. “When you accept yourself (with all your faults) and realize it’s you…..the tension eases up and you appreciate what you have.”
       Ultimate happiness, though, comes from helping others, or as the Bhikkhuni says, “from going one step beyond.” During tsunami relief efforts a man who had volunteered to carry the bodies asked for her blessing. He told her is mother had died more than a year earlier, yet he remained overcome with grief. He said her was carrying the bodies for his mother. “He made me cry,” the Bhikkhuni says. “The compassion came out so I did not give up on humanity.”