by Sopaporn Kurz , the Nation 
September 1, 2007

In reviving the tradition of female monks in Thailand, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni believes she has fulfilled the Buddha's wish that we all do something meaningful
Published on September 1, 2007

At the end of June, Thailand's Theravada Buddhists had among them seven bhikkhuni - female monks - and fewer than 20 samaneri, as the female novices are called. The numbers might seem skewed in a country of 65 million people.

But given that there were none when the new millennium began, perhaps the numbers are impressive.

Former Thammasat University professor Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, who is now the Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, brought about the change after being ordained in Sri Lanka in 2001.

Thailand's Sangha council - the monkhood's governing body - has refused to recognise her ordination, however, saying that the lineage of female monks has been broken for more than a thousand years and that as there are no longer any bhikkhuni in Theravada Buddhism, there cannot be a valid bhikkhuni ordination.

Despite the closed doors, Dhammananda has witnessed growing public support for her initiative.

"There are more bhikkhuni now, as well as more women who want to be ordained," says Dhammananda, who is abbot of Nakhon Pathom's Wat Songdhammakalyani, the country's first and only bhikkhuni monastery.

To be ordained, though, she advises, requires "a lot of commitment and determination". She recommends sampling the monastic life first.

"This way you can evaluate your dedication and confidence. Will you be happy? You have to be happy, or you're going to feel tortured."

Trainees assist in the temple's daily activities, and Dhammananda says this amounts to "a lot of work because we practise socially engaged Buddhism".

After three months, if the trainee remains interested, she is ordained in white robes as a nun, a mae-chee. Following another period of devotion to the eight precepts, she will be ordained in a brown robe as an anakarika.

"Anakarika means a woman who is leaving the household," Dhammananda explains.
Then, when she's ready to take the final steps, she is sent to Sri Lanka to be ordained first as a samaneri and then a bhikkhuni.

The entire process can take years, and the majority of women do not get past the training, Dhammananda says, among them those who have pursued the path purely "because of the status - because people pay you respect and provide you money".

No member of Wat Songdhammakalyani is allowed to have money. Any donations they collect are given to the temple, which in turn tends to all their needs.

"Once you have money, you want to buy things for yourself," Dhammananda says. "Then you look different from the others and competition results. But everything in the monastic life is simple. This is the equality that should come from within the community itself."

About 10 people - including two bhikkhuni and a samaneri - currently live at the temple. Dhammananda's day begins around 5am with prayers. Then, twice a week, she makes her alms rounds.

"Every time I go for my alms I feel good because people are waiting for us. They're happy to see and talk to me, even if it's only briefly.

"Some are quite sick, and they feel that making a donation will lengthen their lives. Sometimes I feel sick, too, and I wonder if I'll be able to make it, but when I think of their faces and my responsibility to them, I just go.

"I don't take alms every day because the villagers are poor. If I went out every day we'd become a burden on them. The Buddha taught us to practise metta - to be considerate. We can't expect the villagers to feed us all the time."

Some days Dhammananda can be found hosting a retreat for visitors, including foreign-exchange students. On others she is invited to speak at seminars. For the Vassa - the rainy-season retreat - she is organising a 150-hour lecture series over five days that covers the history of Buddhism, and she's rather proud of it.

"It will help you for the first time to really see the whole picture of the Buddha's life, lineage and family and the Sangha," Dhammananda says of the lectures, which are open to the public.
In her simple days rounded out with twice-daily meals and prayers before sleep, she has also suffered the barbs of criticism, against which she deploys "compassion and a sense of humour".

"You have to have these things, otherwise you're dead," she laughs. "Many of the people who insult you don't know what they're doing, and I can't carry their emotional baggage on my back."

The greatest difficulty facing any bhikkhuni is not the strictures imposed by the monkhood's male hierarchy, Dhammananda says, but controlling the self.

"If you're not serious with your practice and spiritual development, if you get upset every time someone says something, it's ruining your own course, and who is going to be able to follow you?"

And regardless of her differences with the Sangha council, Dhammananda has never regretted her decision to pursue the monastic life.

"I wasn't ordained to seek recognition. I did it because I think it's a responsibility that Buddha has given us.

"For the rest of my life I want to do something that's meaningful. Having introduced bhikkhuni to Thailand, I can wholeheartedly tell my grandchildren that I have already done my part."

Wat Songdhammakalyani is online at

A shift in the spirit

Sri Lanka, which reintroduced full ordination for bhikkhuni in 1998, with the blessing of its senior bhikkhu, currently has nearly 500 female monks.

In July, the Dalai Lama presided at a congress of some 300 Buddhist scholars from around the world to decide whether bhikkhuni ordination should be revived in Tibet's Mulasarvasativada tradition.

There was unanimous support. Only the details of the rituals remain to be worked out.

Regardless, Dhammananda says, any reform among Tibetan Buddhists is unlikely to sway the Thai clergy - although she is not too worried about it.

"We've talked so much about this closed door, but you know, the lock gets rusty, the key is lost and eventually the door will crumble by itself because of the termites."

Sopaporn Kurz
The Nation