The following article was from “A Mindful Walk” by professor and students from St. Mary College of Maryland about their experience after they have met Dhammananda Bhikkhuni.
John Schroeder, Liz Lawrence, & Lydia Park
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni is the first fully ordained nun in Thailand, and has recently been thrust into the spotlight for her courageous struggle against the mainstream, male dominated Buddhist community (Sangha) in Thailand. Formerly a professor of religion and philosophy at Thailand’d prestigious Thammasat University, Dhammananda is a scholar with an extensive list of books and publications, has been featured on CNN and the BBC, and is the subject of a National Geographic Society film.
When we arrived at her temple (50 miles west of Bangkok) we were exhausted from long, hot days of traveling and visiting various Buddhist communities. We had met Dhammananda previously when she came to give a talk at St. Mary’s College a few months prior. Despite being silent and sleepy as we waited for her to enter the main lecture hall, we instantly came alight with excitement when she arrived. She spoke in a soft but powerful voice about women’s issues in Thailand, about what it means to lead a monastic lifestyle, about the Buddha’s view regarding women, and about the community of lay people who provide her with food every day.
Certain aspects of monastic life at Dhammanada’s temple are the same as at other temples in Thailand: the commitment to ritual, service to the community, and interest in finding a Buddhist response to the difficulties of everyday life. Yet Dhammananda’s temple felt different than others we had visited. Perhaps it was softer, or more personal, or perhaps it was the way that, because the leaders there are monastic women in a country of monastic men, Dhammananda and the nuns at her temple must be more mindful of their relationship to Buddhism. After studying and reading a majority of works by male Buddhist leaders over the semesters and during our stay in Thailand, the experience with Dhammananda and her female understudies was refreshing. Although they were practicing the same basic Buddhist traditions, the atmosphere and tone of their practice were different from others. Colorful flowers covered the temple’s ground, smiles graced their faces, and casual talk took place outside of lectures. There was a tenderness and warmth comparable to a mother’s care. Their gender is not something that they can take for granted, so they frame the common rituals that they set out to perform daily in a female context by altering lines of ancient texts, emphasizing certain elements related to gender, and adding their own words. Not only do these small changes affects the way they are perceived as female Buddhist leaders, they also work to better serve the local people who use the temple.
At night, we walked through the back-field of her compound to an open-air temple on raised platform. With the warm monsoon winds blowing through the trees, Dhammananda and her fellow nuns chanted the “Medicine Buddha Heart” mantra in deep, sonorous voices. Under the candlelight, it was clear that we were all profoundly awed and inspired. In the early morning, we followed Dhammananda, Dhammawana, Dhammatira on their daily alms round through the local community. We helped collect the food into larger baskets, and recalled Dhammananda’s words from the previous evening: “The alms walk is not a singular experience; it’s about humility and giving at the same time. We must humble ourselves in order to beg for food every day, but we also give the community love and spiritual guidance at every step.”
We followed this ancient path of the Buddha, a path traversed by thousands of Buddhists every day for over two and a half thousand years, and, in the tradition of Buddhism, it was a mindful walk.
Moreover, in the article “City of Contradictions: A Brief Journey” by Chantal Russell wrote “if you travel even further, for an hour along smooth new highways, to an outlying suburb of Bangkok, to the small, welcoming temple of Thailand’s sole ordained female, you will see quiet, extraordinary things. Walk carefully behind this woman, the Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, whose very life was become a struggle against the traditional Buddhist establishment, against men who believe women to be incapable or unworthy of ordination. Follow her as she completes her morning alms round, collecting food offered by the community’s faithful in an act that makes merit for the giver.”
Theresa Tenaglia also wrote in her article “Reconciliation”; she wrote we later visited the home of Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, one of Thailand’s few fully ordained female monks. Most Buddhists in Thailand refuse to recognize the ordination of Dhammanada and her followers, but she continues her mission to allow women to be fully ordained. She describes Buddhism without fully ordained women as a “chair with only three legs,” asserting that without the fourth leg of female monks, Buddhism is wobbly, and lacking a strong foundation. Our stay with Dhammananda was filled with laughter and a sense of home and acceptance that I did not feel elsewhere in Thailand.”