An Interview with Chatsumarn Kabilsingh
By Rebecca Warner & Holly Gayley

Dr.Chatsumarn Kabilsingh is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand. She is the editor of Yasodhara: Newsletter on International Buddhist Women’s Activities.
A Buddhist scholar and an activist in social justice and women’s issues in Asia, she is the author of Thai Women in Buddhism. This careful study uncovered the historical roots of women’s participation in Buddhism and Buddhist monasticism—and their subsequent exclusion and oppression in the Theravada lineage. She has been in the forefront of a growing movement to re-establish the ordination of women in the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia.
            Among her many activities, she is the founder and director of the Home of Peace and Love near Bangkok, a shelter for victims of prostitution and rape that is supported by the Peace Council. The photograph shows her holding the first baby to be born there.
            Prof.Kabilsingh is a trustee for the Internaitonal Committee of the Peace Council. This telephone interview was recorded in 1998 by two American students of Buddhism, Holly Gayley and Rebecca Warner. It was previously published in Yasodhara vol.15, no.1.

Holly Gayley” Hello, Dr Kabilsingh, we’re so pleased that you could speak with us. We would like to tape record this interview with your permission.

Chatsumarn Kabilsingh: Please do.
H.: In our class with (Prof.Judith Simmer Brown, Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado) we have been exploring the personal journey of spiritually-based social activists. From our research in the Newsletter on International Buddhist Women’s activities and Thai women in Buddhism, we were able to get a picture of your work in the Bhikkhuni Revival Movement and your social service projects, but we would like to explore with you this morning how you personally integrate Buddhism and feminism. Rebecca and I were drawn to your work because we are also committed to both Buddhism and feminism.
In Thai women in Buddhism you mention that you grew up as a “temple girl”, receiving the Buddhist nun’s training. What was the nature of this training and how did that influence your outlook on Buddhism and the Bhikkhuni issue?
C.K.: I did not directly receive the nuns’ training. But because I grew up in a temple atmosphere, whatever the nuns did, I did the same: getting up in the morning, chanting, meditation, and all sorts of thing. Becoming a feminist came much later, when I was exposed to the outside world. I grew up as a Buddhist in a Theravada context, but my journey to the West prepared me to open up more to other traditions of Buddhism. Here in the Buddhist/Christian conference that I am attending, I introduce myself only as a Buddhist, not a Theravada Buddhist. That means that I have also drawn from Mahayana Buddhism. And I draw spiritual strength from  other tradition also. In my spiritual growth, I have developed much more than if I had committed myself only to Theravada Buddhism.

I did not realize that I was a feminist until 1983 when I was invited to Harvard University. There was a conference on Women, Religion and Social changes, organized by Prof.Diana Eck . In that conference , they asked me to discuss the question; what is the future of the Bhikkhuni Sangha in Thailand? It was a small, close conference, with very active feminists. Some of them had been imprisoned for many years….sharing experiences, we cried so much. It was so overwhelming emotionally. The effect from that that conference actually touched the core of our existence. And I came out from that with a clear understanding. If I know so much about the issue of Bhikkhuni ordination, and I hide under an academic cover without doing anything to bring about social change, there’s no point at all for me to be an academic….to have access to all the knowledge, yet not investing myself to help with the issue. So that was my turning point  to be more responsible for social change. From 1983 onward, I was contacting and corresponding with many Buddhist women and Buddhist nuns in other countries. By the end of 1984, I started to bring out the newsletter. So you see the process.
H: Did your mother’s assuming the robes of a nun and seeking ordination change your relationship with Buddhism and Feminism? How did that impact you?

C.K.:I do not see any clear turning point in my own life process. Slowly, I grew up in that atmosphere. Slowly I molded me. But there is no clear cut point that I can see exactly. I saw my mother suffered a lot because she was the first ordained nun in Thailand. It was how society did not accept her and what kind of struggle she had to go through. Still I did not understand. I did not have the whole picture, because I was too young. When she became a nun, I was only ten. For her to become a nun was very strange and awkward for me at that age. I felt that strongly when we went out together and everyone would be staring at her. Over the years, growing up, I started to understand and appreciate what she was doing.

Rebecca Warner: Dr Kabilsingh, does being a practicing Buddhist affect how you approach your work?
C.K.:Yes, let me tell you. That conference  In 1983.was very effective. I saw around me all these women activists, some of them were very angry and militant. I looked at them and took one step back. I removed myself a bit from that context and told myself, “No, I do not want to become an angry feminist.” It would eat out my inside. So that was the beginning of going back to my root; that is Buddhist practice; So, when I say that I am a feminist, I am a Buddhist before I am a feminist. Because of my training and my understanding of Buddhism, which frees me from other obstacles, I emerged a better feminist. I used to get very upset. I could feel the heat on my face, being very angry when people confronted me. I examined myself very closely. After going back to my practice, I realized that I have more compassion for people who confront me.
I understand their ignorance. So, now as a feminist, I am not fighting against individuals, but I am fighting ignorance. Do I make sense to you?

R: How did you decide to become a scholar of Buddhism? And what influenced you to research the history of the bhikkhuni Sangha in your thesis?

C.K.: When I came to McMaster University (in Canada), where I wrote my M.A.thesis, I actually wanted to do something on bodhisattvas. This was because my mother was the one who started preaching about Bodhisattvas. Thai Buddhists are not familiar with the concept of Bodhisattva. When you talk about bodhisattva, Thai people think  that it is the past life of the Buddha only, and that they have nothing to do with it. Whereas my mother’s teaching had focused on how we become bodhisattva in helping others.

So I intended to do my thesis on Bodhisattvass. But at that time, there was a book which came out from a dissertation by Har Dayal, a very profound book on Bodhisattvas. And if I wanted to work in the same field, I would have to do a better job, which would be very difficult. Then my supervisor, Prof.Jan Yun hua, a Chinese professor who was teaching Mahayana Buddhism and Chinese Philosophy at McMaster University, suggested to me "Your mother is a nun, why don’t you do something on Buddhist nuns. At least it will help your own understanding of the historical development of the Bhikkhuni”.
So that was how I came about to look into the Patimokkha. The Patimokkha is the monastic code of the Buddhist nuns. Because he is a Chinese professor, I did my reading in Chinese with his help. I compared the development of Buddhist nuns in six different schools. That was my M.A. thesis. It is very technical, highly technical, but that was what got me started.
Then I came to read the history of the bhikkhunis. Meanwhile when I was writing my thesis, I realized that my mother wanted to become a fully ordained nun. I started to see the route, the opening for her, because it is not possible in Thailand. Upon my return in 1972-1973… around that time..I told my mother about the possibility. On my way back to Canada to continue my Ph.D. my mother came with me to Taiwan. She took ordination as bhikkhuni and after that she went home. And I continued on to Canada to continue the Ph.D.programme.

H: Dr. Kabilsingh, have there been any obstacles or challenges in your life pertaining to the particular way you have chosen to join Buddhism and feminism?

C.K.: The population in my country (1998) is sixty millions. 94% of the people are Buddhists by birth, so being a Buddhist is not a problem. Not so with being a Buddhist feminist, particularly when I started addressing the issue of Bhikkhuni ordination. Thai culture is such that they do not confront you. In my academic position, people may say things behind my back. I consider that unsaid because it is not heard. If they do not have guts to speak directly to me, so we could iron out the differences, I do not consider that valuable enough to listen to. I have not heard a real  confrontation with anyone. But behind my back, I know, as soon as my name is mentioned, some people will just smile politely and walk away. As long as they do not become obstruction to my work, I think they have already helped me in some sense.
R: Have you worked directly with prostitutes?

C.K.: In one of the chapters in my book (Thai Women and Buddhism) I touch on prostitutes. In the beginning I never wanted to have anything to do with prostitutes. I wanted to commit myself only to deal with women in the temple. But when you start studying the issues you start to realize that it is the same problem. Women in the temple or women in the whorehouse, it’s the same kind of problem. I think I mention briefly in Thai Women in Buddhism  some very interesting research. One woman, a maeji (in Thailand, a woman who has dedicated her life to Buddhist practice in the temple) and another woman, a prostitute. What I found was striking to me. One woman became a maeji because she was poor and had nothing to offer to her parents. She became a maeji so she could offer her merit…to become a maeji is a meritorious act… so she wanted to offer this spiritually to her parents.  Whereas another woman became a prostitute, again because she is poor and had nothing to offer to her parents. So she became a prostitute so that she could offer money to her parents. So I see that when women are cornered, in the same situation, one chooses to become a maeji and another chooses to become a prostitute. From that time on I realized that I cannot limit my vision only to looking at women in the temple but that we also have to look at the women in the whorehouse as well. We need a more holistic approach.

I have not worked directly  with them. Bit in the last couple of years I have started a home that is called “A Home of Peace and Love” to take care of women who do not want to have an abortion but do not have anywhere to go. This home came out from my understanding that abortion is not right for Buddhists. This is not the way to deal with the problem.
What happens if some of my students really believe in what I teach but have no one to help them? So I opened the Home of Peace and Love to try to put into practice what I had learned and believe.

H.: We have just one more question for you, Dr.Kabilsingh. We really appreciate your spending time with us. What do you see as  the tasks ahead for the next generation of women pledged to both feminism and Buddhism?
C.K. Women who are feminists in my country do not want to deal with Buddhism at all. It is like a closed door to them, because Buddhism is very suppressive to women. So most of the feminist activists in my country are not interested in Buddhism to help promote feminism. To me, in my own experience, Buddhism promotes feminism. Because I am a Buddhist, I really understand the teaching of the Buddha. That is why I became a feminist.
But in my country most feminists would be working from other directions.

My exposure to feminism helped me to go back to my spiritual self, to find that Buddhism is such a great strength, a really great strength. To confront any issue that is challenging society, yon need to have your own spiritual root. In my case, I have found that spiritual root. It is like a well, a wishing well. It never dries up. Buddhist training and Buddhist practice provide me with that.
H.&R. It has been so lovely to talk to you. Thank you. We so much appreciate your taking this time and it’s wonderful to hear your voice after reading your words. Thank you very much. Good bye.