newsletter on international buddhist woman's activities
Said Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh when she was a professor of Buddhist Studies at Thammasat Unniversity. Today, she is Dhammananda Samaneri blazing a lonely trail as a Buddhist novice nun in Thailand, finds Veean N.
Sixty kilometers south of Bangkok, just outside the town of Naknon Pathom is the temple of nuns, called Wat Chi colloquially.It's proper name is Wat Songdharma Kalyai. It has been setup by a Bhikkuni Thailand's first ever Bhikkuni who was ordained in 1974 I Taiwan. But Thailand does not recognize her ordination and the nun is simply known as the Venerable Mother.
Venerable Mother Ta Tao is a living legend. Voramai Kabilsing was a school teacher, journalist, novelist, champion fencer and the first woman to cycle from Bangkok to Singapore. The wife of a well-known social worker / politician, she donned the white robes of a Mae chi in 1959 and was immediately ostracized by her society. He daughter remembers the pain and humiliation heaped on her mother by Thai society. However, that did not deter Ven. Mother Ta Tao and she continued her gentle life in the service of the Buddha, helping women and men who came to her temple seeking guidance. Over 40 years later, nothing has changed. Her daughter's ordination as a novice last year raised a furore which is yet to subside completely.
Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsing's studies in Buddhism led her to the conclusion that the Buddha was a feminist, brobablv the world's first feminist. A true visionary who believed that both women and men have equal potential for spiritual enlightenment. He believed that gender does not matter in spirituality, it only matters in social relationships. He research on Bhikkunis for her Masters degree at McMaster University in Canada convinced Dr Kabilsing to follow Buddha's footsteps and become a Buddhist feminist. 'I became a feminist because I am a Buddhist,' she states emphatically. And I 1972, she helped her mother achieve her dream of being ordained. Over the next 30 yeas, the Buddhist scholar slowly became an academic activist and then a Samaneri herself - Dhammananda Samaneri. Next year, she hopes to be a Bhikkui, one of the four pillars of society as laid down by the Buddha - the other three being Bhikku, laywomen and laymen.
Interestingly, Buddha founded an order for monks and an order for nuns in the 6th century BC in India. This was a time when women in India society were then not educated at all, they were oppressed and subjugated, both literally ad culturally. Even today, India is as well known for its bride burning, female infanticide and even the occasional sati. It is not difficult to imagine the situation I which Buddha brought succor to thousands of oppressed women. All this plays on Dhammananda Samaneri's mind as she tells us gently but firmly, 'It is our duty to go back to the real Buddhist teaching. Thai Buddhism is very materialistic today. You can even buy merit or good karma in you next life.'
Becoming a Bhikkuni is not about equality for women. It is about sharing the responsibilities of society between women and men, she notes. There are four parts to a real Buddhist society - Bhikku, Bhikkuni, lay women and lay men. For Thai society to be complete, all the four parts have to be restored to it. 'When women cannot be ordained, the image of women is so negative, that even the lowest of places seems fitting for them. Women believe they are born lower and that they are unclean. They have a very negative image of themselves,' Dr Dabilsing wrote in paper.
In Thailand, the Mae Chi is the only position open to women who wish to renounce the temporal world. It is usually considered that these are women from the poor uneducated lower classes and their role within the monastery is that of an unpaid cook or maid. Mae Chis are in fact mere servants for the monks. While the temple offers a refuge and opportunity to boys who come from poor families and cannot study further, girls have no such way out. Dr Chatsuman's research among Thai women threw up some interesting facts. Among them is the fact that both Mae Chis and prostitutes make their particular choices in life out of gratitude to their parents and the obligation to repay that debt through spiritual o monetary means.
Towards paying her own debt to her parents, young Chatsumarn accompanied her mother every Sunday on her alms rounds. She saw both the positive and negative reactions of people first hand, but this did not deter her in her own quest for spiritual fulfillment. 'I have always carried in my mind, the image of my father bowing at the feet of my mother when she returned after her ordination as a novice, she ruminates. Today, her son joins her on her own rounds every Sunday. People, especially women, accept her as a women on a spiritual quest. They wait for her and offer both alms and respects. Before taking her vows as a novice in Sri Lanka in 2001, Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsing resigned from her position as Professor of Buddhist Studies at Thammasat University and divorced her husband. In 2003, she will be ordained a Bhikkuni in the Sri Lankan tradition marking the beginning of her long struggle.
Bhikkunis may be unusual in Thailand. Other countries like Indonesia, Tibet, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and Korea have long traditions of Bhukkinis. Dr Chatsuman was part of the movement that revived Bhikkunis in Sri Lanka. Today there are 200 of them. There are only a handful of Bhikkunis in Thailand, and Dr Kabilsing is undoubtedly the most high-profile of them all. She is, however, very positive about the situation. 'Things are changing much sooner than expected,' she says calmly. Where Chatsumarn Kabilsing ends and Dhammananda Samaneri begins is difficult to say. But where intellect and knowledge strengthen faith and faith in tun supports knowledge, thee is a whole new world for those who are willing to see. 'Bhikkuni ordination is a right which Buddha gave women,' she states firmly.
However tolerant, egalitarian and gender-sensitive Buddhism may be in theory, the reality is shaped by the values of the existing social and religious systems in which Buddhists find themselves. This is certainly true of Thailand where a mixture of Chinese, Buddhist, Hindu and Western influences have shaped the nature of society. It is time to return to the essence of Buddhism as the Buddha himself preached it.