newsletter on international buddhist woman's activities
The Nation Despite reluctance from some leading Buddhist figures, a samaneri from Sri Lanka is helping to further the cause.
It's not often in our society that males are in the minority. One such place is the temple where female devotees far outnumber their male counterparts. But to be the only male in a temple, this would be a first.
It was at Songtham Kalayani temple in Nakhon Pathom, and I was in the audience of the abbot Samaneri ("female novice monk") Dhammananda, whose ordination into the novice female monkhood in Sri Lanka last year caused a big stir I Thailand's religious circles.
"We don't get ordained in ode to gain acceptance, but to sever attachments and to pusue a spiritual path," Samaneri Dhammananda says. "I got to study myself, to look into the internal world. Acceptance will only come when people see that we are doing good things."
Because Thailand has never had female monks in its history, some conservatives frown at the idea of such ordination.
Others eagerly support the establishment of "the fourth pillar of Buddhism", citing its existence in the Buddha's time and at present in several other countries as well as the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
At present, Samaneri Dhammananda and Samaneri Rakkita - who in February became the first woman to be ordained in Thailand - are not recognised as part of the clergy by the Sangha Supreme Council.
"I think it's an option for females".
"Men have over 25,000 temples to study Buddhism at, but women have virtually none. This temple gives them an alternative access to the Dhamma [the Buddha's teachings]".
"Here we also have a library with emphasis on women and religions."
The samaneri has initiated women's shelters and launched Buddhist training programmes for women.
This weekend sees the 32nd three-day "Buddhasavika" progamme aimed at working women.
There is also a summer camp for teenage girls to give them the same training as the boys get when they enrol as novice monks.
According to the laywomen who come to the temple, they feet they can learn the Dhamma better from the samaneri than from male monks, especially as they do not have to constantly have in the backs of their minds whether their conduct will violate the monk's rules, which preclude all physical contact, intentional or not.
They can also spend the night at the temple without worries. Of course, laymen are also welcome for their rare visits.
"Even the men when they're here, they come in respect. Some bring their wives or daughters to practice Dhamma here, feeling more comfortable with the fact that it's a temple primarily for females," the samaneri says.
Against suggestions that females can practice Dhamma without becoming monks, she says: "We all feel joy at a man's ordination. So why should a woman's be a problem? If we eally believe that mokhood is a good thing, allowed by the Buddha himself, then we should seek it, even when it's not available."
She says the non-existence of the institution in Thailand is only a matter of technicality.
According to the samaneri, who before ordination was known as Associate Professor Chatsumarn Kabilasingh, a Thammasat University lecturer in Buddhism and Comparative Religions, the line of female monks - even though broken in some countries - still survives in others and can be traced back all the way to the Buddha's time.
After completing two full years as a novice, she will be ordained as a full-fledged Bhikkhuni, or female monk, in March next year in Sri Lanka, where the institution has also been revived with help from Taiwan during the last 15 years.
Although there has been a lot of strong criticism from certain conservative figures, she says she has had moral support from several of the senior monks in the Supreme Sangha Council.
"They told me to persevere, to prove myself to society."
"If society embraces the new institution, the clergy will have to accept it too, because the clergy is also supported by society."
"As a matter of fact, the council has never made comments on this issue as a whole, whether positively or negatively."
When asked about the locals' reaction, she says: "They are respectful and very happy to support me in my spiritual journey."
The samaneri makes an alms round every Sunday to collect food from locals. "The relationship between monks and lay persons is two-way traffic," she says.
"As [the revered] Luang Pu Cha used to say, alms rounds are not primarily about collecting food, but about gathering the people [into the faith]."
Just as the flame of light can pass from one candle to another regardless of the holder, more open-minded Buddhists tend to agree that the light of Buddhism can likewise e passed on to every human being whether monks or laypersons, and regardless of gender, nationality or sect.
Rekindling the light for female Thai Buddhists may not be an easy task, but the samaneri is undaunted.
"Believing that ordination is a wonderful gift from the Lord himself is what keeps me going," she says.