Bastion of Buddhism faces gender debate

A female monk enlists Thailand's Senate in her uphill battle against a ban on the ordination of women

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

From the outside, it looks like any other temple in Thailand, a country that considers itself a bastion of Buddhist culture. A cluster of modest wooden buildings and a well-kept lawn hide behind a 15-foot-high golden Buddha that faces the busy highway to Bangkok.

But this temple is breaking the mold of Thai Buddhism. Its nominal head is a female monk ordained two years ago in Sri Lanka as Dhammananda Bhikkhuni. One of only a few women to have challenged the male makeup of Thailand's 300,000 monks, she now wants to extend that right to other women, and has turned to the Senate for help.

As a result, a subcommittee is considering a proposal to permit the ordination of women as monks. The final say, however, lies not with lawmakers but with the country's Buddhist clergy, known as the Sangha, whose ruling council of elders has long opposed the idea.

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Their opposition puts the elders on a collision course with modernizers inside and outside the Buddhist establishment, who argue that Thailand's clergy are too focused on doctrine and tradition, rather than the needs of their followers. They say conservative monks are missing a chance to update the faith in a time of rapid change in Thailand.

Sanitsuda Ekachai, a columnist and religious-affairs specialist at the Bangkok Post newspaper, argues that the Sangha won't drop their opposition. If so, she says, "monks will continue to fulfill our needs with rituals and rites, but they will play a narrower role in society ... if they can't understand that society is changing."

Thailand has grappled with this debate before. Dhammananda's own grandmother was among a group of educated women in the 1920s who created an order of female monks. In 1928, King Rama V followed the advice of Buddhist elders and banned the practice. That ban is still in place. Thai women can take the vows of a nun, who shave their heads and wear white robes, but they can expect lower status and fewer privileges than monks, who travel for free on public transport in Thailand.

Other Asian countries have in recent years revived an ancient order of female monks known as Bhikkhuni (PIK-koon-nee). Among those is Sri Lanka, where Dhamannanda was ordained.

Campaigners in Thailand point out that Sri Lanka practices the same school of Buddhism as Thailand, known as Theravada. Unlike Sri Lanka, though, Thailand has never ordained women as Bhikkhunis, making it more problematic to change course. Tuan Siridhammo, deputy director at Thailand's leading Buddhist school and a spokesman for the Sangha, says that any changes must be in accordance with sacred texts. "We can't change the rule from the Buddha's time because we respect the rule of Buddha."

Advocates of female ordination say the ban has less to do with doctrine than with dogma. "Women feel themselves outside the Sangha, which is not true. We are part of that Sangha. We must evolve. It is like the Buddha set up a company, and we are all shareholders," Dhammananda says.

As well as providing a place of worship for the local community, the temple, founded by Dhammananda's mother, is also a place of retreat for laywomen and aspiring nuns or monks. Fourteen women live there now. Local opinion on Dhammananda is mixed. Some men living nearby turn up their noses at the mention of the temple, saying that it's wrong for women to wear the saffron robes of a monk. Most are familiar with Dhammananda from her morning alms collection.

But Kanjana Charoensuitvimon, a local housewife, praises Dhammananda for bringing Buddhism back down to earth. "I used to go to other temples, but we can't talk about women's stuff with male monks. We can talk about anything with Dhammananda. She gives us confidence and support," she explains.

As the Sangha deliberates over the Senate proposal, a process expected to take six months, some observers are drawing parallels with a similar debate within Christianity over women priests. Thailand has had its share of scandals with monks, including cases of rape and murder, that have undercut public trust.

In the 1990s, when Britain's Anglican Church began ordaining women as priests, the move precipitated a split in the ranks amid public mudslinging. Analysts play down the threat of that happening in Thailand, saying that Buddhism is more adaptable, particularly in this country, where other beliefs are easily absorbed into daily rituals and rhythms.

"Buddhism is a flexible religion, it is a way of life, so it reflects more of a way of life, instead of what we call entrenched dogma," says Somchai Phagaphasvivat, a politics professor at Thailand's Thammasat University.

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