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Thailand's female monks (cautiously) lobby for legal recognition

A quiet campaign to grant female monks legal recognition began this summer. Advocates hope that the minimal fanfare will help the 'Bhikkhunis' evade conservative religious opposition.

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Bhikkhuni ordination is permitted under the Thai constitution, but the Thai Sangha Council, a government-linked religious advisory group, does not accept Bhikkhunis’ legal status or right to be ordained within the country. It cites a 1928 Sangha Act, which banned ordination of women following the last known attempt to recognize Bhikkhunis.

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A new constitution in 1932 made that religious order void, says Mr. Nititawan.

But the Thai Sangha and some Bhikkhu – who remain largely unaware of the revitalized campaign – continue to cite the 1928 order, which recognizes only Bhikkhu, along with Vietnamese and Chinese male monks.

Nititawan says nearly 1,000 people have signed a petition to propose an amendment to the Sangha Act – one-tenth of what is needed to bring the measure before the Thai Parliament.

The change in law would place Bhikkhunis in the “other sangha,” or ordained monks, category, along with Vietnamese and Chinese monks. Bhikkhuni would still have to travel abroad to receive ordination, a costly and time consuming process of several years.

“We believe that the government will support this because there is no reason not to,” explained Sutada Mekrungruengkul, director of the Gender and Development Research Institute in Bangkok, who helped organize the campaign’s launch among 30 people in Bangkok on July 29.

The movement also references the Buddha's support of Bhikkhunis when he allowed women to join the order of female Sangha, according to Dhammananda, because they were capable of enlightenment.

Dhammananda received her full ordination in 2003 and took over the temple her mother, the first fully ordained woman in Thailand, built in the 1970s.

A former university professor and divorced mother of three grown children, Dhammananda, then known as Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, says she found her spiritual calling mid life, when she felt something was missing from her otherwise full life. She realized it was a lack of fulfillment of her spirituality. She looked in the mirror one day and asked herself, “How much longer do I have to keep on doing this?” Competing for recognition at work seemed insignificant to adopting a simpler life of charity, reflection, and spirituality.

Other Bhikkhunis also chose ordination over promising careers.

Dhamma Vijaya planned to become an ambassador, and later considered social justice work, before she joined the monastery as a novice.

“It doesn’t matter to me that we are not recognized,” Ms. Dhamma said. “I would like to learn and that is my right.”

She thinks that the ranks of Bhikkhunis will grow if they receive legal recognition.

“It will help us become stronger,” Dhamma continued.

Approximately 1,200 Bhikkhunis practice across Southeast Asia and some parts of South Asia, among other places. Aside from Sri Lanka, Bhikkhunis can also receive ordination in China, Taiwan, Australia, and the United States.

Many national communities of Bhikkhunis say they have had their own struggles for equality, and they support one another through an international alliance. The alliance, of which Dhammanada is a member, works to support ordination of women worldwide.

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