Here is some news in Thai regarding the ordination of Bhikkhunis (female monks) in Thailand.
While many Westerners have a clear cut view, the fact is this is a divisive issue in Thailand, and not at all clear cut. Certain Bangkok English medium writers do not help the issue by presenting it as black and white -an opposition of jealous monks desperately clinging to their power and money.
In the article The Thai Academic Society for Buddhism together with the Network of Women in [Thai] Buddhism submitted a letter urging the acting Supreme Patriarch of Thailand to affirm opposition to the ordination of women, after the Thai Committee for National Human Rights submitted a letter urging a review of the stance (presumably in favour of female ordination).
One side quotes the Constitution [however temporary that is] as giving equal rights, while another says this is only so far as it is not in opposition to Dhamma-Vinaya (monastic rules).
Also cited is the previous Supreme Patriarch’s directive against the ordination of women from 2001. The late Patriarch’s views carry a lot of weight in Thailand, not least due to his close relationship with HM the King of Thailand, and his long tenure in the role. It will be a long time before the previous SP proclamations are revised in anyway in Thailand.
Most monks I have spoken to, however, seem very happy with women ordaining as Bhikkhunis – feeling they should be left to their own devices. If they can act and behave well, and get support of local communities, then the monks are happy to leave them to it.
Reluctance on the part of the Thai monks is based on two issues.
- First, who has the authority to reinstigate the ordination lineage? Since women need to be ordained by other nuns, and the nuns lineage died out, the question is whether any new ordinations are valid. This is a 2500 year old tradition that cleaves to its ancient rules, so rewriting something is no easy thing. It is not opposition to women’s ordination in principle, but to the act of changing something so hardwired in the monastic form – a form that aspirant Bhikkhunis wish to join!
- Second is the question of the relationship between the male and female sangha. That is, the monks have no interest in merging the genders in the same temples. Further, they have no interest in women joining the monk’s heirarchy, and becoming controllers of the monks. But if the male and female Sangha’s are separate, does that mean a Supreme Matriarch?
For the most part, the Thai monks leave the question in the SEP field – you remember what that is? In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, an SEP field is where something dwells that is Someone Else’s Problem.
Unfortunately for the current acting Supreme Patriarch, he is stuck between a rock and a hard place. To my knowledge he has not expressed a firm personal view on the issue. But as in the Thai news article, many different groups – not monastic groups, but laypeople both male and female – petition him to take their side. A majority of these groups, to my observation, do not favour the ordination of women. Somehow, they all claim to be ‘protecting Buddhism’.
Personally it has not been a question that has affected me much directly. I am not interested in arguing with anyone on the topic, as I prefer to just get on with doing something good and worthwhile. I know there are a lot of different voices on the topic, and I am not going to join the discussion.
But since Bhikkhuni ordination lineages have been reintroduced, and there is a growing body of respectable Bhikkhuni around the world already, the inevitable seems just a matter of time. The people opposed to them will slowly die off. There need not be a sudden ‘sea change’ for this to occur. Like it or not, that is the future.
The one time when the question came home was several years ago. I was arranging accommodation for a visiting Bhikkhuni, when Bangkok got shut down due to political upheavals. I asked a ‘particular organisation’ to help out by giving her a place to stay, as they do for monks. They refused, citing the late Supreme Patriarch’s order that valid Bhikkhuni ordination is no longer possible in Theravada Buddhism. Conservative elements in that organisation then went further, and said that their ties with me should be severed, since I was not acting in accordance with the Thai Sangha protocol. (There were, by the way, also forward looking elements in the organisation that did not see my request as anything to create issue over.)
All that, just for trying to find somewhere to accommodate a nun for a couple of nights while guns were firing in Bangkok! The organisation in question by the way, is a lay group, not monastic. Further, and ironically, they were set up and funded by a Thai laywoman.
It did not quite end there however. The group in question also wrote to a different Bangkok (lay) Buddhist organisation suggesting that I should not be worked with on any level. That organisation also wrote to my university suggesting my visa be cancelled. Fortunately for me, the Sangha makes up it’s own mind, and the issue died there.
The article I linked to earlier is in Thai – in English media the topic does not come up in such detail. When it does come up in a national newspaper, the author who raises it takes a very polemic stance. She describes a despotic and terrified male monastic order, desperately afraid of women. She portrays the monks as fearing that women will attract all their precious money, and take over the temples. She feels the sterling behaviour of women will embarrass the monks, so they do their utmost to guard their turf.
I hope you can take a more balanced view. There are a lot of voices in Thai society on this topic. Voices of human rights groups, of males and females, of monks, lay societies, and Mae Chee communities too. Universities play a role, especially the two monastic universities. The issue will not be resolved any time soon – especially while the previous Supreme Patriarch’s declarations still carry enormous weight.
In the meantime, personally, I am glad to be able to provide logistic support for visiting Bhikkhunis, and very much appreciate their willingness to share dharma talks with us in Bangkok.
In the end of July we will be hosting one such – Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo. She is from Hawaii, and ordained in the Tibetan lineage. We have welcomed her here many times, and she never fails to charm and inspire. Full details on events with her are TBA, but are set for evenings Monday 27th July at the Ekkamai centre, and Thursday 30th at Ariyasom.
About Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo:
While on a trip in India, Lekshe heard the teachings of Dalai Lama. She was convinced that she wanted to become a nun, and dedicate her life to service. Except for one problem: no monastery would accept her, because she was a woman.
So, Karma Lekshe started her own nunnery in the Himalayas and sure enough, became a Buddhist nun.
Today, decades later, she has drastically altered Buddhism’s view of women. As a PhD in comparative philosophy, author of several books, founder of a Himalayan nonprofit, professor at University of San Diego, president of International Association of Buddhist Women, Karma Lekshe is actively involved in interfaith dialogue and grassroot initiatives for empowerment of women.
Professor Tsomo received a B.A. in Oriental Languages (Japanese/Chinese) from the University of California, Berkeley; an M.A. in Asian Studies, an M.A. in Religion (Asian), and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Hawai‘i, Manoa. In addition, she studied at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India for 15 years. Since 2000 she has been an Associate Professor at the University of San Diego.
Scholarly and Creative Work
Professor Tsomo’s doctoral research focused on death and identity in China and Tibet. She is the author of Sisters in Solitude: Two Traditions of Monastic Ethics for Women and Into the Jaws of Yama, Lord of Death: Buddhism, Bioethics, and Death. Click here for all the titles by Lekshe Tsomo
She has produced several educational videos: “Sacred Ground: Consecrating a Village Temple in Spiti Valley,” “Women in Buddhism: Unity and Diversity,” and “Living and Dying in Buddhist Cultures.” click here for a full bio