In 2007 myself and Buddhist teacher David Holmes interviewed Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, Thailand’s leading ordained Buddhist nun. This was just before she gave a talk for our group. Since then little has changed, except that her temple has grown somewhat, and there have been more ordinations of women, especially in the US. Since the interview was lost in migrating to our new website, here it is in full:
Bhikkhuni Dhammananda Interview
It is not easy to get Thai monks to do things outside their usual temple activities, especially abbots. So we were most pleased and honoured when Bhikkhuni Dhammananda unhesitatingly said she would gladly come to Baan Aree Library Dhamma Hall and give a Dhamma Talk in English for us.
Venerable Dhammananda taught as a lay person in Thammasart University, Dept of Philosophy and Religion for 27 years, and published 40+ books and translations mostly under her lay name Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh. She now oversees the quarterly publication of Yasodara, which focuses on the activities of Buddhist women and Bhikkhunis around the world. In between, that is, her frequent trips abroad teaching and promoting the cause of Bhikkhuni ordination in the Theravada and Tibetan traditions, and running regular classes and 3 day meditation retreats in her own temple just outside Bangkok. Her captivating tones and manner render the wisdom of the years that are hidden from her youthful features.
We were lucky that a swift journey from Nakhom Pathom took less time than getting across a few miles in Bangkok, and thus we were several hours early arriving at the Dhamma Hall. This gave Dr David Holmes and myself a fortuitous hour to spend quietly with Ven Dhammananda, and run some questions by her.
Q: The Thai Sangha Council’s position on Bhikkhunis seems to be neither for or against – they seem to just letting things ride ….
Ven. Dh. That’s right, in fact they cannot say anything because according to their charter the word ‘Sangha’ is defined as Bhikkhu [monks] Sangha, so in that sense they have no right to say yes or no to the Bhikkhuni [nuns] Sangha. They would need an official Sangha Council Act to change this and that means passing a Parliamentary Bill. According to the Buddha, “Sangha” is both Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sangha, but their charter mentions only the Bhikkhu Sangha, which puts them in a very difficult situation. According to Parliamentary Law, I am not doing anything illegal, but to recognize me as a Bhikkhuni – that is the job of the Sangha. But they are stuck with this Sangha Act.
Q: So it seems they want to let things develop slowly rather than make a big sudden change to Thai culture…
VEN DH: I was at a function and sat close to one of the head monks of Thailand – one who had forbidden the Mae Chees in his temple from ordaining as Samaneris [Novice Bhikkhunis] but who later said let them do as they wish and we will see what happens. One of the issues is they want to make sure that once we are here we are of good quality. That is a big issue; even in the Bhikkhu Sangha it is very difficult to control the quality of the monks, without the complication of female monks.
Q. How many of the Mae Chees do you think actually want to become Bhikkhunis?
VEN DH: They are scared … No we are not expecting Bhikkhunis to come out of Mae Chees. Within the social structure they are scared, especially as they have not had the nod from the monks. If they get the nod, then maybe they will do it.
Q. I asked a number of the Mae Chees in my temple about this, and they said as a Bhikkhuni it is very difficult to go and buy things in shops. Being a Bhikkhuni would be more impractical …
VEN DH: Ahh… so for them it is a practical reason.
Q. Over the last few years you have had a lot of attention, including from the international media, and have been traveling a lot. Most recently you went to Mexico, and have just had to cancel a trip to Macedonia. With all this do you get time for your personal practise ?
VEN DH: Travelling has always been part of my life, for over 20 years. Now being an ordained person during the Rains Retreat we cannot travel outside the temple for more than 7 days, and that limits my traveling. But in my life, in my line of practise, every moment breathing in and out – this is the practise. To talk to people and maintain equanimity; to talk to my students without getting frustrated, that is practise. So the sitting with closed eyes kind of meditation is good practise for beginners, so that you know how to handle your Greed, Hatred and Delusion [Lobha, Dosa, Moha]. It is meant for that kind of practise to give you the experience of calmness of mind, so that you can extend it when you have your eyes open …..
And she added “It’s still difficult for me … I can still get annoyed, but at least not to the point of shouting anymore.
Q. You said to me a couple of days ago that you cannot divide time as ‘practise’ and ‘work’ otherwise it would be too much for you. All time is practise time….
VEN DH: Yes, you know my friends in the West sometimes complain that they have to take care of their meditation centers and their teachers who visit from Tibet or somewhere, and they don’t have time to practise…. I don’t know – if you try to find time to sit down and practise then you will become suffocated because that is not the life of a monastic. You will always have to attend to people. So I attend to people who come to the temple with all kinds of problems – you can’t even imagine.
I do have to balance with compassion for my physical body and attending to others. There are times when you grow older – you [pointing to me] might not feel it now, but when you grow older the body starts reminding one that you have to rest. At those times I will disappear for half an hour, and come back later. You have to prioritise.
To David Holmes – Your health too has not been too good in recent years ….
David: Yes I have an enlarged heart, The right side it three quarters bigger than the left side. But somehow through Dhamma practise, the body has compensated. Normally, one might well be dead ..
VEN DH: : Ahh congratulations, that is good to hear. I have been having brain atrophy according to an MRI scan, but I have found out that neurons and nerves can actually still grow. So don’t stop working .. to keep the balance between the right and the left side of the brain I have been working with clay – which is doing something with my hands. So I think that my brain is still working, in spite of the fact that it is shrinking according to age…
[ In recent years Buddhism has been taught more and more in universities rather than in temples. In laylife Ven. Dhammananda was instrumental in setting up and teaching the Thammasart university course in Buddhism – a big change for Thai culture, that lay people, and women in particular, were now becoming the favoured teachers in a role previously restricted to the monks and monasteries ]
Q: You taught in Thammasart University for some years …
VEN DH.: Yes 27 years
Q: I have noticed that these days monks, including a lot of foreign monks, study Buddhism in the universities instead of the temples. You have gone the opposite way – from teaching in a University environment to teaching as a Bhikkhuni….
VEN DH. : I did not plan to be teaching as a monastic but then once ordained I found that I was still teaching. I think I was the first woman in Thailand to get a PhD in Religion, so it had always been a completely male domain. There was no BA offered during my time, that’s why I had to go to India and Canada to study. So with the knowledge that I have it is a shame to ordain and not teach. Actually Thammasart University have set up classes that have followed me to the monastery … and I have to set up a course for them. And in this modern age the university of Ohio looked us up on the website and booked a stay for 3 days – 35 of them coming to experience the monastic life. These are Catholics! So they also wanted an intensive introductory course in Buddhism.
Q. So why do monks study Buddhism now in University and not in the temple?
VEN DH: The quality of teaching. And they don’t expect to be monks for the rest of their lives. If they have a MA from Thammasart University they have a much better chance of getting along after disrobing.
The teaching style in the temples is very different – it is learning by rote. You cannot vary from what your teachers say. University style teaching is very different. There is lots of study on your own, lots of research and questioning. It you learn by rote you will never learn to see what is wrong in society, you can never think on your own. Injustice done to women, you know … what causes all the social problems. They have never been taught to think this way.
Q. : So it is a good thing that the Universities are taking over the role of teaching Buddhism?
VEN DH : Yes, so Thammasart University started in my time to open up the Masters degree program. It has been going for about 11 years now [in 2007]. Mostly Mahanikaya monks, but also one from Dhammayut [the 2 main sects in Thailand] The screening is quite tough.
For the Monks university [Mahaculalongkorn] the funding is very small – their annual budget is equal to what Thammasart gets in one day! So they cannot plan to have all departments like Chulalongkorn … So why do they not focus .. make it really strong just on the subject of Buddhism ? Buddhist psychology, Buddhist research, Buddhist this and that – everything but always with Buddhism. Then you would really make it very strong. When people come to Thailand then they could not go anywhere else for Buddhism than Mahacula university. But they opened it up for all kinds of subjects and they cannot compete with the big universities.
Q. : You said a few days ago that the people who come to your temple are very eager to learn. One perception of Thai people is that they are only interested in Tam Boon [merit making] and not real study or practise….
VEN DH : Now I find we are getting women in their 30′s and 40′s, working women, who realize they cannot just go on working alone. They need something spiritual. This is the new trend. In the last 10 years people are coming asking questions, really asking, not happy with just what they have learned from the traditional monks – a lot more questions are coming from the public.
In Hamburg, Germany this year there was a conference called by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the topic of Bhikkhuni ordination. In the Tibetan system, there are Samaneris, women novices, but no fully ordained nuns. In the Chinese lineage there are full Bhikkhunis. The main problem of ordaining women for the Tibetan and Theravada systems is that the candidates must be ordained by both a full forum of Monks, and then also a forum of Bhikkhunis. Since there are no more Bhikkhunis recognized other than in the Chinese system, no new candidates can receive proper ordination. The conference was designed to address this issue, and explore the options for introducing full Bhikkhuni ordination.
Q.: What were the results of the recent conference in Germany on the ordination of women?
VEN DH. : His Holiness [Dalai Lama] always wanted to ordain women in his tradition, which comes from the Mula-Sarvastivada tradition [one of the 18+ schools of Buddhism that existed a few hundred years after the Buddha’s time]. He wanted to air the issue out amongst the public and see what they had to say you know … so they invited 70 scholars, monks and nuns who are expert in Vinaya – they are not interested in any other issues, only vinaya [Monks and Nuns Rules of Conduct]. They knew they wanted to give women full ordination, but wanted to investigate how they could do it. So they got some very good papers from specialists, including Bhikkhu Bodhi.
So we had the meeting, all the senior monks and Bhikkhunis of all the traditions so they could plan out a proposal for His Holiness who was to join us on the third day. So we proposed that the existing Western nuns who had already been ordained in the Tibetan tradition, but also fully ordained by the Chinese tradition. So first of all we have to make the adjustment to recognize that they were ordained in the Mula-Sarvastivada (Tibetan) lineage, and not just the Dharmagupta (Chinese lineage). Then when they are considered to be fully ordained by the Tibetan monks, they can arrange for the new ordinations of women [ who must be ordained by both the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sangha ] So that was our proposal.
But at the moment His Holiness wants those nuns to perform the official Bhikkhuni acts only as Dharmagupta nuns – You know the panel were all silent, so it was up to me to stick out my head and ask why not let them perform the functions as Mula-Sarvastivada nuns. If you only recognize their acts as Dharmagupta nuns, what is the point? There has been no progress! Because they are doing that already. In order for them to start giving ordination to Tibetan lineage women, you have to recognize them in the Mula-Sarvastivada.
Q. : So the meeting was about giving women ordination in the Tibetan lineage, not the Theravada ?
VEN DH. : Yes. That was the intention of the conference. But there were many of us there, and we were of course thinking about our own ordination. Bhikkhu Bodhi was also talking about the Theravada situation, as was Ven Sujato representing the Australian Sangha; the Australian Sangha came out fully in support of Bhikkhuni ordination.
Q. In all traditions?
VEN DH : In Theravada. Especially as the Australina monks – Ven Sujato and Ven Brahmavamso were ordained in Thailand, so they were really talking about the situation in Thailand.
His Holiness also invited the Western Bhikkhunis to go to Dharamsala to help with the Tibetan nuns there. This will happen next winter.
VEN DH. : The problem in the West is there is no unified Sangha. It is very important to have a solid Sangha when making changes. Particularly for the Bhikkhunis – they are not all living together. Only if they are together will there be progress. It is also essential for training – so that the nuns can advise each other … you are not wearing your robe properly … The monks are not going to tell you you are dressing very sloppily. I had to live with my teacher for two years but my mother was in her 90s. So I had to invite my teacher [preceptor] to come from Sri Lanka and live with us here. At 4 am in the morning I had to go and serve her because she would be meditating … I was so blessed having a good teacher. She was very polite, very compassionate. She did not speak English when I was first ordained with her, but she was forced to learn for me and an Australian disciple who was there too. Now she speaks good English.
Q : Some of the women in our group here have asked if it is possible to go and study and practise in your temple ….
VEN DH : Sure any time
Q: Are there other English speakers, other than yourself?
VEN DH: All of us speak English. So international … We have only 3 other ordained nuns, and they are all well educated and can speak English well enough.
Q: And for the visitors – they join in the regular activities ? That is Morning and evening chanting … meditation … helping with the chores …
VEN DH: Yes like that. Mediation is twice a day communally. Otherwise they will be on their own … As for the jobs in the temple it is up to them what they would like to help with. They can come anytime, there are no closed times …
Q: Do you have any organized retreats there?
VEN DH: Yes, the closest one is in December. They are 3 days usually, because the working women cannot take more than 3 days. We arrange for times when there is a holiday on the Friday or Monday, so they are 3 or 4 times a year.
Q: Keep us informed about those, and I will let our members know. What kind of meditation practise do you do in the temple?
VEN DH: It depends on what kind of practise they have been doing before. We are not forcing them to do something different – unless they want to try something new. We do Luang Phor Sodh style practise, but simplified a little. And also Anapanasati [mindfulness of breathing]. One of our Bhikkhunis, she can teach Luang Phor Tien method [hand movement].
Q: The Thai monks abroad tend to stay in amongst the Thai circles only, but you have moved much more amongst the Western Buddhists. What is your impression of Western Buddhism? Is it working well?
VEN DH: I think the understanding of Buddhism is much more in depth in the west, compared with the traditional Buddhist countries – which I call ‘Buddhist by birth, Buddhist by chance’, where you are Buddhist by choice. Westerners go around and shop around and finally make the choice to be Buddhist. When you are thrown into it by birth it is difficult to see the value of it, hard to really appreciate. So I will not be surprised if in the end Buddhism is greater in the West. Here you know, we have the beautiful temples, but not all the people are practicing Buddhism properly.
Q: Do you think though that there is a difference between the mental understanding and the heart understanding – because I have seen with Westerners that there is a good intellectual understanding and study basis, but with the Asian the understanding is more from the heart.
VEN DH: The Western people, when it comes to the actual living Buddhism, in the details … then … some local people who might not know anything much up here [the head] but in their lifestyle – they have integrated Buddhism in their way of life. Like with dana [Generosity] – if you talk about dana in the West it is a big big thing, but here with the Thai people, even the very poor they will bring something. Sometimes I am almost in tears when I go out on almsround. I cannot imagine how people can have such big hearts when they are so poor. People ask why we don’t go out for almsround every day – but they are so poor … I change the route each week because it is enough that they offer pindapada once a week. It is so very touching.
Q: I have not been in the West myself for a long time, but I imagine that there are a lot of different forms of Buddhism, from different countries. Are they harmonious? Are they coalescing into one, or maintaining their own traditions ?
VEN DH: I think that if you are true to the spirit of Buddhism, it does not matter if things are done a little differently. If I come to your temple and you do things a little differently, well then I will do as you do, and there will not be any problems. But if you hold on to ‘my way is the only way ..’ then there will be a problem.
Q: Do you think there is a Western Yana developing? A Western ‘School’ ?
VEN DH: I think that in the U.S. they should have their own Sangha, and not take everything from the Thai culture. They don’t need to take all the Thai culture, but just take the Buddhist elements, and develop into an American Buddhist culture.
Q: Two final questions – we will be doing some workshops and presentations on Buddhism and Psychology in the near future. So two questions:
Is Buddhism helpful to psychology? And…
Is Psychology helpful to Buddhism ?
VEN DH. Both yes. Psychology comes from theory, theory that comes from observation. Buddhism has already been in touch with the very core of existence. So if psychologists study that they will really come to know the root of what it means to be a human being. In that sense Buddhism and Psychology will be complimentary.
I think to be wise, we as Buddhists should also study psychology – to see what is the structure, what are the theories … maybe we already have all that but we don’t know how to arrange it and talk about it … how to put the understanding we have into boxes and arrange it. So I think to know both is beneficial to us.
Q: I have noticed that many monks are not skilled as counselors, even though it is a big part of their role in society. They have never been taught how to give counseling.
VEN DH: Yes, they are not trained in listening meditation…
Q: I have wondered if it might be a good idea to set up some simple programs to give some tools that can be used to improve the role as counselors, and ways to understand some of the mental disorders.
VEN DH: It can happen that the monks are so venerated that they get lost in their spiritual egos, in a kind of tunnel. We [ordained Sangha] are also seekers on the spiritual path so we need to be able to listen to the suffering of the people.
Q: Anything to add David ? Or to subtract …
DAVID HOLMES: Venerable Dhammananda has great wisdom, loving kindness and compassion, [turning around] and I feel so enriched just from listening to you speak.
We talked to Venerable Dhammananda for almost an hour, and while the conversation is mostly transcribed above, I have to agree with David that it is enriching just to listen to her speaking. All the group here who met her later in the evening for her talk felt her to be inspiring. It is impossible to portray the warmth of Ven Dhammananda’s manner and tones in a text document, so we encourage all of you to go along to her temple and to come along to our meetings in Bangkok when she is next here.