Theravada Buddhism has been lacking an ordained lineage for women for a long time – but this is changing. There are a number of Bhikkhunis (female monks) ordained both in Thailand and the US, who are putting down firm roots that are growing strongly over the last few years. The arrows of change are pointing in the direction of a fully functioning Bhikkhuni ordination lineage.
Where most articles, especially by certain embittered Bkk Post writers, tend to vilify monks and cry sexism, the Sangha Council that heads the Bhikkhu Sangha has a rather more evolutionary approach:
The Sangha Council is lead by the Sangharaja, but he is now constantly in hospital and is not taking any kind of active role in the council activities. It falls to 9 senior monks called ‘Somdeths’ to run the Sangha Council. Various other offices within and outside the Ordained Sangha are represented, including the ministry for Culture, and the National Buddhism Office (under the PM). The Somdeths are the top monks, and there are always 9 of them, and from them will be selected the next Supreme Patriarchs of Thailand. The main 3 Somdeths are the abbots of Wat Saket (golden mountain, Bkk) Wat Rakhang, and Wat Pak Nam. They are all over 80 years of age.
The general policy is one of evolution, not revolution. There will not be a sudden decree of authentication ordination for women, as that would be a jolt to Thai culture. And as we all know, Thailand has a very strong culture that they are very proud of – no one is going to make sudden drastic changes. There are also all the logistical problems of legalities, laws, and structure of authority for the new Bhikkhuni temples if they opened up. Right now, the anarchic governance of the Thai Sangha, while without any real structure, does in fact work very well, based as it is around ‘face’ and good intentions, rather than constitution. There are also the views of the many highly regarded Mae Chee’s to take into consideration – as many of them do not want to ordain as Bhikkhunis; for them the Mae Chee system is working fine. Also some of the resistence comes from Thai lay women. There are many views.
The Somdeths are not against bhikkhuni ordination per se, just against sudden changes in the broad Thai culture. The Thai Sangha in the U.S. has actively helped ordain Bhikkhunis, and the Somdeths temples have hosted Bhikkhunis from time to time without issue. Other nuns, from the Mahayana Bhikkhuni lineages, and from Ajahn Sumedho’s temples in the UK have been welcomed in the monks universities Mahacula and Mahamakut, and in various temples around Thailand. At Wat Maap Jan, Wat Songtamkalyani and other places, the nuns go on almsround with the monks. So even though the law of Thailand prohibits women from wearing monks robes, it is clear that space and respect is being given to women in the Sangha, and it is not a case of organised disapproval.
Naturally things have a long way to go, but they are in fact going. The quiet evolution of the issue is ticking along at snails pace, and there is not a policy of suppression on the part of the Sangha Council, but one of letting things develop slowly and peacefully. The country has a policy of religious freedom after all.
It should be noted that the Sangha Council is for the Bhikkhus – for the male order. Things were set up this way from the start – the monks look after the monks, and this is not going to change. Hence the Bhikkhunis are in an ambiguous position. If they seek full inclusion (as opposed to recognition) from the Council, they will be part of an organisation in which they can never rise or participate fully. Do they really want to be part of this group?
But to establish a Bhikkhuni Sangha Council will take time and acceptance from the general public. It will also take some changes to the law. If such a council is set up, there can be working committees to coordinate between the monks/nuns as necessary. According to Buddhism, the monks and nuns were always separate communities.
In the mean time the question of legality is in limbo. Afterall there is religious freedom in Thailand, so any religious group can legally exist here. Some kind of official recognition from the monks Council however would make things like visa application more clear, and give some direction to the adjustments of Thai culture.