“I am first a Buddhist, second a feminist”

“I am first a Buddhist, second a feminist”

Dhammananda Bhikkhunī during the interview at her monastery — Image Credits
Christianity without monks and nuns would be unthinkable; the same applied to Theravada Buddhism until around the 11th or 12th century AD. Back then the influence of Buddhism in India and Sri Lanka diminished significantly and the number of monks (Bhikkhus) and nuns (Bhikkhunis) declined rapidly until a point was reached in which no more practicing Theravada nuns were alive. After Theravada Buddhism rose again and was carried from Sri Lanka to the old Siam in the 13th century AD, the clergy consisted exclusively of monks. This status quo has remained unchanged until now. A huge majority of the male-only Buddhist clergy in Thailand refuses to accept female ordination. Women have to seek assistance from foreign monks to fulfill their wish in becoming a fully ordained follower of Theravada Buddhism.
 
Dhammananda Bhikkhunī, born as Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, is a renowned scholar in Buddhist studies and became the first Thai Theravada nun after she received her full ordination in Sri Lanka in 2003. Today she is the Abbess of Wat Songdhammakalyani, a monastery in Nakhon Pathom, roughly one hour west of Bangkok, where she teaches and carries out temporary and full ordinations for women. Srijula Yongstar and Florian Reinold met her for an interview at her monastery in July 2015.

Q: The controversy around female ordination in Theravada Buddhism seems to be a technical one: According to Buddhist literature, a male as well as a female Sangha have to be present to conduct the ordination ceremony of a woman. As the lineage of fully ordained nuns died out centuries ago, there is no way back– a position that the Supreme Sangha Council holds. How do you perceive their stance?

Dhammananda Bhikkhunī: I can summarize the debate in one sentence for you: “They do not know that they do not know.” Everything we say, everything we believe, every way we lead our life comes from the Buddhist text. We are guided by the text. We have talked with many, supposedly well-studied, scholars, but when it comes to the part of ordained women, even very highly esteemed monk scholars just read through the text quickly. They say there are no nuns in Thailand, so they do not have to be particular about it and just skip these passages of the text. They are well-renowned scholars and should have read the whole text. But they do not, which is why they do not get the real message. Sometimes we have to read between the lines, and actually not even between – just on the lines would be enough. That is where it would backfire on them, because when people go back to the text and really read it, I can give quotations and references that will show their stance on the ordination of women is contrary to what the Buddha said. When the Buddha allowed the monks to give ordinations to women, the monks were required to ask the women 24 specific questions, some of them concerning very private matters about the women’s body parts. In the old days, women were too shy to answer these questions, so the Buddha asked some Bhikkhunīs to join the ceremony to make the applicants feel more secure and confident. That is the only reason why Bhikkhunīs were invited to do the first part of clearing the candidates from obstacles before the actual ordination. Today, women are stronger, they do not have problems talking about their bodies, so the Bhikkhus could ordain them, even without the presence of Bhikkhunīs. But the Thai Sangha elders have not come to this part of the text. The “Vinaya,” which is the monastic discipline, never said that we cannot do something. The “Vinaya” is not meant to imprison you, but to allow you to walk on this monastic path beautifully. If you do not understand the spirit of Buddhism, then the monastic rules will imprison you, but that is not what the Buddha meant. That is why we always have to rely on our knowledge, on our way of doing things according to the text. So the text is our strength now.

What is the Sangha?
The term Sangha comes from Sanskrit and means “assembly.” It can either stand for the whole Buddhist faith community or describe the Buddhist clergy, which usually consists of a Sangha with monks and a Sangha with nuns, whereas there are currently no examples of the latter in Thailand. The clergy is formalized by law in the Sangha Act. It regulates the organizational structure of the monkhood. On top of the clergy is the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, who chairs the Supreme Sangha Council, which carries legal powers in religious matters such as overseeing nominations of regional abbots or registrations of temples.

Q: What is the agenda of the Supreme Sangha Council in sticking to their strict view not to accept female ordination?

Dhammananda Bhikkhunī: I cannot say if there is any hidden agenda, but I feel sometimes that there is fear. Why is there fear? If you are a secure person there is no fear to speak openly to me, but if you are insecure, that is a source of fear. Why do you not make yourself secure? So go back and read the text, it is your strength. If you read the text carefully, you will find that there is nothing to be afraid of. These women, who want to be ordained, are only coming as sisters to the monks, to help promote Buddhism, to help to heal the wounds of society; there is nothing to be afraid of.

Q: Is there a regular exchange between your monastery and the Supreme Sangha Council?

Dhammananda Bhikkhunī:  No, there is no exchange. In fact, the Buddhist text offers seven ways of dealing with controversy and one of them is called “Sammukkha,” which means “face to face.” This face to face thing never happened. If they allow us to explain to them why we do it this way, it will be much better – now we are just being interviewed by media and what we say ends up in the papers. But even the papers get the quotes wrong sometimes, which is a shame. Another way of dealing with conflict that the Buddha offered is “to sweep under the carpet” what is gone and not open old wounds, which is the strategy that the Thai Sangha Council uses.

Q: Your temple is not officially recognized as a monastery by Thai authorities. Which obstacles do you face therefore?

Dhammananda Bhikkhunī: We have not done anything wrong according to the law, but we also do not have the law to support us. It is a very strange situation. You cannot register the land as a temple, so we had to take an alternative approach What is the Sangha? The term Sangha comes from Sanskrit and means “assembly.” It can either stand for the whole Buddhist faith community or describe the Buddhist clergy, which usually consists of a Sangha with monks and a Sangha with nuns, whereas there are currently no examples of the latter in Thailand. The clergy is formalized by law in the Sangha Act. It regulates the organizational structure of the monkhood. On top of the clergy is the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, who chairs the Supreme Sangha Council, which carries legal powers in religious matters such as overseeing nominations of regional abbots or registrations of temples. “I am first a Buddhist, second a feminist” Thailand 11 and registered as a foundation. I cannot call myself “Bhikkhunī” officially, because when I get my ID card, my only options are to go by “Ms. or Mrs.,” as there is no computer code in the system for Bhikkhunī. That is the very simple reason that they give you. And how do I get this computer code? I have to go to the Department of Administration, which in turn will get permission from the Council of Elders to issue such a code. So you see how it goes about like that? So I am fine as long as I do not have to do anything with the government, but when you have to deal with the government, you need a legal position, which we do not have, and that is where we have some problems.

Q: There are some rules for fully ordained nuns that seem to subordinate you to monks; still, you and other women seek the ordination.

Dhammananda Bhikkhunī: Yes, but I do not mind, because I think when the Buddha set that up, we have to keep in mind the ancient Indian setting in which the Buddha grew up. In this context, the men always took the lead. Even in our Thai society, if there are seven men and one woman at a meeting, it is always the woman who gets up and makes coffee. I understand the context, but there is one particular rule that we do not follow: It is to be in the same compound with monks. The purpose was for security reasons in the Buddha’s time. But today, I find that when I have to be in the same compound with monks, it will cause many more problems for us. We understand that this rule provides security for us, but we have a wall around our monastery here and dogs and fences, so our lifestyle is safe, which means we do not pay particular respect to that rule, but we have other ways of answering to the call of that rule. In general I have no problem paying respect to the monks as long as I know they are good. But if they have shown bad behavior, I do not have to pay respect.

Q: UNDP’s 2014 Gender Inequality Index ranks Thailand 89 out of 187 countries. On your website you state that you describe yourself first as a Buddhist and then as a feminist. How is gender equality interlinked with the recognition of ordination?

Dhammananda Bhikkhunī: You already have that right of gender equality, but the right is taken away from you. So you are demanding your own right and we are demanding our right to be ordained. We do not ask or claim something that we never had and was not for us. We are actually demanding our right. This right is given to us by the Buddha. So it is not a gender issue of “I want to be equal to men.” I do not see it that way. My standpoint is that this is a heritage given to me by the Buddha and I would like to claim that. When I say that I am a Buddhist before a feminist, I am thinking of a situation in my life back in 1983 during a conference at Harvard University. I saw many of the early feminists in the 1980s; they were weeping and crying and had lots of anger. I agree with them on everything they are fighting for, but I do not want to be weeping and crying and full of anger. So I really focused on Buddhism first. I can still fight for the same issue, but at the same time I must be calm and peaceful like a Buddhist. So that is the balance, the balance between Buddhist and feminist. Buddhist first and feminist second.

Q: How strong is the support of feminists in Thailand for Bhikkhunis?

Dhammananda Bhikkhunī: Oh, not that strong. The Thai feminists in the early 1980s did not want to have to do anything with Buddhism because they felt that Buddhism was suppressing women. I was the very first feminist to become a Buddhist nun, and I was the one who tried to correct this attitude of Thai feminists toward Buddhism. Actually, Buddhism is very sup- 12 Thailand “I am first a Buddhist, second a feminist” portive of women. I think the Buddha was the first feminist in my life; the second one is my father. My mother was a nun too and when she became ordained, my father bowed to her, bowed on the ground and praised her for having fulfilled the fourfold Buddhism – which is the full form of Buddhism with its four pillars of monks, nuns, female, and male lay followers. Of course I converted all my sons to feminists, too. Yes, feminists do not have to be women. It is the quality of women and men and any other gender that supports the space for women to grow according to their potential. Women have potential, but they are being suppressed and the potential never blossomed.

Q: Which kind of progress do you foresee for you, the monastery, and the recognition of female ordination in Thailand in the next 10 years?

Dhammananda Bhikkhunī: I hope there will be a time when people will wake up and really say that this is enough, that it is too far and too long. For 700 years we did not have ordained women in this country. However, now we have more than 100 Bhikkhunīs in 20 provinces, so there is progress. Thailand always boasts about having the highest Buddhist population in the world, but yet that Buddhist population is lopsided, because Bhikkhunīs are still missing; it is not completely fourfold.

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This interview was published in Perspectives Asia #4: The Gender Issue. To download the full publication with other interesting articles on Gender topics in Southeast Asia follow this link: http://www.th.boell.org/en/2016/01/05/perspectives-asia-4-gender-issue