Thai Buddhist group tries to reinstate order of woman monks

By Channel NewsAsia's Indo-China Correspondent May Ying Welsh, May 20, 2005

BANGKOK, Thailand -- This Sunday, Buddhists around the world celebrate Vesak Day, also known as Wisakha Bucha Day in Thailand. Buddhists believe it is the day on which three events took place in the life of the Buddha - His Birth, Enlightenment and Final Nirvana.

In the kingdom, a small group of women are challenging the Buddhist authorities by trying to reinstate an ancient and controversial order of monks.

It is 6am in Bangkok and the monks are out on their morning rounds, accepting alms from the community.

There is just one difference - these are women monks, and they say they are the first in Thai history.

The group is headed by Dhammananda, who was ordained two years ago by a Sri Lankan woman monk, as a "Bhikkuni" in the Theravadan tradition.

Bikkhunis were a line of woman monks ordained by the Buddha that died out eight centuries ago, and was recently revived in Sri Lanka.

Here, in a reversal of roles, men bow to Dhammananda, offering food in the hope of gaining merit.

It is something of a breakthrough for a Thai woman to be a religious role model and a spiritual leader.

Dhammananda said: "We never had women taking the leading role in spiritual field so we always look up to male monks as role models, but male monks cannot be role models for women, women do need women to be role models."

But Dhammananda's title is not recognised by Thailand's religious authorities - they only recognise men as monks.

Traditionally, the status of women in Thai Buddhism is lower than that of men's.

Women cannot be in physical contact with monks. When offering alms, they must the food on a cloth, and they are not allowed in certain areas of the monasteries.

Dhammananda said that led to women and girls having low self-esteem.

Dhammananda said: "Women always pray - literally pray - that in the next life I will be born a man. You can be enlightened in a woman's body."

But not everyone believes in her mission.

Thailand's religious authorities said the Bhikkuni order administered under Theravada Buddhism was over, and could never be revived.

Phra Sripariyattimoli, Buddhism Protection Office, said that to change, one needed to correct many things.

He said Theravada would become like Mahayana Buddhism and these could lead to many other changes, including monks being able to have a wife.

Critics said women who wanted to lead an ordained life should simply become nuns.

However, Dhammananda's supporters argued that by not allowing women monks, religious authorities were sending a message to girls and women that Buddhism was not relevant to them.

And they ask where does that leave Thai women?

Dhammananda said: "Why is the door for women to be ordained locked but the door for women to go into prostitution so wide open?

"If we open up the door for women to be ordained, would it help to uplift the woman's status?"

Dhammananda's goal is to create a whole new Bikkhuni lineage and a monastery unlike any other in Thailand - one where women can gather freely.