Female monk causes a stir

By SHEILA B. LALWANI, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dec 23, 2005

Madison group supports woman in Thailand who challenges male role in Buddhism

Bangkok, Thailand -- As Buddhist monks roam busy streets swathed in saffron robes, as they lecture in universities and counsel politicians, one monk stands out.

<< Dhammananda Bhikkhuni

Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, a slight woman with a soft voice and a shaved head, is a female ordained monk in Thailand challenging the male patriarchy of her country. Male monks call her a heretic for getting ordained, which is technically outlawed in Thailand. When she helps other women become ordained, they get angrier.

"We have to prove to society that it is possible that women can lead ordained lives," she says in an interview.

The International Committee for the Peace Council, a non-profit group in Madison, is championing her mission. The council, which believes peace is possible through inter-religious collaboration, offers its moral support and has sent $27,500 since 1996 to assist her.

"She's working to restore equality for women in a particular context that is important in Thai society and all of Southeast Asia," council executive director Daniel Gomez-Ibanez says. "So we support what she is doing."

Miles from the heart of Bangkok's bustling city center and glittery golden temples, Dhammananda set up the headquarters to her religious revolution in a simple, wooden temple in Nakhon Pathom. Several women there are training to be monks. Nearly three years after becoming a full monk, Dhammananda and the issues she fights for remain mired in controversy.

Most residents are Buddhist

Out of the roughly 65 million people living in Thailand, about 95% claim Buddhism as their religion. Buddhism, one of the world's largest religions, was founded in present-day Nepal around the 5th century B.C. and later spread across Asia.

In Thailand, the majority of people practice Theravada Buddhism, the oldest and most conservative form of Buddhism.

There are roughly 300,000 bhikkhus, or male monks, and 25,000 temples in Thailand where men can learn about and practice Buddhism. Only a handful of temples focus on women. Women can become nuns, shave their heads and live a religious life, but they receive fewer privileges than male monks.

The issue of women's ordination in the Theravada sect of Buddhism is highly controversial in Thailand and many Asian countries, says Jan Nattier, a professor of Buddhist studies at Indiana University-Bloomington.

It is believed that the Buddha established the bhikkhuni, or female monastic order, 2,500 years ago to give women equal access to spiritual practices. Nattier says the female monks' community disappeared from the Theravada tradition around the 11th or 13th century A.D.

Critics argue that to ordain a female monk, other female and male monks must be present. They say that because ordained female monastics died out in Thailand and the rest of the Theravada world, ordaining a female monk is impossible.

Supporters for women's ordination argue that the Buddhist hierarchy is missing a chance to update its tradition in a time of rapid change for Thailand.

When some Buddhists in Sri Lanka decided several years ago to attempt to restore the order, the first ordinations had to be conducted with the help of Korean and Taiwanese female monastics from different Buddhist traditions, Nattier says.

The issue in Thailand is especially complicated because in 1928, the patriarch of Thailand issued an edict that monks must not ordain women. But, Nattier says, women can still take preliminary monastic vows.

Female ordained monks in Thailand risk social alienation. Some have been imprisoned.

Recalling her calling

At first, Dhammananda says, she wasn't sure she wanted to enter a religious life. She remembers a life that was spent teaching at a local university, writing books and hosting talk shows.

"I was rebellious. It was my life. To be a priest, you have to have that calling from God," she says.

Since 1996, the Peace Council has lent its moral support and contributed money to assist her social missions for women. She has opened a shelter for ex-prostitutes in Thailand. She also serves as a peace advocate with the group.

In 2004, she brought the Wisconsin-based committee to Thailand to address women in religion. At the end of the four-day conference, a statement calling for women's equal rights was proclaimed.

"What she has done, we endorse," says Joseph Elder, a friend and a trustee with the Peace Council.

Raising money

As she continues to advocate for women, Dhammananda says she looks to American Buddhists as role models. They are less focused on gender and more focused on the spirituality, she says.

These days, she's mostly busy with fund-raising for various social causes and advocating for women in Buddhism. Despite intense controversy, she plans to continue helping other women become ordained monks. She says her religion facilitates her being a feminist.

"Whether we are accepted or not, we are here," she says.