Leading the way

BY SANITSUDA EKACHAI, The Bangkok Post, April 24, 2008

Poonsirivara Bhikkhuni talks about her life's mission

Bangkok, Thailand -- Many Thais who spend decades working in the US would aspire to return home to spend their retirement in comfort. Not the former Poonsiri Phanampai.

After 26 years away from home, the mother of two and a former home health care practitioner is back in her motherland to live a homeless life as a bhikkhuni.

Her new Buddhist name is Poonsirivara Bhikkhuni. And retirement is not on her mind.

"I'd like to be of some use here," says the 52-year-old bhikkhuni, sitting in her small thatched-roof bamboo hut surrounded by the greenery of her family orchard in Samut Sakhon.

"There still is resistance against female ordination here," she adds matter-of-factly. "It is partly cultural and partly the lack of visibility for a bhikkhuni. So I thought if I'm back home to work with the communities, it'll help make bhikkhunis more visible. And hopefully, that will help people accept bhikkhunis, at least in my community."

She returned to Thailand last December and her mission has kept her busy from day one. Near her one-room kuti, a simple abode for monastics, a cluster of bamboo and wooden structures are under construction. When finished, the Suan Siridharm Centre will serve as a retreat and dharma training youth centre for nearby communities.

"I chose bamboo as the main building material not only because it's quick to build, but also because bamboo is fast-growing and renewable. Using bamboo thus poses less of an environmental impact on the planet.

"Certainly, we have to repair the buildings more often. But nothing lasts forever anyway," she says with a smile. Impermanence, or anicca, is one of the most important tenets in Buddhism.

Aside from supervising the construction of Suan Siridharm, her busy schedule includes teaching English to novices at the Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University. She also has her hands full organising a workshop on non-violence communications for female monastics, which will be held early next month.

Born to a large family of 10 in the peaceful, rural setting of Samut Sakhon, young Poonsiri's early background in Buddhism - like that of most Thais - was cultural, not spiritual.

"I went to the temples with my parents, things like that, but didn't really pay much attention to it. It was only part of our way of life."

It was the same thing with her interests in gender issues at the time: Almost non-existent. "It was probably because my parents treated us children pretty much the same.

"I got their full support for education, for example. So when I sensed some gender disparity in social and cultural life - like when I wondered why women must sit behind men in the praying hall - I didn't really have strong feelings against it."

She thanks her parents, however, for raising her to have an independent mind and a firm belief in balance and fairness. It has helped her to make the choice - no second thoughts - to be ordained as a bhikkhuni rather than a mae chee, or a white-robed nun.

It was also her streak for independence and adventure that made Poonsiri leave Thailand to work and study in the US after graduating from Thammasat University in 1977.

It was a politically turbulent time. Though she was not involved with the student political activism, as a student of political science, she said she could not escape the '70s permeating belief in serving society's larger good.

Although her ordination enabled her to live a life of service, the initial reason for her to leave the worldly life was spiritual.

On the surface, her family was picture perfect. She was married to a university administrator in Missouri, and had two children, a boy and a girl.

"Yet, I felt something was seriously missing."

That was when her religious background, which she had taken for granted during her childhood, came to her rescue.

"When I listened to dharma teachings and practiced Vipassana, I felt like coming home."

Before she took to meditation, she often asked herself what was her purpose in life and felt frustrated at not being able to give herself a satisfactory answer.

"Back then, I often dreamed that I was searching for something. In my dream, I moved from one room to another, but I didn't really know what I was looking for. This went on for several years. It stopped right after I was ordained.

"It was probably because I had finally discovered what I was looking for. I've discovered that I must serve Buddhism. I've found my life's purpose."

Bhikkhuni Poonsirivara says she learned Vipassana, or insight meditation, at a Thai temple in St Louis, Missouri, and had been practicing it every day for 10 years before deciding to devote her life to spirituality.

At that time, she was divorced, living alone and earning a living as a home health care practitioner.

The idea of being ordained as a mae chee never entered her mind, she says. While Thai Theravada Buddhism prohibits female ordination, head-shaven, white-robed nuns, or mae chees, generally suffer an inferior status within the clergy. They are often treated as temple maids doing the cooking and cleaning for the monks, so much so that they have little time to practice or initiate their own dharma work.

"That was what I saw when I visited Thai temples in Los Angeles," she recalls.

In St Louis, however, she had a chance to practice and serve in a Mahayana Buddhist temple where she learned firsthand how women monastics could use their full potential to serve the public.

When her initial plan to be ordained in an inter-sect project in St Louis did not work out, she headed to Sri Lanka where the Theravada Bhikkhuni clergy has been revived.

After seven months of living there as an anagarika, or a renunciant, she was ordained as a novice, or samaneri, in 2004.

"I never had a moment of doubt," she recalls. After two years of practicing in Sri Lanka, she received her full ordination as a bhikkhuni at the Golden Temple, Sri Lanka's most sacred place of worship for Buddhists.

There are eight Thai-born Theravada bhikkhunis in Thailand, she says. According to the monastic discipline, the bhikkhuni ordination must be presided by a group of five bhikkhus and five bhikkhunis, and the female preceptor must have at least 12 years as a bhikkhuni.

Thailand's first bhikkhuni in the Theravada tradition is Dhammananda, formerly Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a Buddhist scholar. She was ordained in 2003, which means that she still has seven years before she can become a home-grown preceptor.

Thai women who seek female ordination mostly go to Sri Lanka, as it is much easier than inviting a preceptor from overseas and organising dual ordination at home, not to mention the risk of being frowned upon by the Thai clergy.

Poonsirivara Bhikkhuni does not consider herself chained to that fear, though.

"I've lived far away from home for so long. It enables me to see things outside the box. That's why I have no qualms in setting up a dharma centre or organising a workshop for female monastics.

"Women have a lot to contribute to society if we can transcend cultural barriers," she notes.

Although the number of samaneri and bhikkhuni in Thailand is increasing, it remains difficult for women from different backgrounds to live and work together to form a single clergy.

"But we can work together in a network to support female ordination and to serve society," she says.

That mission aside, Poonsirivara Bhikkhuni's principal goal remains a pursuit for spiritual liberation.

Vipassana, she says, is an effective tool to transcend one's various worldly attachments.

"If we train ourselves to be constantly mindful, we will come to see the arising of our feelings and emotions when external arousals meet our six sense doors," she explains, referring to the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind.

"When we see such arising and passing away, whatever happens in our minds won't get out of hand. Whatever we are suffering from will stop right there. This is the most important teaching of the Lord Buddha.

"If we develop a strong guard at our sense doors, nothing can harm us. This is what our society urgently needs and what we all need to do in order to live unshaken in a world full of temptation."

To support the Suan Siridharm Centre, call Poonsirivara Bhikkhuni on 08-9920-1899 or email poonsiriphan@hotmail.com.