Daughters of the Buddha: Progress on the Path to Female Ordination – A Conversation with Ven. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni. Photo by Craig Lewis

The 18th International Sakyadhita Conference was recently held in Seoul under the theme “Living in a Precarious World: Impermanence, Resilience, Awakening”. From June 23 to 27, more than 3 monks, lay people, guests and Buddhist dignitaries from South Korea and around the world gathered to share their experiences and research, and to support and encourage projects and initiatives aimed at improving the life of Buddhists. women. The five-day forum was an opportunity to reconnect with old friends from around the world, forge new relationships, learn and exchange ideas, inspire and be inspired.*

BDG was privileged to witness this unique manifestation of the sacred feminine in contemporary Buddhism and to meet some of the women working to shape the face of Buddhism today. Among the many female monastics connected with this remarkable forum is Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, one of the original founders of Sakyadhita International, and the first fully ordained bhikkhuni of a Theravada lineage in modern Thai history. Although unable to attend the conference this year, BDG sat down with Ven. Dhammananda at her monastery in Thailand's Nakhon Pathom province to learn about progress on the path to ordaining women.

Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country, with 93,5% of the national population of 69 million people identifying as Buddhist, according to 2018 census data. The Southeast Asian kingdom has some 40 Buddhist temples and nearly 000 monks. However, the country has never officially recognized the full monastic ordination of women. By comparison, widely practiced Mahayana Buddhist traditions in East Asia have historically been much more accepting of female ordination.

Yet communities of ordained renunciates exist and thrive across Thailand, determined to overthrow the institutionalized chauvinism that stands in the way of female monasticism. Currently numbering around 235 nationwide – a slight drop from pre-COVID numbers – and supported by more progressive minds bhikkhusthey seek to re-establish the quadruple sangha as the optimal holistic and inclusive structure within which all segments of society can study and share the Dhamma.

Songdhammakalyani Monastery. Photo by Craig Lewis
Songdhammakalyani Monastery. Photo by Craig Lewis

As a Buddhist scholar, author and social activist, Ven. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni has been a key figure in restoring the Theravada female lineage in Thailand and around the world. Born Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, in 1944, her mother, Voramai Kabilsingh, was the first Thai woman to be fully ordained as a bhikkhunialthough in the Mahayana tradition in Taiwan.

After earning a Masters in Religion from McCaster University in Canada and a Ph.D. In Buddhism at the University of Magadh in India, Dr. Chatsumarn taught in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Thailand's prestigious Thammasat University in Bangkok, authoring numerous books on contemporary issues in Asian Buddhism.

Dr. Chatsumarn retired from academia in 2000 and received the bodhisattva precepts from Ven. Hsing Yun in Fo Guang Shan in Taiwan. Less than a year later, she received lower ordination in Sri Lanka, receiving the name Dhamma Dhamananda. In 2003, she received full ordination in Sri Lanka, and thus Ven. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni became the first Thai woman to be ordained in a Theravada lineage.

Today, Ven. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni resides at Songdhammakalyani Monastery, founded by his mother, which currently houses seven bhikkhunis and four new ordained samaneris. Here she writes and teaches on issues central to Socially Engaged Buddhism, such as women's empowerment, environmental sustainability, and education.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns in Thailand, which have placed enormous financial and social strain on the country's most vulnerable communities, Songdhammakalyani Monastery has been at the forefront of monastic sangha efforts across the country to provide humanitarian aid, distributing food and water directly to those most affected.**

Voramai Kabilsingh, also called Ta Tao Fa Tzu. Photo by Craig Lewis

BDG: After all the years of work you have done to reform the female monastic sangha, how accepted are female monastics in Thailand today?

Fri. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni: Today, I think we can say that people recognize bhikkhunis much more easily. You know, when I started out on my own, everywhere I went people would call me and tell me the men's room! And when I explained that I was a monastic woman, they looked at me very strangely. Nowadays, of course, there is no such reaction. In fact, people are much more comfortable making offerings to monastic women, as they do here in our monastery to support our community.

We may not be totally dominant yet, but most people these days understand that women can be orderly, and they don't question you as harshly as they did in the beginning. For example, there is a small monastery in Nong Khai in northeast Thailand, near Laos—only two bhikkhunis— but they are very well accepted by the local lay community, which always helps organize various functions at the monastery there. And in southern Thailand, women monastics are very actively involved in local communities – in Songkhla alone we have at least three temples for bhikkhunis.

There are 77 provinces in Thailand, and of these at least 30 have female monastics.

BDG: Do you get a lot of support from the male monastic sangha?

VDB: Not that much . . . but we do. According to vinaya, we are to receive teachings from male monks twice a month. And we have senior monks who come here to Songdhammakalyani Monastery to give us instructions.

BDG: And they accept the bhikkhuni movement very well?

VDB: According to vinaya, it is their duty! It is their duty to give us teachings, and then they must return to their sangha to report that they have done so. As such, I think it's fair to say acceptance is happening, albeit slowly.

Songdhammakalyani Monastery. Photo by Craig Lewis

BDG: I guess I was hoping to hear that more male monks now recognize the value and importance of the female monastic sangha.

VDB: Well, today, for example, I was checking the tutor's manual. Sometimes, when translating texts into Pali, they insert gender issues. For example, a verse may say that one who seeks to be ordained must be a human being, sound in body and mind, but sometimes in the translation they add the qualifier "male."

For this reason, when I teach Pali, I always stress the importance of knowing Pali in order to be able to refer to the original source texts. Sometimes, when we depend on translations, we come across these little additions—one word, but that's so significant because it then means no women. No woman can be ordained. But in the original Pali text, there is no such thing! So it's so important to be able to refer to the original texts.

BDG: In the case of the higher administrative level of the Thai monastic sangha, is there still the same type of resistance or are they starting to evolve in their thinking and attitudes?

VDB: They tend to be calmer these days. In the past, these senior positions were appointed for life, but now these appointments are only for two years. And even those members of the council of elders aren't permanent either. As such, they tend to be quieter on the issue of female ordination.

BDG: So you could say it's almost a step forward?

VDB: Yes yes! As more and more women come out, they can see that more and more women, once ordained, are recognized and accepted.

And then we have the UTBSI – United Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha International – which meets from different countries. Since the creation of the UTBSI about two years ago, we have organized online activities; we now teach vinaya on line. And that kind of thing, I think, should be appreciated: that the bhikkhunis come help teach the vinaya in this way.

Of course, we receive support. For example, for this year's Asanha Bucha,*** a day before entering the Rains Retreat, we invited some senior monks: Ven. Ajahn Brahmali from Australia, who immediately agreed to be one of the keynote speakers for our celebration. We also invited Ven. Bhikkhuni Tathaloka Mahatheri from the United States to be the second speaker, and Ven. Bhikkhuni Santini Mahatheri from Indonesia will be the third speaker.

So we make things happen. When the outside world sees the activities that bhikkhunis are doing internationally, I think they will appreciate it.

Songdhammakalyani Monastery. Photo by Craig Lewis
Songdhammakalyani Monastery. Photo by Craig Lewis

BDG: Can we say, then, that you feel optimistic about the future of bhikkhuni Sangha in Thailand?

VDB: Yes quite. When I was an academic and working on the bhikkhuni question, I was really a lonely voice, you know. No one was really interested in the bhikkhuni issue. But the fact that I really feel very strongly that this is the missing part, the missing link, in Buddhism, especially in my country, the recognition effort is very important.

At the very least, we can be certain that we are on the right track. We are on the right path. Like Ven. Ajahn Brahm used to say, we are on the right side of history.

Regarding the bhikkhus sangha, I always participate in a dialogue twice a month, and we have two teachers who are former monks – one of whom was my student when he was a monk – and they tell us that the younger generation of monks are much more open – mindful of bhikkhuniswhich seems to me to be very good news.

BDG: Is there anything else your sangha is working on that you would like people to know?

VDB: Oh yes, zero waste! In 1985, I started my research on the Buddhist perception of nature. And that's when I first realized that our Buddhist texts are very rich on how we as human beings should deal with nature, how to preserve it. It's so beautiful, you know: the Buddhist texts are so rich in material on how we can take care of nature. Later, after being ordained, I realized that temples should be centers of learning about this.

So we provide a space for people to come, to sort and clean waste, and to learn how to recycle it. Our response to pollution and climate change, you know, starts with us. It doesn't start "over there", it starts with us. So I try to talk about it, and the people who come here regularly they bring their bins, and they can make themselves worthy by offering bins!

We would also like to become a learning center for other temples. If they want to start these kinds of programs, they can do that very easily, and then they can help people understand how important it is to start from ourselves and our own communities.

BDG: Ven. Dhammananda, thank you very much for being so generous with your time.

Zero Waste Recycling Center at Songdhammakalyani Monastery. Photos by Craig Lewis

The International Association of Buddhist Women Sakyadhita is the leading global body committed to transforming the lives of women in Buddhist societies, aspiring to empower and unite Buddhist women, promote their well-being and facilitate their work for the benefit of the Dharma and all sentient beings. "Sakyadhita" means Daughter of Shakya (the historical Buddha's clan name). Working locally, Sakyadhita provides an international network among Buddhist women, promoting research and publications and striving to create equal opportunities for women in all Buddhist traditions.

* Daughters of the Buddha: The 18th Sakyadhita Conference in Seoul Celebrates the Sacred Feminine (BDG)

** From heart to heart: an interview with Ven. Dhammananda Bhikkuni (BDG)

*** One of the most important festivals of Theravada Buddhism, celebrating the Buddha's first sermon at Sarnath.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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