Marking International Women's Day on Wednesday, the International Women's Meditation Center Foundation (IWMCF) announced this year's awards for outstanding women in Buddhism from its headquarters in Thailand. The foundation offered awards to 16 women, most of whom are monks, although several lay people were included.
Among those honored are:
Bhikkhuni Dhammavaree Bhothiyana, Thailand
Bhikkhuni Dr. Sobhita Malikul, Thailand
Bhikkhuni Sakula, Thailand
Bhiksuni Sing-Yin, Taiwan
Daw Daw Nang Kyi Kyi Thein, Burma
Gabriela Frey, France
Grace Yeh, Taiwan
Kullanit Kaewkao, Thailand
Lama Chimey Lhatso, Sweden
Maechee Nudiao Netpakdee, Thailand
Reverend Master Meian Elbert, USA
Reverend Ursula Richard, Germany
Reverend Tenzin Chogkyi, USA
Thilashin Punnesi, Burma
Nang Phong Kham, Burma
Dr Saw Htut Sandar, Burma
The IWMCF has been awarding Women in Buddhism awards since 2002. The awards began as an initiative of two Buddhist nuns, Bhikkhuni Rattanavali from Thailand and Bhikkhuni Dr. Lee from the United States. The two created the awards after attending events honoring women in 2001 - the Outstanding Women's Awards in Thailand and at the United Nations on International Women's Day on March 8, 2001. After these events, the two began planning a global celebration of women in Buddhism. , culminating in the first Outstanding Awards for Women in Buddhism in 2002.
For the first two years, the awards went to the Association for the Advancement of the Status of Women, which was founded in Thailand in 1974 to promote the welfare of women and children. Later, the awards were presented at the United Nations Conference Center in Bangkok, before returning to the Association for the Advancement of the Status of Women, and then to other venues.
The 2020 awards were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 2021 awards were given out via Zoom from the Heartwood Refuge Retreat Center, a non-sectarian Buddhist organization led by Venerable Pannavati in North Carolina. In 2022, the awards were given to 20 women from the organization's headquarters in Rayong, Thailand.
The awards aim to recognize excellence in a variety of fields and practices, including meditation, social work, community development, Dharma teaching – through writings, scholarly work or appearances in the media – and peace activities. Buddhist women from around the world can be nominated each year, with the selection being finalized by a dozen IWMCF committee members.
Among this year's winners, Bhikkhuni Dr. Sobhita Malikul was inspired by her mother, who became a white-robed nun (Thai: maechee) in his later years. Dr. Malikul decided to continue her education later in life, starting her Masters in Buddhist Studies at the age of 58 and her PhD at the age of 62, becoming the first Thai bhikkhuni to obtain a doctorate in Buddhism in Thailand.
Gabriela Frey has a rich career in the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, where she served as an assistant to several German MPs from 1988 to 2017. Her work helped bring His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Strasbourg and Brussels, and brought several European parliamentarians to Dharamsala to meet members of the Tibetan government in exile. In 2019, Frey was the first European Parliament guest speaker on the subject of Buddhism in Europe. She is the founder and president of Sakyadhita France.
Reverend Master Meian Elbert is a priest of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives (OBC), a Western monastic order founded by Reverend Master Jiyu-Kennett, a British-born woman trained in the Soto Zen school of Japanese Buddhism. Reverend Elbert was ordained in 1977 and worked closely with Reverend Jiyu-Kennett until the latter's death in 1996. Today Reverend Elbert is the abbess of the Buddhist monastery of Shasta Abbey.
The organization sets out a number of goals for its awards, including international recognition and support for bhikkhunis in Southeast Asia, greater awareness of the benefits of, and support for, female Buddhist leaders, greater social understanding of women in Buddhism, and networking opportunities for accomplished Buddhist women, both ordained and secular.