Daughters of the Sakyamuni: Reflections on Struggles to Legally Exist as Female Buddhist Practitioners in Thailand and Myanmar

Phacharaphorn Phanomvan reflects on the role of female Buddhist practitioners in Buddhist societies.

In December 2014, I flew to Thailand to receive pabbajjā (ceremony to ‘go forth’ as novice monk) and become a Sammanerī (novice female Buddhist monk). I made that journey after several years of research and after fighting against social conventions that bar women from receiving ordination. These conventions dictate that the most women can aspire to is practising as an ascetic lay person and vowing celibacy. Women who choose to become an ascetic layperson are called Mae Chi (white robe layperson who take up 8 to 10 silas and shave their heads) in Thailand and Thilashin (pink robe layperson practitioners) in Myanmar. They do not receive ordination and are not formally considered a monk or nun in Buddhist texts. Receiving ordination was something I wanted to do as a Buddhist, but it also caused a deep divide between my loved ones. My mother, who supported the choice, was accused of heresy; she laughed it off and on the day of my ordination, she cried tears of joy. The decision to receive temporary ordination as a novice and the opportunity to study under Venerable Dhammananda would become the most fulfilling part of my life and identity as a Buddhist. She taught me genuine compassion and the art of being a ‘serene’ dissident. Most importantly she embodies the compassion, intellect, and success that challenges gender stereotypes imposed upon Thai girls and woman.

Thailand is one of the few Buddhist countries that has a formal government institution for Buddhism. The monarch appoints of a Sangharaja (Supreme Patriarch) selected from candidates within the Sangha Order. This tradition dates back to 14th-century CE Southeast Asian traditions and was also prevalent in Myanmar up until 1938 with the passing of Taunggwin Sayadaw [1]. A body known as the Council of Elders was set up in Thailand to regulate the Sangha order, which does not include or acknowledge female monks. To ‘pabbajjā’ is to adopt certain practising rules, and most importantly to receive education in Buddhism.  A woman choosing to practice as ‘Mae Chi’ is not eligible to receive the same education, nor can she receive subsidies for travelling from the government like the male Sangha. Unlike their counterparts in Thailand, the Thilashin in Myanmar seems to enjoy more institutionalised benefits through a formal Thilashin Council and legal protections from the Supreme Sangha Council.  Although they may not adopt the same silas (rules of conduct) as Bhikkhunīs (female monks), they follow a code of practices called the Thilashin Kyinwut as well as many other oratory traditions made up of nearly 311 codes [2] practised by Bhikkhunī (the similarities between the silas and the Thilashin Kyinwut have yet to be explored). They are still laypeople by law and, as such, they can own land and handle money, but because of their civil status as a religious person they are not allowed to vote. Overall, Thilashins seem to earn greater respect in Myanmar’s sacred space than Mae Chis in Thailand, but in the end they still serve as laypeople and perform servitude for the male Sangha (monk) Order.

The Buddha set up the Vinaya (disciplines) as a means of providing protection and privileges for those under monasticism to pursue self-cultivation. The Vinaya  also help practitioners avoid straying from the course of Buddhism, which the Buddha stressed for those who entered monasticism. These Vinayas and rules are not fixed and with enough consensus from the Sangha Order they can be amended as circumstances and time changes. In my understanding, regulated practices help you get rid of bad habits easier than non-regulated ones. I have been to religious retreats before and have occasionally taken up the eight silas, but becoming a Sammanerī under tutelage with saffron coloured robes was an entirely different learning experience. More importantly, the status of Mae Chi in Thailand and Thilashin in Myanmar do not have a definite place in Buddhist texts. They appeared mysteriously a couple of hundred years ago and existed in a status between laywoman and female monks. They do not observe the 311 rules of the Bhikkhunī Patimokkha (female monk rules of discipline) found in the Pali Tipitaka. In my experience, they have a largely subservient role with regards to male monks in Buddhist monasteries. They cook, clean, and conduct grocery shopping, even though the Vinaya forbids Bhikkhu (male monks) from requesting such tasks from Bhikkhunī.

Legally, Thailand does not recognise or have legislation to protect Theravadin Bhikkhunīs and Sammanerīs. The Council of Elders and Department of Religion has issued a ban on male bhikkhus assisting or giving upasampada (full ordination: men adopt 227 silas, women adopt 311 silas). Foreign monks seeking to travel to Thailand for events related to Bhikkhunī must attain permission from authorities. As a result, Theravadin female monasteries are not exempted from tax or protected by the law like their male counterparts. On official documents, they are considered as a layperson and cannot receive exemptions from layperson civil status and obligations that may clash with their practices. These difficulties range from not being able to use public resting areas that would help them avoid physical contact with the opposite sex, to being asked to disrobe and wear layperson clothes for certificate photos. In more extreme circumstances, Theravadin Bhikkhunī has been verbally abused, socially ostracised and left without food donations. In Myanmar, a Bhikkhunī who received her ordination in Sri Lanka was disrobed and thrown into prison.

When I made the decision to receive ordination, I was under the impression that I would be practising and learning about Dhamma (teachings of the Buddha) and that the affairs of the world would not haunt me in the temple walls. Instead, I discovered that the temple, nestled on the outskirt of Nakhon Pathom Province and housing approximately 20 devoted female, survives thanks to the devotees own knowledge and hope that important institutions in the country will let them continue their practices. These women are brave, and they know that the Buddha and the Tipitaka (the Buddhist scriptures) legitimates their life’s work. It was the source of their courage. So, on top of painting temple walls, cleaning, meditating, praying, studying with Ven Dhammananda and just feeling truly free in those saffron robes; I also took the opportunity to learn about their struggles.

When I left the monastery, I kept asking myself if I wanted to get in the middle of this struggle and write about the problems I see in society. I decided against writing since I cannot claim myself to be an expert on Buddhism. More importantly, I realised that could not resort to feminist texts and arguments. As a young,  western-educated woman, my words are at risk of being seen as a ‘Western feminist rant’, particularly by traditional society and institutions like the Council of Elders. The Bhikkhunīs are not engaged in a struggle to enter full monastic tradition. They can become Bhikkhunīs by flying to Sri Lanka after a certain number of years practising as a novice. Dhammananda Bhikkhunī has created a safe social niche for women to learn and practice Buddhism to its full extent in Thailand. Rather, their battle is against naivety and a tradition of religious teaching that believes in oral narratives and idolises religious icons, both of which are far removed from the enlightened teachings of Buddhism. A quick browse through contents associated to Bhikkhunī in the official textbooks gives us an insight into the superficiality of knowledge concerning the female sangha among male sangha. Most textbooks often deem Bhikkhunī as ‘extinct’ or ‘discontinued’. These arguments intrigue me, because even the Thai Bhikkhu themselves had to be ‘revived’ by inviting foreign monks to give ordination and teach Thai monks. The same practice was somehow considered a ‘break in the world order’ when the practice is done for women.

So why am I writing now? For both Thailand and Myanmar, this is a time of change.

Thailand is now a large centre for Theravadin Bhikkhunī in Southeast Asia. As we are now undergoing legislative reforms, it is time to ask for de jure standards for female Theravada sangha. Myanmar is opening up as a society and economy. It will not take long before another Thilashin receives upasampada in Sri Lanka and heads back to Yangon in saffron robes. In contrast to Thailand, where formal attempts to revive the Bhikkhunī Sangha is mostly a recent phenomenon, Myanmar had been trying to restore its Bhikkhunī Sangha order since the 1930s. During the 1950s, another appeal was sent to the government and 20 leading monks. Currently, we are still waiting for these efforts to materialise.

The recent passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej has triggered nationwide mourning. Thailand’s monarchy is closely tied to its national and cultural identity. The monarchy serves as a protector of religion, as demonstrated by their continuous financial and honorary endorsements for different religious organisations. The palace has opened up the Dusit Throne Hall for all members of the public to pay respect to the late King. On 24th November 2016, a company of 22 Bhikkhunī Sanghas journeyed for 12 hours to pay respect to the late King at the Throne Hall. All of them had national identity cards, which are required for palace entry. They arrived at 1 am (queuing usually takes approximately 5 to 6 hours) and were sent to an area designated for the Sangha Order by Navy officers in charge of the area. There were signs on the tent stating, “for Bhikkhu and Samanera” (male monks and novices). The officer in charge of the designated tents denied the Bhikkhunīs entry because they were “illegal”. They decided to head back to their monasteries at 2 pm, after waiting and trying for 13 hours. A second attempt, this time with 70 Bhikkhunīs and Samanerīs combined, was made on 9th December 2016. They had received permission from the Bureau of the Royal Household. They were made to wait for hours next to the road while an argument reached a head over the legality of their status as ‘Thai monks’. During the conversation, the officer asked whether they can remove their outer Jīvara (outer robes) to see what the inner long sleeves shirt looked like and stated that they might enter the public entrance designated for laypeople only if they remove their monk robes and wear black attire.

It is important to be clear that these female Sanghas may be Thai by nationality, but they have never claimed to be ‘Thai monks’. Female Bhikkhunīs receive ordination from Sri Lanka and would be considered Theravadin Buddhist monks, but are not strictly considered ‘Thai monks’ as defined by the Sangha Act. It is worth noting that the same Sangha Act offers protection to Mahayana and Vajrayana monks that are not categorised as ‘Thai monks’. As citizens of Thailand, it seems that they are now not only legally ostracised, but also have lost their rights as members of the public to pay respects to the monarch or to freely practice religion.

The Female Sangha is not a foreign idea to Southeast Asian Buddhist tradition, they appear in literary references and occasionally iconography. Bhikkhunīs also appear in Buddhist texts, and even have a chapter inside the Tipitaka dedicated to their practices. To my knowledge, at least 18 of the 227 silas held by Bhikkhus involve behaviours towards Bhikkhunīs. The Buddha had 13 leading male and 13 leading female disciples. All Bhikkhus are taught that women are equally capable of reaching the highest forms of practice and objectives in Buddhism. Mon historical manuscript contains a passage about Muladhita, a female Paccekabuddha [3] or a person who has attained the highest and perfect insight, but dies without proclaiming truth to the world. A surviving 14th to 18th century Pali protective verse from Myanmar known as Uppatasanti or ‘Mahāsanting-luang’ in Northern Thailand (Lanna) lists the thirteen Theris of the Pali version along with their attainments, and invokes their protection[4]. The Pyu, also known as Tirkul, educated their boys and girls in Buddhist monasteries, where they may choose to leave for a layperson life if they do not want to go forth once they have reached the age of 20. This suggests that the paths of Bhikkhunī may have been available to early Southeast Asian societies.

Why are there so much resistance from certain male Sangha authorities on female ordination?

In my opinion, there are two main factors associated with the bias against female Sangha. First, there is an ongoing traditional misconception that the Buddha predicted that the existence of women in the Sangha would bring about the end of Buddhism. While the Rig Veda age recognises and provides more equality for woman, late Vedic text and culture assign temporary female impurity to the sins of Indra in his murder of a Brahmana, Vishvarupa. Menstruation is considered ‘stains’ from receiving one-third of Indra’s sins.[5] While women during the Buddha’s time were occasionally given public intellectual space, they were neither independent nor recognised. These perceptions have persevered throughout history in traditional South and Southeast Asian cultures that were originally Brahministic and Animistic. Buddhism and Jainism heavily criticised these perceptions, appealing instead to the early Vedic ideas that women are spiritually and mentally as capable as men in attaining Nibbāna (enlightenment). The Buddha appeared in public with many female disciples and encouraged them to teach his Dhamma. Yet, conservative male monks have blamed female ordination for Buddhism’s shortening lifespan, from 1000 years to 500 years, by mixing the notion of female impurity with quoting out of textual context from the Tipitaka. According to the Cullavagga, a metaphorical conversation took place between the Buddha and his disciple Ananda, who supported establishing the female Sangha Order. In this dialogue, the Buddha metaphorically discussed repercussions against Buddhism that may result from challenging conventional Vedic social beliefs by providing women with recognitions and opportunities. However, he also ended the conversation by assuring Ananda that he has prevented such downfall from happening by giving the 8 Garudhammas (rules of practices) to the female Sangha Order. The validity of the entire 8 Garudhamma and the Cullavagga as a prediction to the lifespan of Buddhism had always been contested. In fact, it was revised in the 4th century CE with changes in content and lifespan of Buddhism. So, whether or not the Buddha actually even considered that Bhikkhunī order would cause the downfall of Buddhism is questionable.[6]

Second, the practices concerning Bhikkhunī upasampada seems to have been concluded with clumsily explored evidence by local Buddhist scholars and society. There is an ongoing perception that the ceremony to give ordination to women needs to happen twice. The first upasampada must be conducted by female Sangha of that particular lineage such as Mahayana or Theravada, then followed by an upasampada with the male Sangha. This cannot be any far more removed from the actual ceremony. An upasampada, or ordination to become a monk, is considered a special ‘Sangha kamma’ or activities taken up by the Sangha Order. The same service on a candidate to be given ordination cannot be performed twice because it annuls the effect of another. Technically, this makes any upasampada conducted by the male Bhikkhu invalid, so the idea of receiving two upasampadas is not possible. The novice must be given upasampada by an elder male Bhikkhu, who becomes their regular teacher. They also inherit the male teacher’s lineage. To maintain a healthy physical distance between male and female Sangha, the new Bhikkhunī undergoes tutelage under another senior Bhikkhunī who becomes her Pavattinī, or preceptor, that guides and teaches the new Bhikkhunī. Therefore, the role of any Bhikkhunīs in the entire upasampada ceremony is to be a protocol tutor for the novice and enquire about Antarayikadhamma or obstacles to entering the Sangha Order. These barriers may involve physical aspects of a women’s health that the novice may feel she cannot tell a Bhikkhu. Therefore, Bhikkhunī upasampada can only be conducted by Bhikkhu and formally only requires approval by the Bhikkhu order. Any acceptable Bhikkhunī from any Nikaya, or strictly speaking any Bhikkhu, can ask Antarayikadhamma and help the novice prepare for necessary protocols. It does not affect the sanctity of upasampada as a Sanghakamma. The perception that there must be two upasampada ceremonies is a great misunderstanding among many in the Sangha Order and among contemporary scholars. An elder Bhikkhunī with at least 12 vassa (seasons) or Pavattinī can only provide pabbajja to a novice and prepare the novice for actual upasampada under Bhikkhu. [7]

Religion is undeniably a significant part of intellectual and material identity in Thailand and Myanmar. In its current state, women can only aspire to a supportive role in the religious community. Across Myanmar’s sacred spaces, Buddhist intellectualism and sanctity are for the preserve of men. Northern parts of Thailand have inherited this tendency, potentially from Bagan influences. Women are not allowed on many sacred sites and continue to be relegated to observer and supporter status. There are persisting ideas that a woman’s duty is to give birth to a son so that he can someday follow in the intellectual and esteemed paths of the Buddha, while the mother can only wait for the next Buddha to arrive so that she too may become a Bhikkhuni. These myths can be lifted along with the barrier that keeps women from participating in the Sangha Order. Reforming social conventions that bind the human mind and intellect has always been the Buddha’s goal, perhaps it is time for Buddhist societies to put the actual principles of Buddhism into practice.

 

Phacharaphorn Phanomvan is a D.Phil Candidate in Economic History at the University of Oxford. Her research is about ancient growth and trade in Myanmar and Southeast Asia. She is broadly interested in the roles of geography, technology, institutions, and heritage in long run growth and development.

 

[1] Harris, I. (Ed.). (2001). Buddhism and politics in twentieth century Asia. A&C Black. pp. 28
[2] Kawanami, H. (2013). Renunciation and empowerment of Buddhist nuns in Myanmar-Burma: building a community of female faithful. Brill. pp. 122-124
[3] Halliday, R. (1917). The Talaings. Rangoon: Superintendent, Government Printing. pp. 148
[4] Phra Khrū Sudhammanāt and Somrit Lū̕chai. (2005). ภิกษุณีสายเถรวาทในประเทศไทย [Theravadhin Bhikkuni in Thailand (in Thai]. Bangkok: Songdhammakalyani Monastery. pp. 44
[5] Leslie, J. (1992). Roles and rituals for Hindu women. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. pp.23
[6] Karma Lekshe Tsomo. (2000). Innovative Buddhist women: swimming against the stream (Vol. 15). Psychology Press. pp. 9-10

[7] I thank Venerable Dhammananda and Phra Khru Sudhammanat for pointing out this inconsistency in our understanding of Sanghakamma and Bhikkhuni upasampada process.