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Thai Bhikkhunis. Despite The Ban.

Photographer: Barbara Walton


In Thailand, the full ordination of females as Buddhist monastics is banned. Thai monks are forbidden by Thailand's Buddhism governing body, the Supreme Sangha Council, to give ordination to women, despite attempts to do so. Despite the ban, there are more than 100 bhikkhuni, or female Buddhist monks, who live a monastic life in Thailand, fulfilling their spiritual aspirations in monasteries for bhikkhuni sanghas (female monk communities). Although not officially supported, they do receive support from many in the community.


The first Thai female to be ordained a bhikkuni in the Theravada monastic lineage is Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, in her lay life), 70. She is abbess of the monastery Songdhammakalyani Bikkhuni Arama in Nakhon Pathom, situated about 80 km west from Bangkok, that her mother, also a bhikkhuni, established as the first of its kind for women in Thailand, more than 50 years ago.


The monastic life is in Dhammananda Bhikkhuni's blood. Her grandmother was a Buddhist nun. Her mother was a Mahayana sect ordained (in Taiwan) monastic and she was ordained as a bhikkhuni in 2003 in Sri Lanka, after a full career as a university professor in Philosophy and religion and a marriage with three sons. Since ordination, she has made it her mission to see the growth of the bhikkhuni sanga in Thailand, working to restore the four pillars of Buddhism as advocated by Lord Buddha - bhikkhus, bhikkhuni, laymen and laywomen.


Almost all of these bhikkhuni who have dedicated themselves to Lord Buddha and his Dhamma (teachings) have, however, had to travel to other countries where the ascension of women to the higher orders is accepted, such as Sri Lanka.


At the monastery Songdhammakalyani Bhikkhuni Arama, life is dedicated to the Buddha's teachings, rules and precepts as well as community service. The hard and concentrated life of bhikkhuni in Thailand is similar to that of male monks. Bhikkhunis wear orange robes, rise before dawn, chant and pray, meditate, learn and read Bhudda's dhamma, and study the ancient language of Pali. They walk among the community for alms, live in poverty, eat a simple vegetarian diet, and only may eat before noon each day. They shave their heads and live in a disciplined respectful community, called sangha.


Women in the process of becoming fully ordained bhikkunis, a process that can take two years at minimum, are called sikkhamanas. Others called samaneris are new initiates, being tested for their suitability and commitment for the hard dedicated path ahead.