Whither Theravada Bhikkhuni Order ?

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Hong Yew Chye

Thai Bhikkhuni Rattanavali, the recipient of the outstanding woman in Buddhism award in 2002 visited Than Hsiang on 17 of April 2008. It is rare to meet a fully ordained nun of the Theravada tradition. What we normally have are the Mae Chee , clad in white or pink robe, who follow the eight or ten precepts, rather than the 311 rules of the bhikkhuni patimokkha. Theravada Bhikkhuni order is a controversial issue in Theravada Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. Buddha is reported to have allowed women into the Sangha only with great reluctance and further forecasting the ending of the dharma period after 500 years. It is open to debate on the interpretation of his prophesy, but historically the Bhikkhunis order did die out in India and Sri lanka over 1000 years ago. In another word, the lineage is broken, and for 1000 years there were no Theravada Bhikkhunis anywhere.

Lately there are movements in Sri Lanka and Thailand fighting to gain the right to be ordained as a“Bhikkhuni”, a higher ordination that place them on par with the Theravada monks. Spearheading the movement, we have prominent and outspoken pioneers , Ven. Dhammananda , American Bhikkhuni Dr. Lee and Ven. Ratanavali.

During a discussion I have with Ven . Ratanavali she lamented that Bhikkhunis in Thailand are fighting an uphill battle to get the order accepted. At times, the pressure could be extremely daunting and demoralizing. A senate sub-committee in 2003 proposed to the Thai Sangha council that permission be given for the ordination of women, but to date the permission has been denied. The reason for the rejection of Bhikkhuni is based on the monastic code (vinaya) that five Bhikkunis and five Bhikkhus must be present at ceremonies marking novitiate, ordination and confirmation of ordination. Therefore, with the disappearance of Bhikkhuni order, the quorum can not be met and hence the institution is doomed.

In response to the claim by the Thai Supreme Sangha that Thailand never had female ordination in the past and it can not start doing it now, Dhammananda retorted,“ that Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia never had Buddhist monks and the lineage was introduced from Sri Lanka. As such, if monks can do that, I don’t see why women can’t do it.”

Bhikkhunis in these countries are facing immense pressure from the monastic community as well as lay society in their fight for recognition as well as in their social works. Women in Thailand are becoming more supportive of Dhammanda’s quest, maintaining that nuns are in better position to attend to women’s needs and problems when monks are restrained by training to avoid women.

The dispute over bhikkhuni order also bring into focus the question of gender equality or inequality in Theravada Buddhist countries. . Emma Tomalin in her paper , the Thai bhikkhuni movement and women’s empowerment (2006), highlights the relationship between the low status of women in Thai Buddhism and the inferior status of women in Thai society. The concept of patriarchy is very entrenched in Thai Buddhism. To transform the mind-set is a big challenge, though possible, but unlikely in the near future. The high levels of female found in the sex work in Thailand lent credence to this fact. Whereas male siblings enjoy the privileges of education and monkhood to repay gratitude to their parents and the parents in turn gain merits. Females, on the other hand, often face a bleak future by becoming maids, factory workers or prostitutes to support their family. It is common knowledge in poor rural areas that young girls have been sold to pay off family debts. Patriarchy within Buddhism is a controversial subject in Thailand with regards to the role of women in religion, and the right of laywomen as opposed to men, which Ven. Ratanavali fervently vowed to change.

1. Emma,T. (2006). Gender & Development, 14 (3), 385-397