The unassuming monastery in Nakhon Pathom, an hour west of Bangkok, is the only temple in Thailand exclusively devoted to female monks, known as Bhikkhunis. In 2003, its abbess, the Venerable Dhammananda became the first Thai woman to ordain as a Bhikkhuni in Theravada Buddhism – defying tradition by travelling to Sri Lanka for the ceremony. Her decision sent shockwaves through the deeply conservative Thai Sangha Council, which explicitly banned the ordination of women in 1928.
But now it’s all ok? No. The Sangha continues to be against it.
According to the abbess, the challenges reflect decades of institutionalised patriarchy, rooted in the belief that being born female is a manifestation of bad karma and that women cannot attain enlightenment. Women are not even allowed to touch monks out of fear that it might pollute their sanctity. Traditionally, female monastics are confined to the life of the white-robed Mae Chees, or lay nuns, deemed so inferior that they are only permitted to serve food and clean for the men.
The Vatican has learned to disguise that by calling it “complementarity,” but the outcome is exactly the same – women are permitted only to serve food and clean. That’s their special purpose in life, along with of course babies and not marrying priests.
Analysts say the Bhikkhuni controversy mirrors a broader culture of misogyny in Thailand, which persisted despite the election of the country’s first female Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra in 2011. “During her campaign, she claimed to care about women’s issues, but since coming into government the only thing she has done is create a women’s fund,” says Dr. Sutada. (Shinawatra was ousted as prime minister in early May.)
Thai women still hold only 16 percent of parliamentary seats and only four percent of political positions at the local level, while domestic violence is a rampant problem – affecting a staggering 33 percent of families. Activists say it is directly linked to patriarchal notions about karmic justice, which serves to perpetuate the practice of victim blaming.
“When my father became violent, my mother would say ‘This is my karma,’” says Ouyporn Khuankaew, Director of International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice, a grassroots organization that trains monks and nuns on gender and LGBT issues. “And when my sister was in an abusive relationship – a monk told her the same thing.”
And who else says that? Yes! All the other religions; that is correct.
Buddhist notions about karma have a particularly harmful effect on women, the disabled, and the LGBT community, warns Ouyporn, adding that even the most progressive monks are susceptible to these prejudices.
Not prejudices! Spiritual beliefs! Totally different thing. Or rather, identical.
Ironically, the ordination of women has caused more of a stir than a string of high-profile scandals to rock the Thai monkhood. Last year, 33-year-old Wirapol Sukphol, nicknamed the jet-setting fugitive monk, shot to the headlines amid allegations of wide-scale corruption, promiscuity, and crimes ranging from statutory rape to manslaughter. Although he was promptly expelled from the Sangha, there remains little public scrutiny over the monkhood. Meanwhile, the Thai Sangha has stayed curiously tight-lipped over the rise of Buddhist extremism in neighboring Myanmar, where the hate preacher Wirathu is leading a vicious campaign against the country’s Muslim minority.
Again, very Vatican-like: child abuse is something you hide and excuse, but ordination of women is a terrible sin and contraception is an outrage. It always boils down to men domineering over women as The Most Important Thing.