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Thursday, April 10, 2008
Who says we never had Bhikkhuni clergy?
Like most Thais, I believed that there have never been female monks, or Bhikkhuni, in Thailand. How I was wrong!
The person who opened my eyes was Ayya Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni, a Buddhist teacher and abbess of the Dhammadharini Vihara, a temple for female monastics in Fremont, California.
As a scholar on Bhikkhuni history and Vinaya, Ayya Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni has done an extensive research on female ordination in Southeast Asia. So when I wrote in one of my articles that Thailand, unlike Sri Lanka, had never had a Bhikkhuni clergy, she kindly emailed me to tell a different story.
Contrary to mainstream belief, there is much evidence about the Bhikkhuni clergy in old Siam and nearby countries from the 3rd century BC up to modern times, she said.
The oldest document, dating back to the Ashokan period, states that a mission led by Arahanta Theras Sona and Uttara travelled to Suvarnabhumi where they ordained "3,500 men and 1,500 women, establishing the Buddhadhamma".
This important historical journey is recorded in the Pali texts as well as in the ancient Sri Lankan chronicles, which were later translated into Chinese.
The Chinese version, in particular, specifies that the 3,500 noblemen were ordained as Bhikkhu and the 1,500 noblewomen as Bhikkhuni.
Closer to home, this historical Buddhist mission also appears in the old records of Nakhon Si Thammarat, believed by many to be the entry point of Buddhism into our region.
This is exciting information. Powerful information.
You see, the clergy's main argument against female ordination is that we never had Bhikkhuni in Thailand. They also argue that since the Theravada Bhikkhuni lineage has been long extinct, it is impossible to have Bhikkhuni in the Thai Theravada clergy.
No need asking the clergy to ordain women. They insist that a legitimate female ordination, according to the monastic discipline, must be performed both by monks and Bhikkhuni.
The clergy's arguments, however, crumble with historical evidence of the Ashokan Buddhist mission. They not only show that we used to have Bhikkhuni, they also confirm that dual ordination is not necessary where Bhikkhuni does not exist, that monks alone can ordain women to set up the Bhikkhuni clergy.
There's more. There are later ancient texts that make referenceÂ to the existence of Â Bhikkhuni in the Lanna and Sukhothai kingdoms. For example, there are old records in Lanna literature about two Bhikkhuni believed to be local women. There are also Sukhothai period evidence of Bhikkhuni who were ordained by monks alone, she said.
The Bhikkhuni Sangha in old Siam came to a halt when the Ayutthaya kingdom rose to power. "The previous Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sangha was made to cease to exist for political reasons and a new Bhikkhu Sangha was founded with royal support," said Ayya Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni.
Her message: Don't say Thailand never had a Bhikkhuni clergy. To be precise, say Thailand has never had a Bhikkhuni Sangha, with dual ordination, established and supported by the monarchy, since the founding of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya.
Now we know.
If facts cannot dismantle the prejudice against female ordination, what can?
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