The secret of Thailand's biggest female clergy

The secret of Thailand's biggest female clergy

Newly ordained samaneri or female novices pay respect to an image of the Buddha at the end of the ordination ceremony at Nirotharam monastery in Chiang Mai. (Photo by Sanitsuda Ekachai)
Newly ordained samaneri or female novices pay respect to an image of the Buddha at the end of the ordination ceremony at Nirotharam monastery in Chiang Mai. (Photo by Sanitsuda Ekachai)

The clergy prohibits female ordination. That does not stop the Nirotharam Monastery in Chiang Mai from being the country's biggest community of female monks and novices -- and with strong support from local monks and residents too.

Under the order by the Sangha Supreme Council (SSC), monks are prohibited from ordaining female monks, or they risk being punished. Women who want to live a monastic life then need to seek ordination in Sri Lanka which recognises the bhikkhuni order. The more practical and less costly option is to invite Sri Lankan preceptors to come to Thailand so they can ordain several women at a time.

The elders want to stop that too. They have asked the Foreign Ministry not to grant visas for Sri Lankan monks, preventing them from entering Thailand to ordain women. The Foreign Ministry meekly complies, although it is a gross violation of a person's freedom of movement and religious beliefs.

Anchalee Kongrut writes about the environment in the Life section, Bangkok Post.

My recent visit to Nirotharam -- meaning a place to end suffering -- reconfirmed my belief that state discrimination is fruitless. What counts is public faith and there's no stopping female ordination when people welcome female monks with open arms.

"When you want to grow your seeds of merit, you naturally want to go to the place you believe is most fertile," said Sanit Inyasom, a community leader. "I looked around and I've found that here at Nirotharam."

Mr Sanit was among hundreds of people who attended a mass ordination of some 90 samaneri or female novices last month at the Nirotharam monastery in Chiangmai's Chomthong District. Outside the ordination hall, local supporters brought all sorts of vegetarian food to serve for free. Inside, some 90 new samaneri, young and old -- all clad in saffron robes -- chanted the vows solemnly before ceremoniously paid respects to the Buddha image. Some novices shed tears of joy, as did many of their relatives.

Although their monastic lives would last only two weeks, that women can now be ordained similarly to men -- an impossibility until a decade ago -- is a watershed moment in Thai Buddhism. Short-term ordination is also increasingly popular, especially among working women, showing the cleric establishment's brick wall against female ordination is fast tumbling.

Since Thailand's first female ordination of Bhikkhuni Dhammananda in 2003, the number of female monks and novices in Thailand has grown rapidly despite the clergy's fierce opposition.

According to a recent survey by the Vijja Bhikkhuni Aramaya Centre, there are at least 173 bhikkhuni, 50 samaneri, and 23 sikhamana (women who are observing religious practices at the temple to prepare themselves for ordination) in 60 bhikkhuni centres across the country.

The Nirotharam monastery is led by Bhikkhuni Nanthayanee, 63, a famous dhamma teacher. It is the biggest bhikkhuni sangha, comprising 34 bhikkhuni, 16 samaneri and 16 sikkhamna. When the present batch of samaneri have full ordination, the number of bhikkhuni at Nirotharam will rise to 50.

After the ordination ceremony, the abbess led all newly ordained novices and the whole Bhikkhuni Sangha of Nirotharam to pay their respects to top monks of Chiang Mai. They received a warm welcome in a grand ceremony.

What is the secret of Nirotharam that has led them to enjoy such wide local support?

"People want dhamma teachers who can clearly and systematically explain difficult concepts in the Buddhist Canons for us ordinary people. Such teachers are hard to find. Phra Acharn is the one," said Thira Nathong, another Nirotharam supporter. Phra Acharn means venerable teacher.

That is the very reason Nirotharam was the place of choice for feminist Sutada Mekrungruengkul when she decided to be ordained.

"To practise well, you need a teacher. Phra Acharn is a great teacher," said Ms Sutada, a women's rights activist. "Her strict observance of monastic discipline makes her a role model for us to follow. Also, Nirotharam provides a real temple atmosphere with close interactions with local communities."

At Nirotharam, female monks and novices do not touch money and devote themselves to the study of Buddhist scriptures and spiritual practices. Money matters are managed by a foundation and its committee to ensure transparency. The female monks and novices take one vegetarian meal a day. They also walk barefoot in accordance with the monastic code of conduct.

Bhikkhuni Nanthayanee, born Rungduan Suwan, has enjoyed public respect as a dhamma teacher since she was still a maechee or white-robed, head-shaven nun. Born and bred in Chiang Mai, she was ordained a maechee in 1980 after graduating from Chiang Mai University and after having strictly observed a religious life for some years.

Her lively and easy-to-understand teaching of difficult Buddhist concepts -- along with her strict monastic discipline -- has made her a much-sought after dhamma teacher by educational institutions and both private and state enterprises.

Given the nun's inferior status to monks, maechee Rungduan did not pose any threats to the clergy despite her prominence as a dhamma teacher back then. Nor now.

After over two decades of nunhood, she was ordained first as a samaneri in Sri Lanka in 2006, then as a bhikkhuni in 2008 -- with support from local monks who appreciate her role as a dhamma teacher.

As a bhikkhuni, the abbess maintains cordial relations with the local clergy, showing that discrimination against female monks mainly exists in the clergy's echelon.

Maintaining reference to monks is also part of the bhikkhuni code of conducts which stipulates that female monks must always pay respect to monks no matter how junior they are.

Many supporters of female ordination argue that the monastic discipline for female monks -- which is much harsher than for monks -- were discriminatory and written down centuries after the Buddha's death. They also link female ordination with equal women's rights.

At Nirotharam, the policy is keeping a low profile, sticking to the Vinaya or monastic rules while quietly practising, teaching, strengthening bonds with local communities, and staying away from the bhikkhuni controversy.

For example, the double ordination controversy. Under the Vinaya, bhikkhuni must be ordained by senior bhikkhu and bhikkhuni. The Thai clergy uses this rule to insist that female ordination is no longer possible because bhikkhuni were long extinct, which rights advocates view as a mere excuse.

In response, the supporters of female ordination argue monks can ordain women since the roles of female monks in the old days only involved the screening and preparation of ordination candidates.

For Bhikkhuni Nanthayanee, the Vinaya has the last say. Instead of arguing with the clergy, she simply keeps sending the novices who want full ordination to Sri Lanka.

Even when her seniority will soon enable her to ordain female monks locally, she said she would still fly the candidates to Sri Lanka for ordination when Thai monks refuse to do so.

Going by the Buddhist Canon has also saved hers and other bhikkhuni temples from being wrongly attacked. Under the bhikkhuni code of conduct, their residences must reside in the monks' vicinity, but all bhikkhuni monasteries are outside monks' temples.

"We must go back to the Tri Pitaka to understand how this rule was practised," said the abbess. "In the Buddha's times, the bhikkhuni did not live in the temples of monks either. They lived nearby so they could visit the monks for advice and teachings regularly, which is the rule set by the Buddha for female monks," she explained.

For the bhikkhuni standing to be legitimate, it must be based on the Buddhist Canon, she insisted.

Her scholarship and quiet diplomacy with the local clergy aside, much public respect for the abbess undeniably derives from public frustration with monks' widespread misconduct and failure to meet modern-day Buddhists' intellectual and spiritual needs.

Refusing to comment on monks' behaviour, Bhikkhuni Nanthayanee simply showed a page from the Tri Pitaka, in which the Buddha stressed that a monk's life must be free of money and wealth which breeds worldly desires, and that any act that breeds worldly desires are not his teachings.

"All we're doing is following the Tri Pitaka, following the Buddha," said the bhikkhuni modestly and matter-of-factly.

The secret behind the constant growth of the female clergy at Nirotharam is actually no secret after all. Just be true to the teachings, practise what you preach, and people will come for your guidance regardless of your gender or where you stand in the monastic hierarchy.

Sadly, it is the secret misogynist monks have yet to unlock.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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