Support for nuns long overdue

Support for nuns long overdue

The constitution guarantees gender equality. Why do female monastics not receive state support as monks do then? The Thai Nuns Institute raised this question last month at parliament. They are still waiting for an answer.

A group of white-robed, head-shaven nuns or mae chee from the Thai Nuns Institute met the House sub-committee on Buddhism affairs last month to voice the problems which female monastics face. They also called for state support to make it easier for Buddhist women to live a monastic life.

About 4,000 mae chee are registered with the Thai Nuns Institute. But the number of nuns across the country may well be over the tens of thousands.

The clergy often use the existence of white-robed nuns as a reason for not allowing the ordination of female monks, or Bhikkhuni. They said women could pursue religious practice as nuns without being ordained. Yet the nuns do not get any support for their spiritual practice and Buddhist academic pursuits.

Without support, many mae chee who live in temples need to do temple chores such as cooking, cleaning, or selling flowers and incense in exchange for room and board. Working as temple hands also means they do not have time for religious studies and practice. If they want to study the scripture, they must pay for the education themselves.

Monks, meanwhile, enjoy high social status and receive full support from society and the government. Apart from cash donations, monks receive free education, medical services, and transport. In public transport, monks also have special seats because clerics cannot touch the opposite sex.

Mae Chee Taan-on On-ampan told the House sub-committee on Buddhist affairs that nuns do not receive any state welfare assistance. Without money, nuns must rely on their relatives and the mercy of the abbots.

Nuns have been allowed to study with monks in Buddhist universities since 1963. Despite the lack of support, many nuns have completed Parian Nine, the highest level of religious studies. Some have even become teachers at Buddhist universities.

While monks with the Parian Nine degrees receive monthly salaries from the government, nuns or nun teachers with the same academic achievements do not receive the same support. Neither are nuns allowed to apply for scholarships at Buddhist universities, said Mae Chee Natthahatai, who has both the Parian Nine and doctorate degrees.

Women's determination to devote themselves to religious practice dates back to Buddha's times. Many female clerics became arahant, meaning the ones who have attained nirvana, or spiritual liberation. The Buddha has also made it clear that everyone can attain spiritual enlightenment regardless of gender.

Buddhists consider it great merit to support monastics and their religious practice. Since gender is no obstacle to spiritual practice and liberation, there is no reason why the government should refrain from supporting female clerics.

However, the clergy and the state authorities often contend that they cannot support nuns because nuns are not monastics. This is a lame excuse.

To become Buddhist nuns, they must go through an ordination ceremony, shave their heads, wear white garb, vow to live chaste lives, and uphold a stricter religious code of conduct than lay Buddhists. There is no question about it; nuns are monastics.

Nuns, therefore, should receive public respect, legal recognition, and systematic support to concentrate on spiritual practice and use their knowledge and experience to serve society more fully and meaningfully, especially with women followers.

Regardless of gender, clerics should receive the same rights and welfare assistance. Nuns must not be used as temple servants.

The ambiguity of nuns' status also entails another legal problem. The law says Buddhist clerics are prohibited from casting votes in elections. Nuns, therefore, do not exercise their voting rights. But since nuns do not have legal status, they face legal punishment as laypersons who fail to vote.

This ambiguity on nuns' legal status must end. Past legislative efforts concerning nuns by the clergy maintained that nuns were lay practitioners who must be under monks' control. Nuns do not need such an oppressive law to maintain age-old gender discrimination in the clergy. Instead, they need a law to recognise their legal status and support their religious practice, education, self-regulation, and public service.

Non-discrimination is enshrined in the constitution. Female clerics, be they Bhikkhuni or mae chee, must receive the same respect and support from the state as monks do.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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