Breaking gender barriers in the clergy
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Breaking gender barriers in the clergy

Five hundred and ninety-nine men are ordained as monks at Suthat Thepwararam temple on Nov 22, 2009. (Photo: Thiti Wannamontha)
Five hundred and ninety-nine men are ordained as monks at Suthat Thepwararam temple on Nov 22, 2009. (Photo: Thiti Wannamontha)

Can queers be ordained as Buddhist monks? The question sparked intense debates on social media when Pataradanai Setsuwan, a well-known openly gay celebrity, entered the monkhood late last month.

Pataradanai, 31, rose to fame in his teens when he was a member of K-Otic, a popular boy band in the 2010s. His acting career also won him a large following. After coming out and identifying himself as queer and non-binary, he has utilised his social media platforms, drawing his training as a psychotherapist, to support both gay rights and people struggling with depression.

But when he decided to enter monastic life, the well-loved public figure faced a storm of hate speech condemning him for breaking monastic rules and tarnishing the clergy.

Did he indeed violate the rules? Do the scriptures truly prohibit queers from pursuing ordination, or is the condemnation merely a result of homophobia and discrimination?

Sorawee 'Jazz' Nattee: Before and after.

This is not the first instance where queers have been subjected to condemnation or perceived defilement of the monkhood. In 2013, Sorawee Nattee, a former transgender beauty queen, also faced harsh criticism upon entering the monkhood. The accusations levelled against them were the same, claiming a violation of monastic disciplines that forbid katoey or transgender individuals from becoming Buddhist monks.

Indeed, the scriptures do forbid pandaka from being ordained as Buddhist monks, although some contend that this might have been added to the Buddhist canon after Buddha's lifetime.

In Thailand, the word "pandaka" is broadly translated from Pali to Thai as katoey or trans-feminine and cross-dressing people. This is where the problems begin.

Mainstream society's opposition to transgender ordination is based on the belief that it contradicts Buddhist teachings. Even high-ranking monks and officials share this view.

During the controversy surrounding the transgender beauty queen's ordination, Nopparat Benjawatthannan, the former director of the National Office of Buddhism, told the media that katoeys were unequivocally forbidden from being ordained. However, he added that since the beauty queen had undergone breast removal, which caused "her body and mind" to revert to their original male forms, the ordination was permitted.

Meanwhile, Phra Dhammakittiwong, then the abbot of the Rachaorot Temple, reportedly expanded the definition of pandaka to include lusty men in addition to eunuchs, and transgender women. He further declared that the clergy would severely punish preceptors who ordain transgender people.

These views clearly reflect the prevailing social prejudice against transgender women.

While the criticism directed at the former transgender beauty queen was severe, the backlash against Phra Pattaradanai in the era of hate-filled social media was even more intense. The vitriol was so extreme that Praiwan Wannabut, a former monk-scholar-turned-trans-celebrity, came forward to defend the newly ordained monk and rectify the misunderstanding surrounding the term pandaka.

It is incorrect to equate katoey or transgender to pandaka who are banned from ordination, she said, scolding the hateful netizens.

"Why do you oppose him? His ordination adheres to the rules governing monastic conduct, which are not dependent on your opinions. If you have doubts, educate yourself. Theravada religious texts hold the answers to your questions about the codes of conduct for monks."

Although mainstream society interprets the word pandaka as katoey or trans women, the Buddhist commentaries specify five types of pandaka: men who perform oral sex on other men, men who derive pleasure from watching gay sex, men whose organs are cut off, such as eunuchs, men who are pandaka only during the waning moon; and individuals whose sexual organs cannot be classified as exclusively male or female.

According to the commentaries, only two types of pandaka are prohibited from ordination. First, those who lack male sexual organs, such as eunuchs. Today, this might also extend to transgender individuals who have already undergone sex reassignment surgery. Second, individuals whose sexual organs cannot be classified as distinctly male or female.

Phra Pattaradanai's ordination is, therefore, legitimate, asserted the Buddhist scholar. "Stop urging him to leave the monastic life when he has not committed any wrongdoings as a monk."

It is obvious that the labelling of transgender women as pandaka and the ordination ban for katoeys are the result of discrimination against women within the clergy.

The clergy argues that female ordination is impossible in Thailand because the lineage of female monks, or Bhikkhuni, has long ceased to exist in the Theravada tradition. This claim is just an excuse. The real cause is misogyny.

To defend the ban on female ordination, monks often cite a folk prophecy suggesting that the lifespan of Buddhism would be halved if women were permitted to be ordained. Why? Because women are sexual temptations, which will weaken Buddhism if allowed into the clergy, they say.

If this is not misogyny, then what is?

Interestingly, despite the clergy's explicit prohibition on female ordination and the associated penalties, the Ecclesiastical Council has remained silent regarding transgender ordination. This ambiguity has made ordained transgender targets of witch hunts.

While the commentaries do not oppose the ordination of transgender people, it is essential to note that they do not constitute Buddha's actual teachings. Rather, they represent the interpretations and explanations of the Buddhist canon by scholarly elders. Consequently, they are not free from the cultural beliefs and biases prevalent during their time.

Therefore, even their conclusions that prohibit men without male sexual organs and intersex individuals from ordination should be questioned.

"Regardless of one's genitalia, anyone should be able to be ordained because ordination does not hinge on one's genitalia, but rather on their religious faith," asserted the outspoken Buddhist scholar Praiwan Wannabut. Her position reflects the increased acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in society.

Buddhism, she added, always provides space and opportunities for people to embark on a spiritual path.

"Regardless of one's gender, if they have not committed any wrongdoings, they should have a chance to be ordained. Don't block their chances.

"In judging a good or bad monk, it is not measured by their behaviour before ordination, but rather by how they conduct themselves after ordaining."

In Buddhism, the word "Buddha" means being awakened from prejudices and worldly illusions. The opposition to transgender ordination and efforts to defrock Phra Pattaradanai by the self-proclaimed devout Buddhists only serve to illustrate their intense gender discrimination, she said.

"If you hold religion in your heart, don't let it turn dark," she cautioned. "If darkness has already consumed your heart, do not claim any religion. It will only tarnish the reputation of that faith."

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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