Cracking the religious wall of prejudice
How would you feel if you were invited to speak at an international conference, flew thousands of miles to be there, and were told at the very last minute before the opening ceremony that your talk had been banned?
Ask Brahmavamso Bhikkhu, aka Ajahn Brahm. That was exactly what happened to the British-born Theravada Buddhist monk who is a strong advocate of female ordination.
Last month, he was invited to give a talk on Buddhism and gender equality for the United Nations Day of Vesak in Vietnam. His talk on gender equality and the empowerment of women in Theravada Buddhism was based on his paper, which was officially accepted by the organisers months before. His name was even on the top of the list of speakers under the theme of Buddhism and social change.
Why then the last-minute ban? All eyes turned to some organising committee members and senior Thai monks who strongly oppose the ordination of female monks, or bhikkhuni. Intense back-room politics and weak leadership then led to a last-minute decision to ban Ajahn Brahm’s talk.
Thanks to the ban, Ajahn Brahm’s article arguing for female ordination and discussing how misogyny in the clergy perpetuates gender inequality has attracted wider interest beyond the confines of the conference room.
The ban shows how deeply Thai Buddhism is mired in the culture of patriarchy that refuses to see men and women as equal. Ask mainstream monks why women suffer, and their standard answer is because women sinned in their past lives.
“Make more merit,” is also their standard recommendation. “So you will be born men in your next lives.” The best merit, they would continue, comes from donations to monks.
It confounds me how most Thai women still take this nonsense submissively and continue to give their hard-earned money to build big temples only to be told that they cannot enter the temple’s most sacred area because women menstruate, thus are “dirty”.
It also confounds me how some pro-democracy advocates strongly defend this sexist practice on the ground that it is part of local culture, and thus must be preserved.
After the May 22 coup, the incurable optimists among us are busy preparing recommendations on all sorts of reforms to the military junta. Some advocates for Sangha reform believe the military should amend the draconian Sangha Bill to end the clergy’s feudal system which is deeply authoritarian and corrupt.
According to research by Nada Chansom of the National Institute of Development Administration, 37,075 temples nationwide receive between 100 and 120 billion baht in donation money each year. Abbots have total control of this tax-free temple money with no monitoring from the Supreme Sangha Council nor from any government agencies.
When temples’ assets are under the total control of abbots and donations are taken for granted as monks’ personal money, temples become one of the country’s biggest playgrounds of corruption.
Will the military dare amend the Sangha Bill and help cleanse temples of corruption? Absolutely not. Both the clergy and the military’s structures are basically the same. Both are highly hierarchical, autocratic and militaristic. Both are essentially feudal with a firm belief in their moral superiority. Both are sexist and misogynist. How could one hurt the other that mirrors oneself?
Can democratic reform occur under military dictatorship? Can women be spiritually equal under patriarchal clergy? Those who believe in change do not waste time asking those questions. They take things into their own hands. For female ordination, women simply discard resistance from Thai Theravada clergy and seek ordination elsewhere.
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni has defied cleric suppression to become Thailand’s first bhikkhuni. Now there are more than 100 ordained women in Thailand. Here’s her poem:
“I am but a small crack on the wall
The wall of patriarchy,
The wall of hierarchy
The wall of injustice.
Suddenly there are many more cracks!
Eventually the wall crumpled.
Lo, and behold,
the Buddha is standing
on the other side,
With his open arms
to welcome his daughters,
Who struggled to keep up the heritage,
The heritage, given by the Buddha.
The heritage of bhikkhuni.”
For those who want change, politically or spiritually, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni has shown the way.
Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.
Former editorial pages editor
Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.