Women ban hurts Sangha

Women ban hurts Sangha

When the Supreme Sangha Council renewed its ban on female ordination last week, it must have been taken aback by the overwhelming criticism it received.

Opposition from women's rights groups was not surprising. But a group of legislators on the National Reform Council have also joined the chorus, reiterating that the ban clearly violates religious freedom and gender equality. The National Human Rights Commission has also promised to challenge the ban in court. 

They have also pointed out that legally, the Thai Theravada Buddhist clergy has no authority whatsoever to stop the Theravada schools of other countries from ordaining women.

These criticisms should serve as a wake-up call for the clergy. This is now the 21st century. The clergy can no longer insist on operating in a closed, feudal system that violates universal norms and values. It cannot expect people to blindly follow their orders, either — particularly when the clergy's credibility is at its lowest.

Instead of trying to crush women's aspiration to pursue a monastic life, the clergy should concentrate on cleaning up its own house to restore declining public faith.

In the same week the clergy said it would ask the Foreign Ministry to stop Sri Lankan monks from coming to Thailand to perform female ordination, and threatened to punish any Thai monks who support it, the media was awash with news of drunk and rowdy monks with female companions. 

Apart from these routine monastic misconducts, the clergy is constantly rocked by sex and temple corruption scandals, resulting in louder calls for Sangha reform.

At present, the clergy operates in a centralised, authoritarian system that demands total obedience and severely punishes dissent. Its feudal hierarchy does not lend itself to outside monitoring.

Temple donations across the country amount to about 100 billion baht a year, according to research by the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida). The lack of a transparent financial system enables monks to easily pocket public donations to accumulate personal wealth.

The current Sangha bill, which gives the abbots total power to manage temple assets and donations, has also made the system more vulnerable to abuse of power and corruption.

To pacify public discontent, and to show the military junta the Sangha's cooperation with the reform process, the clergy — through the National Office of Buddhism — has proposed a bill to "support and protect Buddhism".

Under the proposed bill, wayward monks will also face criminal charges and imprisonment. Women who have sex with monks will also be charged with criminal offences. Gays will be prohibited from entering the monkhood. A new bureaucracy will be created to assist the elders. And the clergy will have absolute authority to interpret what the "correct" Buddhist teachings are, and to punish those who have different interpretations.

Interestingly, the clergy refuses to reform its feudal power structure. Nor does it allow external monitoring of temple donations.

This is not Sangha reform. This is the clergy firming up its grip on power. 

Under the Vinaya, or monastic codes of conduct, monks cannot even touch money. The preceptors must screen candidates for ordination and closely train them before allowing them to practice on their own. The clergy's structure is also egalitarian. And in Buddha's time, female ordination was not only allowed, but supported.

If the clergy refuses to be true to the monastic codes of conduct, it has itself to blame if more Buddhists are looking for new teachers, male and female, outside the clergy. Nor does it have the right to ban them.

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