Bhikkhuni don't belong under clergy

Bhikkhuni don't belong under clergy

Bhikkhunis and Sikkhamana take part in a seminar about their role in Thai society at the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives centre, following the controversial ordination of women in Songkhla last November. (Photo by Apichart Jinakul)
Bhikkhunis and Sikkhamana take part in a seminar about their role in Thai society at the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives centre, following the controversial ordination of women in Songkhla last November. (Photo by Apichart Jinakul)

During her pilgrimage to sacred Buddhist sites in India, Dhammadipa Bhikkhuni met a senior monk from Thailand. She bowed and paid him respect. He responded with reprimands.

"Who are you? Why are you wearing monks' robes? Why are your robes the same colour as ours?" he asked the stunned Bhikkhuni. 

She said she just swallowed her hurt feelings. "So, pray tell, what colour robes should female monks wear to avoid being scolded like that?" she asked the recent panel on Bhikkhuni ordination.

The Buddha taught monks to treat their female counterparts with kindness like sisters. Women and men, the Buddha said, are equal in their ability to attain spiritual liberation.

The Buddha also told monks to do lots of other things, like never touch money, live frugally, concentrate on training one's mind towards letting go, provide close spiritual training to the monks and novices under their wings, and devote themselves to helping humanity.

So, if most monks these days no longer care about following the monastic codes of conduct set by the Buddha, why should we think they would entertain the idea of helping women become their rivals in the merit-making realm, where competition is already fierce?

Patriarchy is often cited as the main reason behind the clergy's opposition to female ordination. But I believe it's more than that. Many nuns have told me they had to leave the temple and set up their own nunneries after the charities they had set up started to receive money and public support.

In summary, it's not only about power. It's about money.

It's not surprising, therefore, that the clergy is putting up a fierce fight to dismantle the National Reform Council's (NRC) committee on religious reform.

In case you missed it, the Sangha Supreme Council (SSC) declared a ban on female ordination in December last year, even though they have no legal right to do so since women are being ordained under Sri Lanka's Bhikkhuni order.

The elders want to stop it all the same. They are also pressuring the Foreign Ministry to stop giving visas to Sri Lankan monks to prevent them performing ordination ceremonies here.

Dhammadipa Bhikkhuni was among the female monks who petitioned the NRC's religious reform committee against the banning order. The committee chairman Paiboon Nititawan said the ban violates gender equality and religious freedom.

The committee has also challenged the SSC by asking the elders why they did not follow the late Supreme Patriarch's order to defrock Phra Dhammachayo, the controversial abbot of Dhammakaya Temple. When the Sangha elders refused the defrocking order, Mr Paiboon announced his committee's plans not only to investigate the SSC, but also to make temple donations transparent in order to stop temple corruption.

For SSC authorities, dismantling the NRC's committee on religious reform is tantamount to killing two birds with one stone. One stone will stop the committee taking away monks' total control of temple money. The other will stop its effort to make female ordination legal in Thailand.

Although I agree with the efforts to clean up temple corruption by making temple finances transparent, I don't think we should put the Bhikkhuni order under the clergy's wings.

Female monks now have the freedom to practise, receive alms, teach dhamma, and engage in social work. Whether they earn public respect and support depends solely on their practices. This is the way things should be with monks — whether female or male.

Monks suffer under the clergy's authoritarian and feudal system. They are ordered to submit absolutely to the powerful elders, or risk punishment. Why put female monks through the same ordeal?

The Paiboon committee is right to seek transparent temple finances, but this is not enough.

The crux of the problem is the closed feudal system that fosters nepotism and temple corruption. To protect the weak system, the clergy is forever seeking state protection.

Its latest attempt is to sponsor a bill to ban criticism of the clergy and to punish "deviated" teachings — apparently a tool to subdue popular monks who challenge the clergy's authority.

The SSC reform we need must force the clergy to compete with other faith groups in society without state protection. Only then will the elders realise that their only way to restore public faith is to live a monk's life the way the Buddha told them to.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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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