First Female Monk Ordained in Thailand

19 February 2002

by Daranee Duangmanee

A woman was ordained as a Buddhist monk for the first time in Thailand, sparking controversy among the religious authorities. Varangghana Vanavichayen, a 56-year-old divorced mother of two, was ordained on February 10, 2002 by a Sri Lankan woman monk. She has been renamed Dhammarakhita.

She said: "I know that there might be resistance. But I am prepared, knowing that I am doing the right thing."

Thai Buddhism is regarded as conservative in outlook. In Thailand, it recognises nuns but only men are allowed to become monks.

'Confusing'

Officials at the religious department said the move would confuse the Thai people, and could set a divisive precedent. They said the department would not recognise Dhammarakhita as a monk but had no plans to take any action against her. Sri Lanka revived the ordination of women in Theravada Buddhism in 1998.

Simple ceremony

Seven other female monks from Sri Lanka, Tibet, Indonesia and Taiwan attended the simple ordination ceremony at a temple in Nakhon Pathom, a province 150 km west of Bangkok. The temple is run by female monk Chatsumarn Kabilasinga, who was ordained in Sri Lanka before returning to Thailand in 2001.

Dhammarakhita had already completed nine years service as a nun - she divorced her husband to fulfil a vow of celibacy before joining the clergy.

Ordination

Sri Lankans presided as Varangghana became a novice monk. A Thai mae chi, Varangghana was ordained by four Sri Lankan Bhikkhuni (female monks) at Wat Songdharmakalyani, a temple of the well-known monk Samanera Dhammananda. Mae Chi Varangghana was the first woman to be ordained in Thailand, a practice that is currently not recognised by Thai law.

Bhikkhuni ordination requires dual ordination by both the Bhikkhuni and Bhikkhu sangha (monk councils), and since Thailand had never established a Bhikkhuni sangha, the ordination was theoretically impossible there. The ordination was a simple ceremony witnessed by six Thai monks, two Tibetan Bhikkhuni, and four Bhikkhuni from Sri Lanka. Over 60 laywomen and laymen also attended the ceremony.

Mae Chi Varangghana, who received the ordained name of Dhammarakkita, now assumed the status of a Theravada samaneri, or novice. She was the third Thai samaneri after Dr Chatsuman Kabilsignh (Samaneri Dhammananda) and Mae Chi Chamnian (Samaneri Rattanawari) were ordained in Sri Lanka, where the Bhikkhuni order in the Theravada tradition had been revived.

"I'm very joyful. My aim is to preserve Buddhism by fulfilling one of four pillars - Bhikkhuni. The four pillars that support Buddhism comprises monks, novices, laymen and laywomen," the newly ordained samaneri, who for nine years was known as a mae chi[nun], said.

"Additionally, this ordination also upgraded my former status of mae chi, which is sometimes recognised as lower than a layperson. Many mae chi serve under monks. Now that I'm a samaneri I can devote my life to studying Buddhism," she said.

Within two years, if she keeps to the six rules that novices must adhere to, - the five Buddhist precepts plus the prohibition on eating in the afternoon -Dhammarakkita can then apply to be ordained as a Bhikkhuni.After ordination, the samaneri would stay at the temple for three month to study Buddhism with the senior Samaneri Dhammananda and then would return to Wat Plai Na [wat means 'temple' in the Lao/Khmer/Thai languages] in Pathom Thani to further her studies and practice. Dhammananda will act as a role model for the newly ordained novices.

"This ordination opens a new chapter on Thai Buddhism and female ordination," Samaneri Dhammananada said.

"Our country has one of the highest Buddhist populations, yet we don't have female ordination. But in countries with small Buddhist populations [such as Sri Lanka] they already have female ordination.

"If her crusade is a success in the near future, many nuns who show her maturity would be able to follow in her footsteps," Dhammananda said.

When Sri Lanka's clergy disappeared in the 11th century, the Thai clergy sent a delegation of monks to re-establish Theravada Buddhism there. Now that Thailand wants to set up the female clergy, it is Sri Lanka's turn to help. She said the Sri Lankan Bhikkhuni also faced resistance when the order was revived a few years ago, but very little now.

"I certainly hope Thailand will support more female ordinations."

White-robed nuns in Thailand are not considered monastics. Like most women's groups in the country, they also suffer discrimination and lack of support. The maile-dominated Thai clergy always insists that it is impossible to set up the female clergy in Thailand because the Bhikkhuni lineage in the Theravada tradition was long extinct. They also prohibited Thai monks from ordaining samaneri and bhikkhuni.

Samaneri Dhammananda, however, said the present female order in the Mahayana tradition is historically dated back to the Theravada Bhikkhuni order in Sri Lanka. It was then legitimate for the Mahayana bhikkhuni to help the Sri Lankan sisters revive its female order.

"In terms of vinaya or discipline, it is the same lineage," she said.

Government to study female-ordination issue

An Education Ministry working group would be set up to study what impact the ordination of women as Buddhist novices and monks would have on national security and religion, Thailand's Deputy Education Minister Jamlong Kruntkuntode said on February 11. He said he had instructed the Department of Religious Affairs to conduct the study. Its deputy director-general, Suthiwong Tantayapisansuth, would chair the working group, Jamlong said. The group would also study the male-only clergy's reservations about allowing women to be ordained and the possibility that ordained women could turn into another religious sect.

Jamlong said that personally he believed such ordinations should be allowed under the personal right to religion guaranteed by Thailand's constitution. He was responding to the ordination of Varangghana as a novice monk. Jamlong said that the ordination, which was conducted without the permission of the Thai Buddhist clergy, was not necessarily against the law.

"The ceremony is permissible, as long as they don't create social problems," he said.

However, Jamlong said that Varangghana should not be considered part of the everyday Thai clergy as she had been ordained by monks from foreign clergies. Suthiwong said that the Buddhist Clergy Act of 1992 did not acknowledge the status of female novices or monks. In 1928 the Thai clergy's governing body even imposed a ban on the ordination of women, he said.

Meanwhile Sulak Sivalak, a prominent social critic and Buddhist scholar, hailed the ordination as good for Thai Buddhism, which he said had been dominated by the often hypocritical rules of the male hierarchy.

"If the female monks can practise good Buddhist ways and show people they have good intentions, then it might change some people's opinions in favour of female monks," Sulak said. "These days too many male monks fornicate, drink alcohol, smoke, take illicit drugs, even kill people and behave even worse than many ordinary Thai men. Ordained women might result in the return of some respectibility to the religion."

"Thailand has religious freedom. We accept Islam, Christianity, Hinduism. Why not accept female monks?" he said.

"Laws should not be made to enforce religion," Sulak said. "Nowadays the politicians don't know about real religion. They're just hypocrites only interested in power and stealing money from the people."