Thailand today is at a crossroads. It’s a country cemented deeply in the past, while pushing incrementally for change towards a more inclusive and open future. One inspiring group of changemakers is Thailand’s female Buddhist monks, known as Bhikkhunis. While their journey is supported by the early history of Buddhist traditions, they face strong opposition from many in Thailand — including harassment, physical threats, and even incidents of arson against their properties.
Despite all odds in a strongly traditional, patriarchal society, the Bhikkhunis forge ahead on their path to spiritual enlightenment. And their inspiring story is one of old and new traditions, merging to redefine and reshape the future of women’s role in the religion.
Some male monks believe that the Bhikkhunis are not legitimate monks. Like many religions, Buddhist history is narrated from nearly an entirely male perspective. The story of Yasodhara, the wife of Siddhartha Gautama later known as the Buddha, has been nearly forgotten.
But the Bhikkhunis refuse to let Yasodhara’s story be swept away into the annals of history.
According to various narratives, husband and wife shared the same moment of consciousness and awareness of the disparity between the haves and the have nots. They both had the same desire to pursue the search for meaning beyond the material and worldly possessions.
Unlike her husband who left to pursue his spiritual quest the day of their son’s birth, Yasodhara stayed with their newborn son and raised him to be fit for a future king. She did it for 16 years. It was only the return of her husband after his enlightenment that she could finally pursue her own path in search of the same.
It is said that the Buddha admired her presence and sacrifice.
After initial hesitation, the Buddha eventually gave his stepmother, Yasodhara, and eventually 500 women the blessing to be ordained monks. Over time, they created their own lineage – something that is extremely important for those who have dedicated their lives to spiritual life through Buddhism. Lineage among monks is as important as family blood in terms of legitimacy and legacy passed on from teacher to student.
Part of Yasodhara’s story is still alive not in terms of its historical narration but in terms of its application on women’s lives. Many women, Buddhist or not, still put their dreams on hold to raise their children and fulfill their motherly and wifely obligations. When the dream is the pursuit of spirituality, even in today’s world, societal pressures can turn into roadblocks for women, particularly because many assume it means the sacrifice of motherhood, and a very untraditional path for women.
We met many of these amazing women on our journey to Thailand.
Though faced with the above challenge, Dhammananda, a successful Thai female journalist with a Ph.D. in the history of Buddhism, a wife, and mother of three boys, decided on a new path. She left her family, her success and her material possessions in order to pursue her spiritual path.
The challenge that she and many women who want to pursue their spiritual lives as ordained monks face is not only pressure and judgment from society at large, but also rejection from male monks.
Those who oppose it lean on an entirely technical argument: female monks can only be ordained from an established lineage of women monks. And since the lineage of women monks was cut off historically for various reasons, women can no longer be ordained.
This is particularly the case in Theravada Buddhism, one of the oldest forms of the religion.
Like other religions, Buddhism has several schools of thoughts or traditions. These include: Zen Buddhism, Vajrayana, Mahayana Buddhism, and Theravada. Each manifestation of Buddhism was adopted to the cultural norms and traditions of the region they expanded to. In Sri Lanka, for example, Buddhist traditions allow for women ordination without the restrictions applied in Theravada in Thailand.
It is important to note that opposition reform-minded male monk figures are comfortable with women being nuns. Nuns, as one male monk explained, cook for the monks and clean for them as well. Though female nuns also pursue their spiritual quests, they are subordinate and in service to the male monks.
Not female monks though. They are to be treated as equals to male monks in their ranks and privileges. If acknowledged formally, they would receive state financial support, including various subsidies, such as for transportation, and tax exemption.
Dhammananda and other ordained female monks argue that male monk resistance is ultimately about maintaining a power structure that works for men. They are skipping over the historical evidence where women were ordained monks, both during Buddha’s time and throughout history. Male monks use the cut of the female lineage as an excuse to keep female monks from any possibility of sharing their power – both financially and otherwise.
Female monks have their own movements. You can see them throughout the country, in the smallest of villages and biggest of towns. One nun in a monastery who faced attacks and arson just for being in a women’s monastery ordaining other women told me, “when I see men being so upset at the fact that women are ordained monks, I look at them, I smile and I do whatever I want to do anyway.”
Like many Americans, I practice my yoga and daily meditation and have always admired Buddhism. But as I embarked on my exploration in Thailand, I learned that I, like many others, have the quality of idealizing certain religions and demonizing others.
The truth of the matter is the good, the bad and the ugly exist in all cultures and in all religions. Sexism and its connection to the meaning of power and control is the same, no matter what country or culture one lives in. The only difference is in its exhibition. Some show sexism blatantly and some show it subtly. In a male monastery in Thailand, it was definitely revealed in the most subtle of ways. But sexism is sexism no matter where one is.
Mostly, I left Thailand inspired by the women monks I met. It is not easy for anyone to leave their material world and their loved ones in pursuit of their spiritual desires. It is that much harder when they face pressures from both the outer world and the very spiritual community they desire to join. Nevertheless, the women I met have created a unique sense of strength and beauty, one that they defined as they wished ― be it with their shaved head, with their no mirror monastery, with their insistence that they want to do whatever they choose to do beyond anybody’s objection. If that is not strength, I don’t know what is.
The difference between those who live their dreams and those who don’t is not the dream itself nor one’s circumstances. The only difference, in my opinion, is perseverance. Those who live their dreams insist on making it happen despite all odds and external pressures. The female monks I met are living their dreams against all odds. With that they are changing their lives, their country and the narrative of their religion.