Buddhist Nuns and Their Crusade for Recognition in Southeast Asia – VICE

Posted: November 12, 2020 at 5:57 pm


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In 2003, Venerable Dhammananda came back from a trip to Sri Lanka that challenged Thailand's Theravada Buddhist beliefs. She had become the first Thai bhikkhuni a fully ordained nun in modern history. To this day, full ordination and the privileges that come with it are usually only reserved for male monks.

The full ordination had always been in my head, Dhammananda, now 76 years old, told VICE. I just waited for a realization. And when I had it, I knew it was my time to become a bhikkhuni."

A bhikkhuni is a status given to fully ordained female monastics in the three different branches of Buddhism Mahayana, Vajrayana, and Theravada. Their male equivalents are called bhikkhus. Being fully ordained means one has achieved the highest level in the Sangha, the Buddhist assembly.

Dhammananda with other bhikkhunis in Thailand. Photo: Courtesy of Venerable Dhammananda

Unlike modern branches of Mahayana Buddhism, many Theravada authorities still question whether full ordination of women is valid. This was not always the case, with records of these female monastics dating back to Buddha's death, around 400 BCE. This was practiced for over 1,500 years but eventually disappeared.

"Monks want to be able to trace everything back to The Buddha," Brenna Artinger, president of Alliance for Bhikkhunis, told VICE. "They think that, if lineage has died, they cannot revive it."

With no wish to revive the Theravada bhikkhuni order, the only status left for Theravada Buddhist women were 'laywoman' or 'novice,' leaving all the highest positions to monks.

To this day, the bhikkhuni ordination ceremony is prohibited in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, where violators could face imprisonment. Dhammananda believes the prohibition of full ordination for nuns is a misunderstanding of the religion's beliefs. Referring to the Maha Parinibbana Sutta scriptures, she said The Buddha created a gender-balanced monastic order composed of both fully ordained monks and nuns bhikkhus and bhikkhunis at the highest level of the Sangha.

"The Buddha gave women permission to be fully ordained. If you respect him, you should try to revive what he established."

Dhammanandha has been challenging Buddhism in Thailand for over two decades. In the 2000s, she left Thailand and joined a Theravada temple in Sri Lanka to practice, study, and receive her full ordination before turning 60.

"The Buddha is my first feminist," she said.

"In a very traditional society, he opened the space for women by recognizing they can achieve a highest spiritual goal. He was a revolutionist."

Following this mentality, Dhammananda pioneered a modern revolution in Thai Buddhism. By advocating for full ordination of women, she's challenging an order that, she says, lets social and gender expectations take over religious rights.

Dhammananda and fellow bhikkhunis. Photo: Courtesy of Venerable Dhammananda

"Socially, if you allow the ordination of women, everything has to change because monks have been in power for 2,500 years," said Karma Lekshe Tsomo, former president of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women. "Theravada Buddhists differ in their attitudes toward full ordination for women, but those in positions of power generally oppose it."

Despite 70 percent of its population practicing this branch of Buddhism, Sri Lanka is the first and only Theravada Buddhist country that allows the full ordination of women. Since 1998, the government has allowed local and foreign nuns to receive the ceremony on its soil.

As Mary Kate Long, a doctoral candidate in Asian Studies at Cornell University, explained, this decision could have been motivated by various reasons: the rise of female monastics in Sri Lanka, the complex historical link between Theravada Buddhism and East Asian Mahayana Buddhism in the country, and the ongoing contests for symbolic capital between different religious and monastic authorities. By being the first Theravada country to allow full ordination, hundreds of nuns have flown to Sri Lanka since the 2000s. However, these new bhikkhunis are not always welcomed when they return home.

About 89 percent of Myanmar's population is Theravada Buddhist. It is also one of the most conservative Buddhist countries, with a religious authority that believes the full ordination of women is a crime.

In 2005, ex-bhikkhuni Saccavadi was sentenced to five years in prison for having been fully ordained in Sri Lanka. She was released 76 days after her conviction,after her story was highlighted in international media. Fearing more repercussions, she quickly left the country and has not returned since. She flew to Sri Lanka, then to the United States, and disrobed in 2008, because of the traumatic experience.

In Thailand, bhikkhunis are in a gray zone. They cannot be fully ordained in the country but dont face imprisonment if they do so abroad. Over 94 percent of Thais are Theravada Buddhists. Dhammananda, as the first officially recognized bhikkhuni in the country, initiated changes in the society.

"When I came back from Sri Lanka, I was a lone voice in this big world of monks."

"I was rejected, but wasn't punished legally. Today, there are 285 bhikkhunis spread out in at least 40 provinces. Weve come this far. But we are still facing a lot of legal issues."

Unlike their male equivalents, bhikkhunis have no legal status in Thailand and thus remain marginalized. They don't have any clerical advantages or recognition, which means they suffer financially. They pay taxes to the government for their temple, receive less donations from the people, and pay the full fare for public transportation.

"Nuns, as monks, are technically not allowed to use money, and neither to ask for it. It makes their everyday life more complicated. Sometimes, bhikkhunis can't even afford going to lectures or ceremonies," Artinger, from the Alliance for Bhikkhunis, explained.

"Because we don't have our religious status on our IDs, all the prices are really decided by the person in front of us," Dhammananda said. "If they recognize us as ordained monastic, we'll get half price. But if they ask for our ID, we'll pay full fare. Its up to them."

A bhikkhuni ordination in Los Angeles in March 2018. Photo: Courtesy of Alliance for Bhikkunis

However, she remains hopeful that things will improve as more nuns from around the world are opting for full ordination. She believes there's strength in numbers, and in staying true to what it means to be a bhikkhuni.

We didnt [get] fully ordained to be accepted, said Dhammananda. We did it because we respect The Buddha. If we do proper work, if the people accept us, then eventually the Sanghawill have to recognize us.

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Buddhist Nuns and Their Crusade for Recognition in Southeast Asia - VICE

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November 12th, 2020 at 5:57 pm

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