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Questions of ordination legitimacy for newly ordained Theravada bhikkhuni in Thailand.

For centuries after the bhikkhuni sangha ceased to exist in Sri Lanka in the eleventh century, Theravada Buddhist women were told to abandon their hopes of becoming fully ordained as bhikkhuni. There was a widely held perception that women could not become bhikkhuni in the absence of a bhikkhuni sangha, an assumption derived from the garudhamma (eight rules) given by the Buddha to Mahapajapati Gotami, the first bhikkhuni, as the conditions for women's admission to the order. The garudhamma included a rule that prescribes that a bhikkhuni candidate be ordained by both bhikkhu and bhikkhuni sangha after a two-year probation. The first essential task for the restoration of the disrupted Theravada bhikkhuni order was to refute that common presumption.

Concerned Buddhist women established international networks to discuss the reintroduction of bhikkhuni sangha in the Theravada and Tibetan traditions, in which there was no existing bhikkhuni ordination lineage. Through international collaboration, the bhikkhuni sangha was restored in Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism: in 1996 in Sarnath, the Korean order held a historic ordination ceremony for 10 women from Sri Lanka, and in 1998 in Bodhgaya, Taiwan's Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order hosted an international ordination ceremony at which a further twenty Sri Lankan bhikkhuni were ordained. The bhikkhuni sangha has been developing steadily in Sri Lanka; at present it has several hundred members. (1) The ordination of Sri Lankans further stimulated Thai women to seek ways to become samaneri and bhikkhuni.

The recent revival of bhikkhuni ordination aroused considerable public and academic interest in Thailand and elsewhere. Thai Buddhists in general were interested in whether it was actually possible, whilst scholars were concerned with public reaction to the claim of a break with precedent. Thai public debates on bhikkhuni ordination are examined in Varaporn Chamsanit's Ph.D. dissertation and Martin Seeger's article, both of which became available while this paper was awaiting publication. (2) These studies both point to a range of important issues in Thai public debates, such as the significance of strict vinaya adherence in the Theravada school, and the question of cross-lineage ordination in which an East Asian Mahayana bhikkhuni preceptor ordains Theravada bhikkhuni. On the one hand, opponents, reinforcing the common assumption, insist that no Theravada bhikkhuni exist, hence no woman can be ordained as a Theravada bhikkhuni; if ordained by a Mahayana preceptor, the woman should also be a Mahayana bhikkhuni. On the other hand, the leading Thai bhikkhuni, Dr Chatsumarn Dhammananda, suggests that the vinaya lineage of Chinese bhikkhuni goes back to Sri Lankan bhikkhuni who travelled to China in the fifth century to ordain the first group of Chinese women. (3)

Aside from public debate, the reactions of Thai mae chi (eight-precept female practitioners) is another important gauge of the social significance of bhikkhuni ordination. In the absence of a bhikkhuni order, Thai women generally become mae chi, despite their lack of formal status as ordained Buddhist nuns. One may expect that mae chi would be enthusiastic about the opportunity to become bhikkhuni; however, the reality is not so simple. Steven Collins and Justin McDaniel conducted joint research on Thai mae chi who had received higher doctrinal education and then served as Pali teachers, and sought their opinions about bhikkhuni ordination in Thailand. (4) The authors indicated that in their interviews most intellectual mae chi presented negative views about becoming bhikkhuni. Why are Thai mae chi so negative about becoming bhikkhuni? The reasons given in the interviews by Collins and McDaniel are roughly the same as the ones I gathered from mae chis at the Thai Mae Chi Institute and upasika disciples of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu when I asked the same questions in 1999 and 2005. (5) How should this Thai Buddhist women's repetition of cliches be interpreted?

I have followed the bhikkhuni ordination movement in Thailand since Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh's pioneering samaneri ordination in February 2001 through interviews with Thai samaneri, bhikkhuni, and their supporters and opponents. In the course of my research in Thailand up to March 2007, thirty-four Thai women had ordained as samaneri. Among those Thai samaneri, seven had ordained as bhikkhuni by the end of July 2007. (6) Not all those Thai samaneri and bhikkhuni are Bhikkhuni Dhammananda's disciples; there are several groups of former mae chi and laywomen who were inspired by the idea and sought their own means to receive bhikkhuni ordination. Unfortunately, some of the Thai samaneri and bhikkhuni have found it difficult to remain in their yellow robes. As far as could be traced, in May 2007 there were eleven samaneri and bhikkhuni who gave up their yellow robes and clothed themselves as mae chi or upasika. (7) These numbers reflect the slightness of Thai Buddhist women's hopes for full ordination as well as their desire not be embroiled in controversy; the expansion of samaneri and bhikkhuni ordination is impeded by the potential risks of being ordained.

In Thailand, the National Sangha does not have the legal authority to forbid Thai women's samaneri and bhikkhuni ordination through foreign Buddhist orders, however, so those ordained elsewhere do have that choice and can live with the Buddhist community's support. (8) Nevertheless, the Sangha's displeasure with bhikkhuni ordination is hinted at in the preservation of the 1928 Sangharaja's proclamation which banned bhikkhu and even samaneri of all the Buddhist orders in Thailand from ordaining women as bhikkhuni, sikkhamana and samaneri. In addition, it is a penal offence to disguise oneself in monastic garb to mislead people in order to solicit money. (9) Thai samaneri and bhikkhuni have to be ready to defend themselves when questioned as to whether they have been 'rightly' ordained; such continual questioning of their status is one of the major obstacles for Thai samaneri and bhikkhuni to keep wearing the yellow robes.

This paper explores the notion of 'right ordination', i.e. the legitimacy of ordination. First, the paper will review Thai Buddhist debates in order to highlight that both bhikkhuni supporters and opponents base their stance on the vinaya texts to examine 'right procedures' by which 'right ordination' could be materialised. Second, the paper will consider whether the ordinations of Thai samaneri and bhikkhuni were recognised as legitimate when they chose one of the procedural options that bhikkhuni ordination supporters argued to be valid. Third, the paper will examine cases of foreign sangha in which a less normative procedure--which bhikkhuni opponents in Thailand hardly count as a 'valid' option--produced 'legitimate ordination' in their countries. While some cases here involve the Mahayana tradition, it should be kept in mind that in the history of these countries ordination legitimacy has had no less significance than those in Theravada Buddhist countries, and that 'private ordination' was strictly distinguished from 'legitimate ordination'. (10) Last, the paper will demonstrate that the legitimacy of ordination is not supported solely by some 'right' procedure, but rather is firmly determined by those who have the authority over the interpretation of tradition.

'Right' ordination and procedure for restoring bhikkhuni

Soon after the renowned female Buddhist scholar Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh made a public appearance as a samaneri in Theravada robes in 2001, the propriety of reinitiating bhikkhuni ordination attracted the attention of the Thai public. In Thailand Chatsumarn was already known as a prominent advocate for the restoration of bhikkhuni sangha since the time of her mother's bhikkhuni ordination in Taiwan in 1971, although, contrary to her wishes, the Thai Sangha recognised her mother as a Mahayana bhikkhuni, not as a Theravada bhikkhuni. (11) Because of Chatsumarn's continued advocacy of bhikkhuni sangha restoration, her ordination as Samaneri Dhammananda had a much greater social impact than her mother's ordination (hereafter Chatsumarn is referred by her ordained name 'Dhammananda'). (12)

Given the disruption of the bhikkhuni lineage in the Theravada tradition, a major question in the Thai debate was whether there was a viable method for the ordination of women as bhikkhuni. Thai Buddhists tend to believe that women's ordination is no longer possible because the ordination ceremony requires both bhikkhu and bhikkhuni preceptors, and in contemporary Theravada Buddhism (before the bhikkhuni sangha was firmly restored in Sri Lanka) there were no bhikkhuni preceptors. Opponents tended to reinforce this common notion of women's ordination by referring to precedents in early Buddhist history regarding the origin and transmission of the bhikkhuni sangha; whereas supporters of bhikkhuni restoration presented an alternative interpretation of the same stories by invoking the principles of women's rights and gender equality, which they argued should be applied to the religious realm just as they are guaranteed by the Thai constitution in the secular realm. (13)

Negative opinions on bhikkhuni ordination revival: Procedural problems

Opponents of bhikkhuni restoration often cite the vinaya's requirement of both bhikkhu and bhikkhuni preceptors' involvement in the ordination ceremony. One example would be the statement below by the renowned monastic scholar P.A. Payutto Bhikkhu, who often voices his opinions over controversial Buddhist issues. While many Thai Buddhists respect his opinion as being scholarly, according to one senior bhikkhu Payutto's views are supported by a group of bhikkhu elders who do not make public statements in the name of the Thai Sangha. (14) Payutto writes:
   Some people ask questions such as 'Why does not [the Sangha] give
   women a right of ordination to become bhikkhuni?', referring to
   [gender equality guaranteed in] the constitution. Some say, 'If
   there is no bhikkhuni sangha let bhikkhu sangha ordain [women] to
   be bhikkhuni'. Some say something like 'Theravada School is
   narrow-minded; why don't they adopt the Mahayana Schools' options
   for ordaining women?' Some ask, 'Why does not the Sangha
   administration, namely the Elders' Council, sanction bhikkhuni
   ordination?' Actually the reality is clear and simple: women had
   the right to ordination in the Buddha's time, and now they still
   have the right to become bhikkhuni. However, the problem is that at
   the present time there is no one who has the right to ordain women
   as bhikkhuni. There are some people who, because they don't know
   the procedure of bhikkhuni ordination, insist that bhikkhu sangha
   should ordain [women as] bhikkhuni without the involvement of
   bhikkhuni sangha. (15)

On the bhikkhuni ordination ceremony itself, Payutto considered the elder bhikkhuni's oral examination to be most important, with the elder bhikkhu serving simply to confirm the decision of the bhikkhuni sangha:
   The bhikkhuni ordination ceremony is almost complete at the stage
   of the bhikkhuni sangha's [oral examination]. The [following] stage
   of the bhikkhu sangha's [precept conferral] is only for the purpose
   of hearing and acknowledging what the bhikkhuni sangha has done.
   Therefore, the bhikkhu sangha does not have the right to ordain
   women as bhikkhuni, if the candidates are not yet ordained by the
   bhikkhuni sangha. (16)

Payutto provides further grounds for the bhikkhu sangha's inability to ordain women: 'If the bhikkhu sangha ordain [women as] bhikkhuni or samaneri, sooner or later feminists will disagree, asking what right bhikkhu have to ordain women, and why bhikkhuni aren't allowed to ordain women.' (17)

Phra Devatilaka (Rabaep Thitanano Bhikkhu) is another senior monk who often voices his 'personal' views on contemporary Buddhist controversies based on his 'academic' standing. He is involved in the Thai Safigha's politically active circle, and quite often his opinions can be perceived as strongly protective of the Thai Buddhist tradition. (18) Phra Devatilaka has made the same point as Payutto about the roles of the bhikkhu and bhikkhuni sangha in the bhikkhuni ordination ceremony. He even strongly criticises women who do not complete the two stages of the ordination ceremony:
   now one of the steps [of the ordination ceremony] is no longer
   available. If we are to establish the bhikkhuni group, where can we
   start? Since only the [male] sangha exists, without having a first
   group [of the bhikkhuni sangha], a second group cannot be
   generated. Those [women] who ordain [as bhikkhuni] should be
   accused of unauthentic ordination transgressing the vinaya [in
   Thai, buat mai thuk tong tam phra thamma winai]; if they don
   bhikkhuni costume to deceive the world, they will receive the
   result of that wrong-doing [pen bap kae tua eng]. (19)

The strong tone of those two influential bhikkhu seems to indicate that the Sangha elders are offended, as if they were being forced to change their 'narrow-minded suppression' of women's rights to ordination. (20) Taking the Sangha elders' intentions into consideration, the lay Buddhist teacher Thongyoi Saengsinchai compared the general behaviour of religious Thai Buddhists with that of bhikkhuni advocates. He indicates that ordination would not be demanded if a person were genuinely pursuing enlightenment; such a person would not get stuck on the issue of ordination when it was not available, but rather would pursue enlightenment without ordination. (21) Thongyoi asked why bhikkhuni advocates do not intend to be ordained by a teacher or at a school in which they have faith and which can ordain bhikkhuni by following the principles of the school. But then he also questioned their demand to establish the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha in the Thai Sangha, when that lineage had not been transmitted to Thailand, and there is no teacher to turn to. (22)

To summarise the arguments against bhikkhuni restoration: on the one hand, there is a tendency to think that the ceremonial involvement of the dual sangha of bhikkhu and bhikkhuni for women's ordination is an essential requirement for producing new bhikkhuni; on the other hand, ordained status tends to be regarded as a nonessential formality or transient status which is less significant than religious practice for enlightenment. Perhaps the insistence on a traditional form for women's ordination procedure is a convenient reason for dismissing so-called feminist claims. In addition, the voices of Thai bhikkhuni who intended to shed light on low-status Buddhist women's hard work and contributions were not readily heard by those of high status. (23)

Models of 'legitimate' ordination procedure: The Senate Subcommittee's proposal

Bhikkhuni supporters argued that the disruption of the female ordination lineage did not prevent contemporary Buddhist women from ordination. One of the highest status groups of bhikkhuni supporters was the Thai Senate Subcommittee for Women's Affairs, which belonged to the Committee for Women's, Children's, and Elderly People's Affairs. The involvement and leadership of female senator Rabiaprat Phongphanit in particular has been a significant contribution to the bhikkhuni debate in Thailand.

The origin of Rabiaprat's interest in the bhikkhuni issue was her entrance into a Master's programme at Thammasat University. In 2002, at the age of 52, when she took the elective 'Women and Religion' course taught by Samaneri Dr Chatsumarn Dhammananda, Rabiaprat said that she realised for the first time that women's freedom and equality of opportunity in Buddhism had been expropriated. (24) At high school, Rabiaprat had attended weekend Buddhist classes at a temple and received an award for her excellent result in the Buddhist doctrine examination, but she had not questioned the absence of bhikkhuni, despite having memorised the four Buddhist groups as consisting of bhikkhu, bhikkhuni, upasaka and upasika. Decades later, as one of only 20 female senators, Rabiaprat found the structural gender disparity in Thai Buddhism a serious issue which she should work to redress. In 1999 Rabiaprat stood for election as a representative of women in Khon Kaen province at the request of housewife groups and the Red Cross, of which she was president. Although her husband was an influential bureaucrat who had been the governor of Khon Kaen and other provinces, (25) Rabiaprat was confident that she could work independently on women's issues, and her contributions resulted in her receiving two awards: the Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award (Rangwan satri di den nai phuttha-sasana) and the Supreme Woman Award (Rangwan yot ying), both in 2003. Inspired by Dhammananda's lectures, Rabiaprat said that she was determined to take on bhikkhuni restoration as her political mission in her remaining three years of her term as a senator. (26)

For the bhikkhuni restoration movement in Thailand, the involvement of Senator Rabiaprat constituted encouraging support since she was in a position to marshal other legislators' support to give legal standing to newly ordained samaneri and future bhikkhuni. By coincidence, from late 2001 to 2003 amendments of the Sangha Act were being discussed publicly, and the parliament was expecting to examine a draft bill, and it appeared that there was a chance to include the term 'bhikkhuni in one of the bill's provisions. (27) According to Rabiaprat, the government's original drafter of the Sangha bill never agreed to mention bhikkhuni, yet once the bill came up to the senate, Rabiaprat could propose a motion to amend it. (28) In reality, however, after a few years of tense dispute among the Sangha elders, consensus could not be reached on the Sangha bill, so lay Buddhist bureaucrats had to abandon it, because they could never offend the opposing elders. Consequently, Rabiaprat did not have a chance to push through the legalisation of bhikkhuni. Similarly, her proposal to abolish the 1928 Sangharaja's proclamation, which banned Sangha members from ordaining women, could not be approved immediately. Nevertheless, her advocacy in parliament and in public have contributed to clarifications regarding bhikkhuni ordination.

In order to promote understanding about bhikkhuni, Rabiaprat raised questions in parliament, held several public seminars in Bangkok and the provinces, and distributed many copies of booldets and video CDs about the bhikkhuni discussions. She also invited several academics, bureaucrats, and members of women's and religious organisations to become members of the Subcommittee for Women's Affairs; the Subcommittee studied the history and precepts of bhikkhuni, as well as the possibilities of and obstacles to Thai women's ordination, based on the advice of monastic and lay Buddhist intellectuals. (29) After six months of study, in 2003 the Subcommittee issued a booklet entitled Bhikkhuni ordination in Thailand, which provided answers to important questions, including possible procedures for the ordination of women as bhikkhuni. (30)

Exploring stories from the Tipitaka, the booklet identified five alternatives permitted by the Buddha. (31) The first bhikkhuni ordination method was to receive the garudhamma from the Buddha, just like Mahapajapati, the first bhikkhuni. The second was the case of 500 women who followed Mahapajapati's ordination; the Buddha granted bhikkhu permission to ordain them. The third was Bhikkhuni Bhaddakunadhilaesda's ordination, performed by the Buddha himself. The fourth was the most formal ordination ceremony, the so-called 'dual ordination', conducted by both male and female sangha, represented by an elder bhikkhuni (pavattini) and an elder bhikkhu (upajjhaya). The fifth one was a rather exceptional case; where there was a high risk of a bhikkhuni candidate being ambushed or assaulted on her way to the village where her bhikkhu preceptor stayed, the Buddha permitted the bhikkhuni sangha to send a delegation to the bhikkhu sangha to receive the bhikkhuni candidate's ordination from the preceptor.

Among the five options for bhikkhuni ordination, the Senate Subcommittee's booklet explained in most careful detail the fourth one involving dual sangha, which is considered the normative procedure for subsequent generations of Buddhists. The Subcommittee's interpretation of the 'dual ordination' was a challenge to Thai Buddhists' commonly held notions about women's ordination. The booklet describes the process of a bhikkhuni ordination ceremony as follows:
   at first a female candidate has to ordain as a sikkhamana (i.e. a
   samaneri at a training stage [in Thai, khan khem-khon]) strictly
   keeping the six anudhamma [conformity or accordance with the Law]
   precepts continuously for two years. After that, she can ask for
   [higher] ordination [to become a bhikkhuni]. The candidate has to
   have a pavattini (a bhikkhuni who has ordained for twelve years)
   and pass an oral examination antarayikadhamma given by a bhikkhuni
   sangha. When the candidate has passed the antarayikadhamma and is
   permitted to join the group of the bhikkhuni sangha, an
   'intelligent bhikkhuni' takes her to a bhikkhu sangha for
   ordination by the bhikkhu sangha. (32)

Working from the interpretation quoted above, the Senate Subcommittee developed the argument that it is the role of a bhikkhu sangha to ordain a bhikkhuni candidate, and the role of a bhikkhuni sangha is simply to ask her some questions in order to judge whether she can be a member of the bhikkhuni sangha. That is to say, in the bhikkhuni ordination the bhikkhu sangha plays the essential part, whereas the presence of the bhikkhuni sangha is less important, contrary to popular belief. The Subcommittee reinforces its argument as follows:
   The oral examination antarayikadhamma by a bhikkhuni sangha came to
   exist as the result of an incident involving a female candidate who
   felt embarrassed to answer questions of antarayikadhamma to a
   bhikkhu sangha, because the questions dealt with body parts. The
   female candidate did not dare to answer the questions; this
   presented an obstacle to ordination. Therefore, the Buddha
   prescribed that a bhikkhuni Sangha would play the role of
   antarayikadhamma examiner. (33)

Considering examination by a senior bhikkhuni as an unimportant element of the ordination ceremony, serving only to avoid the embarrassment of female candidates, the Subcommittee presented its challenging interpretation:
   Therefore, we can conclude that [women's ordination] was done only
   by a single sangha [i.e. bhikkhu Sangha]. If there is no bhikkhuni
   sangha, bhikkhu sangha can ask questions concerning
   antarayikadhamma; and if female candidates do not feel embarrassed
   to answer those questions, they may pass the oral examination
   antarayikadhamma and can move on to the next step of the ordination
   ceremony. (34)

This interpretation was a turn away from Thai Buddhists' traditional conception of women's ordination and stood in remarkable contrast to those of influential bhikkhu. While Payutto and others argued that the role of the bhikkhu preceptor is just to confirm the bhikkhuni sangha's decision to permit its new members, the Senate

Subcommittee argued that the crucial element of the transmission of female ordination lineage was the bhikkhu preceptor who performed the main conferral of precepts to the candidate, not the senior bhikkhuni who gave the oral examination. Hence, the absence of a bhikkhuni sangha in contemporary Thai Theravada Buddhism does not preclude women's bhikkhuni ordination.

In the final chapter of the booklet the Subcommittee proposed two possible ways 'of restoring women's bhikkhuni ordination that do not contradict the Buddha's prescribed rules'. (35) The first option is ordination with bhikkhu sangha alone taking the role of antarayikadhamma examiner. The second option is by bhikkhuni sangha in foreign countries. In particular the Subcommittee considered the recently developed Theravada bhikkhuni in Sri Lanka, who have formalised their ordination procedure and established a clear structure for their sangha which is recognised by international Buddhists. (36) On the seeking of assistance from bhikkhuni in foreign countries, the Subcommittee suggested three methods: first, sending Thai women to receive training and ordination by both bhikkhu and bhikkhuni sangha in Sri Lanka; second, inviting both sangha, including a pavattini (bhikkhuni examiner) and upajjhaya (bhikkhu preceptor) from Sri Lanka to hold an ordination ceremony in Thailand; and third, inviting only bhikkhuni sangha and ordaining Thai women in collaboration with Thai bhikkhu sangha. A note is added to indicate that involvement of Thai bhikkhu can only be possible once the 1928 Sangharaja's proclamation is lifted. (37)

Given the status of the Senate Subcommittee, together with Dhammananda's publications, the booklet served as a reliable reference for less informed Thai Buddhist women who were interested in bhikkhuni ordination. (38) Even though it did not succeed in its aim of obtaining Thai government endorsement of bhikkhuni ordination based on scriptural accounts, the booklet provided models of 'right procedure' for a women's ordination ceremony, including that conducted only by bhikkhu sangha, which is more easily available but contradicts the prevalent notion of 'right' ordination. Unfortunately, however, the booklet was of little help in narrowing the differences between the bhikkhuni supporters and their opponents themselves, particularly those bhikkhu or former bhikkhu intellectuals close to the Sangha elders. It seems that the rationale and interpretations of bhikkhuni supporters were not accepted by others, and those of their opponents only served to reconfirm scepticism; both sides of the debate dismissed each other's opinions as insignificant. Meanwhile, the post-ordination social realities experienced by Thai bhikkhuni pose the question of whether a 'right procedure' alone can fully convince a doubting public of the authenticity of their ordination.

Thai women's bhikkhuni ordinations and validity

Whether or not they were influenced by the Senate Subcommittee's booklet, the actual ordinations undertaken by seven Thai bhikkhuni coincided with those suggested in the booklet's final chapter. Although the booklet presented those methods as ways 'of restoring women's bhikkhuni ordination that do not contradict the Buddha's prescribed rules', (39) the Thai Buddhist public did not perceive all methods as equally 'right' and 'legitimate'. People tended to consider those closer to their traditional conception of women's ordination as 'right' and remained sceptical toward the rest.

The choice of ordination in Sri Lanka

Regardless of what the Senate Subcommittee defined as 'right' ordination, Thai samaneri who were seeking a way for their own bhikkhuni ordination also held that a ceremony performed by dual sangha in Sri Lanka would be a preferable option by which they could best defend themselves from criticisms about authenticity. Even in the case of samaneri ordination, where a bhikkhuni preceptor is not necessarily required (an elder bhikkhu can also ordain a woman to be a samaneri), in order to meet contemporary Thai social expectations, it is desirable to be ordained by a Sri Lankan bhikkhuni preceptor in a ceremony held in either Sri Lanka or Thailand. In addition, since Thais are familiar with white-robed mae chi, many believe that the reason for the absence of ordained women in yellow robes is a rupture of the female ordination lineage. Therefore, when a Thai woman receives either the full or novice monastic precepts from a bhikkhuni preceptor, Thai people tend to be better convinced that her ordination is 'legitimate'.

Unfortunately, however, ordination in Sri Lanka is not an easy option for less affluent Thai women. Among the thirty-four Thai women who have ordained as samaneri, only nineteen were ordained by a Sri Lankan bhikkhuni preceptor, including the pioneering Thai samaneri (now bhikkhuni) Dhammananda and three who had her backing, the second Thai samaneri (now bhikkhuni) Rattanavali, who had an American bhikkhuni mentor, and a group of fourteen samaneri headed by Samaneri Nandanani who flew together for ordination in Sri Lanka in early 2006. Including Nandanani's large group, samaneri who had a Sri Lankan bhikkhuni preceptor outnumber those who were ordained by a Thai bhikkhu preceptor in Thailand; however, they were a rather fortunate group who enjoyed the confidence of their teacher and a sponsor who could introduce them to a Sri Lankan bhikkhuni teacher and help with their overseas travel expenses. Many Thai women would find it difficult to obtain international contacts and financial support. Some are not able to accept offers from prospective sponsors whose actual intentions are unclear, or they have even encountered interference by influential persons in their contact with Sri Lankan teachers; others have difficulty communicating in English with their Sri Lankan teachers.

When Thai samaneri consider higher ordination to become bhikkhuni, it is even more important than for their novice ordination to travel to Sri Lanka, i.e. the only Theravada Buddhist country which has established both male and female sangha, since it is the least controversial dual ordination option. Yet, some Thai samaneri did not take this option, even when they were put in contact with Sri Lankan teachers and offered sponsorship. Some cancelled their overseas training because of difficulties with foreign languages and unfamiliar customs. Some were in their sixties or even older and did not feel like going to live in a foreign country for several months or years. Others, while younger, had responsibilities such as the care of elderly parents and duties in their monastic communities. Summarising Thai samaneris comments given in interviews with the author, there was more concern with contributing to their own society and religion than with studying other religious traditions and cultures.

Among the limited number of women intending to ordain as bhikkhuni there were even fewer who could clear their private obstacles, although there were encouraging voices among Thai bhikkhuni supporters interviewed. Also, the situation of Thai samaneri can be viewed rather sympathetically if one considers that the expansion of the Sri Lankan bhikkhuni order only accelerated after 1998 when women's ordinations began to be conducted by the Sri Lankan bhikkhu sangha At the time of this research (August 2007), in Thailand, since Dhammananda's bhikkhuni ordination, three Thai samaneri have been able to go to Sri Lanka to receive higher ordination by the dual sangha. (40) Other Thai samaneri had to find other feasible means of ordaining as bhikkhuni.

The single sangha ordination option

After pondering whether to remain a samaneri or to go to Sri Lanka with other Thai samaneri for higher ordination, one Thai samaneri finally ordained as a bhikkhuni in Thailand in May 2005. Her bhikkhuni ordination ceremony was conducted at an abandoned ancient temple in Ayutthaya through the initiation of a Theravada bhikkhu preceptor who originally came from India, had ordained and was based in Tibet, and was temporarily visiting Thailand. (41) She said that her ordination ceremony had the Indian bhikkhu as preceptor, a pair of Thai bhikkhu chanting to assist the ceremony, and another seven Thai bhikkhu as witnesses, but no bhikkhuni involvement. The abandoned temple still had its ancient stone boundary, so it satisfied the requirement for the conduct of Buddhist monastic ceremonies. The bhikkhuni was confident that women's ordination by bhikkhu sangha alone is an acceptable option, and her case was the first Theravada bhikkhuni ordination ceremony held in Thailand.

The question here is how the Thai Buddhist public perceived the validity of women's ordination by a single sangha which differed from the procedure generally seen as standard. The above case of the Thai bhikkhuni is little known to the public, as her ordination ceremony was conducted rather quietly without media coverage. Her advancement of religious status was celebrated by her monastic friends: on her report of bhikkhuni ordination, Bhikkhuni Dhammananda replied with a letter of blessing, and her samaneri friends also respected her style of ordination as a possible option. Later, however, when she sought a temple for residence, she encountered many questions about the legitimacy of her ordination. (42)

Ordination ceremony by international dual sangha in Thailand

Aside from the case of the bhikkhuni who were ordained by the initiation of a bhikkhu from a foreign country, three other Thai samaneri had their bhikkhuni ordination ceremony performed by international dual sangha in Thailand. The three bhikkhuni who were ordained as samaneri by different preceptors in different years organised their bhikkhuni ordination by international sangha by seizing the opportunity which arose at the 2006 Outstanding Women in Buddhism Awards ceremony, when esteemed bhikkhuni and lay women were invited to receive overseas awards in Thailand. Their ordination ceremony was witnessed by non-Thai Theravada and Mahayana bhikkhu and bhikkhuni sangha, and by lay supporters. (43) They humorously referred to the event as an 'underground ordination' and did not wish to publicise further details of their ordination ceremony for fear of possible criticism about their ordination method. Their ordination ceremony was not reported by the media, so the legitimacy of their ordination was never caught up in public controversy. Again, however, one of the three bhikkhuni was questioned about the validity of her ordination upon her return to her temple of residence and was subsequently asked to leave the temple by the bhikkhu abbot. Even though the bhikkhuni insisted that her ordination ceremony followed one of the 'right' procedures for bhikkhuni ordination, the abbot was not convinced. Thus the question of ordination validity can be crucial, particularly when a samaneri or bhikkhuni has to rely on other people's resources.

Thai bhikkhuni's post-ordination experiences

How did higher ordination change Thai bhikkhunis lives? One of them said that she was very proud to be ordained as a bhikkhuni; although she was a little tired of confronting society, she could no longer hold back. Sometimes she received words of encouragement, but people generally kept asking her if it was right for a woman to don the yellow monastic robes; some even called her crazy. Many mae chi tried to find mistakes in her ordination so as to criticise it as 'illegitimate'. Some mae chi said to her that Thai bhikkhuni have no status vested by the authorities; being a mae chi is preferable because the Institute of Thai Mae Chi is under the patronage of Princess Somsawalee, a member of the Thai royal family, i.e. the establishment in Thai society. According to the bhikkhuni, such mae chi are obstacles to the expansion of bhikkhuni ordination in Thailand, as they discourage Thai women who express an interest in ordination, telling them nothing good happens after one becomes a bhikkhuni.

Virtually the same as they experienced as samaneri, those Thai bhikkhuni who have their own monastery or even a hut for their religious practice on land owned by themselves or their family are relatively secure, whereas those who have to find a place to stay under someone else's supervision encounter more difficulties. One of the Thai bhikkhuni said that when she was a mae chi, she used to quite enjoy herself finding new places and meeting new people, and her friendly personality was usually welcomed. As a samaneri, she occasionally met some people who showed disrespect by calling her chi (a colloquial term of address for mae chi) or nen (a colloquial term of address for samanera, who are in Thailand young novice boys under the age of 20) instead of samaneri. Even after she ordained as a bhikkhuni in yellow robes, some people still called her a mae chi and would not prostrate themselves to show respect to her. Her opportunities for dhamma practice and sermon delivery were still very few, and bhikkhu expected her to do similar chores as when she was a mae chi: cooking in front of a hot stove, wiping windows, watering the garden and cleaning bird droppings from the outer corridors; any expression of reluctance was taken as a claim to a status higher than she deserved.

It is also not at all easy to find a monastic community that will accept a bhikkhuni, and much patience and compromise is needed. In one case, a bhikkhu abbot declined a bhikkhunis request to stay at his temple on the grounds that she had ordained 'improperly'. Eventually, the stress made her unwell, with symptoms including high blood pressure and depression. After moving from one temple to another several rimes, the bhikkhuni gave up her robes and joined a monastic community as an upasika. She said that as a newcomer to the community she had many dhamma friends, and she no longer had to defend herself and explain much to people; she enjoyed her simpler new life.

Another Thai bhikkhuni who lived in a bhikkhu abbot's temple as a samaneri received a shocking letter from the abbot upon her return to the temple after her bhikkhuni ordination. The letter said that because she had not 'properly' ordained in Sri Lanka, she was no longer permitted to live in the temple. Fortunately, there were several lay supporters who had faith in her potential to become a respected religious teacher, so they sponsored her Master's degree in another region of Thailand, and she was able to continue her religious study and practice as a bhikkhuni. However, the Thai bhikkhuni said she found it difficult to understand why her ordination in Thailand was criticised; she asked why it had to take place in Sri Lanka to be accepted. She also wondered why the same abbot who had protected her when she was a samaneri suddenly criticised her bhikkhuni ordination even though she had followed one of the ceremony procedures found in the classical scriptures and modelled after Sri Lankan practice. (44)

The same procedural question had been posed to the first generation of contemporary Theravada bhikkhuni from Sri Lanka and their teachers from Korea. The ordination ceremony of the Sri Lankan women followed a preliminary year-long monastic training by a senior Korean bhikkhuni teacher and had the then Supreme Master of the Jogye Order (the largest Buddhist order in Korea) Master Seo Am as the bhikkhu preceptor, and was conducted in the presence of highly esteemed Buddhist representatives from Korea and other countries. Unfortunately, details of the ordination ceremony procedure were criticised by some keen advocates of bhikkhuni restoration. (45)

Most international ordination ceremonies are supported by the generosity and loving-kindness of bhikkhu and bhikkhuni from a Buddhist country with a well-established system of women's ordination agreeing to ordain women who wish to become bhikkhuni of another monastic tradition, in order to assist them to be able to work with an internationally respected status. For instance, those who ordain in the Jogye Order of Korea usually have to spend several years to acquire monastic manners and Buddhist philosophy before they are allowed to ordain as a bhikkhuni, but those who come to seek the assistance of Korean bhikkhuni to become bhikkhuni of other schools which do not have a female monastic lineage are exempt from the regular course of monastic training in the Jogye Order. After their ordination ceremony, those women can don the Theravada or Vajirayana robes and live as bhikkhuni, but without having a formal sanction of a traditional authority of the school, their ordained status is only acknowledged by those who respect them.

Without a consolidated status, new bhikkhuni ordained by international sangha may at many junctures face social difficulties in their schools and in countries that have the monastic tradition of those schools. That is to say, international Buddhist women's ordination ceremonies do not promise an instant uplifting of status.

Persistent questioning of ordination validity

In summary, the interpretational challenge to the standard bhikkhuni ordination ceremony was an essential basis for the expansion of Thai women's samaneri and bhikkhuni ordination. Even though in Thailand there is no bhikkhuni teacher who together with a bhikkhu preceptor initiates female candidates as full monastic members, some alternative methods of 'valid' bhikkhuni ordination ceremony were presented to Thai women; as a result they became confident that bhikkhuni ordination was still possible and chose one of the 'valid' options.

Are Thai samaneri and bhikkhuni ordinations really recognised as legitimate when they follow the new interpretation of 'right' ordination? And, ir so, who can perform legitimate ordinations? While Bhikkhuni supporters insist that such ordinations are valid, opinions vary among the mass of Thai Buddhists: some delightedly accept the new interpretation, which overturns the traditional assumption that bhikkhuni ordination is no longer possible; others feel uncertain about accepting unconventional attempts, relying instead on the Sangha's judgement. The Sangha's attitude toward Thai samaneri and bhikkhuni is diplomatically respectful, but hardly ever positive. Although the Thai Sangha has never issued any formal proclamation about the legitimacy of Thai women's bhikkhuni ordination, several elder Thai bhikkhu suggested the same point: the Thai Sangha respects bhikkhu and bhikkhuni from other countries and other Buddhist traditions as legitimately ordained Buddhists; it also respects the ordained status conferred on Thai women by a sangha in a foreign country, so Thai samaneri's and bhikkhunis overseas ordinations have been legitimate. One elder Thai bhikkhu indicated, however, that those Thai samaneri and bhikkhuni are not members of the Thai Theravada Buddhist Sangha. He expressed discontent that bhikkhuni are insisting that the Sangha elders have a wrong, narrow view, attempting to force them to change their attitude and accept women's ordination. (46) Since the Sangha elders have both power and authority, it is unlikely that they will make such an unhappy decision unless compelled to do so by some significant authority, such as the Thai royal family.

Thailand's religious authority, the national Sangha, can neither totally dismiss Thai women's bhikkhuni ordination, nor can ir offer a conclusive definition of women's 'legitimate' ordination since it does not accept any female members. Given this uncomfortable latitude, individual Thai women can freely organise their own ordination by following a 'right procedure' based on their interpretation of the vinaya prescription. After their ordination, however, their social status as samaneri or bhikkhuni is not necessarily appropriately respected. Buddhist critics--including conservative bhikkhu, lay intellectuals, and even women ordained as bhikkhuni--can always identify some perceived problems with other women's ordinations by citing whichever traditional conceptions favour their view; yet they are not in a position to monopolise a definition of 'legitimate' ordination either.

The reality of Thai samaneri and bhikkhuni suggests that any kind of ordination procedure can be criticised as 'invalid' or 'illegitimate', and consequently the social status of all Thai bhikkhuni is insecure. It is not just the single Sangha ordination ceremony that does not easily gain the full approval of the Thai Buddhist public, bur also those performed by dual international Buddhist sangha. Some elder bhikkhu never call Bhikkhuni Dhammananda by her ordained name, disdainfully referring to her as a mae chi, although her ordination procedure coincides optimally with the common notion of 'right' ordination, because hers was conducted by the dual sangha of Sri Lanka. In other words, even if an ordination were done exactly in accordance with the vinaya, without the sanction of ah established authority, the appropriateness of the ceremonial procedure itself scarcely guarantees the legitimacy of the ordination.

Grounds for ordination legitimacy: Thai Buddhism in history and at present

If ordination legitimacy is not guaranteed by precise conduct of the 'right' ceremony, what can make one's ordination legitimate and socially secure? There is a dearth of research on the legitimacy of ordination in Southeast Asian studies--this is as true for bhikkhu as it is for bhikkhuni. In Buddhism in Southeast Asian history, 'legitimacy' most often meant the popular acceptance of the rule of the monarchy which maintained the purity of the Sangha, the field of merit for the lay Buddhist populace. (47) The political and material relationship between the monarchy and the Sangha, which bolstered each other's legitimacy, hints at an understanding of the legitimacy of bhikkhuni ordination. The monarchy provided the Sangha with not merely basic food, clothing and shelter, but also the land, slaves and corvee labour exemption, as well as monastic titles that strengthened the honorary status of bhikkhu. At rimes, the monarchy also revoked the ordained status of bhikkhu who failed the royal examination on Buddhist doctrine, particularly when the monarchy was interested in recovering the Sangha's rich property and manpower for its own use. (48) Ina way, the ordained status of bhikkhu was in the hands of the monarchy; it could be secured, promoted or even revoked by the monarchy.

It is often argued that in premodern underpopulated mainland Southeast Asia the power of the monarchy was strong enough to control only the centre and the surrounding area; it faded with distance from the centre. (49) That is to say, the monarchy never fully controlled people and sangha in remote areas, so monastic communities at the periphery seem to have enjoyed a high degree of autonomy from the monarchy's patronage and intervention. In ethnic Lao peripheral areas, it was not the monarchy but the lay Buddhist community that hosted a ceremony called thera phisek and conferred onto a respected senior bhikkhu such titles as ya khru and ya sa. (50) Although more precise studies are required, the ordained status of bhikkhu was not always in the hands of those in power; in some cases it was also affirmed by the surrounding lay Buddhist community.

In Siam (and subsequently Thailand) ordination legitimacy was fully controlled by the government at the turn of the last century in conjunction with administrative centralisation. In 1902, under the reign of King Chulalongkorn, the Sangha Act was implemented and scattered local sangha were integrated into a single national Sangha which was organised in virtually the same manner as the local administration of the national bureaucracy. Yoneo Ishii indicated that:
   [The Sangha Act's] Article 15, which stipulated that every monk and
   novice must be enlisted in a monastery, is one of the most
   remarkable provisions contained in the act. It was the basis for
   the Ministry of Public Instruction's communication of August 29,
   1911, ordering that vagrant monks (phra chorachat) should be
   arrested and forced to disrobe. It meant that, after the
   promulgation of the act, those without monastic affiliation could
   no longer be recognized as monks. (51)

Furthermore, when a new bhikkhu candidate ordains to enter the order, the vinaya allows that he can be ordained by any bhikkhu with more than 10 years' experience; however, in present Thailand, no bhikkhu candidate would be legally sanctioned as 'legitimate' if he were not ordained by a preceptor appointed to that position by the national Sangha. Under the Sangha Act the government's permission was also required for the installation of a sacred stone boundary for monastic ceremonies, soa 'legitimate' ordination ceremony must be held in a place sanctioned by the government. (52) By monopolising the appointment of 'legitimate' preceptors, the national Sangha of Thailand exclusively defines its 'legitimate' membership.

In the present setting of Thai Theravada Buddhism it is quite clear that what can make one's ordination most demonstrably legitimate is one's adherence to the laws enacted by the Thai government regarding membership in the national Sangha. Any monk or novice not in the possession of an ordination certificate (nangsu sutthi) can be arrested by the police for alleged attempt to deceive the Buddhist populace and collect alms in order to make a living. There is a fair agreement to consider those who ordained in a foreign country as exceptions; ir requested by the police or other authority, they have to present an ordination certificate from a foreign Buddhist institution in order to prove that their ordination is 'legitimate'. (53) No doubt, the status of these ambiguous exceptions is not as stable as that of the national Thai Sangha members; ir can be distorted any time by ill will. Without the sanction of the national Sangha and the accompanying support of the Thai legal system, an ordination cannot be fully legitimatised.

Sangha restoration and ordination legitimacy: Cambodian Buddhism after the Pol Pot regime

The contemporary history of neighbouring Theravada Buddhist Cambodia shows that restoration of the 'legitimate' Sangha was a highly politicised matter. At the end of 1975, the Khmer Rouge government declared Buddhism to be a reactionary religion and promoted the destruction of Buddha images and scriptures and the disrobing of bhikkhu and samanera. (54) Consequently the Sangha and any visible religious ceremony and practice disappeared from Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime. As soon as Pol Pot's government was driven from power by the Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin troops in January 1979, people resumed religious activities. Even though they had no preceptor who could 'properly' ordain them, former bhikkhu started to play monastic roles. At first, some former bhikkhu took white robes in order to hold memorial services for the deceased; eventually they were given yellow robes by village acquaintances and returned to live as bhikkhu without having a formal ordination ceremony. (55) Villagers compromised with the 'unauthorised' private ordinations in that desperate situation; they preferred the presence of a bhikkhu for their spiritual support rather than the traditional notion of formality. At that time there was no single monastic authority in Cambodia that monopolised a 'legitimate' ordination lineage; there were plural sangha consisting of freely ordained bhikkhu supported by communities of lay Buddhists.

The Cambodian Sangha was eventually re-established by the new political power, rather than the people, however. In September 1979 the new government organised an ordination ceremony for seven former bhikkhu by inviting a preceptor and a group of bhikkhu from the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, which is inhabited by ethnic Khmer who are Theravada Buddhists. The youngest bhikkhu among the reordained seven, Venerable Tep Vong, was appointed Vice-Chairperson of the Central Committee of the Khmer United Front for National Construction and Defence; as a preceptor he conducted the 'official' reordination ceremonies of former bhikkhu in Phnom Penh and in each province. (56) All other 'unauthorised', 'private' reordinations were declared 'invalid', and all the reordination applicants were told to ordain by means of Tep Vong's initiation. The 'official' ordination was only permitted to men above the age of 50 years whose labour and military service contribution was considered relatively low. Thus while the emergence of 'privately' ordained bhikkhu in post-Pol Pot Cambodia reflected Cambodian people's spiritual needs, the government's establishment of the national Sangha amounted to its subordination of religious personnel. (57) The monopolisation of 'legitimate' ordination lineage was inseparable from state intervention to establish control of the monastic members.

The restoration of the Cambodian Sangha hints at an interpretation of the meaning of a 'right' ordination. A guarantee of 'right' ordination has to do with authority and power. At the time of difficulty, ordinary Buddhists may compromise monk's lack of 'right' ordination which is in total agreement with the vinaya prescriptions as far as they have faith in the person of ah ordained individual; but it is the politically powerful authority that is interested in introducing and dominating a 'legitimate' ordination ceremony. Detailed descriptions of precise ordination procedures in the classical scriptures and the traditional Buddhist notions of ordination lineage, which are believed to have been transmitted from the Buddha and his original sangha, are rather convenient bases for a political power to cite as grounds for re-establishing a 'legitimate' sangha. It is not difficult for a politically powerful authority to invite a respected preceptor from a remote place who can convince people of the existence of an inherited 'right' monastic lineage. Through the invitation of a 'right' preceptor and a theatrical production of a 'right' ordination ceremony which coincides with people's traditional notions, the authority can seize control of individuals ordained through the new procedure and integrate them into an authorised religious institution. Such establishment of a 'legitimate' sangha in which common Buddhists have faith was the traditional way for a new political power to consolidate the legitimacy of its rule. (58)

The authorities and ordination legitimacy: Cases of East Asian sangha

Summarising the historical examples examined in the discussion above, when the governing authority intends to control Buddhist monastic communities under its power, it monopolises ordination legitimacy and integrates ali the legitimately ordained bhikkhu into the unified Sangha. Procedural details such as preceptor qualifications and the sacred stone boundary are conveniently used to define 'right' ordination.

Looking at the recent history of bhikkhuni sangha in Mahayana Buddhist East Asia, bhikkhuni ordination ceremonies were not necessarily conducted by dual sangha of bhikkhu and bhikkhuni but were sanctioned as 'legitimate'. In Korea, which has one of the most consolidated contemporary bhikkhuni sangha, dual ordination was a rather recent development; it was only in 1982 that dual ordination for bhikkhuni was institutionalised. (59) Before that, Korean women were ordained by a bhikkhu preceptor without the involvement of an elder bhikkhuni in their ordination ceremony, but they became bhikkhuni and performed their full duties as Buddhist nuns performing religious practices, teaching and conducting ceremonies. Their 'legitimate' bhikkhuni status is not created miraculously by a ceremony; rather, it is guaranteed by the authority and traditional formality of the consolidated monastic order that they entered.

In Taiwan, whose bhikkhuni sangha is also widely known for its significant role and contribution, the government has abandoned its traditional duty to keep a register of Buddhist ordination since the 1980s, and candidates can be ordained freely. In the tradition of Taiwan and China there are several temples known as ordination ceremony platforms; these have vinaya expert elders who can give lectures to ordination candidates about monastic disciplines and play the role of preceptor in ordination ceremonies. Depending on the preceptor's policy, a bhikkhuni ordination ceremony can be conducted by dual sangha of bhikkhu and bhikkhuni or by a single bhikkhu sangha; both procedures are recognised as valid in Taiwan, although there are increasing numbers of people who prefer dual sangha ordination along with the diffusion of vinaya knowledge. (60) In the case of Taiwan it is the commonly practised tradition that authorises a range of 'valid' ordination procedures.

Unlike those in Thailand and Cambodia, Buddhist orders in Korea and Taiwan are not organised into a single national Sangha which monopolises the definition of legitimate ordination. In the social setting of Buddhist orders in Korea and Taiwan, what sanctions ordination legitimacy is not the political power or a centralised religious authority; it is rather the tradition and traditional formalities that each order has developed in its history. People recognise affiliation to one of the traditional Buddhist orders as a 'legitimate' ordination, as they trust the well-established formalities in each Buddhist order. Although the presence or absence of a centralised religious authority gives rise to differences of such a magnitude that comparison is difficult, the diversity of ordination legitimacy in East Asian Buddhist countries hints at a way around the question of legitimacy of the Thai bhikkhuni who have organised their ordination ceremony independently. A female order can be institutionalised through formal procedures after a few decades or centuries.


It is important to ask once again by way of conclusion: what makes an ordination legitimate? The cases examined in this paper indicate that there are two kinds of religious establishment whose ordinations are accepted as 'legitimate': one is a centralised religious authority validated by the governing political power, and the other is a well-established religious organisation in whose tradition people place their confidence. This article does not conclude that a challenge to the establishment in the form of a new tradition is impossible, but it suggests that an individually organised ordination, which follows a 'right' ceremonial procedure, cannot easily win public confidence.

A question worthy of consideration is why 'private' ordination is not perceived just as 'legitimate' or 'valid' as initiation into a well-established religious order. Voices from Thailand and other Buddhist countries say that there are some people of ill-intention who take up robes simply to solicit money, and such 'fake' monks and nuns can undermine the general public's faith in Buddhism and ordained individuals who are supposed to conduct their lives for higher Buddhist purposes. Therefore, people often seek to clarify whether an unfamiliar individual in a robe is worthy of their offerings by tracing the details about ordination place, affiliated order and preceptor. People can place credence in the monk or nun in that he/she has received sufficient training to become a respectable practitioner. Put another way, people are confident that an established Buddhist order would be responsible for its members as being respected renunciants.

For the sceptical Thai Buddhist public, it is often difficult to distinguish a 'right' ordination based on a 'right' procedure for reintroducing a lost sangha from a 'fake' ordination aimed at taking advantage of faithful Buddhist supporters, since neither is sanctioned by any formal Buddhist institution. Consequently, and most unfortunately, Thai samaneri and bhikkhuni are often placed in a vulnerable position. Questioning the 'legitimacy' of their ordination and fearing intervention by the authorities, people can urge them to leave their temple of residence, even when in reality the source of trouble is a small emotional conflict with an abbot or an influential supporter. Individual women can challenge the injustice of gender discrimination for ordination opportunity and take up the monastic robes to begin a new female order. But such a situation can persist as long as the authority does not sanction their ordination as 'legitimate'. This is no doubt a rough and a rough and thorny path. On this path newly ordained samaneri and bhikkhuni take up significant tasks and responsibilities: as individuals they have to be renunciants worthy of people's respect, and as a group they have to develop a consolidated female order which can engender sufficient faith to earn both support and new ordained members.

doi: 10.1017/S002246341100066X

(1) By the early 21st century, there were 165 bhikkhuni registered at the board of Bhikkhuni Sasana in Sri Lanka at Dambulla. Bhikkhuni Bhadra, Higher ordination and bhikkhuni order in Sri Lanka (Dehiwala: Sridevi, 2001), p. 29. By mid-2004 there were approximately 400 bhikkhuni and an estimated 800 samaneri waiting to be qualified for higher ordination. See history.html (last accessed 27 June 2007).

(2) Varaporn Chamsanit, 'Reconnecting the lost lineage: Challenges to institutional denial of Buddhist women's monasticism in Thailand' (Ph.D. diss., The Australian National University, Canberra, 2006); Martin Seeger, 'The bhikkhuni-ordination controversy in Thailand', Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 29, 1 (2006): 155-83.

(3) Varaporn, 'Reconnecting the lost lineage', p. 216 and chapter 5; Seeger, 'The bhikkhuni-ordination controversy', pp. 161-3.

(4) Steven Collins and Justin McDaniel, 'Buddhist "nuns" (mae chi) and the teaching of Pali in contemporary Thailand', Modern Asian Studies, 44, 6 (2010): 1373-408.

(5) Tomomi Ito, 'Buddhist women in dhamma practice in contemporary Thailand: Movements regarding their status as world renunciates', Journal of Sophia Asian Studies, 17 (1999): 147-81; Tomomi Ito, 'Dhammamata: Buddhadasa Bhikkhu's notion of motherhood in Buddhist women practitioners', Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 38, 3 (2007): 409-32.

(6) The seven Thai bhikkhuni include Dhammananda (ordained in Feb. 2003, Sri Lanka), Dhammarakkhitta (in May 2005, Ayutthaya, Thailand), Rattanavali, Silananda and Dhammamitta (in Mar. 2006, Ayutthaya, Thailand), Sukhetta (in June 2006, Sri Lanka) and Dhammadhira (in July 2007, Sri Lanka). According to the website run by Dhammananda (, last accessed 12 June 2007), there were three more Thai bhikkhuni who ordained earlier overseas: Bhikkhuni Varaporn (ordained in 1988, Los Angeles), Bhikkhuni La-O (1988, Los Angeles) and Bhikkhuni Katannuna (1998, Bodhgaya).

(7) Among the eleven were four former samaneri in the Chiang Mai group who ordained in Sri Lanka in February 2006, according to Dhammananda's website (, last accessed 12 June 2007). Six former samaneri ordained at a temple in Yasothon, and the other one ordained as a samaneri through Dhammananda's assistance and then as a bhikkhuni by a visiting Asian Theravada bhikkhu (Rattanavali, interview, 19 June 2006; Rattanavali, email, 8 May 2007; a disrobed woman, interview, Bangkok, 11 Sept. 2006). As of the end of July 2007, out of the original thirty-four Thai women who had ordained as samaneri or bhikkhuni, subtracting the eleven who had already disrobed and the three who were in Sri Lanka for further study and practice, there were nineteen samaneri or bhikkhuni in Thailand, and one samaneri was planning to return from Thailand. The three in Sri Lanka were Samaneri Poonsirivara, Bhikkhuni Sukhetta and Samaneri Kannarattana. Kannarattana left Thailand for Sri Lanka in Apr. 2007 in order to prepare for her higher ordination as a bhikkhuni. (Rattanavali, email correspondence, 3 May 2007). According to Dhammananda's website, http://www. (last accessed 12 June 2007), Dhammavijjani will be returning from Sri Lanka to take up residence in Chiang Mai.

(8) Thai samaneri and bhikkhuni do receive sufficient support and respect in their local communities. In Theravada Buddhist society the yellow monastic robes serve as a cultural code that is inseparably linked to the ordained status of an individual who dons them; Buddhists instantly know that they should pay respect and offer alms to anyone in the yellow robe, regardless of gender, even though many Thais understand that bhikkhuni ordination is no longer available. Tomomi Ito, 'Ordained women in yellow robes: An unfamiliar "tradition" in contemporary Thailand', in Out of the shadows: Socially engaged Buddhist women, ed. Karma Lekshe Tsomo (Delhi: Sri Satguru, 2006), pp. 168-71.

(9) Ruang kan-buat phiksuni nai prathet thai [Bhikkhuni ordination in Thailand] (Bangkok: Committee for Women's, Children's, and Elderly People's Affairs, Senate of Thailand, n.d.), pp. 51-3. 10 During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and Song Dynasty (960-1279), the status of bhikkhu and bhikkhuni was strictly controlled by the government in order to oust unauthorised, privately ordained ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 'si du') monks and nuns. Those who wished to ordain as bhikkhu or bhikkhuni had to obtain the requisite government certificate for ordination permission ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 'du die') before their ordination ceremony at a temple. Authorised bhikkhu and bhikkhuni joined the monastic register, were separated from the civil register, and received a precept certificate ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 'jie die') and a list of members who ordained at the same ceremony ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in Japanese; [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 'tong jie lu' in contemporary Chinese) from the temple they ordained at. These documents proved that the formal ordained status was authorised by the government and a monastic order. The ordination certificate lost its significance from the Ming Dynasty onwards, so bhikkhu and bhikkhuni proved their status by means of temple-issued documents of a precept certificate and lists of members present at the ordination ceremony. Kanji Ogawa, 'Kinsei chugoku bukkyo ni okeru kai no hen-yo' [Transformation of monastic precepts in early modern Chinese Buddhism], in Bukkyo ni okeru kai no mondai [Issues regarding precepts in Buddhism], ed. Nihon Bukkyo Gakkai [Japan Buddhist Studies Association] (Kyoto: Heirakuji Shoten, 1975), pp. 156-78.

(11) Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, Thai women in Buddhism (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991); Tomomi Ito, 'Buddhist women in dhamma practice', pp. 147-81.

(12) For more on Chatsumarn's ordination and its social impact, see Tomomi Ito, 'New beginnings: The bhikkhuni movement in contemporary Thailand', Bridging worlds: Buddhist women's voices across generations, ed. Karma Lekshe Tsomo (Taipei: Yuan Chuan Press, 2004), pp. 120-4.

(13) Rai-ngan phon kan-suksa ruang kan-buat phiksuni nai prathet thai (study report on bhikkhuni ordination in Thailand), brochure distributed ar a panel session held at a Senate meeting room on 11 Mar. 2003.

(14) Interview, Phra Sripariyattimoli (Somchai Kusalacitto Bhikkhu), Maha Chulalongkorn Buddhist University, Bangkok, 28 Aug. 2002.

(15) Phra Thammapidok (P.A. Payutto), Panha phiksuni: Bot thot-sop sangkhom thai (Bhikkhuni questions: Lessons to review Thai society) (Bangkok: Sukkhaphap chai, 2001), pp. 10-11. All translations from Thai and Japanese in this article are mine unless otherwise indicated.

(16) Phra Thammapidok, Panha phiksuni, pp. 11-12.

(17) Ibid., p. 12.

(18) Phra Devatilaka heads a group of bhikkhu called the 'Defendants of Security of Buddhism' (Klum phithak khwam-mankhong khong phra phutthasasana; the English name appears in the group's English publications). His best-known publications include Phaen thamlai phra phutthasasana (Bangkok: Klum phithak khwam-mankhong khong phra phutthasasana, 1983) and its English edition entitled, A plot to undermine Buddhism (Bangkok: Defendants of Security of Buddhism, 1984). These books are published under Phra Devatilaka's former monastic title, 'Phra Sophonkhunaphon' (in the English edition, the author's name appears as 'Venerable Phra Sobhon-Ganabhorn'). In these books Phra Devatilaka strongly criticises interreligious dialogue as a Roman Catholic Church strategy to undermine Buddhism.

(19) Phra Thepdilok (Rabaep Thitanano), 'Lang ma eng muan fon an chun chai' [Pouring in just as refreshing rain], in Ruan chai chao phut [Home of mind for Buddhists] (Bangkok: Sun Songsoem Phutthasasana haeng Prathet Thai, 2001), p. 16.

(20) Interview, Phra Sripariyattimoli, 28 Aug. 2002.

(21) Thongyoi Saengsinchai, 'Panha ruang phiksuni' [Questions about bhikkhuni], in Khai pritsana panha phiksuni [Answer questions about bhikkhuni], ed. Nawa-ek Thongyoi Saengsinchai and Chamnan Nisarat (Bangkok: Parian Tham Samakhom, 2001), p. 21.

(22) Thongyoi, 'Panha ruang phiksuni', pp. 17-18.

(23) Rattanavali often mentions this point in our private conversations. Bhiksuni Chan Linh Nghiem (a Thai Buddhist nun who ordained in Thich Nhat Hanh's order in France; a|so known by her Thai name Bhikkhuni Niramisa) also indicated a similar point about her work both before and after her ordination. Interview, Bhiksuni Chan Linh Nghiem, Bangkok, 13 Mar. 2007.

(24) Interview with Senator Rabiaprat Phongphanit in a meeting room of the Senate, Bangkok, 12 Mar. 2003.

(25) Her husband Soemsak Phongphanit served as an administrative vice minister of the interior and a junior minister of the interior in the Thaksin Shinawatra's government until the coup in Sept. 2006.

(26) Interview, Rabiaprat, 12 Mar. 2003.

(27) In my interview on 18 Mar. 2002 at her temple in Nakhon Pathom province, Dhammananda said that she received a copy of a draft bill of the new sarigha bill from a male member of the drafting committee in the parliament seeking her advice on ir. In order not to provoke scepticism, Dhammananda did not suggest including the term bhikkhuni in it; she rather suggested that 'others' be mentioned in the provision about orders belonging to the Thai Sangha. Currently in the Thai Sangha there are four orders: Mahanikai, Thammayut, Chinnikai (an order rooted in the Chinese monastic tradition) and Annamnikai (rooted in the Vietnamese tradition). The draft bill is yet to be finalised, so it is uncertain whether Dhammananda's suggestion will be taken into account.

(28) Interview, Rabiaprat, 12 Mar. 2003.

(29) Chaired by Rabiaprat, the Subcomraittee consisted of 10 other members: Mrs Wisa Banchamano, Dr Prayong Temchawala, Mrs Amphaiwan Trisakun, Mrs Methini Phongwet, Mrs Napha Setthakun, Associate Professor Mali Phrukphongsawali, Mrs Wanlapha Nilaphaichit, Dr Naphasi Maniwong and Miss Siriphon Phinyosirithon. The Subcommittee sought advice from both intellectuals who favoured and opposed bhikkhuni restoration: the supporters included Bhikkhu Kosin Paripunno, Bhikkhu Mano Mettanando and Samaneri Dhammananda, while those against included Bhikkhu Rajakavi and Bhikkhu Devatilaka. The Subcommittee also acknowledged those names of renowned Buddhist monks and academics in Thailand, such as Bhikkhu Sripariyattimoli, Bhikkhu Ariyamedhi, Bhikkhu Prasoet Tiradhammo, Professor Dr Amon Raksasat, Sathianphong Wannapok, Thongkhaw Phuangrotphan and Bhikkhu Visaladhammabadi. Ruang kan-buat phiksuni nai prathet thai [Bhikkhuni ordination in Thailand], pp. 6-7.

(30) Ruang kan-buat phiksuni nai prathet thai [Bhikkhum ordination in Thailand].

(31) Ibid., pp. 11-14.

(32) Ibid., pp. 12-13; The notes in parentheses are in the original, those in square brackets are mine.

(33) Ibid., p. 13.

(34) Ibid., p. 13. Following the last sentence cited above referred to antarayikadhamma, Bhikkhuni Khandhaka, page 346 of Tipitaka, Thai edition, Vol. 7.

(35) Ibid., p. 60.

(36) Ibid., p. 60.

(37) Ibid., pp. 60-1.

(38) For instance, a Thai bhikkhu who has ordained several Thai women as samaneri in his temple in Yasothon province in northeast Thailand said that they studied bhikkhuni issues through Dhammananda's and the Subcommittee's books. Interview with the Thai bhikkhu who ordained samaneri, 22 Mar. 2004.

(39) Ruang kan-buat phiksuni nai prathet thai [Bhikkhuni ordination in Thailand], p. 60.

(40) The three include Sukhetta, Dhammadhira and Kannarattana. Sukhetta became a bhikkhuni in July 2006, after 18 months of training in Sri Lanka; Dhammadhira travelled to Sri Lanka in July 2007 for her higher ordination after three years of monastic training at Dhammananda's temple; and Kannarattana began her training to prepare for her higher ordination in Sri Lanka in Apr. 2007. Rattanavali, email correspondence, 8 May 2007.

(41) Telephone conversation with the author, 29 May 2005. It seems more likely for a Tibetan to live in India as a Theravada bhikkhu rather than an Indian Theravada bhikkhu to live in Tibet under Chinese rule; but this is the Thai bhikkhunis verbatim description of her preceptor.

(42) Interview, Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, 11 Sept. 2006.

(43) Interview with one of the three Thai bhikkhuni, 19 June 2006.

(44) Interview with the bhikkhuni, 20 June 2006.

(45) Interview, Bhikkhuni Sang Won (Korean teacher of the first contemporary Sri Lankan bhikkhuni who ordained in 1996 in Sarnath, India), Bo Myung Sa Temple, Seoul, 26 Sept. 2006.

(46) Interview, 28 Aug. 2002.

(47) Yoneo Ishii, Sangha, state, and society: Thai Buddhism in history, trans. Peter Hawkers (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1986); Religion and legitimation of power in Thailand, Laos, and Burma, ed. Bardwell L. Smith (Chambersburg: ANIMA Books, 1978); Peter A. Jackson, Buddhism, legitimation, and conflict: The political functions of urban Thai Buddhism (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1989).

(48) Ishii, Sangha, state, and society, pp. 82-3.

(49) S.J. Tambiah, World conqueror and world renouncer: A study of Buddhism and polity in Thailand against a historical background (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

(50) Interview, Thonglith Candasaro Bhikkhu and Daoheuang Khampaseuth Bhikkhu, Vientiane, 22 Feb. 2005.

(51) Ishii, Sangha, state, and society, p. 70.

(52) Ibid., pp. 73-4.

(53) Interview, Mioao Sen Bhiksuni, abbess, Fo Guang Shan branch temple in Bangkok, 10 Mar. 2007. Mioao is a Thai female dhamma teacher who ordained as a Mahayana Buddhist bhikkhuni in Taiwan with the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order, Taiwan's largest monastic group.

(54) Referring to an article by David DeVoss ('Buddhism under the red flag', Time, 17 Nov. 1980, pp. 90-2), Charles Keyes writes that in 1980 it was estimated that more than 60 per cent of monks were executed during the Pol Por regime. Charles F. Keyes, 'Communist revolution and the Buddhist past in Cambodia', in Asian visions of authority: Religion and the modern states of East and Southeast Asia, ed. Charles F. Keyes, Laurel Kendall and Helen Hardacre (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1994), p. 56.

(55) Phra Rapin Duanloi, 'Kansuksa sathanaphap khong phra song kamphucha rawang kho. so. 1975-1989' [A study on the state of Cambodian monks between 1975-1989] (M.A. diss., Srinakharinwirot University, Bangkok, 2002).

(56) Ian Harris, 'Buddhism in extremis: The case of Cambodia', in Buddhism and politics in twentiethcentury Asia, ed. Ian Harris (London: Continuum, 1999), pp. 66-7; Yukio Hayashi, 'Kambojia ni okeru bukkyo jissen: Ninaite to jiin no fukko' [Buddhist practice in Cambodia: Actors and temple restoration], in Kambojia: bunka to shakai no dainamikkusu [Cambodia: Dynamics of culture and society], ed. Hisatoshi Ohashi (Tokyo: Kokon Shoin, 1998), p. 188.

(57) Tomomi Ito, 'Kambojia bukkyo: Futatsu no kyosan-shugi seiken no keiken to shakai e no kakawari' [Cambodian Buddhism: Its experience of two communist regimes and social engagement], Kokusai bunka gaku [Cross-Cultural Studies], 10 (2004): 17-35.

(58) Smith, Religion and legitimation of power in Thailand, Laos, and Burma; Ishii, Sangha, stale, and Society.

(59) Interview, Bhikkhuni II Beob (Director of Academic Division, Korean Bhikkhuni Association), Korean Bhikkhuni Association, Seoul, 27 Sept. 2006.

(60) Interview, Huimin Bhiksu (President of Dharma Drum Buddhist College, Taiwan; Professor at Taipei National University of the Arts), Hamburg, 19 July 2007. Huimin explained in the interview that ordinary bhikkhu and bhikkhuni are not confident enough to teach vinaya to candidates, so they send their disciples to one of those special temples for ordination ceremonies, but as benefactors they are responsible for the rest of their disciples' regular monastic education. He said that in Taiwan a preceptor has only nominal significance; a benefactor is an essential teacher from whom newly ordained individuals receive substantial lessons. Candidates have to decide their benefactor teacher and affiliating temple before they apply for an ordination ceremony.

Tomomi Ito is an Associate Professor at Kobe University, Japan. Correspondence in connection with this article should be addressed to: First, I am grateful to all the Thai bhikkhuni, samaneri, and people involved in the bhikkhuni movement for kindly allowing me to interview them and maintaining friendly communications. I would like to thank Venerable Dr Jampa Tsedroen and Dr Thea Mohr for the opportunity to present the original version of this paper at the First International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha, Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages, University of Hamburg, July 2007, which I think was a historically important conference, even though His Holiness the Dalai Lama had yet to ordain women as bhikkhuni in Tibetan Buddhism. I also thank all the presenters and participants. Their opinions, and the Congress's consequence, determined by His Holiness's closing words, helped me clarify the ideas in this paper. Many thanks also go to friends at the Sakyadhita International Buddhist Women's Conferences with whom I share important updates on this subject.
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Author:Ito, Tomomi
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9THAI
Date:Feb 1, 2012
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