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The structural violence against women: Buddhism in Thailand.

Thailand is one country in the world to boast of highest percentage of population as Buddhists, the government quotes 94% of the 62 millions as Buddhists, where as Myanmar comes second with 87% of its population are Buddhists. Buddhism is entertwined in many facets of Thai ways of life yet when one turns to look at women participation in Buddhism, one finds that it is off balance.

With 62 millions population, there are 300,000 monks and male novices, no women.

But when the Buddha established Buddhism he trusted the responsibility of Buddhism on the four groups of Buddhists, bhikkhus (monks), bhikkhunis (nuns), laymen and laywomen.

During his time, and at least 1600 years afterwards, the bhikkhunis prospered well along with the monks both in India and Sri Lanka.

The missing piece of this jigsaw puzzle is too striking to gloss over even for a person with little intelligence. Yet it is not easy to understand the situation Buddhist women find themselves in Thailand without going back through pages of Thai history.

Thai Buddhism

Let us take a quick look at the history. When we became a unified nation in 13th Century A.D. with Sukhothai as our first kingdom, it was clearly recorded on the stone inscription of King Ramkhamhaeng that there were at least 3 strands of belief intertwined into what is called Thai Buddhism.

Thai society has been animistic with the worship of Pra Khapungpi as we can see in the Sukhothai stone inscription. This belief still survive in various local spirit beliefs upto present.

Then there was a strong Brahmanistic influence which came through both Buddhist canonical text itself and the practice brought by merchants travelling through and from neighbouring countries. Heavy Brahmanitic influence rushed into Thailand during the early Ayudhya period (through Cambodia) and has remained ever since.

Few steps from Thammasat university in Bangkok, you will find yourself right in the heart of amulet-market where there is a rich source to study about Thai belief which is far from the Buddhist teaching and Buddhist spirit.

The third strand of Thai Buddhism is the Buddhist teaching itself but in a very diluted form focussing on giving (dana) on the one hand and gaining merit on the other. The core teaching of Buddhism itself, i.e. the concept of non-self is not known to the general public. The spiritual goal of Buddhism i.e. the concept of Nirvana is too far and too ideal to strife for in this life. Many Buddhists still pray to be born in the time of the future Buddha in yet aeon to come. With this attitude, suffering, which is to be ended, is therefore prolonged.

This is a brief account of what is known as Thai Buddhism.

Thai Sangha and the Government: A little too close for comfort.

The Sangha means community of monks and nuns with their own dhamma and vinaya to follow. They have their own system to handle disagreement within the sangha. In the 227 monastic code of behaviour, it is divided into 8 sections, the last one is called Adhikarana Samatha, factors or methods to deal with disagreement within the Sangha itself.

Each section of the monastic code is clearly laid down with prescription of penalty for transgression, hence the Sangha is a legal body within itself.

But Thai Sangha has a unique characteristic differentiating itself from Sanghas from other countries. They are closely linked with the government, as though the legal system within the Sangha as provided by the Buddha is not sufficient. Thai Sangha has to follow Sangha Bill, this brings them under the control (or support) of the government.

Thai Sangha is no more a free body but works within the Government structure.

The structure of the Council of Elders follows after the government administrative structure, it is very much like a cabinet of monks. The supreme among them is the Sangha Raja (King of the monks), with him, there are 12 cabinet members. Eight of them are the Somdej and the other four are the most senior monks of the highest ranking Chaokhun.

This cabinet of the Council of the Elders works through the Department of Buddhist Affairs which is a government official body comes directly under the Office of the Prime Minister. A very strange set up.

Previously the Council of the Elders worked through the Department of Religious affairs, now this department deals with the non-Buddhist affairs and comes under the Ministry of Education. Yet, another strange set up.

It is nothing less than a shock to read the first line of the Sangha Act where it defines "Sangha" only as a community of monks.

This is the first structural violence against women in black and white under the Thai legal body.

The Sangha as established by the Buddha to cover both monks and nuns with respect to the balance human nature is dwarfed to only half of the Buddhist monastic population. To anyone's surprise, the government seems to be comfortable with it.

This is a structural violence to bar women out of Buddhist monastic space done in the hand of the Sangha sanctioned by the State.

With 300,000 monks (and novices) we have 25,000 temples (now 6000 reported to be deserted). There is not one temple for women. It was also alright as women did not seek and were not to seek for spiritual indepence anyway!

Two leading Buddhist universities in Bangkok both the Mahachulalongkorn and Mahamongkut Universities provided higher education for Mahanikaya and Thammayut monks. Eventhough the budget came from the tax payers who are both men and women, but Buddhist education is provided only for monks, again it seems natural and acceptable!

This is structural violence at the state level to deny women of Buddhist education, is it not?

No Space for Women in Thai Buddhism

Thai women have, in the past, attempted to gain some religious space but failed due to solid wall set against them both by the state and the Sangha. I am presenting this historical information in what I call the 3 waves of the bhikkhunis in Thailand.

The first wave happened in the year 1928 when Narin Klung intended to revive the Bhikkhuni Sangha. His reason for wanting to do this was that the Buddha himself established four groups of Buddhists, namely the Bhikkhus, the Bhikkhunis, Upasikas and Upasakas. In Thailand we did not have a Bhikkhuni Sangha and Narin Klung believed we should revive what we were missing. He was very critical of the government and he was very critical of the situation of the Sangha at that time. He already had started a kind of a society where the members met every week to discuss the situation and to discuss the dharma as practiced in Thailand at that time. He donated his house, which he called Nariwong, to the Bhikkhuni Sangha and it later became Wat Nariwong. He had two of his daughters, Sara, the elder daughter and Jongdi, the younger one, ordained. They started as Samaneris and eventually the older one was ordained as Bhikkhuni. We have a record of them. There were at least eight nuns at Wat Nariwong. We have a picture of them as well. Because Narin Klung himself was very critical of other institutions, namely the government and the Sangha, it brought about much conflict from the two. One day, the Sangha ordered the arrest of all the nuns at Wat Nariwong. As the police approached, all other nuns disrobed. Only the two sisters remained in robe and both of them were taken to prison. The older one was jailed for a couple of days and the robes were removed from her body violently. Later, when they were freed, they changed the color of their robes but still remained as Bhikkhuni and Samaneri. They went out for alms and they were well received by the people who, they said, offered sufficient Dana to keep them going. But this movement came to an end when the older sister, while going out for alms in the morning, was snatched away by somebody coming on a horseback. And that brought about the closing of the Bhikkhuni Sangha in 1928.

The Sangha reacted very negatively, the media reacted negatively, there were only two newspapers, which were run by women that supported them. The Sangharaja, (the Supreme Patriarch) sent out an order, the famous or infamous order of 1928, saying that all Thai Bhikkhus are forbidden to give ordination to women either as Sikkhamana, Bhikkhuni or Samaneri. So that was the end of the first wave.

Twenty-eight years later, when my mother, the Venerable Voramai Kabilsingh took her ordination in 1956, she started out wearing a light yellow robe and her preceptor was the deputy abbot of Wat Bawonniwet. His name was Phra Prommuni. Pra Prommuni was also the teacher of the present King when the King later became ordained. Her case was brought to the meeting of the Council of the Elders sometime in 1960. The charge was that she was impersonating the bhikkhu. But the charge fell to the ground as it so happened that Phra Prommuni, her teacher was also a member of this Council of Elders. He asked the Sangha whether the monk could wear that light-yellow color? The monk said no. So he pointed out that if this light-yellow color cannot be worn by the monks, why should we protest against it. He asked a very simple and logical question. The order of the Council of the Elders came to a conclusion in one short phrase: the Council did not think that it was of any harm to the Sangha. That was some time in 1960 and ever since then this temple has been in existence without any interference from the government or the Sangha.

In 1971 the Venerable Mother Voramai Kabilsingh went to Taiwan for higher ordination and became the first bhikkhuni in Thailand. However because her ordination was done in Taiwan it was seen and taken as Mahayana by the Thai Sangha as well as by Thai society. But Venerable Voramai herself, whose ordained name was Maha Bodhi Dhammacaraya (Shih Ta Tao Fa Tzu), followed the Buddhayana, the Buddha's vehicle. She said she was not Mahayana, but Buddhayana, the vehicle of the Buddha. She started buying the present land, the land we are now on, and slowly built the temple and built this compound. Her weapon was the monthly magazine to spread and to establish Buddhism. She tried to start a family of bodhisattva, but there was lack of administration, and there was not sufficient help in the structure so it did not come into actuality. She did many social works. For instance, she helped the orphans by starting an orphanage. At one time we had eighty people living with us, both the nuns as well as orphans. The nuns took care of the orphans and we started a school. The old school building is now being renovated and we are using it as a headquarters for our foundation. It will be used for our bookstore, an office, and a residence and spacious dining area for those who come here for retreats.

Venerable Voramai Kabilsingh's ordination, I consider the second wave of the Bhikkhuni Sangha. From 1971, when she received her higher ordination until 2001, when I received my lower ordination, there is a gap of thirty years. This I consider to be the third wave.

I think it will be necessary to look at the elements that differ between the first, the second and the third waves. Being the third wave. We are in a much better position, because we have learned the shortcomings of the first and the second waves and we are better prepared. The world situation also has changed:

1. Globalization--in this world of globalization whatever happens in a small area is known elsewhere. So the attack or attempt to silence us from the world will be harder because it will be known elsewhere. Also, the Bhikkhuni Sangha is already in existence in a good many parts of the world.

2. Thai society now has a higher level of education and is more exposed to what's happening in the outside world. The Bhikkhuni Sangha depends on the support of the public. When the public becomes more educated, it will make its own judgement as to what is right and wrong. This will provide a strong support for the movement of Bhikkhuni and the revival of Bhikkhuni.

3. The influence of the media--of course this goes together with globalization. The media--newspapers, TV, and radio--is very strong. So these become important instruments for the movement.

4. The fourth factor, which I think differs from the first and the second wave is the fact that I stand in a better position in the sense that I prepared myself with a better educational background and a better social standing.

5. We tried to build up the structure to support the Bhikkhuni Sangha when it started. This did not happen with the first and the second wave, there was no structure to support it.

In this third wave, I think we have come very far from the first and second wave in the sense of bringing about recognition and involvement from the public. The fact that the Bhikkhuni ordination became an issue and was discussed in the subcommittee of the senators, I see as a very significant move. The government has taken up the issue very seriously, enough so that the subcommittee actually spent six months in drafting a report on Bhikkhuni Sangha. On March 11, 2003 we attended to listen to their report of the Bhikkhuni Sangha. The conclusion of the report was that they had discovered that revival of the Bhikkhuni Sangha is possible and it goes in accord with Dhamma and Vinaya. It also concluded that the constitution itself allows and permits the right of women to live religious lives as they see fit. This is very important, we have come quite a long way.

With all these factors considered, the Bhikkhunis and Samaneris themselves must realize that we are in a very important situation, that whatever we do will greatly effect this existing movement. We will be always mindful, we will always be cautious in our movement. We must always be true to the practice, because we are not doing it for oursel ves, but we are doing it for the revival and the strengthening of Buddhism itself.

Women Facing Structural Violence

With the turn of the new millennium, international women joined the Sangha and created a new horizon in Buddhist history.

After 30 years in a well protected academic wall, I ventured out from a prestigious status to be an ordained Buddhist nun, a status given to me by the Buddha by neither accepted by the state nor the Sangha.

The media was very strong and effective. Television Channel 5 banned three of my interviews on the same day hence aroused the media curiosity. I was media victim for close to 3 months (March-May 2001)

Internet (Larndhamma) opened a public space where people can go in and air their opinion regarding ordination of women. They painted my life in what you may call "character assassination".

A radio program run by an ex-monk had a "phone in" service, but his trick was to tape record only the negative reactions and played over again and again so that it seemed as though there were many voices against ordination of women.

Nov. 2001 Dr Vishnu Krue-ngarm, Deputy Prime Minister in an answer to a question posted to him on bhikkhuni, he spent 50 minutes in the Parliament to confirmed that ordination of women is protected by the law (Act 38 Allows religious freedom) but the Government cannot acknowledge status of ordained women as it depends on the Sangha.

But by Sangha Act, the monks can take care only of the male monks.

This denial of responsibility of the state is yet another structural violence against women.

The Sangha attitude as late as November 2002 still quoted the Order of the Sangha raja of 1928 disowning the ordination of women.

But it was the Buddha who gave permission to the monks "Oh monks I allow you to give ordination to bhikkhunis" (Cullavagga, Tripitaka no. 7, p, 231)

However, the Order of the Sangharaja in 1928 said just the opposite, "Thai monks are not allow to give ordination to women to become samaneri, sikkhamana or bhikkhuni."

This is not only structural violence against women in Buddhism but an outright denial of the Buddha's permission and intention. In Christianity it would be considered blasphemous.

The government still followed the Sangha dictum inspite of the fact that the Sangha has no legal right over the bhikkhuni issue. (by their own definition in the Sangha Act)

June 2004 I went to renew my identification card, I was told that though ordained I cannot use the title of bhikkhuni, the reason was simply "it is not in the computer code." You would think this is a joke.

This is a structural violence by the Ministry of interior affairs to close the door to any possibility for women to find a decent place to be a female monastic.

When bhikkhunis/samaneris applied for passports, they had been requested to put on lay clothes. Dr. Tavivat Pundarikawiwat of Mahidol University happened to have an eye-witness of the incident and insisted on seeing the written order of such practice. The officer failed to do so, finally allowed the samaneris to take the photo with their robe on.

This is structural violence carried out at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Sept. 2004 Buddhist Women in Residence (BWR) was conducted to train Buddhist nuns and laywomen. They needed to stay to complete the vassa but they came in only with 2-month tourist visas. Out of the 30 participants from 6 countries, the bhikkhunis from Sri Lanka and India were treated in a different category as the Thai Government is particularly strict about them for security reason.

The immigration officer suggested that as monastics, they would get a special treatment by changing the status of their visas from tourist to non-immigrant. But we have to go through the Department of Buddhist Affairs. This was a real trap for us.

There is no such thing as a temple for women to begin with, so we have to seek a temple to be affiliated with.

We went to seek advice from the Chief of the Province, most senior in Nakhonpathom. He suggested a temple closest of our center which is only appropriate because we have a senior monk from this temple to come and give Ovada to the bhikkhunis as required by the vinaya every full moon and dark moon. So we got the signature from the Abbot, then the Chief of the District and finally the Chief of the Province. All was well and good.

We finally got the stamp for Visa extention for the five nuns from the immigration office Sept. 28. We were all smiling, but not for long.

The same day the Director of the Department of Buddhist Affairs phoned the Abbot who gave us the primary signature. I cannot confirm the conversation, but the result was the abbot was so shaken that he withdrew his signature at 4 PM on Sept. 29. Sept. 30 at 9 AM the immigration officer called for our nun's passports and stamped cancellation on all the five passports. The director was to retire this year, and Sept. 30 was his last day in office.

This is the structural violence against women done at the Department of Buddhist Affairs.

After the cancellation we had to pay fine B200 each day for each of the nuns we have invited. They must, by the vinaya, stay until the end of the vassa.

The fear was, the temple should not have any association with the bhikkhunis or it will be seen that the temple (which comes under the Council of Elders) support bhikkhuni ordination.

Structural violence in the Buddhist education: framing of the mind.

Generally the Thai monks feel uncomfortable to be associated with bhikkhunis partly due to the Order of the Sangharaja since 1928 which is still quoted to keep the monks in line should they want to provide for ordination of women. Yet, there are at least monks in two provinces (Pathumthani and Yasothorn) who gave ordination to samaneris (female novices) in 2003 and 2004.

Another major obstacle is their frame of mind which has been fed with distorted information starting within the educational text for the monks itself. The standard text (by a group of teachers from Liengchieng Press) which is accessable for Buddhist education in Nakdhamma highest level explained away the existence of bhikkhunis.

The monks in Thailand have been victimized in this process of brain washing until it has become concretized.

This text (p. 170) quoted the incident of the Great Passing Away of the Buddha and noted the absence of the bhikkhunis, so the author/s came to a conclusion that the bhikkhuni sangha was extinct by that time.

This conclusion is without a realization that the writing of the Tripitaka was done as late as B.E. 450 in Sri Lanka. Things recorded in the Pitaka are not inclusive by any means, rather it was written down from the point of the recorder's interest. In this case it was obvious that the monks who were the recorders were not interested, and culturally women were not noticed anyway. So the fact that the Tripitaka did not mention the presence of the bhikkhunis do not and cannot be used as a proof for their disappearance.

Again, on the same page, the text noted Princess Sanghamitta, daughter of King Asoka who was sent to Sri Lanka. The existence of Princess Sanghamitta Theri itself could be a proof to disqualify the previous conclusion which stated that at the Great Passing Away of the Buddha bhikkhunis were not mentioned, hence extinct. If the bhikkhuni sangha was extinct from the Great Passing Away of the Buddha, can Sanghamitta Theri appear out of the void? The reason is invalid and illogical.

Princess Sanghamitta received a royal invitation from King Devanampiya Tissa of Sri Lanka to give ordination to Princess Anula and her followers, definitely she must go fully prepared with at least a chapter of 10 learned bhikkhunis as required by the Vinaya. But this text quoted a historical record "Princess Sanghamitta went with her followers", and argued that her followers might be only lay people hence it was not possible for her to establish the ordination lineage. Therfore the text goes to conclude that it has been agreed upon that the bhikkhuni sangha came to an end.

In fact in Dipavamsa, a well known Chronicle in Sri Lanka gave full detail and names of the 11 bhikkhunis accompanying the Princess nun. The arrival of the Princess Sanghamitta and a chapter of bhikkhunis was indeed the beginning of the flourish of bhikkhuni sangha in Sri Lanka which lasted for more than a thousand years. In that period they also went to establish the bhikkhuni lineage in China in 10th Century A.D. This information is a complete lack in the education of Thai monks.

Thai monks grew up with this kind of "standard" knowledge and attitude, hence they have a complete mental block when it comes to the bhikkhuni issue.

This is yet another structural violence against the monks, so that they do not have proper Buddhist knowledge of their sisters. And this has resulted in a wholesale denial of any possibility to appreciate bhikkhuni revival.

The ordained women are well supported by the public. The problem arises only when it comes in term of public space and contact with government.

The big gap is due to the lack of responsibility and understanding from the government to take upon themselves to right the wrong.

This is not "women's issue" only for women studies, but the total national lack of awareness on basic human right issue. The denial of bhikkhuni sangha is an expression of an unhealthy society. As long as women (worst in this case as they are ordained) are exploited and suppressed, it implies the existence of the exploiters. In the presentation of this paper, it is a warning of the real danger when the exploiter is the system sustained and nurtured by the government itself.

Author Ven. Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh (Dhammananda)

For the International Conference on Thai Studies, April 2005
COPYRIGHT 2005 NIBWA-Newsletter on International Buddhist Women
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Author:Kabilsingh, Chatsumarn
Publication:Yasodhara-Newsletter on International Buddhist Women's Activities
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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Previous Article:Bhikkhuni Uposathagara.
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