Most scholars believe the Theravada Bhikkhuni (female monastics) lineage died out between the 11th and 13th centuries. In recent years there have been attempts to reestablish the Bhikkhuni Sangha but this movement has encountered obstacles and created controversy. The main problem seems to be that many high-ranking males in the tradition maintain that according to the Vinaya (sangha rules) women must be ordained by both the Bhikkhuni Sangha and the Bhikkhu Sangha. Since there is no existing Bhikkhuni Sangha in Theravada, some of these guys say there can be no ordination for women. It is a classic Catch-22 situation and quite absurd.
Sri Lanka and Thailand are countries where Theravada is the dominant Buddhist tradition. In the former, the ordination of women is permitted, in the latter it is not. According to an Associated Press report “Thailand’s top Buddhist authority bars women from becoming monks. They can only become white-cloaked nuns, who are routinely treated as domestic servants. Many here believe women are inferior beings who had better perform plenty of good deeds to ensure they will be reborn as men in their future lives.”
It should be mentioned that the male sangha in Thailand is thoroughly corrupt and scandal-ridden. In addition to financial fraud at temples, there have been reports of embezzlement, extravagant lifestyles, murder, wildlife trafficking; not long ago a monk was found with 120,000 methamphetamine pills in his possession, another was kicked out of his temple for investing over a million dollars in the stock market, and there has been so much alleged sexual abuse that these Thai monks seem to make the Roman Catholic clergy look like a bunch of Boy Scouts.
In Thailand, the ordination of women is actually illegal and violators can face fines or imprisonment. Despite this, last November Sri Lankan clergy ordained eight Thai women, which led the Thai Sangha council to petition the government to ban Sri Lankan monks and nuns from entering the country.
One of the leaders of the Thai Bhikkhuni movement is Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a woman who is better known by her Buddhist name Dhammananda.
Dhammananda was the first bhikkhuni ordained in modern Thailand but she is not the first modern Thai bhikkhuni. That honor belongs to her mother, Voramai Kabilsingh who was ordained in Taiwan in 1971 and who returned to her country to establish the Songdhammakalyani Monastery. Dhammananda is now the Abbess at the monastery, the only bhikkhuni temple in Thailand.
Dhammananda is also a University Professor in Philosophy and Buddhism, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, a published author, and a former TV host. The Thai bhikkhunis have a website (here) where Dhammananda is described as a “a rebel and a trailblazer.”
According to legend, after some initial reluctance the historical Buddha agreed to the creation of the bhikkhuni sangha. Dhammananda says the sangha during the Buddha’s time was a four-legged stool of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen but “we are now sitting on just three legs.”
The AP notes that some of those who opposed the bhikkhuni movement in Thailand see them as “ Western-educated feminists out to undermine traditional Buddhism.” Obviously, they have a warped view as to what constitutes traditional Buddhism.
Historically, there has been much misogyny in Buddha-dharma. We especially find rather ugly remarks about women in the literature. But, there are also stories of remarkable, inspiring women. An excellent example is the tale in the Dhammapada about Dhammadinna, which I will share with you in a highly condensed version:
In Rajagaha, there was a lay-disciple Buddha named Visakha, who after listening to the Buddha’s dharma talks, attained Anagami (“non-returning”, a partially enlightened stage). He said to his wife, “You can have all my property. From today on, I give up the householder’s life.”
Dhammadinna, his wife, replied, “If that be so, I will not accept what you, with such disgust, even as it were but spittle and vomit, have cast aside. Give me leave, too, to forsake the life of a householder.”
She then left to become a bhikkhuni and went to a monastery in a small village to practice meditation with other bhikkhuni. Within a short time, she surpassed her husband’s attainment and returned to Rajagaha.
When Visakha learned that Dhammadinna had come back, he went to see her and threw a barrage of questions her way, all about the paths leading to the realization of nirvana.
When her husband finished, Dhammadinna answered by saying, “Yisakha, you will not be able to understand the answers to questions on things beyond your limit, even such as nirvana, the discipline wayfarers must maintain, and the paths to nirvana. However, if you wish, you may go to the Buddha and ask him these questions.
And that is what Visakha did, and after the Buddha heard all the questions, he said, “Dhammadinna is wise, Visakha. I cannot add anything to what she has already told you.”
The Buddha’s comment confirms that Dhammandinna had realized a high degree of wisdom and could be interpreted as suggesting that women can also become Buddhas.
On the Thai Bhikkhuni website, Dhammananda says,
I am not interested in equality as such, being a Bhikkhuni is not about equality it is about what’s right, it’s about what Buddha believed, his original vision for the faith. We are shareholders of the faith just as a Bhikkhu (male monk), a lay man and a lay woman. We all have a share and we are 25% of that. We should be four brothers and sisters working together”.