Author Topic: The Rise of Buddhist Feminism?  (Read 12125 times)

icy

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The Rise of Buddhist Feminism?
« on: May 18, 2014, 07:44:13 AM »
Yasodhara the consort of Prince Siddhartha set the pace for women to ordain into the order of Bhikkhuni in the man's world of Bhikkhus during the Lord Buddha's time, more than 2,500 years ago.  From India the Bhikkhuni ordination had spread to Sri Lanka and from Sri Lanka to Thailand, Burma, Korea, China, Japan and other parts of the world. 

This is an interesting article about a few Thai women who are defying conservative Buddhist tradition in Thailand to reinstate an ancient order. 





It is 5 am and a group of monks have gathered for their morning prayer at Songdhammakalyani monastery. Rhythmic chanting and the smell of incense fill the air as eight saffron robed, bald-headed figures prostrate themselves before a shrine of golden Buddhas. They could easily be mistaken for monks at any Thai temple – if it were not for the fact that they are women.

The unassuming monastery in Nakhon Pathom, an hour west of Bangkok, is the only temple in Thailand exclusively devoted to female monks, known as Bhikkhunis. In 2003, its abbess, the Venerable Dhammananda became the first Thai woman to ordain as a Bhikkhuni in Theravada Buddhism – defying tradition by travelling to Sri Lanka for the ceremony. Her decision sent shockwaves through the deeply conservative Thai Sangha Council, which explicitly banned the ordination of women in 1928.

“I was accused of being a lesbian, of exploiting the public by collecting wealth,” she recalls with amusement. “But I think people are getting used to the idea now.”

Dhammananda was inspired by her mother, Voramai, the first Thai woman to ordain as a monk in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and the founder of Songdhammakalyani temple. But it was not until her late 50s that the divorced grandmother-of-three decided to take her vows. The 69-year-old, born Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, has since ordained dozens of other Bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka and is spearheading efforts to formally revive the tradition in Thailand. Twice a year, women now come to the monastery for temporary ordinations – where they shave their heads and live as novice monks for nine days – a practice Dhammananda hopes will inspire laywomen to spiritually re-engage with Buddhism. It is particularly popular among former prisoners, who are looking for a fresh start in life, she says.

But it has been an uphill battle. The Sangha insists that the Bhikkhuni lineage cannot be revived, because new ordination ceremonies require at least five other Bhikkunis to complete – and this community of women vanished centuries ago. A Sri Lankan campaign to resuscitate the practice using female monks from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition has been treated with hostility by the Thai clergy.

“Our ordination came from the Buddha,” insists Dhammananda. “If you respect the Buddha you should try to revive what he established.”

According to the abbess, the challenges reflect decades of institutionalised patriarchy, rooted in the belief that being born female is a manifestation of bad karma and that women cannot attain enlightenment. Women are not even allowed to touch monks out of fear that it might pollute their sanctity. Traditionally, female monastics are confined to the life of the white-robed Mae Chees, or lay nuns, deemed so inferior that they are only permitted to serve food and clean for the men.

“People look down on Mae Chees, because they only serve the monks,” says Venerable Vanna, who was fully ordained in 2011, adding that becoming a Bhikkhuni injected her life with new meaning. She is among ten Bhikkhunis living at Songdhammakalyani monastery – backed by a regional network of women spanning Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Technically Bhikkhuni activities are legal in Thailand and the Sangha cannot prevent women from becoming ordained in Sri Lanka and donning the robe. But activists say the government must do more to promote gender equality and the right to freedom of religion – as stipulated by the constitution. “The state cannot treat its citizens, female and male, differently,” says Dr. Sutada Mekrungruengkul, from the National Institute of Development Administration, a vocal supporter of Dhammananda’s work.

One of the key challenges is amending the 1962 Sangha Act, which excludes women from a number of special privileges afforded to male monks, such as healthcare coverage and public funding for temples. This can have a devastating financial impact on female monastics, forcing them to rely on alternative, sometimes unexpected, sources of funding.

“I just had a major operation, costing 100,000 baht,” explains Dhammananda, a former professor at Thammasat University. “Because I am a retired government official, the government covered a third of it. But we were still short something like 70,000 baht, which is a lot of money for us, and who paid for it? You wouldn’t believe it. The day of the operation, the nurse came out and told me ‘All the expenses have been covered by the doctor herself’.”

Analysts say the Bhikkhuni controversy mirrors a broader culture of misogyny in Thailand, which persisted despite the election of the country’s first female Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra in 2011. “During her campaign, she claimed to care about women’s issues, but since coming into government the only thing she has done is create a women’s fund,” says Dr. Sutada. (Shinawatra was ousted as prime minister in early May.)

Thai women still hold only 16 percent of parliamentary seats and only four percent of political positions at the local level, while domestic violence is a rampant problem – affecting a staggering 33 percent of families. Activists say it is directly linked to patriarchal notions about karmic justice, which serves to perpetuate the practice of victim blaming.

“When my father became violent, my mother would say ‘This is my karma,’” says Ouyporn Khuankaew, Director of International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice, a grassroots organization that trains monks and nuns on gender and LGBT issues. “And when my sister was in an abusive relationship – a monk told her the same thing.”

Buddhist notions about karma have a particularly harmful effect on women, the disabled, and the LGBT community, warns Ouyporn, adding that even the most progressive monks are susceptible to these prejudices. Both Dhammananda and Phra Phaisan Wisalo, another prominent monk and Bhikkhuni rights activist, have denounced the morality of abortion, which is currently illegal in Thailand, forcing thousands of women to risk their lives by undergoing unsafe procedures each year. According to Ouyporn, there is a need for all Buddhist men and women to critically re-evaluate their understanding of karma in the context of gender, violence, abortion and sexuality – but she insists that reviving the Bhikkhuni tradition is an important first step.

“My sister left the village and wanted to become a prostitute, but if Thailand allowed female ordination she might be a monk,” says Ouyporn. “I believe it not only saves women, but it will save Buddhism from going down the drain.”

But Bhikkhuni activists are struggling to find political support for their campaign – even among human rights and feminist groups. “They don’t think that this is a human rights issue. Many Thai people feel that the monkhood is not for women – that’s pathetic too me,” says Dr. Sutada.

The movement enjoys backing from the human rights commission and a prominent senator, Paiboon Nititawan. But “even the human rights commission moves too slowly,” she says, adding that most politicians, including Paiboon, are now “too busy trying to overthrow the government to focus on this issue” – referring to Thailand’s growing political strife.

Ironically, the ordination of women has caused more of a stir than a string of high-profile scandals to rock the Thai monkhood. Last year, 33-year-old Wirapol Sukphol, nicknamed the jet-setting fugitive monk, shot to the headlines amid allegations of wide-scale corruption, promiscuity, and crimes ranging from statutory rape to manslaughter. Although he was promptly expelled from the Sangha, there remains little public scrutiny over the monkhood. Meanwhile, the Thai Sangha has stayed curiously tight-lipped over the rise of Buddhist extremism in neighboring Myanmar, where the hate preacher Wirathu is leading a vicious campaign against the country’s Muslim minority.

“Degeneration happens very easily and it is predicted by the Buddha himself,” says Dhammananda, who is planning to visit Rangoon in October to discuss the rights of women. “If we understand the teaching of the Buddha properly they should not send negative thoughts towards others, it doesn’t matter whether you are Buddhist, Muslim or Christian.”

Supporters of the Bhikkhuni tradition believe that women can help revive Theravada Buddhism, since they are likely to take their ordinations more seriously. Men are expected to ordain as monks at some point in their lives, whereas women often face familial and social ostracism.

“It is a big shock for the family when their daughter wants to be ordained, but if you are the son the family will be all excited,” says Vanna, a former financial reporter, explaining that it took a long time for her family and friends to come to terms with her transition.

But social attitudes are slowly beginning to change, with a growing number of senior monks at the provincial and regional levels expressing support for the Bhikkhuni cause. Even the monarchy – a conservative bastion of Thailand’s Buddhist tradition – appears to have noticed.

“I actually met the royal family twice and one time I received some kind of recognition – and it was the crown prince’s consort who gave the award. I told them, the organizers, that I will not be kowtowing her, because I am fully ordained,” says Dhammananda, smiling. “Twice I met the crown prince’s consort and in both cases we were standing as equals.”

Hanna Hindstrom is a Chiang-Mai based freelance journalist, who has reported from Southeast Asia since 2011.
The Diplomat
http://thediplomat.com/2014/05/the-rise-of-buddhist-feminism/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+the-diplomat+%28The+Diplomat+RSS%29

fruven

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Re: The Rise of Buddhist Feminism?
« Reply #1 on: May 18, 2014, 05:12:05 PM »
I like this article. It says about how one can be prejudiced from culturally influence even though the Buddha Dharma taught us not to stereotype and divide people by gender. It is fair to say that division of gender is a form of disharmony. When there is disharmony as a whole we will degenerate because of not treating people equally, not  treating people based on merits, but on outer external appearances. It is a form of selectiveness. If we say we are championing human rights then we are being hypocrite because we are treating the male and female differently. As practitioner it doesn't reflect well on what we believe because now more and more lay people are literate and can not easily sway with words alone but also by our actions and deeds as well.

dondrup

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Re: The Rise of Buddhist Feminism?
« Reply #2 on: May 25, 2014, 03:44:19 PM »
If the bhikkhuni lineage is available in the Mahayana traditions, it is illogical  that the bhikkhuni lineage couldn't be reestablished in the Theravada tradition in Thailand.
 
Thai bhikkhu community had been discriminating the nuns. It is totally unacceptable in Buddhism to discriminate any being let alone the nuns who have the same potential to become enlightened.
 
The recent developments in Thailand is very encouraging for the growth of the bhikkhuni lineage.

cookie

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Re: The Rise of Buddhist Feminism?
« Reply #3 on: May 27, 2014, 05:02:14 AM »
In 1928, the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, responding to the attempted ordination of two women, issued an edict that monks must not ordain women as samaneris (novices), sikkhamanas (probationers) or bhikkhunis. The two women were reportedly arrested and jailed briefly. In a more recent challenge to the Thai sangha's ban on women, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, previously a professor of Buddhist philosophy known as Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, was controversially ordained as first a novice and then a bhikkhuni in Sri Lanka in 2003 upon the revival of the full ordination of women there. Since then, the Thai Senate has reviewed and revoked the secular law banning women's full ordination in Buddhism as unconstitutional for being counter laws protecting freedom of religion. More than 20 further Thai women have followed in Dhammananda Bhikkhuni's footsteps, with temples, monasteries and meditations centers led by Thai bhikkhunis emerging in Samut Sakhon, Chiang Mai and Rayong. The stance of the Thai Sangha hierarchy has largely changed from one of denial of the existence of bhikkhunis to one of acceptance of bhikkhunis. However Thailand's two main Theravada Buddhist orders, the Mahanikaya and Dhammayutika Nikaya, have yet to officially accept fully ordained women into their ranks. Despite substantial and growing support inside the religious hierarchy, sometimes fierce opposition to the ordination of women within the sangha remains.

I am surprised and disappointed that in this time and age we still practice some form of discrimination between male and female sangha. In the era of Buddha Shakyamuni, the female sangha was established. Male and female had their own set of vows but the freedom to practice was given to all. Then why is there a resistant now, to the current female sanghas in Thailand ? Don't we all wish for all sentient beings to be enlightened ?

kris

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Re: The Rise of Buddhist Feminism?
« Reply #4 on: February 21, 2016, 04:20:27 PM »
We should not discriminate any person based on their faith, skin color, gender. More so when it comes to Buddhism, a religion which promotes peace and compassion. I do pray that bishukni lineage will spread far and wide.

dharmacrazy79

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Re: The Rise of Buddhist Feminism?
« Reply #5 on: June 11, 2016, 10:30:36 AM »
Thank you for this beautiful article on women making a stand for equal spiritual opportunity for everyone regardless of gender. Buddha turned the wheel of dharma for all sentient beings to benefit from the teachings, including women.  It does not make sense that Buddha would not bestow women this beautiful journey towards enlightenment. It is powerful that women are now going back to the origins of Buddha intention and not allow politics and human imputation taint the dharma.

Klein

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Re: The Rise of Buddhist Feminism?
« Reply #6 on: July 17, 2016, 01:43:18 PM »
Gender equality along with other issues of inequality still exist in this day and age. Blacks in the US are still fighting for racial equality. And the US is always going around the world scrutinizing other countries for not adhering to Human Rights and so on!

So we can see that inequality in general is still very much alive. However, it does not mean we should stay quiet. Any form of discrimination should not be accepted. The conversation should be kept going until the equality is realized.

Pema8

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Re: The Rise of Buddhist Feminism?
« Reply #7 on: August 14, 2016, 12:15:59 AM »
It is beautiful to dedicate one's life by being a monk or nun. There should be no difference between monk and nun but is still not what nuns have to face. It is beautiful that the Venerable Dhammananda is ordaining nuns although having to travel to Sri Langka.

Klein

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Re: The Rise of Buddhist Feminism?
« Reply #8 on: August 14, 2016, 05:35:32 AM »
I am surprised and disappointed that in this time and age we still practice some form of discrimination between male and female sangha. In the era of Buddha Shakyamuni, the female sangha was established. Male and female had their own set of vows but the freedom to practice was given to all. Then why is there a resistant now, to the current female sanghas in Thailand ? Don't we all wish for all sentient beings to be enlightened ?

This is an indication of degeneration. When we don't think logically and question Buddha's teachings until we understand, we will be caught up with the herd effect. Just because the institution says so, it doesn't mean we can't think logically to decipher whether it makes sense. The truth can change over time because things change. It's the law of impermanence.

There are many Buddhas who are female so why not have female sangha. More people should request for a dialogue with the Buddhist authorities in Thailand to show them how illogical their thinking is. The more people speak up, the more pressure it will have on the authorities to look into the matter.

SabS

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Re: The Rise of Buddhist Feminism?
« Reply #9 on: October 23, 2016, 08:26:44 PM »
The Venerable Dhammananda's courage and tenacity serves as a good example of standing up for what is right, what more in Buddhism where Buddha taught equality. Why should women be viewed as inferior? Just because in the perfect conditions which one is being born as a male, was not met? No it doesn't. It just means that women go through tougher conditions but excel just as well as enlightenment is the same. The monks forget that they came from the womb of their mother and they themselves are called "Mother" sentient beings. I so agree with Klein that the pure teachings of Buddha had been degenerated to create so much difference within the Sangha itself. Where there is difference with discrimination, there is ego. It is such an admirable aspiration of the Songdhammakalyani monastery's Bhikkhunis to help revive Theravada Buddhism. May they succeed in their aspiration and may more women benefit from their Dharmic activities.

Tenzin Malgyur

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Re: The Rise of Buddhist Feminism?
« Reply #10 on: December 20, 2016, 02:05:50 PM »
This group of Bhikkhuni do have a long battle ahead to fight for the equal rights to ordination just as the male counterparts. Definitely Lord Buddha did not object to women wanting to renounce the world and enter into nun hood. Buddhism does not discriminate against gender equality. It is only the interpretation of humans that have created this division. If there exist many Buddhas in feminine forms, such as Tara, Vajrayogini and Guan Yin, it is most acceptable to have female sangha members.