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Female Monk Seeks Equality

Religion: Thailand's Buddhist hierarchy says only males can enter the monastery. A woman named Dhammananda, ordained in Sri Lanka, is set on changing that.


BANGKOK — Chatsumarn Kabilsingh gave up her husband, family life and a distinguished career to walk the path of the Lord Buddha.

It has led her into a sharp conflict over the lowly and unequal status of women in Buddhist practice in Thailand, reviving a fight faced by her mother four decades ago.

The 57-year-old former academic carries a new name--"Dhammananda," or "The Joy of Righteousness"--given to her after ordination as a novice monk in February. The ordination, in Sri Lanka, put her on a collision course with a Buddhist hierarchy that in Thailand believes only males can enter the monastery.

Conservative monks and laymen accuse Dhammananda of intentionally creating problems that will further erode a religion plagued in this predominantly Buddhist nation by numerous sex and money scandals in recent years.

"This is a conflict between ignorance and right understanding," said Dhammananda, quoting Buddha as saying the health of the religion depends on four pillars--male and female monks, male and female laypeople.

"I just want to live a quiet and peaceful life by following the Lord Buddha's footsteps," she said in an interview. "My ultimate hope is the same as that of other Buddhists--going to nirvana."

Adhering to the strict practices of the Theravada school of Buddhism, she gets up daily at 5 a.m. to meditate, pray and study scriptures. She takes no solid food after noon.

Having taken vows of celibacy, she is divorced from her husband and lives apart from her three sons. Dhammananda, who holds a doctorate in religion, also gave up her status as a leading Buddhist scholar, having written and translated more than 40 books on the religion.

In the afternoons people seek her advice on personal and spiritual problems. Several women have inquired about becoming monks, and in June, 41-year-old Chamnean Rattnaburi was also ordained in Sri Lanka.

If Dhammananda continues her practice, she will become a full monk in two years, although she probably will not be recognized as such in her homeland.

Theravada scriptures, as interpreted in Thailand, require that for a woman to be ordained a monk both a male and a female monk must be present at the ceremony.

Since there are no female monks in Thailand, ordinations for women cannot take place, "and only the Lord Buddha can change that," said Visith Pongpatanajit of the Religious Affairs Department.

Women can be ordained as monks in Sri Lanka, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and South Korea, with most of these countries dominated by the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Female ordination is not practiced in Japan, Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar.

Currently, the only path for women wishing to develop their spirituality within Thailand's formal religious structure is to become a nun. But these head-shaved, white-robed women are little better than servants for the monks, cleaning and cooking in exchange for monastic shelter and food provided by the males.

"This is very old thinking. Many religions change to give women equal rights," said human rights lawyer Thongbai Thongpao, noting that the Sangha Council, the country's ruling Buddhist body, has only made changes to rules for males in line with a changing, modernizing world.

Thongbai, who is a senator, said the issue of female monkhood could also be viewed as a conflict between traditional religious belief and the equal rights granted women under Thailand's new reformist constitution.

Phra Dhepdilok, vice abbot of the important Bowon Niwet Monastery, dismisses Dhammananda's ordination as just "revenge for her mother."

Forty years ago, Thailand's religious establishment refused to recognize the ordination of Dhammananda's mother, Voramai Kabilsingh, in Taiwan. But it didn't stop the construction of Thailand's first temple for female monks on Voramai's land west of Bangkok. This is where Dhammananda now lives, as does her mother.

That conflict was swept under the rug, but resurfaced when Dhammananda decided to follow her mother's footsteps.

"I hope that allowing female ordination will shore up women's status in religion and, most of all, help strengthen the religion," she said.

Dhammananda has no plans to seek official recognition of her monkhood.

"The recognition comes after trust," she said. "I will prove that female monks are really a boon to Thai Buddhism. This is my mission in life."

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