Was Buddha a Feminist?

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Was Buddha a Feminist?

The first fully ordained Thai female monk in the Theravada tradition caused a controversy that continues 15 years later.

Was Buddha a Feminist?

In this Aug. 23, 2015, photo, women Buddhist monks stand beneath an image of Buddha at the Songdhammakalyani Monastery in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand.

Credit: AP Photo/Penny Yi Wang

The Venerable Dhammananda likes to say that “Buddha was the first feminist” because the ascetic gave the same position to men and women. She says that, in fact, Buddha was the first religious leader of his time who said clearly that women can achieve enlightenment just like men.

“No other religion said something like that,” she explains confidently.

Dhammananda is adamant that what she is saying is correct. Before shaving her head and donning a saffron-colored robe, she was called Chatsuman Kabilsingh and had been a successful academic for 27 years and studied the history of Buddhism in depth. But the highly conservative Thai Buddhist clergy refuse to acknowledge her views, and reject the idea that women can be ordained as female monks (or bhikkhunis).

In Thailand almost 95 percent of the population declares itself Theravada Buddhists, and embraces a belief in karma, rebirth, and nirvana. According to this, the social hierarchy is established under the belief that their good deeds in this life will lead to a better rebirth. Following this idea, those people who suffer a misfortune, or do not have much money, are believed to have sinned in the past. The highest position in the social pyramid is occupied by the monks, while the poor and the animals are in the lowest part.

For this reason, many poorer families ask a temple to look after their children, providing food and education in exchange for labor. Many of these children grew up to be police officers, lawyers, or even politicians.

There is also a popular practice of temporary ordination or Dhamma study. As Khemthon Tonsakulrungruang, a constitutional law specialist and doctoral candidate at the University of Bristol, explained, Thai men at 20 years old would be also ordained for one rainy season to study Dhamma before being considered mature. Because of the modern way of life, most people now perform these studies in their free time, i.e. summer or school break.

According to Tonsakulrungruang, bhikkhunis are tolerated in Thailand, but not accepted. Strictly speaking, he said, “they are illegal and may be charged with the crime of impersonating a monk.” Being illegal means that they can be sentenced to prison or forced to pay a fine of 20,000 baht (around $640) or more, though this rarely happens.

Bhikkhunis also are not eligible for any state subsidies and cannot participate in state or public rituals. A clear proof of this lack of official recognition came on December 9, 2016, when a group of nuns was prevented from entering the Royal Palace in Bangkok when they were about to pay their respects to the remains of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

As Tonsakulrungruang explained, Buddha, however, did allow females to be ordained, but allegedly prescribed eight preconditions that a woman had to meet first. For example, she must be ordained twice, with male monks and with female monks. And since there were no bhikkhunis ordained in Thailand, it is technically impossible to fulfill this requirement.

Female monks also must always pay respect to a male monk, no matter how long the woman had been in the monkhood. This meant that a senior female monk was still of lower status than a freshly ordained male monk.

Nobody knows how the bhikkhuni lineage was lost, but Tonsakulrungruang said that the preconditions probably discouraged females from entering into monkhood. Probably, he said, these conditions were also harder to meet, especially in Sri Lanka (one of the strongholds of Theravada Buddhism) when Buddhism hit its lowest point. Around 350-400 years ago, Sri Lanka was repeatedly invaded or dominated by non-Buddhist kings who purged Buddhism, so much so that few monks survived. Lankan kings even had to request Siamese monks to help restore the monastic order.

By then, Tonsakulrungruang said, probably no female monks were left so the lineage was lost forever. He assured me that he had never heard of any systematic or deliberate attempt to eradicate the female monk lineage. The loss, in his opinion, was “natural and unfortunate.”

Women in Thailand can now become lower-level nuns, rather than monks, and are known as mae chi. They also shave their heads, but they wear a white robe, they do not live inside the temple, and are under the authority of a monk.

In 2003, however, Venerable Dhammananda became the first Thai bhikkhuni to be fully ordained in the Theravada tradition after traveling to Sri Lanka, where the practice was legalized in 1998 by another school of Buddhism. But when she went back to Thailand, she faced the rejection from the clergy.

The argument of the clergy is that, if the female monkhood had survived, allowing the preconditions to be met, they would not raise any objection to the ordination of women. But Dhammananda claims that those who argue that bhikkhunis should be ordained by a community of male and female monks “haven’t understood the texts well or haven’t read them” since the originals are written in Pali, a very old language that is only read by a few people. According to her, if there are no female monks who have been ordained, a female monk receiving ordination “with a community of monks [is] enough.”

Dhammananda had not thought about being a bhikkhuni when she was young, though Buddhism had always been part of her life. She got married, had three children, got a Ph.D. in philosophy and history, and worked as an associate professor at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

Her turning point came in 1983, when she spoke for the first time about women, religion, and social change to Western feminists at Harvard University. By then, she realized that she had valuable information but was not doing anything to change things. For her to become a bhikkhuni, she said, “was a matter of responsibility.”

She continued giving lectures, and even had a weekly television program about Dhamma teachings. When her children were older, in 2000, she began the journey to her ordination to inspire other women to follow her example.

Currently there are around around 170 bhikkhunis and 100 novices living in Thailand spread across several provinces. They are generally welcome by the villagers. Since Dhammananda was ordained in 2003, and she has already spent 12 years as a bhikkhuni, according to the tradition she can now ordain other women.

Nobody knows what Buddha, as a person, wanted. But the academic Tonsakulrungruang suggests that the Tipitaka, the Book of Buddha’s teaching, was not written until 500 years after Buddha’s death, and “it is all too easy to imagine that contents were subsequently added.”

“Even if Buddha was a saint, his disciples weren’t necessarily ones,” he said. “And, there is a chance that Buddha is not an omnipotent saint at all. He might just have been an intelligent Indian prince whose life philosophy became popular, who had been groomed in a paternalistic society.”

Tonsakulrungruang agrees there is an inconsistency, especially within Theravada tradition: all men and women have the ability to reach nirvana, but they are not treated equally.

“If you read just the rules, you will find a lot of rules hostile to female monks and you can then assume that Buddhism does not welcome female monks,” he said.

“But you may want to ask who set these rules. Is it Buddha? Or is it someone else? This question, we can never figure out,” the academic concludes.

Ana Salvá is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia.