Day and night, the Petkasen Highway thunders with traffic, connecting the manic hub that is Bangkok to the southern provinces and lush national forests of Kanchanaburi. Although technically we are out of town, Bangkok is a city that feels like it never really ends and along this major thoroughfare, in the province of Nakhon Pathom there is little to distinguish it from the sprawling urban jungle that sits just 53 kilometres away. Yet it’s in this unlikely setting, behind a pair of large gold gates, that a small group of women gather in a quest for inner tranquility, peace and most importantly profound and lasting spiritual guidance from one of Thailand’s most eminent Buddhist teachers – the Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni. (The name Bhikkhuni being the title given to describe a female monk).
Whizzing around the compound on her motorised scooter, in bright orange monastic robes, Dhammananda is a commanding and compelling presence. At 70 years of age, her body might be prone to aches and pains, but her mind is taut and agile, her face open and clear, and her smile broad and infectious. In Thai circles, Dhammananda is something of a celebrity – “they all come and want their photograph with me”, Dhammananda sighs before graciously taking a seat under a tree to be interviewed by a local TV crew.
“I am controversial’, but I am comfortable with it”.
Born Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, Dhammananda is Thailand’s first and most senior female monk ordained in the Theravada tradition. She is also a highly regarded University Professor in Philosophy and Buddhism, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, a published author, and a former TV host. Her temple, Songdhammakalyani Monastery, was established by her mother, Thailand’s first ordained Bhikkhuni, and is the only all-female temple in Thailand. In a country where it is illegal for female monks to be fully ordained, and where the practise can illicit fines and at worst imprisonment, Dhammananda is seen as something of a rebel and a trailblazer.
“I am controversial’, she tells me later, matter-of-factly, “but I am comfortable with it”.
On the top of a 30-foot tower in the monastery grounds, a 50-something Bhikkhuni strikes at a huge bell in staccato rhythm. It’s 5pm and time for chanting. Down below an odd assortment of dogs, lift their noses to the sky and start howling in unison. Then, slowly, from various corners of the compound Bhikkhuni appear and move towards the meditation hall, remove their sandals at the door, and file quietly inside.
“Arraham sammsambuddho bhagava, Buddham bhagavantam abbivademi” (The Exalted One, far from defilement’s, perfectly Enlightened by Himself, I bow low before Buddha, the Exalted One).
In a low lit room, glistening with gold buddha statues, the Bhikkhuni follow the undulating rhythms of the chant. Shaven heads bowed, eyes lowered towards a book of sacred text, their soft feminine voices rise and fall, rise and fall. Currently there are 11 Bhikkhuni in residence here, ranging in age from 19 to 63 years. Nine are novices, while two have reached temporary ordination, a sort of stage one level on the ladder of ordination, that can be carried out locally without fear of arrest. Amongst the current Bhikkhuni in residence there are two former nurses, a journalist, a construction engineer, a factory worker, a former small time moneylender and a young girl who, having lost both her parents, is here at the behest of an Uncle who thinks monastic life will be a better option for her than finishing school and getting a job. According to historical Buddhist scriptures, Bhikkhuni (or female monks) were first ordained some 2500 years ago in response to a request by Lord Buddha’s step-mother, Mahapajapati Gotami. Gotami wanted equality for women and believed that they had a right be ordained in just the same way as the Bhikkhu’s (or male monks) of the time. Gotami subsequently became the first female monk ever ordained and in the ensuing years the number of Bhikkhuni’s grew into the tens of tens of thousands and spread out into countries across Asia. Ultimately though, the stigmatisation of women, taboos surrounding monthly menstruation along with stories of sexual assaults against female monks and concerns for their safety lead to the Bhikkhuni’s demise. In Thailand, the order is said to have ceased somewhere between the 11th and 13th centuries – that is until Dhammananda’s mother came along and decided it was time to revive the tradition.
“My mother was always surrounded by people. She was a healer as well and people came from all over to see her. She did incredible work and helped a lot of people but I was closer to my father. My mother was busy, always busy”.
Despite growing up under her mother’s influence, the atmosphere of temple life and receiving Buddhist training as a young girl alongside the Nun’s and Novices, a life in the orange robes was not something Dhammananda wanted for herself.
“I never liked the idea of people telling me what to do and there was an expectation that because my mother was a Bhikkhuni, then I would become one too. But it was never like that. In fact I pushed against it as much as I could”.
Instead Dhammananda (then Chatsumarn) went to University, married, had three sons and embarked on a successful 30 year academic career and later hosted her own TV show. Her life was accomplished and rich in every way – she had it all. Yet one day, it dawned on her, that perhaps these weren’t the things that were going to make her happy in the end.
“It was in the Year 2000 and I was sitting in the makeup chair about to do my TV show. It was nothing unusual and in fact I quite liked to wear makeup. But on this day I looked at my reflection and I thought ‘how long do I have to do this for?’. Suddenly it just didn’t make any sense at all. It was a turning point. Around this time my mother was also dying and I was with her, holding her hand. She was so frail, she was 93 years old and her skin was almost transparent, it was so paper thin. I looked at her hand in mine and thought, ‘this will be my hand in 36 years’ ( as she was 36 when she had me). I thought, ‘how am I going to spend these next 36 years? What will I do with it?’ I knew then that I must take the path to be a Bhikkhuni, to be ordained and to become a spiritual teacher just like my mother”.
Making the transition though was not straightforward and it took Dhammananda about a year to overhaul her life – which included resigning from her University post and divorcing her husband. Although her husband was resistant, it was her son’s who convinced him to let their mother go. “He has a new, younger wife now, someone who takes care of him”. Dhammananda says smiling. “So he is okay.” When the evening chanting finishes, the Bhikkhuni retire back to their rooms for quiet contemplation and study. By 9pm the place is in virtual lockdown and I’m told not to leave my room under any circumstances. The reason though isn’t due to any religious significance but because it’s at this time the compound guard dog is let off its chain and trained to protect the Bhikkuni from any intruders. Throughout the night I hear barking and baying but I don’t dare even look out my window. There’s no doubt monastic life is isn’t for the faint hearted – no food after midday, 5am rises, daily chanting and meditation, a dedication to study, and no breaks, 365 days a year. But as Dhammananda tells it, most don’t come to the decision lightly.
“Monastic life is not really a sacrifice as such but it is about giving up and letting go in terms of attachment. You must give up your attachment to wealth, attachment to your relationship, to your position in work and society and to a certain lifestyle. If you are attached to the idea that these are the things that make you happy then you will not succeed. But it is a process and it is not easy. You must be ready to take this step and most women, when they come here, have already worked this out and made the decision that this is what they really want. And they don’t want just be practitioners, they feel a calling to be teachers of the faith. So it’s not as difficult as you might think.”
Just in case though, there is a seven day grace period.
“A lot of people they want to wear the robes and they like the idea of becoming a Bhikkhuni but they don’t really know or understand what it entails. Initially we take them in for 7 days, just to test if they are really serious and we can also assess their suitability. If it works out, they must then do two years of intensive novice training before the first level of ordination can occur”.
Dhammavanna, 38 is one of only two ordained Bhikkhuni here and has been in residence for five years. In her previous life she was a journalist, working for a well known financial newspaper, writing daily about stocks and markets and interviewing investors who lived and breathed the world of money.
“It was a lot of pressure and there were constant deadlines. I was very overweight and I had chronic back pain from being crouched over a desk many hours a day. I had to wear a brace and walk with a cane and I was only 29! I would cry all the time because of the pain”. Dhammavanna had also been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder which only added to the stress and pressure in her life. “I asked myself, if I am only going to be alive for 7 more days, how am I going to use this time? Am I going to be living a life that makes me so unhappy or is there another way? If I die I want to rest in peace (with no regrets). I wanted to heal myself physically and spiritually and I needed guidance. But I felt the level of a lay person, just practising meditation wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to reach a much higher level of practice and understanding”.
After 5 months at the Monastery and with Dhammananda’s support and guidance, Dhammavanna lost 19 kilograms and started to feel more emotionally and spiritually balanced.
“It wasn’t easy. Dhammananda is a tough boss! She is very strict and she has high standards, she was always correcting me. But now I am very grateful because I have had the best training from the best teacher. She has incredible patience. I am so lucky.”
Another older Bhikkhuni, Dhammapanita, 63, tells me how she entered the order after her daughter, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, wanted to became a novice.
“In the beginning I wasn’t supportive. I thought it was not the traditional Thai way and I saw monks as like beggars. But then I came with her to the temple and followed her training. I soon started training too and my daughter was there at my ordination”. Dhammapanita says proudly.
Although her daughter did pass away soon after at age 33, there was solace in the fact that she was prepared for dying and wasn’t afraid. “She went peacefully on her own terms’. Dhammapanita says quietly. “And her greatest wish was granted”. Later the next day, in the blistering hot afternoon sun, the Bhikkhuni are busy at the rear of the compound, lugging huge concrete tiles across a dismantled construction site and clearing an area of rubbish left behind by contractors. It’s tough physical labour, especially in the heat, but this one hour a day, officially known as ‘community time’ is also an essential part of the Bhikkhuni’s spiritual training.
“I can hire nine people to do the job and work harder and faster than the sisters. But that isn’t the point”. Dhammananda says. “The point is that no matter what position they had in society before, no matter what their education, they must work together and be humble, this is part of their monastic education. We had one monk who didn’t know what a hoe was. She didn’t know the difference between a shovel and a hoe. She had no idea because she’d never done any manual work in her life. So this is a great equaliser. Only in this kind of setting can we call them true sisters”.
As it turns out, the ‘getting along’ factor seems to be one of the biggest challenges of life here. Differences in personality, education, and backgrounds means that there are, at times, tensions and conflicts that need to be addressed and resolved. “The Anicca, which is part of the education and teaching, outlines 7 ways to solve problems’. Dhammavanna explains. “We are here to raise serious practitioners and resolving conflict is part of that.”
“It’s nonsensical what’s going on in this vibration!’
Another surprising element is the presence of social media, and how it plays into these differences and tensions. Many novices, especially the younger ones, come into the temple with a Facebook page or some kind of online presence. “It’s nonsensical what’s going on in this vibration!’ Dhammananda exclaims, somewhat exasperated. By way of example she goes on to tell me about two novices who were asked to leave the monastery due of their obsessive and addictive use of Facebook. One was passing off Dhammananda’s spiritual talks as her own and big noting herself, which angered the other Bhikkhuni, while another, an intelligent women with a Masters Degree, was consumed by posting, commenting and liking all hours of the day and night.
“I can’t ban access to social media so I just advise them. I say, ‘before you open Facebook, ask yourself, what is the condition of your mind? Make sure you are in the right place. Use it only for sharing information that is good and that is kind. Do not comment, like and share or engage in this way. If something is there you do not like, you need to let it go, and not take it personally. This is essential to Buddhist practice”.
The dawn Alms round is a common sight right across Thailand and is an essential part of Buddhist life – not only for the monks but also for those who provide the offerings. It’s then that lay people have the opportunity to ‘make merit’, which is to to do a good deed by providing essential food and drink to the monks and in return receive blessings and prayers and a good old dose of positive karma.
Tucked back behind the busy highway, it’s a quiet village like atmosphere as Dhammavanna and two other novices stroll through the streets collecting alms. Dogs growl and gallop back and forth behind fences, a dishevelled looking couple whizz past on a motorbike while at a ramshackle street stall, steaming pots of soup and curry are being mixed and stirred in preparation for the day’s trade. Further along, Burmese workers spill out from a small garbage bag factory, having just finished their overnight night shift, while a short distance away, a local hair salon owner, sinks to her knees and holds a bag of fruit above her head reverentially. After making the offering the woman talks quietly and intently to Dhammavanna. She’s recently been released from prison and is trying to get her life back on track. She needs support and guidance though and is keen for a meeting with Dhammananda. Dhammavanna advises her to come to the Monastery between 2-4pm on a weekday.
Despite the generosity though, the issue of female Bhikkhuni is still difficult for some in Thailand to truly accept in regards to their faith. Walking around, I am surprised to see that not everyone we pass bows or even acknowledges the Bhikkhuni’s, something that would likely not happen if they were male.
“When we first came here there were only two houses that gave us offerings on our morning alms round and it was not uncommon to pass by households that would turn around as we approached, they could not face us. They were only used to giving alms to the male monks not female and it was not seen as the traditional Buddhist way that most people know. But I would just bless them as I passed and hoped that one day maybe they would understand. Now people are much more open and supportive so things have changed”.’
And it seems this desire to bring about change as well as educating people on the legitimacy of the Bhikkhuni is arguably one of Dhammananda’s driving forces.
“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”.
As an internationally renowned scholar on Buddhist history and scripture it is difficult to imagine anyone questioning Dhammananda’s authority on the matter. And yet still they do. Attaching emotion to such an issue however would not be the Buddhist way, reasons Dhammananda. Attachment, after all, represents the dark side, the very thing that Buddhist philosophy riles against.
“Whatever comes of this establishment of Bhikkhuni I can say I have done my best, I have done my share and I have built a community. My purpose now is teaching and providing the best possible training for the Bhikkhuni here as well as being connected to the community through our social work programs. For myself, my purpose is to be sure I can pass away peacefully. It should be the goal of each and every one of us. And because we don’t know when we are going to die, we must not delay, we must fill ourselves with wholesome, good thoughts and actions. But a good condition of the mind doesn’t come naturally. It must be trained through meditation, daily”.
Back in the Meditation Hall there is now a large gathering of lay people as well as Bhikkhuni, all here to listen to Dhammananda’s special Sunday Dharma talk and then be led by her in a group meditation session. Outside, there is still the low rumbling of traffic. Hands clasped gently in their laps, eyes closed, and feet tucked neatly behind them, women of all ages focus on their breath and the gentle rising and falling of their chest. Here and there though a few of the younger women dig out their phones, raise them above their heads and quickly snap off a few photos. Even in this setting it seems Dhammananda’s celebrity status shines brightly and the temptation to post, like and share is still too greater pull for some.