Ven. Dhammananda greeted us at the entrance of the monastery. She led us through the grounds, where Buddhist quotes were painted on walls. Fountains housed tiny fish, and through the doors into the main temple, a tranquil statue of the medicine Buddha sat.
We had entered the first Theravada Bhikkhuni Center in Thailand. Theravada is a form of Buddhism that is practiced predominantly in Southeast Asia. Bhikkhuni directly translated means ‘female monk’. Shortly after arriving to the center, I learned that Bhikkhuni are illegal in Thailand.
At first I was shocked, but at that moment I remembered, I had only seen Bhikkhu (male monks) since I’ve been in Thailand, and seeing male monks had become an everyday experience for me. Then I realized that living in a world where men are valued more than women is also an everyday experience for me. I had grown accustomed to the absence of women in historically prestigious positions, such as monks in Thai society, and I had not even questioned the presence of Bhikkhuni.
Ven. Dhammananda is the daughter of Ven. Voramai Kabilsingh the founder of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Center. Ven. Dhammanada has carried on the legacy of her mother; she ultimately left her teaching career as a professor at Thammasat University in Bangkok, and became ordained in 2003 as the first Theravada Bhikkhuni in Thailand. As I mentioned, it is illegal for women to become ordained as monks in Thailand. To get around this, Ven. Dhammananda traveled outside of the country for her ordination. Bhikkhuni are legal in other South East Asian countries.
Throughout my time at the monastery Ven. Dhammananda and the other Bhikkhuni emphasized the importance of feminist readings of Buddha’s teachings. They stressed that it wasn’t until there was a feminist interpretation of the teachings that people truly understood and saw the equality in Buddhism. She explained that it had always been the male monks interpreting Buddha’s words. Therefore, the Buddha’s teachings had only been taught through a male’s perspective, perpetuating ideas that there was no place for women monks. However, when these women had the opportunity to look at the ancient words of the Buddha for themselves, they found quite the opposite.
As I sat under the medicine Buddha listening to the Ven. Dhammananda speak, I felt an inspired connection to the empowered women I was surrounded by. The individuals who refused to accept a long-held societal belief as their truth, the ones who took us ‘farang’ (the Thai phrase for foreigners) in with open hearts, who eagerly answered our questions, invited us to observe their practice, and then welcomed us to share a meal.
I will forever value this experience. It taught me many things…not only about Buddhism and the Bhikkhuni, but also about the power of our minds, the power of community and the one that never ceases to amaze me; the power of women. By continuing to challenge and engage through feminist perspectives of literature, art, history and religion, we will continue to empower those around us.
“There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.” – Michelle Obama