In order for us to understand why there are few Thai nuns, we have to go all the way back to the beginning of Buddhism.
Twenty-five centuries ago, Buddha was being raised to be a king. His father did not intend for him to become a religious leader. One day, Buddha fled from his castle and began a six-year journey that would eventually lead him to enlightenment. He took on five disciples and they taught others. Eventually, there were more Buddhist monks than you could count.
One morning, a woman approached Buddha and asked to be ordained as a Buddhist nun. Buddha was actually opposed to this idea, but he eventually changed his mind. The woman, who Buddha originally declined, was none other than the royal princess Gotami – Buddha’s half-sister and adoptive mother. She had raised Buddha after his maternal mother passed away early in Buddha’s life.
He cautiously ordained Princess Gotami as the first Buddhist nun. However, the nuns were required to observe certain restrictions that their male counterparts did not have to follow. We have all the rules on record, and while these rules may seem rather restrictive to us today, there are two things modern readers need to understand.
Firstly, allowing women to become Buddhist nuns was a profound act of women’s liberation at the time. Thanks to Buddha, women could now leave an abusive home. They also could find enlightenment, just like men. By the standards of 2,500 years ago, that was truly radical.
Secondly, while the additional restrictions placed on the nuns might seem backwards and restrictive to us today, they were not intended to discriminate against women. They were actually designed to protect them.
It is important to note that, even today, there are particularly acute problems with sexual assault in India. (Buddhism came to ancient Siam through India.) The rules were installed to prevent outbursts of male anger and violence, as well as to protect the religion from falling into any sexual misconduct.
Thai Buddhism was passed down from Buddha’s hands, through the hands of Buddhist monks and nuns, and then through roughly 24 generations of Thais. Traditional Buddhism teaches that the religion stays alive through ordination, forming an ordination-to-ordination chain reaching back to Buddha himself. This chain is sacred to traditionalists, as are concerns regarding sexual misconduct.
Sadly, about 1,000 years after Buddha died, war broke out and many women changed religions. The female chain of ordination was broken by these events; but the male chain survived in exile. Thus, many Thai Buddhists adamantly believe that it is not theologically legitimate to re-establish the once-flourishing but now extinct Buddhist order of nuns.
This has caused a great many problems. For instance, many Thai boys still ordain as monks for a period of time in their youth. Their families often believe that this instils merit on the entire family.
There are some Thai families with daughters who wish that they also could have the same opportunities. However, local attempts to create these opportunities have been met with hateful venom and religious fundamentalism.
Additionally, foreign influences have been trying to restart the order of nuns. Foreign Buddhists often claim that a monk should be able to ordain a nun and restart the chain of ordination. But Thai Buddhism objects to this for three reasons.
The first is that the female ordination-to-ordination chain cannot technically be restored by a male monk. The gap is still there, at least in the most technical sense. In the eyes of a traditionalist, a monk is not the Lord Buddha.
Next, traditionalists staunchly maintain that it is a violation of the Buddhist monastic code for a monk to ordain a woman. Monks are not allowed to ordain nuns, only a nun can ordain a nun, and there were no ordained nuns who escaped the wars and religious conversions of history.
Finally, it’s not recognised by Thai law. In 1928, the Thai Buddhist Sangha Supreme Council formally forbade the ordination of women and much of Southeast Asia still follows the traditionalist method. However, we are globalising. New problems have sprung up. Foreign nuns have resettled from other denominations of Buddhism and their arrival has been received with anything other than glee.
There have been arson attacks upon the buildings where the nuns live. Alleged kidnapping attempts and gangs of drunken villagers have also allegedly harassed some rural nuns. That is the current reality of it all. Yet, the questions that confront Thais and foreigners are actually the same. Is this really fair to women? Isn’t this male chauvinism? Is Thai Buddhism treating women as second class citizens, or do we not understand the issue without actually being Thai?
To be or not to be? Will Thailand really be able to stop the tide of Chinese and Australian Buddhist nuns who measure in the thousands? That is the question. We cannot hope to solve this raging theological debate in one newspaper column. Nor should we side with either progressive or traditional Thai culture. But, we can become aware of this controversy and seek more information.
We also can be kind to these nuns regardless of where we stand on the debate. These women are taking a vow of poverty. It is important that we don’t fall into the age-old trap of placing our theology ahead of our humanity.
As savvy tourists notice, Thailand does not have a vibrant order of Buddhist nuns anymore. It would also be fair to say that Thailand is undergoing a conservative shift, at least right now.
Thailand is currently engaged in a fight for its culture. There has been a lot of change since the arrival of modern tourism and many Thai people resent the changes.
Thailand has an ancient culture that very few outsiders will ever fully understand. It is tempting for us to want to wade in and help solve this Thai drama. Women’s liberation is still a hot topic in the West. Yet, before we think that the West has all of the answers on women’s issues, we should remember that America just failed to elect its’ first female President for the sixth time since 1984. France also just turned down a female candidate. Are we really as progressive as we think?
To be or not to be? That is the question. While the jury is still out, one thing is for certain: Despite our Western morals and passions, the verdict on Buddhist nuns can only be rendered by the people of Thailand.
All About Buddhism is a monthly column in The Phuket News where I take readers on my exotic journey into Thai Buddhism and debunk a number of myths about Buddhism. If you have any specific queries, or ideas for articles, please let us know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will do my best to accommodate your interests.