Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Becoming Bhikkhuni? Mae Chis and the Global Women's Ordination Movement

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Becoming Bhikkhuni? Mae Chis and the Global Women's Ordination Movement

Article excerpt

Introduction (2)

The present study examines Thai Buddhist female renunciates' attitudes toward bhikkhuni ordination and the global bhikkhuni movement. I employ the phrase "becoming bhikkhuni" in titling this article with three meanings in mind. First, it attests to the historical trajectory of women's yearning for fuller participation in the Buddhist monastic life--that is, the yearning to literally become bhikkhuni. Secondly, I deliberately render this phrase into a question--"Becoming bhikkhuni?"--to problematize the very grounds of authenticity on which bhikkhuni status purportedly stands. In other words, who counts as a Buddhist nun? This question not only fuels academic and feminist analysis, it also emerges as a reality both for aspirants who wish to secure bhikkhuni status and for "nonbhikkhuni" Theravada female renunciates who must repeatedly negotiate their place within the lay-monastic divide. Finally, as a heuristic tool, the questioning of "becoming bhikkhuni" calls for critical reflection on the very desirability of bhikkhuni status; in other words, is it "becoming?"

The motivations and aspirations of mae chis--Thai Buddhist women who choose to adopt renunciant dress and lifestyle, yet who retain limited vows and unofficial standing within the Sangha--subvert the supposedly universal appeal and efficacy of the bhikkhuni role and bhikkhuni movement. Moreover, the seemingly illiberal subjectivities of mae chis regarding gender hierarchy, female renunciant identity, and women's liberation complicate and obscure foundational discourses in Buddhist feminist theorizing and activism--both on global and local levels--particularly as the rhetoric of women's rights, social justice, and women's oppression are called into question by the white-robed renunciates.

Buddhist Female Renunciation: Historical Background and Contemporary Context

According to longstanding Buddhist tradition, women have pursued the ordained life since Buddhism's inception in the fifth century bce. This yearning is epitomized in the figure of Mahapajapati Gotami, the historical Buddha's aunt and foster mother, who is attributed with becoming the first Buddhist nun (bhikkhuni). As the scriptures recount, the Buddha initially refuses Mahapajapati's request that women be allowed to enter the Sangha. With steadfast resolve, Mahapajapati and her following of 500 women cut off their hair, don the saffron robes, and walk 150 miles to Vesali where the Buddha is teaching. Ananda (the Buddha's chief attendant) sees the aspirants and, moved by their pitiful appearance, he approaches the Buddha and intercedes on their behalf. At this point in the narrative, the women's resolve becomes most poignant and palpable:

   Pajapati is standing outside under the entrance porch
   with swollen feet, covered with dust, and crying because
   you do not permit women to renounce their homes and
   enter into the homeless state. It would be good, Lord, if
   women were to have permission to do this. (3)

Ultimately, on the grounds that women are as capable as men of attaining enlightenment, Mahapajapati and her retinue are admitted into the Sangha (4)

From Mahapajapatis ordination some 2500 years ago to the present day, the issue of whether women should be permitted to don the saffron robes and become bhikkhunis has been contested in Buddhist circles. The bhikkhuni issue is particularly germane in contemporary Thailand. Despite the transnational expansion of Buddhism and the subsequent flourishing of a Buddhist nuns' community in many Asian countries, the bhikkhuni Sangha never spread to Thailand. (5) Given the pervasiveness of Buddhism in Thailand (94.6% of the Thai population of almost 67.5 million identifies as Theravada Buddhist) (6) coupled with the dearth of a bhikkhuni Sangha in Thai history (until recent developments, a bhikkhuni Sangha has never existed on Thai soil), Thailand emerges as a unique and provocative case study for the bhikkhuni movement. …

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