From the outside, it looks like any other temple in Thailand, a
country that considers itself a bastion of Buddhist culture. A
cluster of modest wooden buildings and a well-kept lawn hide behind
a 15-foot-high golden Buddha that faces the busy highway to Bangkok.
But this temple is breaking the mold of Thai Buddhism. Its
nominal head is a female monk ordained two years ago in Sri Lanka as
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni. One of only a few women to have challenged
the male makeup of Thailand's 300,000 monks, she now wants to extend
that right to other women, and has turned to the Senate for help.
As a result, a subcommittee is considering a proposal to permit
the ordination of women as monks. The final say, however, lies not
with lawmakers but with the country's Buddhist clergy, known as the
Sangha, whose ruling council of elders has long opposed the idea.
Their opposition puts the elders on a collision course with
modernizers inside and outside the Buddhist establishment, who argue
that Thailand's clergy are too focused on doctrine and tradition,
rather than the needs of their followers. They say conservative
monks are missing a chance to update the faith in a time of rapid
change in Thailand.
Sanitsuda Ekachai, a columnist and religious-affairs specialist
at the Bangkok Post newspaper, argues that the Sangha won't drop
their opposition. If so, she says, "monks will continue to fulfill
our needs with rituals and rites, but they will play a narrower role
in society ... if they can't understand that society is changing."
Thailand has grappled with this debate before. Dhammananda's own
grandmother was among a group of educated women in the 1920s who
created an order of female monks. In 1928, King Rama V followed the
advice of Buddhist elders and banned the practice. That ban is still
in place. Thai women can take the vows of a nun, who shave their
heads and wear white robes, but they can expect lower status and
fewer privileges than monks, who travel for free on public transport
Other Asian countries have in recent years revived an ancient
order of female monks known as Bhikkhuni (PIK-koon-nee). Among those
is Sri Lanka, where Dhamannanda was ordained.
Campaigners in Thailand point out that Sri Lanka practices the
same school of Buddhism as Thailand, known as Theravada. Unlike Sri
Lanka, though, Thailand has never ordained women as Bhikkhunis,
making it more problematic to change course. …