Mon, Jul 26, 2004 - Page 16 News List

'No Women Allowed' in Thai Buddhism

But the times are changing and plans to allow full ordination of women into the Therevada Buddhist order are being made

AFP , Chiang Mai, Thailand

A man is dwarfed by a giant Buddha statue in Thailand's southern province of Narathiwat. The threat of the full ordination of women to the Therevada Buddhist order is causing ructions in the country.

PHOTO: REUTERS

First came the allegations of heresy, the death threats followed, then came the start of an impeachment process. The formerly peaceful world of Thai Buddhism has been rocked by an issue that has riven religions worldwide -- the rightful role for women within its ranks.

While Thais are proud of the thousands of golden roofed temples that adorn the kingdom, a growing number are calling for the "No Women Allowed" signs that still hang outside some of the buildings containing sacred relics to go.

But worse still to the old-guard is the threat of the full ordination of women to the Therevada Buddhist order, followed by more than 90 percent of Thais.

"When I was first ordained there were people that wanted to be ordained also but they didn't dare, so they waited to see if I got clobbered first," says Dhammananda Bhikkuni, Thailand's only Therevada Buddhist female monk.

The row in the kingdom -- a global bastion of Buddhism with more than 2,500 years of history -- has polarized the Buddhist world. The dispute peaked with death threats against a female senator who called for the ban on women to be scrapped.

Residents of Chiang Mai, Thailand's northern capital, are currently gathering signatures seeking her impeachment, but instead of settling the issue the row has reignited controversy after the Thai senate last year broke a taboo to debate the divisive issue of women wearing the saffron robe.

Dhammananda, 60, refuses to be silenced despite being at the center of that storm. After 700 years of silence, Thai women are finally reclaiming their Buddhist right to full participation, she says, with bans on ordination and sacred sites having nothing to with true Buddhism.

"Where did we derail? We have to go back to the Buddha, to Jesus, they were very open to women," says Dhammananda, who was ordained in Sri Lanka almost two years ago and has since been battling to build an official female monastic order known as a Sangha.

"We're not asking for status, wealth or equality just our share of responsibility which was given to us by the Buddha to serve the community," she says.

It will be some time before Thai women monks -- who wear white, follow hundreds of fewer rules than the men and have no rights or status -- match the roughly 250,000 strong Thai male monkhood.

But already Buddhist nuns from Thailand and countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar have come to learn more about full ordination.

Thailand's Buddhist patriarchs concede that the Buddha himself ordained women, including his wife, but point to teaching which says that at least five women monks directly descended from the first lineage of bhikkuni (female monks) are needed to ordain another. That lineage has never arrived in sufficient numbers in Thailand.

The roughly 30,000 Thai Buddhist nuns wind up spending more time doing menial chores than meditating, says social worker Ouyporn Khuankaewm, who works with monks and nuns.

"So many are controlled and oppressed by the monks, the monks say your job is to clean and cook and if you don't do that you don't get to eat or stay at the temple," she says.

"But they can help women who come to the temples and tell them something better than 'your husband beat you because you have bad Karma from a last life.'"

Ouyporn is also working to change attitudes towards the mostly northern tradition of banning women from sacred sites, but says it is a struggle.

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