Not allowing women the basic right to live a life of choice comes very easy, often times taking reasons from past stories, simply passing prejudices through generations and many times without much justification.
Here’s a story of not just one woman but a mother and daughter who stepped out of the box by simply living the life that felt right.
Venerable Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, born Chatsumarn Kabilsingh on October 6, 1944 (age 76)(2), is the first woman in Thailand to become an ordained Theravada Buddhist monk on 28 February 2003. She is Abbess of Songdhammakalyani Monastery, the only temple in Thailand where there are bhikkhunis. Theravada means ‘doctrine of the elders’, and is one of the largest movements in Buddhism and is popular in countries including Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Thailand. Songdhammakalyani means ‘temple where women uphold the Dharma’ is located in Nakhon Pathom near Bangkok.
Ven. Dhammananda’s decision to seek ordination was hugely controversial. She was criticized by conservative Buddhist leaders, who said it was wrong for women to wear the robes. Ven. Dhammananda had to travel all the way to Sri Lanka for the ceremony, because no male monk in Thailand was willing to conduct it.
She says,” I knew exactly what I was doing so I never wavered when people said something.”
Ven. Dhammananda gets her conviction from her mother, pioneering educator Voramai Kabilsingh. Voramai was educated by Catholic nuns. She was passionate about education and faith; she published a Buddhist newsletter from a homemade printing press and set up a makeshift school in her house for nuns and monks who were uneducated. She took the first steps towards lower ordination in the 1950’s as that was as far a Thai Buddhist woman could go then.
Voramai said, “My duty as a mother does not stop with my ordination.” Ven. Dhammananda looks back, remembers her mother and says, “This is a profound sentence because men, when they receive ordination, always leave their families. But, if my mother had left us I would have been a street kid. So instead she turned the household into a temple. At the time, I was 10.”
“There were white-robed women but the white-robed women were almost always looked down upon by the people. People thought maybe they had no place to go, maybe broken hearts. Mostly they were not educated, they had only four years of formal education.”
“My mother was not happy with the status of women at that time, she wanted to give them education.” So she found a piece of land outside Bangkok and built a temple. The temple has been there for more than 50 years now.
It was the first temple in Thailand built by women, for women. As an adult, Chatsumarn supported the project but was also establishing her own career. Unusual for Thai women then, she received higher education. Armed with a B.A in Philosophy, M.A in Religion from Canada and a PhD in Buddhism from India, she taught religion and philosophy at Bangkok’s most prestigious university for 27 years. She married, has three sons and three grandchildren. She is a well-known author of many books on contemporary issues in Asian Buddhism; many were published before her ordination and are under her birth name, Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh.
Ven. Bhikkhuni Dhammananda had her own talk show on Thai television before becoming ordained as a Buddhist monk.
In an article by Sally Sara , Ven. Dhammananda says
“The idea of becoming ordained happened quite abruptly. I was already in my 50s. I liked putting on make-up in the morning and looking at myself in the mirror. I was wearing lipstick, eye lashes, whatever, you name it. I enjoyed looking beautiful.
But, one morning I looked at myself and I said – as if I was talking to another person – “How long will I have to do this?”
I had enough of the flashy life. Emptiness.
People always say, you are very brave to do what you have done, because I was the only woman (monk) in this country. But I didn’t feel that way. I didn’t feel one bit that I was brave. I felt as if it was a normal thing.
Some people would say, “How dare you wear the robe?” I said, “Why not?”
“My message is this: number one, the way out is possible; number two, you have to start; number three, you have to start now because everyone is waiting for everyone else to start, so it never gets started. You can do it.
“People say all kinds of things but it is only their lips. That’s it. If you are swayed by what people say then you can never, ever do anything.”
“I did not choose to be ordained because I want people to recognize me. I did it because I want to carry on the heritage of Lord Buddha. I am trying to revive the four pillars of Buddhism—bhikkus, bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen—that will sustain the religion into the future. Religion is never complete without the participation of women. Are you comfortable on a chair with only three legs, when it should be four?” asks Ven. Dhammananda
Ven. Dhammananda remains a Monk, a happy Feminist and a Mother.
1. Most information (including the feature image) has been taken from – http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-03-28/mama-asia-thailand/4599176