Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Nuns feel sexism in Thailand (audio)

Patrick Winn (GlobalPost, PRI, 7-5-16); Ashley Wells, Dhr. Seven, CC Liu (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly
The Buddha said the Dharma would not be established until there were both female and male monastics as well as female and male lay practitioners. He ordained his mother as the first nun (without additional rules, the American nun Ayya Tathaloka's scholarship has discovered) and many females. In his day there were many enlightened nuns and females (arhats), such as his two chief disciples, Khema and Uppalavanna. But a nun's order was not established in Thailand when Buddhism arrived.
"As a millennial, mixed-race Asian American Buddhist, I often feel like a party of one. When I am feeling lonely or unique, I imagine that I can see myself as if I am looking from a telephoto lens on the moon: I can see the insignificance of my challenges, that being a follower of Buddha's wisdom doesn't mean I am separated into a neat little category..." - Gabrielle Nomura Gainor (Tsuki Nomura-Henley/lionsroar.com)
Thailand’s top female monk” [nun] hacked the system to bring women [back] into the fold
Across Women's Lives
Ven. Dhammananda (right) with Thai supporters (ThaiBhikkhunis.org/PRI)
Ven. Dhammananda, a 72-year-old Thai woman, is forbidden [by the self-imposed rules of the Buddhist Monastic Disciplinary Code or Vinaya incumbent on all monastics and austere Asian decorum] from hugging her sons.

She’s never been able to chase her giggling grandchildren around the room. Both acts are forbidden by the strict Buddhist precepts that [fully ordained nuns and] monks must follow.

Ven. Dhammananda is a self-described “rare species.” She’s a monastic [an abbess]. She’s also a mom. And in the eyes of her homeland’s Buddhist establishment, she’s a feminist insurgent.
  • The Basket of the Discipline (Vinaya Pitaka) is the first division of the Three Collections (Tipitaka), the other two being the discourses (sutras) and the Higher Doctrince (Abhidharma). It is the textual framework upon which the monastic community (Sangha) is built. It includes not only the monastic guidelines but their origin stories, that is, the reason they were laid down in ancient times in the first place.
  • Bhikkhu Pāṭimokkha: The Monastics' Code of Discipline [the "way to liberation" for intensive practitioners who ordain, wishing for themselves the most direct route to enlightenment and nirvana]
  • The Monastics' Rules: A Guide for Laypeople For the monk and nun the Vinaya helps to guide actions and speech....They were set down by the Buddha...
  • The Buddhist Monastic Code
Each day, she and her female disciples wear the same clothing: flowing saffron robes the shade of ripe mangoes. Their heads are shorn clean shaven down to stubble [just like the monks]. Their possessions are limited to flip flops [the Five Requisites, robes, toiletries, and all they, which is provided by donors and family as well as by savings and other sources] and little else.
In other words, their day-to-day lives are largely indistinguishable from that of any upstanding Buddhist monk in their native Thailand [which is about 95% Theravada Buddhist, the second most Buddhist country of all].
Ven. Tathaloka (left) with Theravada Buddhist nuns of Aloka Vihara (Alliance for Bhikkhunis)
Ven. Tathaloka in  California forest (BN)
But because they are women, Ven. Dhammananda and her [female community at the Thai nunnery or convent Songdhammakalyani Vihara] of 15 female monastics are shunned by the state-backed Buddhist hierarchy [old school patriarchy]. This powerful all-male order, known as the “Bhikkhu Sangha,” regards them as imposters.
“That’s their problem,” Ven. Dhammananda says. She’s the abbess (yes, that’s a female “abbot”) of a temple 60 kilometers west of Bangkok.
“That’s their own ignorance, which they’ll have to overcome,” she adds.
There are roughly 300,000 monks in Thailand [and countless temporarily-ordained “novices,” white-clad trainees or probationers called anagarikas, and other ten precept holders], home to one of the highest concentrations of Buddhists on the planet. Yet only 100 are women. They’re scattered among small temples (nunneries or viharas, monastic residences) that the traditional [male] Order views as insolent.
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Before Ven. Dhammananda, there were none at all. [Some would counter argue that there have always been many maechi, "ten precept holding women" who live as monastics and some who take on additional disciplines, wear robes, and so are nearly indistinguishable from monks; there are even fully ordained nuns, though they may not be in the Thai Theravada school.]

Prohibited from ordination in Thailand, she hacked the system in 2001 by flying to Sri Lanka, which started ordaining women in the mid-1990s [thanks to the efforts of the great female German meditator, Ayya Khema, who organized efforts to revive the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha].
She then returned home as Thailand’s first [fully-ordained Thai Buddhist] female monastic in modern times -- at least in the old-school Theravada strain of Buddhism that dominates Thailand and much of Southeast Asia.
In Ven. Dhammananda’s view, the near absence of women in the Sangha (Monastic Order) has left Buddhism as wobbly as a three-legged chair. The school is lopsided, she says, because it lacks feminine insight.
Past experience as a mother, she says, is particularly valuable to Buddhist spiritual life. “That experience makes you whole,” she says. “You tend to understand people’s problems on a different level than men do.”
Female monastics
The Buddha's wife became enlightened nun
The argument against allowing women into the Monastic Order is shaky, she says. Roughly 2,600 years ago, the Buddha explicitly stated that women can achieve enlightenment. He even ordained his own foster mom [who married his father and raised him from the time he was 7 days old, along with ordaining his wife, his sister, his son, and many of his female and male relatives from the extended Shakya Clan].
“Enlightenment is the quality of mind that goes beyond. There is no gender there,” Ven. Dhammananda says. “When you talk about the supreme spiritual goal in Buddhism [nirvana, the end of all rebirth and suffering], it’s genderless.”

Thailand’s Monastic Order, however, rests its case against female monastics on a technicality. The Sangha insists that female monastics can only be brought into the fold by other women [according to ordination procedures of the Bhikkhuni Sangha set down by the Buddha as interpreted and remembered by the monks, who asserted themselves as representing the Sangha, a subsidiary of which was the Bhikkhuni Sangha or separate Nuns' Order. But, of course, their order is the Monks' Order, and the two combined make up the Monastic Order. The men do not have supremacy, but for millennia some in the Sangha have asserted they do, with many dutiful women agreeing and going along.]
But because the Sangha in Thailand [never had a Bhikkhuni Sangha established and therefore] has never officially sanctioned a female monastic, there are no women available to open the door to newcomers. The original lineage of female monastics dating back to the Buddha’s time faded out centuries ago [and so did their line of succession, their Vinaya and origin stories for the rules, one of which shows that the Eight Additional Rules or Garudhammas could not have been laid down by the Buddha, according to California Theravada nun, Ayya Tathaloka (bhikkhunis.net)].
Thailand’s official male Buddhist order “feels women are a big threat. Especially women in [monastic] robes,” says Sulak Sivaraksa, one of Thailand’s best-known Buddhist scholars.
“But since [the female monastics] are wonderful people, more and more people recognize them,” Sulak says. “I told the Thai [female monastics]...to keep clear of scandal. Do good work. And soon the male monks will not only recognize you. They will come and worship you. They will be led by you.”

Like any Buddhist monastic, female monastics such as Ven. Dhammananda are sworn to a dry [free, sober] life [of few worldly concerns] that forsakes romance, luxury, and excess of any kind.

Holding hands? Devouring an entire carton of Häagen-Dazs in one sitting? Pop music or even gossiping? All are [actually allowed and engaged in but are said to be] forbidden [in accord with the spirit of the Monastic Code and the guidelines or lesser rules on etiquette and living together harmoniously with few wants and not disturbing other practitioners or inconveniencing supporters].

More than 300 monastic rules (called precepts or vows, which are for fully ordained practitioners only) dictate their conduct to ensure they do not grow attached to sensual pleasures [become angry, annoyed, or discouraged, succumb to wrong views or delusions, bring disrepute to the Buddha's monastic disciples, shorten the duration the Dharma continues on earth, disturb fellow practitioners/meditators, unduly inconvenience lay and royal supporters, turn the monastic community from a "great field of merit in the world" into something else, etc.]

Nor can they work [but many do -- as teachers, authors, scholars, public speakers, and so on, though they should give up personal gain and support the vihara though, again, many do keep some or all of their earnings through a steward if they wish and are allowed by their abbot]. They acquire food and other requisites by an ancient system of generosity toward spiritual practitioners who leave the homebound life to seek enlightenment.

This can mean walking on "alms round" like the Buddha did in ancient India so that lay people can donate support, or by purchasing it in markets from donated funds, or by people bringing food to the temple and to the nunnery. Sometimes this involves walking on pindabata [the third of the 13 "sane ascetic practices" recommended by the Buddha to overcome bad habits] through urban streets and collecting donated food called alms -- of every variety eaten by lay Buddhists themselves -- from everyday people who support the mission of the Buddha's most dedicated disciples.
Here are Ven. Dhammananda’s thoughts on rebellion, moms in the Monastic Order, and the decadent treats she misses from her life before entering the temple to get away from it all and dedicate herself to the path to enlightenment in this very life. Her comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Do you think of yourself as a rebel?
I never thought of myself as a rebel. Even though I might be one.
My intention is not to provoke. My intention is to insist that we return to the right path.

Would you call yourself a feminist?
Yes. Not that I ever studied feminism. But my understanding of feminism is you should bring out your potentiality to the fullest. Anything obstructing your path, you should work against it. That’s my feminist attitude.

When your sons come to visit, are you allowed to hug them?
No. That is a very hard part. Particularly for my oldest son. He really misses that. He once said to the [other female monastics], “You don’t know how much I miss my mother.”
He’s kind of making an offering to the Buddha by giving up his own mother to do this job. But he still misses the hugs.

Are there special rules for men speaking to female monastics?
As long as there is a third person around, and as long as we are not sharing the same seat, [men and female monks] can be close. But I must have a sister [fellow female monk] here as a witness.

You have very young grandkids. What are the rules regarding grandchildren? Can you pick them up and play with them?
The youngest is a boy and, yes, I have held him. I don’t think of him as a man, so I’m not touching a man. He’s a 2-year-old boy. A child! But I don’t go around hugging him [nor traditionally do any people in Asia].

As I understand it, monks aren't even allowed to tickle?
Oh, yes! You aren’t supposed to tickle a monk, because people will roll into a great laughter. That’s part of the rules.

So no tickling your grandchildren?
No, that rule is about tickling monks. Not about tickling laypeople. But, no, I don’t tickle them.

How do regular people treat female monastics out in public?
There are two groups. Some couldn’t care less. Others are more suspicious. But for those who are interested, we educate them. It’s much easier now compared to 16 years ago when I was the only female monastic walking in this land.

Tell me about your first day collecting alms.
I was invited to Rayong (a Thai coastal province) for a seminar. And I went out with the male monastics. People in the marketplace, when they realized the last one walking in the back was actually female, they were so interested!
One household ran inside and grabbed a big box of drinks and offered it to my [alms] bowl. I was happy.

To go back to the Buddha’s time, it’s said that if you make an offering to monastics, that’s well and good. But if you make offerings to both monks and nuns [the whole Monastic Order or Sangha]? It’s even better. This is in the texts.

The ordination process for female monastics involves embarrassing questions, even sexual questions. Does that create more resistance to ordaining women?
For men, they ask, “Are you a man? [Are you human?] Do you have such and such illness?” For women, they will ask about our private parts. “Do you menstruate all the time?” Or whether you have all of your sex organs.

[The same is asked of men because "eunuchs" (a common but misleading translation of the word pandakas, which might better be translated as perverts or deviants) are not permitted to ordain by tradition, though many are as rules are interpreted differently in different monasteries and schools.]
But if I am willing to answer this, they should give us ordination. I think Thai women, young and old, are willing to go through this interrogation.

What do you miss about regular life?
I miss high tea. This here [gestures toward a large 11:00 am lunch spread donated by the local village] is our last meal of the day [but not the first meal, and snacks including tea are permitted, particularly at high tea time, roughly 4:00 pm]. So no [formal British] high tea [unless you want to or are ill or invited, as circumstances warrant]. I actually used to enjoy it more than dinner. Especially if it came with blueberry cheesecake.

Can't you just eat cheesecake in the morning?
It doesn’t feel the same way in the morning! You just have to give it up.

Some people who've been through challenges in life end up being pretty funny. Do you have a sense of humor?
I have a great sense of humor! The monastic life is quite dry. You need to laugh once in awhile.
You shouldn’t be making jokes all the time like a joker [prankster, comedian, egomaniac, wisecracker]. But if you can show people another way to look at things, even by making them laugh, that’s okay.

People see monks and wonder: Does it really make you happy to give up everything like that?
Yes. Because we give up the bad things, not everything. It is letting go of that which is unwholesome [and therefore unconducive to calm, insight, and enlightenment].

But you have to let go of pizza. And high tea, as you mentioned. Or your boyfriend or girlfriend. It seems hard.
[Monastics eat pizza and do many other things just as before.] At certain points, it may be so. But then you look ahead in time, outside this context, and realize the goal is much greater than your boyfriend or your girlfriend. And much greater than pizza.

What sorts of backgrounds do the female monastics here have?
All different backgrounds. This one studied journalism. The next one over was a seamstress. Some were just ordinary factory workers. Two of them have Master’s degrees.

If there were a vote, do you think Thai society would allow women to be fully ordained?
Full female ordination is our heritage given by the Buddha. So one should not be ordained expecting people to accept it. You should ordain because you want to do it and to keep our heritage alive.

As a monastic you have to subdue your anger. But doesn't it make you irritated that people think you shouldn't be a monastic?
I cannot put the ignorance of all the people in the whole world on my shoulders. More

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