(From Associated Press)

On a rural road just after daybreak, villagers young and old kneel reverently before a single file of ochre-robed women, filling their bowls with rice, curries, fruits and sweets. In this country, it’s a rare sight.

Women Buddhist monks pray at the Songdhammakalyani Monastery in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand.
Women Buddhist monks pray at the Songdhammakalyani Monastery in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand

Thailand’s top Buddhist authority bars women from becoming monks. They can only become white-cloaked nuns, who are routinely treated as domestic servants. Many here believe women are inferior beings who had better perform plenty of good deeds to ensure they will be reborn as men in their future lives.

Yet with the religion beset by lurid scandals, female monastics or “bhikkhunis” are emerging as a force for reform, not unlike activists in the Christian world seeking gender equality including ordination of women as priests in the Catholic Church. They are growing in numbers and appear to be making headway.

Thailand has some 100 bhikkhunis who were ordained in Sri Lanka, where women are allowed to become monks. They and their monasteries are not legally recognized in Thailand, and don’t enjoy state funding and other support the country’s 200,000 male monks are granted.

Living spartan lives, the women are governed by 311 precepts from celibacy and poverty to archaic ones like having to confess after eating garlic. Their ranks and those of hundreds of aspirants – there are five stages before ordination – include a former Google executive, a Harvard graduate, journalists and doctors, as well as village noodle vendors.

“It is our right, our heritage, to lead a fully monastic life. We are on the right side of history,” says Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, an author, former university professor and the first bhikkhuni in Thailand from the Theravada branch of Buddhism, which is dominant in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. Using her religious name of Venerable Dhammananda, she contends that the Buddha 2,500 years ago built the religion as a four-legged stool – monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen – but “we are now sitting on just three legs.” Read More

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