First Thai female monk listed as one of BBC’s 100 most influential women

Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, the first Thai woman to be ordained as a Theravada monk and current abbess of Songdhammakalyani Monastery, has been listed as one of the BBC’s 100 Women in 2019.

Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (Source: thaibhikkuni.com)

Born Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, Dhammananda has a PhD in Buddhism from Magadh University in India. She taught for 27 years at the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Thammasat University, before taking early retirement in 2000. In 2001, she travelled to Sri Lanka to be ordained as samaneri, or female novice. She was ordained as a full bhikkhuni in 2003 in Sri Lanka, making her the first Thai woman to be ordained in a Theravada lineage, receiving the name Dhammananda.

While Thailand has around 300,00 Buddhist monks, women are still mostly barred from being ordained on Thai soil. In 1928, after the attempted ordination of two women, Prince Bhujong Jombunud Sirivaḍḍhano, then the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, issued an edict forbidding monks from ordaining women as monks or novices. The Sangha Supreme Council of Thailand also issued two rulings in 1984 and 1987 forbidding the ordination of women. However, the Sangha Act of 1962, the secular law governing Thai monastics, and the 1992 amendment do not prohibit the ordination of women.

Moreover, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) ruled in 2015 that the Sangha Supreme Council’s prohibition of the ordination of women is a violation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which Thailand is a state party. NHRC also ruled that such prohibition is in violation of the Thai Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which protect freedom of religion.

Dhammananda’s efforts to re-establish the Theravada bhikkhuni lineage in Thailand have been met with resistance from both the laity and monks who are against ordaining women, most of whom have claimed that the ordination of women is not possible as the Theravada bhikkhuni lineage has already died out. Despite the lack of secular law prohibiting the ordination of women, bhikkunis are seen as a foreign tradition and the two main Buddhist orders in Thailand have yet to officially accept ordained women as part of the Sangha – the Buddhist community of monastics.

Dhammananda is currently the abbess of the Songdhammakalyani Monastery in Nakhon Pathom, founded by her mother Voramai Kabilsingh, who was ordained as a monk in the Taiwanese Dharmaguptaka lineage in 1971, receiving the religious name Ta Tao Fa Tzu. The monastery is currently Thailand’s only all-female temple. Varanggana Vanavichayen, the first woman to be ordained as a monk on Thai soil, was ordained at the Songdhammakalyani Monastery in 2002.

However, the Thai authorities do not recognize the monastery as a Buddhist temple, and when Dhammananda and other monks from the monastery went to pay respect to the late King Bhumibol at the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall, where his body lay in state, they were denied entry. The officials claimed that they were turned away on the grounds that it is illegal for women to wear the saffron robe under Thai Buddhism. 22 other female monks and novices were also turned away after being told that they would be allowed to pay their respect to the late King only if they removed their robes and wore regular black clothing of laypeople.  

The BBC’s 100 Women list includes those who “had made the headlines or influenced important stories over the past 12 months, as well as those who have inspiring stories to tell, achieved something significant or influenced their societies in ways that wouldn't necessarily make the news.”

The theme for 2019 is “the Female Future” and the list also includes Kuwaiti women’s rights activist Alanoud Alsharekh, who works on the abolition of Kuwait’s “honour-killing” law; Japanese model and author Yumi Ishikawa, founder of the #KuToo campaign against the requirement for women to wear high heels at work; sumo wrestler Hiyori Kon, who fought to change the rules which barred women from competing professionally in sumo; US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever to serve in the US congress; Filipino journalist and press freedom advocate Maria Ressa, an outspoken critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’; and Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, whose school strike protests mobilized millions of young people around the world, forming the 'Fridays for future' movement.