24 From Abroad
Liberating the Dharma for Women Visiting a Revolutionary Buddhist Monastery in Thailand Written and photographed by Michael Goonan
t first glance, Wat Songdhammakalyani is a familiar sight in Thailand. Situated along a busy road about 50 km outside of Bangkok, this Theravada Buddhist monastery is an oasis within the noise and busyness of modern urban life. Home to around 30 monastic novices dressed in traditional saffron robes, the monastery is peppered with various Buddhist shrines and meditation halls, an extensive library of books in various languages, dormitories for monastics and lay visitors, and a serene and quiet courtyard with a koi pond. A dozen dogs roam freely around the grounds, living an idyllic animal’s life. Chanting, meditation, and readings of the Buddhist scriptures are held at 5:30 each morning and 7:00 each evening, and lay people from the community often visit the temple to take part. Other special ceremonies and offerings take place to mark important Thai holy days and in remembrance of ancestors. Many of these ancient traditions predate Buddhism, which has long since embraced them.
activities in practice. A 2003 profile in the American Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar speculates, “Perhaps it’s an example of the Thai value of mai pen rai, or ‘never mind,’ where people ignore what they don’t like rather than actively oppose it.” Perhaps.
Traditional as this scene may seem in Southeast Asia, one thing makes it very different – in fact, revolutionary. The temple is run completely by women, under the direction of their abbess, Ven. Dhammananda Bhikkuni. This would be unremarkable in other countries, including Korea, where female monastics have been part of the fabric of society for centuries. Yet, in Thailand, female monastics, Bhikkunis, are considered to be illegitimate by the religious establishment. The reasoning goes that the lineage of Bhikkunis died out in Thailand sometime in the 10th century, making it impossible for female monastics to receive proper ordination and training. Male monks are forbidden from ordaining female monastics and could face punishment for doing so. For this reason, Dhammananda received her monastic ordination in Sri Lanka in 2003. Buddhist monastics are so revered in Thai society that even the king bows in their presence. Impersonating a monastic is a crime punishable by several months in prison. Dhammanada and her students are not officially recognized as monastics, so they are technically in violation of this law. However, the Buddhist establishment in Thailand does not interfere with her monastery’s
Wat Songdhammakalyani, Thailand.