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The Female Monks Of Thailand


There are about 200,000 Buddhist monks in Thailand. None are women. Thai Buddhism's governing body says women cannot be ordained. But as Michael Sullivan reports, a growing number of women are hacking the system and gaining popularity.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's a beautiful morning just after daybreak in a small village outside the northern city of Chiang Mai.


SULLIVAN: A few dogs bark at the stranger, following a line of ocher-robed monks barefoot in the bitter cold. Villagers kneel before the monks, filling their bowls with rice, fruit and sweets, and receive a blessing in return. It's a scene repeated all over Thailand every day. But this one sounds different.

UNIDENTIFIED MONKS: (Chanting in Thai).

SULLIVAN: The monks are women known as bhikkhunis. Rejected by Thailand's top Buddhist authority, they are welcomed by many villagers.


SULLIVAN: "They follow the rules much more than the male monks," shopkeeper Nishapa Thongpithak says. "When they do their rounds, they're very strict. They won't even touch money like the men do. So I have more respect for them," she says.

And they're spreading.

DHAMMANANDA: In the whole country. We have 170 bhikkhunis and 100 novices. So together, it is 270 in all the regions - north, northeast, central and south.

SULLIVAN: Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, a longtime university professor, was the first Thai woman to be ordained back in 2003 by traveling to Sri Lanka, the only Theravada Buddhist country which allows ordination.

So why not Thailand?

SULAK SIVARASKA: The monks here are very narrow-minded and of course, partly, for their own self-interest because the bhikkhuni order would clearly be the challenge to the monkhood.

SULLIVAN: A challenge, Buddhist scholar Sulak Sivaraksa says, because the bhikkhuni behave - the men, not so much.

SIVARASKA: Much sex scandal, financial scandal - the Sangha order in this country is now worshipping capitalism, consumerism.

SULLIVAN: But the Supreme Sangha Council, Thai Buddhism's ruling body, says this is the way it's been for the past 700 years and sees no reason to change. Bhikkhuni Dhammananda says they should maybe learn to read Buddhist texts more carefully.

DHAMMANANDA: They seem to think that they know the text. But when it deals with ordained women part, they kind of skip through, you know. So they have not really read what the Buddha meant.

SULLIVAN: Both Dhammananda and Sulak Sivaraksa note that the Buddha himself ordained the first bhikkhuni. NPR reached out to the Sangha Council with no response.

But even some activist monks say it's time for a change.

PHRAMAHA BOONCHUAY DOOJAI: To me, I think I am in support of having a bhikkhuni Sangha in Thailand.

SULLIVAN: Phramaha Boonchuay Doojai, an activist monk at Chiang Mai Buddhist College.

PHRAMAHA BOONCHUAY DOOJAI: It is really very good. And the Buddha himself declared this very clear - I think it is the way to make a complete Buddhist society.

UNIDENTIFIED MONKS: (Chanting in Thai).

SULLIVAN: Near the northern city of Chiang Mai, Bhikkhuni Nanadyani leads about a dozen robed women in prayer before their morning meal. She oversees two monasteries here in the north, home to more than 50 bhikkhuni and novices. I ask her about her outlaw status, how it feels to be labeled a rebel by the authorities.

NANADYANI: (Laughter) I don't want to fight anyone because I feel compassion to everyone. Stay calmly, peacefully.

SULLIVAN: But aren't you a little annoyed the male monks get state funding, I press, while you have to rely on donations? Isn't that unfair?

NANADYANI: I never mind because now we don't - I'm not depend on anyone. I depend on only Buddha, dhamma and bhikkhu Sanga, bhikkhuni Sanga.

SULLIVAN: Back at her monastery near Bangkok, I ask Bhikkhuni Dhammananda the same question - and get the same answer. She doesn't care about equal treatment. In fact...

DHAMMANANDA: Michael, we are much better than men already. Trust me.

SULLIVAN: That sounds a little arrogant for a priest.

DHAMMANANDA: Once in a while, you know, to be arrogant is nice. Once in a while, you should be - when you are definitely sure.


SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.