The struggle to establish a Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha in Thailand has faced immense opposition from state authorities…
According to Buddhist scriptures, the order of bhikkhunis (ordained female nuns) was first created by the Buddha at the specific request of his aunt and foster-mother Mahapajapati Gotami, who became the first ordained bhikkhuni. But the hardships receiving recognition and transmission for Thailand nuns belies that early acceptance.
“Some believe that the lineage of Thevarada female monks was lost years ago,” says Dhammananda Bhikkhuni in an article from the Bangkok Post. “…they insist we are extinct, so we don’t have a legal status.”
Now 71, Dhammananda was in her 50s when she began her monastic life. She is recognised as the first Thai bhikkhuni to be ordained in the Theravada tradition from Sri Lanka and heads the Songdhammakalyani Bhikkhuni Monastery in Nakhon Pathom province.
Prior to that, she was a university professor, teaching philosophy and religion for nearly 30 years at Thammasat University. Dhammananda has a strong matriarichal lineage. Her mother was the first Thai woman to become a Mahayana bhikkuni in 1971, and her grandmother was also a “white-robed” nun.
In the last decade, Dhammananda has been writing books on this subject and organising seminars and round table discussions to better educate everyone involved on better understanding the bhikkhuni situation in Thailand.
Aside from her faith in the Buddhist text passage, “one who follows dhamma, dhamma will protect,” she has been grateful for the mentorship of close acquaintance, Joan Halifax Roshi.
“Joan, who I consider a dhamma sister, once visited me during the beginning of my monastic life. A time I was feeling spiritually low. She was very supportive and gave me the idea of building a statue of Mahapajapati, Buddha’s aunt and foster mother, as well as the first Buddhist nun,” recollected Dhammananda.
“I needed that visual to build my spiritual strength. Joan spent time counseling and mentoring me.”
Roshi writes: “I am grateful for the courage of my dharma sister Dhammananda Bhikkuni. Through our precious collaboration, Upaya has a statue of the Buddha’s stepmother Mahapajapati, who reminds us of the power of women to transform conditions of suffering. I was with this rare Thai nun right after her ordination, when she was under attack. Her dedication inspires all.”
In Thailand in February, 2002, Roshi Joan and Dhammananda met. Roshi writes of that time, “I was very moved by her presence. She spoke with profound conviction about the importance of allowing women to become fully ordained. After the meeting, I made my way to her nunnery to take a deep retreat. While there, we discovered we had much in common. We took refuge in each other, as I was weary from many problems in my country and community, and she was weary from the active resistance to her ordination. We realized that we both felt quite isolated, had few peers accessible to us, and we gave each other great support as we explored ways in which we could renew ourselves and as well continue our work in and for the world.”