When the nation began mourning King Bhumibol after his death late last year, several dozen robed women entered the long queue to pay their respects at the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall where his body lay in state.
They were led by Dhammananda, who was granted permission by officials on the afternoon of Dec. 9 for 70 monks and novices from several provinces to enter the Grand Palace. After waiting two hours inside the gate, they were turned away. The reason? Officials said women wearing the saffron robe was illegal under Thai Buddhism.
They weren’t the first. In November, 22 bhikkhunis (female monks) and samaneris (female novices), left in disappointment after being told the only way they would be allowed in to offer their respects to their revered king was to remove their robes and wear regular black clothing as laypeople.
A few thousand kilometers away across the South China Sea, the fight for religious and secular equality for female monks in Taiwan has long been led by Shih Chao-hwei, a progressive who has campaigned for the rights of all living things, from female monks to marriage equality.
“I love the Buddha’s dharma, but not exactly the Buddhist system, which is very complicated,” the 60-year-old Taiwanese bhikkhuni said late last month through a translator as she visited Thailand, where such rights for women are scarce.
After planting the seeds of social and religious revolution for almost two decades, Chao-hwei shared her experiences and motivations to inspire others at a three-day meeting at an ashram north of Bangkok as a patron of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, which was founded by renowned Thai Buddhist reformer and scholar Sulak Sivaraksa.
“The most essential dharma for me is ‘dependent arising’ which explains all existence and cessation. That’s why a middle path should be taken to balance the two extremes,” she said at the Wongsanit Ashram in Nakhon Nayok province.
In Thailand, where over 90 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist, religion and politics mix freely, as the government has a role in overseeing the religion the king is its appointed defender.
The law barring bhikkhunis from being fully ordained is the 1928 Sangha Act, which predated Thailand’s move to democracy in 1932. Under the law, the closest women could get was to become Mae Chi, the white-robed nuns who hold to the 10 basic precepts.
But that hasn’t stopped some from pursuing their spiritual calling.
“You have excellent bhikkhunis such as Dhammananda, who’s done so many good works in society that people have trust and faith in her actions,” Chao-Hwei said.
In 2003, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni became the first Thai woman of the modern era to be fully ordained. She’s currently abbess of the Songdhammakalyani Monastery in Nakhon Pathom.
It’s estimated that there are 100 fully ordained bhikkhunis across the country. Still, the government and some people marginalize them as illegal impersonators.
“We’re as close as Buddha’s teaching,” Dhammananda said in February at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand. “The status of Bhikkhuni in Thailand is improving and our existence is already a step ahead. We also reach out to people and educate them.”
In February, a group of bhikkhunis and Paiboon Nititawan, a former chairman of the committee for the National Reform Council’s protection of Buddhism, petitioned the National Human Rights Commission to submit a 2015 report on human rights violations against bhikkhunis to the prime minister. Calls have been made to update the Sangha Act so women can be fully ordained.
The Saffron Ceiling
For Chao-hwei, Buddhist institutions remain problematic for their patriarchy and gender discrimination, something she’s spent 16 years fighting.
Underpinning the problem are the so-called Eight Heavy Rules, or The Eight Garudhammas. These are additional – and disputed – precepts for female monks which religious authorities say were established by the Buddha when he allowed his aunt to become the first bhikkhuni.
The controversial rules subordinate female monks to male monks (bhikkhus) by only allowing them to be fully ordained under bhikkhus. The rules also bar them from criticizing male monks, no matter how much seniority a bhikkhuni may have.
“Bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen, who are the four members of the Buddhist community, should be equal to one another,” said Chao-hwei, who first called for the rules to be abolished in 2001.
That was also the year she urged the Dalai Lama at a conference in Taipei to allow the revival of bhikkhunis in Tibet, where women are prohibited from being fully ordained.
She acknowledges that there are laypeople and monks who disagree with her, and whether the Buddha really established the rules – their only source of legitimacy – remains an unsettled historical argument.
“It doesn’t mean that bhikkhunis are less respectful of bhikkhus,” Chao-hwei said, as a fluffy feline inserted itself into the conversation for stomach-scratching and as a reminder that her fight for equality extends beyond the realm of religion.
She’s successfully campaigned for laws against animal abuse, horse racing, gambling, nuclear power, gender inequality and other issues.
She went outside the law in 2012 to be the first to preside over a same-sex Buddhist wedding in Taiwan, where it is illegal. The provocative event sparked optimism there that Taiwan may be the first Asian country to make marriage equality the law.
Bhikkhunis in Thailand & Taiwan
Buddhism has flourished in Taiwan in recent decades, with numbers of practicing Buddhists increasing fourfold. Chao-hwei estimated the numbers of bhikkhuni has also increased to outnumber male monks three times over.
Chao-Hwei recounted the big change in Taiwanese bhikkhuni circle stemmed in 1966 when Cheng Yen Bhikkhuni found Tzu Chi Foundation as a compassion relief that uses Buddhist Precepts to help people throughout almost 50 countries.
Education, society’s acceptance and economic independence of bhikkhunis also help in the growing number of female monks.
Also, the success comes from the fact that Taiwan adopted Mahayana rather than Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka and China, where women have been fully ordained for the past 2,000 years, combined with its implementation of Humanistic Buddhism that better fits the modern world.
Born in Yangon in Myanmar in 1957, Ven Chao-Hwei chose to ordain when she was 21 before graduating from National Taiwan Normal University a year later. For her, Buddhism was more reasonable and a way she could be free from traditional gender roles and have her own agency.
Now, she’s chairwoman of the Department of Religious Studies and dean of the College of Social Science at Hsuan Chuang University, a private Buddhist university and never ceased to voice her opinion on social issues through Buddhist point of view with more than 20 books and 70 research papers published.
“With the freedom to be bhikkhuni, I look at things and phenomena more openly,” she said. “Some people might be afraid to take action, but I don’t doubt that I’m doing the right thing by following Buddha’s will.”
She said the many schools and traditions in Taiwanese Buddhism are open-minded and resolve disputes by an elected Chinese Buddhist Association in processes women are allowed to participate.
There, the government does not interfere in spiritual matters.
“To identify whether it’s legal can’t be decided only by government legislation,” she said.