Today is International Women’s Day and the theme for this year is “Be Bold for Change” so it seems appropriate to have a look at the current situation for Buddhist nuns or Bhikkhunis who in many traditions are denied the same level of ordination as male monks.
The excuse that is usually offered is that to be fully ordained as a nun you need, according to the Vinaya, the rules governing the monastic community within Buddhism, to be ordained by an existing ordained nun.
As the nun’s lineage died out in all areas of the Theravada school, traditionally women’s roles as renunciates were limited to taking eight or ten Precepts. Such women appear as maechi in Thai Buddhism, dasa sil mata in Sri Lanka, thilashin in Burma and siladharas at Amaravati and Chithurst Buddhist Monasteries in England.
However, back in October 2009, Sisters Vayama, Nirodha, Seri and Hassapañña were ordained as Theravada Bhikkhunis, or nuns, in a dual ordination ceremony held at Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery in Perth, Western Australia. Ayya Tathaaloka, from the United States, was the Preceptor. Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Sujato performed the certifying acariya chanting in the bhikkhu’s (monks) part of the ceremony.
But, despite this, change has been very slow in traditional Theravada countries such as Thailand. King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand died at the age of 88, on 13 October 2016, after a long illness. A year-long period of mourning was subsequently announced.
As millions of people across Thailand mourned the passing of the widely beloved King and Thais flocked to pay their respects at Bangkok’s Grand Palace, where the late monarch lies in state, one segment of society in this Buddhist kingdom has been blocked from visiting the royal funeral ceremony — bhikkhunis, or fully ordained female monastics.
A recent commentary in the Bangkok Post notes that in December, a group of bhikkhunis from the central province of Nakhon Pathom were turned away from the Grand Palace and reprimanded for wearing the saffron robes of Theravada monks. In a similar incident in November, a party of bhikkhunis from the southern province of Songkhla were also denied entry. Both groups were confronted by officials from the National Office of Buddhism and Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya, a Buddhist university, who are in charge of screening monastic visitors.
It is still illegal for women to take full ordination as a Buddhist nun (Bhikkhuni) in Thailand because of a 1928 law created by the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand.