Female monks work to undo Thailand’s 90-year ban


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In return for the choices that they are going to share with their fellow monks and novices again on the monastery, blessings are bestowed upon the almsgivers who kneel earlier than them, heads bowed.

A woman watches female monks pass by her shop on their morning alms rounds.

A girl watches feminine monks cross by her store on their morning alms rounds.Credit score:Kate Geraghty

Alms are usually not thought to be charity in Theravada Buddhism, the predominant type of the faith in Thailand, however are seen as a religious connection between the monks and the lay neighborhood.

This may increasingly all appear fairly regular for a majority Buddhist nation like Thailand. But each footstep taken, each chant, prayer or ceremony carried out by these feminine monks, or “bhikkhunis” as they’re formally recognized, is in defiance of a 90-year-old ban on ladies being ordained in monastic orders.

Nightly prayers at the Songdhammakalyani Monastery, the first centre for female monks in Thailand.

Nightly prayers on the Songdhammakalyani Monastery, the primary centre for feminine monks in Thailand. Credit score:Kate Geraghty

Bhikkhunis are usually not recognised by the Sangha Supreme Council of Thailand, the governing physique that oversees roughly 250,000 monks and is the final word authority on all issues ecclesiastical.

In 2014, this conservative council of the nation’s highest-ranking monks reiterated the 1928 ban.

Female  monks descend from the prayer hall after a ceremony.

Feminine monks descend from the prayer corridor after a ceremony.Credit score:Kate Geraghty

Following their path, Thai authorities have additionally banned the ordination of girls on Thai soil, forcing the ladies to journey to Sri Lanka and India for ordination.

Again on the Songdhammakalyani Monastery, chanting fills the temple grounds throughout morning prayers. The Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, the abbess and the primary Thai girl to obtain full ordination as a monk, albeit in Sri Lanka, explains why the Sangha and traditionalists are reluctant to embrace these ardently devoted ladies: “They [the Sangha] are nonetheless following the order of the Sangharaja [supreme patriarch] of the 1928 order with out contemplating the altering state of affairs in our society.

Female monks at the Songdhammakalyani Monastery in Thailand's Nakhon Pathom province.

Feminine monks on the Songdhammakalyani Monastery in Thailand’s Nakhon Pathom province.Credit score:Kate Geraghty

“Conventional values are nonetheless very robust. They don’t see ladies having an area in faith. We have now no downside in practising and getting help from our laypeople. Issues come solely when now we have to cope with authorized points, as we don’t have clear authorized standing.

“Even [traditional female Buddhists] really feel comfy underneath such management, which after all is against what the Buddha allowed.”

As soon as ordained, we turn out to be change brokers. As we seem within the public we’re making a press release that ordination for girls is feasible.


Dhammananda, a former professor of Japanese philosophy and Buddhism at Thammasat College in Bangkok for 30 years, additionally labored as a TV host for seven years on Dhamma Discuss, a program of sermons on Buddhist teachings.

It was throughout her time as a TV host that she had what she defines as one thing akin to what Christians would describe as a name from God.

The Venerable Dhammananda, modern day Thailand’s first female Theravada Buddhist monk, leads a ceremony.

The Venerable Dhammananda, modern-day Thailand’s first feminine Theravada Buddhist monk, leads a ceremony.Credit score:Kate Geraghty

“In the future I used to be placing make-up on my face, and I requested myself, ‘For a way lengthy am I going to do that?’

“That was the turning level, once I determined to depart my excessive worldly success.”

Seeing herself as an agent of change, Dhammananda has given short-term ordinations to greater than 700 feminine novices, a ceremony carried out at her monastery in April and December every year.

“As soon as ordained, we turn out to be change brokers,” she says. “As we seem within the public we’re making a press release that ordination for girls is feasible.”

Dhammananda in prayer in front of a blue Buddha at the Songdhammakalyani Monastery.

Dhammananda in prayer in entrance of a blue Buddha on the Songdhammakalyani Monastery.Credit score:Kate Geraghty

On January 29, Dhammananda travelled to Bodh Gaya, within the north-eastern Indian state of Bihar,
the place she was the preceptor, or mentor, of eight bhikkhunis from Thailand. 5 of them had been from Songdhammakalyani monastery, residence now to 11 bhikkhunis and two feminine novices. It is a spot not just for meditation and examine, however the place neighborhood initiatives have been initiated, comparable to their pastoral care to ladies in jail.

“We additionally develop our love and care to ladies in jail. We have now performed interactive coaching programs for them for the previous seven years, and final 12 months it was the primary time that our coaching program was recognised as the main main program for the provincial jail in Nakhon Pathom.”

Female monks during a blessing before starting breakfast at the Songdhammakalyani Monastery.

Feminine monks throughout a blessing earlier than beginning breakfast on the Songdhammakalyani Monastery. Credit score:Kate Geraghty

Based on Dhammananda, Thailand has 26,000 temples, however they’re for male monks and only a few are worldwide.

“Only a few Buddhists in Thailand have actually studied the textual content; due to this fact, their understanding nonetheless goes based on conventional perception.

“Our temple is a singular place for socially engaged Buddhists. We’re worldwide and supply entry to worldwide ladies who’re concerned about follow and supply first-hand monastic experiences.”


Kate Geraghty is a photojournalist on the Sydney Morning Herald. She has received a number of awards together with the Gold Walkley in 2017.

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